Never the Twain

There's one word that never fails to turn rational, thinking, and generally normal people into demented screamers a la John Sweeney in these intellectually and morally bankrupt times, and that word is, of course, Islam. The comment columns of the Guardian have been turning green again lately following a provocative and clearly bonkers article from Seumas Milne, the import of which was (as you'd expect from its crypto-communist author) that an "anti-Muslim media campaign" is in full swing, driven by "a political agenda which seeks to justify war". By which he meant programmes like the recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary which unearthed the very real dangers faced by Muslims who convert to Christianity. Milne himself seemed hopelessly confused, like many on the Left. On the one hand he admits that subjects like this, or the hardline takeover of British mosques, or the involvement of radical clerics in inspiring terrorism, is a legitimate subject to report. On the other, media coverage is "sensationalist and disproportionate" and will thus (and here we come to the nub of the matter, so far as he is concerned) "feed ethnic tensions." It has made Britain the most "Islamophobic" country in the developed world.

Perhaps he was just stirring; so, perhaps, was the often brilliant William Dalrymple yesterday with his piece arguing that because Islamist political parties have been winning more elections lately, we should blame Western foreign policy for all our woes. My point, though, is that it doesn't take much stirring to produce a fine poisonous brew. From those who think any
criticism of Islam is a form of racist abuse, to those who believe even the most mild-mannered Muslim is secretly plotting to re-introduce decapitation and force women to wear burqas, to those in the middle who... actually, there don't seem to be many people in the middle.

Take "Islamophobia". Is it akin to racism? Can you be racist against against ideas? Milne seems to think so, on the grounds that Islam is as much a cultural identity as a set of beliefs. The likes of the MCB would like us to think so, since the concept, usually defined as an "irrational" hatred of Islam or Muslims (for believers in Islamophobia, of course, all criticism of Islam is irrational) is such a convenient way of shutting down debate. And it's not just about laws, or even
circumspect self-censorship. If you can convince a decent, well-meaning person that thinking a certain thought is akin to racism, they will very soon cease to think it.

And yet, and yet. Islamophobia, if it exists, is certainly not a disease of the Right, much as the smugger kind of Guardianista likes to assume that everyone critical of Islam has a secret yen for leiderhosen and the Horst-Wessellied. For Conservatives, in fact, there would seem to be many reasons to embrace the religion, which does after all have a strong tradition of family values, law and order and sobriety. Many of the values assumed to be Islamic, like putting women in their place, or getting upset about blasphemy like the people in this much-reproduced photo, were fairly common in Western Europe before the decadence. On the other hand, the hard Left's embrace of Islam, based largely on the characterisation of Muslims as members of an oppressed group, and as victims of Western colonialism, is a fairly recent one. In the days when the Left was dominated by radical feminists, the right-wing nature of traditional Islam was obvious for all to see.

The Heresiarch's view is simple. We are all Islamophobes now. I'm an Islamophobe, you're an Islamophobe. Polly Toynbee is an Islamophobe, Salman Rushdie is an Islamophobe, Melanie Phillips and Simon Heffer are Islamophobes. Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter disagree on almost everything, yet both are dyed-in-the-wool Islamophobes. Secularly-inclined European Muslims are deeply Islamophobic, which is why they prefer to live here (like the Muslim feminists who campaigned against headscarves in French schools), but so are the Islamist radicals, for what can be more Islamophobic than trying to convince everyone that Islam is out to get them? It's possible that some Islamophiles might be found within the higher eschelons of the Church of England; but, by and large, Islamophobia rules. OK?

Western society is not only deeply Islamophobic, but is in itself a sort of institutionalised Islamophobia. It is the Western way to separate, and Westerners have been defining themselves against the Other, the people in the East, at least since the time of the Trojan War. But it was with the Muslim conquest of most of the Byzantine Empire, bissecting the old Roman Mediterranean, followed by the Crusades, that modern Western self-consciousness came into being. And far from being merely the aggressive invasion of peaceful and blameless Muslim societies that the liberal conscience would like us to think, the Crusades were a response (and a much delayed response) to Muslim incursions. When Charles Martel turned back the Ummayad armies at the battle of Tours in 732, he not only saved Western Christianity, he in a sense invented the West.

After the Enlightenment, Europe evolved in ways based based on fundamentally different philosophical and intellectual premisses from those of Islam. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Islam, society is a divine order, whereas in the West it is essentially a human construct. The West has increasingly stressed the autonomy of the individual, and promoted the individual's rights against the group. Islam places more importance on family, community, and especially the totality of all believers, the Umma, a concept entirely alien to Western sensibilities. The West is restlessly looking forward, not back to some imagined golded age. The West has an economy based on interest and debt, ideas anathema to Islam. In terms of marriage, the role of religion, the idea of the state, the two can never be reconciled. Yet both maintain the underlying assumption that they alone are right: even the self-hating left-liberals don't really believe in the superiority of Islamic culture to their own; if they did they'd stop drinking and screwing around, wouldn't they?

Islamophobia is an essential part of European, and American, identity. We can respect Islam, we can acknowledge the contribution that the mediaeval Arabs made to human knowledge, we can cultivate an extreme cultural relativism which, combined with the usual self-hatred, will constantly seek to apologise both to and for Islam. Some can even "turn Turk". But we will never truly understand it, and we will always secretly fear and despise it. We are Greece and Troy, Rome and Carthage, Cain and Abel. Maybe we should get used to the idea.


John Demetriou said…
A superb article that man! Keep up the good work on CiF.



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