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Dutch politician is aiming to stem rising tide of Muslim immigrants

AMSTERDAM — Ehsan Jami sees himself as the legendary Dutch boy who used his finger to plug a leaking dike.

Jami, a Dutch politician, is trying to prevent a flood of what he views as intolerant Muslim immigrants threatening to overrun the Netherlands and all of Europe.

He's not alone. In France, Germany and across Western Europe, a vigorous public debate is under way over preservation of national identities, the assimilation of minorities and tolerance of different cultures.

A former Muslim who was born in Iran, Jami is a right-wing member of the Dutch parliament who has used his position to issue strong criticism of Islam.

He's especially critical of "radical" Muslims but he also takes issue with Islam's treatment of women and homosexuals.

The harsh rhetoric has made him the most talked-about public figure in Holland and provoked physical attacks and death threats, forcing him into hiding.

"I don't mind if people are Muslim, but I do mind when their values go against Western values," Jami said in a recent interview, under the watchful eye of his bodyguards. "We have to be very clear with Muslim immigrants that we will not negotiate our values."

The Netherlands has one of the largest populations of Muslims in Western Europe — about 1 million, roughly 6 percent of the population, second only to France. The largest groups are people with origins in Morocco or Turkey.

The country has long taken pride in its religious, political and social tolerance, as well as its acceptance of ethnic minorities. And many in the Netherlands' new coalition government boast a pro-immigrant stance.

But the threats of terrorism and sheer demographics have started to confront traditional Dutch open-mindedness. Studies estimate that Muslims will form the majorities in the Netherlands' four biggest cities by 2020.

Many Muslims say they don't feel at home here.

"I've lived here for 40 years and I still don't feel welcome," said Atel Alireza, a taxi driver from Turkey. "But I would say things have gotten a lot worse since 9/11.

"People around here look at you more suspiciously than they used to," he said. "People look at all Muslims like they are about to do something bad."

Apprehension over the growing influx of immigrants extends to many European countries. Islam is now the second-largest religion in Europe, with at least 15 million Muslims residing in Western Europe.

The French Assembly is considering legislation this month that would require DNA tests for immigrants wanting to bring family members to France. The law would also require language tests for immigrants.

In Austria, the interior minister said last week that he wants to double the time that immigrants spend in German language courses to ensure they are assimilated into Austrian society. Guenther Platter told public broadcaster ORF he thinks the current requirement of 300 hours of German instruction is not enough and should "at least be doubled."

In Switzerland, a campaign poster of the conservative People's Party ahead of the Oct. 21 national elections depicts three white sheep kicking a black sheep.

The idea behind the poster, say members of the People's Party — one of the fastest-growing movements in the country — is to show support for a proposed law that would require the deportation of noncitizens convicted of crimes.

In the Netherlands, the fallout from tensions has been legislative proposals to ban the Quran; make it illegal for women to wear burkas in public; and create more legal options for closing mosques known to be hotbeds of radicalism.

So far none of the proposals has gained traction. And Jami's Dutch Labor Party has distanced itself from Jami and his statements on Islam.

But immigration and Islam are issues that have held sway in Dutch politics particularly since 2002, when the right-wing anti-immigrant populist Pim Fortuyn was assassinated.

The debate intensified in November 2004 after the murder of Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker who had made a movie called "Submission" that featured a beaten, naked Muslim woman covered in writings from the Quran.

The killer was a young radical Islamist. In retaliation, some Muslim schools and places of worship were torched.

Tensions also have been exacerbated by the plight of Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch member of parliament who has criticized the repression of women in Muslim culture.

She was given special security protection in 2004 and was forced to flee to the United States after receiving death threats. She recently returned to the Netherlands.

Marcel Maussen, an expert on immigration at the Institute of Migration and Ethnic Studies in Amsterdam, said there's been an "overfocus" on Muslims in the Netherlands ever since the murders of Fortuyn and van Gogh.

Growing media attention on hardliners such as Jami and Geert Wilders has fed the controversy, Maussen said.

Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament, recently co-wrote a controversial newspaper article with Jami.

"If we do not act now against the far-reaching Islamization of the Netherlands, then the 1930s will be revived," they wrote. "The only difference is that back then the danger came from Adolf Hitler while today it comes from Mohammed."

Maussen said that politicians such as Wilders and Jami continue to push the public to more carefully scrutinize Islam.

"The discourse on immigrants and integration has beyond any doubt become more extreme," he said.

Gregory Maniatis, an expert on immigrant integration issues at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said that the coalition government formed earlier this year has signaled it will take a softer approach to immigration than the previous government.

For example, Maniatis pointed to the amnesty for illegal immigrants approved in June by the Dutch government that will benefit up to 30,000 people.

Even Jami, who says he gave up Islam after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, doesn't paint all Muslims with the same brush.

He said there is only a small group of Muslims — perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 — that he'd call "radical." He said he has nothing against moderate Muslims who adapt to Dutch values.

"What I'm against is the creation of special rules for the Muslims," he said.

Shelley Emling's e-mail address is