“Clash of civilizations,” some say. Others call it the “failure of multiculturalism.” Either way, the cultural conflicts between some Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide continue to play out as Western countries struggle to reconcile their own cultures with the demands of a growing Muslim population.
But herein lies the problem: in many ways, the two cultures are ultimately irreconcilable. There is no middle ground. And hence, the conflicts and the tugs-of-war continue.
Over the past two months, the events surrounding controversial Dutch columnist Ebru Umar have encapsulated that “clash” at its core, a salient metaphor for the tensions, particularly in Europe, between the West’s Muslim populations and its own. More, they illuminate the enormity of the problems we still face.
Umar is no stranger to the spotlight, or to the wrath of Dutch Muslims who read her many columns, most of them published in the free newspaper, Metro. For years, the Dutch-born daughter of secular Turkish immigrants has raged against the failure of other Dutch-born children of immigrants, mostly Moroccan, to assimilate into the culture of their birth. She loudly condemns Dutch-Moroccan families for the shockingly high rates of criminality and violence among Dutch-Moroccan boys – as much as 22 times the rate of Dutch native youth – a phenomenon she ascribes to their Islamic upbringing and their parents’ refusal to allow their children to mingle among the Dutch.
But her critiques have earned her no converts. Instead, Dutch-Moroccan youth, whom she calls “Mocros,” have regularly taunted her, both online and in the street.
This past April, however, Umar added a new team of enemies to her portfolio: when, in response to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erodogan’s demand that a German satirist be prosecuted for insulting him on TV, Umar tweeted “f***erdogan,” Dutch Turks turned on her in fury. “How dare you insult our president!” cried these Dutch-born subjects of Holland’s King Willem-Alexander. And while Umar took a brief holiday on the Turkish coast, one such Dutch-Turk turned her in to the police. She was arrested at her vacation home in Kusadasi, and though released the following day, was forbidden to leave the country. The charge: Insulting the Turkish president. It took 17 days before discussions between Holland’s prime minister and Turkish authorities enabled her to return to the Netherlands.
But she could not return home. In her absence, Umar’s home had been burgled and vandalized, the word “whore” scrawled on a stairway wall. Death threats followed her both in Turkey and on her return. When it became clear she could not ever return to the apartment she had lived in for nearly 20 years, she announced on Twitter (Ebru Umar posts constantly on Twitter) that she would be moving out.
Meantime, in Metro and elsewhere, she continued her criticism of Moroccans and, as she herself notes, of Islam overall.
And so it was that on the day Ebru Umar moved out of her apartment in Amsterdam, a group of Dutch-Moroccans in their twenties came to see her off, taunting her with chants: Ebru has to mo-o-ve, nyah nyah.” Though furious, she ignored them – until one of them began to film her loading her belongings into her car. For Umar, being taunted by the very people whose threats had forced her from her home in the first place was bad enough: but this violation of what little privacy remained for her was more than she could take. She grabbed her iPhone and began filming them right back. “Go ahead,” she challenged. “Say it for the camera.”
Scuffles ensued, and soon one of the Moroccans had her iPhone in his hand. The others laughed. Then they ran away. Umar filed a police report and, still smarting, took to Twitter once again: “C**t Moroccans, I hate you,” she posted. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you and I hate your Muslim brothers and sisters, too. F**k you all.” (It is important to note that, however offensive, the expression “c**t Moroccans” is a common epithet in the Netherlands.)
But, hey – she was angry. Her phone had been snatched from her hand in a brutal, aggressive gesture that left her feeling violated and, vulnerable. She had just been forced to leave her home. She had endured prison, a criminal inquiry, and death threats, all at the hands of the same group on whom she now spewed her fury.
Her words may have been harsh or inappropriate, but they were words. She had not struck her tormenters as they filmed her. She did not call for their demise, or strap a bomb around her waist and visit the local mosques.
She took to Twitter and said: I hate you.
“But hate,” she tells me later in an e-mail, “is just an emotion.” And in a column penned more than two years ago, she observed, “Hate me till you’re purple, but keep your claws off me.”
Here is where Ebru Umar’s story becomes the story of the Western world. In response to her words (“I hate you. F*** you”), several Muslims – Moroccans and others – filed charges against her for hate speech. (Though ironically, “I hate you” does not legally qualify as “hate speech.”) Such words are an attack upon their honor, a humiliation: and if there is one thing experts on Arab and Muslim culture will agree on, it is thesignificance of humiliation and honor in governing their lives. For this, Dutch Moroccan youth threaten Umar on the streets, and have done so, she says, for years: after all, she insults them.
But in truth, it isn’t just the youth. The broader Muslim community stands by, silent: they do not condemn the youth who taunt her, who rip her telephone from her hands, or post things on the Internet like “We hate you, too – can you please kill yourself?” or “Oh, how I hope she ends up like Theo van Gogh.”
Theo van Gogh, also a controversial columnist, was shot and stabbed to death in 2014 by a radical Dutch-Moroccan Muslim.The commenter wishing her the same fate used the name “IzzedinAlQassam,” the founder of modern Palestinian jihad, and an icon of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
For people like this, it doesn’t matter that Umar – or van Gogh – inflicted no violence, any more than it mattered that the editors of Charlie Hebdo were not violent. It was the insult, the humiliation – to them, to Islam, to Mohammed – that mattered: and an insult, a humiliation, deserves a violent response.
Indeed, much of the Muslim violence in Europe is about exactly this: intimidating non-Muslims into a fearful capitulation, where words like “I hate Muslims” and drawings of Mohammed become extinct because the Muslim communities insist that it be so. It is about forcing Westerners to rearrange their lives, their culture, to accommodate the needs and values and culture of Islam. It is about control, and the power over freedom. And it is about creating a culture in which honor is injured by words and restored through violence and terror.
When Umar says “I hate you,” what she hates, really, isn’t the Moroccans who attacked her or their “Muslim brothers and sisters.” What she hates is this – this effort, this battle over honor and speech and freedom, and this clash between violence and expression, guns and conversation.
“I don’t want Muslims to leave,” she tells me, again by e-mail. “I want them to embrace the Enlightenment, Western society, the Netherlands.” And in turn, she calls on the Dutch to “set rules: no violence in any sense. And stop using culture or religion as an excuse for behavior.”
Ebru Umar’s words. More of us should listen.
Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning freelance writer based in New York and Amsterdam, the Netherlands, with more than 20 years of experience writing for national and international magazines including Salon.com, Vogue, Esquire (Holland), Town & Country, Art & Auction (where she is a contributing editor), The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Artnews and others.