Published 09 Jan 08
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
The Newest Weapon Against Militant Islam: Name That Tune*
Happy New Year.
On December 21, 2007, police in Belgium arrested 14 Belgian Muslims on charges that they were planning to free imprisoned Al Qaeda member Nizar Trabelsi, who was arrested shortly after the September 11 attacks and convicted of plotting to bomb a NATO air base. Authorities then issued a terror alert for the entire holiday period, concerned that the group were planning further attacks throughout the country, including the Brussels metro system.
A day earlier, Germany's Interior Ministry released a report about the rising radicalism among its Muslim population. Six percent of German Muslims, it showed, support terror-based violence. This was a marked change from the 2006 estimates in which 32,000 were believed to hold such beliefs; with a Muslim population of about three million, that six percent comes, rather, to 180,000 - basically equivalent to the entire population of Reno, Nevada.
On December 31, 2007, Dutch police in Rotterdam apprehended two Dutch-Moroccans and one Sudanese man whom, according to some (unconfirmed) reports, were planning to blow up the Erasmus Bridge - site of the city's New Year's festivities, where some 15,000 gathered in celebration.
One January 2, 2008, the first issues of the year's newspapers in the Netherlands included, sprawled across page one of national daily de Trouw, a full-page ad for tolerance. That was it: a photograph of the hands of men of many races stacked atop one another to form a column - the only thing resembling a "column" on the entire newsprint page. The ad, which also took up the entirety of the newspaper's page two, carried the signature of 57 self-described "prominent white Netherlanders" who, in a laughable gesture of hypocrisy, made a point of noting the fact that they were both white and prominent. It was to be understood, therefore, that this was A Good Thing.
This, of course, is precisely what the world needs at a moment when religious fanatics are loading themselves with bombs and planning to wipe out tens of thousands of people on a night when the entire world celebrates the promise of the future: less news, more ads. Brilliant, really: if we did this every day, we could wipe out world poverty and natural disasters for eternity. "Forget about that stuff," news editors could say. "Buy Buick. Wear Levis. Bet you can't eat just one."
Typically Dutch, this particular ad declared, "We wish to encourage people to name the problems in our society, grab them, and solve them, so that citizens are brought together. We want to call attention to those places where people from different backgrounds can work together. We see fantastic examples in all sectors: art and culture, media, sports, science, education, business, and philosophy."
Oh, okay. That oughta do it. You hold the bomb, Joe, we'll ask Achmed, to here, light it, and I'll see how many people I can get to name the problem. Instant world peace.
So successful, in fact, was the ad in its call to "name the problems" so that they can then be solved that it received the approving praise of Muslim Liberation Party Hizb ut Tahir, who called it "a good initiative." And who is Hizb ut Tahir? An international political group promoting an Islamist state, it is currently banned in England (though reportedly remains active there anyway) and, according to a follow-up article in de Trouw, which seems to have decided to return to news reporting after all, is being watched by Dutch Intelligence, who claim they pose "a potential threat to democracy." It's not quite the praise the signatories were looking for, I'm sure.
Nonetheless, I can't help but wonder what problems Hizb ut Tahir names, and what it is they call them. Are they the same problems the ad's esteemed authors see? If Bob names "homophobia" a problem and Mehmet names the problem "homosexuality," what have we resolved, exactly? And how is that going to keep the bomber off the bridge?
The same issue of the newspaper in which all news was stripped from the front page in favor of a paid call for "tolerance" includes the following important stories: Nine questions from the national junior science quiz, like "why do you get a headache if you eat ice cream too fast?"; "Holland loves the Clintons"; "China Goes Crazy With Flowers"; and my personal favorite, "Molotov Cocktails Are Tradition, Like New Year's Donuts." (Certain donuts, called oliebollen, are a favored sweet at New Year's and throughout the holiday season in the Netherlands.)
This last, please note, was not the comment of an 18-year-old hooligan. It was the response of a police expert at the Dutch Police Academy. Indeed, the Dutch do go wild with fireworks on New Year's eve - so much so that a radical Muslim group once targeted that night as the moment to assassinate controversial then-Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman known for her hostile stance against Islam. With all the noise from the fireworks, her potential killers reasoned, no one would hear the gunshots being fired. (Radicals, apparently, do not know much about silencers.) On New Year's eve, cars burn, houses catch fire, and this year, an ambulance in Amsterdam failed to reach a victim in time because its windows were blown out en route. "Tradition," says the expert at the Academy of Police.
There's a pattern here. A terror alert just over Holland's border receives passing mention when the first arrests are made - then nothing. Across another border, the government counts 180,000 potential terrorists-in-training. The first newspaper to appear after the arrest of three men planning a terrorist attack in one of the country's major cities makes no mention whatsoever of the incident. And throwing Molotov cocktails into the open windows of homes is, well, "tradition."
Some months ago, I met with an American counter-terrorism consultant who was visiting the Netherlands for a conference about the radicalization of European Muslim youth, a trend felt particularly strongly in this country. We spoke of the 2004 killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical, an event seen often as "the 9/11 of the Netherlands," and which marked the first public awareness of local, native extremist groups populated largely by the children and grandchildren of Moroccan immigrants. These are mostly men and women in their 20s, born and raised in Western culture, with very definite plans - some backed by foreign assistance - for very targeted attacks. Said the counter-terrorism expert, "I never understood why Holland made such a fuss about van Gogh's death. It was just one man. It was just an ordinary murder."
Name that problem?
I can do that: stubborn blindness.
I can name another: too much talk.
And here is yet a third one: danger.
But I have news for all those white prominents whose typeset autographs, like graffiti, litter the newspaper's page two: Even with fifty seven signatures below them, not those names, nor the naming of them, will ever make a difference.
* A note to our international readers: "Name That Tune" was the title of a popular American TV show of the 1950s which was recreated in the 1970s and again in the '80s. MTV is rumored to be planning its own version to premier in 2008.
— Abigail R. Esman is 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, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West to be published by Praeger in 2010.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2008 Abigail R. Esman
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