Cossacks attack a peaceful demonstration, from the film trailer, Doctor Zhivago (1965).Countering extremism and intolerance is a core function of government, the Dutch king said in his yearly speech in the Dutch parliament, last September. But the hotchpotch of measures announced against international jihadism shows no understanding of the Dutch role in the fight against IS. In other European countries the situation, if not worse, is no better.
An international framework of thought to address the issue of Syria-goers and jihadism at a national level is urgently required. There is a huge gap in the thinking and the ability of the current crop of European politicians, a generation that grew up after the Cold War. The wisdom of the old elite about the relationship between domestic and foreign policy appears lost on them. The old European politicians knew what it meant to have to compete ideologically, and, when necessary, to advocate their own values and ideals. They were instilled with the notion of entering into alliances with those who pursued the same ideals. They affected the collapse of the ideological, military and economic challenger to the west: the Soviet Union and her allies.
Today, there is a lack of awareness about the sometimes combustible relationship between foreign policy and domestic challenges. The action plans of the Dutch Ministries of Justice and Social Affairs for fighting jihadism in the Netherlands not unlike those in other European countries, say it all. Neither department has the necessary expertise, networks or professional experience to tackle the issue. An important perspective is missing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved; after all, we are talking about a transnational political phenomenon that refuses to be bound by official divisions.
How different the approach of the Netherlands was in the last decades of the Cold War, when many young westerners fell under the spell of the leftist revolutionary causes of Ho Chi Min, Mao and Che Guevara. Elsewhere in Europe, the glorification of violence led to the emergence of terrorist organisations. But the incumbent elite knew how to deal with this. They found ways to pacify the young radicals and wrench them free of their ties with the Soviets and Mao’s China. As long as the radical left held to the democratic rule of law, they were given the space to articulate their views and to participate in the political arena. In this way, the young, radical activists were kept on board. They didn’t go underground or flee to communist walhallas, but remained in the sights of the intelligence services.
Here in the Netherlands, Paul de Groot’s Stalinist-led Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) was tolerated; indeed, this was the proving ground that allowed the then Maoist Socialist Party (SP) to grow into a mainstream political party. The fact that, today, we do not know how to deal with the aftershocks of foreign wars domestically betrays the lack of a wider narrative about current world politics and the challenges facing Europe. The political actions of our current leaders have no depth.
The European approach to jihadis domestically is totally apolitical, therapeutic in concept and focused on identifying and dealing with potential timebombs among our youth. Abroad, the approach of America and its European allies, which the Netherlands recently, albeit reluctantly, has hitched itself to, is primarily about dropping bombs. Neither will bring a lasting victory over international jihadism. The Eastern Bloc was beaten in the arena of ideals by consistently acting on our own democratic principles, expressing them with fervour and recruiting supporters for these values. The Soviet Bloc was defeated because the west remained faithful domestically to its political principles of tolerance and invested in high calibre partners, such as Václav Havel and Lech Walesa, from the opposition in Eastern Europe.
We received these intellectual exiles with open arms. Milan Kundera was able to write ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ in the peace and comfort of Paris and hold up the critical humanist mirror of the Prague Spring to a generation of utopian-leftist good-for-nothings in western Europe. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was, nota bene, published many times in Russian in the Netherlands - so that it could be smuggled to the Soviet Union.
How poignantly different and debatable our current policy on radical Islamism is. Our most important partner in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, purveyor of the most intolerant version of Islam, and the source of a constant flow of international jihadists and money, fuelling their abhorrent behaviour. How long is Europe’s wishlist of Middle Eastern intellectuals that we want to engage as allies in the fight against extremist Islamism? There is no such list.
We are obsessed with banning hate preachers, while the generation of Muslim youth tempted by extremism should be taught by the eloquent and liberal theologians from the Middle East. One of these erudite, moral Islamic leaders, a Syrian world-renowned for his tolerant mindset, told me how condescendingly his veiled wife was received at a Dutch embassy recently. Reason enough for him to break off his links with the Netherlands.
During the Cold War, we consistently adhered to our own liberal ideals and even refused to ban radical communists, as long as they stood up for their own ideas peacefully. In the struggle against the Soviet ideology we reached out to supporters in the Eastern Bloc. The left-wing youth from this time did not emigrate en masse to the Soviet Union. They did not become extremists. Citizens and intellectuals from the Eastern Bloc embraced our ideals and walked together across the ideological borders, not vice versa. The current politicians urgently need some tuition. Let us not lose the wisdom of their predecessors forever.