‘For most of my life, my natural habitat has been a multicultural enclave with completely different values and norms, especially on the streets, where I built a special bond with my contemporaries, a brotherhood if you will. I had to leave that environment to move ‘forward’, to develop 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, virtually everything from those first two decades is covered in brief. From Dyab Abou Jahjah to John Cleese, from Rotterdam to Marseille, from underclass to elite, from emancipation to Scarface.
Those first two decades of this century were formed from 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 then came the banking crisis, we had corona and Trump, and maybe the war in Ukraine will usher in a new era, where the attacks will definitely be written in the history book and they will be just the same for those born in this century. far away will seem like the fall of the Wall to those born after glasnost and perestroika. One catastrophe 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 relate to a world in which he was against appearances because of his origin.’ It doesn’t get more pitiful than that and the nice thing about this formulation is that it gives meaning back to terms that are so subject to inflation that their meaning has disappeared into the gutter of the social debate – think of concepts such as everyday or institutional racism, discrimination, etc. cetera. I’d say abolish diversity training and just say: there are people who object to appearances 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 those attacks, in January 2000, Paul Scheffer had already written his infamous essay The multicultural drama written. Scheffer also figures in El Hamidi’s book, in which 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.
Certainly, something was 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 of which no one knew exactly what it stood for – at most it was known who the enemies were. The West, which was void and immoral and materialistic, spineless, horribly effeminate. In contrast, bin Laden’s creed, quoted by El Hamidi, is that bin Laden’s youth love death as much as the youth in the West loves 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 quite similar to bin Laden’s. Essentially, 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 that. Wars against modernity, whether called jihadism or not, are doomed to fail. Those who had taken the trouble to delve even carelessly into the phenomenon of war would have discovered that wars are the great drivers of 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 effects, all too often gives birth to what is called modernity, or a new time. Anyone who is truly conservative and hopes that the world will not change should gamble on peace, by which I mean nothing more than a prolonged truce.
Putin’s and bin Laden’s objections to the West may be quite identical, but for a change, Moroccan Dutch people don’t have to justify themselves for Putinism.
In 2000 Scheffer was still able to say quite innocently: ‘In Turkish and Moroccan circles one finds more children without any school diploma than elsewhere.’ 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 remains unclear, but the suggestion worked. From being the cause of innocent and less innocent nuisances, the Muslim became an existential enemy that had to be fought with brutal means. In that context, representatives in the House and on TV were able to launch tirades against Muslims, who gave citizens the feeling that they were trying to prepare the people for ethnic cleansing.
The attacks had made America’s vulnerability visible, and indirectly that of Western Europe as well. 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 perhaps that was an illusion. History doesn’t skip anyone, although every now and then someone slips through the net.
Whoever is attacked as a Jew, strikes back as a Jew
Honor where credit is due, the writer Gerrit Komrij – not the least, although his reputation is waning, but that applies to most of the dead – wrote at the end of the last century in NRC: ‘We spoiled them like wretch and got them back like wolves.’ Those ‘they’ were Muslims who at that time, also by Komrij, were preferably 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 a seer, at least for some sections of the population.
El Hamidi writes with the ability to put things into perspective and humor – the two go hand in hand – of what it is like to have an identity imposed on you: ‘As a young Moroccan Muslim you were forced to become a political being. And so my Islamic background was suddenly no longer a cultural baggage, but an existential issue.’ 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 whether he and his followers had their religion hijacked. But history has long 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 established that the transition from petty crime to political Islam could go smoothly and at lightning speed. From Al Pacino in Scarface as hero to the prophet as new hero, the promise in question remained unchanged: the world is yours. I do not exclude the possibility that many jihadists believed that the prophet had the face of the young Al Pacino. Without wanting to deny one’s personal responsibilities, aggressive stigmatization is always an invitation to radicalization. El Hamidi puts it this way: ‘No, I was not about to radicalise, I was not receptive to that; I had a warm nest at home and loved life too much.’
Loving life more than death, sometimes it doesn’t take more than that to avoid radicalising. Love for life simply implies the ability to put things into 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 underneath the turban 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 was not waiting for a fresh and cheerful civil war.
In Western Europe, on the other hand, there was great confusion about whether arson yourself 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 that with a small blow to the arm. We can still find it a tragedy that in our metropolises no one really belongs to the majority anymore, but we can also live with it.
El Hamidi ends his overview in a nutshell with the not so surprising but beautifully formulated insight that migration that goes together with upward social mobility always also means a form of loss. He quotes a Parisian street urchin: ‘I’m not really the man I’ve become at all.’
Ultimately, that realization does not necessarily have to be a loss. You stand with one leg in a world that you just haven’t been able to leave and with the other leg in a world you just haven’t quite arrived at.
A split, or to put it more negatively, discord. But the acceptance, the embrace of that division, is also an effective vaccine against any form 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 one son in the Taliban and one son in the police.’
Whatever else I thought of it, I thought: that man loves life.