Islam and Europe: a debate in Amsterdam

Fred Halliday
2 October 2007

Over the past three years, the accidents of academic travel and a certain curiosity about historical sites have taken me to most, if not all, of the places in the western world where jihadi terrorism has left its mark:

* New York, even as most inhabitants of the city seem to be exhibiting "9/11 fatigue", the site of the World Trade Center south of Chambers Street is now being reworked to construct a monumental Freedom Tower

* Madrid, where the attacks of 11 March 2004 now have a permanent memorial, even if the four-storey apartment block in the Calle Carmen Martín Gaite, in the restful Madrid suburb of Leganès, has been replaced in such a way as to erase the memory of those who later blew themselves up there, on 3 April 2004

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.The recent articles include:

"A 2007 warning: the twelve worst ideas in the world"(8 January 2007)

"Sunni, Shi'a and the "Trotskyists of Islam"(9 February 2007)

"Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared"(25 March 2007)

"The Malvinas and Afghanistan: unburied ghosts"(4 May 2007)

"Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse"(4 June 2007)

"Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003" (15 June 2007)

"Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix" (13 July 2007)

"Eternal Euzkadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007)

"Cyprus's risky stalemate" (26 August 2007)

* Buenos Aires, where on 18 July 1994 eighty-six people died in the explosion at the Jewish cultural centre (Amia), an action that is ascribed to the Iranian government or to a branch of Hizbollah or of Islamic Jihad based in Argentina, but which has many, as yet unclarified, dimensions; the building itself has been restored with fortress-like appearance and the names of those who died are listed at street level outside.

* London, where I have only to look out of the window of my flat in Tavistock Square to see the small plaque commemorating the thirteen people who were killed on an everyday, number 30, two-decker red bus - outside the headquarters of the British Medical Association - on 7 July 2005.

By contrast, Linnaeus Street in a suburb of Amsterdam bears no memorial of the event that occurred there on the morning of 2 November 2004 and which so shocked the inhabitants of the Netherlands. It was here, on a nondescript street flanked on one side by the building of the local municipality, on the other by food shops and chemists, that Theo van Gogh was killed by his assailant, Mohammad Bouyeri.

One day in November

My companion in a visit to this part of Amsterdam is the Turkish-Dutch writer Ahmet Olgun, correspondent for the daily paper NRC Handelsblad, and himself co-author (with Jutta Chorus) of an in-depth investigative book on the event, In Gods Naam (Uitgeverej Contact, 2005). He explains to me what happened. Van Gogh normally cycled to work in the morning along this street. At the end is the railway bridge where Bouyeri waited for van Gogh. The first of five shots were fired on the side of the street outside the municipality building, where an employee filmed the event on his mobile. Van Gogh then staggered across the street and was then killed.

Bouyeri then tried to cut his throat in sacrificial gesture, but only half succeeded, and then pinned on his chest a letter denouncing the enemies of Islam in Holland. The assailant subsequently fled to the nearby Oosterpark ("eastern park") where he was wounded and captured by the police.

To find a memorial to van Gogh, Ahmet Olgun and I have to go to the Oosterpark itself, now rich in late summer greenery and with a first hint of autumn on the leaves. Here stands a monument to van Gogh by the sculptor Jeroen Henneman, a four-and-a-half metre high construction of wavy steel lines: there is no mention of van Gogh himself on the statue, or accompanying plaque, which is named simply Die Schreeuw ("The Cry"), yet his profile is visible in the lines of the monument. The title is perhaps an allusion to the painting of alarm and pain, by Edvard Munch, but also a reference to van Gogh's association with the cause of free speech.

There was some public controversy about whether to put up a monument at all: Dutch friends are mildly surprised the statue has lasted as long as it has. The day before I visit, it was daubed with a pro-al-Qaida slogan, but by the time I get there next morning this has been cleaned away.

There remains much that is unclear and hence unsettling in the killing of Theo van Gogh and in the relation of this event, analysed for English readers by Ian Buruma in his fine book Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. Buruma himself is of Dutch-English parentage and grew up in the Netherlands, before leaving in the mid-1970s in part to escape from the cloying conformity of much of its intellectual and political life.

Despite intense police and journalistic investigation, it is not clear how far Mohammed Bouyeri acted on his own, how far he was part of an organised clandestine group, known to its Arab members as The Lions of Islam and to the Dutch police as The Hofstad Group ("Hofstad" or - capital city being a conventional name for The Hague, the city where the group was based - that The Hague is the seat of government but not the capital of Holland, which is Amsterdam, is another, here irrelevant, complication.) Bouyeri himself was in many ways a loner, a second generation of Moroccan descent, whose Arabic was weak and who had become intensely politicised by watching videos on the recent wars between Muslim fighters and western forces.

Theo the artist-provocateur

Van Gogh, a remote descendant of the famous painter, was known through his TV programme and a set of controversial films; he was not an angel or ideal hero, but at times boorish, a provocateur who had made a name for himself as an enthusiastic exponent of the Dutch practice of verbal insult and name-calling (scheldkritikien or "abusive criticism"). That he frequently insulted Muslims and their prophet, calling the former geiteneuker ("goat-fuckers"), did not stop him from also insulting Jews and many others.

To compare him, as some Dutch supporters do, to Salman Rushdie is ridiculous - Rushdie satirised the early history of Islam, but never propagated racist insults against Muslims as living people. (Incidentally, and almost certainly unknown to van Gogh, the Dutch obscenity he used, neuken, is by origin Arabic, indeed to be found in the Qur'an, where it is the normal term for marital relations: French, English and Spanish all have the same slang word - niquer, nooky, noqui-noqui - transmitted in the Dutch case via contact with Arab traders in South Africa, as is the all-purpose racist term of abuse kaffir, from the Muslim term for an "infidel", in the others via colonial contact with north Africa).

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005) On any conventional criteria, van Gogh should certainly have faced legal sanction for some of what he did. But he did not deserve his fate. Some weeks before he was killed he had shown, on an small audience TV channel, the film Submission a twelve-minute denunciation of Qur'anic and other Islamic views on women, the verses projected over the body of a naked woman. However, since the film was only shown in October 2004, and there is evidence that the plan to kill him was first laid in July, Submission may not have played a part in his death.

The person the film most certainly affected is the Somali exile, later Dutch MP, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, van Gogh's collaborator on the film; she had to have police protection and then left for the United States amid a dispute over her right to stay in Holland; on 1 October 2007 she is reported as having returned to live in the Netherlands after the Dutch government refused to pay for the cost of her protection.

The Dutch trauma

This series of events - the death of van Gogh, the threats against and controversies surrounding Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the physical assault on others, notably an Iranian-origin secularist writer and local councillor for the Dutch Labour Party, Ehsan Jami - have provoked a major, often acrimonious and as yet far from resolved debate in Dutch politics. Jami´s book, The Right to be an Ex-Muslim, a short and reasonable plea for freedom of thought and belief, is on prominent display in Dutch bookshops, as are the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Some of the causes of this acrimony lie in longer-term trends in Dutch life: the authority of the older and more moderate political leaders, of both the Labour and Liberal Parties, has eroded in recent years as senior figures have retired and as it becomes evident that they have in some measure lost touch with their constituencies. At the same time, as Buruma relates in his book and as I could observe when working in Amsterdam for several years on and off in the 1970s, there is a particular, above average, defensiveness in Dutch political life, perhaps strengthened by the loss of empire in the late 1940s, also reflecting enduring unease about the years of Nazi occupation in the second world war.

More recently, the scandal of Srebrenica, when in 1995 a group of Dutch soldiers assigned to the United Nations allowed the Serbs to massacre almost 8,000 Bosnians in a town they, the Dutch, were supposed to be protecting, also left its mark. It was probably irrelevant on the day but the fact that those so murdered were all Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) is, in retrospect, a further cause of unease. No one draws a direct link between the impact and shame of Srebrenica and the touchy, often aggressive, character of current debate on Islam, but some mild psychoanalytic speculation may here be in order.

To this long-run loss of status and confidence is added the impact of immigration and the presence in large Dutch cities of Muslim communities that now number upwards of a third of the urban population. Stories abound of attacks on - unveiled - Dutch women by second-generation immigrants and, on the other side, of continuous racist taunting by white youth. If tension between indigenous Dutch society and the immigrants from Morocco and Turkey had been building up during the 1990s, two events in the early 2000s brought matters more openly, and acridly, into the open: the 9/11 attacks in the US had an important impact on Dutch political life, perhaps more than on any other western European society, and the media devoted saturation coverage to them.

It was, however, the assassination in May 2002 of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn, himself an outspoken critic of Muslim culture and belief, that brought matters to the boil. Fortuyn was in fact killed by a Dutch assassin, Volker van der Graaf, an angry animal-rights fanatic who objected to Fortuyn's display of fur coats, but Fortuyn's death, the first political assassination in Dutch life since 1584, legitimated and augmented his anti-Muslim rhetoric. The rise of Fortuyn, a shrewd and vocal critic of established views in Dutch political life, and of the regenten, the somewhat complacent Dutch political elite, was itself a reflection of the loss of authority of the traditional parties: that his party, Fortuyn's List, has fallen apart since his death may not be surprising, but some of the more angry nationalist and anti-Muslim rhetoric has been taken up by Geert Wilders, leading of the minority Freedom Party, who has repeatedly called for the banning of the Qur'an, as a contemporary equivalent of Mein Kampf.

The statesman's case

It is against this background, that I am invited to public debate in Amsterdam on 18 September 2007 with one of Holland's most established and venerated politicians, Frits Bolkestein. At 74, the former minister, European Union commissioner and academic cuts a dignified silver-haired figure in his suit and tie, amidst the rather more informally attired audience of the central Amsterdam cultural centre De Balie (The Tribune).

Bolkestein is a senior figure in the main right-of-centre party, the Liberals (or VVD); although formally out of a senior position, he has been actively involved in recent disputes within the party (one of which has led to the expulsion from the VVD's parliamentary section of the outspoken Rita Verdonk, a former minister of the interior who favours a tougher line on immigrants). Although Bolkestein made his mark by being one of the first to question the Dutch model of multiculturalism, he is believed to have supported the action against Verdonk.

The event is gently but firmly chaired by our host (and my fellow openDemocracy author) Markha Valenta, an American journalist who has lived in Holland for eight years and who evidently impresses Bolkestein with her fluent Dutch. It is a Dutch tradition to offer broad guidelines to speakers, and the organisers of De Balie are true to form in offering suggestions for the fifteen minutes we each have. It is the kind of rubric that drives any normal speaker mad: is Islam compatible with democracy, what should be America's role in the world, how can we get from unilateral to multilateral politics, should Europe and the US work with Hizbollah and Hamas, how to curb illegal American intelligence operations in Europe, how to network with democratic Islamists. Everything, it would seem, except the hardiest nut in Dutch politics, the Friesian question.

With characteristic courtesy, Bolkestein invites me to speak first but I feel it is better for him, who knows the Dutch audience, to start. And so, in terms mellow, considered but with more than a hint of determination, he lays out what can be taken to be the case for a moderate Dutch conservatism on some of these issues.

openDemocracy writers explore the Netherlands' - and Europe's - argument about Islam, secularism and democracy:

Tjebbe van Tijen, "The sorrow of the Netherlands" (22 May 2002)

Dienke Hondius, "‘Become like us': the Dutch and racism" (4 December 2003)

Theo Veenkamp, "After tolerance" (24 November 2004)

KA Dilday, "Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel" (6 March 2007)Bolkestein reiterates his consistent opposition to the Iraq war of 2003. On Islamist terrorism: this is not a product of western policies, but of "resentment", a term he repeats several times, going back to the loss of Islamic imperial power in past centuries. The Arab-Israeli question should be solved by resettling the Palestinians in Arab countries, as Europe did with 11.5 million refugees from eastern Europe after 1945. To blame the west for the economic and social problems of the middle east is fallacious. Citing recent reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), he argues that it is up to the Arab states and Iran themselves to sort out their problems and to stop blaming others. As for disaffected second-generation Muslims in Holland and other countries of western Europe, the best thing they can do to help themselves is get a good secondary-school education and find employment.

On the implications of Islam and the middle east for Dutch society, Frits Bolkestein has a clear, sharp and most evidently well-polished set of views. Multiculturalism, a variety of practices, laws and values is acceptable on secondary issues, but not on primary ones: Dutch society cannot and should not accept forced marriage, honour killings, the assassination of apostates, stoning of adulterers. Moreover, "not all Muslims are well-meaning" and some have "ugly habits". Some want to create a new international Islamic state and impose sharia law on Europe. In conclusion, he returns to his overarching view of the different historical trajectories of Islam and Christianity: the latter began as a religion of the poor and oppressed and only later came to exercise state power; Islam, on the other hand, enjoyed power in its early centuries, in Baghdad and al-Andalus, and has felt resentment at the loss of this power in subsequent centuries.

The long view

Bolkestein takes his seat. Markha Valenta invites me to approach the rostrum. There is much I had prepared to say, and much more had occurred to me in response to Bolkestein. But there are constraints: I do not want to be heard, particularly with the distortions of any second-hand oral report, as expressing some partisan and inevitably pigeon-holed alignment with the set-piece arguments, and derogations, of Dutch public debate. These days I sometimes seek to lend putative authority to what I say by pointing out that I am now a senior citizen, a professor of over two decades' standing in a major university, and so on: but such tropes are not going to cut any ice with a man a decade older, and with a visage far more venerable, than mine.

As for alluding to the fact that I have now four decades of experience working on and analysing the middle east, this will have no effect on Fritz Bolkestein, who, as he is keen to point out, derives his arguments from reading, and having personally talked with, such leading experts on the middle east as professors Bernard Lewis and the late Elie Kedourie.

So I begin with two obvious, but heartfelt, observations. First, the issues being discussed in this De Balie debate, and more generally in Dutch public life over recent years, are of much broader import and context: the questions of immigration, secularism, multiculturalism, gender that the Dutch are talking about are also being debated in all other major countries of western Europe. No European Union country has a monopoly on these questions. What is urgently needed, for reasons of common political challenge and of self-critical debate, is to break out of the national confines and terms of each argument and discuss the issues at a European level. The French have no monopoly on the question of secularism, the British on that of free speech, the Dutch on those of blasphemy and apostasy.

Second, the questions Frits Bolkestein and I are debating in Amsterdam, and which in a Dutch context are framed by events of the past five years, have a much longer and wider history. Holland and some other European countries have in recent years witnessed generic denunciations of "Islam" or Islamic treatment of women, or whatever, sometimes by supposedly ou-spoken western writers (for example the late Oriana Fallaci [in Italy], Michel Houellebecq [in France], César Vidal [in Spain], Samuel Huntington [in the United States], and sometimes by people who are by origin Muslims by family or culture.

But these critics, whose sincerity is not in question, run the risk of being banal and theatrical until and unless they recognise that they are far from being the first to raise these question: for decades there have been people in the Muslim world itself - in Egypt and Turkey, Pakistan, Algeria and Iran - who have, and often at great risk to themselves, debated issues of authoritarianism, violence, dogmatism, secularism. In an audience with many faces from the radical Amsterdam of decades ago, I recall that the first time I spoke at De Balie was in 1981, at a meeting with exiled Iranian speakers, denouncing the repression of the left and secular forces in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On the specific points raised by Frits Bolkestein, I reply to a select number; as I point out, I am not a politician nor a clergyman, and so do not have to express an opinion on every topic. My own understanding of the origins of jihadi terrorism is very different from that of Frits Bolkestein; it is, in the terminology of our, rather good, academic debates on the matter, "modernist" as opposed to "primordial". I consider the remote past of little or not relevance to understanding contemporary terrorism; rather we must look at the contemporary political and regional context, in particular the rise of militant Sunni movement in the 1980s, in opposition to failed secular states and, in some cases such as Afghanistan, with the direct support of the west.

On Palestine I repeat what I have said for over thirty years: that there are two peoples, each of which is entitled, and in broadly equal share, to a state (it occurs to me later that to tell the Palestinians to merge with neighbouring Arab states is a bit like telling the now very dissatisfied Flemish-speakers in Belgium to go and live in Holland).

On the UNDP reports, with which on many issues I am in sympathy, I merely point out that the claim that the Arab world hardly translates any books is in error: the point is that, not being signatories to international copyright conventions, they do not ask permission for, or officially register, most of the translations they carry out. On "ugly habits", I entirely agree, but point out that Europe too has, in the past century, had ugly, much uglier indeed, habits - visiting colonial violence and invasion on many parts of the middle east, and subjecting its own peoples (not least the Dutch) to invasion, massacre, racism and war.

The Turkish nerve-end

Our speeches and short replies concluded, Bolkestein and I face the audience's questions, under Valenta's invigilation. One questioner asks how far we agree with the gendered analysis of Islamist violence, that it is a result of a crisis of patriarchal power among middle-eastern males; a questioner from Macedonia asks why the west failed to note and counteract the rise of Islamism in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia, during the 1990s; another relates the rise of Islamism in the middle east to the tensions produced by urbanisation; another seeks to include the fundamentalism of Evangelical Christians in the US, and of George W Bush in particular, in our denunciations. Another questioner asks Fritz Bolkestein why he did not sign a letter in support of the secular writer and politician Ehsan Jami, who has since been beaten up: "Perhaps I now will", he replies.

Somehow the debate and questioning come closer to an issue hitherto rather marginal, but latent, in our meeting, that of Turkey. I state, as robustly as I can, that Europe has a modest, but definite, role to play in regard to the middle east, in Darfur, Afghanistan, Palestine and, above all, in regard to Turkey. In this context I greatly regret the Dutch rejection of the EU constitution in June 2005 which, conjoined with the French "no" vote three days earlier, has served to freeze and almost certainly kill off Turkey's application to join the EU. With this Fritz Bolkestein is not happy: Turkey is not part of Europe and if people in the middle east are going to blame colonialism and occupation for their woes, why not start with the Turks, who were the worst of all?

Some of the audience are bemused, but the lady from Macedonia jumps up to attest to the terrible five centuries her country suffered under Turkish rule. I begin to suggest that Balkan nationalists tend to complain far too much about Turkish rule, but realise this may not get us very far. I stop myself from going into pro-Ottoman mode (the "sick man of Europe" turned out to be Germany, not Turkey). I rest with the observation that of all the major states of western Europe with a colonial past the Dutch are the only ones who avoided the middle east entirely, and, instead, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and on to the east Indies. (That their record in Indonesia up to 1949, and the ideological legacy of their three centuries in South Africa, leave much to be desired, and contain not a little of what one may term the "ugly", I leave for another occasion).

Amsterdam and Europe's argument

After a couple of brandies, and a chat with colleagues from my old employers and colleagues based in Amsterdam, the Transnational Institute, I head for home, dodging the trams and, as always in Amsterdam, the cyclists as I cross the Leidseplein. It maybe merits reiteration that in these as in all other matters debated at De Balie the Dutch are not alone: it is up to all involved in debating such questions self-critically, but with some sense of urgency, to clarify and move the argument forward.

Yet I strongly suspect that if, after another absence of twenty-six years, I return to Amsterdam to debate contemporary politics, the conversation in the bar afterwards, animated by much Heineken and genever, will, in 1981 as in 2007, still be engaging with the relationship of Europe and America, with Islam and secularism, with free speech and multiculturalism. These are challenges facing all who are concerned, in Europe as in the middle east, with current and often alarming developments. And they allow of no immediate or definitive answers. With this, I feel confident, my courteous, if somewhat unyielding interlocutor, Fritz Bolkestein, would agree.

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