The enemies of our enemies

Young Muslims and Putin defenders are making the same mistake as the pro-Cuba demonstrators and anti-Vietnam war protesters before them. They thought the enemies of our enemies were our friends, writes Meindert Fennema.

In his column of August 12, the Volkskrant’s Toine Heijmans took to reminiscing about an editorial he wrote 13 years ago about a group of young Moroccans in Ede who took to the streets to celebrate the attack on the Twin Towers two days after the event. ‘My conclusion was that they were young hotheads who were waging an adolescent war against the police as they had been doing for years,’ he wrote.

Toine thought he could rest easy but, 13 years later, he’s finally woken up.

Bin Laden, hero

Other journalists were less naïve at the time. NRC quotes Milli Gorus imam Vesul Gurbuz who dismissed accusations against Osama bin Laden as ‘yet another attempt by the West at blackening the name of Islam’.

In September 2001, the paper talked to one of the youngsters from Ede: ‘Moustapha can’t stop talking about his hero. “Osama bin Laden is my hero, has been for the last two years.” Why? “Because he has the courage to take on America, that’s why. Him and Kadhafi. The rest are all slaves of America.”’

A more moderate reaction on read: ‘Should we feel happy now we have someone who can make the Americans feel what the Palestinians have been feeling for years? Or is this a terrorist act?’ (Trouw, September 2001).

Shortly before 9/11 Pim Fortuyn wrote in his column in Elsevier: ‘Islam plays a prominent part in nearly all conflicts in the world, be it a civil war or a war between two or more countries.’

But Toine Heijmans thought: kid’s stuff.


The Dutch Muslim broadcaster Nederlandse Moslim Omroep quoted a verse from the Quran immediately after the attacks: ‘As for the unbelievers, their riches shall not avail them, neither their children, against God. They shall be the companions of hell fire.’ It was a repeat of a programme that had been broadcast before September 11.

On September 18, multicultural magazine Contrast published the results of a survey. Five percent of Dutch Muslims said they approved of the attacks and two-thirds said there was some justification for them.  

Of course these results were trivialised.  Both professor Harm ’t Hart and professor Elsbeth Etty criticised the formulation of the questions. The prestigious research group Intomart did its own survey and found that not 5% but 10% of Dutch Muslims approved of the attacks and that 73% thought the Dutch government shouldn’t support the American war on terror.

Toine Heijmans still thought: kids’ stuff.

Now, thirteen years later, he writes: ‘I still don’t know what got into those boys in Ede when they cheered Bin Laden on September 11, 2001. Perhaps I underestimated their political consciousness.’ That, I think, is the understatement of the year.

Putin defenders

Today, the strength of anti-American feeling is still being underestimated. When flight MH17 was downed many people took to the internet to state that the United States was behind the attack. I think the Putin defenders, who post reactions to my columns, (this paper’s ombudswoman counted them and came to 40%) don’t particularly like the Russian brand of capitalism but what they do have in common is an intense hatred for the US, for ‘neo-liberalism’ and for American foreign policy.

It is the same hate that drove my generation onto the streets to demonstrate for Cuba and against the war in Vietnam. Often we were morally right but we made the same mistake that young Muslims and Putin defenders are making now: we thought the enemies of our enemies were our friends.

Meindert Fennema is a professor emeritus of Political Theory.

This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant.