On October 16, 2021, the leading Dutch daily, NRC, reported that during the past few years, mayors of several municipalities in the Netherlands have commissioned a private agency to investigate a number of mosques. As part of this operation, undercover investigators attended mosque services, mingled and socialized with other believers, and reported their findings and impressions to the mayors. The mosques were unaware of these unannounced visits, because the investigators were Muslims themselves – as are the agency’s managers.
In a letter to parliament, the Dutch justice minister, Ferd Grapperhaus, has since commented on the newspaper report, because it also implicated the National Antiterrorism and Security Coordinator (NASC), which is a directorate-general of the Ministry of Justice and Security. The NASC had allegedly recommended this particular agency to the mayors, while it also provided subsidies to cover the costs of the investigations.
In his letter, the justice minister acknowledges that as early as 2017, NASC officials already suspected that the private agency conducted unlawful undercover operations. However, the mayors were not warned about this since, according to the minister, they were the ones responsible for guaranteeing the lawfulness of the investigations.
This is hardly convincing, since, as Grapperhaus acknowledges, the NASC covered the costs of the investigations and recommended the agency to the mayors. As part of this process the NASC assessed the applications for subsidy submitted by the mayors. This should have included a check on the appropriateness of the methodology, especially since reservations had already emerged within the ministry. Since Grapperhaus is also responsible for religious services, his civil servants should have ensured that these investigations would not include infiltration in mosques.
By law, the authority to investigate organizations and persons who pose a threat to democracy and the rule of law has been entrusted exclusively to the Dutch intelligence agency.
This is not the only concern raised by the letter. Grapperhaus admits that mayors, in close cooperation with the NASC, have been involved in detecting tendencies within the Muslim community that might undermine the rule of law and democracy for years. However, mayors and the NASC have no role to play in this area.
By law, the authority to investigate organizations and persons who pose a threat to democracy and the rule of law has been entrusted exclusively to the Dutch intelligence agency. In addition, to be able to use these powers the intelligence agency has to meet strict requirements, such as to demonstrate that there is a serious suspicion that a threat exists. Therefore, the mayors have acted unlawfully.
According to the mayor of Rotterdam, it had been agreed with the agency that did the undercover work that the information they provided would only be used by the specific municipality. Nevertheless, he also admitted that the outcomes had been shared with NASC which amounts to a violation of these agreements.
The fact that the NASC had received this information is also illegal for another reason. Under Dutch law, the NASC may only rely on publicly accessible information available on the internet. Therefore, these confidential local reports are out of bounds. This would not be the first time the NASC has made use of illegal sources: the daily NRC already reported in April of this year that the NASC has overstepped its legal mandate in the past. This is ironic, since the NASC is supposed to protect the rule of law.
It is striking that none of the concerned mayors has wondered whether they are allowed to single out only one religion, namely Islam, for investigation. Such an exclusive focus on Islam amounts to discrimination, unless there is an objective justification for it. The risk of people traveling to the so-called caliphate, which was mentioned by the mayor of Rotterdam, cannot serve as such a justification.
Research shows that joining terrorist organizations is not triggered by religion, but instead by social exclusion, discrimination, and the treatment of Muslims by Western countries, and in particular the Palestinian people. What is more, it is actually the lack of knowledge about Islam which causes people to join al-Qaeda and Daesh, since possession of such knowledge would make them immune to the claims made by recruiters.
By treating Muslims as a “suspect community,” these problems are not solved but deepened. To combat terrorism effectively, society needs the help of Islam and the Muslim community. As is the case in many countries, the Dutch Muslim community is more than willing to assist and it has even reached out by presenting a plan to combat terrorism, which has ended up in a government drawer.
At the international level, the Dutch government champions the rights of Muslims. Within the EU, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is being nicknamed the “rule of law sheriff.” These laudable international efforts would be much more effective if the Dutch government would lead by example at home.