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The Big Muslim Problem!

Tariq Ramadan; drawing by John Springs

In the extremely short run, a baby bust such as Europe has undergone can enhance living standards, because it reduces the number of dependents per worker. But in the longer run a reckoning awaits, and the longer run has arrived.

The most egregious examples of Caldwell’s aliens are Muslims, because, as he sees it, they are less susceptible to European cultural influences than other immigrant groups such as Slavs, Sikhs, Hindus, non-Muslim Africans, and African-Caribbeans. He flatly ignores evidence produced by numerous scholars such as Aziz al-Azmeh, Tariq Modood, Philip Lewis, and Jytte Klausen that Muslim identities are shifting to meet changing circumstances, that a majority of younger British Muslims, for example, “share many aspects of popular youth culture with their non-Muslim peers,” and that their problem is not so much with the majority culture as with “traditionally-minded parents who seek, usually unsuccessfully, to limit their access to it.”

Caldwell pours scorn on writers who emphasize the diversity of the Islamic traditions in Europe. “For all its pleasing glibness,” he says, “this harping on diversity is misguided.” His reading of Islam takes an essentialist perspective of a primordial religion impervious to change, as if he were oblivious of the way that essentialist views of religion have long been under sustained intellectual attack. No one remotely familiar with the work of scholars such as Aziz al-Azmeh (who ruminates on the diversities of “Islams” and “modernities”) or the political scientist Jytte Klausen, whose brilliant work on European Muslims investigates emerging hermeneutics and epistemologies of faith, would dismiss them, as Caldwell does, as “glib.” Al-Azmeh and his colleagues provide plenty of support to refute “the cliché,” as al-Azmeh writes, “of a homogenous collectivity innocent of modernity, cantankerously or morosely obsessed with prayer, fasting, veiling, medieval social and penal arrangements,”1 while Klausen has demonstrated convincingly that European Muslims are overwhelmingly hostile to extremism, support democratic processes, accept the duties of citizenship, and are evolving distinctively local styles of Muslim identities.2

Nor does Caldwell exhibit any familiarity with the rich literature describing the spread of Islam in peripheral cultures such as sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, where a religion originating in Arabia proved every bit as adept as Christianity in adjusting to local conditions. He has similarly failed to familiarize himself, even superficially, with the vast literature charting the encounter between Islam and modern Western society. In his review of Western attitudes toward Islam he prefers to celebrate the prejudices of writers such as Ernest Renan (in 1883) or Hilaire Belloc (in 1938) than to engage with significant Muslim thinkers such as Muhammad Iqbal, Fazlur Rahman, Muhammed Arkoun, or Abdullahi an-Naim who might challenge his essentialist assumptions. Caldwell’s “Islam” owes more to tabloid headlines than to responsible research. To borrow a phrase of Philip Lewis, it exemplifies the need for greater religious literacy in the post–September 11 era.

Nevertheless, in arguing that “Europe became a multiethnic society in a fit of absence of mind,” Caldwell makes some useful points. European societies have yet to find satisfactory ways of institutionalizing Islam within their national polities. This is partly due to the fragmentary and contested nature of Islamic spiritual authority, in which (with the partial exception of Shiism) no formal priesthood stands between the individual and a god who reveals himself in texts that are subject to a wide variety of interpretations.

Umbrella bodies intended to act as interlocutors with governments, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM), are rejected by many Muslims for being too political, or not political enough, or simply not representative of people who may be difficult to represent, or may not want to be represented as “Muslims.” It is clear that as a religion formulated during an era of political ascendancy, the mainstream traditions of Islam have yet to find comfortable moorings as minorities in the contested public spaces of a secular, pluralist West.

Two thirds of the imams in France live on welfare, as do a similar number in Britain. A majority are foreign-born and trained, and have received little instruction in British culture or its values. A small minority of them have been exposed in the press as “preachers of hate.” The funding of European mosques and Islamic institutions from ultraconservative countries should be a real cause for concern: in France, for example, the Union of Islamic Organizations (UIOF) —an umbrella group of doctrinaire Muslim youth organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood—gets a quarter of its annual budget from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and other foreign donors.

The British laissez-faire model of leaving immigrant communities to manage themselves has allowed extremism to flourish in all sorts of complex ways. Missionary organizations such as the Tablighi Jamaat, known for its pietism and declared abhorrence of politics, nevertheless encourage a separatist spirit in which extremism can be incubated: most of the men convicted in September for the plot to blow up transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives smuggled in soft-drink bottles had connections with the Tablighi Jamaat, as did two of the suicide bombers who murdered fifty-two people in the London transport system in July 2005.

Paradoxically, even marriage can be an agent of radicalization: whereas the first generation of migrants’ children pleased their parents by marrying cousins imported from Pakistan or Bangladesh (thereby swelling immigrant numbers), their children’s insistence on marrying Muslim partners of their choice is leading to the creation of a Muslim identity that transcends the older patterns of “encapsulated” settlement based on differences of region, culture, language, and biradiri (extended family networks).

This novel pan-Islamic identity both feeds on and contributes to the perceived hostility of the host society: the Rushdie agitation in 1989, the row over the “insult” to Islam conveyed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in publishing a cartoon showing Muhammad with a terrorist bomb as his turban, the marches in France protesting the headscarf ban in schools, the riots of youth in Parisian suburbs, and episodes of Islamophobia reported on al-Jazeera television or in the Muslim press all contribute to the sense of an embattled community that is also flexing its collective communitarian muscles.

Despite the legal, institutional, and cultural differences of the European host cultures in which Muslim immigrants find themselves, the narrative that Caldwell extrapolates from a complicated web of data points in an alarming direction. The bottom line is that Islam is a religion of believers. Most Europeans are not only skeptical, but—as heirs to the Enlightenment—they regard religious skepticism as essential to their outlook and identity “as part of the essence of European-ness.” He writes:

A fast-shrinking population of several hundred million Europeans lives north of the Mediterranean, while a fast-growing population of several hundred million lives south of it, with a desire to take up residence in Europe that seems unshakable. What is more a certain part of it is dedicated to Europe’s destruction by armed violence….

Europe’s basic problem with Islam, and with immigration more generally, is that the strongest communities in Europe are, culturally speaking, not European communities at all. This problem exists in all European countries, despite a broad variety of measures taken to solve it—multiculturalism in Holland, laïcité in France, benign neglect in Britain, constitutional punctiliousness in Germany.

Clearly Europe’s problem is with Islam and with immigration, and not with specific misapplications of specific means set up to manage them. Islam is a magnificent religion that has also been, at times over the centuries, a glorious and generous culture. But all cant to the contrary, it is in no sense Europe’s religion and it is in no sense Europe’s culture.

Impressive though he may appear in marshaling a disparate army of sources (ranging from government statistics, social surveys, and think-tank reports to novels and newspaper stories in eight or more languages), the impression he gives is spurious and not supported by real evidence. Caldwell selects a multitude of facts or quotations that support his central premise of a “believing” Islam pitted against a doubting or skeptical Europe. This conclusion, however, is not supported by surveys of actual religious behavior. While the figures—and methodologies used to arrive at them—vary considerably, the conclusion to which they point is that Muslims do not greatly differ in religious behavior from other Europeans. For example, a French study in 2001 found that only 10 percent of Muslims were religiously observant. A study by the demographer Michèle Tribalat the same year found that 60 percent of French Muslim men and 70 percent of women were “not observant,” though the great majority respected “cultural attachments” by abstaining from eating pork or drinking alcohol and by fasting during Ramadan. Caldwell mentions none of this work.

The failures in this book are not limited to its flawed and biased research. A troubling example of Caldwell’s method involves the misuse of translation in order to further his argument that unlike other religious traditions, Islam cannot be assimilated into European culture. In an extended critique of the work of Tariq Ramadan, the charismatic and articulate advocate of a distinctive European Islam, Caldwell argues that Ramadan’s project for Muslim integration into European societies is basically asymmetrical:

The integration of Muslims into Europe will happen on Muslim terms. Or, as Ramadan puts it, “It will succeed when Muslims find in their tradition elements of agreement with the laws of the countries in which they are citizens, because that will resolve any questions of double allegiance.” This is an extraordinary statement: Only when Europe’s ways are understood as Islam’s will Muslims obey them.

The word Ramadan uses in the original French text of this quotation is not “tradition,” but “références.” “References” in this context sounds slightly odd in English, but “tradition” is too comprehensive, tipping the semantic scale toward inassimilable Muslims. A better translation might be “sources.” This is not splitting hairs. As Ramadan explains in What I Believe, in which he defends himself against charges of “doublespeak,” the idea of “reference” is fundamental to his approach:

Adapting one’s level of speech to one’s audience, or adapting the nature of one’s references, is not doublespeak…. To avoid doublespeak, what matters is that the substance of the discourse does not change.

Ramadan writes that his most distinguished defender, the philosopher Charles Taylor, exonerates him from the charge of “doublespeak,” arguing, as Ramadan puts it, that his “discourse is clear between two highly ambiguous universes of reference.” Ramadan’s aim is to “build bridges” between these two universes. As a Muslim scholar and intellectual he applies the discipline of ijtihad (interpretative reasoning); the Arabic term has the same root as jihad, “moral striving”—a word that is often translated, too restrictively, as “holy war.”

Ramadan presents his new book, What I Believe, as “a work of clarification, a deliberately accessible presentation of the basic ideas I have been defending for more than twenty years.” The ground is broadly the same as that which was covered in two books of his previously reviewed in these pages.3 There I argued that Ramadan’s belief that Islam can avoid the processes of secularization that afflicted Christendom after the Reformation was flawed by his failure to accommodate the tragic narrative of Shiism and also his failure to recognize that the institutionalization of religious differences—a prerequisite for religious peace among Muslims—would ipso facto initiate a process of secularization.

In a chapter on “Interacting Crises,” Ramadan addresses some of the issues that Caldwell raises in his book: the Muslim presence in the West, he says, should not just be seen and engaged as a problem of religions, values, and cultures, but as a psychological one as well. It is not just Muslims who face challenging issues of self-identification. “Western societies in general and Europeans in particular are experiencing a very deep, multidimensional identity crisis” flowing from the double effects of globalization and supranationalism. Everywhere landmarks of national identity and cultural memory are being eroded. The presence of immigrants adds to feelings of confusion.

While aging populations need immigrants to sustain their economies, the incomers threaten ideas of cultural homogeneity that are already endangered by globalization and the revolution in communications. Europeans are trapped in an irreversible logic. Economic necessities are in conflict with the cultural forces around which European identities accrue. Muslims living in the West face similar predicaments. Their identity crisis generates anxiety leading them toward attitudes of “withdrawal and self-isolation.”

A “Manifesto for a New ‘We,’” with which Ramadan concludes his book, urges European Muslims to have more confidence “in themselves, in their values, in their ability to live and to communicate with full serenity in Western societies.” There needs to be “a revolution in trust” built on the confidence that Muslims must have in their own convictions. Their task must be “to reappropriate their heritage and to develop toward it a positive yet critical intellectual attitude.” Contra Caldwell, he demands—without qualifications—that Muslims “respect the laws of the countries in which they reside and to which they must be loyal.”

The tone is lofty, the language high-minded. It is the preacher, rather than the intellectual, who speaks. Ramadan does not stoop to engage directly with his critics. As he grandly writes in his introduction, “I will not waste my time here trying to defend myself.” This is a pity. The charges of doublespeak against Ramadan are not just based on what he describes as “double-hearings,” malicious, deliberate, or otherwise. The claims of his most trenchant critic, the French journalist Caroline Fourest,4 are specific and detailed and documented, based on the tapes of Ramadan’s lectures to youthful Muslim audiences as well as his published writings.

Fourest presents Ramadan as a fundamentalist wolf in reformist clothing, a position at variance with his declared advocacy of a “critical intellectual attitude” toward Islamic tradition. Most of her charges depend on family links he refuses to abjure—his maternal grandfather Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, his Islamist father Said Ramadan, and especially his brother Hani, a more strident critic than Tariq of “Europe’s atheistic materialism” who has publicly justified the stoning of adulteresses “as a punishment” that is also “a purification.” Tariq, by contrast, notoriously argued in a 2003 television debate with Nicolas Sarkozy that the penalty of stoning should merely be subject to a “moratorium” while scholars debated the issue.

Other troubling details that emerge from Fourest’s vigilant, even obsessive, trawl through the Ramadan canon include explicit condemnations of Kant and Pascal and fence-sitting, not to say “double-talk,” on Darwinism. A work published by the Islamist publishing house with which he is closely associated explicitly denies evolution, while his audiotapes advocate creationism as a “complementary instruction” to the teaching of evolution in schools. Yet when asked in a television interview whether he accepted evolutionary theory, he “preferred to agree,” rather than express his true convictions in front of the general public.

In one sense Fourest’s critique can be seen as reassuring: Ramadan’s teachings —on sexuality, evolution, and moral behavior generally—fall into grooves already furrowed by the Christian right. Secularists may abhor any alliance between anti-Enlightenment God-fearers from among Abraham’s quarrelsome children, but any such alliance may have an important advantage: it may mask or defuse religious conflicts surrounding the contested symbolic languages that afflict the contemporary world, where ancient certainties clash with what Anthony Giddens usefully calls “the institutionalisation of doubt.”

Paradoxically, as the sociologist Steve Bruce has pointed out, alliances between clashing fundamentalisms can serve to bridge sectarian divisions. For example, in the early 1970s when Mormons, conservative Jews, and Catholics collaborated over issues such as opposition to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment for women or abortion, they had to suppress their theological distaste for allies whose religions they regarded as false. While such alliances may have seemed threatening to liberals and especially to women, they marked a significant step away from fundamentalist certainties, since the different parties were forced to compartmentalize their beliefs, to separate their distinctive religious outlooks and practices from “the moral crusades which the religion has produced.” Social problems such as the “binge drinking” and drug abuse that afflict European cities are obvious candidates for collaboration across religious boundaries. In Britain at least one Orthodox rabbi is working alongside a local imam on such problems.

One of the strongest statements deploring the Danish cartoons came from the Vatican, along with the World Council of Churches, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Danish Evangelical Church. While such expressions of “faith solidarity” may have disturbing implications for the rights of free expression cherished by Europeans, they carry the seeds of longer-term accommodations that are likely to bring the more conservative and isolated strands of Islam into the cultural mainstream. Interdenominational collaboration on any issue is a stage in the process of secularization, pushing believers toward a recognition of religious pluralism and dethroning particular dogmas as the unique and nonnegotiable sources of truth. Ramadan can afford to be more upfront about his fundamentalist views. When defensive religiosity turns into moralizing, there is space for social engagement and constructive debate.

  1. 1

    Islam in Europe: Diversity, Identity and Influence, edited by Aziz al-Azmeh and Effie Fokas (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 209.

  2. 2

    Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe (Oxford University Press, 2005).

  3. 3

    To Be a European Muslim (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1999) and Western Muslims and the Fate of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2003); see my “The Islamic Optimist,” The New York Review, August 16, 2007.

  4. 4

    Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, translated by Ioana Wilder and John Atherton (Encounter, 2008).

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