The raging debate

March 7, 2005

THE MURDER OF FILM-MAKER THEO VAN GOGH, IN THE STREETS OF AMSTERDAM FOUR MONTHS AGO, triggered brief but widespread panic in political circles. Streets in Rotterdam were cordoned off as police units beseiged houses and arrested terrorist suspects. Fires were started in churches, mosques and schools. Threats of more murders of prominent politicians prompted well-known Dutch figures to ponder emigration publicly.

An extended season of rigorous debate was opened. Large full-colour posters around Amsterdam invited all to join debate-cum-concerts in pop-temples like the Paradiso. Nightly television talk-shows presented intense in-your-face dialogue between muslims and non-muslims. Parliamentary debates focussed on parliamentarians Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, forced to live in seclusion since being threatened with assassination in a note found on Van Gogh’s butchered body. In local community centres, on the internet and in articles in almost every publication you pick up, the debate rages on.

The implications of the murder were immediately felt all across Europe. No border could restrict terrorist cooperation of the literal cloak-and-dagger variety. Who would be the next victim of this brigade of throat-slitting martyrs?

London’s Sunday Times has followed the debate, declaring it to be of importance for all of Europe, not just for Holland. The issues included how to protect the freedoms of the open society including freedom of speech while upholding the rights of minorities; how to promote a harmonious multi-cultural society and yet deal with the clear and present danger of radical Muslim violence. These are the same issues being faced in Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark and other European countries with Muslim immigrant communities.

If the terrorist aimed to spread fear and confusion, they certainly succeeded. A climate of uncertainty, vulnerability, polarisation and finger-pointing has ensued. Democracy itself seemed under siege.

Minister of immigration and integration, Rita Verdonk – also on the hit list – called the dream of the harmonious multi-cultural society simply na√Øve. Dutch people are upset that Muslim immigrants from Morocco, for example, simply do not assimilate and never learn Dutch values. Some immigrants also tell their fellow immigrants to go home if they don’t like the Dutch way of life. Deputy mayor of Amsterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim, found himself on the hit list for doing just that. His boss, Amsterdam’s Jewish mayor, Job Cohen, tried to be a reconciling influence and was also put on the list for his efforts. Anyone making any critical observations about Islam was now threatened with the day when “hair-raising screams will be squeezed from the lungs of the non-believers – the sword will be lifted against them.”

Van Gogh’s killer, Mohammed B., was not always so radical. He spoke fluent Dutch, and was a computer science enthusiast who enjoyed a beer at the local pool bar, wearing western clothes – a well-integrated immigrant. After his mother’s death by cancer three years ago, he changed, wore only traditional dress, grew a beard and spent much time in study of radical Islam. He attended the Al Tawheed mosque, a hotbed of radicalism where Christians and Jews were reportedly called ‘kindling for hell fire’. Homosexuals, it was advocated, should be thrown off tall buildings head-first. Mohammed then befriended a known terrorist, Samir Azzouz, accused of planning to blow up Schiphol Airport. Together they studied jihad videos, investigators say.

How many more Mohammed B.s are in the making in Holland? and Britain? France? Germany…? Where will this all lead?

And how should we as Christians respond?

Surely we have to sympathise with the majority of Muslims who are appalled at the Dutch government’s acceptance of drugs, prostitution and gay marriage. J. Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes in a recent Christianity Today article: Islamic cultures believe the West is ‘barbaric’, showing lack of respect for the past, religion, family, and honor, while overindulging in sports, entertainment, and sex. The result has been social atomization, dehumanization, and harm to the family and community. These ills have led not only to conflict with traditional cultures, but also to the West’s moral and demographic decline.

Many Christians would agree with at least some of these sentiments. Of course, we would differ on how to respond. Islam is not a religion of grace. Although the Koran encourages forgiveness, unlike Christianity it does not require it. Islam does not respect free choice in the same way as Christianity does.

Can Islam co-exist with other worldviews? Since Islam is not just a part of a culture, but embraces all of life, Muslims have great difficulty adjusting to pluralism. Universal divine law holds non-believers (infidels) as second-class at best.

These are issues we can no longer ignore. We have, it seems, reached a critical phase in Europe’s relationship now with the growing Muslim movement. This has been building for decades.

In my own personal attempt to understand the various onion layers of issues, I have identified the following seven categories of responses to the current situation.

· Radical Muslims : the small noisy committed core of radical moslims, like Mahommed B., whose declared intentions are to subvert western open society and all the permissive, blasphemies it tolerates; including apparently ‘decent’ Moslim youth raised in Holland’s cities but turned radical by subversive elements.

· Mainstream moderate Muslims, who, despite their opposition to Bush’s war are now actively cooperating with governments to identify radical elements and ask for their expulsion – as is happening in both Holland and England.

· Young Post-modern Muslims who are not deeply religious and identify more with urban youth culture rather than that of the religion and countries of their origin.

· Those Anxious not to offend the Muslim community further, who compare discriminated Muslims now with discriminated Jews before the war, who blame modernity for creating radical reactions, and who interpret any criticism of Islam as incitement to hatred.

· Those Cautiously Wary of the challenge of Islam, yet distinguish different streams of Islam and want constructive engagement with moderates, including liberals who insist on freedom of religion; and Dutch evangelical tv-host Andries Knevel who has announced his intention of giving more positive attention to moderate Muslim leaders.

· Uncompromising Liberals like Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders who consider Islam as a whole to be incompatable with the open society, and therefore large Muslim populations to be a danger to democracy.

· Right wing nationalist extremists – more vocal perhaps in Belgium, France, Germany and England than in Holland – who call for the expulsion of Muslim ethnic groups.

What do you think? Where do we best fit in this picture? What is our response to be, as Christians? Are we being na√Øve allowing large communities to Muslims to develop to the point of then demanding their own sharia law for their community? Or is it not Christian responsibility to welcome the stranger, love your neighbour, do good to those who hate you….?

How committed are we to freedom of religion for Muslims? Freedom to worship of their own choice? Freedom to build their mosques, with dominant minarets? Or do we want to claim the same monolithic control on religious expression as Islam does in most Muslim nations?

How then do we ensure that the growing Muslim influence
is not permitted to erode the constitutional foundations of western democracy? Democracy has and w
ill be used by non-democrati
c movements in the past – the Nazis, for example.

I would like to open this question up to discussion, to hear from you how we as followers of Jesus can best respond in love and justice in our society in crisis today.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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