Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Abigail Esman, an award-winning author and journalist who has written extensively about Islam in the West for various international publications, including The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon.com, WorldDefenseReview.com and Forbes.com. Also an art critic, she is a contributing editor at Art + Auction magazine and the author and coauthor of books on art and contemporary culture. She worked with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the project that ultimately became the film “Submission,” (originally planned as an art exhibition). She has been called “one of the best writers we have when it comes to jihadism in Europe.” Her new book is Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West.
FP: Abigail Esman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Congratulations on your new book.
Let’s begin with what inspired you to write it.
Esman: Thank you Jamie for having me here. It’s good to be back at Frontpage.
In many ways, my book wrote itself. It is as much memoir as it is political expose, and so much of it simply came out of living in the Netherlands over the past twenty years, witnessing the changes, being alert to what was happening in the Muslim community and the way Holland had, at first, ignored it, and then began to confront the problems that so many had so long pretended weren’t there.
Working with Hirsi Ali had a great influence as well – the time we spent together in Holland and New York, the insights she shared with me, and the passion we shared to fight Muslim extremism both in the streets and in the homes. Over the years since 9⁄11, I’ve also been writing a column for World Defense Review and writing for various magazines about the issues. The more I learned, the more I uncovered, the more I realized that America was utterly oblivious to what was actually going on, and to the struggles between the political far right and the far left that was leaving democracy itself abandoned.
“How Jihad is Winning Over Democracy in The West,” which is the subtitle of the book, is really about that; how our reaction to Islamic extremism and Muslim culture in the West is defeating the very principles for which we stand. And through our own reactions, and our own ways of handling the issues, we are handing the jihadists their victory.
FP: What changes have you seen happening in the Netherlands over the last two decades? What has happened in the Muslim community?
Esman: Well – to really answer these questions, of course, took me over 200 pages. But to sum it up briefly: the changes have come from the growth of the Muslim population in the Netherlands and the coming of age of those who were, when I first arrived, mere infants. Now they are in their teens and early 20s. They have become increasingly radicalized. Many have a hard time determining whether they are Muslim first and Dutch second, or Dutch first and Muslim second; and the way they answer that question determines everything about their approach to the world, the extent to which they assimilate into Western society or don’t, and how inclined they are to find their identity in radical Islam.
Many of the ways in which Holland addressed the arrival of their Muslim guest workers in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s also helped to create an environment that nurtured this kind of radical Islam. Because the Dutch didn’t expect them to remain permanently, they made no effort to introduce these new arrivals to their culture, to teach them the language, to incorporate them into their society. Rather than force them to assimilate, they allowed – even encouraged – immigrants from Turkey and (especially) Morocco to continue to live according to the mores of their homelands.
By allowing “family unification” programs that permitted immigrant families to bring relatives to the Netherlands, they unwittingly also encouraged forced marriages between Dutch-born Muslims and young spouses from the land of origin. Most of those who have arrived as “import spouses” are illiterate or at best, poorly educated, ill equipped for employment, unwilling to adjust to Western culture, and – in most cases – extremely religious. They have either found solace and community in local mosques or been targeted by recruiters sent out from the more extremist mosques, where they, too, become radicalized.
In many cases as well the import grooms set about oppressing their Dutch-born wives, forcing them to stay at home, where they are beaten, abused, and raped. The children born in such marriages are also frequently neglected, abused, and tend to drop out of school. They become angry, resentful, and – again – easy targets for recruiters for radical Islam and terrorist groups.
Granted, this does not describe the majority of Muslims in the Netherlands; but it does describe a frighteningly large number of them.
FP: Why did Holland ignore these developments for so long?
Esman: Answering this question really requires explaining the history of European guest workers, who largely came to Holland from Morocco and Turkey – and giving a sense of the Dutch mentality overall. These are also addressed in my book; but simply put, a lot of it revolves around the fact that the Dutch are particularly proud of what they call their “tolerance” – which, in fact, isn’t tolerance at all. It’s actually a benign – and sometimes not-so-benign – indifference. It is an attitude of “do what you want, just don’t hurt me” – a viewpoint that many people see as being open-minded, but which, in effect, is both selfish and narrow-minded.
In the case of handling the Muslim immigrants, it meant, basically, that these immigrants were not asked to take part in Dutch society: to learn the language, to become familiar with and accept social mores and notions of equality of the sexes – to live, essentially, as Westerners. Couple that with the enormous guilt that hangs over the heads of a country that killed more Jews than any other European country (except Poland) during the Holocaust, and you have a society that simply cannot handle, cannot respond to, the conflicts between an oppressive religion and a Western, Enlightenment culture.
Hence, for instance, when authorities first encountered the issue of honor killings, the reaction was basically, “that’s their religion and we know what can happen if you discriminate against religion.” That changed when Hirsi Ali arrived.
FP: What were some of the ways Hirsi Ali influenced you?
Esman: I don’t know that I would say that Ayaan influenced me in any one particular way. She inspired me through her passion and devotion, her incredible energy – and she still does. And she confirmed for me many things I knew, while telling me about things I didn’t – or about how much more serious they were, like just how bad the violence is in Muslim families, for instance. So I’d say that I learned a bit from her more than that I was actually influenced by her in any way. Mostly, we shared a vision.
FP: Why is much of America so oblivious to the threat you describe?
Esman: There are many reasons, but the one that stands out for me as a journalist is the absolute silence of the press. Where in the media do you see reporters being dispatched to American mosques to report on what is preached there? Where in the media do you see the stories about American honor killings? When have you seen anyone talk to the radicalized Muslims in America? Most Americans believe they don’t exist, but they do, and we know they do because from time to time, arrests are made, attacks are forestalled, cells are broken. But the news rarely makes the front pages.
Investigative reporting on these groups never moves beyond a few paragraphs below the fold on a left-hand page in the middle of the front section. I know from experience that NPR will not cover these issues. Fox has been censored by Saudi demands that certain issues be framed in specific ways. Americans – like the Dutch until recently – really want to believe that there is no problem in the homeland. They want to believe that all people are good. They want to believe that all Americans share their values. They do not want to know that there are, in fact, Muslims in America preaching the overthrow of the American government and Americans’ way of life.
FP: In what ways are we handing the jihadis their victory?
Esman: Well, again, I’ve just written over 200 pages answering those questions. The main point of the book, and what I would say here, is that we have reacted without thinking about what democracy is, and what it is we are actually trying to protect. On the one hand, you have those who are willing to allow Muslim extremists and Islamists to impose their political and religious will on our society: we have courts that have refused women their legal and human rights, literally imposing Sharia rulings, as took place in New Jersey, for instance, and has frequently occurred in Canada. We far too often turn our eyes away from honor violence, or allow Muslim radicals to intimidate us into silence, as with the removal of the South Park episode, or the refusal of Yale University Press to publish the Danish cartoons in a book about the Danish cartoons – one of the most pathetic instances of submission and surrender I’ve seen yet in the USA. We allow imams to preach Salafist ideals in American mosques, in prisons, even in schools.
That’s on one side. On the other, you have an overly zealous attempt to limit speech with suggestions of banning the Koran, or burning books; you have episodes of government surveillance that goes far beyond the pale – more in Europe these days than in the USA (despite Americans’ frequent complaints) but which, even in America, constitutes a failure of democracy. We are being forced to choose a road forward, and in both cases, the choices we are facing steer us away from democracy. We need to find a way to hold to the path that we believe in.
And yet, as long as violent jihad remains a threat, that may be impossible: because either we risk our lives by reducing our security efforts, or we risk our freedom by submitting to those threats of violence. And therein is their victory.
FP: How can we turn this around?
Esman: How to turn it around is a far more complex question which, to me – and as I’ve mentioned on FP before – involves education, especially in the arts. But it also demands a more responsible, more honest, more courageous, media. It demands that we stop pretending that these issues aren’t there, and that editors allow their reporters the freedom to investigate what really is going on, and to report on it, in black and white, on the air, in books, in magazines, in newspapers – everywhere. The American media has been struck dumb by fear, and to my mind, that’s a form of suicide. That silence will destroy our culture, and with it, the very free press they claim to stand for, but do not exercise.
There’s much more, of course, but those are a few points, anyway.
FP: Before we go, one final question I would like to fit in: What is the main error of multiculturalism?
Esman: The assumption that all cultures share the moral values and ideals of the West. They do not. Our views of human rights, of human dignity, of liberty and justice, cannot be compromised in the name of “tolerance,” or they will mean nothing. That is a lesson Holland and the rest of Europe have learned the hard way. Americans could have learned this by examining what took place in Europe, but for some reason, they won’t. And so they will have to learn it the hard way, too, which is a shame: lives will be lost and people – especially women – will suffer in the process. I just hope that it doesn’t take too much longer before people in the US begin to understand what it is we face.
FP: Abigail Esman, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.