Fearful, not jealous

By Harry van Versendaal

A fascinating explanation does not necessarily make a good explanation. The recent Swiss vote to ban the construction of more minarets in the Alpine country has ignited a great deal of soul-searching and self-flagellation among liberal-minded people – the sort of people who think that banning religion cannot be the right answer to any question. One would be tempted to think of the Swiss vote and similar gestures as signs of European fear, or even loathing, of Islam for what it is or is perceived to be.

Not Ian Buruma. Writing in the Guardian in the aftermath of the Swiss minaret vote, the Anglo-Dutch author and journalist said that “those soaring minarets, those black headscarves are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith.”

It’s repressed-envy talk: We westerners, the god-less individualists living in the disenchanted and fragmented world of modernity, are jealous of the pious Muslim minorities living in our midst. We envy the structure, the community feeling, the life purpose.

“The Muslims are envied for still having faith, for knowing who they are, for having something that is worth dying for,” said Buruma. “But if the Swiss and other Europeans were self-assured about their own identities, their Muslim fellow-citizens probably would not strike such fear in their hearts,” he said.

Buruma is author of “Murder in Amsterdam,” an eloquent insight into Islam’s place in Holland and the Continent at large, prompted by an account of the brutal stabbing in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a young extremist. Back then, he did not seem to take notice of the envy.

Buruma is not the only one to reconsider. Sjoerd de Jong, assistant editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, thinks that growing tension between full-blooded Netherlanders and their Muslim fellow citizens has partly been caused by Holland’s own rapid — too rapid perhaps — modernization, which makes the Dutch schizophrenic, as he puts it, toward Muslims.

“On the one hand we want them to be like us: modern, liberal, and tolerant; but on the other hand we are a bit envious of them because they still have traditional values and community values, they still have a kind of conservative morality which we used to have, and which we abandoned, and which we are now in a certain way looking to find again,” de Jong said during an interview in Amsterdam earlier this year.

De Jong, who had just penned his book “A World of Difference,” a study on the flaws of Dutch cultural relativism, painted the Netherlands as a nation trying to reclaim that lost sense of community, of traditional values, of obligation — instead of entitlement, which so quickly gained ground in the 1960s.

The Dutch, in other words, want to be more like their Muslim immigrants. De Jong too uses the word “envy” to describe the feeling.

“The Muslim worldview is a view of duties, not of rights. There is a kind of hidden envy towards Muslims. The open policy is you have to adjust to ‘us.’ But in the meantime we are subconsciously trying to adjust to ‘them.’ We are trying to have a new vigorous sense of community, a vigorous sense of values, a vigorous sense of morality. And at the same time we accuse them for having exactly that,” said de Jong.

Like Buruma’s, de Jong’s is an interesting theory. But it doesn’t hold water. Why should European attitudes be fuelled by some form of repressed envy for Muslims and not plain antipathy or fear? Whether that fear is ill-informed or justified is another question. (Sure, if you happen to be a secular, an atheist, an agnostic, a homosexual, a feminist or a Jew — and there certainly are many of them in Europe — you have good reason to be edgy.) But it is fear nevertheless. Swiss worries of terrorist reprisal following the minaret vote were fear, not envy of the way some Muslim radicals chose to defend their cozy ideal.

Buruma blames European apprehension on the lack of self-assurance. But too much self-assurance can put an awful strain on outsiders, for it is usually based on less-than-real concepts like “god,” “race” or “the nation.” In fact, if Muslims are able to live in Europe and enjoy a great level of religious freedom — certainly greater than what religious minorities enjoy in their country of origin — it is because Europeans in a way lack such Muslim-style self-assurance. Secular Europeans like to wear their metaphysical beliefs lightly.

An identity that draws its strength from religion or other metaphysical mumbo jumbo inevitably becomes insensitive to the pain and the suffering of others. Western disenchantment, the shedding of illusions and otherworldly beliefs, has been a step toward more freedom. The same goes for the shedding of mystical or archaic traditions, some of which might have been useful in gluing communities together but are totally out of tune with the modern world of democracy, equal rights and female empowerment.

Only in the modern, secular West, some will say. But the Swiss live in the modern, secular west.

Many have lashed out at “the bigoted Swiss,” disregarding the fact that most Europeans — including Greeks — would most likely behave the same way in the privacy of the voting booth. But instead of bashing the Swiss as intolerant xenophobes, it would perhaps be more useful to examine why they are scared of those black headscarves and those soaring minarets. And what both sides can do about this.

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