Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The New Inquisition Pt. 1

This essay by Laila Lalami appears in the December 14, 2009 issue of the Nation magazine. You can also find it on the Nation's website (link below) and on Lalami's blog. It's excellent but it's long so I am breaking it into two parts and the second part will run tomorrow.

The New Inquisition

By Laila Lalami via the Nation

"At a literary festival in New York City some years ago, I was introduced to a French writer who, almost immediately after we shook hands, asked me where I was from. When the answer was "Morocco," he put down his drink and stared at me with anthropological curiosity. We spoke about literature, of course, and discovered a common love for the work of the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, but before long the conversation had turned to Moroccan writers, then to Moroccan writers in France, and then, as I expected it eventually would, to Moroccan immigrants in France--at which point the French writer declared, "If they were all like you, there wouldn't be a problem."

His tone suggested he was paying me some sort of compliment, though I found it odd that he would want the 1 million Moroccans in his country to be carbon copies of someone he had barely met and whose views on immigration--had he asked about them--he might not have found quite to his liking. It was only later, when I had returned to my hotel room, that it dawned on me that the profile of the unproblematic Moroccan immigrant he might have had in mind was based solely on conspicuous things. Some of these, like skin color, were purely accidental; others, like sartorial choices or dietary practices, were in my opinion inessential, but from his vantage point perhaps they suggested a smaller degree of "Muslimness."

Was this man really suggesting that I was a more desirable immigrant because I did not look Muslim? We had started our conversation as two equals, two potential friends, two writers discussing literature, but we had ended it as judge and supplicant--the former telling the latter whether or not she would make a suitable immigrant. And why on earth did I not say something on the spot? Why did I not ask him what he meant? Instead, I had stared back at him with what I imagine was dumbfounded perplexity, and then changed the subject. Perhaps if I had confronted him I would have been able to remove the sting of the insult that had lain hidden inside the compliment.

In any case, the man's assertion was a purely theoretical speculation. In practice, there is little evidence that even inconspicuous Muslims are fully accepted in France, or elsewhere in Europe. This was made abundantly clear in September, when Le Monde released video footage from an encounter between Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister of France, and Amine Benalia-Brouch, a young Algerian-French activist. Hortefeux and Benalia-Brouch, who were both attending the summer congress of the center-right party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, were asked to pose for a photograph. A female onlooker touched Benalia-Brouch on the cheek and, in a voice ringing with approbation, said, "[Benalia-Brouch] is Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer." "That is true," replied Benalia-Brouch, smiling. "He is our little Arab," the woman continued. Hortefeux added, "Very well. We always need one. When there's one, that's all right. It's when there are a lot of them that there are problems."

However offensive Hortefeux's statements may be, they are not particularly remarkable. In French politics, anti-immigrant posturing is something of a rite, often performed at the height of election season. When he was still mayor of Paris, and preparing to run for the presidency under the banner of the center-right party Rassemblement pour la République, Jacques Chirac bemoaned the plight of the 'French worker,' who was driven "mad" by "the noise and the smell" of the immigrant family next door, "with a father, three or four wives, twenty kids, taking in 50,000 Francs in welfare payments without working." After serving a term as president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing took to the pages of Le Figaro Magazine to argue passionately that citizenship laws needed to replace the "right of land" (jus soli, automatic citizenship for those born on French soil) with the "right of blood" (jus sanguinis, citizenship determined through French ancestry). If such a distinction were not made, he warned, France would face "an invasion." The "right of blood" definition of citizenship, depending on how it is interpreted, could have ruled out the writer Alexandre Dumas, the footballer Michel Platini, the actress Isabelle Adjani, the physicist Marie Curie, the composer Maurice Ravel, the singer Charles Aznavour, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president of France, but perhaps Giscard d'Estaing felt his country could have done without any of them. (France eliminated the jus soli definition of citizenship in 1993 and then reinstated it in a limited form in 1997.)

In 2002 Manuel Valls, the mayor of Evry and a member of the Parti Socialiste, shot to national prominence when he tried to close down a halal supermarket because it did not carry pork or wine. He claimed the store had to "help us maintain some diversity." Two years before his election to the presidency in 2007, Sarkozy promised he would "hose down" the "scum" of the Paris suburbs, where many of the city's Muslims reside. Declarations such as these cut across party lines and constitute what the French press euphemistically calls dérapages, or blunders.

The reactions to the dérapages are also something of a tradition. Members of the offending politician's party rally behind him, while members of the opposition call him a racist. Meanwhile, leaders of the far right gloat that--at long last!--the mainstream is recognizing something they have been saying for years. After Chirac's infamous "noise and smell" comments, for instance, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the avowedly racist and anti-Semitic leader of the Front National, gleefully insisted that the French would always prefer "the original to a copy."

So it would seem that the perfect Muslim immigrant in France is one who cleans the house, picks up the trash, attends to the infant or, increasingly, fixes the computer, heals the sick and runs the bank, and then disappears in a wisp of smoke, before his presence, his beliefs, his customs, his way of dress, his "noise and smell" offend the particular sensibilities of the general population. France is not alone in wishing that its Muslims were invisible. As anyone who has visited Western Europe in the past few years will tell you, the "Muslim question" is a matter of grave concern.

European Muslims have unintentionally revived a whole genre of nonfiction--the alarmist tract, billed as a "searing" yet "necessary" exposé on Europe's impending demise now that it has allowed so many millions of Muslims to settle on its shores. The titles are each more ominous than the last: The Rage and the Pride, by Oriana Fallaci (2002); Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, by Bat Ye'Or (2005); Londonistan, by Melanie Phillips (2006); Menace in Europe: Why the Continent's Crisis Is America's Too, by Claire Berlinski (2006); and While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within, by Bruce Bawer (2006). The authors rely mostly on tabloid or newspaper accounts; the arguments are simple, or, more accurately, simplistic, and the preferred method of inference is extrapolation.

The latest offering in this genre is Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, by Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a regular contributor to the Financial Times, The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. However, just as Chirac and Sarkozy prefer to say more carefully what Le Pen says bluntly, Caldwell articulates in polite and embellished language what Bawer and others have been saying aggressively for years: Europe is being overrun by Muslim immigrants; these immigrants show no sign of assimilating to European culture and social mores; and as a result, Europe is in danger of becoming an outpost of the Islamic empire.

According to Caldwell, European "political and commercial elites" invited immigrants to work on the continent in order to help rebuild the infrastructure that had been destroyed during World War II. These immigrants were expected to take up jobs in construction and, in later waves, jobs that were deemed too menial or too low-paying for 'European natives.' Immigrants revitalized industries like car manufacturing in the 1950s, but by the 1960s they were already propping up those, like textile mills, that were failing. Deindustrialization, combined with the 1973 oil crisis, resulted in the closing of factories and the loss of thousands of jobs. By then, the immigrants had already settled in Europe indefinitely, had married or brought spouses and had children. "Decade in, decade out," Caldwell writes, "the sentiment of Western European publics, as measured by opinion polls, has been resolutely opposed to mass immigration. But that is the beginning, not the end of our story."

That story, in Caldwell's telling, focuses on the Muslim communities of Europe. The plot involves the physical isolation of rapidly growing numbers of Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Turks, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians in suburban neighborhoods; high rates of crime and imprisonment; misogynistic practices and anti-Semitic confrontations; and general cultural tensions with mainstream society. The story's climax is the Muslim minority's "demands" for concessions to its religion, laws and customs. The other characters in this high drama are the "self-loathing" European elites, who are in love with the idea of a multicultural society and who close their eyes to any negativity because they feel they have to atone for centuries of colonialism.

However, Caldwell argues, "immigration is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it." European Muslims, he warns, are having children at a rate unmatched by the secularized natives. As of 2005, there were approximately 5 million Muslims in France; 3 million in Germany; 1.6 million in Britain; 1 million in Spain; and fewer than 1 million in the Netherlands and in Italy. All told, Muslims account for about 5 percent of the total population of Western Europe; but that may be 5 percent too many, because in Caldwell's estimation, "if one abandons the idea that Western Europeans are rapacious and exploitative by nature, and that Africans, Asians, and other would-be immigrants are inevitably their victims, then the fundamental difference between colonization and labor migration ceases to be obvious."

The comparison between labor migrations of the past fifty years and colonization--the most memorable example of which, in recent history, is European colonialism in Africa and Asia--leaves out such details as invasions by armed troops; the systematic expropriation of land; the exploitation of natural resources to the sole benefit of the settlers; genocide, as happened to an estimated 10 million Congolese; wars of independence that cost millions of lives; and the installation of brutal dictatorships. Unbelievably, Caldwell insists that the immigration of individuals, each one acting independently and for economic or political reasons, not in obeisance to a collective supranational policy or religious mission, is nothing short of colonization.

To continue with Caldwell's story, the Muslims of Europe--and, naturally, the elites who enable them--have led each major European country to a national tragedy: the London underground bombing; the Madrid commuter train attacks; the Paris riots; the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands; and the cartoon crisis in Denmark. He concludes by sounding a pessimistic note on Europe's chances of winning this existential fight for its cultural survival. "Europe finds itself in a contest with Islam for the allegiance of its newcomers," he writes. "For now, Islam is the stronger party in that contest, in an obvious demographic way and in a less obvious philosophical way. In such circumstances, words like 'majority' and 'minority' mean little. When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctriness, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter."

The assumption here is that Europe's culture was a rigid construct that remained unchanged until the immigrants arrived. But cultures are not static; they change all the time. Of course Europe's culture will change as a result of its demographic shifts, but that change need not (indeed, it should not) be turned into a culture war between Islam and the West. Caldwell's conclusion is also contradictory, coming as it does after 300 pages in which he has argued just the opposite: that Muslims are backward, unemployed, criminal and, until recently, disengaged from the political process. By the time he ends the book, they are suddenly and inexplicably strong enough to "conquer" Europe.

Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is the kind of book that will reaffirm the opinions of those who already agree with its author. If you happen to think that the establishment of what is now called "Eurabia" is a matter of time, you will find plenty of support in the many statistics and anecdotes Caldwell culls from newspaper and magazine reports. If, on the other hand, you prefer a more reasoned and complex view of the issues, the simplifications, contradictions and errors in this book will fail to persuade you. Caldwell repeats the thoroughly debunked canard that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were roundly celebrated in the Muslim world: "It was a day of joy in much of the Muslim world, including parts of Muslim Europe." On the contrary, there were demonstrations of solidarity with the families of the victims in nearly every major Muslim capital, from Rabat to Cairo to Tehran. More to the point, when the United States invaded Iraq, under the spurious claim that it possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein had helped plot the 9/11 attacks, were the bombings not greeted with shouts of "U-S-A" in this country? That does not mean that the vast majority of Americans approved of the wholesale killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Simplifying the facts is expedient for Caldwell, however, as it helps bolster the argument he is trying to make, which is that Islam is locked in an inevitable and perpetual civilizational conflict with the West."


Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son, is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside

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