February 06, 2009

Confronting Islam in the Land of Multiculti Tolerance

Geert Wilders stares out from pictures like all the Dutchmen you”€™ve ever known or imagined: blond-maned, jowly, shrewd and wary eyes”€”with a black hat, black tunic and white lace collar, he could be a face in a Rembrandt crowd scene, or a Frans Hals painting of the Haarlem Civic Guard.

Judging from physicality alone, he could be a Frisian out of a novel by Theodor Storm, or a character from a Delft tile“€”a descendant of those who raised a fertile country out of saltmarsh and sea, whose ships chanced Curaçao and the coast of Cathay, whose merchants and engineers erected light-filled churches, step-gabled town halls and thousands of perfectly proportioned houses along light-reflecting canals in perfectly planned cities, who invented pendulum clocks and microscopes, and who through their patronage of Erasmus, Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, Vermeer, Cuyp and many others gave the world humanism and the most closely observed paintings in the world.

To gaze down from Gouda”€˜s church tower onto the rational Grootmarkt“€”or from the Euromast onto Rotterdam’s ugliness“€”to stand in the scales used to weigh witches at Oudewater“€”to drive along a sunken road below a windmill-lined river embankment”€”or, best of all, to creep up the Scheldt to Terneuzen in a little rusty coasting ship is to understand something of what makes the Netherlands so unlike everywhere else. It is a precise geometric puzzle of a country where everything is controlled, and the less ordered outside is held at bay by a complex of lockgates, sluices, ditches, dykes, drains, cuts, pumping stations and carefully calibrated outfalls, and the quiet competence of thousands of carefully calibrated men and women.

In recent decades, the calm certitude that characterized seemingly every aspect of Dutch life cohabited with easygoing liberalism, in which sobriety coexisted with sex shops and managerialism with marijuana. Many Dutchmen and women half-forgot their more serious forebears, and gave themselves up to restrained hedonism interspersed with innovation and industrial production. The Dutch model seemed still to be working, as worthy of emulation now as in 1856, when the Bostonian John Lothrop Motley wrote in The Rise of the Dutch Republic:

To the Dutch Republic, even more than to Florence at an earlier day, is the world indebted for practical instruction in that great science of political equilibrium which must always become more and more important as the various states of the civilized world are pressed more closely together, and as the struggle for pre-eminence becomes more feverish and fatal.

But the clockwork complacency has suddenly been shattered. A sequence of vicious murders, vitriolic controversies and political instability is calling into question not only the Netherlands”€™ suitability for emulation, but even the country’s very viability. This creeping insecurity is encapsulated by the growing number of middle class professionals who are simply giving up on Holland and leaving for ever. Holland has previously experienced racial problems, notably terrorism by Moluccans in the 1970s. But as the Muslim population of the Netherlands has increased in size and alienation (estimates vary, but even conservative government figures estimate 850,000, or some 5%), Islamic fundamentalists have been both the proximate cause and the prime targets of dramatically heightened tensions.

In 2002, a flamboyant academic called Pim Fortuyn was catapulted to international prominence. Born in 1948, Fortuyn studied sociology and became a professor at the University of Groningen and the Erasmus University. In 1992, he moved into politics, starting as a communist then moving to the social-democratic Partij van de Arbeid (PvDA), until in 2001 he was elected as the leading candidate in Rotterdam for the localist Leefbaar Nederland (“€œLivable Netherlands”€) party. He was openly and promiscuously homosexual, and held ultra-relaxed views on such subjects as drugs and euthanasia “€“ but in the Netherlands these are not a bar to high office. He started to see Muslim fundamentalists as a threat to his prized freedoms. He gave provocative interviews and wrote articles expressing hostility to Islamic beliefs and calling for Muslim immigration to be halted. For example, in August 2001, Fortuyn was quoted in the Rotterdams Dagblad as saying, “€œI am in favour of a cold war with Islam. I see Islam as an extraordinary threat, as a hostile religion.”€

In February 2002, an especially outspoken interview with the newspaper Volksrant calling for restrictions on immigration (albeit coupled with an amnesty for illegal immigrants) caused him to be dismissed from his Leefbaar Nederland office. Two days later, he founded a new party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF).

Then on 6 May, in the run up to the general election of 15 May, as he was leaving a radio station in Hilversum, Fortuyn was shot dead by a lone obsessive called Volkert Van der Graaf (now serving an 18 year prison sentence.) This was the first such assassination in Holland in centuries, and his funeral was the largest that had been seen for many years, with prominent politicians attending or sending condolences. In the election, the LPF rode the wave of shock and sympathy to obtain 26 seats, making it the second-largest party in the new parliament. Under its new leader, the LPF was incorporated into a coalition government led by the Christian Democrat Party (CDA) and including the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). But the LPF had always been more of a personality cult than a real party, and electoral success was the signal for sustained infighting, until eventually the CDA and VVD had had enough of their volatile ally. Another election was called, and in January 2003, the party lost 18 out of its 26 seats. (In 2006, it failed to win any seats and is now effectively defunct.)

But despite the LPF’s incompetence, Fortuyn had started something, and subsequent events have ensured that Fortuyn’s murder is still an open wound. The most startling of these was a second murder, that of Theo Van Gogh, atheist, republican, cocaine-user, heavy drinker, controversialist actor, film director and columnist, distantly related to Vincent Van Gogh and admirer of Fortuyn, whom he called “€œthe divine baldhead.”€

After Fortuyn’s murder, Van Gogh cooperated with Somali-born Islam-critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali to produce a ten-minute film called Submission, which dealt with Muslim violence against women. Misogynistic texts from the Koran were projected onto the bodies of semi-naked women as they narrated stories of abuse. The film led to public denunciations and a flurry of death threats from Muslim hotheads, which Van Gogh treated with typical insouciance: “€œNobody kills the village idiot.”€ But as he was cycling to work in Amsterdam on 2 November 2004, Dutch citizen Mohammed Bouyeri shot him dead, cut his throat and stabbed him in the chest, leaving two knives behind, to one of which was affixed a long note denouncing the West, Jews, and Hirsi Ali.

The murder was followed by the arrest of eight Muslim radicals, a spate of jubilant congratulations on Muslim websites, an estimated 174 retaliatory or counter-retaliatory attacks on Muslims, Muslim-owned premises and on churches. (On 26 July 2005, Bouyeri was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.) Many had hoped that Fortuyn’s killing had been an anomaly, but Van Gogh’s fate suggested to many that a pattern was emerging. “€œThis was our 9/11. It was the moment the Netherlands lost its naivety. We always thought that we were the country of multicultural tolerance that could do no wrong”€ said one academic.

Hirsi Ali went into hiding. Born in Somalia in 1969 and educated in Kenya (where she became inspired by radical Islam), Ali had a change of heart (apparently after reading Nancy Drew stories) and arrived in the Netherlands in 1992, where she obtained asylum and eventually citizenship. She became involved with the PvDA, and an outspoken critic of Islam. After the PvDA lost the election of November 2002, she joined the VVD and became an MP, where she came into contact with Geert Wilders. She was somewhat lionized, being named in 2005 as one of Time‘s “€œ100 Most Influential People”€ and one of Glamour Magazine‘s “€œHeroes”€ and then the Reader’s Digest “€œEuropean of the Year”€ for 2006. Shortly afterwards, it emerged that she had lied on her asylum application, and her citizenship was revoked, then restored. The resulting embarrassment for the VVD led to the fall of the administration. The scandal did not prevent the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute offering her a position as resident scholar in 2007 or stop her from receiving the Prix Simone de Beauvoir in 2008.

She now lives mostly in America where she runs the AHA Foundation, which campaigns against female genital mutilation and “€œhonor killing.”€

The mantle of Islam-baiter-in-chief has now descended on Geert Wilders. Wilders was born in 1963 in the small town of Venlo near the German border “€“ the son of a printing firm manager, and brought up as a Catholic although he does not practice his faith. He worked in health insurance and studied law, and acquired the nickname “€œMozart”€ because of his hairstyle. In 1990, he became a parliamentary assistant to later European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein. In 1997, he was elected as a VVD municipal councillor in Utrecht, then became an MP in 1998. In 2002, after disagreements over the VVD’s wish to encourage Turkey’s EU membership, he left the VVD to form his own party, Groep Wilders, later renamed the Party for Freedom (PVV). 

PVV policy includes cutting taxes, welfare and government bureaucracy, tougher criminal law and the reintroduction of national service. He also joined in the anti-Islamic chorus, calling for a ban on both the burka and the Koran, and saying things like, “€œTake a walk down the street and see where this is going. You no longer feel like you are living in your own country. There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves. Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches!”€

He has accordingly been under constant security protection since the murder of Van Gogh. To make his hole deeper, in early 2006, he re-published the 2006 Danish cartoons of Mohammed on his website. That November, the PVV won nine seats in the national parliament. Inevitably, he has been compared with Fortuyn, but this comparison was rejected by a friend of Fortuyn’s who said, “€œGeert Wilders… incites hatred against Muslims, and Pim did not do that: he had sex with Moroccan boys in dark rooms”€”€”a distinctly postmodern way of asserting moral superiority!

Wilders has now produced his own film, Fitnah, an Arabic word which translates roughly as a “€œtest of faith in times of trial”€. The 14 minute film is made up mostly of filmed speeches by extremist imams, interspersed with commentary suggesting that parts of the Koran should be “€œtorn out,”€ and saying that the book is akin to Mein Kampf“€”one of Wilders’s most common but least happy tropes. The idea that an ancient, sacred and often beautiful text that has given rise to a great civilization can be compared with a cranky, badly-written, political manifesto says more about the defiantly boorish modern mindset than it does about the Koran. One does not have to be a religious believer to see that there are profound qualitative differences between the two works”€”and one can surely be against the Islamification of Europe without wishing to insult and alienate all Muslims. Besides, it is obviously inconsistent simultaneously to champion free speech and call for a book to be outlawed.

Fitnah has unleashed a whole new flood of problems for Wilders”€”not just the usual wild threats from jihadists, and prosecution in absentia by the Jordanian government, but Dutch government opposition and many complaints under domestic race relations legislation. These were thought unlikely to succeed; as recently as December 2008, Amsterdam’s chief public prosecutor said that no case would be brought against Wilders in the Netherlands. But at the end of last month, the Amsterdam Court of Appeals decided to prosecute him on a charge of inciting hatred against Muslims. Formal charges have not yet been laid, so it is unclear what the outcome could be if he was found guilty, but a prison sentence is one possibility. The odds are against him, because the case will be heard before a lower court (which is likely to go along with what the higher court wants), and if he they convict and he appeals, his appeal will be heard before said Court of Appeals. Attempts to show Fitnah in other countries have been met by protests or the threats of protests, including in the British House of Lords, where a Muslim peer threatened to bring 10,000 Muslims down to Westminster if a planned screening went ahead (it did not). No TV companies will show the film, although it is of course on the web.

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Wilders”€™ courage, charisma, strength of character and intelligence are not in question”€”and he is obviously right to point out the danger posed by the recrudescence of Europe’s historic enemy. His simultaneously dangerous and ridiculous enemies are those we should all aspire to have. And free speech is a social good from any standpoint. Readers are encouraged to visit the newly-founded International Free Press Society and sign their pro-Wilders petition.

But brave though he may be, by attacking the Koran so intemperately and by failing to acknowledge that there are moderate Muslims whose support could be co-opted, Wilders may actually be uniting rather than dividing Muslims. And although it makes sense to couch our current critique in the political terminology of the hour, in the long term can Islamic eschatology really be combated by appeals to bloodless “€œhuman rights”€? If we are successfully to avert Eurabia, we must first rediscover our own heritage and reexamine our present presumptions. Only then will we be able to offer a fuller, more positive vision for the post-Islamic Europe we all desire.

Derek Turner is the editor of the Quarterly Review.


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