Neuhaus on Europe and Muslims

The articulate and influential conservative Roman Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus has a very interesting and thoughtful discussion in First Things, the journal that he edits, of the debate over Muslims in Europe entitled "The Much Exaggerated Death of Europe"

Neuhaus has made controversial statements about Islam and Muslims in the past and jousted a bit with Muslim organizations (especially CAIR). Which is why his evenhanded analysis of Philip Jenkins’ critique of the conventional wisdom in the "War on Terror" concerning Islam and Muslims is all the more admirable and worthy of careful consideration.

I wouldn’t do it justice if I tried to summarize it, so I’ll just direct you to the article, which is cogent and expressed with characteristic elegance.

I will make a few comments on points on which I differ with Father Neuhaus.

FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

Jenkins offers a fine historical sketch of Christian-Muslim relations, countering the bizarre but widespread notion that Islam has typically been the victim of Christian assertiveness. “Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Turks dominated most of the southeastern quadrant of Europe, and in 1683, they came very close to capturing Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.” At several points, he credits the prescience of Hilaire Belloc, who wrote in the 1930s about the unnatural subservience of Islam to the West and why it could not last. Jenkins writes: “Edward Said’s writings on Orientalism can be criticized on many fronts, but he was most radically off-target when he suggested that ‘the West’ had dominated ‘the East’ consistently for the past 2,000 years.”

I suspect that many Third World intellectuals would find this last claim extremely puzzling, given the way so many non-Western societies to this day are struggling with the cultural, psychological and intellectual legacy of the colonial era. I don’t think one can understand, for example, African and Middle Eastern political problems today without considering how indigenous legal, religious and cultural institutions were forcibly sidelined and/or gutted under colonial rule, leaving a void which has yet to be filled.

I think Neuhaus has misunderstood the nature of the "power" with which Said–and his philosophical forefather, Foucault–concern themselves most, whether directly or indirectly. It is not the mere exercise of political power, but rather the deployment of constructions of others that ultimately pave the way psychologically for domination or violence. Formal control by Western powers is a thing of the past, but informal regimes of control continue to exist and exercise their influence.

If you, as many post-colonial thinkers do, consider the imposition of alien norms and values onto others one such regime of control, then the West had indeed dominated much of the "East", at least  during modern times. The fact that Christendom once feared the Turks, as Neuhaus reminds us, doesn’t change how completely the former came to dominate the rest of the world culturally and politically after the Industrial Revolution.

I’m not up on the latest arguments from the cottage industry that has sprung up in recent years to debunk Edward Said, but it seems to me that the attacks make mountains out of molehills and overlook how compelling his overall thesis remains. Think of the much maligned but inescapable Sigmund Freud. He had advocated some theories that have since been subjected to withering criticism, but his broader framework and fundamental insights about the unconscious continue to inform our understanding of the human mind, no matter how mightily we rebel (Oedipally?) against him.

Like Freud and Marx, Said exposed a hitherto undiscovered dimension to human affairs and international politics, the invisible role of culture and art in politics. In my opinion, to question his central point–which I understand to be that cultural representation of the Other always plays a critical role in enabling government policies towards the Other–is to turn one’s back on half a century of advances in the social sciences, not to mention an egregious ignorance of current affairs and Western social history. 

Forget the usual suspects–novels, poems and paintings by 19th century French artists–look at 20th century history. What philosophical construct better explains the role played by ostensibly  "apolitical" anti-Semitic popular culture (i.e., simple stereotypes and assumptions) in the Holocaust than Orientalism?  What other framework explains why minstrel shows and Blacksploitation films were never "harmless fun"? These are modern illustrations of Orientalism in action, proof that the tacit and sometimes even unconscious denigration of the Other can powerfully affect the political and social realms.

Said, a professor of literature who enjoyed contributing to  political and historical debates of the day, may have gotten a lot of details wrong, but it seems to me that he got the big things very right.

There are several points on which Jenkins’ argument is unconvincing. They are overlapping, but I count seven or eight. First, the analogies he persistently draws with the United States are little more than distractions. Our race riots of the 1960s and 1970s did not involve foreigners of a radically different religion and culture. Blacks had been here almost as long as whites; they are as Christian as whites (except for the hybrid Islam of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam); they did not attack the social centers but were terrorizing one another and burning down their own neighborhoods; their celebrity and public standing was dependent on the indulgence of whites who subscribed to what Tom Wolfe aptly described as radical chic; they ended up by being contained in the urban underclass, abandoned by the great majority of blacks who are middle-class and largely ignored by the rest of society. On each point, the black situation in America is so very different from that of Muslims in Europe that it can carry almost none of the weight that Jenkins’ argument wants it to bear.

Neuhaus points out that American whites and blacks for the most part share religious and cultural traditions whereas Muslim minorities in Europe lack the same background as their surrounding socieites–a point that is increasingly *not* the case, even taking into account the retention of "old world" traditions, but nevermind that for now–but this fact pales into insignificance, I think, next to the analagous if not shared experience of discrimination and marginalization.  The reasons for the instinctive identification with hip-hop culture on the part of young Turks, Pakistanis, Arabs, Somalis and so on across Europe are pretty evident–as different as their circumstances may be in the particulars, Muslims like blacks find themselves on the bottom of the social order.

Neuhaus mentions that blacks had deep roots in American society that European Muslims, being often recent immigrants, lack. I’m not sure this contrast ultimately holds up for these purposes. Modern Europe is quite mobile, with large segments of the population and workforce in any given place being intra-Europe expats, so the idea that European identity is static is problematic. More importantly, a generation of European Muslims has been born and come of age since the arrival of the first guest workers, and like  African Americans they are no less rooted in their society’s culture than their majority-community neighbors but often feel systematically neglected and discriminated against in their own country.

I don’t entirely follow Neuhaus’ point about the differences between Muslim unrest and African-American unrest. Without in any way justifying lawlessness or violence, it must be admitted that unlike in the case of America at large and African-Americans a generation ago Europe is widely perceived by many Muslims to be at war–whether directly, by proxy, or through collusion–with the the Muslim world. Such a polarizing situation is bound to stir up militancy within a minority, especially one struggling with social and economic marginalization. Had the US Air Force been regularly bombing Harlem neighborhoods during the Civil Rights era I suspect we would’ve seen far more militant and violent reactions.

I’m sure Neuhaus realizes that public awareness of (and ultimately commitment to doing something about) America’s race problems was not  merely the byproduct of white guilt or leftist fads, so I find his point about the "indulgence of whites" puzzling. It seems almost a non sequiteur. It’s been a long time since I read The Bonfire of the Vanities, but I think I can safely assume that the targets of Tom Wolfe’s wit were not sensible people became concerned about racism in American life but rather shallow individuals for whom political activism was an accent piece like a trendy hat.  As Neuhaus makes clear, Jenkins is not woolyheaded boob or polemicist. It seems highly unlikely that he is blinded by infatuatation with the romantic outlaw (whether he be a Black Panther or an Islamic fundamentalist). He is obviously an intelligent commentator tackling well known social and cultural problems. I fail to see the relevance of Wolfe’s barb to Jenkin’s argument.

I’m not sure how to interpret the remaining supposed differences mentioned by Neuhaus in the paragraph above. Is he saying that Muslims in Europe do not often exist in a "urban underclass"? (Many do.) Or is he arguing that American blacks, unlike European Muslims, have not isolated  themselves from the surrounding society (in other words, that they were absorbed into a larger, multiracial underclass, while Muslims have stuck to their ghettos)? (Also a highly debatable distinction.)

Similarly, his comparison with immigration in the United States is unpersuasive. Samuel Huntington may be right that, viewed demographically, America has not been and is not “a nation of immigrants” (see my discussion of his Who Are We? in the August/September 2004 issue). But the fact is that, for almost 150 years, we have understood ourselves to be a nation of immigrants. That is emphatically not true of European nations. The “British way of life” is inextricably tied to the particular people who are British; France is a “universal nation” of people who are unmistakably French; and Germany pines for a time when it will have a national identity it can morally affirm. As important, America has never been, and is not now, confronted by a major immigration that challenges its Christian identity based on a Judeo-Christian moral tradition.

These are important and meaningful differences, but I don’t think they ultimately support his point. I find the additional psychological and cultural barrier to assimilation faced by European Muslims a point in Jenkins’ favor, as it provides another reason for deep seated frustration and alienation on the part of European Muslims. And a kindred sense grievance and disenfranchisement due the happenstance of race is at the heart of America’ racial divide.

Jenkins seriously understates the religio-ideological challenge of Jihadism, the belief that every Muslim has an obligation to employ whatever means necessary to advance the world’s submission to Islam. This belief is analyzed in chilling detail by, among others, Johns Hopkins’ Mary Habeck in her book Knowing the Enemy (see my review in the April 2006 issue). Yes, it is true, as he says, that such hard-liners are in a minority; hard-line fanatics are usually a minority. But, of a billion Muslims in the world and thirty million in Europe, a small minority can do a great deal of damage. For all the horror of the attacks to date, one can agree that it is noteworthy that there have been so few. To which police and intelligence forces will respond that that is in largest part due to their vigilance. I don’t know if that is correct, nor does Philip Jenkins. Neither of us is on the “need to know” list of the respective security services. I think I do know what the Jihadists intend to do if they get the chance.

This is a complicated topic, and one which I think is often hopelessly muddled by a lack of sense of  proportion.  There are indeed some chilling Islamic ideologies out there, but the risk they pose is small and ultimately of far less concern than other immediate, demonstrated public safety risks.

I think some of John Mueller’s arguments in his influential Foreign Affairs article on terrorrism in America  ("Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?: The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy") could be applied to the European situation, but at the same time realize that the situation there is more polarized. Still, the hard numbers don’t seem to support the alarmism that has become so common.  For example, take this from Spinwatch – The statistical invisibility of Islamist ‘terrorism’ in Europe:

New figures from Europol, the European police agency, reveal that Islamist terror attacks in Europe constituted 0.2% or all ‘terrorism’ throughout the continent in 2006.* Unsurprisingly, there has been little in the media about this interesting figure in the month since it was published.

There is a bigger problem with his analysis. It focuses on preventing occurrences that are by all accounts an infrequent while ignoring the circumstances that undeniably contribute to bringing such violence into being by needlessly dividing Muslim and non-Muslim in Europe.  If we’re serious about preventing future tragedies, we must take a holistic and pragmatic look at all the factors at work in the problem, as opposed to focusing exclusively on law & order.

Jenkins places high hopes in the emergence of “moderate” Muslims. His confidence in Tariq Ramadan and his version of Euro-Islam in a “religiously pluralistic” Europe is not reassuring. Ramadan has a notorious record of taking contradictory positions, ranging from the pacific to the insurrectionary. Moreover, Jenkins’ hope that Muslim scholars can submit sacred texts to critical analysis and still remain credibly Muslim is, to say the least, questionable. As for the possibilities of an Islamic version of the Christian synthesis of faith and reason, see my aforementioned essay “The Regensburg Moment.” We should be supportive of Muslims who want to “put a human face” on Islam—or a democratic face, if you prefer. But it is wrongheaded to compare them with Soviet dissidents of decades past, as some do. The dissidents’ cause contributed to the disappearance of the Soviet Union. For a billion different reasons, Islam is not going to disappear. “Moderates” whose commitment to Islam is in doubt are going to be of very little help.

I think Neuhaus is dead wrong on Ramadan.

Also, the assumption that Muslims need to send their sacred texts through the wringer of secular "higher criticism" that has eviscerated so many Westerners’ faith in order to find a place in the modern world is mistaken, I believe.

Moreover, the assumption that contemporary Muslim political problems are primarily the result of the absence of particular doctrinal developments is in my view naive.  I think most of the Muslim world’s problems can easily be demonstrated to have been infinitely more influenced by concrete social, economic and political developments in Muslim societies than rarefied matters of philosophy or theology. For example, I think it’s fair to say that the existence of the modern "Jihadi" phenomenon owes far more to the war against the Soviet in Afghanistan during the 1980s than any specific doctrinal trend in the Muslim world during that time. (See Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim for more.) 

The tendency of so many observers to discuss Muslim political and social problems as if they were simply questions of doctrine is an ironic mirror image of the world view of fundamentalists, who always assume that worldly problems are punishment for immorality and/or incorrect beliefs.

Jenkins rightly reminds us of the force of historical contingencies that can be neither anticipated nor controlled. He cites 1798 and the supposed demise of Catholicism, and that is a useful reminder. But scholasticism, the papacy, the Enlightenment, the rise of laicism in France, etc., are all part of a European storyline. These are intra-European struggles within an indisputably Christian narrative. Deists, atheists, and skeptics in that narrative are unmistakably Christian deists, atheists, and skeptics. Islam is, and understands itself to be, a militant counternarrative. It is, to use the academic jargon, the “other,” and it is an “other” with no history of multicultural sympathy with the other to which it is “other.”

These are valid points, but to the extent that much of modern Islam "understands itself to be a militant…counternarrative" that  partly due to  the war-torn geopolitical circumstances under which the Islamic-Western encounter began (and which in many people’s minds continue to be exist). This is not necessarily the only possible, or even the natural state, of Islamic-Western relations, but we won’t know until the many conflicts pitting Muslims and Westerners (literally or figurative) are settled.

Jenkins says European Christianity must accommodate itself to being a “creative minority.” In relation to Islam, that sounds an awful lot like dhimmitude, in this case joined to secularism’s toleration of Christians so long as they mind their manners, which means that Christians agree that their faith is a private religious preference without public consequence. But, of course, that need not be the case, and the creative in creative minority could have culture-transforming effects that we cannot now anticipate.

I don’t accept that the dhimma system was a bad thing, or something for Muslims should apologize today. It was a very enlightened system for its day, institutionalizing at least in principle a great measure of religious freedom to non-Muslim minorities at a time when the West was still addicted to Jew-baiting and sectarian intra-Christian wars. Rather than criticizing Islam for have the dhimma system, Christians ought to be explaining why Christian civilization didn’t develop a comparable set of values until so recently. (I suspect that Jews living in fear of Cossacks in the Pale wouldn’t have minded being a dhimmi all that much.  When Columbus sailed the ocean blue and when Ferdinand and Isabella took back Spain from the Moors in 1492, Jews, knowing that persecution lay ahead for them, streamed out of reconquered Spain into the Ottoman Empire. )

Whats more, few if any credible Muslim scholars today believe you can apply dhimmi laws that were formulated in and for medieval times to modern life without updating them first. The dhimmi rhetoric that we often hear today is seriously out of touch with the facts and often perversely misleading.

Personally, I would welcome a Christian revival in Europe and a more self-consciously Christian European identity. It would ultimately only help Muslim integration into European life, too, by removing some of these neurotic reactions to faith. 

If the presence of Muslims in the Continent jolts Europeans into rediscovering their religious heritage, Muslims will be owed a great debt.

Jenkins operates within a very short time frame. He suggests that by 2050 there will be thirty million Muslims in Europe. Other scholars believe the figure will be much higher. Whatever the more plausible number, 2050 is, in historical perspective, only a few years distant. The life of nations is, in their own self-understanding, very long. The Novus Ordo Seclorum on the Great Seal of the United States may be a self-flattering conceit, as may be France’s belief, stemming from 1789, that it bears the destiny of humanité, but to invest in and sacrifice for the future of a people and its way of life—the most palpable form of which is in having babies—requires a timeline much longer than 2050. People who do not, in continuity with the world they know, hope to have grandchildren who will hope to have grandchildren do not have babies. The sacrifice of the identities of nations and peoples to the deracinated idea of “Europe” as institutionalized in the European Union, combined with the forceful counternarrative of Islam, does not suggest a future in which many will make an intergenerational investment.

But then, and despite his roseate projections, perhaps Philip Jenkins knows all this. Recall his observation that “both Christianity and Islam face real difficulties in surviving within Europe’s secular cultural ambience in anything like their familiar historic forms.” Europe is a historical phenomenon, and Europe without its familiar historic forms is not Europe. To speak of the death of Europe is not to suggest that the continent called Europe will disappear. It is possible that “Eurosecularity” in sustained tension with an Islamo-Christian cultural ambience will flourish, at least economically, for generations to come. But, with the establishment of Eurabia or the Maghreb, Europe “in anything like its familiar historic forms” will be a memory. That is what is meant by the death of Europe.

  • http://dezhen.wordpress.com/ dawood

    Awesome take on the article bro – btw my emails keep bouncing back from you…
    ma’a salama! :)

  • http://revoltinthedesert.blogspot.com Lawrence of Arabia

    well i don’t think that neuhaus has spent a great deal of his time reading either said or foucault, but one would remind him that said specifically deals with the fact that orient-as-islam is precisely what is dangerous because it eluded direct political control for so long (up until the napoleonic era).
    as you point out, orientalism for said is about the way occidentals know the orient (which of course includes the organization of practices), but this often has only a tangential connection to the reality being described.


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