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."
AP

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."

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?

"Murder in Amsterdam" author Ian Buruma is a professor at New York's Bard College.

"Murder in Amsterdam" author Ian Buruma is a professor at New York's Bard College.

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.

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