The End of the ''Antithesis'': 9/11 and the Arab Spring

The End of the ''Antithesis'': 9/11 and the Arab Spring (Photo: AP)

9/11 has shaped a decade. It has affected geopolitics and it has changed the ways we speak about things at home. For apart from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been major changes in our domestic political climate as well. Both in the US and within European countries, the attacks by al-Qaeda have massively influenced public debate. For almost ten years now, publicists and politicians have developed a variety of discussions around one central theme: the idea of a fundamental antithesis of Western values and Islam.

This theme of a "Clash of two Civilisations" can be discerned in a wide range of deliberations. But its most direct manifestation has been the spectacular rise of right-wing populist parties with strong anti-Islamic agendas. Many of these have grown in Europe's smaller countries (the Danish National Party, the Dutch Freedom Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, and others), but anti-Islamists have been strong in France and the US as well.

Of course, none of these movements arose solely in response to the attacks on the Twin Towers. They also owe their success to longer-lingering misgivings about non-Western immigration. But 9/11 did give them a strong boost, and more importantly, they themselves associate their domestic causes with the alleged threat of Islam worldwide. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders has given speeches at Ground Zero, warning against the Islamic "threat", and his Freedom Party calls unruly young immigrants "street terrorists", in direct reference to their "grown-up brothers" in al-Qaeda.

How 9/11 has shaped domestic politics

Still, the impact of 9/11 has not been restricted to these movements proper. Their themes have come to dominate the entire political debate. My own country, the Netherlands, is a good example. It used to be known (even if not always deservedly) for its liberty and tolerance, but now it has become a hotbed of populism and anti-Islamic sentiment. Opinion leaders like Pim Fortuyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders started the so-called "Islam debate" which has filled Dutch airwaves and newspapers for years now.

Traditional parties have felt forced to respond and have adopted measures in attempts to avoid losing voters on a large scale. This has led to a law against burqas, proposals to forbid Muslim parties and Muslim books, suggestions to tax the headscarf, and a forthcoming parliament ruling against the right to halal (and kosher) slaughtering. It has also created a lot of turmoil and even political violence, fuelling the idea that Muslims and Westerners are indeed inevitably in conflict.

It is easy to add examples from other countries. France has banned women from wearing headscarves in public sector jobs, stepping up its proud principle of laïcité. Denmark has felt its freedom of expression threatened after attacks on cartoonists criticising Islam. Switzerland consulted its people on whether the minaret belongs in its landscape. And in the US, some have argued that president Obama is secretly Muslim. Of course, very few people actually believe this allegation, but the underlying premise is that if he were a Muslim he would be unfit to lead America.


By Geert J. Somsen

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