Moore reading - Doomed to vulnerability [abstract]
Abstract from the pamphlet Doomed to vulnerability
A Minor History of a November: The Moment that the Cellars Opened Up in the Netherlands
The murder of [Theo] Van Gogh is a violent reaction to the processes of secularization and globalization occurring around the globe. In light of these developments, we Dutch cannot allow our national bellybutton-picking to continue. The real challenges and dangers of the 21st century are too great.
How are we going to tell our grandchildren the history of that month of November, back in 2004? We will begin with that feeling of danger, the intense cold that pushed its way into our damaged house. It was a new, unknown danger, and that made the fear even greater. And it touched us in particular – journalists, politicians and artists – personally in our hearts. After all, we knew the victim all to well. As a friend, colleague, neighbor, father, enemy, village idiot, anti-Semite, scoundrel. But he was our village idiot, our scoundrel. “The Netherlands is burning,” was the headline in some newspapers the morning after. That was of course nonsense. The Dutch were deeply shocked, but it was our journalistic parish that was going up in flames.
The first few hours, we were unanimous in our sadness and our fear. We mourned, also for our lost innocence – yes, back then, we were still dancing in the moonlight in comparison to the rest of the world – and for the definitive end of our optimism and the safe, cozy Netherlands that was supposed to go along with it. Some politicians and opinion leaders resorted to theretofore unprecedented security measures. Families had to go into hiding. We were in it together, and this seemed more important than any differences of opinion. Afterwards, through, people went their separate ways.
In Madrid, in the spring of 2004, 200 people died in a fundamentalist attack, but the position of the press and public opinion in relation to the Muslim population remained surprisingly civilized. In the Netherlands, however, the cellars opened up, and the hate of foreigners that had been pent up for so long – oh, how politically correct we were – came gushing out. The tone in newspapers got increasingly dirty: “Muslim terrorism” became a regular term – as if we had ever spoken of a “Christian attack” in Falluja or a “Jewish action” in the Gaza Strip. Reporter Craig S. Smith of the New York Times had no trouble changing the renowned g-word [In English, geitenneuker means “goat fucker”] into something acceptable for his American readership: “bestiality with a goat.” The Dutch smiled. The world press was bewildered.
In the meantime, one grotesque incident after another was taking place: Van Gogh’s friends held a funeral party with goats, “for he who was feeling lust”; Saint Nicholas made his entrance in a bullet-proof vest; Pim Fortuyn, was officially chosen as the greatest Dutchmen of, and get this, all time; a boy from a town in the south of the country who as a convert made the media unsafe; the Russian government that asked the Netherlands “for clarification.” M.P. Ayaan Hirsi Ali had her civil war back, and Theo Van Gogh his farce.
In the streets of Amsterdam, and this also should be noted for history, a completely different mood prevailed. The average Amsterdam residents were deeply shocked, sure. But they did not allow themselves to be intimidated, provoked or made crazy. The senior citizens got over the fury and rancor quickly, a phase that the elite is just arriving at now. For the young, multicultural society was a given. They had Turkish friends, Moroccan colleagues and Surinamese sweethearts, and they had always lived like that. Two reporters for Het Parool walked the streets beneath heavy veils for a whole day. They got yelled at a couple of times, but otherwise were treated in a polite and friendly manner. An acquaintance named R., who spends a good deal of time hanging around taxi stands, talked first of great anger, then an increasing mildness for “those veiled girls who try so damn hard” and “those old people who can’t do anything about it,” and then quickly made an acknowledgement: “You can’t throw them out anymore, we have to live with them.” Later that same week, the acquaintance ran into a group of those “cockroaches” – Turkish and Moroccan taxi drivers. “They were as happy as can be.”
This is how R. and his fellow city dwellers moved on to a ritual that the Dutch, including the majority of newcomers, are particularly good at: they began to pacify. Van Gogh was, as far as I know, the first victim of a religious attack [in the Netherlands] since the Martyrs of Gorkum (1572), and the Dutch have always done their best to keep those four hundred years of peace going. The city council reacted with lighting speed, with announcements, warnings, community directors, countless meetings, and whatever else was on hand to fight the evil. Neighborhoods, churches and Muslim organizations took part in this cause. Once again, the great success formula of this country was applied, the proven method with which we as a small and religiously divided country had managed to survive throughout the centuries.
A few weeks prior, the New York Times published a commentary about the special manner in which the Dutch Lieutenant Colonel Kees Matthijssen and his soldiers maintain peace in their piece of Iraq: in open vehicles, without helmets or sunglasses, friendly greetings, weapons down. Matthijssen even had a budget for small aid projects. It was a typically Dutch way of pacification and he was, at least in this part of Iraq, by and large successful. In these kinds of situations, soft is the antonym of cowardly. Patrolling in Iraqi ghettos without a helmet requires a hell of a lot more courage than ensconcing yourself in an armored truck does. Just as a great deal of bravery was required in that month of November to be omnipresent as mayor or city councilman, in the face of the grave and very real threats. Remarkably enough, I felt something like pride for my city. Not for what happened there, but rather for what didn’t happen afterwards.
Would the story end there? Did these events in any way form a phase in the century-old battle between Christianity and Islam, that endless succession of conflicts and periods of mutual disinterest, an inevitable fight that had now reached the Netherlands as well? I don’t think so. That same history teaches that Christianity and Islam do not have to be on the war path at all. Besides all the conflicts, there is also a century-old tradition of fruitful exchange – think, for example, of a dynamic city like Constantinople, the actual capital of Europe for hundreds of years.
Was this murder then the umpteenth symptom of the problematic integration of the Northern African immigrants in the Netherlands, as many shouted from the rooftops? I don’t believe that, either. Even if the integration process of the Moroccan population had gone flawlessly, there still would have been a good chance that on a fateful day, a Mohammed B. would have revolted. The easy integration of the inhabitants of the former Dutch East Indies in the 1950s and 1960s could not stop a small group of young Moluccans from carrying out a couple of bloody hijackings, either. For years, Mohammed B. was an exemplarily integrated youth. He and his sympathizers were only part of an international network that, as a well informed source whispered to me, is “frightfully large.” These are the children of satellite dishes, and the source of their intense anger lies at a super-national level: the suffering of the Palestinians and the Chechens, the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis on whom the western press fails to focus attention, materialism and the blind arrogance of western culture, the dislocation, the humiliations that Muslims suffer, also in the Netherlands.
Let’s not pull wool over our eyes: this danger is new and of a completely different order than the integration problems that the Netherlands knew before. It is that anger that we have to find a solution for. Theo van Gogh could have ended up with his throat slashed on the streets of Paris or Madrid as well.
The murder of Theo van Gogh is an historical benchmark, as is the reelection of George W. Bush as President of the United States. Both events took place on the same day. Besides the date, they have another important aspect in common: they are both a fierce reaction to the secularization that is transpiring in every corner of the globe. That process is closely interwoven with other earth currents of the times: modernization, globalization and above all, the mass migration from a rural existence to an urban one. In 1960, two-thirds of the world’s population still resided in farming communities; in 2020, two-thirds will live in cities. The consequences of this shift will probably be as drastic as those of the historical change of hunters to sedentary people, approximately 12,000 years ago. It means a deep break in traditions and lifestyles, an uprooting the dimensions of which can not yet be calculated. The effects are visible everywhere: in the treatment of women; in imams who, like stubborn farmers, hold fast to the language and traditions of the village; in youngsters who try to regain old certainties in religious fundamentalism, in a new reaction to secularism.
That gets felt with particular hardness in Western Europe, the least religious part of the world. The immigration of millions of Muslims has put the issue of belief and unbelief at center stage everywhere. This is about a fundamental conflict of values: already the lack of a hereafter makes the life perspective of secular people completely different than that of the religious.
In reference to this, the American Muslim-Refusenik Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam, even speaks about the coming into being of a new “post-Enlightenment-modernity” in Western Europe. We secular Europeans are very concerned about this, and rightfully so: won’t that jeopardize the fundamental values of secular humanism that have defined Western European politics since the Enlightenment? But on the other hand, is it so logical and just that secular people, in this unprecedented situation, continue to allow themselves to be led by their old traumas with the Vatican and the Protestant established churches? Doesn’t Irshad Manji have a point when she writes, “Secularism can also be fanatical, missionary – dare I say – religious?”
This new opposition partially explains the confusion in present-day Dutch public debate. After all, it’s not about left vs. right anymore, or about humanists vs. fundamentalists, but rather about secular people vs. those who believe. After years of their going without saying, secular dogmas are again up for debate. In Trouw, Hans Goslinga wrote bitterly about the losers of the cultural revolution in the 1960s, the religious “stay-behinds” whose traditions and ethics were dismissed as “middle class” or “folklore.” In these campaigns of “everything goes,” there were never moments of reflection. “I wonder,” Goslinga wrote, “if it has ever occurred to the post-war generation how hard and painful this cultural rupture has been.”
The discussion about the penalization of blasphemy was also more than just an occasional debate. Last week, it was actually about something, on both sides, and it just might be the beginning of a change. Just like in the United States, secular people – not in the last place, the secular parties – will have to prepare themselves for the fact that these kinds of questions are going to be determining the agenda more and more in the coming years. Worded differently, there is some catching up to be done in the field of ethics and morals, primarily within secular groups. The discussions in the wake of Van Gogh’s murder can provide an impulse for this.
History can also go differently. Fear is a logical reaction to a real danger, for sure if we don’t know that danger, or know very little about it. But fear can also be detached from the real problem. Feelings of angst can be blown up into a permanent mental attitude, and then exploited for political ends. All of this can lead quite easily to a self-fulfilling prophesy: the fear doesn’t anticipate the situation that people are scared of, but instead creates it. Examples of this grow on trees throughout history.
These days, some have a strong inclination to build high walls around the fort of the fatherland. In the process, our country will be increasingly shut off from all developments – good and bad – that are taking place in the rest of the world. In this way, we sober Dutch can end up in a closed-off, xenophobic fantasy land in which our loutishness and our ignorance of past and present become the norm, in which those who do not go along with this angst psychosis are deemed as outcasts, in which discrimination and racism are exalted as the new fundamental values. The shards of the 1960s lie beneath: a lost self-confidence, an idealism that has become cynicism.
Karen Armstrong, one of the great thinkers about the relationship between Islam and modernity, describes this process as a paradigm shift of the logos, the reason, with its ever curious orientation toward the future, to the mythos, a magical, emotional way of thinking that above all is directed inward, and that seeks a guideline for this confusing world especially in the past. That happens with Christians and Muslims, but also with us, children of the Enlightenment. Conviction can metamorphose into fundamentalism here as well.
He who wants to transform the Netherlands into a fortress will reduce these complicated times we live in into one big national fear fantasy. It is a manner of thought that suits demagogues and politicians just fine, but one that also fails to get at the real problems. We, in our modern western corner of Europe, are doomed to openness and vulnerability. We will have to be iron hard with those who want to destroy our common, fundamental values, but in doing so, we should operate with precision and care. At the same time, we will have to keep our constitutional state right-side-up and to defend our fellow citizens, not in the last place the weakest of all: minorities, foreign-born mothers and children. We will have to accept unknown and sometimes painful measures if we are to rescue important and rare qualities: our pacification, with our famous tolerance as byproduct. And in the end, we will have to go to the source: the uprooting, the humiliation, the ever-increasing anger of the non-western world. This is a great European problem.
We Dutch cannot allow our national bellybutton-picking to continue. The real challenges and dangers of the 21st century are too great.
Geert Mak is a writer and an attorney at law. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Groene Amsterdammer and the NRC Handelsblad and a commentator for VPRO Television. With the publication of How God Disappeared From Jorwerd, The Century of My Father and In Europe, he has become the most famous historian in the Netherlands.