‘For most of my life, my natural habitat has been a multicultural enclave with completely different values and norms, especially on the street, where I built a special bond with my contemporaries, a brotherhood if you will. I had to leave that environment to get ‘forward’, to develop myself individually,’ writes the journalist and historian Lotfi El Hamidi in his book Generation 9/11 – Migration, diaspora and identity. The book has only 120 pages and in the preface El Hamidi states that he hopes to make ‘a modest contribution’ to the historiography of the first two decades of this century. Modest or not, pretty much everything from the first two decades is briefly covered. From Dyab Abou Jahjah to John Cleese, from Rotterdam to Marseille, from underclass to elite, from liberation to Scarf.
The first two decades of this century were shaped by the ruins of the towers of southern Manhattan, but as with terrorism, its primary effects are the political and social response to the violence; 9/11 was no exception. Of course the banking crisis came, we had corona and Trump, and maybe the war in Ukraine will usher in a new era where the attacks will definitely be written into the history books and they will be the same for those born in this century will be far away seem like the fall of the wall for those born after glasnost and perestroika. One disaster is forgotten as soon as the next comes, peace no one remembers, but even half-forgotten history can still hold us in its tentacles. Every day we are still confronted with the consequences of the implosion of the Soviet Union.
The pretense against or the benefit of the doubt
El Hamidi defines himself as a ‘Moroccan Dutchman’ who was born and raised in Rotterdam-West and who ‘in his young adulthood had to deal with a world where he was against appearance because of his origin.’ It doesn’t get more pitiful than that, and the beauty of this formulation is that it gives meaning back to expressions that are so subject to inflation that their meaning has disappeared into the gutter of social debate – think of terms like everyday or institutional racism , discrimination etc. cetera. I’d say scrap diversity training and just say: There are people who object to appearance for various reasons, and there are people who, for various reasons, always get the benefit of the doubt even if they don’t deserve it. All else that can be said about this is noise, supplemented by indignation in pleasant and less pleasant forms.
Of course, before these attacks, in January 2000, Paul Scheffer had already written his infamous essay The multicultural drama written. Scheffer also figures in El Hamidi’s book, where the title of Scheffer’s essay is rightly praised with the words ‘a clickbait title avant la lettre’. I hope Scheffer goes down in history as the inventor of the clickbait title, he deserves it.
There was certainly something brewing before September 11, 2001, but thanks to Mohammed Atta and his colleagues, at least in the Dutch debate, the difference between noise pollution, vandalism, petty crime and terrorism in the name of an ideology that nobody knew to exactly what it stood for – at most one knew who the enemies were. The West, which was empty and immoral and materialistic, spineless, terribly feminine. In contrast, bin Laden’s creed, quoted by El Hamidi, is that bin Laden’s youth love death as much as the youth of the West love life.
War as the great driver of a new era
Interestingly, it is now Putin who expects his youth to love death more than life, and his objections to the West and America are very similar to bin Laden’s. In essence, they are all objections to what we call modernity, a phenomenon that for centuries has been associated by people who dislike novelty with impurity, debauchery and multiculturalism – although there used to be other words for it. Wars against modernity, whether called jihadism or not, are doomed to failure. Those who had taken the trouble to immerse themselves carelessly in the phenomenon of war would have discovered that wars are the great driving forces for all kinds of innovations, not least technological innovations. I do not want to underestimate the influence of philosophers and thinkers, but war, which not only produces corpses, but also causes millions of people to settle elsewhere, with or without pets and some household items, too often gives birth to what is called modernity. or a new time. Anyone who is truly conservative and hopes the world won’t change should gamble on peace, by which I mean nothing more than an extended truce.
Putin’s and bin Laden’s objections to the West may be quite identical, but for a change the Moroccan Dutch need not justify themselves to Putinism.
In 2000, Scheffer was still able to say quite innocently: ‘In Turkish and Moroccan circles you find more children without a school diploma than anywhere else.’ After 9/11 it became fashionable to say that not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim. What exactly was meant by that is still unclear, but the suggestion worked. From being the cause of innocent and less innocent nuisances, the Muslim became an existential enemy to be fought with brutal means. In that context, representatives in the House and on TV could launch tirades against Muslims, which gave the citizens the feeling that they were trying to prepare the people for ethnic cleansing.
The attacks had made the vulnerability of the United States visible, and indirectly also that of Western Europe. Fear reigned, and Europeans who had long been given the benefit of the doubt and for that reason alone believed that history would pass them by, were forced to realize after 9/11 that it might be an illusion. The story doesn’t skip anyone, even if every now and then someone slips through the net.
He who is attacked as a Jew strikes back as a Jew
Honor where honor is due, wrote the writer Gerrit Komrij – not least, although his reputation is declining, but this applies to most of the dead – at the end of the last century in NRC: ‘We pampered them like wretches and got them back like wolves.’ The ‘they’ were Muslims, who at that time, also by Komrij, preferred to be called Mohammedans. El Hamidi quotes Komrij, but in his book it seems as if the poet and anthologist Komrij wrote this text after 9/11, although to my knowledge he did so in the late 1980s in response to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Sometimes the poet is the viewer, at least for some sections of the population.
El Hamidi writes with the ability to put things in perspective and humor – the two go hand in hand – about what it’s like to have an identity imposed on you: ‘As a young Moroccan Muslim, you were forced to become a political being. And then suddenly my Islamic background was no longer a cultural baggage, but an existential question.’ This is actually a variation of Hannah Arendt’s statement that whoever is attacked as a Jew retaliates as a Jew.
El Hamidi then asks himself if he and his followers had their religion hijacked. But history has long since answered that question with a resounding yes. For example, El Hamidi writes about British jihadists who, shortly before their departure, Islam for Dummies had ordered. And so-called radicalization experts stated that the transition from petty crime to political Islam could go smoothly and lightning fast. From Al Pacino in Scarf as a hero to the prophet as a new hero, the promise in question remained unchanged: the world is yours. I do not rule out the possibility that many jihadists thought the prophet had the face of young Al Pacino. Without wanting to deny personal responsibility, aggressive stigmatization is always an invitation to radicalization. El Hamidi puts it this way: ‘No, I wasn’t about to radicalize, I wasn’t susceptible to that; I had a warm nest at home and loved life too much.’
Loving life more than death, sometimes that’s all it takes to avoid radicalization. Love of life simply involves the ability to put things in perspective.
There is always a Muslim under the turban
Curiously, this process of aggressive stigmatization followed by the hesitant embrace of the forced identity took place much less in the country where the attacks were committed. Yes, on September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was murdered in Arizona. His killer must have thought: a turban is a turban, and under the turban there is always a Muslim. But George W. Bush did everything he could to preserve domestic peace as much as possible. He wanted to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and unlike Trump, he did not wait for a fresh and cheerful civil war.
In Western Europe, on the other hand, there was great confusion about whether arson itself was the best form of extinguishing. Likewise in the Netherlands.
But those arsonists are, according to El Hamidi, a thing of the past – he writes this with a small slap in the arm. We may still find it a tragedy that in our metropolises no one really belongs to the majority anymore, but we can also live with that.
El Hamidi concludes his overview in a nutshell with the not so surprising but beautifully formulated insight that migration, which goes hand in hand with upward social mobility, always also means a form of loss. He quotes a Parisian street urchin: ‘I am not at all the man I have become.’
In the end, that realization doesn’t necessarily have to be a loss. You stand with one foot in a world that you just haven’t been able to leave and with the other foot in a world that you just haven’t quite reached.
A split, or to put it more negatively, discord. But the acceptance, the embrace of that division, is also an effective vaccine against any kind of radicalization.
The most dangerous are the people who think you can only be loyal to one person. As an Afghan told me years ago in Kabul, ‘A good Afghan has a son in the Taliban and a son in the police.’
Whatever else I thought about it, I thought: that man loves life.