Author Ian Buruma on Wilders' Politics 'Condemning Islam, Per Se, Is Unhelpful'

In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, Dutch author Ian Buruma discusses the run-up to the release of Geert Wilders' anti-Islam film, populist trends in the Netherlands and the environment that the led to polemics against Muslims like "Fitna."
The scene of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh's murder: "Opinions on all sides are being heard, even though there is a lot of unpleasant polarization and invective."

The scene of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh's murder: "Opinions on all sides are being heard, even though there is a lot of unpleasant polarization and invective."

Foto: AP

Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders released on Thursday his video comparing the threat of Islam in Europe to the fascism that triggered World War II. The film calls for Europeans to put a stop to what he alleges is the Islamization of Western Europe caused by mass immigration from Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.

It's a kind of rhetoric that would have been impossible in the Netherlands little more than a decade ago -- a country long known abroad as a kind of overgrown Berkeley, a bastion of 1960s idealism. Cops looked the other way as coffee shops sold soft drugs, it became one of the first countries to adopt same-sex marriages and the peaceful co-existence of Dutch society with its immigrants, many of the Muslim, seemed exemplary.

Until the late 1990s, questioning the success of the Netherland's multiculturalism would have been political suicide. But slowly people began to look more critically at immigrant communities, especially Muslims who often lived in ghettos and were connected back to their home culture by satellite dish -- connected in ways some believed would undermine the Dutch way of life. Populist politicians like Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders began loudly denouncing Islam. Their messages got a boost when anti-Islam politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, together with filmmaker Theo van Gogh, created the film "Submission," which condemned Islam’s treatment of women.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks helped give license to more open and hostile dialogue in the Dutch integration debate, but the issue exploded following van Gogh's murder by the radicalized son of Moroccan immigrants in 2004. It forced both Wilders and Hirsi Ali into hiding. Today they have 24-hour police protection and spend much of their time in hiding. Every word they utter is closely followed by the press in the Netherlands and across Europe.

As an academic and prominent chronicler of Dutch affairs, Ian Buruma wrote about the political flux in the Netherlands leading up to van Gogh's murder and documented the open debate that ensued in his book, "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance." SPIEGEL ONLINE interviewed Buruma just prior to the release of "Fitna" about Wilders, the rise of populist politics in Holland and shifting attitudes about Muslim immigrants.

SPIEGEL: Geert Wilders is set to release the Islam-critical film "Fitna." Afghan protestors have already burned Dutch flags in demonstrations against a film before its release. Do you think it will provoke the kind of response we saw in the Danish caricature scandal?

Buruma: My instinct is that it will be anti-climactic because the build-up has been so enormous. This film would have to contain some pretty raw meat for people to actually be shocked by it. Besides, it won't be widely disseminated other than on the Internet, where one can already find plenty of offensive things.

SPIEGEL: Who is Wilders' directing his film at? Is he aiming his attack at what you describe in your writings as Holland's "dish cities" -- Muslim enclaves where residents are wired back to their home countries via satellite TV and the Internet?

Buruma: He's not directing this at Muslims, but rather at the Dutch in general to make his point about the dangers of Islam. The fact that he tried to get it shown on Danish TV when he failed to get it shown on Dutch television, though, shows that he is also thinking across borders.

SPIEGEL: Still, the Netherlands' Muslim community has been under extremely close scrutiny in the wake of the van Gogh killing. Could "Fitna" create an explosive situation domestically?

Buruma: The reaction in Holland isn't going to be the most dramatic, and that was true of the Danish cartoons, too. Back then, European Muslims only got fired up once governments in the Middle East orchestrated demonstrations on the streets in countries where the cartoons had never been seen. In this case, too, I expect all the trouble to happen in places where it will deliberately be used for political reasons. I don't think there will be a major reaction amongst Muslims in Holland or elsewhere in Europe.

SPIEGEL: Some argue Wilders' film should be banned by the government rather than risk provoking an international crisis or additional politically motivated deaths in Holland.

Buruma: That would be inappropriate, given that we live in a free country and no one has seen it yet.

SPIEGEL: But where do you draw the line between the right to free speech and showing the appropriate level of sensitivity to a major world religion?

Buruma: It is not true that free speech is absolute. There are certain rules people observe in civilized social intercourse that are not necessarily covered by law. People in any civilized country no longer talk about "Yids" and "niggers," either, even if those terms aren't always explicitly prohibited by law. But unless you can prove that Wilders’ film is a deliberate incitement of hatred or violence, I don't think there are grounds for banning it.

SPIEGEL: Wilders has clearly found an audience in the Netherlands for his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Dutch public broadcaster NOS named him the Netherlands' leading politician in 2007.

Buruma: His following is unusually large for a politician from the far-right, which has no real tradition in Holland. He is capable of attracting about 15 percent of voters, which is about the same percentage you will find among far-right, anti-immigrant politicians in Austria and France. But he is in no way wildly popular.

SPIEGEL: Is the populism Wilders espouses of the same breed as that of France's Jean-Marie Le Pen or Austria's Jörg Haider?

Buruma: I would compare him in the sense that he taps into the same feelings of resentment and fear. The common man feels the threat of Muslims moving into his neighborhood, whereas the elite live in leafy suburbs and don't have to confront these issues. Immigration and the Muslim issue in particular has become the focal point of a much larger sense of anxiety which has to do with the European Union, globalization, erosion of the authority of the nation-state and economic uncertainty. That general sense of insecurity and resentment makes a country very vulnerable to the kind of populist demagoguery that you get from people like Wilders and Pim Fortuyn before him.

Still, while Holland may have had a National Socialist Party in the 1930s, there has never been a true right-wing tradition and people are very suspicious of it today -- and the fascist tradition seen in right-wing movements in Austria or Germany has not been apparent in the politics of Wilders or Fortuyn. Their demagoguery is based on the idea that we live in a free country and our liberties are being threatened by foreigners.

SPIEGEL: Many argue that Holland's brush with fascism during World War II -- and the feelings of guilt created by the murder of its Jews -- helped foster the liberal, tolerant reputation it enjoyed for many decades. Is that ideal gone now?

Buruma: It did a lot to drive tolerance, but it also stifled necessary debate -- and in that regard people like Theo van Gogh had a point. As soon as people started talking about the potential problems of integrating large numbers of non-Western immigrants in Europe in the 1990s, they were quickly denounced as racists, with people evoking the war in a knee-jerk reaction. By the same token, other people, including van Gogh, suggest that anybody who makes accommodations to Muslims in Europe (who these detractors call the "Islamofascists") is tantamount to a Nazi collaborator. This kind of response also silences the debate.

'A Reaction to Years of Political Correctness'

SPIEGEL: What has changed in Holland in recent years to enable the open and recently often shrill dialogue about Islam and multiculturalism that one can hear now? Is it a byproduct of 9/11?

Buruma: Perhaps as a reaction to years of having to be discreet because of political correctness, the debate has become overheated.

The events of 9/11 focused attention on Muslim radicalism, but it wasn't the only thing that changed. A deep general anxiety about the forces of globalization has grown everywhere. The easiest way to mobilize people and incite the emotions of the common man is to find an alien enemy like Muslims, who are also widely visible -- even in areas outside the big cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam. They are an obvious target, and 9/11 certainly helped to confirm the prejudices that people might already have had.

SPIEGEL: When van Gogh was murdered in 2004, headlines in newspapers across Europe screamed that multiculturalism was dead on the continent. Do you think Muslim integration in the Netherlands has failed?

Buruma: No. As in France and Britain, a very large number of Muslims are integrated. There is a problem with people born in European countries who feel trapped between cultures. They are alienated from their immigrant parents' culture, but they also sometimes feel foreign and rejected in the country where they grew up. They are vulnerable to forms of extremism. But it has not been proved that integration of Muslims has completely failed in general. It is likely more people have been integrated than those who feel so alienated that they are prone to extremism.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, there is considerable debate in Holland and across Europe about the "creeping Islamization" of society. In Germany, "Hurray, We're Capitulating" was a best-seller, and Hirsi Ali's books have been translated into many languages.

Buruma: These arguments are nonsense. Muslims are still far too small in number to have that kind of effect on mainstream Europeans. And many are not particularly pious. As they move deeper into the middle class, they will probably become even less so. It is true that we must not be intimidated by the extremists. Islam, like any other belief, should be open to criticism. But the idea that we're going to be Islamized in some profound sense is just paranoia.

SPIEGEL: Given the dramatic events we have seen in the Netherlands and Denmark, set against the backdrop of a Muslim immigrant community that is one of the fastest-growing populations on the continent, no shortage of cultural critics see us moving toward a conflict of civilizations that will play out in Western Europe.

Buruma: I don't believe in that doomsday scenario. People who make those claims assume society is static and that all those people who would be classified as being of foreign and of Muslim ancestry would all share the religious and cultural habits of the original immigrants, which is not true. The second generation will be different and third generation different still. You can't extrapolate from figures that we will suddenly be faced with this majority of rabidly religious and politically radical people.

SPIEGEL: Still, French writer Pascal Brückner recently implied that the multiculturalism you advocate could help pave the way for a divided society. He said it gives blessing to "hostile insular communities that throw up ramparts between themselves and the rest of society." As minor examples that could have a snowball effect, he cited the fact that an "Islamic" hospital might soon open in Rotterdam that adheres to the Koran and plans in Italy for beaches catering exclusively to Muslim woman.

Buruma: I don't advocate multiculturalism. Nor am I in favour of imposing absolute social and cultural conformism. I don’t quite see the enormous threat posed by nudists or Muslim women or others who want privacy and do not wish to use beaches with the rest of us. Some feel this is caving in to religious pressure, but I don't see how it would be harmful to the rest of the community. There are many cultural enclaves. It is true on a smaller scale that parallel societies already exist, but nobody gets particularly fussed about Orthodox Jews in London who lead very different lives than most people around them.

SPIEGEL: By allowing parallel societies to be created, though, are we not in effect limiting opportunities in society and, therefore, creating a greater sense of alienation amongst immigrants?

Buruma: The supposition behind all this is that for people to be integrated as citizens they must conform to a common culture. I think people must obey common laws. Those two things are different. In that sense, European society should become more like the United States -- that is, to accept that you could become a citizen, participate in politics and still stick to cultural habits and customs of your own choosing, assuming they are lawful. At the same time, I would reject injecting all sorts of religious laws …

SPIEGEL: … you mean, recent experiments and calls in Europe to introduce Sharia Law regionally on issues like family policies as the Canadian province of Ontario sought to do?

Buruma: Our laws should be secular.

SPIEGEL: You have also criticized Hirsi Ali for her use of language describing Islam as a "backward" religion and describing the Prophet Muhammad as "perverse." Critics argue that such direct language is just the right medicine.

Buruma: I don’t think it is helpful precisely because I take Islamic revolutionary ideology seriously. Political Islam is a source of real violence. The only way to stop or control that is to isolate it inside the Muslim community. For that you need to convince European Muslims that they have a stake in liberal democracy and that the freedoms that one tries to protect against radicalism are also theirs. If you start to tell these people the problem is not just violent ideology inside Islam but that the Muslim religion itself is the source of all evil, then you alienate the very people you need to have on your side.

Hirsi Ali's idea that 9/11 is not just connected to Islam, but is at the core of it, is like saying that a fundamentalist Christian American who shoots a doctor for performing an abortion represents the heart of Christianity. It's wrong and the consequences are dangerous.

Still, it's positive that she has opened a serious discussion on the abuse of women in Islam, the consequences of the welfare state, attitudes towards immigrants and the fallacies of multiculturalism. She has encouraged people to talk about such things. At the same time, she has also become a kind of icon for a lot of people who simply want to condemn Islam per se, which I find unhelpful. I think the same is true of Wilders. Where he is useful though is that he's challenging people to think about the limits of free speech and the dangers of self-censorship.

SPIEGEL: Has the open and international debate sparked by van Gogh's murder and Hirsi Ali having to go underground pushed the issue of Europe's integration of and coexistence with its Muslim immigrants forward or backward?

The fact that there's a debate at all is a good thing. Nothing is worse than all these things being swept under the rug and people not being able to talk about them, with tensions building up and then leading to violence. Opinions on all sides are being heard, even though there is a lot of unpleasant polarization and invective.

Interview conducted by Daryl Lindsey.

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