Europe’s Crisis of Faith
by Fergus Downie (September 2012)
Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.
- Alfred Toynbee
The spectre of Islam is haunting Europe though in Britain etiquette dictates we couch this in terms of religious extremism. Needless to say, the threat posed to our settled liberties by Quaker fundamentalists is at the time of writing unspecified, and these leaden attempts to be even handed can also be glimpsed in the draconian strengthening of European traditions of laïcité to deal with what is transparently a problem of Muslim integration. Had the Muslim brotherhood not been exploiting the headscarf issue as part of an orchestrated attempt to undermine the principle of a secular public sphere and equality before the law, Jewish and Christian parents would not have needed to withdraw their children from state schools as the price for wearing a yarmulke or a crucifix in the classroom. These were once matters of supreme indifference even in highly secular states like France, and the furor over circumcision in Germany highlights the collateral damage which can ensue from the panicked assertion of secular values in the face of an Islamist threat.
For all the costs of this sledgehammer secularism, including the aggressive atheism it frequently provides cover for, these diminutions in liberty may be a price worth paying. Europe does not have enough of the inherited religious value fat required to sustain an ideological front against Islamism in the way that America occasionally looks like it might – and a scrupulous Weberian legalism is probably the best option available for a continent allergic to the cultivation of strong passions and the fanaticism of principle. This is the enervated substance at the heart of Europe which finds its consummate expression in the European Union, a bloodless bureaucratic failure of imagination in lieu of a vision; the ideal resting place for the Last Men with no values worth fighting for. A revealing example of these receding horizons: fifty five percent of Americans polled in 2003 ‘strongly agree’ that war is sometimes necessary to obtain justice, in Europe the figure is 18 per cent and this with the Holocaust a living memory.
This might seem a harsh and unnecessary digression but it is impossible to understand the European capitulation to Islamic extremism without grasping the extent of this atrophy of will and purpose. Europe finds it increasingly difficult to come up with ideas and no one articulated this poverty of vision better than the European Commission’s former President Romano Prodi in his underwhelming tribute to the EU’s architects.
The genius of the Founding Fathers lay in translating extremely high political ambitions into a series of more specific, highly technical questions. This indirect approach made further action possible. Rapprochement took place gradually. From confrontation we moved to willingness to co-operate in the economic sphere and then on to integration.
Prodi’s bland formulae encapsulates the European ‘genius’ for translating principles into technical questions, and when one reads such statements one is struck by how much it is Europe that lacks the spiritual antidote to the kind of mechanization of the soul, which Heidegger thought was the distinct culture destroying attribute of the USA and USSR, both states respectively wiping out higher impulses under the ‘desolate frenzy of technology’.1
Across the grand sweep of history it is ironic that the idea of 'Europe' should assume such a demilitarized character. As the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne has pointed out it, was the threat of an Islamic invasion which created the very notion of Europe as a self-conscious cultural entity, and the vision of Europe held by the EU’s Christian Democrat founders was a staunchly Carolingian and Catholic one. Such a contribution might at least have merited a passing mention in the European Union’s Preamble on values but old sophisticated Europe balked at the notion of a Christian club, even as Turkey, the elephant in the room professed indifference. The best priest-ridden backwoodsman of Europe like Poland and the Irish Republic could salvage was a vacuous reference to Europe’s religious and humanist heritage, and this nebulous vagueness of purpose now also extends itself to frontiers. Europe, like the Roman empire, aspires to infinity even as its virtue fades; the Laeken declaration pronouncing that human rights and democracy were the only boundaries to the EU. Europe, to paraphrase Metternich, is not even a geographical expression still less a civilizational one.
As Europe’s identity has been so comprehensively bureaucratized, and the citizenship of its member states denuded of any substance, Europe’s governing elites remain curiously baffled that so many of its newer citizens feel only the most tenuous loyalty to a culture which demands so little. No advanced political science is required to understand this – Groucho Marx would have instantly spotted the dilemma, and as Europe loses its faith it is leaving little in the way of alternate spiritual visions to cleave to. In the modern world a shopworn tolerance will always be a weak competitor to the consolations of a great faith, and beneath the glibness of New Atheist fashion even the more sensitive Europeans are troubled by the one-sided contest. Matthias Politycki ‘s novel Lord of Horns, with its tale of a pale faced European overcoming his existential fatigue in an ecstatic voodoo cult in Cuba, reads as a particularly graphic metaphor for the European’s eloi –like effeteness in values, and Islam troubles Europeans so much precisely because it reminds them of this void. The studied Islamophilia of higher minds in such circumstances can only ever be fear and loathing masquerading as tolerance.
One of the reasons Europe has had such problems digesting this new religion is that it jars so vehemently with its historical experience. Europe has succumbed to a thoroughgoing secularization of its culture that has no historical precedent; the kind of vestigial religiosity that survives served up a la carte lest it conflict with the higher purpose of therapeutic self-expression. In substance it differs little from the vapid spiritual inclination which individuals profess to, lest they admit their lives are glutted with the shallow passions of the shopping malls and serial documentaries on sharks and Nazis.
The theology and culture of Islam by contrast, is not so lightly worn and offers few useful parallels to those seeking answers on how to reconcile a deeply religious foreign subculture into a rapidly secularising host society. The first and most elemental point to make concerns its societal impact; that Islam is the second religion of Europe is now something of a journalistic cliché but as Caldwell notes, this is to sell it short. If one measures it by active commitment, cultural cachet amongst the young, and political strength, it is easily Europe’s first religion. In France, 85 per cent of Muslim students describe their religious beliefs as very important, and it carries an intensity of conviction which Christians cannot match. To take just one example quoted by Christopher Caldwell in Reflections on The Revolution in Europe; 68 percent of German Turks think their religion is the only true one, versus just 6 percent of German Christians. In what meaningful sense are those 94 percent Christians? Similarly, in Islam there is no parallel to the soggy ecumenicalism of the Church of England whose obsession with inter-faith dialogue and tolerance is an indubitable indicator of spent convictions. Noisy disavowals notwithstanding, multiculturalism remains the de fault ideology for a European elite too timid to assert a defence of western values, and the kind of anathematizing fury Berlusconi was subjected to when he dared assert the supremacy of western civilization is symptomatic of this paralyzing doubt. Such pusillanimity virtually exhorts individuals to seek out more compelling visions and no great power of insight is required to see that Europe’s problem with Islam is in large measure a symptom of its own cultural exhaustion. In an age of puerile shallowness, and weak passions an uncompromising Islam offers the deadly earnestness which Thomas Carlyle noted as its essential strength in an increasingly disenchanted world.
What is the chief end of man here below? Mahomet answered the question, in a way that might put some of us to shame! He does, not like a Bentham, a Paley, take Right and Wrong, and calculate the profit and loss, ultimate pleasure of the one and the other; and summing all up by addition and subtraction into a net result, ask you, Whether on the whole the Right does not preponderate considerably?....Benthamite utility, virtue by profit and loss ; reducing this God’s world to a brute steam engine, the infinite celestial Soul of Man to a kind of Hay-balance for weighing hay and thistles on, pleasures and pains – If you ask me which gives, Mahomet or they, the beggarlier and falser view of Man and his Destinies, I will answer it is not Mahomet.
The embrace of Islam in such a culture, may be the ultimate postmodern leap: in a value lite antinomian culture conspicuous morality may constitute the ultimate transgression.
Its claims however, on the public square are infinitely more ambitious than those made by insipid middle class forays into the vapid slush of New Age spiritualism. They raise profound questions over its compatibility with the institutions of liberal democratic societies. Secularism, in, the accepted meaning of the term – the notion that church and state, the religious and the political are distinct realms which can and should be kept separate is a Christian idea which has never gained traction in the Islamic world. (Classical Arabic lacked even the vocabulary to express such an idea, a deficit belatedly overcome by Arab Christians supplying the necessary loan words.) Unlike Christianity whose experience as a persecuted faith and a later need to secure a movus vivendi between warring faiths forced it towards a demarcation of the spiritual and temporal realms, Islam was a conquering religion with no need for such self-denying ordinances. In place of the Christian distinction between canon and civil law there is only Sharia (literally: law) – an indivisible legal code of divine provenance regulating all spheres of social existence – tragically well attuned to the honour code of most Islamic societies where vengeance is not solely the prerogative of God.
This sheer social pervasiveness of Islam is often, and correctly, cited as one of its strengths. Its appeal to the deracinated wretched of the earth requires little explanation, and provides the faith with much of its demographic momentum in a world where cultural dislocation is virtually an organizing principle of the global economy. However, as Dalyrmple has noted in his excellent essay 'When Islam Breaks Down’ this strength can just as easily turn into a weakness; with so many social activities ascribed a divine sanction it becomes impossible to tinker piecemeal with a system without fear that the entire edifice will come crashing down. Islam can break but it cannot bend, and this inherent vulnerability accounts in large measure for the in-built bias towards fundamentalism.
These might seem anodyne observations to most observers, but amongst our bien pensant elites it invariably attracts the charge of essentialising Islam, and ignoring its rich traditions of pluralism. Fresh from penning his flesh crawling panegyric in the New York Times to Tariq Ramadan, Ian Buruma, felt compelled to upbraid the oversimplifications of Hirsi Ali and other apostate critics of the faith who questioned its compatibility with western institutions; “Islam as practised in Java, he opined in trademark tone of finely calibrated gravity, ‘is not the same as in a Moroccan village, or the Sudan, or Rotterdam’. This of course is the kind of stock in trade response recycled by countless liberal commentators and it involves the fundamental error of confusing a theology which is universal and the culture in which it is embedded. The latter, may in many cases be tolerant and syncretic, but this has little to do with theological consistency, and everything to do with Islam’s harsher edges being blunted by a moderating culture. Moreover, it is precisely these brightly coloured and impious accretions that Salafists seek to cleanse Islam of, and return it to the mythical purity of the 7th century, and the waves of creative destruction unleashed by modernity lend the Salafist turn a momentum not matched by its moderate rivals.2 As Ernest Gellner noted the peasant is not as prone to zealotry as the city dweller, and in rural societies it has been the historical norm for a cruder Islam to co-exist with tribal-pagan superstitions which tempers the kind of literalism dominant in the urban centres. The Folk Islam Gellner alluded to is a Durkheimian religion, which sacralises and reinforces the social order. In societies experiencing the deracination and anomie which the passage to modernity entails however, religion is no longer experienced as a living ritualized faith anchored in a native tradition but as a rarefied ideology: an Oakeshottian ‘crib’ for uprooted mass man. For displaced rural migrants, and other déclassé groups the ability of Islamism to provide a portable blueprint for a social order is its greatest pull – the total solution for the tortally atomized, an opium of the masses for the 21st century. The shot in the arm militant Islam is experiencing is experiencing across the world is in large measure a function of the kind of seismic social changes which first peaked in Iran, and are now being replicated across the Middle East.3
As even a cursory glance at inter-generational differences in Islamic countries makes clear the future of Islam in these circumstances is decidedly more homogeneous than Buruma allows for – a Saudi influenced Salafist ideology becoming prevalent even in non-Arab societies where a fairly loose fitting Sufism is the ancestral faith.4 Liberal commentators with woolly historical; perspectives are frequently to be heard pontificating about the reformation which Islam needs to undergo (needless to say they do not please many Muslims with this condescension) without seemingly understanding the very Protestant and ultra modern characteristics of Salafism – its literalism, justification by faith, pronounced antipathy to pagan superstitions and traditional clerical intermediaries make it the ideal candidate. (Tariq Ramadan has even been referred to as the Muslim Martin Luther). Pre-Reformation Islam looks like a good problem to have.
Islamic militancy moreover has strong cultural cachet. If piety is a byword for primitivism amongst European professionals, it represents the height of urban sophistication for their counterparts in the Middle East where one could at times be forgiven for assuming engineering or science degree is an infallible predictor of Salafist tendencies. Anyone exchanging the traditional Sufism of his illiterate parents for the puritanism of the Muslim Brotherhood acquires a dignity and status which moderate folk religions can no longer provide. This is a strong social base by any measure, and it is not going to weaken any time soon.
If the appeal and functional importance of such a creed in the rapidly changing societies of the Middle East is a matter of record, it should come as no surprise that it has proved particularly attractive to the children of Muslim immigrants in the west, torn between suffocating tradition and the myriad temptations of western hedonism. Liberal critics of the push towards greater assimilation by Muslims in western societies are fond of pointing out that so many of the jihadists from the UK are impeccably integrated and led westernized lives, which is in a sense precisely the problem. The danger lies in what they have been assimilating to – a cultural void which eschews any notion of a common good or hierarchy of values. This is a world view for the spineless and the dilemma it poses for the post-Christian and post-moral societies of Europe was expressed in acute form during the trial of Bouriki Bouchta by the Italian authorities. An immigrant from Morocco who arrived in Italy in the eighties, Bouchta quickly established himself as an imam in Turin where he turned the Porta Palazzo Torino Mosque into a jihad staging post for Bosnia. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Bouchta achieved national notoriety when he appeared on Italian national TV praising Osama Bin Laden and calling for an ‘end to the West’, before for good measure burning the flag of his adopted country. When Bouchta’s lawyers challenged his deportation, they argued convincingly his behavior was fairly typical of the mainstream Italian Left; he had in other words assimilated only too well. It is difficult not to read civilizational metaphors into this.
In their earnest pursuit of a moderate Islam, moreover, western policy makers are simply playing to an extremist narrative. Islamists popularly rest their strength on being the total solution to all of man’s needs, and in order to avoid the clash of civilizations in which Salfists have invested so much capital, it might have been thought prudent to challenge the notion of unitary exclusive identities which underpins it. Western governments have opted however to pre-empt this question of loyalties by organizing Muslims into official religious-communal bodies and define Muslims exclusively through their religious identities, in the process neatly reversing that transition from status to contract which Henry Maine described as the master trend of modern society, and inaugurating what the German jurist Udo di Fabio has called a New Middle Ages, in which ‘the model is not the human individual but the harmonious ordering of groups’. Civil society has been weakened at a time when it needs to be strengthened. In the predictable corporate arrangements that grew out of this the ominous search for ‘community representatives’ it was pre-ordained that Islamists would gain a clean sweep, though it is remarkable how little confirmation the mainstream media gives to this blanket Islamisation. To take just a few representative examples, the American Council for American Islamic Relations, the Muslim Council of Britain (UK), the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UIOF) in France, the Commission Islamica in Spain, and the Executive Musselman in Belgium are all Muslim Brotherhood Fronts who have been accorded a determining role in ‘community engagement’ and policy planning.
Much of the impetus needless to say has come from the storm clouds of what in France at least has now officially been recognized as an intifada, a slow burn of communalist violence or the threat of it leading in the first instance to negotiation with ‘community leaders’ as an attempt to draw the sting of Islamist agitation, and ending by conceding the substance of their demands.
In France, Sarkozy’s highly choreographed tough talking notwithstanding, the most important long run effect of the former President’s handling of the banlieue riots has been the strengthening of the position of ‘basement Imams’ who have long aspired to usurp the authority of the French state in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods, and have since been accorded unprecedented influence in return for a dampening of social unrest. This virtual abdication of the states monopoly on lawful coercion to the Muslim Brotherhood, elicited vehement protests from the Socialist Mayor of Nantes who accused Sarkozy of ‘promoting religious organisations to a role as mediators in the daily life of housing projects’. There is a remorseless logic to this concession to barbarism, which is given an added piquancy by France’s Vichy legacy, but it is in the UK, with its much vaunted counter-insurgency experience that this kind of amoral pragmatism most ostentatiously masquerades as statesmanship.
As the insipid cliché of the Northern Ireland peace process had it, if you’re not part of the problem you’re not part of the solution and just as the constitutionally minded Nationalists in Ulster were eclipsed by a terrorist political front, the Salafists have stolen a march on their moderate rivals in societies which prize peace as the ultimate value. Whilst Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit, Bob Lambert, with his cultivation of hardline Salafist groups like the Muslim Association of Britain, typified the preference of securocrats for engaging with extremists who were thought plausibly enough to have more credibility with would be suicide bombers. One can understand the calculation though it is not without its risks – as the Metropolitan Police found when it belatedly realised its chief adviser, Mohamed Ali Harrath, was on an Interpol list for wanted terrorists, and Lambert himself, sailed pretty close to the wind. Though his ousting of Abu Hamza and al-Muhajiroun from their control of Finsbury Park mosque is endlessly trotted out as a vindication of this strategy, his King-making allies the MAB were simply another group of Qutbist Jew haters with documented links with Hamas. This is the grim harvest you reap when your mission is defined as combatting the methods by which extremism is consolidated rather than its substance, and it is a mark of how prevalent the Vichy syndrome is in Europe that so few find this logic sinister. Giving something peacefully before it is extracted violently used to be considered a shameful act of appeasement, but were it not for the serial episodes of misspeaking by officially endorsed Islamists, the British Government would have felt free to pile up these pyrrhic victories.
In 2009, the justification by the Muslim Council of Britain’s deputy General Secretary Daud Abdullah of attacks on British troops enforcing the Gaza blockade,5 finally prompted the British Government to rethink its strategy, and selected the Quiliam Foundation as its preferred partner for implementing its counter-radicalisation strategy. Comprised in the main of disgruntled former Jihadists such as Ed Hussein, the acclaimed author of The Islamist, and Maajid Nawaz., the Foundation puts its best moderate face on British Islam and ticks the standard Whitehall boxes for promoting social inclusion in return for substantial Government funding. The results to date have been predictably meager. If Labour had stayed in power there is a distinct possibility that MCB sympathisers such as Jack Straw, and John Denham would have brokered a rapprochement, and even its strongest supporters in the Coalition government have been compelled to reflect on its negligible return on investment. The problem moreover lies less in the project’s execution than in its underlying premiss. In an exchange with Bob Lambert, now sinisterly ensconced in a pseudo-academic department of Exeter University, the Muslim Research Centre funded by the Cordoba Foundation (you guessed it, another Muslim Brotherhood Front with connections to terrorism6), Maajid Nawaz inadvertently conceded the self-defeating logic of this ‘moderate Muslim strategy'. Responding to Lambert’s grindingly monotonous eulogies on behalf of what he preposterously insists on calling moderate Islamists, Majid made an eloquent case for a non-sectarian culture, in which confessional differences are softened by a vigorous civil society.
My identity is made up of more than my faith alone, I am a proud Muslim, but I am also a liberal, a Briton, a Pakistani, a Londoner, a father, a product of the globalised world who speaks English, Arabic and Urdu. And yes, I am even an Essex boy, with a distinct gait. Just as we refuse to be viewed solely through the narrow lens of "terrorism", so we should refuse to be viewed only as Muslims.
It is impossible to fault the sentiments, but they are as redundant as they are admirable. To the extent that Muslims like Majid are happy to receive everything as citizens and nothing as Muslims they are hardly an audience which needs reaching by a confessionally organized political body, and the very fact that the Quilliam Foundation still feels compelled to justify their support of democratic principles in theological terms simply emphasizes the primacy of Islam as the primary integrating loyalty. This is not that different in essence from Tariq Ramadan’s approach to securing Muslim loyalty to western societies, and it is probably no coincidence that Quiliam Foundation soon softened their liberal credentials – Ed Hussein for example betrays the same obsessive fixation with Israel and the Zionist entity of his apparent adversaries, and its self styled moderation has not deterred the Quilliam Foundation from forging close links with the Council on American Islamic Relations whose positions are indistinguishable from its British Muslim Brotherhood sibling the MCB. In his conflicted riposte to Lambert, Maajid nevertheless raises a question of ultimate loyalties and the answer cannot be postponed indefinitely.
 Minus the frenzy, this would indicate some kind of promethean drive which is entirely absent from the sclerotic low-innovation welfare addled economies of Europe. As Ayn Rand might have put it; the capitalism of Last Men.
 To take a typical example the works of Omar Kayamm are either banned or shunned as blasphemous in much of the Islamic world, and were becoming haram even in the eighteenth century. That we have knowledge of beautiful works such as The Rubáiyát is largely due to Orientalists like William Jones who saved these treasures from a Wahhabi driven puritanism that was transforming Islam in the Indian subcontinent.
 An obvious example – the very notion of an Islamic state and laws covering a territorial state would have been inconceivable to ancient jurists. Similarly the Qutbist notion that the world can be purified by spectacular acts of violence owes more to 19th century anarchist and nihilist traditions than traditional Islam.
 A telling example of this homogenization of faith on a Saudi template is the ubiquity of the veil in countries where it has zero cultural antecedents and a politicization of this issue to carve out a separate public sphere in western societies where the manifestation of religious identity in public institutions is frowned upon when not expressly prohibited.
 Despite overwhelming opposition to the Gulf and Afghan war, there is nevertheless in Britain, a kind of sickly sentimentality about our boys in uniform, which is mainifested in a ‘Dianesque’ recreational grieving at military funeral processions. The thought that supporting the wars might honour their sacrifices of these brave young men is clearly lost on them. This is collective self-indulgence not patriotism.
 The corruption of the British higher education system by Saudi and other Salafist sources of funding is a depressing subject covered exhaustively in the Centre for Social Cohesion’s Report A Degree of Influence.
The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.
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