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Living with Islam

La Peur des barbares: Au-delà du choc des civilisations [Fear of the Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations]

by Tzvetan Todorov
Paris: Robert Laffont, 312 pp., €20.00 (paper)

Two French scholars, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, have done more than most writers to open the minds of Western readers to the world of Islam. Both have written learned and stimulating books on the politics of the Middle East, as well as on the Islamic presence in contemporary Europe. They agree on many things, but on one big thing in particular: that there is no reason why Muslims should not be loyal democratic European citizens. Where they disagree is on the best way to bring this about. Roy is the more liberal, in that he views attempts by the state to impose cultural values on individual citizens with distrust, while Kepel tends toward the more conventionally French belief that imposing common values is what a state must do.

Kepel’s latest book to appear in English, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, is a strong critique of what he calls the two “grand narratives” that have created so much havoc in the Middle East, and by extension in Europe too. He uses the word “narrative” not so much in the manner of modish academic theory but more concretely, as a vision projected by modern mass media.

The first grand narrative is that of global jihad, espoused by the likes of Osama bin Laden: a holy war of Muslim martyrs against all infidels. By staging spectacular acts of suicidal mass murder against “Zionists,” “crusaders,” and all their decadent allies, a religious revolution will take place and Islam will rule the world. As Kepel explains very well, this grand narrative soon splintered into several rival narratives. Shiites pitted their version of martyrdom against that of Sunnis. When bin Laden’s murderous spectacles failed to lead to world revolution, other holy warriors, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, also known as “the engineer,” began to favor global acts of terror on a smaller scale: a war of attrition rather than propaganda by violent action.

What all the revolutionary narrators have in common, however, is a deft understanding of information technology and mass media. The roles played by al-Jazeera, for example, in the global inflammation of Muslim resentments and by the Internet in creating a vast network of more or less autonomous jihadis are important enough for Kepel to conclude that much of the current holy war is actually taking place in cyberspace. But the Islamist grand narrative, however fractured, is also having a terrible effect on the ground, as it encourages such disparate forces as Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and populist leaders in Iran to compete as players in the suicidal struggle for Islamic supremacy. So far, brutal as it is, the holy war has not brought that supremacy any nearer, not in New York, or Bali, or Madrid, or London, or Bombay.

But what about the other grand narrative laid out in Kepel’s book: the neoconservative dream of using American force to defeat the holy warriors of Islam by spreading democracy in the Middle East? A show of US power, according to this doctrine, would topple dictatorships, stop the jihad in its tracks, and protect Western interests, the state of Israel, and the oil supplies that keep global capitalism humming. The fact that global capitalism is faltering badly cannot be blamed entirely on neoconservative ideology, but Kepel makes a convincing case that the strengthening of Iranian influence, the aggravation of Middle Eastern conflicts, and the spread of Islamist extremism can be.1 Neither Israel nor Western interests are safer today than they were before September 11, and the holy war is still raging. Saddam Hussein is gone, which is a blessing. But in most other respects the Bush administration made things worse.

The third failure, in Kepel’s view, is that of “multiculturalism” in Europe, particularly in Britain and the Netherlands, where the multicultural ideal has been most strongly promoted. Citing a raft of statistics that appear to show how much better Muslims are integrated in French society than they are in Britain or Holland, Kepel makes a strong argument in favor of the French model of imposing a common secularist culture. The statistics are indeed interesting, as far as they go: almost 40 percent of Britons, according to a 2007 Financial Times poll, felt that Muslims posed a threat to national security, versus only 20 percent of the French who felt that way. According to the same poll, 80 percent of French respondents believed that being a Muslim and a French citizen were quite compatible, whereas less than 60 percent of the British took a similar view.

Statistics are fickle, answers depend on the way questions are phrased, and a British respondent may not have precisely the same idea of citizenship as a French one. Still, the fact that some of the most spectacular acts of Islamist terror have taken place in Britain and the Netherlands, and not in France, and that anti-Muslim sentiment in those countries has grown in reaction to the alleged failure of multiculturalism, cannot be denied.

The problem with Kepel’s argument is that he loads the dice. By stressing what he sees as the shortcomings of British and Dutch multiculturalism, he paints a caricature that is sometimes simply wrong. Islamist acts of terror, he says, were

made possible by a multiculturalist philosophy that encouraged groups to develop totally separate identities from other groups, and allowed those identities to prevail over shared values, morals, and ways of life. These separate identities could easily tip into hatred and attacks on people outside one’s own insular community.

Dogmatic multiculturalism, like all “identity politics,” has a lot to answer for. Bad practices are too often justified in the name of cultural difference. And people are not encouraged, to put it mildly, to broaden their minds beyond the narrow confines of their own cultural or religious backgrounds. On a practical level, anything that stands in the way of learning the language of one’s country properly will be a barrier to advancement and prosperity. More generally, as Tzvetan Todorov, the author of La Peur des barbares (Fear of the Barbarians), says:

A culture that encourages its members to be aware of their own traditions, while at the same time being able to take a distance from them, is superior (and thus more “civilised”) to one which only flatters the pride of its members….

Did the young Muslim men who bombed the London subway in 2005 really act as they did because they were locked into separate identities? The facts point to a more nuanced conclusion. Their education was entirely British. They barely spoke Urdu, the language of their parents, and had no interest in the religious or cultural traditions of their family’s small Pakistani community. In fact, the lead bomber, Mohammad Sidique Khan, “Sid” to his British schoolmates, defied his father’s wishes by marrying a woman from a different community, whom he met while studying business at Leeds. One can speculate on the many possible social or political reasons, both domestic and international, why “Sid” became a holy warrior, but the multiculturalist explanation hardly seems the most convincing.

A particular bĂŞte noire of Kepel is the Swiss-born Muslim activist Tariq Ramadan. There are reasons to be critical of Ramadan: his slippery way with the press and television, his eagerness to please different audiences, the woolliness of his prose, the rather old-fashioned stridency of his third-worldist rhetoric, and so on. But by trying to pin the ills of multiculturalism on him, Kepel gets Ramadan wrong. “Both Ramadan and the multiculturalists,” he writes, “believed that populations of Muslim origin should be structured along community lines.”

In fact, Ramadan says quite the opposite. He rejects special minority rights. It is true that he wants “to protect the Muslim identity and religious practice,” but his idea of the Muslim identity, whatever one thinks of it, is not at all the same as the multiculturalist notion of separation. Ramadan wants every European Muslim “to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level, and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.”2 In short, what Ramadan wants is for Muslims to inject their religious values into the mainstream of European society. One may not welcome this, but it is not typical of multiculturalism.

Kepel is also quite wrong when he claims that Ramadan has become a spokesman for Muslims in the Netherlands, or “the de facto head of an Islamic ‘pillar.’” There is no such thing as an Islamic pillar, and Ramadan is not the head of anything. He merely occupies a part-time chair at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, while remaining a research fellow at Oxford University.

Since the late nineteenth century, Dutch society was indeed organized along communal lines, with so-called pillars representing religious and political affiliations (not just religious ones, as Kepel mistakenly believes). To avoid violent conflict, Catholics, Protestants, liberals, and socialists all had their own schools, clubs, newspapers, and political parties, and the leaders of these pillars would govern by compromise and consensus. This system more or less collapsed in the 1960s, along with church attendance and deference to authority. Dutch Muslims are too divided, culturally, ethnically, and politically, to form a pillar now, even if they, or the multiculturalists, would desire such a thing.

Kepel is more surefooted when it comes to the influence of colonial histories in various European countries. He is right to stress this often neglected factor. The British ruled their imperial possessions along communal lines, dividing religious and ethnic communities, and governing in collaboration with their leaders. Kepel argues that the multicultural approach, in which people are encouraged to stick to their own kind, reflects this tradition.3 The same, by the way, could be said about the way the Dutch ruled their colonies. What Kepel does not say, even though it might actually have strengthened his argument, is that the colonies reflected, to some degree, the nature of the metropolitan societies, which were also divided along the lines of class, religion, and even nationhood (English, Scottish, Welsh, Ulstermen).

  1. 1

    Kepel has been criticized by certain neocons for suggesting a “moral equivalence” between the Bush administration and the Islamist holy warriors. So far as I can see, no such equivalence is implied in any of Kepel’s writings.

  2. 2

    Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 27.

  3. 3

    See Kepel’s The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, translated by Pascale Ghazaleh (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2004).

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