Reflections on the Revolution in Europe
By Christopher Caldwell
Allen Lane, 365pp, $29.95
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents
By Ian Buruma
Princeton University Press, 132pp, $29.95
What I Believe
By Tariq Ramadan
Oxford University Press, 148pp, $23.95
The Cartoons that Shook the World
By Jytte Klause
Yale University Press, 230pp,
IN 1492, Muhammad XII, the last Islamic ruler of Granada, stood on a hill overlooking the city now under the control of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I.
From there he took a final look at the Alhambra palace and, legend has it, broke down in tears. The spot became known as the Moor's Last Sigh.
Thus was the reconquista completed and Islam finally driven from the Iberian Peninsula. There followed a great period of European exploration and, indeed, colonialism. In the second half of the second millennium, Europe's power grew inexorably. By the early years of the 20th century, most Muslim countries had been absorbed into the empires of the European powers.
Recently, Islam has returned to Europe. For the most part, it has done so peaceably, not under the ensign of war and conquest but in search of a better standard of living. Germany is home to three million Turks, France to a similar number of North Africans, Britain to hundreds of thousands of Muslims from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are now an estimated 16 million Muslims living in the European Union.
Muslim immigration has unsettled Europe. Indeed, in recent months the issue has come, if not to fill the sky, at least to rise above the skyline. In Switzerland, the government, at the behest of voters, has prohibited the building of minarets. The spires are considered too imposing, though one suspects that it is Islam the religion and not Islamic architecture that constitutes the real target. Compounds such as Londonistan and Eurabia reveal a general anxiety that Europe is being "Islamised". In 2004, Bernard Lewis, who coined the phrase "clash of civilisations", suggested that by the end of the century Europe would be part of the Maghreb -- an expanded Arabic west.
Fuelling these anxieties is a general feeling that Islam tends to incubate violent extremism. The atrocities in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 did nothing to allay this fear, though it is to 1989 that we have to return to witness it forming. Then, British Muslims marched in the streets in support of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, which called for the murder of Salman Rushdie for the crime of insulting Islam in a novel. That novel was The Satanic Verses and was written when Rushdie was a free man. His next major work, written in hiding, was The Moor's Last Sigh.
The political response to these developments has at times been depressing to witness. For the far Right parties the issue is straightforward: the conflict between Europe and Islam is back on and immigrants represent a potential fifth column in the fight. In Britain, the British National Party makes gains in the European elections. Its leader, Nick Griffin, talks of "Islamic colonisation" and describes Islam as a "wicked" religion.
In contrast, the Left has tended to argue that the problem is not Islamic immigration but anti-Islamic prejudice. In a sort of ideological Stroop test, its traditional anti-clericalism has bumped up against identity politics, with the result that the latter has come out on top. One objects in vain that Islam is a creed, not a set of characteristics, and that many of the ideas advanced in its name should be on the hit list of any progressive. The dubious new portmanteau term Islamophobia serves to muddy the waters, while opposition to the war in Iraq ensures that even acts of violence such as the bombings on the London Underground are met with strenuous apologetics.
This kind of masochism is firmly in the sights of the American journalist Christopher Caldwell, whose Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is, despite its many false notes, the best written and most in-depth analysis of the problems associated with Islam in Europe, among the four books under review. Indeed, it is a serious attempt to set those problems in a wider context: that of large-scale immigration, the customary justifications for which, in Caldwell's opinion, have ceased to be relevant. Contrary to popular belief, he argues, immigration is not an economic necessity but an ideological imperative, one that is eroding the very values on which European civilisation is built. Immigration is "a fait accompli for which people are scrambling to find a rationale".
Caldwell's argument is that Islamic immigration has challenged European values in a way that, to take his own example, Hispanic immigration to the US has not. Not only are there economic costs associated with Islamic immigration but it also "exacts a steep price in freedom". Europe, having swung from colonial arrogance to hand-wringing broad-mindedness, is ill-equipped to defend itself against an alien and self-confident religion. In contemporary Europe, Caldwell argues, fear and post-colonial guilt travel under the name of tolerance.
Much of Caldwell's argument is dedicated to demonstrating that Muslims are outbreeding the "natives". This is a weakness of the book, for not only do arguments from demography tend to treat communities as homogenous, they also tend to underplay the mutable nature of ideas and beliefs. The implication is always that children will follow in their parents' footsteps, but one need only consider the 1960s to see that this is not always the case. Caldwell might object that Muslim youth shows no sign of a 60s-style rebellion and that, on the contrary, young European Muslims display a tendency towards increasing radicalisation. But such an objection would make my point. If Islamic youth is increasingly radical, then something else is going on than a simple demographic shift, something in the world of ideas.
This is the ideological dumpling in Caldwell's statistical stew: the idea that certain groups of people are simply destined to live apart and the claim that immigration acts as a solvent to tribalism and nationalism is so much liberal wishful thinking. The notion that Europe is a continent of immigrants is, he argues, overstated. Overstated it may be, but so is his argument.
In a discussion of the phenomenon known as "white flight" -- when the immigrants arrive, the natives move out -- he neatly undermines his own thesis: "These departures can be linked to immigration. Certainly the departure of Jews from France has been." And how did the French Jews get to France? Obviously they immigrated. No, immigration is not the problem. If there is a problem, it has to do with Islam, or the version of it put forward by the extremists.
British journalist Ian Buruma takes a radically different view to Caldwell. In Taming the Gods, he inquires into the tensions that exist between church and state on three continents -- the US, East Asia and western Europe -- and finds that, in the European context, the apparent conflict between Enlightenment values and Islam is not a "civilisational" or even a religious problem but a social and political one. Islamic radicalism, Buruma suggests, is a consequence of the loss of cultural identity, not of the Islamic faith itself.
To this extent, Taming the Gods should be seen as a companion to Murder in Amsterdam, Buruma's 2006 investigation of the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by the Dutch-Moroccan Mohammed Bouyeri. In that book, Buruma painted a picture of a sensitive, sexually curious young man, a member of a despised minority, who happened to bump into a radical ideology at a time when he was ready for a powerful new identity. As Buruma puts it, "If he had been a Russian in the early 20th century, he might have been an anarchist."
There is something to be said for this. Urging us not to conflate fundamentalism with the customs and traditions of orthodox Islam, Buruma seeks to cool a debate so often heated by generalisation. But the warrant for murder has to come from somewhere and it is stretching a point to say the clerics who solicit it are outside the fold. The question is to what extent Islamic fundamentalism draws upon traditional Islam. Further, if Islam tends to incubate fundamentalism, to what extent is it compatible with liberal-democratic values? These are questions not to be dodged.
For Buruma, shared values are not essential for a liberal democracy to function. Respect for the law is what is important and Buruma insists, quite rightly, on the separation of church and state. But in Islam, according to many theologians, there is no division of church and state, no injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. There is thus a fundamental overlap in Islam between religion and politics, one Buruma downplays. Not everyone who marched through British streets in support of Khomeini's fatwa was a radical. The majority were ordinary Muslims. But to take to the streets and demand the murder of an author of fiction is a radical act, a radically illiberal one. So what, in Allah's name, was going on?
The holes in Buruma's argument are consistent with the amount of faith he puts in Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University and a deeply controversial figure. While Caldwell is critical of Ramadan, even to the point of suspecting him of preaching to the liberal choir while dog-whistling the Islamic faithful, Buruma is a huge admirer. His 2007 profile of Ramadan in The New York Times caused a stir in the world of letters, not least because it inspired Paul Berman, author of the excellent Terror and Liberalism, to launch a scathing attack on Ramadan and his erstwhile defender in The New Republic.
Berman's argument was that Ramadan's "reformism" was a species of fundamentalism in disguise. I think Ramadan's book, What I Believe, proves Berman right. Ramadan describes himself as "Swiss by nationality, Egyptian by memory, Muslim by religion, European by culture, universalistic by principle, Moroccan and Mauritian by adoption". Underpinning this multicoloured identity is an illustrious politico-religious ancestry: Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. He describes his position as "salafi reformist" and is notable for his attempts to combine Islam and various left-wing causes. For Ramadan, Islam is an oasis of meaning in the spiritual desert of Western capitalism.
The ostensibly simple title of this book is replete with significance. For Ramadan's arguments are often characterised as deeply, some would say wilfully, confusing. The charge of "double language" comes up frequently. Ramadan, it is suggested, changes his message depending on who he is talking to. Mindful of this accusation, he opens with: "This book is a work of clarification." It sure is. And it's as clear as mud. Broadly speaking, Ramadan seeks to reconcile two opposing approaches to the study of religious texts.
I aim to remain faithful to the principles of Islam, on the basis of scriptural sources, while taking into account the evolution of historical and geographical contexts.
But if the Koran really is the word of God, as Ramadan believes, all one can do is to reinterpret the texts in a way that makes them more palatable. In doing so one is no less a literalist that the most extreme Wahhabi cleric. The Melbourne writer Waleed Aly fell into this trap in his 2007 book People Like Us, in which he called for an Islamic renaissance -- a revival of Islamic learning -- to combat Islamic radicalism. He placed great emphasis on the concept of jihad, claiming that it implies a spiritual battle and not a holy war. Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't, but why, we might ask, is it so important to keep this word in play at all? As Caldwell writes, "Diffident modern Westerners tend to purge such words from their vocabulary altogether."
Ramadan's postmodern approach to a premodern theology is a philosophical non-starter. His comments on the position of women in Islam stretch his method to breaking point. Here, he seeks to describe that method in terms women will appreciate:
(1) There are indeed texts (one verse, and hence some Prophetic traditions) that refer to striking one's wife: I quote them because Muslims read and quote those texts. (2) Here are the interpretations that have been suggested, from the most literalist, which justify striking women in the name of the Koran, to the most reformist, which read this verse in light of the global message and contextualise the verse and Prophetic traditions as well as taking their chronology into account. (3) In light of those interpretations and considering the example set by the Prophet, who never struck a woman, I say that domestic violence contradicts Islamic teachings and that such behaviour must be condemned.
I've read this passage at least 20 times and I'm still not sure I understand it. But even if I did understand it, I'd feel compelled to make this point: if you need to go round this many houses to conclude that punching your wife is an affront to human decency, perhaps your map is out of date.
Buruma and Ramadan underestimate the level of intolerance in the Islamic world. Both, in fact, imply that journalists are partly to blame for the various flare-ups that have rocked the West in recent years. Ramadan writes that journalists ought to keep their "civic conscience alert while performing their work", while Buruma takes the facile position that there is little point in criticising religion because religion is a matter of belief, not reason. It isn't hard to spot in all this a tacit appeal for self-censorship, which, under the banners of "respect" and "offence", has already gained much ground in Europe.
Of course, this has nothing to do with respect and everything to do with fear, a proposition that, in 2005, two editors at a Danish newspaper sought to test, with explosive results. It's interesting that neither Buruma nor Ramadan mentions the cartoons crisis except in passing. Fortunately, Danish-born journalist Jytte Klausen fills us in on the facts and issues underlying them in The Cartoons that Shook the World, a piece of investigative journalism that has stimulated widespread debate. As a work of journalism it can't be faulted. It's Klausen's conclusions that are faulty.
The story is well known. On September 30, 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a number of cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed, some of which were patently offensive, some of which were innocuous. The cartoons were the result of an open commission intended to test the level of self-censorship operating in the illustrating community. The exercise was inspired by the case of Kare Bluitgen, a children's author who, it is claimed, had problems finding an illustrator for his book on the life of Mohammed, the depiction of whom is prohibited not by the Koran but by certain hadith. Five months later, the paper was inundated with expressions of grief and anger from Muslims. A number of countries launched a trade boycott of Danish goods. Danish consulates and embassies were torched. Protests across the Islamic world led to the deaths of about 200 people.
These are the uncontested facts but the reasons behind them are in dispute. It is often reported that Danish imams took the cartoons around the Middle East to drum up support for their protest. Klausen, however, reveals that the imams were invited by the Egyptian government and that Egypt had been building a diplomatic case against Denmark months before the story broke. The protests themselves, Klausen argues, were sponsored not only by Islamist parties but also the governments of Syria and Iran.
Klausen also admonishes Jyllands-Posten for its part in the cartoons crisis. For her, the editors behaved irresponsibly. Their experiment was a political stunt in keeping with the paper's strong support for the Danish Liberal Party and its leader, prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Klausen is highly critical of Rasmussen who, she believes, could have ended the crisis simply by apologising on behalf of the newspaper.
It is here that I depart from Klausen. This is all too reminiscent of the false notes sounded in 1989 when it was said Rushdie knew what he was doing. To that charge the appropriate response was: so what? So what if he did set out to offend? So what if the Danish cartoonists did too? Does that give one the right to burn down embassies, to issue death threats, to riot? Freedom of speech is meaningless unless it includes freedom to offend.
Klausen's book is not only an analysis of this story but also a depressing coda to it. On the verso of the contents page there is a statement from the publisher explaining its decision not to reprint the cartoons, having been threatened with violent reprisals if it did so. Beneath this is a dignified statement from the author, who explains that this decision was taken against her wishes.
But what if the cartoons had been printed and the extremists had followed through on their threats? Would Klausen have expected her publisher to apologise? At what point do you say enough is enough?
There are faith-based crises and crises of faith. What we see in Europe is the two interacting: on the one side, an extremist version of Islam and, on the other, a pervasive masochism. As Caldwell puts it, "A central problem in welcoming people from poor countries is that Europeans have lost faith in parts of the civilisation to which migrants were drawn in the first place."
Understandably ashamed of its colonial past, Europe is wary of singing its own praises. But many Muslims come to Europe for precisely the political freedoms it offers. One of those is freedom of speech. To extend that freedom, not to curtail it, should be the aim of liberals everywhere. To the question "Is nothing sacred?" the answer ought to be, "Yes, nothing is."