Islam and Europe’s False Debate: Denial vs. Xenophobia

Charlie-HebdoFollowing the brutal massacre at the French paper Charlie Hebdo, Yascha Mounk has posted an interesting piece over at Slate (“Europe’s Brutal Truth“) about the false debate in European politics between right-wing hatred of Muslim immigrants (“They must be stopped!”) and left-wing denial of any problems with Islam (“It’s not about religion!”).

While the European far right points to Islamic terrorism to exclude and malign all Muslims, the European left responds by refusing to recognize how fundamental a challenge Islamic terrorism represents (or that it is inspired by Islam at all). Both sides fail to realize that two seemingly opposite sentiments can stand side by side: the conviction that Muslims should become full and equal members of European democracies and the unabashed determination to defend those democracies against Islamic fundamentalism. …

What ultimately drives movements like Pegida or the National Front is not a defense of universal norms but rather a monocultural and monoethnic conception of who is a true German or a true Frenchman. After all, most of the same people who attack Muslims on the grounds that they are unwilling to accept liberal values are themselves unwilling to accept that most basic of liberal credos—that somebody should be able to become a full member of the nation irrespective of his skin color or his creed.

Those who advocate for a more diverse Europe tend to have a lot of fun pointing out the sheer hypocrisy of liberal Islamophobia. But, all too often, these tolerant souls are guilty of an equally dangerous hypocrisy of their own. They rightly lament that there’s a lot of prejudice against Muslims, but they wrongly infer that we should refrain from criticizing any manifestation of Islam—and consequently deny that there is anything Islamic about the kind of terrorism that has just left a Paris magazine’s offices riddled with bullets. …

In denying that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with Islam—or that a small fringe of fundamentalist Muslims poses a real threat to values we deeply cherish—self-styled defenders of Muslim immigrants are making the same mistake as their adversaries. For political reasons, they blind themselves to the vast differences among various forms of Islam. …

The slogan #JeSuisCharlie, “I am Charlie,” is making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook at the moment. It’s the right sentiment, for the attack on Charlie Hebdo surely was an attack on everyone who values a free society. But in rallying to the defense of our values, we must, as ever, remember what those values actually are: a set of rules and institutions that allows everyone who subscribes to them to live together peacefully—whether they be a devout Muslim or a blasphemous cartoonist.

Other than buying into the concept of “liberal Islamophobia,” and seemingly sweeping all of Islam’s illiberal problems into the same pile as terrorism, I think Mounk is basically on target here. There really is a serious incompatibility between liberal Enlightenment values and traditional Islamic doctrines, which the left seems a priori committed to denying, while at the same time, the fascist right in Europe has seized on such concerns to advance xenophobic and isolationist agendas.

Islam, like Christianity before it, must find someway of squaring its religious dogmas with the rules of liberal society. Given that, in 2006 during the first outpouring of this censorious religious violence, 78% of British Muslims thought that the publishers of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad should be prosecuted, and that two-thirds thought that anyone who insults Islam should be prosecuted, it seems that Muslim communities in Europe have a long way to go in grasping the core ideas of free speech, toleration, and secularism.

Mounk’s conclusion is the most important point, however. We cannot let infamies like this massacre push us to abandon liberal values like freedom of speech (beware the chorus of fatuous, cowardly morons — joined, as always, by prominent intellectuals — braying that the victims “brought it on themselves”, and that we must have more censorship to prevent “offensive and hurtful” speech) or freedom of movement (beware also the nationalist xenophobes looking to expel immigrants and wall-off the border).

I am often reminded at times like this of Norwegian Prime Minister Stoltenberg words after a massacre of children in 2011: “We must never give up our values. We must show that our open society can pass this test too. That the answer to violence is even more democracy. Even more humanity. But never naivety.”

The answer to medieval barbarism and censorious terrorism is more liberalism, more openness, more honesty, more speech. Mourn those who died, but don’t sacrifice the principles of freedom and civil society that they died for.

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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier

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