Recent violence in the Netherlands has revealed the tensions and divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims over the place of Islam and free speech in secular European societies.
The killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in early November by an extremist Muslim over the former’s derogatory public comments and critical work on Islam ignited a firestorm of anger and violence both among Muslim immigrants and native Dutch. The killer, who slit van Gogh’s throat and then impaled a note on his body threatening politicians critical of Islam, was Dutch-born but alleged to be tied to a terrorist network. The killing, which is being called the “Dutch September 11th,” led to the vandalism and burning of 20 mosques and several churches bombed in apparent retaliation, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer(November 22).
The violence is the latest of several “flash-point incidents” between conservative Muslims clerics and freethinking Dutch, including anti-gay statements by clerics and charges of police brutality against Moroccans, the main Muslim immigrant group. The center-right government rolled out a series of antiterror initiatives more severe than the U.S. Patriot Act. But aside from the problem of how to root out terrorists in their midst, the killing “highlights a thorny culture clash over free speech and civil discourse,” writes Ken Dilanian.
There have been increasing incidents of Dutch public figures making disparaging public comments about Islam, setting off protests among Muslims, who represent 5.8 percent of the population. After the van Gogh murder, the Dutch justice minister, Piet Hein Donner, was concerned enough about the extreme rhetoric to propose a stepped-up enforcement of an anti-blasphemy law to curb “hateful comments.” But the proposal was criticized by other cabinet ministers, with an immigration official claiming that Muslims were too sensitive about criticism. Even those Muslims condemning the killing in the article, claim van Gogh had crossed the line and that there should be a law against insulting religions.
The tension between Muslims and secular society has been threatening enough for France to reinforce its church-state separation and secularism to the extent that any public display of religion, such as the wearing of veils, is forbidden. But that has not stopped the violence between religious groups or terrorist threats in French cities, leading journalist Claire Berlinski to ask if there is another way to foster tolerance and societal unity. In the Israeli journal Azure (Winter), Berlinski writes that Marseille, France’s second largest city, has become a model of interreligious and ethnic peace and harmony while violating many of the nation’s secularist policies.
Marseille has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe and has experienced its share of ethnic violence between Jews, Arabs and neo-Nazis in the past. But Berlinski concludes that the easing of this problem was not just due to better policing methods. In 1990, the city started a program known as Marseille Esperance–the Hope of Marseille–that unites the city’s religious leaders around the mayor in a regular discussion group. As soon as there is an incident of violence or another crisis, the group issues communiqués and make a public display of solidarity.
When a synagogue was burned down, Islamic leaders were present for the burial of the charred Torah scrolls and were photographed comforting Jewish religious leaders. “This occurred in no other French city… The organization is so widely held to be effective that government delegations from Brussels, Anvers, Sarajevo, Barcelona, Naples, Turnin and Montreal have come to study it.” Berlinski did not expect such symbolic gestures to be effective, but almost all the residents she interviewed place great faith in the program.
It works because it recognizes immigrants who will not assimilate and officially represents them as a religious community (something Berlinski calls “ethnicity by proxy,” since French law forbids the recognition of ethnicity), allowing their respective leaders to “bring the members of those communities into line.” In the process, Marseille Esperance is doing an “end run” around France’s secularist and anti-communitarian policies.
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