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Losing to Islamism? By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, May 22, 2006

Frontpage Interview's guest today is Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about how Islamism is winning over democracy.

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FP: Abigail Esman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Esman: Thank you. It's good to be here.

FP: I want to talk about several issues with you today, especially about the recent developments involving Hirsi Ali. But first, tell us a bit about your background and why Islamism's encroachment on our liberties is close to your heart.

Esman: I think it's close to all our hearts. As a writer -- and as someone who writes frequently about art -- I am especially passionate about free speech issues, and watching the capitulation of so many to those who decried the Danish cartoons, or the recent report suggesting we ban the term "Islamic Terrorism" from our lexicon -- these strike me as dangerous, the latest of moves on a slippery slope that is proving to be not only more slippery but steeper than we may have realized. When you start playing with language, you start playing with the way that people think.

FP: So you think democracy is losing to militant Islam?

Esman: Absolutely. The idea was for democracy to create gradual changes in the Muslim world. Instead, I'm seeing pressures from Muslim militants to force gradual -- and sometimes not-so-gradual -- changes in the democratic world. We are not winning this fight.

FP: So let's talk about the big recent news: Hirsi Ali. What do you make of the recent developments?

Esman: The American coverage of this situation has been rather superficial, so I'm glad to have a chance to clarify much of it - or as much as I can in brief.
This whole issue emerged because of two recent and very high-profile cases in which Rita Verdonk, the Immigration and Integration Minister, denied naturalization or asylum to others who had in one way or another bucked the system -- or tried to -- in their applications.
Subsequently, a TV news program, a kind of "60-Minutes" sort of show, ran a piece about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the stories she had told at the time of her application for asylum. Those stories had, for the most part -- not all of them, but most of them -- been well known, and Hirsi Ali had never made a secret of any of it.  But by running the piece at this particular moment, it put the question of her naturalization in a new context for the public, and forced Verdonk to explain why, in fact, Ayaan Hirsi Ali had been able to become a Dutch citizen when she had lied on her application, and yet others were being deported.  And Verdonk had to respond.

But Rita Verdonk runs on a platform of being "Iron Rita" - the law is the law, the letter of the law is all that counts (which is why she has been known to do things like force some Iranian homosexuals to return to Iran, where clearly their lives are in danger). And she is running for office for 2007. It's important to her campaign, in other words, that she maintain that image.  So what you have here is this woman who on one day, of her own accord, announced that "Ayaan has nothing to worry about," the next day called for an investigation, and the following day revoked Hirsi Ali's passport.  And I think it's clear that someone said something to her about her campaign and her supporters and the Iron Rita image in the interim, and that alone took precedence.

The irony is that within the subsequent two days, she has agreed, under pressure from the Parliament to re-review the case; then the following day, announced that she was going to hold to her decision to revoke citizenship, and the third day announced yet again that she would try desperately to find "room within the law" that would allow her to make an exception for Hirsi Ali.

Hardly "iron."

But there's more than that, because the whole story is more a view into the way the Dutch so often avert their eyes until called to task for something -- which is, actually, what Ayaan Hirsi Ali did to them on many issues.

The fact is that Hirsi Ali never went after a career in politics. She never went after a role as a public figure. She made a statement while sitting in the audience during a lecture, and some reporter asked her to write a piece for his newspaper, and suddenly everyone was listening to her. And when she was threatened and had to leave the country, it was the VVD -- the party of which both she and Verdonk are members -- who came to her, not the other way around, and begged her to join them and to serve in the Parliament under their banner. They literally, you could say, bribed her, promising her the chance to work on the issues close to her heart and, more important at that moment, guaranteeing her round-the-clock security.  She advised them then that she had told untruths when applying for asylum. They begged her anyway.   So she joined. And now Verdonk, for whom that fact is no longer convenient, is turning against her. But is Hirsi Ali at fault? Or is Verdonk simply not accepting responsibility for a decision she was part of, a decision made by her party, some time ago?


So it's complicated. On the one hand, there is now an extremely harsh stance on immigration that Hirsi Ali herself supports, and if the law is going to apply to one it has to apply to all. On the other, there are few greater hypocrites in politics than Rita Verdonk – the woman who wanted to ban foreign languages from the public sphere in Holland and yet announced her candidacy for leader of her party with the words -- in English -- "Let's Go." 

What one hopes will emerge from this is a softening of Verdonk's ridiculous stance such that a more compassionate and humane version of the current law prevails - namely that you don't deport a woman who has put her life on the line fighting for your country, or whose actions you have previously and publicly forgiven, and whose life is endangered by such an action – just as you do not send gay Iranians back to Iran (as she has done) or deport asylum-seekers who have been severely burned in a fire that broke out because of your own mistreatment and negligence in a refugee prison. Maybe there will be some good in this, after all.

FP: Profound insights, thank you.

Let's switch over to anti-Semitism in Europe. What is the situation in Holland?

Esman: Holland has been guilty for decades of a deadly silence, beginning with its pretense of ignorance about the death camps (in fact, it was recently confirmed that the Dutch were well aware of where the Jews were going).

Now the silence takes the form of a virtual exclusion of Judaism from its culture.  Every Dutch child knows what Ramadan is. In the schools, even the Muslim children dye Easter eggs and are taught about the Second Coming of Jesus. But these are people who think of Pesach as "Jewish Easter," and have no clue what it means. Their Easter breakfasts include matzoh, bagels, eggs and bacon.  They've never heard of Chaunkah.  Why? For many Dutch children, a Jew is someone who lives in Israel and is at war with the Palestinians. That's all.

And for Muslim children, that last part is the most important definition of "Jew." It makes Jews the enemy. And so some even threaten teachers who attempt to give lessons on the Holocaust. Shocking as that is, I think the Dutch feed the problem by not educating their children - Dutch-Christian or Dutch-Muslim -- what Judaism is, who Jews are. They simply pretend we don't exist.

FP: So what's going on with the radical Hofstadgroep? What's new with them and how are the Dutch handling the situation?

Esman: The most recent development is a call to freeze the finances of the various members who were just on trial. This means not just those convicted, but also the suspected members who are not serving sentences, who are free in society.  It means that they cannot perform any banking transactions - from depositing and withdrawing money to paying bills. And I've yet to understand what the government can possibly hope to accomplish with this other than to send these kids deeper into anger, add fuel to the recruiters' and other members' arguments about racism and "war against Islam," make it harder for officials to track them, increase the likelihood of their involvement in criminal activities, and encourage them to create or strengthen ties with financial sources abroad (and we know what that means). And, of course, it is yet another example of democracy being compromised in response to Islamic extremism.

FP: Can you talk a bit about the impact that Muslim immigration is having on Europe?

That's a sweeping question - and maybe no longer even relevant in all cases. I can really only speak for Holland and Belgium, though, where I would say that immigration itself is far less of a problem than is integration: where honor killings take place in immigrant communities, for instance, Europeans are not affected (though I wish they'd take it upon themselves as if they were). What does affect Europe is the radicalization of the second- and third-generation -- the ones who were born and raised here.

FP: Tell us about how the second -- and third-generation - of Muslims, who were born and raised in Holland and Belgium, are radicalized. Why does this process occur and why do these societies allow it? What can be done about it?

Esman: We could probably talk about this for hours, but I'll try to condense my thoughts on the subject as best I can.  Because the thing to bear in mind is that there is no single reason for any of it. 

Recently, I gave a talk at the University of Leiden, where I was asked a similar question. And what struck me was that the people I spoke to there seemed to be looking for a kind of magic bullet, a swift program that could or would change the course of Muslim radicalism in the Netherlands.  But there is no magic bullet -- just as there is no single cause. It's more a kind of intermingling of various potent poisons in a single cauldron, and as such, takes more than one simple spell to break it. 

So how are they radicalized? You have a combination of adolescent rebellion and adolescent rage, you have children and teenagers who are growing up in violent homes, in a culture where what they learn is that the way to solve problems or exert your will or express your needs is through violence, not words.  Add to that radical imams in local mosques that are often funded by the Saudis, radical Islamicist propaganda that circulates in various Islamic "Sunday schools," satellite dishes feeding propaganda from the Arab world into their homes -- and these shows are turned on all day most days, especially in homes where the parents have not yet learned to speak or understand Dutch.

And then you have the Internet, and web fora, and misinformation, and the kinds of elements that can contribute to any sort of immersion in a trend, a cult, a way of life.  But unlike dressing Punk or Gothic, becoming a radicalized Muslim overtakes your entire way of life: you are reading the Koran and listening to your radical peers and hearing the words of your heroes, you are mentored. And every step into that world leads to another, further and further in.

Why do the societies allow it? In some ways, I think for the same reasons that it happened to begin with: they just close their eyes. They don't want to see. They don't want to talk about things that are politically incorrect, or that indicate a form of intolerance.  Holland has especially been traumatized by the Holocaust. Their guilt is tremendous.  So they hesitate to discriminate against a religious group, or do anything that even gives the appearance of doing so.

And then there's the element of fear: there's a lot of capitulation going on.

What can be done? I've advocated banning satellite dishes, though no one seems to agree with me on that one.  I support creating a stronger awareness of domestic violence and the ramifications violence in the home can have on the way children learn to communicate. I'd like to see the Dutch be less afraid of talking about difficult issues like domestic abuse, like honor killings, like anti-Semitism, and be more willing to hear and learn about these issues. 

But most of all, I'm  a strong believer in teaching the arts, in encouraging an education in art and literature as a means to bring people to understand the concept of metaphor, of abstraction, so that they can recognize the difference between a literal text and a metaphoric, symbolic, allegorical one.  I agree with Hirsi Ali, who has argued for secularization in the schools. And I recently learned of a program being put together that will, hopefully, work to make all these things possible, and I hope to be able to contribute to the effort.

FP: While Islamism poses such a deadly threat to Europe, many Europeans continue to be solely preoccupied with their antipathy toward America. This is a bit strange, no?

Esman: I can't speak for all of Europe. I can say that the part of the world where I live and about which I write does not seem to have this problem. If they are preoccupied with anything in Holland and Belgium, it's with Islamic extremism. I think they've pretty much stopped thinking about the US.  It's far away. Bush's numbers are down. The dangers they face within their own borders are far more immediate - and let's face it, everyone is much more interested in talking about his own society and its issues than about the problems somewhere else. It's human vanity.

But I want to touch on something here which I think is also an important part, which is the word "Islamist" or "Islamism."  In Holland, when one speaks of someone converting to Islam, for instance, the term "Islamicized" is used, rather than "Islamized."

Consequently, I've found even with my own writing that people think I am speaking about Islam when I am referring to Islamism - extremist, political Islam. And that language distinction may have something to do with antipathy towards America in this regard.  I want to make sure readers -- and Europeans in general, including Muslims -- understand this distinction, because it's an important one on many levels, both in terms of understanding what people are talking about in relation to Islam and radical Islam, and in terms of understanding emotional responses and even policy positions on these things. It's another way that language shapes the way we think.


FP: Well I am not sure why there is antipathy toward America because there is a distinction between Islamism and Islam. Moreover, it is debatable what kind of distinction there really is.


In any case, it's great to hear that perhaps the illness of anti-Americanism is not so strong in your environment. Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept reminds us that this problem is still very much present, in the sense many Europeans are quick to denounce America and Bush, while staying completely silent in the face of Muslim crimes on their own territory.

 But let's move on. So what do you think, will Europe be able to save itself?

Esman: I sure hope so. I don't mean to be glib, but the truth is that it will take an enormous amount of soul-searching, of experimentation, of honesty, and of collaboration -- not just within individual communities, but even more, among member states.  The Muslim population in Europe is only growing. That's a given. How the next generations integrate, what influences them, what access they have to what kind of information, how much is expected of them, how they are educated -- these are all factors Europe is going to have to wrestle with and find answers for in the coming years. And one can only hope that in the process, they do not come up with the notion of allowing national anthems to be sung in Arabic.

FP: What does the democratic world need to do to start winning the war against militant Islam?

Esman: Well, of course, that's the Nobel-prize winning question. But I'd have to say that, as I suggested earlier, the main source of hope is going to be education: work with the children, secularize the education system, put more emphasis on literature and poetry and art -- things that teach people to think and understand in metaphor.  We need to stop turning our backs on the kind of domestic abuse that takes place in some highly traditional Muslim homes, abuse that teaches boys that they can hit women, abuse that teaches children that violence is a solution to problems. We need to get involved on a real, personal, direct, individual level.  And we need to encourage people who do reach out, like Senay Ozdemir, a Dutch-Turkish journalist who has created a wonderful magazine for Muslim women in the Netherlands that is in many ways better than any American women's magazine I've ever read, or a kid like Faysal Ramsis, also Dutch, who has started up web sites specifically for young Muslims who are turning their backs on radicalization among their peers.  As you say, it may not win the war, but it will be a major start.

FP: Abigail Esman, thank you for joining us today. It was a privilege and pleasure to speak with you.

Esman: Thank you Jamie.


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Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.

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