The Trend towards Ideologising Public Debate in the Netherlands

The Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes use of clichés about Islam and demands that Muslims be tested as to their convictions. The intellectual Geert Mak complains of an ideologising of public discussion. By Ilja Braun

photo: AP
Dutch member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, answers questions about Islam during a press conference in The Hague

​​The shock evoked by the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh couldn't have been greater in his native country. Yet, since then, hardly another name in the ongoing public debate has aroused such fierce reactions as that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Born in Somali and settled in the Netherlands to escape from an arranged marriage, Hirsi Ali wrote the script for van Gogh's controversial film "Submission." His murderer, Mohammed B., addressed a death threat to Hirsi Ali on the knife he plunged into his victim's chest.

On the backward sexual morals of Islam

Hirsi Ali's book consists of articles, essays, and interviews, and offers readers insight into her political positions. A Member of Parliament for the Dutch Liberal Party, she describes herself as "secularized" and espouses the cause of Muslim women's rights. Hirsi Ali sees the central issue as having to do with the backward sexual morals of Islam.

Muslim women are forced to preserve their virginity until marriage in order not to bring shame upon their families. This often means that they are quite literally locked up in the house, in a "virgin's cage." Genital mutilation is forbidden in the Netherlands, so young girls are frequently brought back to their home country during summer vacations for the operation.

Disobedient wives are physically punished by their husbands, which can be justified by the Koran without much ado. All in all, Hirsi Ali concludes that Islam is a backward religion and advises every woman to renounce the faith. The author also provides her readers, the "dear Muslim women," with a few tips on what to do after having decided to run away from home.

Since becoming the recipient of death threats, the 36-year-old Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been promoted by the Dutch media as the country's number one expert on Islam. She also comes with an appropriate authenticity bonus – not only did she come to the Netherlands as a migrant, but she is also the victim of genital mutilation.

Who is better suited, one might cynically ask, to serve as a spokesperson for oppressed Islamic women in the Netherlands?

"A culture incapable of self-reflection"

Present-day Dutch society prides itself as being progressive, and the views of Hirsi Ali, therefore, elicit nothing but support. Her further claim that the lack of emancipation of Islamic women is a direct result of the backwardness of Islam, a "centuries-old culture incapable of self-reflection," is one that also fuels existent prejudices.

There is no doubt that Hirsi Ali's true public is essentially Dutch. It can just as easily agree on the fundamental value of emancipation as it can that Islam is a religion with no prospects for reform and a system of beliefs that should be surpassed.

The Dutch public shows little interest in the existence of previous feminist attempts at reform within Islam before the arrival of Hirsi Ali. Similarly ignored is the fact that economic factors, much more than any religious belief, have always been a cause of social backwardness.

As desirable as overcoming this state of affairs might be, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's advise to those affected simply turn their backs on their religion and adapt "progressive" Dutch ways serves primarily to calm the insecurity of the Dutch. It does little to help close the gap between immigrants and the local population.

Muslims to be tested on their convictions?

Even her conservative colleagues in Parliament have been astonished by some of her well-intentioned solutions to overcoming the intercultural crisis. One such idea is that Muslims applying for a job should be tested as to their convictions. Other, as yet unrealized, reforms include the banning of Islamic schools and including honor killing as part of anti-terror legislation.

The ideologising of public discourse

The murdered entertainer Theo van Gogh was, admittedly, of a totally different caliber. He enjoyed referring to Muslims as "geitenneuker" (goat fuckers). For better or worse, Islamic believers had to live with such insults in the name of freedom of speech, recalls the Dutch non-fiction author Geert Mak (My Father's Century, In Europe) in a thin volume.

Mak's essay expresses his extreme unease at the state of public debate in the Netherlands after the murder of van Gogh. There is a steady stream of discussion about female circumcision, for instance, as if it is an Islamic practice. There is also the constant insinuation that suicide attacks form an integral part of Islamic tradition.

The author is so concerned about the ideologising of public discourse that in order to describe the situation he turns to Viktor Klemperer's book on the language of the Third Reich ("LTI" - Lingua Tertii Imperii). He urgently warns against right-wing populism, which has shown a marked increase in acceptance in recent times.

The growing necessity of immigration makes it absolutely essential that thought be given now to what co-existence with immigrants should look like. It shouldn't merely be a matter of staying out of each other's way.

The books by Hirsi Ali and Mak serve as indicators that the debate on multiculturalism is well under way in the Netherlands – and better late than never. Dutch urban centers have for years been home to so-called "black" schools, where not a word of Dutch is spoken in the schoolyards.

"Kutmarokkaantjes," roughly "shitty little Moroccans," has long since been the term preferred by Hollanders to refer to violently inclined youth gangs.

Part of the Dutch national identity has been the notion that every minority has the right to be tolerated by the majority, while also seeing to it that they can manage on their own. This way of thinking appears to have reached its limits. How things develop remains to be seen.

Ilja Braun

© 2005

Geert Mak: Gedoemd tot kwetsbaarheid. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Atlas 2005
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Ich klage an. Plädoyer für die Befreiung der muslimischen Frauen. München: Piper Verlag 2005 (also available in Turkish).