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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 bête 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).

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. 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).

  4. 4

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

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