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The 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers prompted an intensification of the debate around Islam in the Netherlands, while in the United States they were seen as a brutal disruption of its national security utopia. Is an event like 9/11 always a radical turning point that marks the start of social and political change? Sociologist Thijs van Dooremalen researched the framing of 9/11 in the media, politics and policy of the Netherlands, the United States and France. He will receive his doctorate from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on Wednesday, 11 September 2019.

Twin Towers
Beels, YU-bin, FlickrCC

Until the events of 11 September 2001, Americans saw their country as a militarily impregnable safe haven. Van Dooremalen refers to 9/11 as a ‘shock event’ for the US. ‘It prompted a revolutionary revision of attitudes and policies on national security.’ In the wake of the attacks, there was barely any stigmatisation of Muslims in the media or the political arena in the US. Van Dooremalen believes that this was because it was considered immoral and un-American at that time to criticise religion in public. ‘This is in sharp contrast to the situation in the Netherlands, where the position of Muslims in society was discussed widely following 9/11.’

Dominant issues

In the Netherlands, 9/11 is often regarded as the turning point in debate about Islam. Van Dooremalen disputes this: ‘In the Netherlands, this was an event that the media and politicians regarded as one of the reasons for a more critical stance towards Muslims, not the event. The debate about Islam had already been under way for some time.’ As such, he does not categorise 9/11 as a ‘shock event’ for the Netherlands, but rather as a ‘focus event’: the confirmation of an existing idea, resulting in the intensification or radicalisation of a previously chosen path. ‘9/11 did not, then, become the subject of discussions about national security. Here in the Netherlands, we felt that our country was too small for us to be in a position to tackle an international problem like terrorism by ourselves and we were more reluctant to sacrifice our privacy in the name of freedom than Americans were.’

Security became the dominant issue in the US, while attention in the Netherlands focused on the position of Islam. But what of France? Van Dooremalen saw that French newspapers barely linked the attacks on the Twin Towers to domestic issues and the same was the case in French politics. Thus, even events that give rise to a huge global outcry will not necessarily have domestic consequences throughout the world. Where foreign affairs were concerned, 9/11 was linked to the same subjects in all three countries: terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and aviation policies.

Grandeur versus modesty

How can one and the same event be linked to such different domestic issues or even to none at all? To answer this question, Van Dooremalen also considered other high-profile events that garnered a lot of attention in both the Netherlands and France: the tsunami in Southeast Asia (2004), the Arab Spring (2011) and the political emergence of Donald Trump (2016). These events, too, were far more ‘domesticated’ (i.e. related to domestic affairs) in the Netherlands than they were in France.

Van Dooremalen suggests that this can be explained by a difference in ‘cultural repertoires’. The purpose of the French repertoire is the promotion of French grandeur – the idea that France is a unique and important world nation. As a result, French politicians will want to be a prominent presence on the international political stage in the wake of a foreign event. Van Dooremalen: ‘Consider the role played by Sarkozy in the overthrow of Gaddafi during the Arab Spring. By contrast, the Dutch repertoire is more modest. Dutch politicians generally believe that their country, as a small nation, should not have too many major ambitions to interfere in events elsewhere in the world. In the Netherlands we have a strong tendency to connect foreign events not just to domestic debates, but also to our own psychological welfare. For example, Trump’s name was raised in debates about “the angry citizen” in the Netherlands and many Dutch celebrities who gave end-of-year interviews in 2016 said that Trump’s election had been one of the most dramatic, stressful events of the year for them.’

The Madrid and Charlie Hebdo attacks

Van Dooremalen saw that major events can have long lives. Years after it happened, 9/11 was still considered a reason for political and social change in the Netherlands, the US and France. ‘This was particularly evident in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the train in Madrid (2004) and at the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices. Following such new events previous events can once again achieve transformative power, because memories of them are re-activated.’

PhD details

Thijs van Dooremalen: The Framing of 9/11 in the American, French, and Dutch Public Spheres (2001 – 2015). A Contribution to the Sociology of Events. Supervisor: Prof. W.G.J. Duyvendak; Co-supervisor: Dr J.L. Uitermark.

Time and venue

The doctoral thesis defence ceremony will take place at 12:00 on Wednesday, 11 September 2019.
Location: Agnietenkapel, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231, Amsterdam.

Download the thesis (PDF)