The establishment of a political party to represent Muslims in the Netherlands is as welcome as it is overdue. But it also entails very real risks. The announcement by columnist Mohammed Jabri that moves are afoot to launch a political party for Dutch Muslims by the beginning of summer should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed events in the Netherlands in recent years. The Muslim Democratic Party (MDP) could be a real force for good if it plays a positive role. It should forthrightly defend aspects of Muslim life that are worth defending; help spread understanding and acceptance of Muslims among the native Dutch and vice versa; and perhaps most importantly, expose as a lie the convenient myth that Muslims are the root of all that is wrong or bad in the Netherlands today. On the other hand, if the MDP fails to get off the ground, embroils itself in extremist rhetoric or suffers the internal disputes that have set the anti-immigration LPF on the way to an agonisingly slow self-destruction, the consequences would be terrible. Politics would be seen by many in the Muslim community as a dead-end, leaving imams and radical thugs to represent the community. Already there are daily reports of young Muslim men – a minority, but an active one – in the major cities who look on the native Dutch as the enemy and fair game for crimes of theft. It is common for unveiled women, both Muslim and native Dutch, in parts of Amsterdam to be branded “whores” and “sluts” by self-righteous Muslims. But giving Muslims a real voice on the political stage – and who knows, perhaps a seat at the Cabinet table – would go a long way to helping Muslims to look on Dutch society as their society also. A Muslim party would have real potential: there are an estimated one million Muslims in the Netherlands and the number is growing. Muslims and Islam are the topics of the hour as a decidedly one-sided debate rages about how far Muslims should be willing – and according to some critics, forced – to integrate into Dutch society. Islam’s chief Dutch critics in Parliament, Geert Wilders and Hilbrand Nawijn, are vying with each other for the title of “Champion of Liberal Democracy” who will lead a modern day reconquista to compel Muslims here to become Dutch or get out. There is no coherent voice on the Muslim side to represent the other side of the case. We hear daily from Muslim clerics who have rightly avoided getting into politics proper. And occasionally the Arab European League (AEL) issues a statement, but it seems to be more concerned about the situation in Iraq and the Palestinian issue than about what is going on in the Netherlands. Echoing the wider-scale tragedies in those parts of the world, the brutal murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh last November has brought home to people in the Netherlands the damage that even one wannabe martyr can inflict. The State security service AIVD has estimated that there are 100 to 200 extremists in the Netherlands prepared to use violence to defend Islam. But for all their apparent zeal, they remain an unrepresentative minority within the Dutch Muslim communities. And in turn these communities – Turkish, Moroccans, Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis and others – are seriously under represented in the Lower House of Parliament. The Muslims that have made the step into politics have done so under the banner of one or other of the main Dutch parties. Since their parties have been falling over themselves since 2002 to prove they can dish out tough love to Muslims, Muslims have not surprisingly lost interest. The need to balance the political scales was reinforced at the start of January when MP Nawijn – the first minister for Immigration and Integration from 2002 to 2003 – said that Muslim schools should be banned. None of the established political parties uttered any semblance of protest. Our erstwhile champions of liberal freedoms didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with Nawijn’s assertion that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion should only apply to Christian and Jewish schools – because Dutch society, he said, was a Judeo-Christian one. He forgot to mention that until Indonesia got its independence from the Netherlands in the 1940s, Islam was the biggest religious group in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And Nawijn also went so far as to say integration was a waste of time, Muslims had to be made to assimilate. Again his colleagues in parliament didn’t bat an eye lid. He simply ignored the rights and views of the Muslims living here now. Instead, Nawijn – who is trying to ensure a political life for himself after the inevitable demise of the LPF – is flirting with the Vlaams Belang, the successor to the Flemish party that was banned in Belgium for being racist. Jabri and the others setting up the MDP have a right to be scathing about this sort of thoughtless anti-Muslim bias which seems to dominate present political debate in the Netherlands. But let’s hope the MDP chooses the high road and decides to play a positive role. To take the Nawijn-Vlaams Belang road might prove popular in the short-term, but ultimately it would be a dead end and everyone would lose out.