walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 14, 2010

If there is such a thing as Islamophobia, this summer would seem to be the season for it. In the United States the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero under the auspices of what is the most tolerant and peaceful version of Islam, has been escalated into widespread anti-Muslim hysteria by a few politicians and preachers. And now the plan of the pastor of a miniscule Evangelical congregation in Florida to stage a public burning of the Koran threatens to turn into yet another international eruption of Muslim rage. Despite the fact that the attacks of September 11 occurred in America, this country has until now been spared the anti-Muslim populism that has been spreading in Europe. It is early to tell whether this is changing now. I hope not. However, the European situation is alarming enough, and this is what I will comment upon here.

The term “Islamophobia” should be looked at more carefully. The Greek word phobia simply means fear, but its contemporary usage implies an irrational or morally reprehensible fear—such as acrophobia, the fear of heights, or homophobia, the fear of homosexuals. I think it is important to distinguish the rational from the irrational fears which are both subsumed under the term—such as fear from Jihadist terrorists or from the Pakistani family next door. Not every anxiety involving Muslims should be labeled “Islamophobia” and I will be careful to keep the distinction in mind.

This past summer has seen an increasing number of measures directed against Muslims in Europe. There has been the ban on minarets in Switzerland, legislated in the face of elite opinion by that distinctive institution of Swiss democracy, the popular referendum. There has been the ban on garments covering the face by the lower house of the French parliament. It is noteworthy that there are relatively few Muslims in Switzerland, while France has the highest Muslim population in Europe. In recent weeks the Muslim issue has erupted very visibly in the Netherlands and in Germany. In the former country, long known for its tolerance of minorities, a populist party led by Geert Wilders has become a major political force. There has been no similar development in Germany, at least as yet. But the publication of a book by Thilo Sarrazin, a mainstream banker and a member of the Social Democratic Party, has unleashed a storm of controversy. Both Wilders and Sarrazin discuss immigration in general, but their sharpest comments focus on Muslim immigrants.

Geert Wilders has been leader since 2006 of the Party for Freedom—known by its Dutch acronym PVV. In the elections earlier this summer the PVV came out as the third-largest party in parliament. A center-right coalition was formed, but it lacks an outright majority. It did not want the PVV in the government (and probably the PVV did not want that either), but the PVV tentatively agreed to support the government from outside. At the time of writing there still are ongoing negotiations on the price of this support.

Wilders has campaigned on an anti-Muslim platform for several years. The 2004 murder by a Muslim extremist of Theo van Gogh, the producer of a film highly critical of Islam, has led to a strong shift in  public opinion away from multicultural tolerance. The event has been called the Dutch equivalent of September 11. Among other things, Wilders has advocated the banning of the Koran (on the same grounds as a ban on Hitler’s Mein Kampf), stopping immigration from Muslim countries, allowing only  Dutch imams preaching exclusively in Dutch, the closing of radical mosques, a stiff tax on headscarves, and an amendment to the constitution stating that Christianity, Judaism and humanism are the dominant faiths. He is also strongly opposed to the entry of Turkey into the European Union.

The PVV differs in important ways from other populist parties in Europe. Wilders disavows any connection with European right-wing parties, such as those of LePen in France or Haider in Austria. He calls himself a libertarian and he is a strong supporter of Israel. In the Netherlands the “humanism” he approves of implies a recognition of homosexual rights. Thus, in spite of his radical anti-Muslim positions, he is much closer to the mainstream than other European populists. The following passage from Wilders’ writings very well expresses sentiments that are far from marginal: “Take a walk down the street and see where this is going. You no longer feel like you are living in your own country… Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches!”

The controversy in Germany came in connection with the publication of a book by Thilo Sarrazin, Deutschland schafft sich ab, loosely translated as “Germany abolishes itself”. The mainstream German news magazine Der Spiegel published excerpts from the book in its issue of August 23 and three critical commentaries in the issue of August 30. The popular tabloid Bild had similar coverage. Sarrazin is the very opposite of a populist politician. He is a financier, a former finance senator in the Berlin city government and now on the board of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank. As a member of the Social Democratic Party, he has been in the respectable center of German politics. Sarrazin’s general position on immigration is succinctly stated: “Every society has the right to decide whom it wishes to take in and also the right to do so while protecting its culture and traditions” (my translation).  He is very pessimistic on the future of Germany, saying that we are now at the end of a golden age which began in the 1950s. Immigration is the major problem, especially immigration by Muslims.  Although his language is more restrained than Wilders’, he expresses very similar sentiments: “I do not want us to become strangers in our own country, not even in some regions of it” (my translation).

Sarrazin is haunted by demography. Germany, like all of Europe, is marked by a steeply falling birth rate and a steeply rising life expectancy. There are about 2 million people of Turkish descent (the largest group of Muslims) with a much higher birthrate. From this Sarrazin projects that by 2100 there will be a Muslim majority in Germany, thus finishing by way of fertility what Sultan Suleyman failed to achieve by way of conquest in the siege of Vienna in 1529. He claims that Turkish immigrants are less productive than others and, because of this and because of large families, they are a drag on the welfare state. He also claims that significant numbers of Turkish immigrants, into the second and third generation, refuse to integrate into German society. This, he proposes, is for cultural and religious reasons, though he makes some disturbing remarks on supposedly genetic differences in intelligence (thus, fairly or unfairly, raising the specter of Nazi racism).

Turkish spokespersons in Germany have distinguished “integration” and “assimilation”—the former, becoming part of society economically and politically, a good thing—the latter, giving up one’s culture in the process, a bad thing. President Erdogan of Turkey, in a recent speech in Germany urged Turkish immigrants to continue to identify themselves as Turks and called assimilation “a crime against humanity.” (There is a curious analogy with a recent speech in America by President Calderon of Mexico, urging Americans of Mexican descent to continue thinking of themselves as Mexicans—they can in any case vote in Mexican elections, even if they are naturalized citizens of the United States.) Sarrazin thinks that the differentiation between “integration” and “assimilation” is obfuscating: the two terms refer to the same process of becoming part of the host society. He believes that religious minorities should have every right in Germany, but that there should be no place for ethnic minorities. Sarrazin does not seem to share Wilders’ visceral hostility against Islam as a religion, though he is hardly enamored of that faith.

Sarrazin advocates much stricter immigration and naturalization policies. All immigrants must be required not only to obey the law, but to refrain from forced marriages and oppression of women generally, to prevent juvenile violence, to earn a living, and to master the German language. At least by the second generation, they should be willing “to become Germans.” Compared to Wilders’ platform, Sarrazin’s policy recommendations are relatively mild. There are no overtly anti-Islamic policies. There is to be a general overhaul of welfare policies—much stricter criteria for obtaining welfare-state benefits (rather similar to the reforms in the US), and much stricter rules for immigration and naturalization, with the emphasis on economic productivity. In education there are indeed recommended policies that would mostly impact on Muslims—compulsory German-language kindergarten as of age three, no excuse from parts of the curriculum on religious grounds, and a ban on headscarves in schools (as in France). Sarrazin understands that some of these measures would be contrary to current law, a problem which, he thinks, could be solved by changes in the constitution.

As was to be expected, Sarrazin’s book has provoked a storm of protests. He has been accused of (needless to say) Islamophobia, as well as of racism, ethnocentrism, fascism. There have been demands that he be fired from his job at the Bundesbank, expelled from the Social Democratic Party, and even prosecuted for hate propaganda. Despite this or perhaps because of this, the book has been a huge bestseller. Even before its publication the book was number 1 on Amazon’s German list. Of the three critical articles in Der Spiegel, the first two are predictable and not terribly interesting. Not so the third, by Reiner Klingholz, a demographer. He critizes Sarrazin’s empirical presuppositions. His basic presupposition is that Germany urgently needs more, not less immigration. Due to low fertility and high life expectancy, even with immigration at 100,000 to 200,000 per annum, the total population of Germany will shrink by 12 million by 2050. Of these 15 percent will be over 80, one third suffering from senile dementia. This demographic trajectory points to an economic and political disaster. As to the dystopia of a “Germanorabia,” fertility has been declining both in Turkey itself and among second-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany. In 2008 more Turks emigrated from Germany than immigrated to it. This hardly suggests a country in which there will be more mosques than churches. Klingholz does not address the cultural issue, beyond observing rather nonchalantly that cultures always change.

What is one to make of all this?

In 1997 Jocelyne Cesari, a French scholar, published a book with the title Should one be afraid of Islam ? (Fait-il avoir peur de l’islam ?—As far as I know, there is no English translation). The implied answer was that one should not be afraid. If she had written the book after September 11, she would probably have given a more nuanced answer. If one takes apart the term “Islamophobia,” with its suggestion of some sort of psychiatric aberration, it is useful to ask where the word “phobia” actually applies, and where it does not.

There is indeed a fear of Islam which is irrational and which can plausibly be compared with other dystopias of Western civilization being inundated by alien hordes. One can go back here at least to the 1920s, when there was widespread fear of the “yellow peril,” more recently replicated in fear of a takeover by Japanese and now Chinese economic power. More directly related to the fear of demographic conquest is a novel published in French in 1973 by Jean Raspail, The Camp of the Saints (thus titled in the English translation). Muslims play no important role in this fantasy. A crazed Hindu preacher calls on all the poor in Calcutta to get on a ship and sail to Europe in order to live the good life there. A mighty movement emerges and a huge flotilla of ships, carrying hundreds of thousands of pilgrim “saints” moves toward Europe. Half-hearted attempts by naval warships to stop the flotilla are given up, so as not to create a massacre. Europe waits helplessly as the flotilla approaches. The radio stops all programs and only broadcasts classical European music—the dying song of a doomed civilization.

The fantasies of “Germanorabia” or “Eurabia,” not to mention “Londonostan,” stand in this tradition. The demographic realities do not support these prognoses. As to the economic realities, a takeover by Chinese corporations, not likely in any case, is even less likely than a takeover by Arabian oil tycoons. And of course these phobias presuppose a stereotype of “the Muslim” as inexorably filled with animosity toward Western values. Except for the admittedly important areas of gender and family, there is again no empirical basis for the stereotype. Survey data from Europe show that most Muslim immigrants are law-abiding and want to become part of the host societies. Troubling numbers of Muslims in Europe voice sympathy for terrorists, but much of this can be attributed to a rhetorical expression of social frustrations and is very rarely translated into actual support. The community of terrorists and their active supporters in Europe is very small—certainly a cause for concern by the authorities, but not a justification for a generalization about Muslims.

Nevertheless, not all the fears subsumed under the term “Islamophobia” are irrational. As far as Islam in general is concerned, there are indeed some aspects of the religion that make for tension with Western values. It is not so much a propensity to legitimate violence—this propensity, I think, exists in all religious traditions, certainly in Judaism and Christianity. But as an Egyptian journalist recently put it (courageously, one may say)—not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims. Terrorism inspired by a particular interpretation of Islam is real. One should take its Islamic self-identification seriously, and not claim that it is “really” about something other than religion. The reiterated statements by Western political and religious leaders that there is no war against Islam are correct and desirable. But there is also an understandable tendency to underplay the Islamic contents of terroristic ideology. It was very laudable that President Bush, immediately after September 11, announced that “Islam means peace”. I assume that Bush’s credentials as an Islam scholar are modest, so somebody must have told him that the name of the religion comes from the Arabic word for peace, salaam. There may be an etymological connection, but the name actually means “submission”—‘aslama. Some Muslim scholars have proposed that the term jihad, usually translated as “holy war,” refers to the struggle for faith in the lives of believers. Perhaps so. But throughout much of the history of Islam the term has meant violence against the infidel, and much of what we now know as the Muslim world is the result of conquest by force of arms.  Yet the main difficulty with Western values for Muslims is the very close relationship between religion and the state in Islam, ever since Muhammad became a political and military leader in Medina. Survey data show that majorities of Muslims everywhere support democracy. But this does not necessarily include the separation of religion and the state. I understand that in Arabic there is no separate word for “religion”. The common word is din—the same as the word for law.

It is also the case that a sizable number of especially young Muslims in Europe do not want to become part of the host societies, and they are often encouraged in this by what is preached in mosques and on the internet. Such ideas are very plausible in lower-class communities, as in the banlieus that surrounds big cities in France. But the call for non-integration is also embraced by some intellectuals who live in comfortable circumstances. Thus there is the real prospect of a religiously defined subculture, living in tension with Western democratic values. The threat of violence associated in public opinion with this prospect makes for a readiness to give in to the slightest expression of Muslim victimization. Also, one must not overlook the substantial increase of anti-Semitism in Europe, much of it fueled by Muslim hostility to Israel. Anti-Zionism here merges with a long European tradition of hostility against Jews. The tradition seemed suppressed in the recent past, but the taboo against anti-Semitism, caused by revulsion against the horror of the Holocaust, seems to be fading. Barring the unlikely establishment of real peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the growing participation of Muslims in European politics can only enhance this alarming development. In sum, there are cultural and political anxieties caused by the increasingly visible presence of Islam—the call from the minaret overwhelming the familiar sound of church bells—which cannot be simply put down as phobias and expressions of racism.

I have no neat package of policies to recommend, certainly not in the area of national security and counter-terrorism. There is an increasingly robust debate within the Muslim world on the relationship between Islam and modernity, and outsiders are likely to be counter-productive if they try to meddle in this. Outsiders cannot tell Muslims what their faith is supposed to mean. All the same, it is certainly useful if Western leaders continue to emphasize that they are not engaged in a “war against Islam.”

The overall issue of immigration into Europe will require policy changes that are simultaneously more and less liberal. More liberal: Europe urgently needs more immigrants, and its borders should be as open as possible, with preference given to immigrants that can contribute to the economy. Less liberal: Access to the benefits of the welfare state should be more limited (if only because the generous European welfare state is no longer affordable). As to the cultural issues, every effort must be made, especially in the educational system, to overcome the segregation of Muslim immigrants in an adversary subculture (no matter whether the segregation is imposed from the outside or sought from within). I have suggested a sort of “triage” approach to these issues. There are some practices that cannot possibly be tolerated—such as honor killing, genital mutilation, child marriage. Others are clearly not only acceptable but mandated in a democratic society—such as the right to worship freely, including the right to erect houses of worship. In between there is a gray area suitable for negotiation and compromise. Fostering the emergence of a genuinely European Islam will also have policy implications (for example, in the expenditure of public funds), although this emergence must be led and realized from within the Muslim community. I know that I am rather vague on questions of policy. Here as elsewhere, the devil is in the details. This is not the place to go into such details.

The presence of Islam has pushed forward reflection about “European values”, which all newcomers should be required to accept. One can propose various lists, but I have argued that all these values (easily embraced by Americans) can be summed up in one sentence of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: “The dignity of man is inviolate” (“Die Wuerde des Menschen ist unantastbar”). This dignity pertains to every human individual, apart from his or her collective identities. I believe that this is a non-negotiable core principle of Western civilization and its democratic institutions. Muslim civilization has admirable instances of instituting the rights of communities, as in the convivienca between the Abrahamic faiths in Muslim Spain or in the millet system of the Ottoman empire. Individuals of course benefited by participation in their communities. Muslim criminal and personal law protects a number of individual rights, such as the right to a fair trial or to a fair share of an inheritance. But, as far as I know, Muslim civilization has not recognized the right of individuals against their community. This, I think, should be an important topic for intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

show comments
  • Josh

    Sorry, but this one lost me in the first paragraph. Who are the preachers and politicians engaging in “widespread hysteria” over the Ground Zero mosque? If you can’t differ with someone fairly and honestly, just don’t bother writing the post.

  • Odins Acolyte

    Phobia means fear. Wrong word and wrong term. Much of American is itching not ot run fromthem but to confrom=nt them inour nation and inthe world. It shall make the Crusades pale by comparison if that feeling ever boils over. We need no government sanction for our actions. We are free to act on our own.

  • WigWag

    The internet is a wonderful thing. This is a fascinating essay that I would gladly have paid to read in a magazine or a journal in the pre-online days; now it’s free to all comers. What a world!

    I do have a slight issue with one comment made by Professor Berger. He says,

    “In the United States the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero under the auspices of what is the most tolerant and peaceful version of Islam, has been escalated into widespread anti-Muslim hysteria by a few politicians and preachers.”

    Presumably the version of Islam that Professor Berger is calling the most “tolerant and peaceful” is Sufism because that’s the form of Islam practiced by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

    It is true that Sufism is the most mystical form of Islam and it is also true that most Muslim Sufis, like the rest of their co-religionists, are peaceful. But suggesting that Sufism is the most peaceful version of the religion is little more than a cliché not supported by the facts.

    Surely there are numerous strains within the Sufi world; but Sufis are no more and no less peaceful than the rest of the Muslim world. While Sufi Islam may not be the most aggressively violent version of Islam, there’s no evidence to suggest it’s the most peaceful.

    The vast majority of African Muslims are Sufis; this is especially true in North Africa. Throughout the African continent Sufi Muslims are waging war against their Christian neighbors. It’s true in Somalia, the Sudan and even Nigeria. It’s not just the Whabis perpetrating terrible violence against those they consider to be infidels, the Sufis are too.

    Anyone who wants to read a fascinating new book on the subject should get “The Tenth Parallel” by Eliza Griswold. She’s the brilliant journalist daughter of a senior American Episcopal Prelate, The book tells the story of her travels along the tenth parallel which just happens to be a major fault line between the Christian (mostly Roman Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical Protestant) world and the Islamic world.

    The book makes clear that when it comes to violence, Sufis are as inclined to barbarity as the rest of the Muslim world and as their Christian neighbors. The book, which is available for the Kindle, really is a “must-read.” Here’s the review from the New York Times,

    On the larger point of the religious wars occurring both in the modern world and the global south, the reality is unfortunate. Christianity, Islam and Enlightenment Secularism are all proselytizing religions. Conflict between them is both age-old and inevitable.

  • http://n.a. Adam Garfinkle

    A brilliant commentary as usual; only one note.

    It is true that anti-Islamic sentiment is rising in Europe, and it is true that anti-Semitism in the drag of anti-Zionism is also rising there. But in some cases, the fear (if not hatred) of Muslims translates, according to the law that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, into heightened positive sentiment toward Jews and toward Israel. It is a form of the negative follower effect, to wit: “I don’t like Muslims, so if Muslims do not like Jews, then I will.” It may not be completely rational, but it’s real, and some polls have already detected it.

  • youness

    honestly, I was much more fascinated by the the fair and neutral above written essay than by some comments which implied a plain call for hatred against Islam as one of the world’s most increasing religions. Having described, ( alleged) that ALL muslims are inclined to BARBARITY is a felony based on prejudiced view about people who constitute a considerable proportion of the world’s population.First, this complex ignorance of truths accounts for the stereotype derived from” false representatives” of Islam, like AL’QAIDA which is, in fact, as irrational as the way the “former false representatives “of Islam get civilians and solidiers, partisan and enemy muddled up in Afghanistan and Iraq, sadly they are both wrong. Second amid this sharp propaganda against Islam, no one can provide a convincing analysis for the current increasing wave of people converting to Islam, either from ordinary people or the elite including thinkers and scientists. Those people are not less aware of Islam and other religions than those who attack it.
    In europe, rightist parties have made good use of the issue of immigrants as a so called responsible side in the economic crisis with all the intimidation it accompanied, they have succeeded reaching the government and in worrying numbers.
    What we are in need for, is a deep and fair understanding for Islam an Islamic culture as Michael H. Morgan said in his book LOST HISTORY.

  • Ron Lewenberg

    Whose interests do you serve? Having Europe follow the same path as once Buddhist Malaysia does not serve America’s Interest. Calling us Islamophobes by quoting a leftist French intellectual does not make it so. Look at the facts and put down the wine and cheese from Zabars.

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