Islam And Europe’s False Debate: Denial Versus Xenophobia



Following 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 and left-wing denial of any problems with Islam.

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.

Except for buying into the concept of “liberal Islamophobia,” and seemingly reducing all of Islam’s 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 its xenophobic and isolationist agenda.

Islam, like Christianity before it, must find some way of squaring its dogmas with the rules of liberal and secular society. Given Europe’s legacy of centuries of religious warfare and intolerance, and the fact that many Muslims are emigrating from theocracies not so different from medieval Christendom, we have no reason to expect this process to be easy or instantaneous. In 2006, during the first outpouring of violence over cartoons of Muhammad, 78% of British Muslims thought that the publishers of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad should be prosecuted, and two-thirds thought that anyone who insults Islam should be prosecuted – this in spite of the fact that more than half said they never attended mosque. It seems that Muslim communities in Europe have a long way to go in grasping the core ideas of free speech, toleration, and secularism.

But illiberal attitudes towards immigrants are not the answer to the illiberal attitudes of (some) immigrants. We must hold fast to all of the principles of civil society. We cannot let infamies like the Charlie Hebdo massacre push us to abandon values like freedom of speech (beware the chorus of fatuous, cowardly morons — joined, as always, by prominent religious figures — braying that the victims “brought it on themselves”, and that we must have more censorship to prevent “offensive” speech) or freedom of movement (beware also the nationalist xenophobes looking for excuses to expel immigrants and wall-off the border).

I am often reminded at times like this of what Prime Minister Stoltenberg told his countrymen in 2011 after a massacre of Norwegian children (apparently partly motivated by a hatred of Muslim immigrants): “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.

This post originally appeared at The Skeptical Libertarian.