Continental Divide

In the run-up to last month's Dutch election, Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, known locally as "Iron Rita," declared her intention to pass a ban on religious garments that cover all of a woman's face. According to one Dutch parliamentarian, full face covering is so rare that the ban would apply to less than one hundred of the Netherlands' one million Muslims. Verdonk nevertheless insisted the ban was a needed from a "security standpoint." Picking up on recent comments by British parliamentarian Jack Straw, Verdonk elaborated that "people should be able to communicate with one another." Apparently, communication is impossible with a veiled woman.

Not for the first time in European history, the question of national security today is entangled with matters of minority assimilation. The argument now goes like this: Europe has developed Muslim minorities in the past few decades that have failed to assimilate into the mainstream of European society. Unable to assimilate, they have latched onto a newly available global Islamic identity soaked in violence and ideological hatred. To stymie the spread of violence, Europe must force the integration of these minorities by legal measures and public policy. The attacks of March 2004 and July 2005 hence become lighthouses on a treacherous coastline -- signals not only for national security policy debates but also for wider projects of social engineering and partisan positioning, like the Verdonk headscarf ban.

Verdonk appears herself at two points in Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, a lucid, semi-biographical narrative of the November 2004 murder of the filmmaker by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan extraction. She appears first early on, nonplussed by an imam's refusal to shake hands with a woman. By the end of the book, bafflement has turned into blinkered xenophobia as Verdonk announces that Ayaan Ali Hirsi, a parliamentarian, Somali refugee, and advocate for reform of Islam, will be stripped of citizenship.

This is but one small narrative thread in Buruma's complex tale, which extends backwards from van Gogh's murder to the lives of the main participants: Theo; his partner in film-making Hirsi Ali; his murderer "Mo" Bouyeri; and his sometime mentor Pim Fortuyn, the murdered gay politician who advocated radical limits on immigration.

What ensues in Buruma's telling is a cascade of ironies, a sequence of fun-house mirrors increasingly distorting the subjects' images. One such irony: The ideal of "free speech" for the Dutch is rooted in the late nineteenth century tradition of scheldkritten, or "abusive criticism." The virulent polemicist van Gogh, whose ugly anti-Semitic comments and racist remarks about Muslims should not be reprinted here, fed on this tradition. And yet the very people championing this "free speech" tradition, and van Gogh's place in it, turn out to be the country's most vigorous advocates of conformity -- and hence silence -- for Muslims.

Political figures at opposing poles of the spectrum also turn out to be not so far apart. Hence, the radical gay politician Pim Fortuyn took "a special pride in being different … not unusual in among minorities." A similar sentiment animated the homicidal second-generation Dutch-Moroccan Bouyeri. Both Fortuyn and Bouyeri tried to validate a distinctly minority identity. Both suffered from an excess of narcissism in tension with this minority status. And both the anti-immigrant gay politician Fortuyn and global jihadist manqué Bouyeri tried to overcome their minority status by appealing to and creating a larger majority. Hence, Fortuyn built a political party by linking his fear of a new and intruding social conservatism brought by North African immigrants to a broader popular phobia of those same immigrants. The troubled, marginalized Bouyeri, meanwhile, tried to join what he saw as a global majority -- the global "Ummah," or Muslim community -- as a way to overcome his isolation.

What Buruma's fun-house mirrors do not catch is the subterranean flow of popular sentiments to which Fortuyn, Verdonk and Bouyeri respond. Buruma's subject is limited to the thinking classes. He does not, except momentarily, explore that deeper geology of social feelings among the broader public. A chilling exception comes when he describes a moment at a soccer match when hundreds of thousands of working-class Dutch fans start hissing in disapproval. What seems innocuous at first turns deeply sinister when Buruma's friend explains what the hissing means: The white, presumably Christian crowd is evoking the sound of gas escaping gas chambers, and indicating disapproval of the Jewish ownership of the opposing team.

It is Verdonk's policies that, in some respects, reflect and politically validate this deeply-rooted sediment of ethnic identity. This incident is indeed telling because it highlights the toxic and widespread xenophobia of European themselves, while the press more often highlights the ugly anti-Semitism of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants. Nativist sentiments, suggests Buruma, can be equally directed at both Muslim immigrants and Jewish residents. And it is not migrants from the Magreb who have voted in droves for neo-fascist parties such as Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front in France.

Today's anti-immigrant feeling is deeply rooted in Dutch society, just as in other European societies. Its deep roots are precisely the reason why "assimilation" has proved an elusive goal: How do you assimilate into a culture that despises you?

Post-war migrants to Europe from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia provided a pool of dirt-cheap manual labor for the economic boom. Like working classes throughout history, they were viewed with fear and contempt. Without understanding this experience, it is impossible to explain the anger and frustration of second-generation immigrants confronted with cultures that treat them as second-class citizens in education, employment, and daily life. And while Buruma identifies these dynamics, his book does not quite give narrative life to them.

Understanding that history requires some excavation -- work that Zachary Shore of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School does in another new book. Shore traveled around Europe and spoke to self-identified Muslim leaders and Muslims. In his interviews, Shore captures much of the nuance and contradiction of a community being asked to integrate into national polities that exploit them economically, treat their faith as a second-class superstition, and fail to deal with persistent, widespread racism. Shore, though, is ill-served by his publisher, who has permitted (or perhaps insisted on) a title -- Breeding Bin Ladens: America, Islam, and the Future of Europe -- that is inaccurate, incendiary, and just plain foolish.

To understand that alienation, racism, and the deprivation of opportunity is the soil in which violent radicalism might grow is not the same as justifying or condoning violence. People who are wronged can, and often do, commit even greater wrongs in their misguided efforts at revenge. Indeed, perceived incidents of anti-Muslim bias in Europe often trigger reactions among Muslims that are far more hateful, bigoted and stupid than the initial incident.

This understanding, nevertheless, is important if European governments are to stall the growth of oppositional ideologies among Muslim minorities. As Shore notes, the United States has gone through the same set of fears that Europe is going through today with Muslims -- except in the United States it was with respect to Catholics. As time went on, American Catholics largely overcame this bigotry and wove themselves into American life. They mobilized politically, often finding common ground on policy matters with other religious communities.

European Muslim minorities, by contrast, are rarely represented today in European parliaments (with the exception of the U.K.) despite their size. Bridging this representational divide is a vital first step. Important, too, is addressing discrimination in education and employment, which cuts off opportunities for the ambitious. It will be through measures like these that Europe can build the kind of durable pluralism demanded by the 21st century's new threats to peace.

Aziz Huq directs the Liberty & National Security Project at NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice. He is co-author of Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror (forthcoming March 2007) and a 2006 Carnegie Scholars Fellow.

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.