Tuesday, September 12, 2006

looking backward, looking forward

So in one week I will be moving back to the United States for an indeterminate amount of time. Why indeterminate? I have come to really like living in the Netherlands for a variety of reasons and it is entirely possible I can get a PhD position here and even find a place to stay. Even if I can't get a PhD position I have been thinking about coming back to live here anyway, getting a job. But I'm very skeptical about finding a job here. So I'm a bit uncertain of this working out. On the other hand, I don't know how happy I will be or what to do for a job while I am home. in any case, I will never forget what a unique and wonderful place this is and how lucky I was to have the opportunity to be here when I was.

I came here in the fall of 2004, not knowing much about the local culture. A few weeks after I arrived, a horrible crime was committed which put some of the faultlines in Dutch society into sharp relief. A controversial filmmaker was assassinated in the streets of Amsterdam. Bystanders alerted police, who ran down the killer on foot. His name was Mohammed Bouyeri, but in accordance with Dutch anonymity regulations, he became known in the news media as Mohammed B. He killed the director, Theo van Gogh, because of a 10-minute film he made with the Somalian-born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali about the repression of women within Islamic societies, entitled Submission.

The title itself, "Submission", is the translation of the word "Islam" in English. In the film, the women's naked bodies are veiled with semi-transparent shrouds as they kneel in prayer, telling their stories as if they are speaking to Allah. Qur'anic verses unfavourable to women are painted on their bodies in Arabic. After the movie was released in 2004, both van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats. Van Gogh did not take these very seriously and refused any protection - reportedly telling Hirsi Ali: "Who would want to kill the village idiot?"

He also caused widespread resentment in the Muslim community by consistently referring to them as geitenneukers (goat-fuckers). Although it is not clear whether Van Gogh actually coined the term geitenneukers, he certainly popularized it.

For a while Bouyeri worked as a volunteer at Eigenwijks, a neighborhood organization in the Slotervaart suburb of Amsterdam. He started to radicalize shortly after his mother died and his father re-married in the fall of 2003. He started to live according to strict Islamic rules. As a result he could perform fewer and fewer tasks at Eigenwijks. For example, he refused to serve alcohol and did not want to be present at activities attended by both women and men. Finally, he put an end to his activities at Eigenwijks altogether. He grew a beard and began to wear a djellaba. He frequently visited the El Tawheed mosque where he met other radical Muslims, among whom were terrorism suspect Samir Azzouz. With them he is said to have formed the Hofstad Network, a Dutch terrorist cell.

Mohammed Bouyeri assassinated van Gogh in the early morning of Tuesday November 2, 2004, in Amsterdam in front of the Amsterdam East borough office (stadsdeelkantoor) on the corner of the Linnaeusstraat and Tweede Oosterparkstraat streets. He shot him with eight bullets from a HS2000 (a handgun produced in 2000 in Croatia), and Van Gogh died on the spot. Bouyeri then slit van Gogh's throat and then stabbed him in the chest. Two knives were left implanted in his torso, one pinning a five-page note to his body. He claims to have murdered van Gogh to fulfill his duty as a Muslim. A wave of arson attacks against mosques followed.

On July 26, 2005, Bouyeri received a life sentence without parole. Life imprisonment is the severest punishment in the Netherlands and is always without parole. Bouyeri is only the 28th person to receive this punishment since 1945, excluding war criminals.

Although Mohammad Bouyeri may be a name well known in America among those who noticed Van Gogh's death, there is another second-generation Moroccan who has become more well known in the Netherlands. He represents the opposite image of a Dutch person of Moroccan descent: not assimilationist, but an innovative representative of a culture within a culture. He combines stand-up comedy with Dutch hiphop and is not only popular with Dutch youths but also welcome guest at various radio and TV shows. I even saw him in a funny candy ad the other day. His name is Ali Bouali, or as he has come to be known, Ali B.

Like France, the Netherlands has an African-flavored hip hop scene made up of not only people from Africa, but also Suriname and the Antilles in South America as well as a large population of Moroccan and Turkish people who were descended from guest workers who began to come over to Holland during the post WWII reconstruction. Their children have a legal status in Dutch society which is frequently discriminatory in effect, if not in intent. Many non-Muslim Dutch citizens fear that Holland will lose its traditional tolerance and Western liberalism, becoming increasingly influenced by Islamic viewpoints on these issues. These fears are fueled by population growth studies and projections that show the Muslim community growing much faster than that of the "autochtonen" (autochthonous Dutch).

Since I have been here, Ali B. has had a string of hits and has been frequently featured on other artists' tracks, most significantly with Marco Borsato on the song "Wat zou je doen?" for the charity War Child. Although not hardcore political, Ali has proven willing to poke fun at the foibles of both sides of the Netherlands.

In a stunning breach of royal protocol, last year Bouali jumped off a stage to embrace Queen Beatrix, a woman reowned for her stiffness and reserve. He is quite aware of the possible claims of being an integrationist by his critics, as he raps almost entirely in Dutch, but he says "I cannot be a role model. I can only be myself."

All of this gives me hope for the future. For if in a country so seemingly divided and nativist in many hysterical accounts, people can accept Ali B. as one of their own, maybe things will work out okay after all.

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