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Unbridgeable divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in Dutch literature

13 March 2012

Influential authors fashioned a pessimistic take on society in Dutch literature between 1990 and 2005, in which the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ almost automatically collide. In their work and in their columns, interviews and other contributions to the public debate, they sketch a seemingly unbridgeable divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. Literary scholar Sjoerd-Jeroen Moenandar comes to these conclusions in his thesis, for which he will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 22 March 2012.

The alleged collision between the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ has been a hot topic in the Netherlands for some years now. PhD student Sjoerd-Jeroen Moenandar has outlined how Kader Abdolah, Robert Anker, Abdelkader Benali and Hafid Bouazza have conveyed this collision in their work. The authors were chosen for their popularity within the literary world and outside it. They have received prestigious awards, and their work is widely reviewed and sells well. In addition, the writers are interviewed regularly and engage in the wider public debate with columns, essays and opinion pieces.

Pessimistic view

Moenandar finds that all four authors sketch a pessimistic view of society. The divide between Muslims and non-Muslims seems to be unbridgeable in their work. A striking similarity between the works Moenandar studied is that many of their ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ characters are completely convinced of the differences between their cultures. They are incapable of setting themselves in someone else’s world, and incomprehension and even violent clashes are the result.


The authors all magnify the differences between the cultures in their own manner, Moenandarestablishes. Anker, Bouazza and Benali caricaturize the Muslim and Dutch stereotypes and in so doing call into question just what Muslims and Dutch really are. They challenge the reader by bringing up cliché after cliché about ‘Muslims’ and ‘Dutch’, only to ultimately pull out the rug from under them. The writers seem to suggest that if we had a more nuanced take on each other’s cultures, the divide between them would be bridgeable. However, they make very clear that this is a thought experiment, a fata morgana; in reality the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims will never be mended.

Role in society

The public hopes that writers can contribute to resolving problems in society, according to Moenandar. Of the authors he studied, Kader Abdolah best fits this expectation. Moenandar: ‘In contrast to the other authors, Abdolah does not play games with clichés and caricatures. He does not use them to ironize the supposed collision of civilizations or to ridicule it, but to portray the collision between the West and Islam as a manageable problem. As a result, Abdolah tells his Western readers little more than what they already supposed they knew about the “mystical world of the Orient”. That may explain his tremendous popularity.’

Evading debate

The message that the authors convey in their columns, essays, interviews and other contributions to the debate in society is repeated in their literary work. A few years after the 2001 attacks, Moenandar does discern a degree of fatigue setting in with regard to their role as public intellectuals. Bouazza and Benali, in particular, felt themselves being pushed into a certain role in the public debate because of their Moroccan background. They seemed to develop the need to escape the pressure that public perception was putting them under. Literature became a refuge for them, where they were able to escape society and its stereotypes.’

Curriculum Vitae

Sjoerd-Jeroen Moenandar (Zwolle, 1976) studied Literary Studies at the University of Groningen, where he carried out his research at the Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG). His supervisor was Prof. E.J. Korthals Altes and joint supervisor Dr E.C.S. Jongeneel. Moenandar now works as a lecturer in Art Philosophy and Literary Studies for the department ofArts, Culture and Media at the University of Groningen. His thesis is entitled: Verdorven grensplaatsen. Ontmoetingen tussen moslims en niet-moslims in de Nederlandse literatuur (1990-2005) [Depraved border locales. Meetings between Muslims and non-Muslims in Dutch literature (1990-2005)].

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Sjoerd-Jeroen Moenandar

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.48 a.m.
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