The government of the Netherlands resigned today after a junior party withdrew its support for the ruling coalition. The immediate cause of the crisis was the asylum application of a Somali-born lawmaker and her treatment by the immigration minister.

But as NPR's Rob Gifford reports, the case also highlights deep conflicts within Dutch society.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Though ostensibly a political crisis, the turmoil in The Netherlands actually reflects a much deeper debate about the country's immigration and asylum policies. It began last month, when the immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, known in the press as Iron Rita, threatened to revoke the passport of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is a 36-year-old Somali-born member of Parliament who wrote the script for a 2004 film that was sharply critical of conservative Islam.

The film's director, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered the same year and Hirsi Ali herself had to go into hiding in fear of her life. The murder of Van Gogh played into a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Holland. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali admitted she had falsified her name on her asylum application, Immigration Minister Verdonk threatened to revoke her passport.

This week, a compromise was agreed, whereby Hirsi Ali's passport was not revoked after she signed a statement taking the blame for her actions. Bert Bakker is vice-chairman of the party D66, whose withdrawal caused the government's collapse.

Mr. BERT BAKKER (D66 Party): First of all, we thought that Minister for Immigration Affairs Rita Verdonk, she really abused her power, in which she forced Ayaan Hirsi Ali to sign a declaration in which she, Ayaan, had to take all the blame and setting free, putting free, the minister, and so we wanted that minister to leave. She had become way too harsh in this issue, but she didn't want to leave and the majority in the Cabinet was thinking that she didn't have to leave. They kept supporting her, after which we had no other choice than to withdraw our political support to the entire Cabinet.

GIFFORD: The withdrawal of D66 support and the collapse of the government means that new elections are likely within three months. Immigration is sure to play a major part in the elections, as it's become one of the hottest topics of debate in Holland. Out of a population of 16 million people, 1 million or so are immigrants or children of immigrants, many of them Muslims.

Part of the backlash against what some saw as overly liberal immigration policies in the ‘90s was the imposition this year of some of the world's toughest national entry laws. Paul Scheffer, professor of urban sociology at the University of Amsterdam, says the swings in public opinion and the fall of the government today are all about the Dutch trying to find some kind of balance.

Dr. PAUL SCHEFFER (University of Amsterdam): There was a growing sentiment that immigration was out of hand, that our asylum policies were too liberal. So we have seen the government responding to that and now many people feel that especially in the field of asylum policy, our policies have grown too restrictive, too stringent. So this whole case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the fall of the government could well lead to a review of our asylum policy and trying to find a middle ground.

GIFFORD: The woman at the center of the row, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, stepped down from parliament in May and said she would leave The Netherlands. She's been offered a place as a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

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