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Wednesday, 24 March 2010


A boy with short cropped brown hair raised his hand to ask teacher Mohammed Kaaouass a question about the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders. "Sir, why is Wilders only taking on Moroccans. Why aren’t French people being kicked out of the country?" The student was a member of a class of 10 to 12-year-old boys at the Islamic primary school Al-Iman discussing the populist politician on a recent Friday morning, little over a week after Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) had become the biggest party in the municipal government in their city, Almere. The headscarf-clad girls in the class had just left for physical education, which is taught separately to boys and girls. Geert Wilders' PVV won 20 percent of the votes in this city of 188,000. As in the upcoming national elections, the PVV ran on an anti-immigration platform and has announced it wants to tax or ban headscarfs and deport criminal youths who hold passports from other countries. Wilders is currently being prosecuted in the Netherlands for hate speech and inciting discrimination after he compared the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf and made a controversial video that juxtaposed Koranic verses with images of Islamic terrorism. Kaaouass teaches religion, but after the local election he decided to talk to his students about politics. "That Wilders has become big," Kaaouass said, "has to do with us."

Set an example
The teacher went on to tell them about society in 1985, when he moved to the Dutch town of Zeist. "If the milkman came by and people were not home, he would leave the milk at the door. Then we, Moroccan boys, would come to deliver newspapers and we saw that milk by the door," Kaaouass said as he acted out walking up to a house and seeing something at the front door. "Hey, something to drink," he said with amazement and picked up the imaginary bottle. The boys laughed. "So what do you think?" the teacher asked. "Is the news in the papers about loitering youth and robberies true?" In a high school nearby, teacher Joël de Bruijne talked to his class of 20 about a similar subject. De Bruijne usually teaches PE at Echnaton high school, but also holds sessions twice a week to discuss topics such topics as manners, choices, and respect as well as current issues like Wilders' anti-Islam video Fitna, a possible headscarf ban and the local elections. During Monday's class, he explained how the Labour party had replaced its leader Wouter Bos by Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen and that Wilders has accused Cohen of being too soft on immigrants. "He calls him a 'multi-cultural bleeding heart' because he drinks tea with people of all cultures," De Bruijne said. The rise of Wilders is an issue for children of all creeds at different schools in Almere. Their teachers are busy clarifying and comforting. But how can they explain that Wilders is allowed to say things that would not be tolerated in school? De Bruijne recalled his own classes at the teachers' training college to explain how hard it is for teachers to deal with the turbulent political situation in the Netherlands. "We learnt that we could disapprove of behaviour, but never of an individual," he said. While De Bruijne believes politicians especially should set an example. "Wilders stigmatises whole groups of the population".
Freedom of speech
On the day of the elections he bumped into two boys in the corridor. They had been expelled from their class after they had said "Moroccan scum" should leave the country. They felt they had every right to say this, as Wilders does the same, De Bruijne said. He was struck by the incident, because the boys are right: they should be allowed to quote a politician. But Wilders' remarks go against school rules. Having respect for one another is something the school, with children from all parts of the world, holds high. Moroccan scum, and other derogatory terms used by Wilders, are not in line with that policy, according to De Bruijne. "Fortunately, I can tell them that Wilders has yet to account for his remarks, because the case against him is in court." Children at the Al-Imam school were playing a game of tag with the boys chasing the girls during recess, supervised by Harry van der Bijl. In his ten years at the Islamic school he had seen the response to 9/11, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical and, recently, the rise of the PVV. "As a teacher, I try not to take sides," he said. He has attempted to explain to his students that it is a good thing that Wilders can say what he does, as this proves the existence of freedom of speech. And why it is a good thing he was able to establish a political party that people can vote for. All this means there is a democracy in the Netherlands, he has told them. "But the way he attacks Muslims is something I can't defend to the class," Van der Bijl said. Fellow teacher Fatiha Bousandrous added she can't explain to her class why their mothers may be forbidden to wear a veil. "I am their teacher, but I do not understand it either," she said. Bousandrous wears a headscarf herself.
Do the math
Her students were upset the day after the election, she said. She gave them a day to calm down and then took the time to tell them they need not be afraid: we live in a democratic country. If Wilders calls for something to happen, that won't make it a reality, she told her class. A headscarf ban can only happen if other parties want it as well. The PVV may be the biggest party in Almere, but not a single other party in the local council has been willing to support its proposed headscarf ban. Fatma Batuk, who was dropping her 10-year-old son off at the school, said she had been telling him similar things. Recently her son weighed the pros and cons of emigrating to either Turkey or Belgium, as he was sure his family would be forced to leave, she said. Some of the students at Echnaton were also convinced the dark-skinned students would disappear, teacher De Bruijne said. He started his first tutoring class after the election with a bit of math. The election in Almere had a turnout of 60 percent and 20 percent of those people voted for the PVV. How big a part of the city is that, he asked. Only 12 percent. Did his students consider that a lot, he asked them. He then showed them videos of people explaining why they voted for the PVV. They said it was because of immigrants, but also said toughness on crime, a lack of faith in established parties and bankers' bonuses as reasons to support Wilders. "I try to put the outcome in perspective," De Bruijne said. In Mohammed Kaaouass' class at Al-Imam primary school, a boy with braces raised his hand to answer the question whether there was any truth to the negative news about Moroccan boys. "Sir, I kind of disagree with you. There are Moroccans who do well, aren't there?"