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Amsterdam, September 2001

3 September 2001 – September 2001 was a time of ‘imposed conformism’, when Muslims were expected to show their loyalty to Western society. Citizens called the security service because they distrusted their ethnic minority neighbours. To what extend was there still room for dissent? News from Amsterdam looks back.

Mayor Job Cohen heard about the attack from his driver, on his way to a ceremony at the Beurs van Berlage. “The world has changed, we just do not know how yet”, he told the Parool a few days later. “One thing is sure: it has become less cheerful”.

Cohen had not been mayor for a very long time yet. At his installation on 17 January 2001, he had said that he wanted to be the mayor of all Amsterdammers. In a way, the weeks after 11 September were his first real test.

After the attack, the Fokke and Sukke cartoon in NRC Handelsblad for once did not have any words. Cartoonist Jean-Marc van Tol told the Volkskrant later that month: “This is something you cannot make jokes about, we thought. So we left Fokke and Sukke without words, watching TV with their mouths open. Being complimented for that is not something to be proud of, it is almost shameful”.

“On the next day, we published the same drawing, but with the line: ‘So the World Championship is off?’ [On 1 September, the Dutch football team had forfeited its chances of qualifying for the World Championship – Ed.] This also yielded many e-mails, but this time they were full of indignation”. Van Tol disagreed with his critics: “Any person in his right mind realises that a society without humour is almost fundamentalist”.

Thijs Vissia, currently active for Flexmens, was attending a lecture on America at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) at the time of the attack. “No one heard anything or received a text message about it. It was not before the break that I heard someone saying that an airplane had flown into the WTC. I went home. On TV, the images were repeated constantly, along with official statements by leaders of governments”.

Vissia was annoyed at the simplifications. “The West is democracy incarnate; it was suggested, with the Pentagon and the WTC as the ‘heart chambers’ of that democracy. That is all doubtful”. That same night, he wrote an opinion article condemning the attacks, but also criticising the unthinking solidarity with America. Trouw published the article on Thursday 13 September.

The article did not provoke any unpleasant responses. Vissia: “I did not get the impression that people thought that you should not say things like that, but it was not really fashionable at the time. I wrote that the attacks had something to do with the way in which Western powers operate in the Middle East, and with their support for repressive regimes in the region. That morning, I was woken up by a telephone call from someone who had looked up my number in the directory. He wanted to tell me that he really appreciated that someone spoke up like that”.

At the night of the attack, Moroccan youth in the small city of Ede allegedly had thrown a party. This contributed to the Netherlands being obsessed for days with the question as to the loyalty of our Islamic fellow countrymen. Journalists went to mosques, internet cafes and schools to assess the mood.

Trouw quoted a group of rowdy Moroccan youth in the Indische Buurt, who thought the attacks were pretty cool. “Every day no less than twenty Palestinians die, but when something happens in America, it is suddenly very bad. It is bad for innocent citizens, but America brought it upon itself”.

At an elementary school at the Oostelijke Eilanden, children struggled with the problem, the Parool wrote. The attacks had been something terrible, but they did not like the idea of bombing Afghanistan. Here it was the teacher who was stirring up emotions: Bin Laden has “a sort of temp agency for terrorists, for crooks. And I can well imagine that people want to throw a bomb on it now”.

The EU called for a three-minute silence on Friday 14 September at 12.00, in memory of the victims of the attack. Many people felt that the remembrance was also an expression of solidarity with America. In practice, it became a sort of litmus test to judge whether ethnic minorities were really on ‘our’ side.

The Hague police force fired an employee of Moroccan descent because she refused to participate in the remembrance. In her opinion, the remembrance was based on selective indignation, because nothing was done about the victims in former Yugoslavia. The employee would later be reinstated, but she was no longer welcome at the department were she had used to work.

In Amsterdam, there were few serious problems during the silence, although the Parool did report a minor incident at the Dapper Market. “‘Show some decency and hold still for a moment’, a woman with a heavy Amsterdam accent calls at some Arabic passers-by. They keep walking imperturbably”.

Thijs Vissia, who was studying political science at the time, objected to the character of the remembrance. “It was imposed conformism. Many people objected to the way in which solidarity with the victims effortlessly changed into a war mood. Islam was suddenly equated with terrorism, and Muslims were automatically suspects. The tone of the remembrance was solidarity with the USA”.

Later, when the bombing of Afghanistan had already started, he and his fellow students would occupy the fancy Academic Club, demanding a three-minute silence for the victims of the attacks on the Afghan cities as well. “As representatives of the UvA Anti-War Committee, we had a meeting with the Board of Governors. Among other things, they said that the university must support the government in times of war. Maybe just a foolish remark, but we did not agree”.

Asked to comment, Sybolt Noorda – until last Friday chairman of the UvA’s Board of Governors – e-mails that he did not put it like that. “I just said that the three-minute silence in memory of the 9/11 victims had been called for by the government and that we as a university would respect those minutes silence in accordance with the government’s decision, just as we do on 4 May [the day at which the victims of the Second World War are remembered – Ed.]”.

The security service (BVD) received dozens of calls from citizens who suspected their neighbours – mostly ethnic minorities – of terrorist activities. Some responded to an appeal by Prime Minister Wim Kok on 17 September: “It is also a responsibility of individual citizens to contribute to a safer society. People should be attentive and alert. We must show vigour”.

The distrust of Muslims was stirred up when multicultural institute Forum published a survey on Tuesday 18 September, showing that at least half the Dutch Muslims ‘understood’ the attacks. While the concept used was rather vague, at least it became clear that many Muslims did not see America as an innocent victim.

At the end of September, Mayor Cohen commented in the Parool: “I am not surprised that Muslims – to put it mildly – have a somewhat more neutral stance towards the USA. That is what shocked the native Dutch so much during the past weeks. But why should people not be allowed to be against America?”

Mustapha Laboui, district council member in De Baarsjes, was driving his car at the time of the attack. He immediately drove home and put on the television. “I kept watching the images for a very long time, it was very strange. If it had been a video one would have thought: what kind of a B-movie is this. Very surreal, it took a long time to realise what was happening”.

During the weeks after the attack, Laboui felt that the attitude towards Muslims changed. “I too was shocked by the attack. I had the same questions as other Dutch people, I too felt insecure. But that feeling was not seen as something that we had in common”.

“Nine-eleven made many Moroccan Amsterdammers become aware of their background”, Laboui says. “They had always thought of themselves as Dutch people who happened to have been born somewhere else. But now all of a sudden, they were Moroccans living in the Netherlands”.

However, positive things resulted from it as well, he thinks. “In De Baarsjes for example, a dialogue group was set up, in which all kinds of organisations participate; mosques, synagogues. That group still exists and organises activities. We also held a meeting in the city council chamber, with Muslims and non-Muslims, youth, Americans as well as Dutch people”.

While the media had focussed on probing Dutch Muslims’ loyalty to Western society during the first week, from 18 September onward more attention was given to the growing hostility towards Muslims as well.

Haci Karacaer, until recently the leader of the Turkish Milli Görüs organisation, at the time told how the driver of the number 18 bus reportedly had refused to allow a woman wearing a headscarf on the bus. Many media quoted his story.

In addition, there were reports of Moroccan students at the Free University (VU) being called terrorists, a Moroccan woman in Oost being called a ‘filthy Arab’, a Moroccan woman at the Overtoom being spit at, and an elementary school in the Bijlmer receiving telephone threats. A man of foreign birth reported that someone had painted ‘Taliban Headquarters’ at his front door.

According to Karacaer, many Muslims were afraid to go out on the streets. Mayor Cohen, later in the Parool: “They have the idea that they are being looked at differently than before. In part this may be suggestion, but that does not make it less serious”.

Jessica Silversmith, director of the Amsterdam Discrimination Complaints Office (MDA), had a day off on 11 September, “so I was more or less the last to find out”. Soon, incidents started to be reported.

The woman who had been refused by the number 18 bus driver never turned up. “I called Haci Karacaer to tell him that it was very important that she reported this incident, but this did not happen”, Silversmith says. Others did reach the MDA. “There was an increase in the number of reports, which lasted until half November”.

“Many reports dealt with incidents in the public space. Women with headscarves were being reacted to in strange ways, they were called names. The period after the attack was intense, no one had ever experienced anything similar, it created a lot of confusion. And then Forum produced that survey asking Muslims whether they ‘understood’ the attacks”.

After the murder of Theo van Gogh in November 2004, there have been a lot of incidents involving buildings such as schools and mosques, but the incidents after 11 September were mainly directed at persons. “At the workplace as well: people had to give account, show which side they were on. Just like at the time of the 1991 Gulf War”.

A European study found that reports of physical violence against minorities after 11 September were few, with the exception of Denmark and the Netherlands. According to Silversmith, this does not necessarily mean that there were more incidents in our country. “I do not know about Denmark, but the Netherlands has a very good infrastructure for the registration of complaints”.

Chief Public Prosecutor Leo de Wit decided to further stir up emotions. On Thursday 20 September, the Volkskrant quoted him saying: “We have asked the Minister of Justice for support from for example the army and the military police, in case a counterattack is launched by the USA”.

In such a case, the army would have to take over regular police tasks. “We will need the police to keep the peace between ethnic groups during disturbances in the city. We are talking about eruptions of violence, hostage taking, anything is possible”.

De Wit had been planning to attend a conference in Madrid the following week, but he believed his presence in the city was indispensable. “I have told the organisation that I will not attend. You have to be here when the shit hits the fan”.

Mayor Cohen was furious about De Wit’s scaremonger and prohibited him discussing the issue in public anymore. The same applied to Police Chief Jelle Kuiper, who had been speculating about manifestations in support of Ossama bin Laden. “I want us to keep on living in peace and all our efforts must be aimed at that”, the mayor told the Volkskrant.

Cohen had just called for tolerance in a speech to the city council. This speech was the starting point for a series of visits to schools and mosques. Conversations with Islamic, Jewish and Christian leaders were also on the programme.

In his Herzberg Lecture on Sunday 23 September, Cohen discussed the multicultural society. His message was that you cannot just say: if only minorities adapt, all will be well. The Jews were assimilated prior to the Second World War, and yet “things went wrong, very wrong”. We must not only make demands on minorities, but also take responsibility for a tolerant society ourselves, Cohen said.

The mayor’s efforts earned him a lot of respect, both within and outside the Muslim community. “During that hectic period, he was the only one who said that everybody is entitled to his own opinion”; Milli Görüs leader Karacaer told the Parool at the time.

The same newspaper’s 25 September edition featured a column by writer Karin Spaink. She was concerned that almost no one protested against the ‘minor terrorism’ against Muslims. “Apparently, many Dutch people presently think such misdeeds ‘understandable’, or worse, they now approve of our fellow countrymen being intimidated”.

In a show of solidarity, the column was accompanied by a photo of her wearing a headscarf. The column yielded quite a few reactions. “Long live Karin Spaink”, one letter to the editor began. Others were less enthusiastic. “Spaink’s idea of how Muslims think is outdated. A large number of these people have a hatred of anything Western. Spaink too will have to choose between West and East. Perhaps we may then admire her wearing a Texan hat”.

Meanwhile, a letter had been delivered to the ANP press agency, announcing explosions at the Coentunnel, the Zeeburgertunnel and the Rotterdam Beneluxtunnel on Wednesday 26 September. The threat triggered a massive response.

Police, army personnel, armoured vehicles, helicopters and other equipment were deployed. Cars were inspected by persons with automatic weapons wearing balaclavas. In Amsterdam, a cameraman of local television station At5 was detained because he would have refused to follow directions from the police.

Soon, questions started being asked whether the response had not been somewhat exaggerated. NRC Handelsblad reported that police and justice staff had found the letter less than convincing from the beginning. However, top officials had decided to launch a large scale operation anyway. “In the end, everybody found it rather exciting as well, and they set to work enthusiastically”.

Meanwhile, it became increasingly clear that America was planning to attack Afghanistan. Anti-war platforms started to prepare for a protest. At first they wanted to call it a demonstration, but they decided against it because it sounded too antagonistic, people might be put off. In the end, it was to be a manifestation.

The Autonoom Centrum designed a poster saying ‘Safety for All or Safety for No One’ (see below). At a discussion list, one peace activist objected to the poster, claiming that it would undermine the message of the manifestation.

Ed Hollants, now active for D4, was working for the Autonoom Centrum at the time. He cannot remember that there was much fuss about the Safety for All poster. “At the demonstration there were quite a few Americans who wanted a copy of the poster. They said it was unlikely that anyone would make such a poster in America”.

Especially during the first two weeks after 11 September, it was difficult to express criticism, according to Hollants. “In that respect, the period is comparable with other incidents with a large impact, such as wars. At such times, an unconditional solidarity is expected. Anyone with divergent views will be excluded”.

The protest against the impending war took place on Sunday 30 September, at the Dam Square. According to the police, five to seven thousand people participated. On 7 October, America and Great Britain launched an attack against Afghanistan, using cruise missiles and B2 bombers. The Parool reported from De Baarsjes: “The Afghan Amsterdammers respond with resignation. Or dismay”.



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