Archive for October, 2010

Not about Yoff

October 3, 2010

Bear with me. This is going to be unusually long. But for those who want to know what the @##% is going on in my other country, The Netherlands: have a look. I wrote this for a magazine based in London, a few years ago. I have changed little in the piece – which is disheartening.

so – here goes and the next post will be about Yoff again.


By Bram Posthumus

The Netherlands, once feted for its supposed tolerance, today appears to be a seething hotbed of group violence. Dutch analyst and writer Bram Posthumus considers the changes wrought in a country more used to managing offence rather than addressing it.

What is there to understand about the ideological mayhem that is ostensibly stalking the Netherlands? The country has been proclaimed “lost”, “confused” and has reportedly “swung to the right”. It is actually none of these things. We need to observe two typically Dutch things to shed some light on what is actually going on.

The Four Columns

Only 55 years ago, Roman Catholic bishops declared it illegal for any adherent to their Church to listen to socialist radio broadcasts. Socialism was considered “poison” for anyone who followed Christ on a Catholic cross. So, by the way, and maybe even more so, was Protestantism.

The feelings were mutual. Protestant schoolchildren fought with their “papish” peers attending the Roman Catholic school down the road, it was the enemy.  I went to school in a small village under one of the national airport’s flight paths, listened to the sermons on Sunday morning in the Dutch Reformed church, one of the Protestant churches. Trouw (‘Loyalty’) was the newspaper of choice, Protestant of course, and voting was based on the same allegiance.

Nothing like this existed anywhere else in the world: the Netherlands was neatly divided into four different societies: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Socialist and General/Humanist. They were called “columns”, each of which had their own political party, broadcasting corporation, newspaper and so forth. These divisions worked their way through the entire society and so each local community would have its own Roman Catholic, Protestant, Socialist, Humanist community centre, bar and sports club.

Smashed columns

This is the kind of environment in which the baby boom generation grew up. Four columns, four great tales, four anchors in life. In the 1960s, the boomers blew them up, threw them away and replaced them with…nothing.

Like most of Western Europe, the Netherlands embarked on a path to virtually unrestrained affluence and freedom. But there was another shadow hanging over the newfound wealth, freedom and happiness: the war. No: The War. This is the second point that needs to be understood about the Netherlands, the unique way in which World War II has cut its furrows into Dutch psyche.

Resistance Mythology

The Dutch were no heroes in 1940-45. The country had an ill-equipped and weak army that held out for a few days in May 1940 and gave in after Rotterdam was bombed to pieces on May 10. Resistance efforts against the German occupation were decidedly underwhelming.

Proportionally, more Jews were carted off to their deaths from Holland than anywhere else in Europe. Before the war, the Dutch government sought to restrict access to the country for Jews who were fleeing prosecution in Nazi-Germany. Justice Minister Van Schaik called the majority of the Jews “bogus asylum seekers” and compared their arrival to “an invasion”.

After the war, the Dutch needed to redeem themselves. Fortunately, “we” had two things. “We” had the 25 February 1941 strike in Amsterdam against German transports of Jews and forced labourers. And “we” had Anne Frank, never mind that it was betrayal that brought her to a death camp. Around these two the Dutch built up an elaborate mythology, designed to make future generations believe that “we” had all fought the evil Nazi machine and that “we” were, in essence, decent people, really.

For the mythology to endure, the unpleasant pieces of history had to be suppressed, like the vicious little colonial war in Indonesia in the late 1940s. My schoolbooks failed to mention the burning down of entire villages by Dutch soldiers and used the benign term “police actions”. The war ended fairly rapidly when the Americans threatened to cut off Marshall Aid.

Is it any wonder that the 1960s generation clung to that Resistance Mythology for dear life? Moreover, they felt the need for their very own Resistance. That took the form of self-indulgence: sex and drugs and rock and roll basically. But the world also provided ample opportunity for a new resistance myth, the notion that “we” are on the good side of history. “We” will liberate everyone! From Angola to Zimbabwe, from Cuba to Chile! International Solidarity!


Indeed, my own proxy tour started on that very first September 11, the one in 1973 in Santiago de Chile, when I saw the presidential palace of democratically elected Salvador Allende go up in flames – on television of course. It continued through the turmoil of Nicaragua in the 1970s and 80s and on to the total liberation of Southern Africa.

And yes, the demos: TEGEN! (It means: AGAINST!). Against nuclear power, against cruise missiles, against the Americans wherever their evil presence was supposed to be, against apartheid…

It was, almost universally, resistance by proxy, a hollow ritual, like the obligatory diatribes in colleges across the country against Western, Patriarchal, Capitalist, Imperialist societies oppressing everyone who was not white and male, the new bogeyman. A flamboyant Dutch Labour politician like Annemarie Grewel was famously quoted as saying “I don’t believe you have to ask a black, lesbian woman sitting in a wheelchair if she gets discriminated against.”

The answer was so obvious. It never occurred to the left-wing community that their black, lesbian wheelchair-bound woman friend could say that she was doing very well thank you and that their eternal solidarity was a luxury she could well do without.


The speed with which the resistance-by-proxy movement disappeared at the end of the 1980s is hardly surprising. There was money to be made. The Netherlands accumulated a fabulous amount of wealth between 1989 and 2001, courtesy of the IT and services boom. I left for Zimbabwe in 1988, my own way, I suppose, of fashioning my role as a certified member of the resistance-by-proxy movement. Four years later I returned to a place that was rich beyond recognition – and indifferent beyond recognition. And spoiled, dreadfully, devastatingly spoiled, full of people full of themselves. I returned to a country that was beginning to make Pim Fortuyn possible.

Pim Fortuyn – Geert Wilders’ precursor

In many ways, Fortuyn’s life is a reflection of post-war developments in the Netherlands. He was born in 1948 into a Catholic family. In the late 1960s he studied in Amsterdam and then was a lecturer in Sociology in the northern town of Groningen. Marxist sociology of course, a studies that has since disappeared. For most of the 1970s and 80s he was a member of the Dutch Labour Party and in the course of the 1990s drifted gradually to the right, especially strong on issues relating to migration.

He became a walking AGAINST placard, against the corrupt and distant political elite, against migration, against Turkish and Moroccan young men marrying young women from their own countries, which is a fairly well-established practice. When he was asked why, he replied: ‘Because I don’t want this country to go to the dogs!’ (Incidentally, the new right-wing government installed in 2010 will make this practice virtually illegal.)

Fortuyn can certainly be credited with livening up the dormant political debate and his murder on May 6, 2002 was an act of monumental stupidity, committed by a fanatical environmental activist. But in the end, he did not offer anything of substance: apart from juicy soundbites there was no discourse.


The issue of immigration shot to the top of the political agenda as a result of Fortuyn’s antics and a relentless newspaper campaign, led by the only solidly right-wing daily in the country, De Telegraaf. The Netherlands had received immigrants for centuries, like Flemish war refugees and French Huguenots who briefly made Amsterdam the 17th Century centre of the world before it sunk back into its habitual insignificance.

In the 1960s labour was hauled in from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea.In the 1980s and 90s, an huge administrative industry was set up to manage tens of thousands of asylum seekers from all over the world. The government’s policy was – once again – aimed at sending them back or keeping them out. A rather small and dedicated group, tied to the remainder of the leftist movement, identified with their lot and tried to have as many as possible admitted to the country. Some of it was genuine, some of it was the same old ritual. Asylum seekers were the new black lesbian wheelchair-bound women.

Dutch tolerance…? Think again.

Truth be told: most of the Dutch could not possibly care less about what happened to the aliens that were coming in. The vast majority worked, raised families, watched the news, had another coffee and went to bed. This has always been the hallmark of the famed Dutch tolerance. Not so much actively acknowledging the presence of people who did not look and act like the majority but a basic lack of interest. ‘I don’t care what happens, as long as it is not under my roof,’ typifies the attitude.

But that is not tolerance, as the Dutch are always eager to advertise. Tolerance is mistaken for being able to smoke yourself silly in an Amsterdam coffeeshop. That is self-indulgence. Tolerance is mistaken for living next to your Turkish or Somali neighbours and say “they can do whatever they want as long as they leave us alone.’ That is indifference. It is the same indifference that made the forced exodus of the Jews possible in 1940-45 and the Resistance Myth necessary. As then, there are exceptions but generally speaking the Dutch tolerance myth is in dire need of being shattered.

Political Islam

Indeed: over the last decade or so that veil of indifference has been ripped away to reveal naked hostility towards “them”. The trigger: political Islam. It has everything the Dutch have discarded over the years: a base, a great tale, the ability to tell people what to think, a belief system that does not rely on evidence but on faith. With membership approaching the one million mark, Islam now ranks second only to Roman Catholicism, which, contrary to Islam, is losing souls.

The September 11, 2001 attacks showed what its most rabid branch was capable of and the Dutch mainstream discovered to its horror that it had crept behind the dykes. Political Islam, and indeed Islam in its entirety, became the focal point of attacks – in the name of free speech.

But Islam, like all great religions and ideologies, does not like free speech. Members of the growing and increasingly vocal Muslim community in the Netherlands started complaining about and clamouring for the silencing of the likes of Fortuyn. They successfully closed down a play about one of the wives of the prophet Mohamed, Aïsha, who was nine years old a child when he married her. Religious Censorship!! This is going back to the 1950s and some even say the Middle Ages. It is, indeed, the fifth column but not one that fits so easily into Dutch society as the old home-grown ones. So it takes on the rather more sinister meaning of the phrase.

Fortuyn advertised that the Islam he saw needed to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age. His contemporary, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, continued the argument. Fortuyn was his great political idol. At roughly the same time, one backbencher for the right-of-centre Liberal Party VVD, started honing his very own anti-Islam rhetoric. His name: Geert Wilders.


Theo van Gogh was a consummate lover of life and women, and a compulsory agitator, as addicted to debate as to the cigarette that forever dangled from his lips. He was also quintessentially Dutch in the many public debates he enjoyed: hard hitting points but no hard foundation to the argument. It was all sound and fury, signifying not a great deal.

The last film he ever made was Submission, about the ill-treatment of women under Islam, designed to provoke debate. Texts from the Koran were superimposed on a naked female body and a woman asked why Islam professed to protect women and still let her husband get away with beating her to a pulp on a regular basis. In a sense he was naive enough to think that one could provoke debate with people who have a totalitarian mindset.

The woman with whom Van Gogh made his swansong had far fewer illusions about a dialogue with closed minds. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now living in the United States, was easily the highest profile politician in the Dutch landscape of the early 21st century, a strikingly beautiful political scientist of Somali origin, whose deceptively modest appearance belied a mind working at extraordinary speed and a fiery determination.

Her father was an opposition leader in the land of Siad Barre, a brutal dictator. She fled her country before it disintegrated completely and lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia. She then had to flee from her own family when she was threatened to be given in marriage to a cousin in Canada. In the Netherlands she studied political science. While working for a think tank in the Dutch Labour Party, Hirsi Ali exploded onto the Dutch scene with provocative books, articles and statements, especially about Islam.

No proxies here. Dictatorship, the mental and physical terror of Islamic fundamentalism, flight – she is actually talking from experience. Initially she was the new poster child of the Left. But she refused to become the new wheelchair-bound black lesbian. ‘Being the object of pity is a national sport here,’ she once remarked to Elsevier, a right-wing weekly magazine. To her immense frustration, Labour found it extraordinarily difficult to criticize Islam’s more unsavory aspects. Notoriously, the banning of Aïsha had been endorsed by a junior official in the Labour party from the Moroccan community. The party appeared to have no opinion on censorship, neither had it an opinion on Islam and women. Hirsi Ali decided that she did not have the time to wait until the Labour party had sorted out its mess of contradictions.

In a few months she achieved an ideological shift that had taken Fortuyn half a lifetime to do. Late 2002, she joined the party of Geert Wilders, where freedom of speech takes precedence over ideological correctness, clearly a much more natural environment for her. On her own and probably unwittingly, she had brought many of the fault lines hidden in Dutch society out there in the open. ‘I have taken away the Left’s illusions,’ she told the same Elsevier magazine. How cruelly ironic,then, that it was Rita Verdonk, a minister hailing from Ayaan’s own party, who publicly accused her of lying about her refugee story.

Murder most foul

Submission was the product of two people with completely different personal histories, who found common ground in their love of free speech and their abhorrence of the re-entry into the West of forces that seek to destroy it. The reactions to the film were entirely predictable. Muslim fanatics wanted it banned. Hirsi Ali received by the by now familiar death threats from Muslim circles and she was forced to go into hiding for the second time in two years. And Theo van Gogh was actually killed by a young Moroccan on 2 November 2004. In the name of Islam.

The sigh of relief that went through the Netherlands when the murderer of Fortuyn turned out to be a half-deranged white man was replaced by a sense of profound shock. It had finally happened. Hirsi Ali declared herself shocked, sad and even guilty: her ideas had killed him. Elsewhere, mass hysteria briefly took over. Call it the Princess Diana effect. People who had never known let alone met Van Gogh told teary-eyed tales in front of the camera about how shocked and sad they were, that they felt they had lost a friend.

A few Islamic schools and mosques were burnt down. Television, that grand purveyor of modern day ritual immediately began a relentless series of debates, essentially between “them” (Muslims) and “us” (most everyone else), which continues to this day. Again, it is long on rhetoric and short on analysis. The Dutch learn slowly, it seems.

Rude awakening

But still: World War II is definitively over. Resistance by proxy is no longer an option. Restoring the columns, four or five of them, is impossible and, more to the point, undesirable. But unfortunately, that old AGAINST placard continues to epitomise the level of Dutch political and public debate. This country does not have a tradition of debate in which arguments are grounded in experience or profundity. The fine art of discussion and debate is not taught in schools. The Dutch idea of debate is shooting off one-liners and multiple interruptions.  The next stage has been depressingly predictable: in 2010 the populist Freedom Party is now the second largest in Parliament. Its leader: former Liberal Geert Wilders, essentially a one-trick anti-Islam pony, who does not have the slightest interest in debate and dialogue.

This is a rude awakening. The Dutch have been forced to rediscover that there is life beyond the national frontiers. But they have utterly failed to discover the merits of rigorous analysis and debate, or learnt to conduct informed political and public discourse. ‘We’re entering a dark age,’ one left-wing politician has said on the advent of the 2010 government. But not because it is right-wing. It’s because we learn so terribly slowly.