Europe's New Crusade: Will the Tolerant Society Survive the Battle over Islam? (Culture Wars)

By Polakow-Suransky, Sasha; Chamedes, Giuliana | The American Prospect, August 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

Europe's New Crusade: Will the Tolerant Society Survive the Battle over Islam? (Culture Wars)


Polakow-Suransky, Sasha, Chamedes, Giuliana, The American Prospect


THE NETHERLANDS, VISITORS have long observed, seems the very embodiment of tolerance. To stroll along Amsterdam s central canals is to see cops bicycling through a haze of marijuana smoke while heroin addicts, drunk British tourists, pimps and prostitutes commingle in the alleys. Historically, the story goes, the Netherlands' legendary tolerance made it one of the world's greatest commercial powers--and one of the few to accommodate Catholics, Protestants, Jews and a host of foreigners with little of the friction found elsewhere in 17th--and 18th-century Europe.

The Dutch "tolerant society" once stood as a model for an enlightened Europe. But today it has become an endangered concept, even in the Netherlands itself. The wave of right-wing political victories that recently swept Europe has coincided with a powerful cultural backlash against Islam. Even the rhetoric of gay rights and feminism has been pressed into the service of the anti-Muslim agenda. From Denmark to Italy, opponents of immigration have invoked women's rights to denounce an invading culture that they claim would do away with such liberties. They have publicly protested the construction of mosques and bitterly opposed mother-tongue instruction in schools. In the Netherlands, Muslim hostility toward homosexuality has thrown constitutional guarantees of free speech and anti-discrimination into conflict. Indeed, many gay voters supported the anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated on May 6.

The battle lines of Europe's culture wars are less clear than they once were. Multiculturalists, feminists and gays, once allies on the left, may now find themselves on opposite sides in the debate over Islam. The notions that Islam poses a danger to gay rights and that multiculturalism threatens the triumphs of feminism have entered the mainstream. To be sure, the rise of small but influential fundamentalist Muslim sects has led to a virtual consensus, since September 11, that tolerance in a pluralistic society must have its limits. But those who argue that the West must resist at all costs Islam's supposed intolerance are themselves breeding a dangerous new form of intolerance.

THOUGH THE STEREOTYPES OF THE tolerant society might suggest otherwise, the Netherlands has never been particularly comfortable with its non-European immigrant population. According to Gijs van Oenen of Erasmus University Rotterdam, "Toleration here is, to a large extent, based on indifference. [Immigrants] are somehow tolerated but not in a very constructive or positive sense, not in a sense of enrichment of culture but in a sense of `we can put up with them.'" As European societies evolve from traditional nation-states into immigrant societies, however, old standards of tolerance like this one seem increasingly inadequate.

Unlike in France or England, where African and South Asian immigrants bear the brunt of anti-immigrant racism, most hostility in the Netherlands is directed at Muslim Moroccans and Turks, recent arrivals who have no historical colonial relationship with their host country. "The one thing the Dutch society has not yet achieved is to make people feel at home," says Yassin Hartog, coordinator of Islam and Citizenship, a pro-integration NGO. "There's very little awareness that Islam is a very rich religion with norms and values very close to Judeo-Christian values."

There has been even less since Fortuyn, an iconoclastic gay libertarian, took the country's political scene by storm in January. In many ways, Fortuyn was as much a product of the tolerant society as he was its antithesis. Unabashedly gay and openly hedonistic, he was also comfortable advocating border closures and calling Islam a "backward culture." When accused of racism or likened to European right-wing leaders, Fortuyn responded defensively, once even walking out of a British Broadcasting Company interview. …

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