Rotterdam, the Netherlands – Charif Slimani, the imam of the Moroccan mosque in Roosendaal in the Netherlands, arrived early on the morning of November 14, 2015, to prepare his sermon for the Friday prayer.
He had not slept that night because of the attacks in Paris and had been contemplating what he should say during his sermon to address them. When he arrived at the mosque, however, he was surprised to discover that the prayer room was unusually empty.
“There was smoke coming from the room and a heavy, penetrating smell of gas. We initially thought that a gas line had been broken,” said Slimani, 42. “So we decided to pray elsewhere.”
The police arrived a few hours later and revealed that gallons of gasoline had been distributed throughout the prayer room. The perpetrator had tried but failed to start a fire.
The damage to the mosque was minor, but, the imam explained, the community was traumatised.
“The fear, the worries, the feeling that you are not safe anymore: that damage is a lot worse. That hurts more than the material damage,” he said. “Although we have cameras, we ensure that there is always someone present to guard the mosque, also during the night.”
It was neither the first nor the last hate crime to target Muslims in the country. A third of the mosques in the Netherlands have experienced at least one incident of vandalism, threatening letters, attempted arson, the placement of a pig’s head, or other aggressive actions in the past 10 years, according to research by Ineke van der Valk, an author and researcher at the University of Amsterdam.
On February 27, in the Dutch city of Enschede, a 33-year-old man threw a petrol bomb at a mosque as adults and children worshipped inside.
The perpetrator was caught by non-Muslims living near the mosque and has since been charged with arson with terrorist intent.
Two days before this attack, Azzedine Karrat, the imam at the Essalaam mosque in Rotterdam, received a letter addressed to the mosque.
“Pigs,” said the text, followed by more insults. The letter warned the recipients to expect “important visitors” and included Nazi symbols.
“I was quite shocked. Personally, I see this as a message from the far right,” Karrat told Al Jazeera. About 20 mosques countrywide received similar letters.
“I’m worried, but it is not about me or the mosque, but about Muslims in general. I am worried about the situation in the country. It says something about the dislocation in the Netherlands. It is not a message that brings people together,” the imam said.
Like many Muslims, he thinks that the threats and attacks on mosques are a result of fear and frustration among the non-Muslim population following the attacks in Paris.
Around 220 Dutch Muslims are believed to have travelled to join armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), raising fears that they might carry out attacks in the Netherlands when they return, according to a Dutch secret service AIVD report.
Capturing growing fears
It is unclear, however, whether aggression towards Muslims is increasing as the police only started to record the specifically anti-Muslim nature of such attacks and discrimination in 2015. Initial findings are due to be published this summer.
The initiative to register the motives behind attacks and discrimination towards Muslims in the Netherlands came from Ahmed Marcouch, a member of the House of Representatives for the Dutch Labour Party.
“We are likely to see an increase in the number of incidents because people have been made more aware of the problem, partly thanks to social media, and are encouraged to report such incidents,” he told Al Jazeera. “In the past, imams would have maybe thrown away such a letter without reporting it.”
Apart from the threat posed by extremists, Marcouch thinks that the refugee crisis is also polarising Dutch society and boosting the popularity of right wing politicians, such as Geert Wilders, who leads the anti-Islamic Freedom Party.
“This polarisation is worrisome,” Marcouch said. “It is a sentiment that has been building up for years, starting from the attacks of 9/11, the murder of Theo van Gogh, the hundreds of Dutch jihadists that have joined ISIL and now the refugee crisis. At first the influx of refugees was opposed, but even that has increasingly shifted to an opposition against other ethnic groups, particularly Muslims.”
The Netherlands took in about 59,000 refugees last year, almost double the number that arrived in 2014. Several demonstrations opposing the arrival of refugees have turned violent, dead pigs have been placed near asylum centres and local politicians have been threatened.
Jeyantha Kathiravelu is a member of the local municipal council in Sliedrecht. The 20-year-old received threats after a council meeting about the possibility of opening an asylum seekers’ centre. The threats were sent mainly by email and via social media and ranged from statements such as, “dirty Muslim, go back to Morocco”, to “I’m going to rape your rabbit and chop it into pieces”, and “I hope you will be the refugees’ first victim”.
She said she was “very shocked” by the threats and believes that they must have come from somebody she knows socially as she never speaks in public about her pet rabbit.
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“What worries me most is that it must have been one of my Facebook friends,” she said.
Kathiravelu, who is not Muslim and whose parents were refugees who fled Sri Lanka before she was born, said she is sometimes harassed on public transport, with people telling her to go back to her own country, and on social media by people commenting on the colour of her skin.
She feels afraid, she said. “I rather not walk on the street in the evening. It makes me feel vulnerable. The situation has deteriorated in the last nine months. It seems there is no more reasonable middle ground.”
But she remains optimistic. “Eventually we housed 35 refugees in an empty school for a few months. When they had to leave people protested that the refugees should stay.” The neighbourhood wanted to help “their” refugees to stay in Sliedrecht during the whole asylum procedure.
Imams Karrat and Slimani spoke of similar experiences. Both have witnessed initial protests against their mosques turn into good neighbourly relations after reaching out to the local community.
“When we opened our mosque in 2014 we held an open weekend and invited the local community. Nearly 4,000 people visited the opening of our mosque, nearly all of them non-Muslims. Even many people who initially opposed the mosque came, and eventually changed their opinion,” Slimani said.
“We are an active part of Dutch society. We should stay together and not allow extremists from both sides to divide us.”