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The Clash of Clichés

Does America want Europe to fail in its accommodation of Muslims? Passing remarks by politicians are often amplified by the international media, but sometimes we should ask why

At the beginning of the year, John Vinocur published a fascinating little article in the New York Times. John Vinocur is senior correspondent at the International Herald Tribune (the New York Times’ global edition, based in Paris). Not only has he had a long career in journalism, but some twenty-five years ago he was awarded the George Polk Award, a prestigious honour. It is striking then that he should now write an article that so distorts and misrepresents its subject, as if its author has forgotten how to do good journalism. I am ambivalent about putting this so bluntly because I met Vinocur some years ago on a panel, and found him both friendly and generous in his comments. But still: he goes too far.

Inspired by recent remarks made by the former leader of the Dutch Liberal Party, Frits Bolkestein, Vinocur argues that while Europe addresses its other major problems, it is virtually ignoring the problem of integrating its Muslims. Vinocur understands this problem as a clash of civilizations.

At the receiving end

That is his first mistake. The shortcomings with this trope – that in Europe today we find two distinct civilizations – are well-established. The peoples and cultures of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia have been cross-fertilizing, competing with and engaging each other for centuries. To assert that they constitute distinct “civilizations” that until now have evolved as islands of culture afloat in the world is not only to be wilfully obtuse and ahistorical, but to make a political statement. It is only by asserting that they are distinct that conflict between them can be naturalized, while their on-going collaboration and fusion are de-naturalized and made invisible.

So, for example, it has by now been quite persuasively established that the Jesuits did much to invent the Confucius we know. This troublesome historical fact does not fit easily with any idea of a Chinese civilization whose primary claim to distinction from western civilization is its basis in Confucian tradition. More well-known is how the Muslim world preserved and studied Aristotle for centuries and then re-introduced him to the Christian world, long after that world had mostly lost track of him. While Europe is rightfully proud of its Renaissance, where would that Renaissance have been without Aristotle? That is to say, where would western modernity be without the influence of the Muslim world and its deep thinking about rationality, the order of the world, and its legal, scientific and philosophical  engagement with that world through institutions of learning that helped to shape our own?

Europe, as we know, repaid its debt some centuries later by going to Muslim areas of the world and deeply transforming the politics, cultures, and religions to be found there. This was no simple one-way process, as foreign imposition and strategic local response intertwined. In the nineteenth century we see the rise of Catholic (and dissenting Protestant and Jewish) identity politics in England’s Atlantic territories mirrored by the rise of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist identity politics in England’s territories outside Europe. This was no clash of civilizations, but the opposite – the creation of one modern political domain in which everyone increasingly deployed shared repertoires and strategies, including that of organizing on the basis of shared identities and traditions in the interest of political gain. Religion, much like culture, gender and class, has been central rather than marginal to this eminently democratic process, in which authenticity, numbers, dedication and discipline are strategically deployed in order prove the worthiness of one’s cause and the right to the formal recognition of one’s community and its interests in the field of politics (to roughly paraphrase Charles Tilly).

Nor should we forget Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, where he hoped to reconnoitre with Tippoo Sahib, a Muslim opponent of the British in India. This (ultimately failed) bit of global expansion was the formative precedent to Napoleon’s invasion of much of western Europe, giving him a chance to practice his military tactics and powers of political seduction. So, on entering Egypt, Napoleon sought to win local support by arguing that he was a greater respecter of Islam than the Muslim Mamluks “Peoples of Egypt: you will be told that I have come to destroy your religion: do not believe it! Answer that I have come to restore your rights and punish the usurpers and that, more than the Mamluks, I respect God, his Prophet and the Koran.”

Were Napoleon to say this today, Europe’s tribalist politicians would accuse him of dhimmitude and of betraying Europe’s Judeo-Christian-humanist tradition. This suggests that the current fad for imagining that somehow there exist distinct ‘western’ and ‘Islamic’ civilizations – within a framework of conflict and aggression – has less to do with historical reality and more to do with the fact that Europe is not used to being at the receiving end of the world. Now that the world has arrived at our doorstep, rather than we at theirs, there are those who are all too keen to argue that Europe and the rest of the world are so different that it is better if we live apart. Moreover, those who take this standpoint are deeply invested in seeing the new, globalized Europe fail miserably.

Not intended for publication

Which brings us back to Vinocur. In his New York Times article he describes Europe as looking away from its Muslim problem:

“[D]enial is their standard metric: That bomb didn’t go off here, our national soccer team is full of Muslim players, and we haven’t elected any anti-immigrant parties to Parliament, or if we have, they’re ultimately manageable. The less we talk about this stuff the better.”

Into this mass of silence and denial, Vinocur writes, has stepped Frits Bolkenstein and with visionary courage said something none other has dared to say: the growing presence of Muslims has meant such a rise in anti-Semitic aggression against visible Jews, that they have no future in Europe. They are better off emigrating to Israel or the United States.

Vinocur describes the Dutch response to Bolkenstein as shocked denial. He is correct about the wave of headlines Bolkestein elicited, but deeply wrong about the actual receptions of his comment. Rather than visionary and courageous, it was seen as cowardly and absurd. Rather than putting his finger on the issue no one in Europe dares to address, Bolkestein revealed himself as simply out of touch. In other words, Vinocur’s portrayal of events sketches precisely the opposite of what happened.

One of the most striking moments was when, for perhaps the only time in their political careers, the leader of the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party (a former Bolkestein protégé) and the leader of the Green-Left party agreed with each other. Both found Bolkestein’s comments nonsense. Twittering nearly simultaneously, Geert Wilders wrote that not the Jews but intolerant Moroccans should be kicked out of Holland, while Femke Halsema dismissed Bolkestein’s remark as “wacky as a loon” [kierewiet!]: adding that it is the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens. Within a few days, faced with such a flurry of ridicule from Left to Right, Bolkestein essentially retracted his statement. While Vinocur celebrates Bolkestein’s courage, Bolkestein himself said these were merely informal comments that he made in passing and not intended for publication.

Scattering jeremiads

The Dutch were not shocked by Bolkestein’s description of Muslims as a corrupting and intolerant danger to Europe. In contrast to what Vinocur evokes as the European habit of ignoring its problems with Muslims, the trope of the Muslim as problem is so common it has become a cliché. Geert Wilders won nearly one-third of voters deploying precisely this image. To suggest that a country whose government now formally collaborates with this ferociously anti-Islam politician is loath to address the topic of Islam is patently absurd. At the same time, the Dutch government has in recent years solicited significant reports on everything from the motivation of women in the Netherlands who choose to wear Islamic facial veils to the Fethullah Gülen movement’s political ideology and activities in the Netherlands to the distribution of “Moroccan” criminal youth populations across Dutch cities to Islamicist security threats, all of which have been reported in the media. There is no shortage here of the problematization of Muslims; only an excess.

Instead, what was shocking to the Dutch was Bolkestein’s “solution.” This had rather too much of an aura of punishing the victim, accompanied by a light whiff of (subconscious) anti-Semitism. No one, after all, has suggested that visible gays should leave the Netherlands, despite the fact that there has been extensive attention paid to attacks on visible gays by Moroccan-Dutch youth. Are Jews somehow ‘less’ Dutch than homosexuals, that Bolkestein should so easily advise their emigration to another country? The double irony is that Bolkestein is known as a ‘friend of Israel’ while his remarks appeared in a book attempting a (scattered) jeremiad against the persistence of anti-Semitism in Holland. In contrast to Bolkestein’s comments, the actual book and its argument received very little attention in the Netherlands and was not of much interest to anyone.

This would have been a much more interesting point for Vinocur to make: what this shows about the highly complex position of Jews in contemporary Holland and the subtle ways in which perceptions of Jewish ‘difference’ both persist and cannot be discussed in the face of a deeply felt, collective moral taboo on anti-Semitism.

Instrumentalizing ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’

Bolkestein’s comment and the flurry of headlines it elicited mark the attempt to instrumentalize Jews in the same way that gays have been instrumentalized against Muslims. As with Jewish difference, there is actually very little public interest in addressing the persistence of homophobia in Dutch society or in taking concrete steps to challenge it more successfully. One of the key goals of the Dutch GLTB lobby has been to require teaching about homosexuality in all Dutch schools (currently this only happens in 19% of schools). For years now, politicians have been unwilling to commit themselves to this step, notwithstanding their great enthusiasm in expressing their “support” of gays and in demanding such ritualized expressions of acceptance from Muslims. More recently, mainstream demands that gays “integrate” into “normal” Dutch society have started to be heard, following years of claims that Muslims and immigrants should do the same. Performative gayness is said to be “passé” much as others have for the last ten years decried visible cultural, religious and linguistic difference as inappropriate to the public sphere. Meanwhile, Wilders’ Freedom Party in The Hague is attempting to close down public meeting places for gay men, arguing that they lead to undesirable sexual practices (anonymous sex in the woods) and encourage attacks on gays. If there is any problem from which the Dutch are hiding their heads in the sand, it is the rise of a new dictatorial normativity, promoted by the few, in the name of the many, at the cost of the minority: whether Muslim, Jewish, or gay.

At the same time, there remains the question of how such a misinformed piece as Vinocur’s article could be published in the New York Times. Could it be that it appeals to the fantasy that America and Israel have done a better job at controlling what some would like to perceive as the Islamic menace? The irony, you will note, is that if the Netherlands’ visible Jews were in fact to emigrate to Israel and America, they would be moving to countries entangled in much more conflictual and much more deadly relations with the Islamic world than any we see in western Europe today.

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.


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