Last Sunday (June 26) I was listening to CBC One’s Sunday morning (radio) show, and I heard the lovely sound of Dutch accents, the accents of my stubborn parents, who shaped my contrarian tendencies. The Dutch accents belonged to interviewees in a documentary about the social conflicts that propelled the murderers of politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. There was more about Van Gogh, less about Fortuyn. Both had been critical of the way that immigrant communities – specifically immigrants from Morocco and Turkey – were relating to Dutch society. Neither was a conventional white European racist. Both were modernists, opposed to immigrants on secular questions. While Fortuyn is often described as a right-wing populist, he was a libertarian and his conflicts with Muslim immigrants were initially personal. He was gay, and he criticized the homophobia of the Moroccan imam Khalil el-Moumni. Van Gogh was a friend and supporter of Fortuyn, as well as the immigrant feminist politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Both questioned the cultural values of Muslim fundamentalists, and Dutch immigration and social policy. Their central argument was that fundamentalists were exploiting Dutch tolerance to create a hostile and intolerant subculture.
Foreign commentators appeared to be surprized that Dutch politicians had started to talk about the limits of tolerance, and that Muslim fundamentalist immigrants could turn to violence within a tolerant modern society. For instance see Andrew Anthony’s two part article Amsterdamned in the Observer Magazine Online in December 2004, a month after Van Gogh was killed by a Moroccan-Dutch Muslim fundamentalist.
The CBC documentary seemed to approach the question of tolerance in the same context with a special focus on Moroccan Muslims, and on the arts. The CBC producer and host interviewed playwright Gerrit Timmers and politician Fatima Elatik, tracking the story of Timmers’s opera or musical play Aisha and the Women of Medina. Timmers had worked with members of the Moroccan immigrant community in Holland, with plays that addressed the tension between the internal values of Islam and Moroccan traditional culture and the values of modern Holland, especially feminism. In 2000, he was producing Aisha and the production was cancelled when cast members withdrew after complaints and criticism from Islamic fundamentalists.
That kind of cultural censorship is not uncommon in Europe. It happened in England last December when Sikhs shut down the production of a play called Behzti. I blogged that at the time.
Van Gogh had defended Timmers, and criticized the Muslim fundamentalists. He was rough and uncouth. He liked to call Moroccan fundamentalists “goatfuckers”. Fortuyn called Islam a “retarded religion”. The imams called homosexuals “lower than pigs” and viewed Dutch society as soft and corrupt. Fortuyn and Van Gogh were criticized by leftist politician and by Islamic politicians. Fatima Elatik was a PvdA (Labour) civic politician in Amsterdam (deputy Mayor of Zeebrugge) and she objected to Van Gogh’s attacks on Islam, making the familiar and convenient argument that there are limits to free speech when a large group of people “will feel hurt”. In 2001 he published an article in reproduced on the Militant Islam Monitor website which reflected on his opinions at the time amd dismissed Elatik’s position. I think he was right. Her argument for silencing Van Gogh worked against the Moroccan imams who were happily bashing the soft and licentious majority.
Van Gogh and other self-styled progressive Dutch artists continued to promote modern secular values against Muslim fundamentalist values. Van Gogh produced a film called Submission , which was so offensive to militant fundamentalists that they plotted to kill him – and carried out their plot (November 2, 2004). His death led to threats against Elatik.
Andrew Anthony’s summary of Dutch tolerance was:
As inhabitants of one of the most densely populated nations on earth, the Dutch have evolved an attitude known as gedogen. The word translates as a kind of pragmatic tolerance – legislating to put up with something – which is probably a necessary outlook when you live, as it were, in your neighbour’s face. It’s this concept that has led to Holland’s renowned hash-selling coffee bars and legalised red-light districts, as well as initiatives like police protection for gay cruising zones.
In many ways, gedogen has created an environment that ill suits a traditional culture like Islam. It does not take a social scientist to see that a veiled woman might have problems living next to a live sex show. The two seem incompatible in the same universe, let alone the same street. But for many years, a combination of state intervention (imams and mosques are subsidised in Holland) and social detachment (ethnic communities remaining apart from mainstream Dutch life) has enabled this unlikely coexistence to work. The multicultural answer to Holland’s cramped diversity was essentially: same street, different universe.
An article by Dutch journalist Bram Posthumus at the Index for Free Expression Online makes the point that tolerance also implies detachment:
This has always been the hallmark of the famed Dutch tolerance. Not so much actively acknowledging the presence of people who did look and act like the majority but a basic lack of interest. ‘I don’t care what happens, as long as it is not under my roof,’ typifies the attitude.
But that is not tolerance, as the Dutch are always eager to advertise. Tolerance is mistaken for being able to smoke yourself silly in an Amsterdam coffeeshop. That is self-indulgence. Tolerance is mistaken for living next to your Turkish or Somali neighbours and say “they can do whatever they want as long as they leave us alone.’ That is indifference.
Posthumus traces Dutch tolerance back to a political compromise between 4 powerful social blocks, which was transformed into a general self-congratulatory belief that the Dutch had achieved a truly tolerant and plural society:
Nothing like this existed anywhere else in the world: the Netherlands was neatly divided into four different societies: Roman Catholic, protestant, socialist and general/humanist. They were called “columns”, each of which had their own political party, broadcasting corporation, newspaper and so forth. The divisions worked their way through the entire society and so each community would have its own Roman Catholic, Protestant, Socialist, Humanist community centre, bar and sports club.
This is the kind of environment where the baby boom generation grew up. Four columns, four great tales, four anchors in life. In the 1960s, the boomers blew them up, threw them away and replaced them with…nothing.
Like most of Western Europe, the Netherlands embarked on a path to virtually unrestrained affluence and freedom. But there was still another shadow hanging over the newfound wealth, freedom and happiness: the war. No: The War. This is the second point that needs to be understood about the Netherlands, the unique way in which World War II has cut its furrows into Dutch psyche.
The Dutch were no heroes in 1940-45. The country had an ill-equipped and weak army that held out for a few days in May 1940 and gave in after Rotterdam was bombed to pieces on May 10. Resistance efforts against the German occupation were decidedly underwhelming.
Proportionally, more Jews were carted off to their deaths from Holland than anywhere else in Europe. Before the war, the Dutch government sought to restrict access to the country for Jews who were fleeing prosecution in Nazi-Germany. Justice Minister Van Schaik called the majority of the Jews “bogus asylum seekers” and compared their arrival to “an invasion”.
After the war, the Dutch needed to redeem themselves. Fortunately, “we” had two things. We had the 25 February 1941 strike in Amsterdam against German transports of Jews and forced labourers. And “we” had Anne Frank, never mind that it was betrayal that brought her to a death camp. Around these two the Dutch built up an elaborate mythology, designed to make future generations believe that “we” had all fought the evil Nazi machine and that “we” were, in essence, decent people, really.
For the mythology to endure, the unpleasant pieces of history had to be suppressed, like the vicious little colonial war “we” fought in Indonesia. My schoolbooks failed to mention the burning down of entire villages by Dutch soldiers and used the benign “police actions”. The war ended fairly rapidly when the Americans threatened to cut off Marshall Aid.
Is it any wonder that the 1960s generation clung to that Resistance Mythology for dear life? Moreover, they felt the need for their very own Resistance. That took the form of self-indulgence: sex and drugs and rock and roll basically. But the world also provided ample opportunity for a new resistance myth, the notion that we are on the good side of history. “We” will liberate everyone! From Angola to Zimbabwe, from Cuba to Chile! International Solidarity!
There was one placard that you could use in whatever public demonstration you happened to be in. You simply wrote AGAINST in banner headlines on a piece of cloth and you had your all-purpose time-saving device. After all, demonstrations were always “against” something: nuclear power, cruise missiles, war, big business, big politics.
His assessment of the cultural and historical basis for Dutch pluralism appears to be solid, although he does not reflect on a couple of facts. At one time, Dutch society was mildly fractured into four value sets within one dominant culture, language and national myth. Cultural diversity was relatively limited, and diversity decreased in the years between the Second World War and the end of the century as the religious blocks dissipated and the culture became more consumerist and humanist. The Roman Catholic Bishops tried to liberalize their Church and culture, but their culture evaporated when Pope John Paul II disciplined and humiliated the Dutch bishops. The Dutch became a modern liberal nation, with a liberal and well-educated citizenry. Religion became marginal and the Dutch tended to view religion as a mild personal eccentricity rather than a powerful and divisive social force.
He is correct to see the Dutch as independent, self-sufficient, confident, stubborn and skeptical people. His idea that the Dutch collectively defined a national attitude of detachment and contradiction in the myth of Resistance seems to be sound. He seems to get to the core of the issues of freedom of conscience and speech that are assumed in Dutch tolerance – the Dutch are prepared to tolerate like-minded people, who will keep their beliefs private and tolerate the beliefs of others. The Dutch, collectively are freely skeptical of the actions and beliefs of others, and fairly tolerant of criticism.
North African immigrants don’t have the same culture, and their fundamentalist religious leaders have manipulated their community’s discomforts within Dutch society. There was no particular reason for the Dutch majority to be interested in the culture and religion of North African migrants. Immigrants resent their low economic and social status. The Dutch version of tolerance is not calculated to affirm the values of immigrants or build their self-esteem. It is basically condescending on cultural and religious values, and no one likes arrogance and condescension. The imams have channelled these resentments into self-righteous political anger at the majority.
The Dutch parties of the old Left – the socialists – tried to welcome and support Moroccan immigrants, at the expense of their own principles on women’s rights, freedom of speech, and progress. They saw the new immigrants as class allies and potential supporters. They made room for politicians like Elatik – an intelligent, articulate woman described by the host of the CBC show as dressed in tight modern clothes – but wearing a hijab. She portrays herself as a modern woman who is also a devout Muslim. As such, she was an interesting figure. She demonstrates the possibility of the evolution of the Moroccan community away from insular preoccupation with fundamentalist religion and primitive culture without outright assimilation into Dutch culture.
In the CBC piece she challeged the idea that the Dutch are tolerant. She said that the tolerance of the Dutch for the beliefs and culture of Turkish and Moroccan migrant workers was condescending and disengaged. There was no political or cultural engagement, no dialogue. There is some force to what she said, although she was perhaps showing some of the weaknesses of her own socialist party’s approach to multiculturalism. The more conservative Dutch parties had tolerated immigration for economic reasons, and for the sake of tolerance. The socialist parties gave government money to cultural minorities, which has multiplied the power and influence of religious leaders in those communities.
Ms. Elatik’s criticism of Dutch disengagement was carefully ambivalent. Was she blaming Dutch society for not forcing immigrants to culturally assimilate or was she blaming the Dutch for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about the culture and beliefs of Moroccan guest-workers? She seems to have blamed Dutch society for not trying to understand and reach out to immigrants – a conventional rationalization for a policy that has served needs of the leaders of the Moroccan immigrant community and allowed them to advance the rigid ideology of fundamentalist religion, and the needs of the new Left for electoral support.
Posthumus favours of freedom of speech in the boisterous style of Fortuyn and Van Gogh. He will not accept tolerance of fundamentalisms that would destroy the basic liberalism of Dutch society. Militant Islam signals the limits of pluralism and tolerance as efficient policies for peace and harmony in a society that includes religious fundamentalists.
Posthumus suggests that the encounter with militant Islam invites the Dutch to shed some of their baggage:
World War II is definitively over. Resistance by proxy is no longer an option. Restoring the columns, four or five of them, is impossible and, more to the point, undesirable. In a sense, that old AGAINST placard continues to epitomise the level of Dutch political and public debate.
It is the ultimate soundbite in a country that does not have a tradition of debate in which arguments are grounded in experience or profundity. The fine art of discussion and debate is not taught in schools. The Dutch idea of debate is shooting off one-liners and multiple interruptions. This is made worse by emotion-driven television that has replaced reasoning.
The awakening has been rude but useful. The Dutch are slowly starting to rediscover that there is life beyond the national frontier, discovering the merits of rigorous analysis and debate, falteringly learning how to conduct a proper political and public discourse. The hollowness may finally be pushed back, like the ritualised compassion.
This is what an Amsterdam policeman of Moroccan origin told an opinion weekly in February: Do you want respect? You can have it – on merit.’ One can see the Labour Party cringe collectively. On free speech, the lead has been taken by the judiciary.
A small group of Muslims had asked an Amsterdam court to stop Hirsi Ali from “insulting Muslims”. The court did the only sensible thing on 15 March, and threw it out. The Muslims say they will appeal and we can only hope for the same amount of backbone in the higher courts of the land. In short, we are witnessing a country that is finally growing up. Maybe I will see that damned AGAINST placard burn one fine day.