AMSTERDAM – As Rotterdam's mayor and a former government minister, Ahmed Aboutaleb is a voice of mainstream liberal Dutch values. As a Muslim immigrant from Morocco, he is also a prominent member of a community that many Europeans increasingly see as being in conflict with those values.
So when Aboutaleb spoke up after last month's Paris terror attacks — telling Muslims who can't stand humorists to "Get lost!" — it was a shout heard 'round the world.
The Netherlands has deep traditions of tolerance, which long extended even to the intolerant. Accepting people who don't share your values was seen as a badge of a true democratic society. But many of the Dutch are questioning whether it makes sense to embrace all viewpoints and all ways of life.
The fact that a prominent Dutch Muslim repudiated that view in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks made waves as a powerful expression of this shift in the Netherlands and throughout Europe, from a live-and-let-live society to one in which new arrivals are pushed to embrace Western customs and values.
Aboutaleb is among a group of European mayors visiting Washington this week to take part in a White House-sponsored conference on countering radicalization. He has won an international audience by going to the heart of a key question Europe is grappling with: whether to continue embracing multicultural traditions long espoused by Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, or turn sharply toward the French way, insisting that newcomers assimilate.
In the Netherlands, changes in attitude began with the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh — who was shot and stabbed to death in broad daylight by a Muslim fanatic angered by a film that criticized Islam. The slaying prompted many in famously liberal Holland to declare that the age of tolerating intolerance must come to an end.
Many Dutch today see striking similarities between the slain cartoonists of weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and Van Gogh. Both thrived on hard edged provocation, breaking taboos and challenging sacred cows in a way that could make even supporters uncomfortable. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists depicted the Prophet Muhammad in lewd poses; Van Gogh's movie "Submission" featured scenes of near-naked women with Quranic texts on their flesh. And both were ultimately mourned as champions of free expression whose lives were cut short by extremist forces.
The terror in France has made the Dutch again look at their policies of integration, causing leaders to promise fast-tracking a package of measures aimed at curbing Muslim youth radicalization. Among the moves are plans to strip people who go to fight overseas of their Dutch nationality, and do more to prevent them leaving in the first place; block jihadi propaganda from the Internet; and provide more support for families, schools and other organizations that deal with vulnerable youngsters.
Leen Jongejan, a 68-year-old pensioner in The Hague, has seen Dutch tolerance ebb in recent years and supports the shift.
Immigrants "used to come here and be pampered," he said. "If you look at attacks happening overseas, I don't think it is strange that attitudes are changing. If it could help to prevent an attack here, it's a good thing."
The Van Gogh murder triggered a temporary spike in hate crimes against Muslims, but the more enduring legacy was to drive the liberal nation more toward the anti-Islam policies pushed by the populist Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which has entrenched its presence as one of the nation's most powerful political forces.
Wilders — who has lived under round-the-clock police protection since Van Gogh's murder — has advocated closing Dutch doors to migrants from the Islamic world for a decade.
"They bring along a culture and an ideology of hate that is not compatible with our values, compatible with freedom. So we should stop first immigration from Islamic countries," he told The Associated Press shortly after the Paris attacks. "We should tell people who don't abide by our laws, our rule of law, our constitution that they should leave."
Wilders' fortunes have been boosted as tensions over immigration and terrorism rise. His party currently has 12 lawmakers in the 150-seat lower house of Dutch parliament, but polls show that if elections were held now the party could win up to 29 seats.
He became a political kingmaker in 2010 by giving his support to Prime Minister Mark Rutte's ruling coalition, only to bring down the government in 2012 by withdrawing his support over a package of austerity measures. Many see him as the real force behind Dutch political change — dictating the terms of the immigration debate to mainstream politicians, in the same way anti-immigrant UKIP party has taken center stage in Britain.
There are others, though, who are supportive of aspects of the government's proposals that they say would move the nation toward a new form of Dutch tolerance — one that engages immigrants in an effort to integrate them, rather than leaves them to their own devices.
Fatima Elatik, a Muslim former alderman in eastern Amsterdam, says laws alone are not enough to counter extremist propaganda. She sees the need for a grass-roots effort among Dutch of all walks of life to bring troubled Muslim youths into the mainstream fold.
"Don't look away but engage," she said. "Go to schools, talk to kids. Even if they have ideas that you think, 'my God, I can't bear to hear them,' they're kids. Engage with them, talk with them, give them a good example. But don't look away."
In a clear signal of the shift Elatik advocates, the government withdrew funding last year for a think tank promoting multiculturalism — forcing its closure — and started financing a new organization whose goal is to "increase knowledge about integration and contribute to an inclusive and stable society."
Hans Boutellier, the new group's spokesman, says tolerance is no longer a one-way street for immigrants. New arrivals need to first accept the rule of democratic law, then participate in society instead of closing themselves off in their own communities. Only then, he says, does true tolerance kick in.
"Then the word is not so much integration ... it's freedom," he said. "It's the liberal idea that everyone can choose his own identity or religion or can follow his own cultural ideals."
Ian Buruma, a Dutch professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College, wrote an acclaimed book on Van Gogh's murder and Dutch tolerance. He says that bringing moderate Muslims into the fabric of mainstream Dutch life is the key to countering extremism — a message also pushed by Rotterdam mayor Aboutaleb.
"To isolate the revolutionary ideologues and their killers we must gain the trust of the majority of Muslims," Buruma told The AP. "This can only happen if they are treated as equal citizens, not just in theory, and have access to decent education and jobs."