by David Pryce-Jones
Commentary December 31, 2004
Only a few years ago, mass-murder attacks on the West in the name of Islam, like those of September 11, would have seemed like a thriller writer’s fantasy. Nor would anyone have imagined that a bombing by Islamists could swing a general election in a European country, that a Dutch movie-maker might be shot dead on the street for a film about the abuse of women in Islam, or that one might find oneself watching, on television, the beheading of Western hostages by men crying out Allahu Akhbar! over their savage deeds.
Pakistan now has a nuclear bomb, and this weapon is widely described as an Islamic bomb. To judge by their pronouncements, the Islamist leaders of Iran can hardly wait to perfect and use their derivative of it.
At present, it is not clear whether the religious/ideological rage that is the motive force behind these developments has any limits, whether it may yet succeed in mobilizing truly huge numbers of Muslim masses, or whether it can be deflected or crushed.
What is clear is that a phenomenon that at first looked like a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand has lashed up into a crisis with global implications. Does this crisis amount to a “clash of civilizations”? Many people reject that notion as too sweeping or downright misleading. Yet whether or not it applies to, say, the situation in Iraq, or to the war on terror, the phrase has much to recommend it as a description of what is going on inside Europe today.
As Yves Charles Zarka, a French philosopher and analyst, has written: “there is taking place in France a central phase of the more general and mutually conflicting encounter between the West and Islam, which only someone completely blind or of radical bad faith, or possibly of disconcerting naiveté, could fail to recognize.
” In the opinion of Bassam Tibi, an academic of Syrian origins who lives in Germany, Europeans are facing a stark alternative: “Either Islam gets Europeanized, or Europe gets Islamized.” Going still farther, the eminent historian Bernard Lewis has speculated that the clash may well be over by the end of this century, at which time, if present demographic trends continue, Europe itself will be Muslim.
Today’s situation has been a very long time-centuries-in the making. For much of that time, of course, the encounter between Muslims and the West remained stacked in favor of the latter, both militarily and culturally. Which is not to say that Europeans of an earlier age were blind to the danger posed to Western civilization by a resurgent Islam.
One watchful observer was Winston Churchill, who wrote about Islam-or Mohammedanism as it was then called-in The River War (1899): No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step, and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science . . . the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.
Hilaire Belloc had similar premonitions 30 years later in The Great Heresies (1938): Will not perhaps the temporal power of Islam return and with it the menace of an armed Muhammadan world which will shake the dominion of Europeans-still nominally Christian-and reappear again as the prime enemy of our civilization? . . . Since we have here a very great religion, physically paralyzed, but morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium.
To these early observers, nevertheless, it did seem that Western cultural and military superiority could be counted on to prevail, at least for the foreseeable future. (Belloc is better remembered for his boast, “We have got the Gatling gun, and they have not.”) And prevail it did throughout a good part of the 20th century.
In the last decades, however, another historical process has been at work drastically revising the calculus of power. Contemporary Islamism might be summed up as the effort to redress and reverse the long-ago defeat of Muslim power by European (i.e., Christian) civilization.
Toward that end, it has followed two separate courses of action: adopting the forms of nationalism that have appeared to many Muslims to contain the secret of Western supremacy, or promoting Islam itself as the one force capable of uniting Muslims everywhere and hence ensuring their renewed power and dominance. In the hands of today’s Islamists, and with the complicity of Europe itself, these two approaches have proved mutually reinforcing.
In Europe, the world wars of the last century finally undid and discredited the idea of the sovereign nation-state, the engine of the continent’s preeminence and self-confidence. In place of this tried and tested political arrangement, now suddenly seen as outmoded and dysfunctional, institutions like the European Union and the United Nations were thought to offer a firmer foundation for a new world order, one that would be based on universal legal norms and in which sovereign power would be rendered superfluous.
It has been the resulting decline of the European nation-state that has helped provide a unique opportunity for Islamism, itself based on a world-wide, transnational community that has been united by faith and custom since its inception and that traditionally has drawn no distinction between the realm of faith and the realm of temporal power. A number of ideological movements have spread and fortified the modern projection of transnational Islam. Perhaps the most successful has been the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hasan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928, with branches today in some 40 to 50 countries.
Yasir Arafat and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, are among those formed by the Brotherhood. Its more recent inspiration derives from the Egyptian-born Sayyid Qutb, whose three-year stay in the United States in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s convinced him that the West and everything it stood for had to be rejected, while Islam already provided every Muslim with state, nation, religion, and identity all in one. Saudi Arabia has spent billions of its petro-dollars financing groups, including terrorist groups, that promote this idea.
The 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran was an opening test of the new balance of forces between a rising transnational Islam and the declining Western nation-state. European countries, which in the postwar period seemed largely to have lost the will to respond to aggressive challenges from without, presented no opposition to the totalitarian Khomeini regime and no barrier to its aggrandizement. That left the United States, still a nation-state very much committed to defending its sovereignty. Indeed, to the ayatollahs and their allies, the U.S. represented a final embodiment of the Great Satan, fit to be confronted in holy war. This remains the case today.
In the meantime, though, a battle of a different but no less decisive kind has been taking place within Europe, where some 20 million Muslims have settled. Thanks on the one hand to their high birthrate, and on the other hand to the sub-replacement birthrate that has become the norm among other Europeans, the demographic facts alone suggest a continent ripe for a determined effort to advance the Islamist agenda.
In its global reach and in its aggressive intentions, Islamist ideology bears some resemblance to another transnational belief system: namely, Communism. Like today’s Islamists, Communists of an earlier age saw themselves as engaged in an apocalyptic struggle in which every member of a Communist party anywhere was expected to comport himself as a frontline soldier, and in which terror was seen as a wholly permissible means toward victory in a war to the finish. Compare Stalin’s “If the enemy does not surrender he must be exterminated” with the refusal of the leader of Hizballah in Lebanon to negotiate with or ask concessions from the West because “We seek to exterminate you.”
To Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian with British citizenship who until recently led a group called al-Muhajiroun, the terrorists of September 11 were “The Magnificent Nineteen”-or, as he explains, the advance guard of an army of “our Muslim brothers from abroad [who] will come one day and conquer here.”
Throughout the cold-war era, the European democracies under threat from Soviet expansionism were themselves home to Communist parties, as well as to an array of front organizations ostensibly devoted to peace and friendship and culture but in reality manipulated by and for Soviet purposes. In addition, many people from all walks of life accommodated themselves to Communism with varying degrees of emotional intensity and out of various motives, including the wish to be on what they perceived as the winning side and the converse fear of winding up on the losing side. Each of these elements, in suitably transmuted form, is present today.
The pool of local recruits upon which Islamists draw is itself very large. Of Europe’s 20 million Muslims, it is estimated that 5 or 6 million live in France alone, at least 3 million in Germany and 2 million in Britain, 1 million apiece in Holland and Italy, and a half-million apiece in Spain and Austria. It is true that most Muslim immigrants to Europe come simply with hopes for a better life, and that these hopes are more important to them than any apprehensions they might entertain about living in a society ruled by non-Muslims-something historically prohibited in Islam. Indeed, large numbers have assimilated with greater or lesser strain, and, in the manner of other minorities, have become “hyphenated” as British-Muslim, French-Muslim, Italian-Muslim, and the like.
Religious life flourishes: if, a half-century ago, there were but a handful of mosques throughout Europe, today every leading country has over a thousand, and France and Germany each have somewhere between five and six thousand. Muslim pressure groups, lobbies, and charities operate effectively everywhere; in Britain alone there are 350 Muslim bodies of one kind or another. Among these various organizations, however, a number function as Islamist fronts. Inspired by Saudi Arabia or Khomeinist Iran, by the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda, they work to undermine democracy in whatever ways they can, just as Soviet front organizations once did. They push immigrants to repudiate both the process and the very idea of integration, challenging them as a matter of religious belief and identity to take up an oppositional stance to the societies in which they live.
Issues of Islamic concern have been skillfully magnified into scandals in the attempt to foment animosity on all sides and thus further deter or prevent the integration of Muslims into mainstream European life. The notorious 1989 fatwa condemning the novelist Salman Rushdie to death for exercising his right to free speech as a British citizen was an early example of this tactic of disruption and agitation.
Another has been the attempt in Britain to set up a Muslim “parliament” that will recognize only Islamic law (shari’a) as binding, and not the law of the land.
Still another has been the insistence, in France, on the wearing of the hijab by girls in public schools, a practice that clearly contradicts the ideals of French republicanism and is in any case not an Islamic requirement.
The tactical thinking behind such incitements was well articulated by an al-Qaeda leader who, calling upon British Muslims to “bring the West to its knees,” added that they, “the locals, and not foreigners,” have the advantage since they understand “the language, culture, area, and common practices of the enemy whom they coexist among.”
Still another phenomenon familiar from the Soviet era has lately made a repeat appearance in the West, and that is voluntary accommodation, or fellow-traveling, among non-Muslims. Leftist fellow-travelers once helped to create a climate of opinion favorable to Communism. Many knew exactly what they were doing. Others merely meant well; they were what Lenin called “useful idiots.”
In like manner, Islamist fellow-travelers and useful idiots are weaving a climate of opinion today that advances the purposes of radical Islam and is deeply damaging to the prospects of reconciliation. As in the 30’s and throughout the cold war, intellectuals and journalists are in the lead. Books pour from the presses to justify everything and anything Muslims have done in the past and are doing in the present.
Just as every Soviet aggression was once defined as an act of self-defense against the warmongering West, today terrorists of al Qaeda, or the Chechen terrorists who killed children in the town of Beslan, are described in the media as militants, activists, separatists, armed groups, guerrillas-in short, as anything but terrorists. Dozens of apologists pretend that there is no connection between the religion of Islam and those who practice terror in its name, or suggest that Western leaders are no better or are indeed worse than Islamist murderers. Thus Karen Armstrong, the well-known historian of religion: “It’s very difficult sometimes to distinguish between Mr. Bush and Mr. bin Laden.”
One form of Islamist fellow-traveling masquerades as a call for “tolerance,” or “diversity,” and has penetrated right through the world of European opinion and European institutions. The British Communist historian Christopher Hill once concluded a book on Lenin with a reverent recital of the epithets the party had devised to glorify him.
Pious Muslims follow the mention of the Prophet Muhammad with the invocation, “Peace be upon him.” This practice has now crept into a biography of the Prophet written by a British writer not ostensibly a Muslim. To encourage such acts of deference, there has been a complementary effort to stifle contrary or less than fully respectful opinions.
When the outspoken French novelist Michel Houellebecq pronounced Islam to be hateful, stupid, and dangerous, Muslim organizations and the League for the Rights of Man took him to court, just as the Italian writer Oriana Fallaci was sued for her book tying the 9/11 attacks to the teachings of Islam. Although both writers won their cases, the chilling effect was unmistakable.
The institutions that have been affected by Islamophile correctness run the gamut. In Britain, a judge has agreed to prohibit Hindus and Jews from sitting on a jury in the trial of a Muslim.
The British Commission for Racial Equality has ordained that businesses must provide prayer rooms for Muslims and pay them for their absences on religious holidays.
In a town in the Midlands, a proposal to renovate a hundred-year-old statue of a pig was rejected for fear of giving offense to Muslims.
The British Council, an international organization for cultural relations, fired a staff member who published articles in the Sunday Telegraph arguing that the roots of terror and jihad were nourished in the soil of Islam, while the BBC canceled the contract of a popular television journalist for allegedly using negative language to describe the Muslim Arab contribution to mankind.
Commercial society has likewise rushed to accommodate real or imagined Muslim sensibilities: a British bank boasts that it will comply with shari’a prohibitions on the uses of money, and the German state of Saxony-Anhalt has become the first European body to issue a sukuk, or Islamic bond.
Religious society is not far behind: even as bin Laden speaks of wresting Spain (“al-Andalus”) from the infidels by violence, the cathedral of Santiago has considered removing a statue of St. James Matamoros (“the Moor slayer”), lest it give offense to Muslims.
For the same reason, the municipality of Seville has removed King Ferdinand III, hitherto the city’s patron saint, from fiesta celebrations because he fought the Moors for 27 years.
In Italy, where Islamists have threatened to destroy the cathedral of Bologna because of a fresco illustrating the Prophet Muhammad in the inferno (where Dante placed him), thought has been given to deleting the art-work from the walls. Even the Pope has apologized for the Crusades.
In secular Denmark, the Qur’an (but not the Bible) is now required reading for high-school students. And so forth.
The lengths to which apologists for Islamism are prepared to go is nicely illustrated by the case of Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and a popular writer and speaker. As is well known, the American university Notre Dame recently offered Ramadan a professorship, but U.S. immigration authorities have so far rejected his application for a visa. This has elicited some classic examples of fellow-traveling obfuscation from both Americans and Europeans outraged on his behalf. A letter to the Washington Post protesting Ramadan’s treatment undertook to explicate his supposed message to Western Muslims: they “must find common values and build with fellow citizens a society based on diversity and equality.”
Not quite. What Tariq Ramadan has really proposed in his writings and teachings is that Muslims in the West should conduct themselves not as hyphenated citizens seeking to live by “common values” but as though they were already in a Muslim-majority society and exempt on that account from having to make concessions to the faith of others.
What Ramadan advocates is a kind of reverse imperialism. In his conception, Muslims in non-Muslim countries should feel themselves entitled to live on their own terms-while, under the terms of Western liberal tolerance, society as a whole should feel obliged to respect that choice. Ramadan happens to be a grandson of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he is also a guarded writer. In fact, his is a relatively “moderate” and qualified expression of Islamic reverse imperialism.
More overtly, and with an implicit threat of violence, Dyab Abu Jahjah, a Lebanese who has settled in Antwerp, has denounced the Western ideal of assimilation as “cultural rape,” and aims to bring all the Muslims of Europe into a single independent community. He, too, needless to say, has his defenders and apologists among European liberals.
Or consider the European reception of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, heir to Sayyid Qutb as the religious authority of the Muslim Brotherhood. Wanted on charges of terrorism in his native Egypt, al-Qaradawi now lives in Qatar. Like Tariq Ramadan in Switzerland, he emphasizes that Muslims must keep apart from liberal democracy as it is practiced in the West while also availing themselves of its benefits and advantages. But he goes much further. Unlike Ramadan, he approves of wife-beating in the forms sanctioned by the Qur’an; as for homosexuals, he is agnostic on whether they should be thrown off a high cliff or flogged to death. Yet this year, in an official ceremony at London’s City Hall, al-Qaradawi was welcomed as “an Islamic scholar held in great respect” by the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. “You are truly, truly welcome,” gushed Livingstone, an otherwise enthusiastic supporter of gay pride.
Also appearing this year in London was Sheik Abdul Rahman al-Sudayyis, a senior imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca; among his many distinctions, al-Sudayyis has vituperated Jews as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.” Standing beside this apostle of “diversity and equality” was a junior minister in the Blair government.
The Islamic Foundation, one of Britain’s numerous Muslim bodies, has an offshoot called the Markfield Institute. In July, the London Times linked both the foundation and the institute to terrorism. An offended reader with an English name wrote to protest: “I hope that Markfield . . . will be allowed to help individual Muslims to practice their faith with peace and respect, in a multicultural Britain.”
Another reader, an Anglican canon in the Diocese of Leicester (a city with a Muslim majority today), asserted that the institute was simply trying to teach imams and Muslim youngsters alike to work within British institutions. In just that spirit, and even in that vocabulary, the fellow-traveling Beatrice Webb used to advance the transcendent virtues of the Soviet social model.
Gullible, false, and dangerous statements of this kind are now as common as rain. In the realm of classical Islam, Christians and Jews once lived as dhimmis-that is to say, minorities with second-class rights, tolerated but discriminated against by law and custom. Many contemporary Muslims appear to idealize this long-lost supremacy over others, and aspire to reconstruct it.
One way to work for this end is through violence and terror. Another way, the way of Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is through words. One way and another, the project is advancing. Summing up the collective achievement so far, Bat Ye’or, the historian of “dhimmitude,” has written that “Europe has evolved from a Judeo-Christian civilization with important post-Enlightenment/secular elements to . . . a secular Muslim transitional society with its traditional Judeo-Christian mores rapidly disappearing.” She calls this evolving entity “Eurabia.”
If that is the case, or is becoming the case, is it any wonder that some Europeans are switching sides, so as to be on the winning one? The sheer élan and cultural confidence displayed by Islamist spokesmen may have something to do with the fact that every year, thousands of people all over Europe convert to Islam. Some of these converts, from Britain, France, and Germany, taking the direct route from words to action, have gone on to play a disproportionate role in terrorism and Islamist militancy.
Thus, at a rally organized in London last year by a radical offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a high proportion of demonstrators were clearly not of Middle Eastern origin. At a recent trial in Cairo in which three British citizens were condemned to prison for subversion and intended terrorism, two were English-born, with English names. They were led away shouting defiance of the West.
There are certainly Muslims in Europe who look with horror upon what is being done in their name, and who wish to have nothing to do with the notion that they are entitled to live in the West as, in effect, conquerors. For wholly understandable reasons, few of them have the courage to speak out. One of the exceptional few recently wrote a letter to the London Times, giving his name and address, and saying that he defines his community as the people with whom he chooses to interact. He went on: “We do not all subscribe to the same way of being a Muslim, neither do we push our beliefs into the civic and political sphere.” But, he continued, “Sadly the public does not always get our point of view, because the only Muslims who are consulted are those who choose to drag Islam into the political sphere.”
One could not ask for a clearer repudiation not only of all Muslim Brotherhood-style proselytizers but, even more bitingly, of the patronizing and indulgent attitude adopted toward them by the European establishment. Those in Europe who have striven in ways great and small to extend special privileges to Muslims while subtly deprecating their own national identity and culture have indeed helped open the way to Islamic separatism and Islamist agitation. They have thereby hastened the very clash of civilizations that they (or some of them) foolishly claim they are avoiding.
If Bassam Tibi is correct in stating that “either Islam gets Europeanized or Europe gets Islamized,” powerful forces are at work to foreclose the question.
DAVID PRYCE-JONES, the British political analyst, is a senior editor of National Review and the author of, among other books, The Closed Circle and The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire. An earlier version of the present essay was delivered at a conference at Boston University in October.