The New Inquisition | The Nation


The New Inquisition

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Pim Fortuyn, the notorious Dutch far-right leader, "was not a racist," Caldwell informs us, "and his colorful repartee about the Moroccan men he had slept with was adequate to place him above the suspicion of being one." By the same logic, should one forget that Strom Thurmond supported racist laws just because he had a black child? Caldwell writes wistfully that "Fortuyn could well have become prime minister had he not been shot dead days before national elections in May 2002, by an animal rights activist who claimed to be acting to protect Dutch Muslims." Even though Muslims had nothing to do with Fortuyn's murder, this formulation suggests that, somehow, they did.

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

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Facile explanations for the massacre must be resisted.

Tidy stories reducing the atrocity to a clash of civilizations or a problem with integration are neither enlightening nor satisfying.

Not coincidentally, several of the loudest forecasters of European doom were previously best known for their anti-Semitic views. Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, once called the Holocaust an "extremely profitable lie." Nowadays, he asks that Muslims be prevented from flying into or out of Britain and runs ads with the slogan Enoch Powell Was Right. Vlaams Belang, the Flemish far-right party, has also had Holocaust deniers in its leadership, though now they seem most preoccupied with preventing Muslim women who wear the headscarf from working for local councils. And Le Pen, the founder of the French National Front, once described gas chambers as "a mere detail of history" and called a political opponent named Michel Durafour "Durafour crématoire" (the pun can be loosely translated as "Michel-hard-to-cook-in-a-gas-chamber"). Now he warns that it is only a matter of time before the mayor of Marseille will no longer be Mr. Gaudin but Mr. "Ben Gaudin." Recently it emerged that the Vlaams Belang and other far-right groups have formed a coalition called "Cities Against Islamisation." Europe has gone down this road before, and it did not emerge the better for it.

The societies of Europe are undergoing demographic changes, which have economic, social and educational consequences. So far, the debate on these changes has focused exclusively on Islam in Europe. Yet no one in the chattering classes seems to have noticed that the voices of European Muslims are seldom heard. This is a debate about them--not with them. And indeed Reflections on the Revolution in Europe has been reviewed in the American press mostly by people who are not European, much less Muslim. Not surprisingly, the argument that Muslims are collectively trying to "conquer" Europe "street by street" in order to turn it into an outpost of Islam has been taken at face value. But this argument is not serious criticism because it is not based on thorough empirical evidence; it is racism.

When European Muslims are heard from, it is often on the topic of religion, and usually immediately after some disaster caused by one of their co-religionists. Political leaders, eager to show that they are in dialogue with the "immigrants" (large proportions of whom are second- or third-generation citizens), quote from the Koran or invite some imam to tea at the presidential palace. The conversation turns into a battle over religion, over who has the right interpretation of what verse, instead of being expanded to the issues most relevant to the integration of European Muslims--issues like jobs, housing, education and civil rights.

The current debate places far too much emphasis on Islam as a set of codes and on the Koran as a literal text, rather than on Islam as it is lived and the Koran as an experienced text. A Moroccan man may be very devout and yet work as a sommelier in a restaurant in Paris. A Turkish teenager may not be particularly faithful and yet keep Ramadan because it is the only time of year she gets to connect with her community. An Algerian elder may be the imam of his mosque and yet carry credit card debt. Islam is not just its texts; it is millions of people, each one of whom has found an idiosyncratic way of adapting faith to modern life. Our religious beliefs are not the sum total of our lives. To discuss them as if they were puts our very lives up for debate.

The challenge of immigration is not Europe's alone. In our increasingly globalized world, immigrants are moving in all directions, across large distances and at faster rates than ever before. What Europeans--what all of us--need to face is the unavoidability of living together. Caldwell has culled two tercets from W.H. Auden's "The Quest" as the epigraph for his book:

Could he forget a child's ambition to be old
And institutions where it learned to wash and lie,
He'd tell the truth for which he thinks himself too young,
That everywhere on his horizon, all the sky,
Is now, as always, only waiting to be told
To be his father's house and speak his mother tongue.

Yet when I read Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, I was reminded of another poem, one Auden had written a year earlier, at the onset of World War II; and though the poet came to look with disfavor on the line, its truth is the one I would rather cling to: "We must love one another or die."

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