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Living with Islam

Hence, he writes, the riots in the French banlieues, joined by Africans, Arabs, Berbers, Muslims, and non-Muslims, were not so much a declaration of independence from French society as a protest against being excluded from it, by discrimination in jobs or education: “In a message burned onto television and computer screens throughout France, the rioters seemed to be saying, ‘We’re here! Notice us! Let us in!’”

This may well be true, with respect to employment and social advancement; but the ferocious battles in France over the right to wear headscarves in public schools suggests that by no means all immigrants, or children of immigrants, are happy to share all “cultural values” with the non-Muslim majority. To Kepel, and indeed to most staunch defenders of French republican values, the headscarf issue matters a great deal, because allowing people to wear religious symbols in public places goes against the secularist principles (laïcité) upon which the republic was founded. The fact that these principles were challenged by French citizens long before the Muslims arrived in large numbers, in clashes between devout Christians and secularists, between the republican left and the revanchist right, makes this an especially sensitive issue in France.

What dogmatic secularists and some Catholic conservatives have in common is that both sides see the imposition of cultural norms—no room for religion in the public domain for the former, and Christian morality as the bedrock of public life for the latter—as essential. Not all French thinkers are convinced, however, that a more flexible attitude toward culture and religion would bring down the French Republic. Olivier Roy, for one, takes a different view of secularism. Laïcité, in his opinion, “does not have to do with shared values but…with the acceptance of shared rules of the game.”4

Tzvetan Todorov, the historian and political essayist, might be expected to have thought hard about matters to do with culture and national identity. Born in Bulgaria, he moved to France and became a French citizen in 1963. To be French, to him, is not an identity based on sentiments or a specific culture, but on civic responsibility. He writes in his fascinating and important book La Peur des barbares :

One can demand from newcomers to the country that they respect its laws or the social contract that binds all citizens, but not that they love it: public duties and private feelings, values and traditions do not belong to the same spheres. Only totalitarian societies make it obligatory to love one’s country.

Todorov knows what he is talking about.

What matters, then, to Roy as well as Todorov, is whether people abide by the law. If people living in France today oppress their wives and resort to physical violence, they must be condemned, in Todorov’s view, “not because their behavior is alien to the French national identity…but because they break the laws, which are in turn inspired by a nexus of moral and political values.” What happens then, one might ask, if the cultural values of those transgressors conflict with those that inspired the laws? Here, too, Todorov has a clear answer:

Even if its application can be problematic in some cases, the law in a democracy has to take precedence over custom…. The values of a society are expressed in the Constitution, the laws, or the structure of the state itself; if they are violated by custom, then custom must be abandoned.

This principle, which I fully endorse, would find little resistance in the United States, but is harder to accept for many Europeans, not only in France, who fear that a lack of cultural conformity or shared traditions will result in a loss of collective identity and create social chaos. In this sense, the French republican ideology may be less revolutionary, and more traditionally European, than is often assumed, even by its most reactionary enemies.

One of the reasons, perhaps, why Americans are more litigious than Europeans or Asians (Japan has a tiny number of lawyers, relatively speaking, compared to the US) is because shared culture cannot be assumed in the New World, and laws take the place of customs. And yet, as culturally diverse as the US may be, American society can strike outsiders as remarkably conformist too; the authority of religion, for example, is more strongly felt in the US than anywhere in Europe today, especially in the political sphere. Alexis de Tocqueville admired American Protestant ethics, but worried about excessive social conformity. Pandering to majority opinion could lead to a form of mob rule. At the same time, he believed that some degree of shared ethics and norms were essential for democracy to survive.

So while I agree with Todorov and Roy that citizenship in a democracy should be defined by a shared respect for the law and not culture, custom and tradition do have a part in fostering that respect. Todorov himself says as much when he claims that laws are “inspired by a nexus of moral and political values.” Roy’s “rules of the game,” then, will surely be affected if a large enough number of citizens don’t share those values.

How serious is this problem in Europe today? Clashes between religious or cultural traditions and the law are in fact not the main issue. Orthodox Muslims, like Orthodox Jews or Christians, may find the existing penal codes too lax, but few would wish to destroy them. Radical religious revolutionaries who seek the destruction of liberal democracy, and pose a serious problem, are motivated less by cultural conflict, let alone traditional values, than by personal or political rage. The culture they aspire to is almost never the culture of their parents, but a highly abstract utopian culture that exists only in feverish minds.

There are cases in Europe of “honor killings” of Muslim daughters by their male relatives because of adultery, or some other transgression of a customary code. As Todorov observes, culture cannot be used as an excuse in such cases; the law must prevail. But there is no indication that most of the Muslims living in Europe would be in favor of changing the laws to allow such murders.

And yet, there are conflicts in which the rule of law cannot provide all the answers. Some are relatively easy to deal with. If Muslims would like certain hours set aside for women to use public swimming pools, this can be accommodated, as long as it does not seriously inconvenience others. The headscarf issue, too, is hardly the wedge that will split liberal society asunder. As for the religious puritans who refuse to shake hands with women, a matter that exercised certain Dutch politicians for a time, they are so few in number that one can tolerate them in the same manner one tolerates other religious eccentricities: Orthodox Jews who refuse to sit next to a strange woman on a plane, Amish who refuse to use a telephone.

The most contentious issue is that of free speech. The presence of new minorities in Europe from non-Western backgrounds has created sensitivities that are often exploited by “community leaders” who claim to protect these minorities by intimidating critics. Salman Rushdie, himself the victim of lethal intimidation, has often drawn the distinction between criticizing or ridiculing beliefs and attacking individuals for holding those beliefs. The former is entirely legitimate, in his eyes; the latter is not. The problem is that this distinction is lost on many believers. An attack on the Prophet, to many devout Muslims, is an attack on themselves. This is where different values count, for such an attitude is incompatible with the right to free speech.

Muslims are by no means the only ones to feel easily offended. In 2004, a play entitled Dishonour, by a young Sikh author, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, was dropped by a British theater company because Sikhs protested and violence was feared. The Sikhs, or at least their “community leaders,” felt “dishonored” by scenes of rape and murder set in a Sikh temple. Not untypically, their calls for a ban were backed by a British archbishop, who viewed such protests on behalf of religious sensitivities with sympathy.

The treatment of critics of Israel by Jewish “community leaders” in the US is not always in the spirit of free speech either. And controversies over artworks by Andres Serrano (Piss Christ) and Chris Ofili (The Holy Virgin Mary) show that Christians are not the greatest defenders of free speech when it comes to their faith. Still, no one has been murdered in recent times for saying disobliging things about Jews or Christians. The Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, on the other hand, was killed by a Dutch jihadi for “insulting the Prophet” and making a film about the abuse of Muslim women. And the woman who wrote the script, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, still has to go around with bodyguards to protect her from a similar fate.

These murderous challenges to free expression have had several consequences, all of them bad. One is that intimidation appears to work. Novels that might stir up controversy (The Jewel of Medina, by Sherry Jones, for example) are more likely to be canceled by publishers than before. The other is that right-wing populists are using such cases to wrap their anti-immigration campaigns in the banner of free speech. Raw nativism of the pre–World War II kind is no longer persuasive in Western Europe. But defending “Western values,” such as the right to free speech, is. This is indeed a good cause. But it is not best served by politicians, such the Dutch MP Geert Wilders or the Swiss nationalist Christoph Blocher, who court publicity by deliberately offending immigrants and then pose as champions of free speech when some of them decide to react.

Wilders is now being prosecuted by a Dutch court for “spreading hatred” by comparing the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, suggesting that all Muslims are like Nazis. This is in line with his short film Fitna, which paints Islam as a terrorist faith. He wants immigration of Muslims stopped, criminals from a Muslim background deported, even if they are Dutch citizens, and the Koran forbidden; free speech, even for Wilders, clearly has its limits. He recently got international attention when the British government stopped him from entering the country to show Fitna at the House of Lords. This foolish ban has made him even more popular in the Netherlands. Polls indicate that his Freedom Party would get more than 30 of 150 parliamentary seats if an election were held today.

Now, of all times, there is a need for cool heads, such as Todorov, who approaches the limits of free speech with admirable dexterity. Laws against stirring up violence or hatred cannot cover the entire ground of this issue. And using the law simply to protect people from feeling offended by criticism or ridicule would endanger the right to free speech. But as Todorov says, there are many things we don’t say that are not expressly forbidden by law, such as, in his words, “depicting all blacks in films as rapists, and all Jews as greedy bankers.” A democratic state must protect our liberties, but it has other duties too. One of them, says Todorov, is “defending the dignity of all its citizens.”

Quite how the state should do this, without resorting to the law, Todorov leaves a little vague. He pleads for a responsible public discourse, where the vulnerability of minorities is taken into account. The mass media, he says, have a particular responsibility, for they

influence public opinion in a decisive way, even though their power is not derived from the popular will. To acquire a democratic legitimacy, they…must impose limits on themselves. Unlimited liberty kills liberty.

This might smack of political correctness. But there is something to be said for an informal code of restraint that makes civilized life possible. Wilders should not be banned from comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf, or implying that all Muslims are potential terrorists, but he should be criticized for being wrong, as well as irresponsible and uncivilized. For the opposite of political correctness, as Todorov says, is political abjectness, “presented under cover of ‘speaking the truth.’”

Radical Muslims and others who use violence to impose their views are enemies of free speech and breakers of the law. And they must be treated accordingly. But that is no reason to go easy on demagogues who use free speech as an excuse to instigate popular hostility to fellow citizens, who happen to embrace a religion that the radicals use to justify revolutionary violence. It is good to be reminded by a French historian, born in a totalitarian country, what the title was of the most vicious anti-Semitic rag at the time of the Dreyfus Affair: La Libre Parole (The Free Word).

  1. 4

    Olivier Roy, Secularism Confronts Islam, translated by George Holoch (Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 38.

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