Theo van Gogh: Rude, Rebelious, and Murdered
Two recent books have provided me with a lot to think about when it comes to multiculturalism
—that concept that sits somewhere between "integration" and "isolation," and the supposed failure of which
has been blamed for what Europe, Australia, and America perceive as their problem with immigrants and immigration.
The first book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance
by Ian Buruma. It's is an examination (by an Anglo-Dutch writer) of both the conservative and liberal strains in Dutch culture and how the murder first of openly gay, anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn
by an animal rights advocate
and then the assassination of controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh
, great-grand nephew of the artist, by Mohammed Bouyeri
, of Moroccan heritage, on the streets of Amsterdam in November 2004, forced Dutch society to examine its policies toward immigration and the its self-identity as tolerant and liberal. In this, Buruma argues, the Netherlands is merely one country among many in Europe that are being rocked out of their complacency by the presence of large, alienated non-"European" communities (Turks in Germany, south Asians in Britain, Kurds in Sweden, etc.) in their midst, who include people who aren't willing to abide by the norms of discussion and debate in prosecuting their beliefs.
Theo van Gogh was assassinated because he'd produced a film called Submission: Part I
. (Part II was, of course, never made.) Buruma writes:
The first shot in Submission shows a woman about to kneel on a prayer mat. The camera slowly pans from her head down to her toes, revealing her naked body under the diaphanous material of her burqa. Later in the eleven minute film we see texts from the Koran projected onto the skin of several naked women, texts that point to the submission of women, submission to their fathers, brothers, husbands, and to Allah. For many Muslims, this was a deliberate provocation.
The concept behind the film was developed by a Somali-born Dutch immigrant and newly minted member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
, whom I bumped into at BAM a few months ago
and whose autobiography, Infidel
, I've finally gotten round to reading.
I wish I'd read this book before I met her! First of all, I would have said something more intelligent about her extraordinary life, and secondly I would have recognized the caution in her questioning whether I was Dutch. (She has received numerous death threats.) Ali's life reads as a cautionary tale of romanticizing Africa, the immigrant experience, and, above all, what it means to be a woman in a traditional, patriarchal society. By turns, Ali and various members of her family are: forced to flee Somalia under the brutally repressive regime of Siad Barre
; move to Saudi Arabia, with its stultifying restrictions and racist attitude to the blacks of the African continent; go to Ethiopia, where Ali's mother looks down on the Christian Ethiopians as infidels themselves; and finally, end up in Kenya, which Ali's mother considers the pits, because the "blacks" (i.e. native Kenyans) are smelly, uncivilized, full of infidels (i.e. more Christians) and the country is mired in corruption.
Ali tells of how she, her feisty sister Haweya, and her lazy and unfocused brother Mahad, cope with moving, and, more significantly in her and her sister's case, the ever-present travails of being a Somali woman, bound by ancient customs of tribe and heritage and the heavy demands of their patriarchal culture. Ali gives a horrifically detailed description of her clitoridectomy
at the hands of her female relatives. Her description of the prejudices among and between the different tribal groups in Somalia is a revelation, and helps explain a great deal of why Somalia is such a basket-case.
Ali is married off by her father to a man she considers an ignorant fool. En route to live with her new husband in Canada, Ali stops in Germany, where she skips the flight and makes her way to the Netherlands, where she claims political asylum, giving her name as "Ali" rather than "Magan." To Ali, Europe is a revelation: everything is so clean, nobody assumes she's a prostitute if she goes about uncovered, things run on time and nobody wants a bribe. She works as a translator in social services, attends university as a political science major, and relishes all the intellectual and individual freedom that a liberal democracy supplies.
At the same time, she finds herself questioning more and more her cultural background and its assumptions, and examining its bedrock: Islam. She becomes an agnostic and then actively begins to speak out against what she sees first as a problem within Islam and then as a threat to tolerant societies. For Ali, Islam's treatment of women—its explicit injunctions about how men must physically control their women and women submit—are the problem. She writes:
Many well-meaning Dutch people have told me in all earnestness that nothing in Islamic culture incites abuse of women, that this is just a terrible misunderstanding. Men all over the world beat their women, I am constantly informed. In reality, Westerners are the ones who misunderstand Islam. The Quran mandates these punishments. It gives a legitimate basis for abuse, so that the perpetrators feel no shame and are not hounded by their conscience or their community. I wanted my art exhibit [the precursor to Submission] to make it difficult for people to look away from this problem. I wanted secular, non-Muslim people to stop kidding themselves that "Islam is peace and tolerance."
As you might imagine, such directness led to speaking engagements everywhere, and police protection. Ali is, once again, a hostage to men as she's shuffled from various "safe" houses in the Netherlands, to Germany, and even to the U.S., especially after van Gogh's murder. She's elected to parliament but is forced to leave after a couple of years when it's discovered that she lied on her asylum request. Various political shenanigans occur, which show some Dutch politicians to be just as venal and opportunistic as every other country's politicians, and Ali finally accepts a conservative think tank's offer to come to the United States. She's only thirty-seven years old; and what she does next will be fascinating.
Both Buruma and Ali make it clear that, in essence, the Dutch freaked out after the murders of Fortuyn and van Gogh. European bourgeois societies, used to sixty years of peace and increasing tolerance, but in essence conservative, don't know how to deal with religious assassination, large numbers of individuals who simply are uninterested in integration, democracy, or liberal Christian values, and whose satellite dishes in the ghettos to which they've been assigned by successive European governments, are pointed to the Middle East or North Africa, where they see daily what they perceive as the iniquities (and hypocrisy) of U.S. and European foreign policy.
Ali, however, offers a deeper analysis: and that is that the systematic oppression of women throughout patriarchal cultures allows abuses of all kinds—including factional infighting, corruption, infanticide, as well as the fact that fifty percent of society are forbidden to contribute meaningfully. What she makes clear is how deeply women ingest their own oppression. The story of Ali's mother, a woman who clings onto a vision of herself as a Woman who Submits, and thus is the victim of her husband's fecklessness, and who in turn beats her children in her frustration and unhappiness, is a tragedy. As also, is the life of Ali's grandmother, a woman from the deserts of Somalia, who has no way of comprehending urbanization and so clings onto traditions and practices that are emotionally impoverishing and personally destructive simply because they are the only things she understands. It is in such a context, that honor killings
become, if not acceptable, then at least comprehensible.
Ali's book offers a welcome corrective to those who think that racism is only a white-on-black phenomenon, and more pernicious or absurd than any other form. Through Ali's eyes, the Horn of Africa is riven with racial prejudices about who is less or more black (and thus inferior), who is more or less civilized or suitable to lead, and who is the better Muslim, judging by their physical proximity to Mecca. The lazy, self-deluding nature of racism reaches its zenith in Saudi Arabia:
In Saudi Arabia, everything bad was the fault of the Jews. When the air conditioner broke or suddenly the tap stopped running, the Saudi women next door used to say the Jews did it. The children next door were taught to pray for the health of their parents and the destruction of the Jews. Later, when we went to school, our teachers lamented at length all the evil things Jews had done and planned to do against Muslims. When they were gossiping, the women next door used to say, "She's ugly, she's disobedient, she's a whore—she's sleeping with a Jew." Jews were like djinns, I decided. I had never met a Jew. (Neither had these Saudis.)
Buruma rightly offers a corrective to Ali's romance with the West by noting that, a few centuries ago, Dutch and European society in general would have known exactly what to do with religious minorities and "alien" cultures: they would have either slaughtered or expelled them. In some countries' cases, we only have to go back sixty years. The tolerance that is seen by some as the decadence of the West has been hard-won and, like topsoil, rich and fruitful but easily blown or washed away.
Ali's book is an impassioned plea for the West to wake up to the enemies in its midst before it is too late. Buruma, ironic and dwelling in paradox—and therefore himself deeply European—is content to let the conundrum remain a series of questions: What do you to do with those who live among you but have no interest in becoming like you? How do you reach out to those who are fearful of being what they despise? How do you honor the tradition when you feel some of it is immoral? These are questions that all of us, no matter where we live, are being forced to address, whether your neighbors are Moroccan or Mexican.