Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Dutch Dilemma & American Divide: The Challenge of Exclusivist Religions to Pluralistic States, and Contemporary Education

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Dutch Dilemma & American Divide: The Challenge of Exclusivist Religions to Pluralistic States, and Contemporary Education

Article excerpt


Post-Reformation societies and states that thought they had put religious wars behind them have been caught unawares by the vehemence of religious dissent that has exploded in their midst, sometimes literally, since the 1970s. I maintain that key Enlightenment propositions that established the means for peaceful religious co-existence seriously misconstrue and underestimate the social potency of religious impulses.

My paper begins by sketching two distinct current impasses. The Dutch face the dilemma of a largely secularized society willing to be highly tolerant of difference--but as the brazen 2004 murder of provocateur-filmmaker Theo van Gogh has revealed, such tolerance is hard-pressed to accommodate those whose religious culture is not permitted to tolerate perceived intolerance directed at them. The United States presents an equally puzzling conundrum: a much more religious culture predicated on religious liberty, now challenged by versions of monotheism whose symbolic worldview convinces them they are persecuted, and must demand cultural supremacy. Highly dualistic, exclusivist and triumphalist versions of monotheism present militant challenges to the democratic state's ideals of tolerance. Taking these recent examples as symptomatic, I argue we must reconfigure civil post-secular societies' engagements with religious adherents, not least through actively educating all citizens about religions.

   On the plane of history, the capacity of God to love
   intensely and exclusively is translated, as often as
   not, into the human capacity to hate intensely.
         Martin S. Jaffee (1)

On Tuesday November 2nd, 2004, shortly after I had spent just over a year teaching at our Webster campus in the historic and picturesque town of Leiden very near The Hague, something the Dutch must have found almost unthinkable happened in Holland. A 47 year old filmmaker, artist, social critic and provocateur, Theo van Gogh, great-grandnephew of the renowned painter Vincent, was assassinated while riding his bicycle in Amsterdam. I say assassinated because he'd been targeted for retribution in what was a religious act of classic jihad. Van Gogh had, in the eyes of many, insulted Islam in a recent short film shown on Dutch television. Titled Submission, it had been co-written with a Somali-born Muslim-raised woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch parliament who had become highly critical of Islam after 9-11. (2)

Theo van Gogh, it must be said, had drawn much attention over recent years for having mocked and shocked many people, especially religious believers by having pilloried both Jews and Christians. (3) But he'd brewed up a particularly bilious dose of scorn for Islam and its followers. It's fair to say that Theo willfully tested the very limits of what is permissible as free speech in a democratic pluralistic society. (4)

I just described his murder as almost unthinkable for the Dutch. It was certainly shocking and unexpected. But only two and a half years earlier (May 6, 2002), maverick sociologist-turned-politician Pim Fortuyn had been shot dead by a radical environmentalist as he left a radio interview he'd given at the national media complex in Hilversum, so such a hit was not unheard of. Fortuyn's assassin, Volkert van der Graaf, later claimed (according to the prosecutor) that he acted in defense of "vulnerable sections of society" in Holland. (5) With that assassination still raw in the public mind, Van Gogh's assailant, a 27 year old Amsterdammer named Mohammed Bouyeri, would have known the shockwaves he'd create.

And indeed they came. Grisly details emerged from this second assassination with enough shock value to alarm almost any member of a society priding itself on the virtues of tolerance and non-aggression. But the detail that provoked the most astonishment was that Bouyeri had been born and schooled in Holland, was fluent in Dutch, and had even stabbed into Theo's chest a second knife bearing a five-page harangue in near flawless if rather stilted Dutch aimed at Ms Hirsi Ali and others. …

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