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The Dutch PR Problem

Does the resignation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Dutch parliament point to a larger dilemma in Dutch society?

May 25, 2006

Does the resignation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Dutch parliament point to a larger dilemma in Dutch society?

Squint through the thick clouds of smoke in Amsterdam's Café de Jaaren and you can almost see the anguish floating over the newspaper-strewn tables.

With their foreheads resting heavily on their hands, Amsterdammers are gravely reading the latest news about the Ayaan Hirsi Ali affair.

Hirsi Ali is the controversial Somali immigrant who became a fierce critic of Islam's treatment of women — and of Europe's acceptance of repressive and intolerant Islamic traditions in their midst.

She became a member of parliament, endured continuous death threats and lived in hiding. Then, last week, she resigned her seat in parliament after the Dutch immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, declared her citizenship invalid.

A television program had brought attention to lies in Hirsi Ali's asylum application. She had already confessed to those lies years earlier, saying she was trying desperately to flee an arranged marriage.

The citizenship ruling may now be reversed — both Parliament and the Prime Minister ordered Verdonk to find a way for Hirsi Ali to remain Dutch. Even so, she is now moving to Washington, where she is sure to become a superstar.

The latest news for readers in the café comes from the always-bland Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who somehow managed to keep a low profile while the nation simmered.

Balkenende has now spoken: He is worried, very worried, he says, about the harm to the Netherlands' image caused by the Hirsi Ali affair.

Newspapers all over the world have carried editorials mercilessly skewering this manifestation of Dutch intolerance. The time for action has come.

Dutch ambassadors around the world have now been ordered to get to work at counteracting this alarming assault on the traditional Dutch standing as international paragon of all that is good and tolerant.

Holland has long basked in its self-image as a bastion of tolerance, and it has done an impressive job of spreading that image around the world.

Sure, the Netherlands is the land of gay marriage and legal prostitution and coffee shops listing varieties of marijuana on their menus. But the truth about this country is that, above all, it is a nation that cannot handle conflict.

If people want to smoke a little pot, why fight them? If gay couples want to get married, it's their lives. If the Nazis want to deport a few thousand Jews, who are we to stand in their way?

Instead of worrying about the national image, Balkenende would do well to look into the national spine. Dutch values appear to be hiding inside a self-image that is little more than fantasy — a fantasy the world has accepted without challenge.

Consider the story of Anne Frank. The Dutch have somehow managed to shine in the warm glow of the Anne Frank story. A line of visitors permanently snakes around the corner from the house on the Prinzengracht where the young Jewish diarist, a refugee from Germany, hid from the Nazis.

Most visitors think of the Dutch as her saviors. But they forget the end of the story. Anne Frank, like more than seventy percent of the country's Jews — the greatest percentage in Western Europe — was sent to her death, betrayed by her neighbors.

The Dutch, who still see their WWII history through as a heroic fantasy of resistance, did in fact resist in small numbers. But they also provided Western Europe’s largest contingent of volunteers to the Waffen SS.

The Dutch have not proven particularly brave at standing up for their principles or defending anything or anyone who made them uncomfortable.

When the news surfaced that the Dutch government was stripping Hirsi Ali of her citizenship, turning her into a stateless refugee, my Dutch friend, an adult child of Holocaust survivors, told me, her voice cracking with anger, "Nothing has changed from when they would turn in a Jew for seven guilders."

If you think it's a stretch to conflate the Hirsi Ali saga with the Holocaust ponder for a moment the unspeakably selfish and cowardly behavior of Hirsi Ali's neighbors.

In 2004, the short film "Submission" was aired on Dutch television. The film, written by Hirsi Ali and directed by Theo van Gogh, was an attack on Islam's treatment of women. Nothing ignites Hirsi Ali's passions more.

Having herself endured genital mutilation and a forced marriage, she cries out that practices such as these must be stopped, particularly in the West.

The film also ignited her enemies, who promptly assassinated van Gogh, pinning to his body a note warning that Hirsi Ali was next on the assassination list.

The authorities knew the threat was real. She went into hiding, moving constantly and growing miserable in the process. Finally, she found a place in the Hague, where she said she was finally happy, despite having to share the apartment with security personnel and having no personal life.

Her neighbors protested, saying the presence of a threatened woman eroded their property values. Besides, they argued, they felt unsafe living near her.

After all, someone wanted to kill Hirsi Ali. They felt endangered and inconvenienced. The neighbors went to court and a Dutch judge agreed with them, ordering Hirsi Ali to vacate her home in four months.

The entire nation felt endangered and inconvenienced by Hirsi Ali. That's why she has to leave. She stood up for the principles of an open, secular, liberal democratic society when other members of that society refused to face them. Then they blamed her for the threat.

When Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad sparked riots, the media outlets, as most others around the world, decided not to publish the cartoons.

She disagreed. "The cartoons should be displayed everywhere," she argued. Muslim radicals, she said, constantly say Christians and Jews are inferior. They demean and attack women, gays, and other religions. Then they demand reverence for their beliefs.

The West, she said, must stop turning the other cheek. Hirsi Ali insists that we must "defend the right to offend." That approach is exactly the opposite of the preferred way of doing business in the Netherlands.

Here, the path of least resistance is one of going along, risking as little as possible, not making a lot of waves. Immediately after the announcement that she would lose her citizenship, a poll found 80% approval for the decision.

When the decision raised international criticism, the number dropped to about 50%.The Dutch hold many easy, uncontroversially high-minded ideals and courage-free convictions.

They like to send cash to the poor and help feed the hungry. But they hate conflict. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a 21st century example of the cold hearts and cartilaginous spine that sent more than 70% of Dutch Jews to their deaths in the 20th century.

Holland's problem is not one of public relations. It is one of nerve, spine and, most of all, heart.