Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pious Provocateurs: Islamists in Europe

This past Monday, the Associated press reported that Dutch legislator Geert Wilders will not be prosecuted for inciting hatred against Muslims for his short film Fitna (Arabic for "Ordeal/Disagreement"). While undeniably a victory of sorts for free (if provocative) expression, I can't help but fear that we have not heard the end of this matter.

Geert Wilders is unquestionably a controversial figure, frequently straying into the realms of the obnoxious. Here's a sample:

Referring to the increased population of Muslims in the Netherlands, Wilders has said:

"Take a walk down the street and see where this is going. You no longer feel like you are living in your own country. There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves. Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches!"[18]

Later, Wilders suggested that Muslims should “tear out half of the Koran if they wished to stay in the Netherlands” because it contained 'terrible things' and that Muhammad would “in these days be hunted down as a terrorist”. These statements caused strong reactions in Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.[19]

On 8 August 2007, Wilders opined in a letter[20] to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant that the Koran, which he called a "fascist book", should be outlawed in the Netherlands, like Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.[21] He stated that: "The book incites hatred and killing and therefore has no place in our legal order."

Strong stuff.

This past week-end, I was having a conversation with a friend with whom my disagreements on geopolitics in many cases spring from the level of axiomatic differences. While we inevitably hit on impenetrable walls of fundamentally incompatible world-views, I have found pretty much all that we cover before striking that bedrock to be quite useful, as it forces me to visit and revisit some assumptions which can get past my objectivity screens. One such issue was the degree to which conservative-to-radical Islam constitutes a threat to the liberal/secular societies within various European nations. As I (hopefully accurately) synthesize it, my friend's position was essentially that the exaggeration of that threat, and the adversarial approaches which can flow from that distorted perception gushes fuel onto a fire which would otherwise snuff itself out. Reading some of these statements from Wilders, one can see where that argument is not entirely without a certain plausibility.

Unfortunately, I just don't see that position as being able to withstand careful scrutiny. It is true that some decidedly unhelpful things have been done and said by some Dutch citizens toward Muslim communities in the Netherlands. However, It is hard to look at the circumstances surrounding the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and lay the blame entirely or even predominantly on the inflammatory images of the film, "Submission," which he made with Somali-born Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali (herself the subject of ominously persistent death threats). The above-linked post links to the English translation of an unclassified report (PDF) from the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment that lays out a great deal of very worrisome analysis of Van Gogh's killer, his associations, and the broader affiliations which radiate outward from those associations. The picture is not pretty for those who choose to view the murder as the isolated act of a deranged fanatic, instead pointing to a rather extensive radical Islamist network, actively engaged in recruitment, and possibly possessing ties to groups such as al Qaeda. To wit:

  • In Amsterdam, [Van Gogh murderer Mohammad] Bouyeri was recruited into an al-Qaeda cell that met twice a week at a house he rented at 27 Marianne Philipsstraat in the Geuzenveld-Slotermeer district of Amsterdam. There, the group listened to religious sermons by Syrian Islamist preacher Ridwan al-Issar (Abu Khatib). A number of al-Issar's followers had been under surveillance by the Dutch secret service AIVD for more than 2 years and the group was known as the Hofstad Network since a number of the cell members lived in Hofstad, i.e. the Hague.
  • Bouyeri had been questioned by police at one point in 2003 but was released, as he was not considered an important member of the group.
  • Al-Issar vanished from Holland the day of the Van Gogh killing and his current whereabouts are unknown, though Dutch intelligence believes he may have returned to Syria. Other members of the Hofstad Network have been detained or questioned in connection with the attack.
  • How Bouyeri joined the Hofstad Network is still unclear, though it is likely that he was met by a recruiter during an alienated or transitional period of his life. A report by Dutch secret service director Sybrand van Hulst states that terrorists impress youths who hold to romanticized notions of Islamic terrorism. After striking up friendship, the recruiters tell the youths that established mosques are too lax and that they need to isolate themselves from the rest of society in order to take part in jihad, which is an Islamic duty, with martyrdom being its highest achievement. After that, youths are subjected to jihadi videos and go to readings, conferences, and summer camps as well as chat rooms and bulletin boards that reinforce the notion that jihad is the highest calling. The finest phase of this indoctrination usually involves recruits being asked to write a martyr's testament similar to that found on Bouyeri.
What emerges here is the picture of an organized cell of Islamist activity which does not arise from a sense of disenchantment with European society, so much as exploit and act to magnify that disenchantment among Dutch Muslims, and contribute to their radicalization for the purposes of recruitment. One might then argue that this radicalization was a defensive reaction to a feeling of alienation and enmity from the ethnic Dutch citizens who surrounded them. The trouble with that formulation, though, is that the formation of the so-called Hofstad Group predates Van Gogh's film by several years. It predates Geert Wilders' departure in September, 2004, from the relatively Liberal and tolerant People's Party for Freedom and Democracy. Indeed, according to this chilling summary from the Counterterrorism Blog, the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Western Europe constitute the patient work of decades

And while the final goal of the Brotherhood is, as its publications and leaders openly say, world dominance, the group adopts different tactics to obtain it. Flexibility and deceit are the two qualities that distinguish the Brotherhood from groups such as al Qaeda and that have allowed the group to thrive throughout its history. The Brotherhood, in fact, operates in different ways according to the circumstances. In places were conflict is what it deems the best option to achieve its goal, the Brotherhood will pick up arms. In Palestine, for example, the Brotherhood operates through Hamas (art. 2 of Hamas official charter states: “Hamas is one of the wings of Moslem Brotherhood in Palestine.”). In the West, on the other hand, the Brotherhood has chosen a completely different tactic. Having realized that a full front confrontation, as the one al Qaeda is attempting, against the West, is premature, given the relative weakness of the radical Islamic movement, the Brotherhood has decided for a more nuanced approach.

In the West violence and confrontation are replaced by a cleverly engineered mix of penetration of the system through appeasement and simultaneous radicalization of the Muslim population. Its leaders publicly vow the group’s dedication to integration and democracy, representing themselves as mainstream, and seeking to portray themselves as the representatives of the various Western Muslim communities in the media and in dialogues with Western governments. Yet, speaking Arabic or Turkish before their fellows Muslims, they drop their facade and embrace radicalism. While Brotherhood representatives speak about interfaith dialogue and integration on television, the group’s mosques preach hate and warn worshippers about the evils of Western society. While they publicly condemn the murder of commuters in Madrid and school children in Russia, they continue to raise money for Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Muslims living in European countries are exhorted by radical Imams and cell leaders to separate themselves from the "infidel" societies whose material benefits they enjoy, to form their own "Muslim ghettos," and immerse themselves within traditional communities, which grow larger through a combination of active recruitment and liberal immigration policies. And, whether it's torching cars in the ghettos of France, or perpetrating violent crimes against homosexuals in Amsterdam (!), the restive energy of these self-segregated communities is not especially well-contained, even excluding the occasional detonation on buses and commuter trains.

One need only think back to the kerfuffle over the appearance of 12 cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad in the Danish publication, Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, to appreciate the degree to which tensions are being deliberately manipulated to sow discord (fitna, if you will). Here, the original 12 cartoons were, with a couple of exceptions, quite tame, and the response among Danish Muslims was sharp, but circumscribed, and looking to have a short shelf life. That is, until a delegation of Danish Imams decided to take the cartoons on the road, along with a few extremely offensive additions which had not appeared in the original publication, to a gathering of Islamic scholars in the Middle East (scroll down at the above, "kerfuffle" link, to "The Fake Cartoons"). A far deeper game was afoot here than mere emotional reactions to a theologically dubious matter of representing the Prophet graphically, as Walid Phares reflects:

Would a generalized inflaming of the masses on the "cartoon matter" be better before or after the Palestinian elections, by Hamas standards? Before or after the Iraqi elections, by Salafi angle? Before or after the Egyptian elections, by Muslim Brotherhood plans? Before or after the withdrawal from the Lebanese Government, by Hezbollah calculations? Before or after the Iranian decision to rush to the nuclear race, by Ahmedinijad's planning? And on the top coincidence list was the fact that Denmark was to head the UN Security Council, just as its members were to take Tehran to the UN. At first glance, there is no link between the spontaneous but violent demonstrations on the one hand and the complex calculations of the web of regimes and organizations. I argue otherwise. M Abu Laban heralded it loudly: the delegation went to seek support from the Arab Muslim East after all attempts to resolve it failed. The first part of the assertion is correct: Arab League diplomats in Copenhagen were not satisfied by the Danish Government response and we know why. But the second part of the delegation's journey into the region is to be addressed: If the Arab League was rebuffed by liberal Denmark who they ask "support" from in Egypt, Syria, Gaza,and the rest of the region? In short, religious authorities and militant forces: And why would they seek beyond the diplomatic circles as a Danish citizen? Because a decision to ignite an intifada was already made by the architects of the overseas journey: One doesn't remit the dossier to Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, the Ikhwan of Egypt, Hamas and the other Salafi in the region to request some prayers: The casus belli was already on. It was beyond the Danish cartoons. It was about a broader issue: Something a representative of an American Islamist group called on CNN "a strategic change in world relationship after 9/11." Hence, the procedure, not the substance of the protest, had to be thought, devised and prepared. Hence the time elapsed between September and January. (Emphasis added; wonky formatting fixed)
Look, there aren't many things that honk me off more than undisciplined conspiracy-mongering. Everything from Grassy Knolls and "Capricorn One" stories about the Moon landings, to the execrable "Truthers" of 9/11, as far as I'm concerned, is prima facie evidence of ignorance, muddy thinking, outright delusionality, or all of the above. It takes a lot for me to start "connecting the dots," and superimposing patterns on things which can more parsimoniously be explained as coincidental. That said, it should be re-emphasized that the well-publicized riots which occurred in response to those cartoons took five months to "flare up," at which time there were ready supplies of Danish flags available for burning. Further, many of these demonstrations took place in countries like Syria, whose iron-fisted regime is not especially tolerant of spontaneous displays of popular will. If something goes down on Assad's turf, and no one gets their head caved in, it's a pretty safe bet that it's at least sanctioned (at most, orchestrated) at the highest levels.

So, what are we to make of the apparent fact that such a local and --let's face it-- rather silly matter should become embroiled in such far-flung geopolitical affairs? The friend I mentioned earlier would probably propose that there is no threat from Islamists in Europe, but for the defensive posture they are forced to adopt in response to the xenophobic chest-thumping of Neocon busybodies who just can't leave well enough alone. There are many on the other side of this debate who would suggest that all Muslims, by commission of terrorism or by omission of condemnation for the radicals in their midst, are a Threat. Not uncharacteristically, I find myself arriving at a point somewhere in the middle of these extremes. People are not pouring out of Mosques, man and boy, to saw off the head of Geert Wilders, and the initial reaction among Danish Muslims was surely vexed, but not murderously so. That is, until an organized campaign was put into effect to stoke the sputtering embers of conflict into a conflagration.

Unfortunately, there is rather fertile ground for such campaigns on the Continent. The dominant ethic of multiculturalism sounds great, until one pauses to reflect that there is precious little impetus for large communities of relatively unassimilated immigrants to shift their allegiance and identity from their cultures of origin to that of the nation in which they reside. Cultural, linguistic and even legal traditions exist almost intact within societies whose extreme tolerance only fosters that separateness, rather than pulling for a sense of a larger community which absorbs differences into a richer common identity. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims living in Europe are not itching for the chance to wage Jihad against the West. But lacking a dense web of interconnections with the surrounding society, those Muslims are insufficiently inoculated against the pernicious whisperings of those all-too adroit manipulators of their nostalgia and alienation in the service of an agenda which is far more sinister than mere unmolested coexistence.

Geert Wilders surely says some horrid things about Islam, and were I a Muslim, I would be sorely pissed at him for his disrespect. But then again, were I a Christian or a Jew, I would have some choice words for some of the venom that gets spouted about those faiths as well (and not just by Muslims). However, the point is not to silence any of these voices, least of all by the threat of violence. Democratic societies rely on free speech to provide a marketplace of ideas out of which arise imperfect but evolving approximations of justice. The moment we begin to quash some of these ideas out of fear of the offense they might give, we open a window to just the kinds of exceedingly dangerous psychological operations which seem so very clearly and intelligently to be utilized by radical Islamists to constrict that marketplace and degrade the very freedom which gives them room to operate.

The fact that Wilders was not prosecuted for Hate Speech is a good sign, but we must not let down our guard against those who would not see the irony in the quote (author unknown): "In the interests of tolerance, let us refuse to tolerate the intolerant."

4 comments:

JJ said...

For some reason, you didn't mention the personal circumstances of Van Gogh's killer. You didn't mention that he suffered from a severe psychiatric illness. You also didn't mention his peculiar family circumstances. These do not in anyway justify his actions. However, they provide a far better explanation than his sitting occasionally in the company of certain preachers.

Wilders' statements are certainly of great assistance to radical preachers and to al-Qaida. Mr bin Ladin wants ordinary European Muslims to believe they are second class citizens in their own country. Wilders and others confirm this belief. Wilders is an excellent recruitment tool for bin Ladin.

If you take Wilders' words, replace Muslim with Jew and Islam with Judaism, you will have Nazi propaganda. Members of the Dutch right wing still have Jewish blood on their hands. Hardky any Nazi troops entered the Netherlands during WWII, yet Holland lost the biggest proportion of its Jewish citizens than any other country. How did this happen?

It happened because the Dutch Right were more virulent in their racism. Today it starts as racist taunts which alleged liberals tolerate in the name of free speech. Tomorrow, what will you do when gas chambers and death camps are re-opened for followers of another Semitic faith?

Noocyte said...

JJ:"For some reason, you didn't mention the personal circumstances of Van Gogh's killer. You didn't mention that he suffered from a severe psychiatric illness. You also didn't mention his peculiar family circumstances."

Curious. Even after your comment prompted me to spend a couple of hours digging around, I could find no indication that Bouyeri had ever been diagnosed with any mental illness at all, let alone a severe one. Indeed, although he --unsurprisingly-- refused to submit to a full psychiatric evaluation in preparation for his trial, he was judged to be competent to be tried for his crimes. And I can't imagine that the Dutch legal system is any less liberal than ours with respect to competency procedures and standards. If you have a link which supports your statement, I would welcome it.

I'm not sure what you are referring to with respect to Bouyeri's "family circumstances," as they do not appear to have been especially atypical for a first-generation child of Moroccan immigrants in Holland (as this characteristically long-winded [like I should talk!] but useful article from The New Yorker describes).

Also, the Hofstad Group met twice a week, and my reading on the matter indicated that Bouyeri was pretty deep in the pudding; it really seems he did far more than sit occasionally. And the preacher in question was no lightweight, Takfiri-wise.

JJ:Wilders' statements are certainly of great assistance to radical preachers and to al-Qaida. Mr bin Ladin wants ordinary European Muslims to believe they are second class citizens in their own country. Wilders and others confirm this belief. Wilders is an excellent recruitment tool for bin Ladin.

See, I'm troubled by the implicit assumptions which appear to underlie this statement. Such a formulation seems to assume that the inflammatory rhetoric on one side (the Islamists) should be effectively neutered through tolerant contextualization, while that of the other (e.g., Wilders) should be seen as occasion for radicalization and violent behavior. And the conclusion you appear to draw is that if the Wilders of the world were to tone down their bloviations, then the Islamists would ultimately fade away...even as you affirm that external influences are afoot in deliberately abetting continued radicalization (i.e., "Mr bin Laden"). In the sort of society which ostensibly exists in the Netherlands, both sides should be free to shout at each other till the sacred cows come home...as long as they do it peaceably. And vote.

As for the "second class citizen" thing, do note that the self-segregation of Muslim immigrant groups is partly pulled by the non-integrationist multicultural European model of immigration, and partly pushed by highly conservative Imams for the sake of preserving cultural and religious "purity." Either deliberately or highly intuitively, the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda are acting to magnify a source of alienation, while simultaneously using the ensuing grievances to aid in recruitment and indoctrination.

Besides, people are responsible for their actions, and if some of those people choose to express their outrage though violence and conspiracy, then they should be held accountable for those actions...as should those who steer them thence.

JJ:If you take Wilders' words, replace Muslim with Jew and Islam with Judaism, you will have Nazi propaganda. Members of the Dutch right wing still have Jewish blood on their hands. Hardky any Nazi troops entered the Netherlands during WWII, yet Holland lost the biggest proportion of its Jewish citizens than any other country. How did this happen?

I'm going to take a mulligan on the finer points of the history of Holland during its occupation by the Nazis, because I don't judge myself to be currently qualified to speak to it in the depth it deserves, and don't have the life-RAM to do the requisite research right now. So, for now, I'll stipulate to the (scary and depressing) situation as you describe it. The gods know, there was no shortage of anti-Semitism chillingly close to the mainstream in those days.

As to your thought experiment about substituting "Jew" for "Muslim," I would offer an alternate formulation: make the same substitution, only also substitute "Islamist" for "Nazi." You'll see that that version tracks unnervingly close to the actual situation. Some very scary things are being said about Jews (and a host of other groups besides) by the Islamists. I hear of astonishingly little legislation being introduced to address that "hate speech."

With respect to the toleration of racist taunts starting the slip down the slope to concentration camps...I just don't see that as a viable extrapolation. Absent some truly horrid act of mass-casualty Jihadi-perpetrated terrorism on European soil, there are far too many negative feedback mechanisms in place for such extremes to occur without prohibitive costs. And even if that unthinkable scenario were to play out, the provocation could not be factored out of the moral accounting for any retaliatory horrors which would ensue. That trap-door swings both ways (I'll never let something like gravity get in the way of a good metaphor!)

Remember, I'm not saying that people like Wilders are right so much as I am saying that they (and their Muslim counterparts) should be free to be as irritating and unhelpful and even wrong as they please, so long as they are not trying to jump the legal rails and/or shut each other down. The realistic prospects of Dutch society choosing to actually do even a fraction of what Wilders proposes is pretty low. Meanwhile, he and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are leading very careful lives these days...

Mike said...

Hey, friend-with-whom-conversation-was-had here (I think). Real quick, Noocyte: you completely misunderstand my position here. I was just trying to point out to you what Geert Wilders' actual positions are since these are so often glossed over in the American media.

If I'm not mistaken, I come much closer to agreeing with him than you. In fact, if you take practically anything he says and replace the word "Muslim" with "Muslim/Christian/Jew" or somesuch, and the word "Koran" with "Koran/Bible", etc. (and perhaps the word "Netherlands" with "any civilized fucking country"), I'd say he was pretty much spot on.

I was actually very impressed with "Fitna" and if I had more time, I would love to make two similar films about Christianity and Judaism. They would be every bit as gruesome.

Noocyte said...

Ah, hell, Mike, I completely missed that you'd left a comment here, till I was going through old emails today and found the notification buried in a heap of adverts and SPAM. Mea culpa!

"Real quick, Noocyte: you completely misunderstand my position here. I was just trying to point out to you what Geert Wilders' actual positions are since these are so often glossed over in the American media."

D'oh! Sorry about the conclusion-jumping! It's just that the premises you were laying out so closely resembled those of others, who would then proceed to the conclusions to which I'd jumped. Teach me to rely on intuition!

"If I'm not mistaken, I come much closer to agreeing with him than you. In fact, if you take practically anything he says and replace the word "Muslim" with "Muslim/Christian/Jew" or somesuch, and the word "Koran" with "Koran/Bible", etc. (and perhaps the word "Netherlands" with "any civilized fucking country"), I'd say he was pretty much spot on.

I was actually very impressed with "Fitna" and if I had more time, I would love to make two similar films about Christianity and Judaism. They would be every bit as gruesome."

I think I'm starting to sound like a broken record with this point (hey, we may be the last generation who knows what the hell that means!), but it bears repeating, since some of what I'm about to say may appear to indicate the opposite (though not to you, who I know to know me better):

I am no great fan of Christianity, least of all the Evangelical sort. I believe that there is something inherently dangerous about a given tribe proclaiming that their particular set of tribal rituals and metaphysics place them in direct and exclusive relationship with the Supreme And Omnipotent Principal of the Universe. Strikes me as the sort of thing which could lend itself to a certain degree of impatience with contrasting views...not to mention neighboring tribes. Indeed, I've sometimes gotten in trouble for referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as all being aggressive cancers...but that Judaism and Christianity happen to be in partial remission at the moment.

That said, I've got to disagree with your proposition that Christianity and Judaism can be meaningfully compared with Islam in terms of the prevalence and threat level represented by their respective violently radical elements. Whatever your feelings about Invisible-Man-In-The-Sky-ism of any flavor, in terms of the real actions of real people in the real world, there could scarcely be a bigger difference.

With Christianity, you get some bloviating pontificators (pun intentional), who, given their druthers and a cooperative government would set about instituting some pretty reactionary social policies...and the occasional wacko on the widely discredited fringes who decides that it would be peachy to blow up an abortion clinic (been a while, thankfully, since that one's been trotted out, though). Gods know, that has not always been the case, and some VERY nasty business has been perpetrated in the name of Christ. But not lately.

With Judaism, you get some wild-eyed settlers defying their government and building on "Palestinian" land, some tragic but inevitable collateral damage among civilian populations amidst whom their foes store munitions and launch attacks, and targeted assassinations against certain of those foes (with little to no collateral damage). Within broad limits, that's pretty much the lot these days. Gods know, that has not always been the case, and some VERY nasty business has been perpetrated in the name of Yahweh. But not lately.

The Islamic world, however, contains inordinate numbers (though, I should hardly need to point out, is NOT entirely composed) of the sorts of folks who will deliberately target and/or endanger civilian populations (cf. earlier bit about placing ordnance in and deploying it from apartment complexes, minarets, etc.). Back up from these levels, though, and you still find people willing to strap explosives and rusty nails onto their bodies and stroll into pet markets and cafes. Take it back to an even wider focus, and you still find people who think it is just the most natural thing in the world to rip the clitoris out of a little girl, then later for her brother or father to stab her to death because she has a problem with being forced to marry a bloke 40 years her senior. "Honor killing" (well, they're half right) simply does not occur in Christianity or Judaism, unless you know something I don't. Sometimes it happens in extremely traditional Hindu communities, but that's pretty much it.

I get your antipathy toward the Abrahamic religions. I'm far more partial to a pragmatic and humanistic world-view m'self. I do think, however, that such antipathy can lend itself to a kind of counter-extremism whose nature as such is often not obvious to those who hold it, much like atheists see themselves as embracing the absence of a belief system, when what they've really got is a competing belief system. It can muddy otherwise sound thinking and lead to false equivalences between things which may share broad thematic similarities but yet differ profoundly in crucial particulars.