The Netherlands, visitors have long observed, seems the very embodiment of tolerance. To stroll along Amsterdam's central canals is to see cops bicycling through a haze of marijuana smoke while heroin addicts, drunk British tourists, pimps and prostitutes commingle in the alleys. Historically, the story goes, the Netherlands' legendary tolerance made it one of the world's greatest commercial powers -- and one of the few to accommodate Catholics, Protestants, Jews and a host of foreigners with little of the friction found elsewhere in 17th- and 18th-century Europe.
The Dutch "tolerant society" once stood as a model for an enlightened Europe. But today it has become an endangered concept, even in the Netherlands itself. The wave of right-wing political victories that recently swept Europe has coincided with a powerful cultural backlash against Islam. Even the rhetoric of gay rights and feminism has been pressed into the service of the anti-Muslim agenda. From Denmark to Italy, opponents of immigration have invoked women's rights to denounce an invading culture that they claim would do away with such liberties. They have publicly protested the construction of mosques and bitterly opposed mother-tongue instruction in schools. In the Netherlands, Muslim hostility toward homosexuality has thrown constitutional guarantees of free speech and antidiscrimination into conflict. Indeed, many gay voters supported the anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated on May 6.
The battle lines of Europe's culture wars are less clear than they once were. Multiculturalists, feminists and gays, once allies on the left, may now find themselves on opposite sides in the debate over Islam. The notions that Islam poses a danger to gay rights and that multiculturalism threatens the triumphs of feminism have entered the mainstream. To be sure, the rise of small but influential fundamentalist Muslim sects has led to a virtual consensus, since September 11, that tolerance in a pluralistic society must have its limits. But those who argue that the West must resist at all costs Islam's supposed intolerance are themselves breeding a dangerous new form of intolerance.
Though the stereotypes of the tolerant society might suggest otherwise, the Netherlands has never been particularly comfortable with its non-European immigrant population. According to Gijs van Oenen of Erasmus University Rotterdam, "Toleration here is, to a large extent, based on indifference. [Immigrants] are somehow tolerated but not in a very constructive or positive sense, not in a sense of enrichment of culture but in a sense of awe can put up with them.'" As European societies evolve from traditional nation-states into immigrant societies, however, old standards of tolerance like this one seem increasingly inadequate.
Unlike in France or England, where African and South Asian immigrants bear the brunt of anti-immigrant racism, most hostility in the Netherlands is directed at Muslim Moroccans and Turks, recent arrivals who have no historical colonial relationship with their host country. "The one thing the Dutch society has not yet achieved is to make people feel at home," says Yassin Hartog, coordinator of Islam and Citizenship, a pro-integration NGO. "There's very little awareness that Islam is a very rich religion with norms and values very close to Judeo-Christian values."
There has been even less since Fortuyn, an iconoclastic gay libertarian, took the country's political scene by storm in January. In many ways, Fortuyn was as much a product of the tolerant society as he was its antithesis. Unabashedly gay and openly hedonistic, he was also comfortable advocating border closures and calling Islam a "backward culture." When accused of racism or likened to European right-wing leaders, Fortuyn responded defensively, once even walking out of a British Broadcasting Company interview. And he took the "some of my best friends are black" defense to new heights: Asked whether he ever speaks to the Muslims he so often labeled "backward," Fortuyn replied, "Have I spoken to Muslims? I even go to bed with them."
Fortuyn "challenged the Muslim community to enter the public debate and answer back," says Hartog, who notes that in the ongoing ethical debates about Dutch policies on abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, "there is hardly a Muslim voice."
One Muslim who answered that challenge ended up in court, in a case that encapsulated the rising tension between freedom of religious expression and freedom from discrimination in the Netherlands. The forum was a May 2001 edition of the popular prime-time talk show Nova, which presented a feature on urban gay couples attacked by Muslim youth. The number of such assaults had recently doubled in Rotterdam. As spokesman for the Muslim community, the producers selected Khalil al-Moumni, a conservative Moroccan-born Imam. Though al-Moumni advocated severe punishment for the assailants, he also likened homosexuality to a disease. "If the illness spreads, everybody will be infected! This will lead to extinction," al-Moumni exclaimed. The Dutch gay community was up in arms.
"A disease is something bad that needs to be cured," explains Henk Beerten, the chairman of the Netherlands' oldest gay-rights organization. Pronouncements such as al-Moumni's "make it very easy for gay bashers," Beerten adds. "Violence can easily be provoked by words." Beerten's organization took al-Moumni to court under hate-speech laws, but al-Moumni was acquitted on grounds of religious freedom. The gay rights group is now appealing to a higher court. "Nondiscrimination should not be overruled because you have a certain religion," Beerten says. "If I said exactly the same thing, but could not base it on a holy book, would I be convicted?"
Strangely, Fortuyn did not care very much about the al-Moumni case at all. In fact, he valued freedom of speech above all else, and he once enraged Beerten's organization by suggesting that antidiscrimination laws be abolished. "He didn't care if people called him a big, dirty faggot, because he could call them a stupid, backward Muslim," recalls Beerten. But does that reflect the Dutch ideal of tolerance -- or, for that matter, a worthy model for European pluralism?
Fortuyn's appeal to the gay population troubled Beerten. Not only did he oppose antidiscrimination laws, he didn't even particularly care about gay rights. "He was very conservative in a lot of ways. He would say that gay adoption was not the right thing. He opposed the opening up of gay marriage," Beerten recalls. "That's why I was so frustrated by what was happening. People were just falling for it."
Though left-wing parties in parliament have supported gay rights in the Netherlands, a strong countercurrent in the gay community favors a law-and-order approach along with conservative economic policy. "Double income, no kids...gays are more right wing than people might think," Beerten says. "They have good jobs, there's a lot to lose. At the same time nobody wants violence against gays. If you've experienced that in your youth, you tend to go to law-and-order more than anything."
Despite Fortuyn's lack of interest in gay rights as such, his anti-Muslim vitriol played into the fears of gays who felt threatened by the rise in immigrant aggression. "A lot of people in the gay community didn't realize how much of a retreat [Fortuyn] made as far as gay rights are concerned," Beerten muses.
Although Fortuyn was fond of railing against the backwardness of male-female relations among Muslims, he was no great advocate of women's rights. Saskia Poldervaart, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam, notes that for several years now, politicians have made opportunistic use of feminism. She recalls that in the mid-1990s, a group of male politicians critical of immigration suddenly began invoking women's emancipation. "It's a very strange thing," Poldervaart says. "These men never before talked about women's rights and then suddenly they say, 'Our women are emancipated. Muslim men don't accept that.' Suddenly these men want to fight for women's rights."
Fortuyn followed in this tradition, though he made his misogyny quite public. He told one audience that when he came home from school as a child, he was very happy to find his mother waiting for him with tea and a cookie, adding that he hoped the next generation of women would do the same. When a prominent female reporter peppered him with critical questions one night, Fortuyn told her to "go home and cook."
Dutch feminists acknowledge that Islamic immigration can create tensions in a society where women are emancipated. "We can't say Muslim religion is always bad for women," Poldervaart cautions. And yet, she remains critical of the academic left's silence on the issue. "We have to discuss it," she says. "We have to give people room to talk about differences, when 80 percent of their neighbors are foreigners." And while many gay and feminist leaders such as Beerten and Poldervaart have not shifted allegiances in the debate over Islam, their causes have been effectively adopted and appropriated by those who have claimed the mantle of defending Dutch tolerance in the face of intolerant Islam.
Five hundred miles to the north, Søren Espersen, press secretary and strategic mastermind of the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, echoes Poldervaart's call for open discussion of Islam and women's rights, but he reaches very different conclusions. "Medieval ways of treating women are introduced into a modern society and we're just supposed to say 'Aah, that's really interesting, how ethnic.' No! It's wrong and we want to fight it," says Espersen. "Where Islam is a majority there's a dictatorship, because Islam is also a political system. We fight Islam in the same way we fight communism. We don't want it!"
The People's Party, which took 12 percent of the vote in Denmark's parliamentary elections last November, has also distributed a political treatise called "Denmark's Future: Your Country, Your Choice." The colorful, elegantly designed volume chronicles the many supposed dangers Muslim immigration poses -- crime and welfare abuse, for instance -- and intersperses this commentary with 19th-century patriotic poetry and photographs of pristine country landscapes. Images and verses may soften the propaganda, but the central argument is unmistakable: Islam is a threat to Denmark's values and culture.
Sandwiched among poems about flowery meadows and photos of blond Danish women at the beach is this telling passage: "When the Danish People's Party refuses to cooperate in giving permission for the construction of a large mosque, it has nothing to do with money...Denmark is a Christian country. First, this must be clear before one discusses freedom of religion." Forget for a moment that the majority of Danes are wedding-and-funeral churchgoers. After all, "a large mosque is the visible manifestation of Islam's marked presence in a country," and for the People's Party such a presence must be fought at all costs.
If the Danish People's Party is the political manifestation of religious intolerance, Danish state radio is the more subtle barometer of cultural intolerance. The national radio station's Web site offers a video game featuring a dark-skinned immigrant named Mujaffa, who earns points by collecting gold chains and condoms on the street, yelling hello to all of his cousins and soliciting big-breasted, blond Danish women who pass him on the sidewalk. Mujaffa can spend these points on new speakers, stereo systems and hydraulics for his car. Though the Board for Ethnic Equality's executive director, Mandana Zarrehvarpar, complained that a state institution was perpetuating negative stereotypes, she and her colleagues were quickly dismissed as excessively politically correct and unable to "understand Danish humor." They succeeded only in having the game's name changed from one that included a derogatory term for Arabs (roughly equivalent to "nigger") to the more palatable "Mujaffa game." For the Danes who find Mujaffa harmless and hilarious, Muslim intolerance remains unacceptable, but their own is quite all right.
The cultural onslaught against Islam may have found its fullest expression in Italy, which has only recently become a nation sought by immigrants rather than one left behind by émigrés. This trajectory has contributed to a less-than-sophisticated debate about immigration. Just two weeks after September 11, Oriana Fallaci, an internationally renowned Italian journalist, published a four-page spread in the centrist daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. The article, titled "The Anger and the Pride," passed quickly from an eyewitness account of the World Trade Center tragedy and a celebration of America's patriotism to a violent condemnation of Islam. "In one way or another," Fallaci writes in her fiery and breathless prose, "immigrants want to change our values and our way of life." She concludes: "Giving space to the immigrants is equivalent to throwing out Dante Alighieri, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaello, the Renaissance, the Risorgimento, the Liberty we have conquered, our Fatherland."
Almost as troubling as the trashing of Italy's cultural icons, Fallaci maintains, is the threat of Islam to the liberated Italian woman. "If in certain places the women are so stupid as to accept the chador or rather the thickly-embroidered veil through which they see the world, too bad for them," Fallaci writes. "Tough if they are so retarded as to marry an asshole who wants four wives; their loss. 'I'm not going to be the one that tries to prevent them from it. But if they presume to impose the same customs, the same habits on me, in my house.' In this context, we must realize that trying to deal humanely with them is impossible. Reasoning with them, unthinkable. Treating them with indulgence or tolerance or hope, suicidal. And whoever doesn't recognize these simple truths is in denial."
That Fallaci grossly misreads Italy's immigration patterns (she erroneously assumes that all immigrants are Muslim, whereas in fact Muslims account for slightly more than 36 percent) is largely irrelevant. What matters is the amount of critical acclaim that Fallaci's article received. In December 2001, Fallaci published a book under the same title as the Corriere piece. After only two weeks in bookstores, The Anger and the Pride sold 700,000 copies and shot to the top of Italy's bestseller lists, where it remains eight months later. Her heated rhetoric and anti-immigrant dudgeon struck a chord with a broad base of Italian readers and gave voice to deep-seated fears of foreigners. Her Corriere article, meanwhile, closes with two autobiographical stories (her threat to set fire to a Somalian refugee tent and to kick an annoying immigrant street vendor in the genitals) in order to suggest what "softy" Italy must do when faced with the immigrant problem.
Immigrants in Italy are neither particularly recent (the first arrivals date to the early 1970s) nor particularly numerous (only 2.9 percent of Italy's population is of non-Italian stock -- a percentage significantly lower than that of nearly all neighboring countries). After 1990, with an influx of refugees from Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, Italy's media began to focus heavily on the so-called "dark side" of immigration. Every day, television and the papers loudly announced the arrival of a new batch of boat-people. But the numbers of those landed were systematically exaggerated (usually doubled, and often tripled), according to Laura Balbo, a sociology professor at University of Ferrara. In such a way, the Italian media gave birth to a so-called siege syndrome, whereby the arrival of the refugees was seen as a new invasion that Italians were called upon to combat. Grand schemes for boat bombardment and the legalization of using arms against "the invaders" were proposed. Mass expulsions of refugees were hailed as national victories.
The bigotry of the 1990s found its purest expression in the Northern League, a right-wing movement that once advocated the secession of northern Italy and that remains one of Italy's loudest and most ominous voices. League leader Umberto Bossi recently decided to set aside dreams of secession in favor of a new enemy that all of Italy could hate together: immigrants. The Northern League's sparsely worded campaign manifestoes have included one that reads: "wanted! Dead or alive (preferably the former): ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS. Lucrative reward." The league also began to stage a series of public spectacles, the noisiest of which included protests against mosque building on Italian soil, and the threat of spreading pig manure on a bulldozed mosque construction site.
In 1994, another party emerged with the similar aim of using Italy's post-industrial malaise and disorientation to its own political ends. The party was given the lucky name "Forza Italia" (or "Go Italy," the chant at international soccer matches). The leader, Silvio Berlusconi, was a media magnate and Italy's wealthiest and most successful businessman.
In the campaign that culminated in his election as prime minister in May 2001, Berlusconi did not take the Northern League's popularity lightly. Fearful of losing support to the populist right, Berlusconi put his full weight behind the highly restrictive Bossi-Fini immigration law, which had been on the table since 2001. As Florence's Forza Italia councilor Massimo Pieri comments, "We cannot afford to be liberal with immigrants coming from dictatorial, nonliberal countries. Immigration from these Islamic countries is obviously a threat to our most sacred value: the value of liberty." The Bossi-Fini law passed Italy's senate on July 11 and has since been signed into law. Once again, Europeans, driven by the conviction that they cannot tolerate further Muslim immigration because Islam is so inherently intolerant, have ended up erecting their own fortress of intolerance.
The rise of anti-immigration parties in the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and elsewhere has intensified feelings of alienation in many immigrant communities. Similar polarization is taking place throughout Europe and little is being done to counter it. While politicians and European Union officials discuss the prospects of a common asylum policy, the primary focus remains stemming the tide of illegal immigration and devising a fair and systematic approach to applications so as to prevent "asylum shopping." At the national level, discussions of integration have been largely overshadowed: in Denmark, by the Danish People's Party's insistence on reducing numbers; in the Netherlands, by Fortuyn's successors, who hope to grant his wish of closing the borders; and in Italy by the recently passed Bossi-Fini law.
Tolerance must indeed have limits. Fundamentalist Muslim sects that advocate violence or refuse to obey local authorities are dangerous, and the multiculturalist left's failure to acknowledge this threat has only given fuel to the new right. But too often, legitimate limits have served as an excuse for open intolerance against entire groups. Isolated problems with particular subgroups instead prompt calls for mass expulsion of immigrants, and for targeted restrictions on immigrants from Muslim nations.
The traditional European approach to integration has been one of complete assimilation. And it has been a dismal failure. Governments, rarely consulting with immigrant community leaders, have pushed linguistic and cultural assimilation with little regard for what immigrants need or for what actually works. Scandals over head scarves and mother-tongue instruction are merely proxies for a larger battle over what genuine integration means. And so long as xenophobic Italians and Danes shut down mosque-building projects with impunity while the political left turns a blind eye to immigrant crime, there is little hope for European pluralism. Few have called for a middle ground. One admirable exception is sociologist Amitai Etzioni, whose Communitarian Network is organizing a "Diversity Within Unity" summit of political and intellectual leaders, who will try to stake out an alternative to unbounded multiculturalism and forced assimilation in Europe's immigration debates.
As Europe's nation-states morph slowly into immigrant societies, the continent might stand to learn something from the model of pluralism found on the other side of the Atlantic. Difference is not a threat to the unity of the state so long as basic norms and values are respected. Religious intolerance is a threat no matter what. Having witnessed the fallout of countless religious wars, and with some places still reeling from it, the nations of Europe should know better than to embark on yet another crusade.
Research for this article was supported in part by a grant from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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