The Power of Culture

Tuesday 11 September 2001 was the day of the attacks in the US. Hijacked airplanes crashed deep into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
A stream of discussions about the causes and possible consequences of the attacks started immediately in the Dutch media. The impact of this disaster is enormous, including from a cultural and developmental viewpoint.
In the cultural arena, the discussion regarding the attacks focuses on a number of core questions. Can the hatred of Islamic groups for the US be explained? Does polarisation - the creation of antithesis rather than agreements - threaten our multiform culture? Is freedom of speech under pressure, or is there too much room for the expression of extremist viewpoints?

Hatred against the USA fed by the politics of globalisation?
Polarisation through identifying with personal traditions?
Freedom of speech under pressure?
'Us' and 'them' in the Netherlands
Diversity in danger?

Hatred against the USA fed by the politics of globalisation?

According to the spokesperson of the Israeli/Palestinian dialogue, Islamic groups' hatred of the US is the result of American arrogance. Along with many others, they argue that the US has wanted to determine the agenda for the rest of the world. In the opinion of these critics, the US has behaved hypocritically with its 'economic imperialism'. The nation that portrays itself as the cradle of freedom uses values such as democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world for opportunistic purposes. It has assisted dictatorial regimes in gaining and retaining power with military support out of self-interest. The North American support for Israel was held up as an example of such behaviour.
Volkskrant journalists Pieter Hilhorst and Hans Wansink argue that Islamic groups have grimly hung onto their own religion and traditions because of the politics of globalisation. Fundamentalism originated from powerlessness. Anger about the lack of access to money and political processes in their own territory lead to reactionary movements. This is the background of a 'Jihad against McWorld.'

Polarisation through identifying with personal traditions?

People embrace their own traditions in times of uncertainty and powerlessness. Journalist Janny Groen sees this as well in the North American reaction to the disaster. She points to the broad-scale display of the national flag, performances of national anthems, and the chanting of the nation's name during memorial services. President George W. Bush underscored that the coming retaliation would not be directed against Islam, but against terrorists. Nevertheless, Dutch Moslem youngsters told Prime Minister Kok in a conversation that they feel put off by Bush's terminology: the use of 'us and them', 'Western civilisation versus barbarism' and 'good against evil'. In addition, GroenLinks MP Mohamed Rabbae contends that freedom and democracy are monopolised as Western values in this perspective.
Bush warned that 'those who are not with us, are against us'. The Civil Coalition, consisting of sixty Dutch organisations, which called for a demonstration for peace, complains that this 'Cold War rhetoric' unnecessarily escalates differences. The world has some ten thousand cultural communities. They cannot be reduced to two categories.

Freedom of speech under pressure?

The 'us versus them' thinking in the discussion regarding the attacks makes dissenting expressions 'suspect'. Statements are censured from fear that those uttering them will be classified in the 'wrong' camp. Video footage from the Associated Press of celebrating Palestinians is believed to have been confiscated by the Palestinian police. Not long after the attack, Afghanistan deported a CNN crew. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was pilloried when he metaphorically referred to the attack as 'the largest art work of all time'. His concerts for the Hamburg Musikfest 2001 were cancelled. Anti-globalists say that they feel backed into a corner by the polarisation. American groups who participate in this movement report they are afraid of being seen as terrorist supporters.

'Us' and 'them' in the Netherlands

Freedom of speech is under pressure in the Netherlands as well. In polls among Dutch Moslems, a considerable percentage of the respondents said they have 'some to complete' understanding for the act of terror. Native Dutch people have reacted furiously. Cultural anthropologist Hans Werdmölder puts the results into perspective. 'Understanding' does not mean 'consent'. Robbert Bodegraven, editor in chief of the multicultural weekly Contrast, points out that many immigrants get their information from Arabic news broadcast stations. That explains the difference in opinions regarding the attack. Even so, the PvdA requested Korthals, the Minister of Justice, to investigate possibilities in the criminal code for 'dealing with' those who make 'Moslem extremist' statements.
A broadcast by the Dutch Moslem Broadcasting Station (Nederlandse Moslim Omroep (NMO)) a few days after the attack also evoked anger among autochthonous Dutch people. The program starts with a verse from the Koran which refers to unbelievers as 'fuel for the fire'. The NMO director offered his apologies. As it turned out, this was a repeat of a previous broadcast. A week later, 63 percent of the Dutch people interviewed in a NIPO/Volkskrant poll said that Moslems who approve of the attacks should leave the country.

Diversity in danger?

The respect for cultural diversity suffers heavily from 'us/them' thinking. The USA is not the only country in which Arabs have become the victims of aggression. A call to start a cyber war against Islamic-oriented sites surfaced in digital news groups. Hackers cracked sites such as the Afghan News Network. In reaction to this, the German hacker club Chaos Computer Club (CCC) requested its members not to attack Islamic countries' web sites. This is reminiscent of the Infopeace Declaration of 1999 in which different hacker groups promised not to use hacking as a tool of war.
Moslems are victims of harassment in the Netherlands, as well. Since the attack, damage has been inflicted on mosques and Islamic schools almost every day. Yet the number of complaints at centres for reporting racial discrimination has not increased.


Newspaper Files (in Dutch)

Aanslag op Amerika, de Volkskrant
Aanslagen VS, Reformatorisch dagblad
Aanslagen VS, Nederlands dagblad
Aanval op Amerika, Nrc Handelsblad
Aanval op VS, Trouw
Amerika onder vuur, het Parool
Terreur in de VS, Algemeen Dagblad

Ministerie van Buitenlandse zaken
UN fighting terrorism
UN Afghanistan humanitarian crisis

Other sources

Civil Coalition
Associated Press
Karlheinz Stockhausen
Globalisation Guide
Nederlandse Moslim Omroep
Computer Chaos Club



october 2001