Richard Melson

June 2006

Islamophobia  books

Issue #1, Summer 2006

Why is Paris Burning?

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

by Sarah Wildman

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

W alking 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 Österreichs (the Austrian Freedom Party, formerly headed by Nazi sympathizer Jörg Haider). The signs demand, among other things, that Österreich 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 for constructing 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.

ISSUE #1, Summer 2006 Democracy journal

Karsh Islamophobia

June 27, 2006