Sunday, March 20, 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.


  1. That goes along with the (much-quoted) statistic that older Muslims in Europe are less likely to be Islamist than younger Muslims.

  2. Yes, Hortensio, and it doesn't bode well for the future. But - who knows? - perhaps the tide will turn again.

  3. I'm wondering what else Christopher Caldwell has to say, since what he says here seems to me pretty much common knowledge. Is he just restating some well-known points, or does he have more to add?

    One ground for questioning his stance is to contend that the "conservative" nationalism he seems to postulate was mixed up with fascist and Marxist elements. So was there ever a stable standpoint available to older generation Muslims (against which some of their children are rebelling)?

    Who spoke for this sensibly conservative generation? Nasser? Hardly. He favoured authoritarian socialism. King Farouk? No, he preferred the Nazis and fascists. Incidentally, Wikipedia claims that he ate 600 oysters a week.

  4. The Old Testament is just as brutal as the Koran. Consider the Biblical insistence on capital punishment for gathering sticks on Sunday. As you note, in Christianity there have been swings back and forth between compassion and cruelty. Think of an Irish monk circa 600 AD, a Spanish inquisitor circa 1500 AD, and an American bishop circa 2011 AD. Perhaps the next generation of Muslims will be less violent than today's young extremists. In any case, we must embrace moderate Muslims and oppose the extremists.

  5. Alan, the post is based on a section of Caldwell's book, but mixes in my reflections (which I think are more or less in line with what Caldwell says here and elsewhere in the book as it happens). If it's common knowledge - that's okay. It's a sensitive topic of some importance and talking about it, even without saying anything new, can be worthwhile, I think.

    Caldwell says in the paragraph I quoted that Arab nationalism was a threat - but that these young men would be unlikely to embody it. I think he is implicitly drawing a distinction between them (and the European-inspired secular culture they embody) and their leaders who, as you say, had dangerous ideas. I was assuming that such a distinction could be drawn. You could certainly question my suggestion that they "no doubt felt great respect for European traditions and values." This is - frankly - speculation. (I would say plausible speculation!) I think Caldwell is getting at the same point in his talk of their "vocation to act as Europeans."

  6. CONSVLTVS, I agree with you entirely on the Old Testament. In fact Renan was quite as hard on the OT as he was on Islam. (I'll try to find a quote.)

    The issue of moderate Muslims is one Caldwell deals with. It's complicated. Tariq Ramadan, for instance, is he moderate?

    At any rate, I certainly hope that forms of Islam which are supportive of (or at least compatible with) Western notions of political and economic freedom flourish.

  7. I agree, it's not automatic that the political leadership mirrors the values of the populace, so I was jumping a bit too quickly.

    I think Ernest Gellner has been one of the best commentators on this topic. One of his main points is that the Arab social world is differently structured from that of the West. Arab society is built around the clan; Western society has no clans, but identifies with the nuclear/extended family and the polity.

    Someone migrating from the Arab Muslim world to the West is making two shifts at once: from a religion-saturated system to a religion-lite world; and from a clan-based to a clan-free society.

    Gellner has a website dedicated to his work at His "Conditions of Liberty" is the book I know best, and it's on the Islam-West theme.

  8. I am not surprised about "resurgence of political Islam". I also doubt about their "felt great respect for European traditions and values".
    Since China's first attempt to adopt Western cultural value over a century ago, until now, 90% of Chinese intellects (my personal estimation) do not feel so much praise to it. They may feel great interest from beginning but at the end, they hold their own value, good or bad,even tighter.
    I assume Islam has quite a same situation. I guess this is a conflict between individualism and collectivism.

  9. Alan, thanks for the reference. I've just been reading about sexual customs. It's pretty well-known that certain practices which are often attributed to Islam are really traditional, regional practices. As you suggest, you have to take into account the social aspects as well as the religious ones. (Though they are sometimes hard to disentangle!)

  10. Yun Yi, you may well be right - most people do tend to be deeply attached to their cultural roots. I think you would admit, however, that Western European culture had great prestige until about the middle of the last century and was widely respected, even if it was not widely loved.

  11. "Western European culture had great prestige until about the middle of the last century"
    agree! it is undeniable. and i continue have "faith" in its vitality - the vitality i have not seen in any other cultures.

  12. In the middle of last century, Western European culture was divided between fascist, Marxist and liberal factions, fighting each other to the death. Luckily, the liberals won.

    But maybe you are defining Western in such a way as to exclude Paris, Berlin and Rome?

  13. Alan, I was talking about a centuries-long cultural tradition, and the extreme movements you allude to (signs of the weakening of that tradition) only really flourished in parts of Western Europe for a few decades in the 20th century (somewhat longer in central and Eastern Europe).

  14. Yun Yi, I am encouraged by what you say.

  15. Whenever you guys mention somebody I've never heard of, I go to Wiki and SEP right away to see what I've been missing. On Ernest Gellner, from the wiki: "John Davies writes that sociologist David Glass once said he wasn't sure whether the next revolution would come from the right or the left, but he was quite sure that, wherever it came from, the first person to be shot would be Ernest Gellner."

    Obviously doing good philosophy, in other words. LOL. (Critical of linguistic philosophy, communism, psychoanalysis, relativism, and the dictatorship of the free market.)

    There's another one I have to read.

  16. Oh and he was a philosopher and social anthropologist ... so whatever he said, he's probably right. LOL ....

  17. On Gellner: I did start to read him a couple of times in the past, but something put me off. I don't know that it was anything I can specify precisely. I'll have another look at him.

  18. If you like people who like being argumentative, you will like Gellner.

    But he's also empirically minded and intellectually very smart.

  19. Where are the Muslims in this dialogue?


  20. I wish we did have more Muslim input.