Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Post-Pim Fortuyn Syndrome

(Volkskrant 18 08 2006)

In the wake Pim Fortuyn’s rise and fall, a number of parties have sprung up in the Dutch political landscape. Fortuyn’s own LPF (Lijst Pim Fortuyn) splintered again and again after the spiritual and worldly leader of a new breed of right-wing populism was murdered in 2002. Many of old party members have gone on to set up their own copy-cat parties, each with a very similar hard-line approach toward immigrants in general, and Muslims and the Islamic religion in particular. So now there is the:

  • Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, or put translated another way, sounding conspicuously with the ‘Freedom Party’). This party, led by ex-VVD parliamentarian Geert Wilders, aims “for a better, more sensible Netherlands, that is proud of its own dominant culture”.
  • Eén NL (One NL) party, founded by Marco Pastors, the Rotterdam alderman who famously claimed that Muslims use Islam to justify indecent and anti-social behaviour.
  • Partij van Nederland, which wants a total ban on the Islamic headscarf and abolition of religious schools, led by Hilbrand Nawijn who was the old faction leader of the LPF.

These parties seem to have weak political agendas, and have much more in common than they claim to be different.

“Strength [resoluteness] is an important theme with [the] small right [party]. Doing what you promise. […] Let’s look at how the promises of the small right have degenerated. There was, and still is, the call for more discipline, security, and decency. Order is interesting in this respect. There was once a movement, the LPF. That party may have its name changed and will receive competition from the ‘Partij voor Nederland, the ‘Partij voor Vrijheid’ and ‘Eén NL’. Seldom in the parliamentary [formation] has such an indistinct group been seen together.

Decency is also notable. Grievances are rarely exchanged within these parties, let alone resolved. Rather, they are preferably fought out in public. And most of the time it is not even about the big topics which is being bickered about.

[…] And then another pet topic of the small right: unity. The country is much too divided, too many different groups do not think the same way, too many people also who do not want to adapt [to the culture]. The Netherlands would have to become one Netherlands again. But if division reigns anywhere, it is then on the right side of the political spectrum. If you cannot even get it together to politically unite more or less likeminded people in one party, how is it every going to succeed to weld unity in the Netherlands?”[1]

Another commentator argues that the call for unity, discipline and decency is scarily reminiscent of the dark old days of authoritarianism:

“[I surprised myself] about the names of the new right-wing parties. Nawijn’s ‘Partij voor Nederland’ and especially Marco Pastors’ ‘Eén NL’ [One NL]. That last one was probably meant as a promise, but I find it [is] a clear threat. Who wants that the Netherlands be ‘one’, what a kitsch idea, it is the shortest way to the abolition of democracy. Communists and fascists always dreamt of that unity, and the political Islam in that regards is a worthy successor [of that]. Whoever takes freedom seriously (and that say all those conservative splinters) can not speak out for ‘unity’ at the same time, because freedom means difference of opinion, ‘we agree to disagree’, that is the democratic core, and whoever promises more is on course toward a one-party state.”[2]

The fact that the origins and leaders of these small splinter parties all hail from Fortuyn’s legacy underscores the fact that they all want to be boss, all want to lead, and all claim to represent the people’s will. But in reality they weaken themselves and their chances of any real electoral success:

“The populist leader derives his authority from ‘the will of the people’, which he claims to represent. The people is in that sense a homogenous community with a divided culture and its own identity. Because the populist leader, a man with charisma, pretends to directly understand the voice of the people, he would want a direct mandate from the voters and thus has no need for the representative democracy with all its intermediary organs, like parties. The problem with the heirs of Fortuyn is that so many among them see themselves as the best translator of the people’s will. How vulnerable populism is toward egomania appeared in the past few weeks in the inability of Pastors, Wilders, Nawijn, Herben and Van As to [accommodate one another] for the sake of bundling power together.”[3]

About the names of the new parties: ironically, Eén NL, which claims to champion Dutch culture as the ‘Leitkultur’ and opposes all forms of immigration, chose the tulip as its logo. Tulip, as well as being the national flower of the Netherlands, was in fact an import, from none other than Turkey:

“At those right-populists you [can] continue to laugh. […] While they cannot agree among themselves and do everything to sigmatise whole population groups, the new party calls funnily calls itself Eén NL. With as logo: the tulip. ‘A real Dutch flower’, says [party leader] Marco Pastors.

But does Pastors know that the tulip is actually a real immigrant, from Turkey as well? In Turkish, the flower was named ‘tulipan’, because the form is makes one think of the turban. In the 16th and 17th Century these were taken over here en masse and some inhabitants of the Netherlands became stinking rich from the trade.

A pleasant similarity with what happened since the 1960s, when many cheap Turkish labour forces were taken over here. […]”[4]

And the obsession in emphasising the Netherlands in the name of the new parties is not in any way reassuring to the public, but worrying:

“How uncertain you must actually be, would you in this country establish a party with the explicity mention of the Netherlands [in the name]. I always thionk: if someone repeatedly and without being asked reveals that he is ‘a real man’, then I would start to distrust [him].”[5]

It’ll be interesting whether the intelligence and integrity of the average Dutch voter will be swayed by these (weak but nonetheless dangerous) attempts to seek self-interested political gain under the mantle of representing the ‘people’s will’.

[1] Roland van der Vorst, ‘Klein rechts’ [Small right], p95, 2 September 2006, Vrij Nederland

[2] Stephan Sanders, ‘Echt’ [Real], p96, 2 September 2006, Vrij Nederland

[3] Marcel ten Hooven, ‘Democratie staat Pastors maar in de weg’ [Democracy only stands in Pastors’ way], p21, 2 September 2006, Vrij Nederland

[4] Reader’s letter: Michiel de Wit, het Betoog, p7, 26 August 2006, De Volkskrant

[5] Stephan Sanders, ‘Echt’ [Real], p96, 2 September 2006, Vrij Nederland

Lady in the train...

It was only when I looked up again that I realised she was crying.

Before I sat down diagonally opposite her I nonchalantly gave her a smile, the kind of smile you give to strangers on the train who you happen to be sitting with. I dug into my sandwich, and the magazine I had with me.

A few moments later I looked her, and from the bottom lid of her eye a big bead of teardrop fell and dampened her white blouse. It was then I realised she was crying. I felt 'guilty' for not having noticed it before. But I didn't want to stare, so looked down again, fumbling nervously with my cheese, ham and buns. At first, like the self-conscious and self-critical me I am, I thought that perhaps it was something about me that smelt bad. From her her swollen and reddened eyes, I realised then why it was that the lady had her hand across her nose.

Though for the ten minutes or so until my stop I felt uneasy sitting there, so close to a middle aged lady who was obviously very hurt. Tear drops didn't stp falling, and she stared with dead eyes out of the window as the morning sun shone inward. Cows, fields, forests and canals flashed by, but their beauty did nothing to soothe her pain. I glanced up at her, pretending to be uninterested and blind to her tears, but deep done I was concerned, concerned a fellow human being was suffering in silence.

I wanted to say something to her, to ask her if she was alright. I wanted to tell her that whatever it was that was hurting her, that was making her cry will pass. I wanted to tell her that sadness, like happiness, and all other feelings and things in life, will come and go, come and go.

But I didn't dare, and my shyness got the better of me. I kept my thoughts to myself, my concern for a fellow human being in need hid within me, because I was scared that maybe she'd react with hostility toward me butting into her life. Was I uncaring and less of a person because of that? Or has society reached a stage in which seeing a stranger cry is better dealt with by pretending not to see? The passenger sitting right next to the lady slept. Or perhaps pretended to sleep.

A few moments before the train arrived at the station, she gathered her bags and wiped her tears one last time. She excused herself as she stood up and brushed against me slightly and made her way to the door. I soon got off the train too. Amid the crowd of travellers I found her again, walking out of the station, with a heavy bag of documents in hand. I only saw the back of her head, but I imagined that her eyes were still swollen, that her eyes were still red.

And soon she vanished in the crowd. But my thoughts stayed with her, as I too was lost in the crowd.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

'Murder in Amsterdam'

Geert van Istendael, ‘Geschonden koninkrijk’ [Disfigured kingdom], p68-70, 2 September 2006, Vrij Nederland

That the political and social landscape has dramatically changed in recent years cannot be under emphasised. Whereas this country has for a long time been recognised as a safe haven against oppression, as a bastion of freedoms of expression and tolerance, the murders of Pim Fortuyn (2002), Theo van Gogh (2004), and the debacle surrounding Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2006) have together begun to unravel the country’s darker face. Ian Buruma, a professor at Leiden, recently wrote Murder in Amsterdam, which “attempts to explain to foreigners the Dutch sores of the past few years, who are often watching in disbelief how tolerance [here] is increasingly sinking below the sea level.”

“Suddenly the Netherlands had its political murder, like the suspect, remote areas of Sicily or Wallonia had political murders. Suddenly cabinets stumbled one after another in the Netherlands, like before in the French Third Republic. Suddenly an artist [was cut in the throat] on the street, just like in Iraq or Pakistan. Suddenly Netherlands set mosques on fire, just that it occasionally happens in eastern Germany. Suddenly ministers said disgraceful things which only the servants of the Vlaams Belang [a far-right party of Belgium] would dare to put in their mouths, suddenly the Netherlands was not a shining example for the dark world, suddenly the Netherlands was no longer a guiding country. Many Netherlanders asked themselves whether it is still a country.”

Buruma goes to analyse the past, as a lens to see the present. He goes to decipher ‘the illusion of the Netherlands “as the fairest, freest, most civilized, perfect multi-culti paradise” in the West’. It is no secret that more Jews were deport from the Netherlands than any where else in Europe. He calls this “a collective history of indifference, cowardice and sometimes active cooperation”, one which is a trauma that has been undealt with for decades, as a result of which the nation seems to have lost its bearings on what is right and wrong. This tattered state of a national morality feeds can easily feed off manipulation by shrewd opportunistic politicians and attention-seekers. Which may explain the increasing number of right-wing populist parties which are trying to emulate the electoral success of Pim Fortuyn, and all trying to take the no-nonsense and confrontational approach to politics and tackling social problems, but actually do more harm in polarising an already fragile polity than good.

“And then Fortuyn appeared. Not sober, but baroque. Not discreet, but nagging like a queer. Shouted what could not be whispered. Wore visibly expensive suits. Pink ties. In Italy no body would have turned to look at him. In the Netherlands he was shot dead. “Fortuyn’s virulence comes more from the fact that he, and millions of others, not only in the Netherlands but also in the whole of Europe, had only just shaken off the restrictions of their own religion with difficulty. And then came the ‘newbies’, who drenched the society again with their religion. That many Europeans, among who Fortuyn, were [in fact] less free from the religious yearning than they themselves probably thought, made the confrontation with Islam even more painful for them.” [Buruma]

The likes of Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali broke decades of silence. They were responsible for talking about the taboos, for raising national debate and attention toward problems that had for too long been swept under the carpet of multi-culturalism. And the great(est) irony of it all: they were silenced because they spoke in a way that the Dutch have traditionally been proud of—direct, offensive and crude.

“The demand of total honesty, the thought that tact is a form of hypocrisy and that everything, regardless of how sensitive it is, in all openness and without any restriction could be said, the raising of insolence to a sort of moral ideal, that cultured lack of sensitivity is something that we often come across in Dutch behaviour.” [Buruma]
Certainly in other countries statements about Muslims being ‘goat-f*uckers’ (geitenneukers), or the Prophet as a ‘rapist’, or Islam as a ‘backward’ religion would probably be whitewashed. But here, as van Gogh, Fortuyn, and Hirsi Ali have proven, it seems to barely raise an eyebrow. But despite their outspoken(-ly offensive) opinions, they wanted to be heard, and all had a large audience willing to listen.

“Irony can be a healthy antitoxin against dogmatism, but also a blank page for irresponsibility. Extreme and aggressive statements are triviliased after the poisonous arrows have reached their target with the assertion that it was only meant to be facetious.Theo van Gogh called himself a village fool, as if it allowed him thereby to say what he wanted. Then again, at the same time he wanted to be taken seriously.” [Buruma]

As a result of the breaking of taboos, the Pandora’s Box was opened. We have seen in recent years a strong reaction to years of non-action in the immigration and social integration issue. And the people hurt most by the stringent measures taken after this sudden ‘awakening’ by the political elites to the muddled state of the multi-culti society are the minorities.

There are countless stories of the disgraceful treatment of asylum seekers, calls for restricted immigration policies, demands for immigrants to forcibly integrate, as well as problems of unemployment and discrimination amongst minority groups, especially with the Muslim population. They seem to have to bear the burden of everything that is wrong with the country, from crime to unemployment, from violence on the streets to fraudulent welfare benefit claims. They have to make the effort to integrate, whereas the ‘indigenous’ population need not undertake any such action, when in fact social integration, dialogue and interaction is very much a two-way street.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Volkert van der G. & Mohammed B.

(WARNING: content may be 'disturbing')

What would happen when you put an Islamic extremist and an fanatic animal rights activist in the same prison cell? The theatre play ‘Volkert van der G. & Mohammed B.’ tries to construct a most unlikely encounter between the two people who committed perhaps the most ground-breaking (political) murders in recent Dutch history.

The 90 minutes dialogue between the murderers of Pim Fortuyn (by Volkert in 2002) and Theo van Gogh (by Mohammed 2004) does not reveal much that people do not already know about the murders. Instead, they reveal the people behind the murders. Volkert shot Pim Fortuyn in the back months before parliamentary elections which could very well have thrust the popular politician into the position of Prime Minister. Fortuyn was a right-wing politician, who was openly homosexual and openly against immigration and what he termed the ‘Islamisation of the Netherlands’. He wanted to abolish Article 1 of the Constitution—the foundation of non-discrimination and equality of all citizens in this country, arguing that certain unequal people should not be treated equally. Theo van Gogh was shot numerous times in the chest and had his neck slashed by a butcher knife in broad-daylight by Mohammed. Van Gogh was a renowned filmmaker and columnist, known for his provocative opinions, some harshly critical of Muslims. Shortly before his death, he collaborated with self-proclaimed messiah Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the film Submission, which dealt with skewed interpretations of the Qur’an and abuse of women.

The stage was simple, two old wooden stools and desks, and a worn-out mattress for the two to share. And share the two characters did, pouring out their emotions, motivations and experiences which together help to shape them as self-professed ‘soldiers’ in their individual struggles against what they see as what is terribly wrong with the world today. Not once is the flamboyant politician who or the scruffy filmmaker whose mouth never seems to be without a cigarette mentioned by name. Instead, Volkert refers to his victim as ‘the bald man’ (de kale man), and Mohammed refers to his as ‘the fat man’ (de dikke man). For these are the characteristics of the two national ‘heroes’ which are imprinted in ordinary people’s minds.

While Volkert laments the horrendous tests and experiments that millions of animals have to undergo for the sake of our consumerist society, and rants about the destruction nature to provide for our material wellbeing, Mohammed preaches the decadence of the western society we (and he) live in, warning death and revenge against all who do not believe and who live in a state of godless materialism. Both are driven by obsession, but Mohammed seems convinced of his role as the faceless soldier in Allah’s ‘holy war’, whereas Volkert seems to be more driven by bloodlust and his own insanity. Until this unlikely meeting of two murderers, they only know of each other from what they read in the newspapers. But the meeting brings them together, and brings the audience closer to understanding what it is that unites them.

And the meeting is also a therapeutic anti-climax for both Volkert and Mohammed. Being so alike but also different in many ways, they are able to critically comment on each other’s actions and motivations. Volkert accuses Mohammed, and all extremists, be it in the Islamic, fascist, Christian or Orthodox forms, as closeted homosexuals. What unite these extremists is their disdain of certain groups of people, an intense bias and hatred which feeds on their own sense of inferiority and shame and inability to express their nascent but frustrated sexual desires which they have time and again been told is simply sin. For the religious extremists, the oppression of women, chastising them as objects of desire which need to be subdued and segregated from men, is according to Volkert but another way to reject them because the thought of anything remotely intimate, like touch, or sexual, like intercourse, is repulsive to closeted homosexuals. That’s why women are raped, and often from behind, so that the men with these extremist interpretations of their divine texts do not need to face their shame, and do not need to face the people they’d rather not have sex with. The unflattering remarks go on: monasteries are like ‘dark rooms’, church altars heaven for priests who rape young boys, the back chambres of mosques serve similar functions. Strict religious indoctrination and fanatism seem to be the cause of man’s frustrations, in the way certain natural acts like sex and desire are demonized as deadly sins, and thereby also the cause of man’s ills, in the way that unvented frustrations lead to dehumanising acts of abuse, oppression and suffering.

Provocative remarks and perspectives from a man on the brink of sanity, yes. But it does make you wonder how much truth there is in what he says. Especially the suggestion by Volkert that those who committed the acts of 9-11 were all closeted as well.

Mohammed in return confronts Volkert with his mental illness, saying Volkert has psychological problems because of a deficiency in Vitamin B-12. Volkert never received a life-sentence, but only 18 years, because it could not be argued before the court that he had political motivations, since he was first and foremost an animal rights activist. Mohammed calls Volkert a ‘coward’ for not being able look at his victim in the eye before giving Fortuyn his ‘sentence’. Volkert admitted to the murder, based on the fact that he was convinced Fortuyn was a growing threat to the stability and justice within society, especially for the underprivileged like immigrants and welfare recipients. Mohammed confronts Volkert with the fact that he does not realise that he is himself a soldier of god, and that they have more in common than Volkert would like to deny. Mohammed argues that only with love and compassion can they both be liberated from this world and delivered to utopia. Both are attracted to the notion of suicide, but Mohammed cannot do so unless it is justified in the name of a greater cause. Volkert’s own suicide attempt previously failed, and was rescued by doctors who stopped ‘blood pouring from the pulse’.

The play takes a dramatic turn in the end. Mohammed reveals he stuffed explosives up his rectum. Again Mohammed pleads the case of their salvation, and suggests there is only one way to salvation, a way out of this world that both he and Volkert have been wanting. Mohammed has the hole. Volkert holds the key. They must work together. Love, Mohammed says to Volkert, make love and they can be delivered. They both disappear to the side of the stage. Mohammed tells Volkert to embrace him. Mohammed’s last words was an ultimate cry to his saviour, to the Almighty, to the All-Seeing, the All-Knowing.

‘Oh God’, he cries out, in a voice full of satisfaction and lust.

A loud explosion and blinding lights.


Click here for pictures of the performance.

Wereldhavendagen 2006

Braving gale force winds I stood on the Erasmusbrug and watched the evening spectacle of this year's Wereldhavendagen (World Harbour Days). Each year, the Port of Rotterdam opens its ports and gates to visitors and numerous festivities and excursions so that ordinary people can explore the Europe's largest and busiest seaport.

The port and the city are alsmost inseperable, and have a history closely tied to the Netherlands' economy and life. The majority of goods that arrive and leave the country go through the harbour, which is connected with an extensive network of railways and roads. Rotterdam itself is a modern city, and the only one in the Netherlands with a skyline of skyscrappers to speak of. 'Thanks' to the Germans who bombarded the city and its strategic harbour till Netherlands capitulated during the Second World War, Rotterdam has had to rebuild itself almost from scratch within the last couple of decades. No wonder this harbour-city with its international connections as well as connections with the rest of the country, is the pride and joy of the city. And the events this weekend celebrate that sense of nostalgia to the past when cruise ships moored on the docks, that sense of achievement you can clearly see when you see the tall skyscrappers compete with giant girafe-like cranes, and the sense of hope as the harbour and the city plans to develop into the future.

Laser lights, skylights, neolights boomboxes and ear-deafening music ushered in the evening's programme at 9pm sharp. The crowd was scarce at the time, perhaps deterred by the overcast skies, and, as soon as I stood still for a couple of minutes to take in the music and light show, the strong, strong winds. At times I couldn't stand still, since the sea winds were so fierce and unrelenting on the bridge. I felt a headache start to creep. I felt myself dread pessimistically the likelihood of me having to wake up in the morning with a sore throat and the beginnings of a cold. Forturnately as I left the house earlier on I decided against wearing just a T-shirt and wore a light-blue turtle neck sweater instead. Couples hid behind each other, embraced one another to keep warm. I embraced the wind that seeped through and triggered goosebumps and slight trembles.

There were different shows, each with very different characteristics. A wonderful 'dance of the cranes', as the gigantic steel storks turned their cumbersome bodies and seemed to gyrate on the spot to the beat of the music. With their massive 'hands' they dug into the river Maas and hoisted tonnes of water into the air. When releashed the water shed like a beautiful shower, sending vapour and moisture plummeting to the river below like a trickling waterfall. Colourful lights shone on the water made it all the more dazzling.

Then there was a choir singing so traditional Dutch hits, most about the life and drudgery of a sailor, about the goodbyes, the longings and the loneliness at sea. To contrast, a live DJ mixed and blasted disco and techno songs into the nightsky, this time with spiralling lights and flashing lasers as the dancers in the air and on the surface of the sea. I stood and could not keep my body from wriggling a bit to the beat of some remixes of songs I liked.

Rounding off the evening, the longest display of fireworks I've ever seen, projecting multi-coloured flashes and deafening explosions into the sky from a barge in the middle of the
river. I was bedazzled by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of shooting stars, giant balls of sparkling fairy dust, eliptical wheels of purple and white, rockets and missiles that soared up into the heavens and exploded with a loud sounding bang, leaving a trail of dense fog and smell of gunpowder. Soon I forget all about the cold, all about the pain of having to stand almost two hours.

Because it was worth it.

Go to my travelog for more pictures!