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Sunday March 9, 2008

Preventing chaos


Can a country protect itself against the chaos that could erupt when xenophobic fears are deliberately stirred? Our guest columnist – stepping in this week while Wide Angle columnist Huzir Sulaiman takes a break – explains how the Dutch

LEARNING from the Danish “cartoon crisis” of 2006 and the Sudanese teddy bear debacle of 2007, the Dutch are preparing to pre-empt a Geert Wilders-inflicted pandemic of 2008.

This pre-emptive approach seems to be paying off, reversing what looked like an inevitable widening of the rift between the West and the Muslim World.

The Netherlands now know that outbreaks of xenophobia must be treated as any other pandemic threatening a population: In preparation for the outbreak, an early warning system must be established, and at onset, one must quickly quarantine the ideological disease before it spreads further.

With Wilders, the need for preparedness was great.

Wilders, leader of the right-wing, anti-Muslim Freedom Party in the Netherlands (of which there are only nine members in the 150-seat Dutch lower house), had long threatened to release a film exhibiting, in his words, “the violent and fascist elements of the Muslim faith”.

This sabre-rattling was not new. On previous occasions, Wilders equated the Quran with Mein Kampf (Adolph Hitler’s manifesto) and called for both books to be banned (a proposal roundly rejected by parliament).

Additionally, Wilders’ suggestion that the 1 million Muslims living in the Netherlands renounce aspects of their faith or leave the country was also dispelled as nonsensical. This new film, however, was going to trump polemical precedent, and the Muslim world was readying for the worst.

This is where the Dutch did right, by discernibly developing mechanisms to dampen disease spread.

With other European Union countries quickly diversifying religiously and ethnically, they too will no doubt trip up on similar potential points of ideological contention. Thus, this model deserves dutiful review and, ultimately, duplication.

If the saying “an ounce of prevention equals a pound cure” holds true, the Danish cartoon crisis should shock anyone into becoming an early-warning convert. The potential social, political, and financial costs are simply too great to ignore. And the Dutch, as we will see below, understood that.

At the highest levels of Government, the pre-emptive media response was palpable and powerful. The Dutch Foreign Minister stood by the right to free speech while putting reasonable parameters on the proviso, saying, “freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend”.

The Dutch Interior Minister warned media companies against broadcasting (the film), noting the repercussions globally, saying, “A broadcast on a public channel could imply that the Government supported the project”.

Even the Dutch Embassy in Washington D.C. categorically condemned the content. But most impressive was the showing by Amsterdam’s mayor Job Cohen, who is Jewish, saying flatly that Wilders was “dehumanising Muslims”.

Under girding these official utterances, the Government readied the security sector with a series of Cabinet-level ministerial meetings to coordinate counter-terrorism services and conceptualise security plans.

Furthermore, Dutch nationals abroad were notified of the need to register with state embassies while local Dutch mayors queued on standby.

Services in the non-governmental sector were also summoned. Mindful of the buzz building in the Arab press and keen to concoct a global media strategy to counteract a crisis, the Dutch Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates appealed to international organisations like ours (the Cordoba Initiative) to proactively engage Muslims in prevention-oriented activities.

Mobilising Dutch Muslim civil society, in close consultation and coordination with our Dutch Muslim legal liaisons on the ground, the Government received an overwhelmingly positive response.

Locally, in the Netherlands, Muslims showered Wilders with kindness, sending flowers, and e-mailing virtual hugs. This coincided with a coordinated campaign involving educational radio and TV programmes, talks, flyers, T-shirts, and peace-promoting online petitions – all with the purpose of preventing political furore.

Internationally, young Muslim leaders, from Europe to the United States to the United Nations, rallied to support local Dutch efforts while focusing on similar inoculation efforts in their own countries.

In sum, grassroots engagement was rigorous, respectful and well regimented – exactly the kind of early warning system that is needed at a local level to immunise a population from a threat.

No doubt the threat still exists, as the world still waits for Wilders’ cinematic debut. Nor is the Netherlands now impervious to potentially violent polemics in response to Wilders’ film.

But at least now, unlike in Denmark or Sudan, the early warning system has been activated, and the quarantining mechanisms queued. People stand ready this time.

Immunising a country against the pandemic of xenophobia and outright dehumanisation is serious business. Thankfully, the Dutch got started on this early. Given the diverse and ever-shifting hues of the European Union’s social and religious orientation, Netherlands’ neighbours would do well to nod in the direction.

  • Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, a multinational multi-faith initiative to improve West-Muslim World relations and the author of ‘What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West’.

    This article appeared in the ‘On Faith’ page at washingtonpost.com on March 5. Reproduced with permission.

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