Saturday, March 19, 2011

Europe and Islam

I have been reading Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell's account of post-World War 2 immigration and the resurgence of 'political Islam'. Caldwell makes the point that, until the latter part of the 20th century, Europeans had little praise for either Islam or Islamic civilization. The views of Ernest Renan, a philologist and historian of religion, were typical.

On March 29, 1883, Renan gave a lecture at the Sorbonne entitled 'L'Islam et la science'. "Those liberals," he said, "who defend Islam do not know Islam. Islam is the seamless union of the spiritual and the temporal, it is the reign of dogma, it is the heaviest chain mankind has ever borne. In the early Middle Ages, Islam tolerated philosophy, because it could not stop it. It could not stop it because it was as yet disorganized, and poorly armed for terror.... But as soon as Islam had a mass of ardent believers at its disposal, it destroyed everything in its path. Religious terror and hypocrisy were the order of the day. Islam has been liberal when weak, and violent when strong."

Of course, Islam has no monopoly on religious terror and hypocrisy, and arguably the Christian churches followed a similar pattern. The difference is that the Christian churches came to a fruitful and abiding accommodation with the rising secular culture in which they were embedded, preventing any "seamless union of the spiritual and the temporal", and allowing a space for notions of privacy and individual freedom.

By contrast, Islam - as it is all too often understood and practised - attempts to control every aspect of life and to bring not only individual and social behavior but also laws and government institutions into line with Koranic precepts.

For various reasons, Western populations generally took a benign view of Islam in the post-World War 2 era. One reason for this was post-imperial and post-fascist guilt; another was what Caldwell refers to as "an accident of history":

" ... In the 1950s, Arab nationalism, of the sort practised by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the Ba'athist leaders of Syria and Iraq, was the main political force coming out of the Muslim world. It was driven largely by people who wanted to break theology's stranglehold on Muslim societies. Even if Arab nationalism was a threat, a young man ready to leave his nation to work in a mill in Belgium was unlikely to embody it. Europe's Arab and other Muslim newcomers could be assumed the most secular and modern of their countrymen, with a vocation to act as Europeans. Indeed, photos of groups of Moroccans and Turks newly arrived on Rotterdam's docks or in Rhineland train stations show clean-shaven men in conservative jackets and ties.

But right around the time immigrants began arriving in Europe en masse, a global resurgence of political Islam was beginning. It is now in full swing."

Those "clean-shaven men in conservative jackets and ties" no doubt felt great respect for European traditions and values. They were not to know that those very traditions and values would soon be under threat, from external forces, certainly, but also - and more importantly - because the Europeans themselves were losing faith in those values. In effect, Europeans had ceased to love and cherish their own civilization.