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23/04/2007

Alarm bells in Muslim hearts

Dutch writer Margriet de Moor looks at Islam in the light of Europe and Europe in the light of Islam.

I currently live in one of the most interesting countries in Europe. As a Dutch writer I used to have the feeling that the major events were taking place elsewhere, but those days are now past. I am an inhabitant of a remarkable country, one that first of all is tiny and over-populated, that secondly has four big cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague – half of whose populations already consist of people of foreign origins, most of them Muslims, and that thirdly has recently witnessed two political murders, one of which was committed directly in the name of Allah.

I am thus an inhabitant of a country that has all the makings of considerable social, political and religious trouble and yet has managed to stay calm. For sure, there has been a certain amount of commotion in parliament recently, rather entertaining commotion, I thought, involving heated discussions of our good old humanist principles and revolving around Rita Verdonk, our Minister for Immigration and Integration. Discussion about our legally enshrined right to freedom of opinion, concerning Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a politician who is sometimes called our "black Voltaire." On the streets, though, things have remained calm. And although even in the Netherlands immigrants and their offspring live mainly on the outskirts of town and are generally dependent on social welfare, nothing has happened here that is remotely reminiscent of the state of war in the French satellite communities. Neo-Nazi movements to be taken seriously, like the ones in Germany, are practically non-existent in the Netherlands.

Could it be that beneath the surface of this relative calm, this peacefulness of the polder regions, our national tolerance still lies dormant, which until recently was just as famous world-wide as our clogs and windmills? Tolerance is often mentioned in the same breath as respect, yet our version of tolerance, which has its roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is not based on respect. On the contrary, we used to hold a deep hatred of other people's religion. Catholics and Calvinists did not have an ounce of respect for the views of the other side, and our eighty years war was not just an uprising against Spain but a bloody Jihad of Orthodox Calvinists against Catholicism.

At the same time, this country has always lived from trade and shipping, practical affairs involving people. The law of profit says rather matter-of-factly: avoid confrontation and do business. The proud "Republiek der Zeven Provinciën" espoused tolerance for the simple reason that it was better for business. Dutch tolerance is by nature not ideological but pragmatic. The fact that the Christian religion prescribes tolerance came in very handy when the Dutch trading cities realised in the seventeenth century that quarrelling over religious questions had to come to an end. "Just keep things together," the motto of the Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, has deep historical roots.

It wouldn't surprise me if all the fuss being made about Islam were to lead to a Christian renaissance in Europe. And indeed, Islam is already busy injecting some momentum into Europe's original religion. Religion is as beautiful and dangerous as poetry. It forges a direct connection with a sphere that the average sceptical West European is only prepared to enter with great reservation. The poetic dimension of religion, beautiful for its unrestrained and rapturous qualities, has always remained attractive: a world in which human reason has little to say, yet a world that touches us all the same. It is the rituals, the dogmas, which today seem so foolish and absurd, and above all religion's stories that continue to connect us to this daunting enigma, in spite of our secret fears that we may depend on it. There is something there that is larger than we are. Something before which we would like to bow down in grave humbleness.

How dangerous the poetry of a religion can be is, of course, amply demonstrated by our own European history. We are all familiar enough with it, so I don't really need to mention the rape and subjugation of Constantinople in 1204, or the brutality with which the Latin crusaders behaved there, making the schism between the Catholics of the East and West irrevocable. I do not need to recall the founding of the Dominican Order in the thirteenth century, or the persecution of Jews and heretics, or the dog with the burning torch in its mouth. After a package tour across the ocean and a couple of interesting excursions we may become aware, perhaps even feel slightly ashamed, that the cultures of the Incas and the Maya were destroyed in the name of the Catholic kings of Castile and Aragon. As for our own times, the modern phenomenon of Islamic suicide bombers allows us to watch the dangerous poetry of religion on an almost daily basis.

Islam is a religion that prohibits images. And yet images of Islam buzz around the world. One of them has become engraved in my mind, and probably not just in mine. Sajida al-Rishawi, a white scarf wound round her head and neck, is holding open her dark coat with her hands. Her shoulders are raised, her neck bending slightly forwards. The body language of this thirty-five-year old woman is an expression of surrender – not surprisingly, since this video shows her following her arrest. And yet I believe it also expresses precisely her devotion to the cause of spreading death among the infidels and the renegade Muslims at a wedding party in the Radisson Hotel in Amman in November 2005. Her timid face looks away from the whitish grey belt of explosives, showing through the opening in the folds of her coat. In each hand she holds the end of a red cord – a detonation that never happened, at least hers didn't.

While her husband's belt of explosives did what it was intended to do, both to him and to the wedding guests, when she pulled the cord nothing happened, and she was condemned to stay on earth, an earth that in a split second became a hell. As an art form a video still of this kind has rather an alienating effect. I look at the icon of a female martyr whose seat in heaven has remained empty. The "fleurs du mal" of a religion. Horrible, gruesome... my heart bleeds for her.

And yet I will say it once more: religion is beautiful. When I recently got lost while driving through North Brabant and saw how many churches there were, even in the smallest villages, monstrosities from the late nineteenth century that today are often used for a purpose other than that for which they were intended – like the "Belief, Hope and Love" supermarket, or "The Good Shepherd" housing complex – my eye was caught by a small figure on a door nailed shut on a tall, cold facade. It was a Pieta. The Christian religion is especially beautiful, particularly Catholicism, because it ignores the second of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image." But people need images. I remember how I reached the highway that morning, a grey highway in a grey January landscape, feeling warm inside thanks to that naive little figure. Of course I know that "the Church" has constructed a number of dogmas around the story of this mother holding her dead son in her lap, dogmas that give verbal expression to such nonsense that most believers take them for what they are: stories. The story of them rising to heaven, the blue metaphysical heaven, both of them, body and soul. Or the story that she was pregnant and had given birth, yet was still a virgin.

I like these exotic fantasies, which I believe are there to dazzle us. For what is behind them is too large and too fiery for the eyes of a mortal. A little figure like this is not concerned with the peculiarities of a doctrine. Rather, in the second it takes for a car to pass, it radiates a quiet sadness that is somehow reassuring, a tacit accord with anyone who has ever asked in despair where God was when they needed him.

I cannot deny that the current commotion surrounding Islam brings me back to my own ancestral religion and its archetypal dogma. The sect of the Jewish Rabbi had the nerve – the outrageous presumptuousness – to preach mutual forgiveness. It is only logical for me to ask myself whether the violence, be it verbal or in the form of bombs, that accompanies the swiftly spreading new principal religion in Europe like a wildly fluttering flag, really belongs to this religion. Or is it simply a form of imperialism, of the kind Constantine the Great used in the fourth century and Charlemagne in the early ninth century to Christianise Europe?

As I am writing this there is an Israeli newspaper and an American magazine lying on my desk. "Muslims About to Take Over Europe," writes old Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton University, in the Jerusalem Post. Lewis, a Middle East specialist, accuses Europe of being spineless, of surrendering without a fight. The American magazine on my desk is Newsweek. In it Fareed Zakaria writes that the present religious struggle between Shiites and Sunni Muslims in Iraq could well be the beginning of an Islamic Reformation. Zakaria is the author of the book "The Future of Freedom" (2003). In it you can read that in his opinion a liberal Islam will emerge not through the arguments of liberal theologians, whether Islamic or non-Islamic, but as a result of social conditions, as happened in Christian Europe in the sixteenth century.

I suspect there are quite a few Europeans like me who, when they look at the violence between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, sometimes think back to our own wretched history of many centuries ago. However, apart from the burning and killing there do not seem to me to be many parallels with our Christian Reformation. The two main currents of Islam are both very old. What they are currently seeking is not theological renewal, but power. My pragmatic Dutch logic tells me that Iraq is the last place that a liberal form of Islam could emerge. And it also tells me that social conditions can certainly be combined with theology – and indeed they must be – if a reform is to be successful. And finally my polder logic even tells me something rather irreverent. If Islam is ever to experience a Reform at all, it will not happen in the witches' cauldron where religion comes from, but in the affluent West.

And then it could very well happen that the Martin Luther of this movement, and by that I mean the voice that will present the arguments, will be the voice of a woman. How I miss Ayaan Hirsi Ali! How I miss our Somali Dutchwoman, our controversial black politician with the gentle voice, a voice that when she spoke seemed to stand before her. Bang! Without mincing her words she drew a connection between domestic violence against Muslim women, avenging honour and female circumcision and the Machismo of Islam. And it was claimed that she did not reach her target group, the Muslimas? Secretly, though, all of them swallowed what she said, their ears burning.

In one of the Dutch shelters for battered women, 80 percent of whose residents are Muslimas, Ayaan held a discussion with four young women following a screening of the film "Submission." She received no applause. The women, women who had been beaten by their husbands, were deeply offended, angry, hurt by what they saw as the blasphemy of projecting Koran texts onto naked women's bodies, never mind whether these texts sanctioned violence against them or not. "You must stop!" they called out in pious rage, but since then alarm bells have gone off in their hearts.

I supported Ayaan's way of doing things. Kicking up a rumpus, being confrontational, excellent methods, I thought. Polemic is what propels public debate. Of course the Muslimas were not really her target group, they were and continue to be part of her appeal for reason with regard to Islam and the state. Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not argue as a political activist. For critical thinkers like her, whose wisdom has been nurtured by the most bitter personal experiences, the aim is to increase people's awareness. But actually, from a strategic point of view, it's a shame she's renounced her faith. A female Islamic Luther, and a black one to boot, wouldn't it have been wonderful? Or rather, since she isn't a theologian, perhaps a black Voltaire? Although, of course, Voltaire, the caustic Frenchman who fought against the power of the clergy, always retained his faith.

Europe is secular, enlightened, democratic, but Europe is – above all – prosperous. As I said above, if Islam is to experience a reform at all, then in will be in prosperous Europe. But why, among all of Europe's characteristics, do I choose to focus on its prosperity?

New arrivals in the West, whether they come from the former East bloc, from Africa or from the Middle East, always stare in amazement at its wealth, the kind of wealth that is provocative, arouses fury and is fascinating. The violence perpetrated against the West in the name of Islam may be justified in terms of doctrine; but it is primarily a reaction to a cultural provocation that is perceived as intolerable, a provocation that manifests itself as prosperity. What they fail to realise quite so quickly, however, is that the West's wealth is in a certain sense a by-product of something else, for it is based on an underlying ideology expressed chiefly in terms of absence: Here there is no censorship, there are no prisons full of dissidents, no powerful network of official corruption, no judicial power operating in the service of a political dictator or party programme, no fear of the authorities and certainly no fear of a religion of any kind.

Some time ago, during a talk in Leipzig, I asked the rhetorical question of whether there was any writer working on a novel with the title 2084. What interested me about this was whether Islam, which is in the process of becoming firmly and permanently established in our midst, will ever really be at home – or indeed, integrated – in secular, enlightened, democratic, prosperous Europe.

Many people are extremely pessimistic about whether Islam is even capable of reforming itself. Christianity is founded on the New Testament with its precepts of love thy neighbour and of forgiveness – meant both literally and in a broader sense, in other words, not just to be applied to one's own clan – and what is really an astounding assumption of the separation of church and state. Matthew 22, 15,22: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." But just how broad-minded or absolute are the foundations of Islam, as it currently manifests itself all over the world, with its undeniable dogma of violence? And furthermore: how well known are the basic teachings of Islam to the dear faithful? In his time Luther thought it was absolutely essential that all believers should be able to read or hear the New Testament themselves. That was why he translated the Holy Book into German.

I do not need to spend much time here listing what the European, the non-Muslim and, perhaps in his or her heart of hearts, the Muslim European finds absolutely unacceptable about Islam. The average Dutch person tends to regard things like the Jihad, the introduction of Sharia law and the repression of women by men decreed by Allah as a farce, or after some reflection as an annoying consequence of the Arab colonisation of the Middle East with a militant form of Islam many centuries ago. There are two reasons why I think that a reform of Islam will take place in the West. The first is the flourishing of Islamic studies. Research into the sources, into the story of Muhammad as a historic figure and the doctrine of Islam is currently taking place independently of Islamic orthodoxy.

But a scholar living in our part of the world is less likely to be subjected to the fate undergone by the Sudanese politician, theologian and writer Mahmud Taha. Taha, who for sound, scholarly reasons proposed recognising only the Koran texts from Mohammed's time in Mecca – and these are peaceful texts without the obligatory Jihad –, was executed in Khartoum prison in 1985 after being accused of having lost his faith.

The second reason for a possible Islamic reform here in the West is the social conditions that Fareed Zakaria has already talked about. Here I focus, once again, on the Netherlands, a country that is currently so interesting internationally. Every religion adapts itself to the everyday practices and conditions of the country in which it exists. That is inevitable. When I travelled through Uzbekistan with my daughter in late 1992, we stayed with a family in Samarkand where the father was a Muslim and the mother and eight-year-old daughter Orthodox Catholics. And when my Albanian publisher and his family took me on an expedition into the mountains I saw a similar, even more complex arrangement: again, the man was a Muslim and the woman an Orthodox Catholic, but the daughter was a Roman Catholic. Afterwards, of course, I thought a lot about these families' easy- going attitude to religion. I suspect it was because of the Stalinist dictatorship in these countries that the individual religions, which were all illegal, were concerned with things other than the exact tenets of their religious doctrine.

Conditions in the Netherlands are the opposite of a dictatorship. This country is probably the freest, most liberal in the world, and one of the most prosperous to boot. I belong to the unrestrained generation, the generation that in 1960s protested passionately against almost all holders of power of that time. Since then this rebellious impetus has been thoroughly placated. During the 1970s and 1980s, which culminated in a mood of oblivious contentment at the turn of the century, the only movement to maintain a constant presence was feminism.

I know what fascinates and shocks our Muslim new arrivals. If I look at it through their eyes, I am shocked, too, by the banal, trivial attitude to sex in our contemporary society, which appears to be a kind of obsession, forced on people in a compulsive way, often in the service of aggressive commercial interests. Nevertheless, I can still imagine that some Muslima soon start to find this less shocking than their decorously covered heads might lead one to believe. They know, often better than we do, that in countries where females walk around completely covered up, like in Afghanistan or Pakistan, this express taboo seems to provoke men in an uncontrollable fashion.

How sex-obsessed is a culture that teaches a woman that she is basically a walking, sitting or reclining set of genitals? How over-aroused is a society in which men are expected to have no qualms about throwing themselves on any woman who happens to walk by, unless a powerful signal, in the form of a divinely ordained dress code, forbids them to do so? Our obsession may look different to theirs, but in fact they are just two sides of the same coin. The prediction that Islamic women will be the first to feel strangely at ease amid our European prosperity, with all the principles that go with it, does not seem illogical to me.

When I'm feeling optimistic I sometimes see the Netherlands, a small laconic country not inclined towards the large-scale or the theatrical, as a kind of laboratory on the edge of Europe. Now and then the mixture of dangerous, easily inflammable substances results in a little explosion, but basically the process of ordinary chemical reactions just continues. It is not only the world that is changing, the earth is changing as well. Of all the European countries, the Netherlands will be the most threatened when at some point in the near future, in weather conditions that are statistically probable, the stormy sea once again rises aggressively. My novel "Drowned" is set against the background of a natural disaster involving many dead which occurred in the south of the Netherlands half a century ago. A recurring sentence in the book is: "It could have been worse ...."

I am thinking of the novel 2084 still to be written. Historical developments often come about very abruptly. The question of whether the teaching of Mohammed can coexist peacefully with that of Jesus, the hero of the Gospels, will probably have been answered by then. But in the case of the Netherlands this question might well lose its importance in the face of a sudden dictatorship, and this time I don't mean a political one. The storm tide barrier in the Oosterschelde, the defences along the coast and the dyke separating Northern Holland and Friesland are masterpieces of hydraulic engineering that have so far proven pretty reliable. They ensure that the inhabitants of the Netherlands can live below sea level.

All of them together.

*

This article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on April 17, 2007.

Margriet de Moor, born in 1941 in Nordwijk, lives as a freelance writer in Bussum, near Hilversum. Her most recent publication in German is "Sturmflut," published by Hanser Verlag. This essay was read aloud at "Europe erlesen," an event organised in Düsseldorf in March 2007.

Translation: Melanie Newton.
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