Book Reviews

Why is Paris Burning?

Two new books fan the flames of the European-Muslim conflict.

By Sarah Wildman

Tagged EuropeIslam

Islamic Imperialism: A History By Efraim Karsh • Yale University Press • 2006 • 288 pages • $30

While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within By Bruce Bawer • HarperCollins • 2006 • 352 pages • $25.95

Walking down Wallensteinstrasse, a main artery of Vienna’s Twentieth Bezirk, or District, there are nearly as many women wearing hijabs as there are in jeans. The area is a magnet for immigrants. Sitting in the local branch of Aida, a coffee shop chain with blond waitresses in bright pink 1960s uniforms, German is just one of the languages spoken by patrons. At Koc, a local grocery store, the coffee, vegetables, and even cleaning supplies originate in Istanbul. So imagine the shock when, amid this multicultural mélange, you first encounter the tram-stop signs posted by the Freiheitliche Partei Eeœsterreichs (the Austrian Freedom Party, formerly headed by Nazi sympathizer Jörg Haider). The signs demand, among other things, that Eeœsterreich Bleib Frei! (“Austria stay free!”)–a message that entails keeping Turkey out of the European Union (EU), keeping immigrants out of the country, and disentangling Austria itself from the EU. Other advertisements, featuring a white woman wearing a full burka, ask “Should this be our future?” Equally surprising are the letters to the editor in the Kronen Zeitung, a popular newspaper, that warn against a coming “third Turkish siege of Vienna”–a reference to the Ottoman attempts to take the city in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, apparently, still a font of Austrian anxiety.

Austria is not alone. Across Western Europe, there is an uneasiness
about Islam that ranges from the palpable xenophobia of the far-right Vlaams Belang party in Belgium and Jean Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France to the softer bigotry and bewildered rhetoric and policies of more mainstream political parties.

To be sure, post 9/11–as well as post-3/11 and 7/7–there is much
to be bewildered about. The situation of Muslims in Europe is not the
same as Muslims in the United States where, on the whole, they are
better off economically and emotionally, aided by America’s embrace of
pluralism and religion and buoyed by having arrived, for the most part,
educated and with some means. Not so in Europe, where the first Muslim
immigrants were mostly men from former colonies who sought jobs on the
lowest rung of the economic ladder. Families came later, as part of a
policy of reunification, but just as the work dried up. The most recent
are asylum seekers, fleeing with little. And few were offered the paths
to citizenship and integration found in the United States.

A few years ago, when I first began exploring Islam in Europe, I
met a 30-year-old French Tunisian woman named Najoua in Paris. Pretty
and lightly made up, wearing jeans and a white crocheted top, we talked
in her Seventh Arrondissement office (she ran the business side
of a children’s magazine) about the dis-integration of her peers.
Najoua called herself an “escapee” from the banlieue, the
suburban rings of bleak public housing around Paris that erupted in
rioting last year. She described how men and boys she had known growing
up had turned from rootless unemployment to radical Islamism. “The
young boys who don’t work, and they don’t see a future, they have no
confidence,” said Najoua. “But someone comes to you and says you are good.
But you have to pray.” Likewise, some of her old girlfriends had taken
the veil and turned to Allah as a means of finding answers to the
grinding poverty and village mentality of the cités, the
high-rise blocks that housed immigrant workers who came from the former
French colonies in the 1960s and early ’70s and stayed.

Given the stakes–economic and social–as well as how the issue of
Muslims in Europe strikes at the heart of what it means to be “French,”
“German,” “Dutch,” or even simply “European,” it is no surprise that
the debate over the future of Islam and the West has produced its own
lengthy shelf of literature. Written by academics, journalists, and
politicians, the genre is an important part of the debate. But while
some of these texts aim for an honest assessment of radicalism, Islam,
and democracy–and raise difficult questions for those who hope to
integrate Muslims into European society–others seek to fan anxiety
and bolster a kind of aggressively ideological denunciation of Islam
writ large, masked as scholarly research or muckraking journalism.
Joining the crowd in this latter category are two new polemics: Efraim
Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism: A History and Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within. Both intend more to shock and alienate than to educate (and provide a slew of “I told you so” anecdotes for those who already hold that Islam is incompatible with the West). The authors, naturally, insist they are simply setting the record straight, illuminating a problem and reality that others have missed. But in doing so both assume a simplistic uniformity of Islamic experience that supersedes national identity, colonial history, and adopted country. Their tone–the academic and journalistic equivalents of a Molotov cocktail–is angry, a call forconstructing barricades against an oncoming enemy. They highlight a small number of violently radical immigrants and claim they are representative of the entire population, as if Europe’s Muslim communities were masked intruders, stealing onto the continent in the dead of night and fanning out, ready to literally blow up its cities. What these authors do not do is consider the less fantastic, but far more difficult, task of reconciling two different and complex cultures. By misrepresenting the issue, they further the very “us versus them” positioning that honest analysis must avoid. Karsh and Bawer may boost book sales by declaiming Europe’s Muslim immigrants as an undifferentiated terrorist threat, but in doing so they make strife between Europe and Islam all the more likely.

These texts are the newest salvo in a series that began in 1993 with
Samuel Huntington’s now-infamous “clash of civilizations” essay, and
they draw on his weltkulturkampf approach in articulating a
three-part battle that takes place on a transnational level, between
Islamic countries and Europe and the West; on a domestic, internal
level, between immigrant groups and their adopted nations; and on an
ideological level, between religious faith and Western reason. Islam,
they posit, has been falsely represented as a religion of tolerance and
peace, when in fact it is a religion that rejects all others, a warrior
theology that will not rest until it has submitted all non-believers to
its will. When we were told that Osama bin Laden, as the eminent
historian of Islam Bernard Lewis wrote two years ago, is a “grotesque
travesty of the nature of Islam,” we actually were misled. “Bin Laden’s
proclamation of jihad was no novelty,” writes Karsh, “declaring a holy
war against the infidel has been a standard practice of countless
imperial rulers and aspirants since the rise of Islam. Nor does bin
Laden’s perception of jihad … differ in any way from traditional
Islamic thinking … [it is] the distinct translation of Islam’s
millenarian imperialist vision into concrete action.”

 Karsh heads the Mediterranean Studies program at Kings
College, University of London, and his book is the more academic of the
two. Heavily annotated, he narrates a cursory sweep of Islamic history
–the first 100 pages cover the 1,000 years from Muhammad (about whom
Karsh has nary a kind word) to the end of the Ottoman Empire–casting
a net so broad that it is necessarily limited at best and purposely
skewed at worst. He selectively quotes from the Koran to prove that far
from peaceful, Islam is a religion of war, territorial advancement, and
“quintessential imperialism.” Karsh takes great pleasure in redeploying
the word “imperialism,” so often cited as the reason for Islamic
distrust of the West, against Islam itself. “Contrary to what is
sometimes thought,” he writes, “Islamism [was] not a response to the
ascendancy of European imperialism.” Instead, he posits, Islamism is,
and always has been, imperialist itself. On the caliphate–a period
often cited with nostalgia by Islamists and Islamic scholars–he
writes, “no matter how hard the caliphs professed their commitment to
the pursuit of a holy war, theirs was a straightforward act of empire
building.” Saladin, the vaunted victor over the Crusaders, was a
“quintessential imperialist seeking territorial and political
self-aggrandizement” who then becomes the “ultimate role model for
generations of Pan Arab leaders.” The latter includes Gamel Abdel
Nasser, on whom Karsh spends more time than any other Islamic leader.
But, despite his best efforts, it remains unconvincing that this is a
case of Islamic imperialism per se, and not simply a handful of imperialistic regimes that happen to be Muslim.

Indeed, Karsh contends that even the Palestinian national movement
is not a response to Zionism or the needs of the Palestinians; rather,
it is representative of the Islamic world’s “imperial dream.” To the
Arab world, in Karsh’s thesis, the idea of losing Jerusalem is an
anxiety about ceding a piece of the “House of Islam” (Dar el Islam, meaning an area under Muslim rule) to the infidels, not about the claims of the Palestinians themselves. “The ‘Question of Palestine,’” writes Karsh, “is neither an ordinary territorial dispute between two national movements nor a struggle by an indigenous population against a foreign occupier. It is a holy war by the worldwide Islamic umma.”

By eliding the nuance and uniqueness of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and integrating it into his grand theory of Islamic
imperialism, Karsh’s perspective naturally leads to a frightening
conclusion: If all Muslim grievances against non-Muslims are a
manifestation of imperialist tendencies, then the rising tensions
between a burgeoning Muslim population in Europe and its non-Muslim
host countries portends a future where Muslims will not be satisfied
until the Austrian poster of a white non-Muslim, woman in a burka becomes reality. That is, of course, unless Europe defends itself. In drawing such conclusions, Karsh lets Europe’s xenophobes off the hook– moderation and compromise are dead-ends, because the encroaching Muslim imperialists will stop at nothing in their expansionist zeal.

One of the common tropes in Karsh’s kind of ideological
representation of Islam and Islamic history is to focus on what the
Egyptian-born (and exiled), Europe-based writer known as Bat Ye’or
calls “dhimmitude.” Dhimmis is the umbrella term for the status
of Christians and Jews in the House of Islam. Karsh calls it
“institutionalized discrimination.” Lewis refers to it as “second-class
citizenship,” though he qualifies that “second-class citizenship,
established by law and revelation and recognized by public opinion, was
far better than the total lack of citizenship that was the fate of
non-Christians and even some deviant Christians in the West.” (It’s
worth noting that Karen Armstrong’s book Islam translates dhimmis as “protected subjects” and observes that many preferred life under Muslim rule to Christian.)

Bruce Bawer, a gay, conservative New York native who now lives in
Oslo, Norway, believes that Western Europeans have willfully entered
into subservient “dhimmitude” masked as political correctness, bowing
to the Muslim presence in their countries and privileging Muslim (read:
totalitarian) needs over Western enlightenment principles even as
immigrants rob the coffers of their adopted welfare states. Most Muslim
immigrants, he writes, “come from poor villages in undeveloped
countries, with high levels of corruption–a background that tends to
breed cynicism, duplicity, and an exceptional skill at manipulating the
system.” If left unchecked, he darkly predicts, Western Europeans will
soon wake up to find themselves living under sharia law where
adulterous women and gay people will face stoning; thieves will have
hands amputated; and honor killing, arranged marriages, and female
genital mutilation will be the norm–in other words, the Islamic
imperialist fantasy Karsh warns of. Dire birth rate predictions are
typical of such “we’re being colonized from within” narratives, and
Bawer strikes a similarly ominous note about exploding birth rates
among Muslims versus the negative population growth among most native
Western Europeans.

Bawer’s book is a much easier read than Karsh’s. It is, at its core,
a meandering journalistic take on life as an American, libertarian
ex-pat in Europe, as though Bawer has kept a notebook for the last five
years and filled it with anecdotes, newspaper stories, and personal
experiences. They are mostly negative, especially those that expose the
dark underside of the European left, including gay- and
America-bashing. In addition to his anti-Muslim diatribes (filtered
through his experience in wealthy Scandinavia, which skews the picture
considerably), we learn he was–and is–unabashedly in favor of the
war in Iraq, that Norwegian journalism is so far to the left there
isn’t anyone to argue an alternative, and that he despises socialism
and the European welfare state. Bawer often meanders into borderline
hysterical anecdotes and sweeping generalizations. There seems to be no
difference, in his mind, between French, Dutch, and British kowtowing
to the sort of idealistic multiculturalism that makes criticizing the
anti-liberal aspects of Islam impossible. But these countries, in fact,
vary greatly in their relationship to their ethnic minorities and their
path to citizenry. Nevertheless, to Bawer, anti-Muslim racism and
economic discrimination exist only in the mind of the weak-willed
multiculturalist. There is no ghettoization, only “self-segregation,”
he says, and dismisses liberal handwringing over what he sees as a
contrived effort to gloss over incidents of immigrant-on-native-European violence and anti-Semitic acts.

“In some urban areas of Europe,” he writes breathlessly, “all order
has broken down. Young men roam the streets in packs and commit crimes
in the daylight, in front of scores of witnesses, without fear of being
stopped or punished.” Where? And, if it is happening, is this Muslim
violence? Or is it economic violence? Or a mix? In my totally Turkish
neighborhood of Vienna, I’ve been mocked for worrying about walking
home late at night, let alone during the day. Does he mean here?

It seems he means France. “Why are the cités so full of
alienation and rage?” he asks. “For the Western European elite the
answer is simple: poverty. Yet the young men of the cités are
not poor: as [Theodore] Dalrymple points out, ‘they have cell phones,
cars,’ (which like those driven by young Muslim men in every other
European city I know, tend to be BMW convertibles).” I don’t know which
cités, or even cities, he has visited, but 40 percent unemployment is common in the banlieues. And BMWs? Maybe he’s thinking of Norway. “Whence the rage then?” he asks, “Well, what else can one expect of young men who have been taught throughout their childhood that infidels are beneath respect, that Western women are whores, and that the only honorable response to the West’s corruption and godlessness is the fury of jihad?”

In Bawer’s desire to simplify the problems of Muslim rage and the
European response, he ignores the obvious. Can’t economic disparity,
lack of citizenship, astronomical unemployment, and public
transportation that cuts them off at 8 p.m. from the cities they see,
but don’t live in, make radical Islam attractive? Does recognizing that
the problems are multi-faceted make radical Islam less dangerous? If
only Bawer saw beyond his ideological blinders and broad sweeping
stereotypes to ask these questions, his book might have been a more
reasonable addition to the debate over Muslim-European integration.
But, by assuming that all Muslims are potential terrorists and that
radical Islam is simply a religious rather than a complex social
pathology, he precludes just such debate from occurring.

Of course, some of his observations are apt: the efforts to
integrate immigrants have come too late, and in ham-handed ways, like
the new German citizenship tests that ask esoteric German history
questions. But it is not at all clear that, to him, Muslims ever could
have been integrated. Bawer also points out the alienating habit
Europeans have of calling the children of immigrants “second” or even
“third” generation, as opposed to French or Dutch or German, which
highlights how difficult it is to ever truly become “of” one’s adopted
country. He recognizes–but unfortunately de-emphasizes–that
deep-rooted problems in Europe do exist, at least in part, because the
privileging of secularity has effectively placed anyone who believes in
religion in opposition to the State. In France, the almost
untranslatable concept of laácité –institutionalized in response to an aggressive Catholic Church in 1905–has made religious Muslims totally incomprehensible to the French polity. But Bawer’s Manichean worldview doesn’t allow him to draw nuanced conclusions about this kind of institutionalized social segmentation.

Bawer professes to be merely protecting European society from
itself, and he offers some “solutions” of his own. He advocates for
more immigrants from East Asia, for example, because they are
“hardworking,” and he recommends sending all Europeans to the United
States for one year to learn our “values.” But such borderline racist
proposals only highlight how disconnected he is from the present and
unameliorated problem of millions of poor, disenfranchised Muslim
immigrants living in Europe. Though it’s not as if debate were Bawer’s
strong suit–indeed, he is loath to recognize anything that might
contradict his arguments. The protests of French Muslims against the
kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq in August 2004 occurred
only because “they could hardly have done otherwise” he writes, though
in other places Bawer wonders where “the moderate Muslims” were and why
they don’t protest.

Bawer quotes from some of the most conservative thinkers in Europe–
like Guy Millière in France, a professor at the Sorbonne and the
translator of Daniel Pipes–and calls them members of a new “liberal
resistance,” people who “saw the situation clearly” early on and were
“determined to save Europe from suicide.” The “prophet and first martyr
of this resistance,” he writes, was gay conservative Dutch politician
Pim Fortuyn, whose murder was the Netherlands’ first political
assassination in some 500 years. Fortuyn, like Bawer, was liberal in
championing women’s and gay rights, and, not incidentally, unabashedly
anti-immigration. Fortuyn was often compared to leaders on the far
right, but he wasn’t a fascist, and Bawer, though his arguments often
seem to mimic those of groups like the FPEeœ, uses Fortuyn and Milliere
as a pivot on which to carefully position himself in opposition to the
far right. As if to mollify his critics on the left, he calls this
“Europe’s Weimar moment,” predicting that a rise in support for far
right groups will come if the rise of radical Islam isn’t stopped in
Europe. But, of course, in positing an undifferentiated, radical Muslim
threat and discounting the possibility of moderate solutions, Bawer
resembles less the liberals and conservatives who embodied Weimar than
the extremist forces that overthrew it.

Bawer’s inflammatory text is not designed to start a conversation–
at least not with Muslims nor with Europeans. And neither Bawer nor
Karsh has done anything to advance the cause of Muslim integration and
a constructive Western response. We are left no closer to a
solution for the youth of the banlieues, the radicals who turn into suicide bombers, the quiet jihadists.

Europe is indeed facing a dramatic integration and assimilation
problem. The spring I found Najoua, I also met Sibelle, a 15-year-old
Turkish girl whose family had tried to forcibly marry her to a Turkish
national. Sibelle was fortunate. She reconciled eventually with her
parents and survived to tell her story; other girls have not been so
lucky. I met Sibelle through a small group called Voix D’Elles Rebelles (“The Voice of Rebellious Girls”), an organization that helps young women fleeing forced marriages. Like the French movement Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (“Neither Whores, nor Submissives”), which protests violence against girls in the banlieue, Voix D’Elles Rebelles exactly the sort of organization that, if given the chance, would allow
Europeans to understand the tensions of what it means to be young,
Muslim, and European.

The continent is desperate for more such grassroots movements, a
task force of young European Muslim leaders who need not–and should
not–be forced to abandon their faith or their history, leaders with
whom Muslim youth can identify and whom they can recognize as their
own. This is not to wax superficially lyrical. Islam and the West are
at a critical juncture, exacerbated by unemployment and social
alienation that can, and has, morphed into anti-Westernism,
anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism, at times spiraling into radicalism and
terror. Rejecting the theses of Karsh and Bawer is not to abandon one
set of ideological blinders for another. It is merely to recognize the
need for dialogue and real policy solutions. Reconciling alienation and
ignorance on both sides of the debate is, ultimately, the only chance
for Islam and the West to forge a peaceful future.

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Sarah Wildman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a Milena Jesenska Journalism Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

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