The Question Of Islam

by Theodore Dalrymple (Aug. 2007)

It is the best of faiths, it is the worst of faiths. It is the faith of tolerance, it is the faith of hate. Opinions of Islam in the world could hardly be more diverse or more opposed.
However many times one hears it said that Islam is not a unitary phenomenon – that the Sufis are as different from the Salafists as chalk is from cheese – almost everyone, after pronouncing this caveat, proceeds to speak or to write as if Islam were a unitary phenomenon. This is the great achievement of the Islamists: they have turned the nastiest imaginable form of their religion into the only one that counts for non-Moslems – and for an increasing number of Moslems too. It is as if the Spanish Inquisition had been made the sole legitimate representative (to use the cant term of the 1960s and 70s) of Christianity.

The claims that Islam has in its history been religiously tolerant are difficult to disentangle in an honest fashion. Without an axe to grind, you would hardly even consider the question. Islam is a religion but Moslems are people, and their conduct may not always have been what religious enthusiasts would have wanted them to be, or believed were religiously required. Then again, what is religiously required has been a matter of dispute: and extremism has not always prevailed over pragmatism.
Perhaps I should start with a personal experience. Not long ago in Istanbul, I bought something in a shop owned by a Jewish family. The language in which I spoke to the proprietor was Spanish: he was of the last generation that spoke Ladino, the mediaeval Spanish that the Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula brought with them to Istanbul and spoke for half a millennium there. The language was dying out, but not because of any persecution: the young, obsessed with the fripperies of modernity, were no longer interested in maintaining the tradition (so much the worse for them, of course).
I discussed history a little with the proprietor. He felt nothing but affection for and gratitude to Turkey: for the Jews there had suffered nothing like what they had suffered in Croatia or Salonika, that is to say extermination. As for the near-extermination of the Armenians by the Turks, it occurred precisely as the Ottoman empire was remodelling itself along European nationalist lines. It was secularisation, not religious fanaticism, that led to this most appalling episode.
Now let me turn to a book published last year in France, entitled Les trios exils, The Three Exiles, by Benjamin Stora. This book illustrates and answers the question with the greatest clarity.
Professor Stora was an Algerian Jew who moved to France at independence in 1962. In his beautiful book, he recounts both his family history and that of the Jews in Algeria, whose two thousand year presence in the country (or perhaps I should say part of the world) ended definitively in the year that the author himself left.
For about two thirds of their history in Algeria, the Jews lived under a Moslem dispensation. They were, of course, dhimmis, but at various times some among them achieved great prominence in the government, such as it was. When Europeans in the sixteenth century mounted invasions of Algeria and Morocco, the Jews helped to repel it, both because they thought it was destined to fail and because they thought they were better off as dhimmis than under European rule. Indeed, the Jews of the Maghreb commemorated these events annually in what was called the Purim Kettanim.
They were nevertheless subject to violence, persecutions and discrimination; in 1805, 48 Jews were murdered in Algeria in a pogrom, and in the following year 300. European and American travellers of the first third of the nineteenth century remarked on the wretchedness the Jewish populations of the Maghreb, and the exactions to which they were constantly subject.
Then came the French occupation of Algeria, and the start of the long process of westernisation of the Algerian Jews. (There are photographs in Stora’s book, showing the change from Turkish to western costume, complete, irreversible and universal by 1938, though 1914 half of his family had still posed in Turkish costume.)
Napoleon III considered granting French citizenship to all Algerian Jews, but was overthrown before he could do so; one of the first acts of the new Third Republic, however, was the Cremieux Decree, which turned all Algerian Jews into French citizens.
Here was a reversal of fortune indeed: the Jews went from being dhimmis, that is to say second-rate citizens, to being first-rate citizens, while at the same time the Moslems went from being, if not first-rate citizens in the western sense, at least top dog to underdog.
But the colonial French were not altogether delighted by the Cremieux Decree. In the years that followed it, French anti-Semitism reached one of its apogees, and the Algerian French (the majority of whom were actually of Spanish and Italian origin, and were therefore somewhat insecure in their own citizenship) were in this respect more catholic than the pope. In the 1900s, there was a pogrom carried out against the Jews, not by the Algerian Moslems, but by the colons. Their complaints against the Jews were the usual ones.
The prevalence and virulence of French colonial anti-Semitism notwithstanding, there was also room for outbursts of Algerian resentment against the Jews, and in 1934 there was a pogrom in the city of Constantine carried out by a large Moslem mob. That it was an organised and not a spontaneous affair is suggested by the fact that there were simultaneous attacks on villages in the hinterland, not normally in intimate contact with the city. Some Moslems behaved with great ethical courage, however, in protecting their Jewish neighbours (the author of a book about the pogrom, Robert Attal, owed his life to one such, who told the rampaging mob that the young Robert, his mother and sister, whom he had hidden in his house, were already dead, and the mob, who had already killed Robert’s father, were satisfied and went away). As for the colonial police, they failed to restore order until it was too late.
With the defeat of France, a Petainiste regime was instituted in Algeria, which reversed the Cremiuex Decree: that is to say, the Jews became not merely second-rate, but nth-rate citizens. That regime lasted until the liberation, when they became first rate citizens again, in contradistinction to the Moslem Algerians. This was truly a dizzying historical trajectory.
Nor was it quite over. The nationalist movement gained strength, and the violence increased enormously; a million people were eventually killed. Officially, the FLN, the Front National de Liberation, was a secular movement; it appealed to Algerian Jews to join the struggle against the French, and promised them equal treatment after independence. However, the Algerian Jews did not believe it, for they had the examples of other Jews in other Arab countries before them; the famous Jewish-Algerian singer, Raymond, was assassinated in 1961, and Moslem attacks on Jews increased; the Jews naturally thought that the Moslem tradition would prevail over the secular nationalist ideology, and in 1962 they left en masse for France. If they had not, it is not difficult to imagine their fate in the civil war waged between the military government and the FIS, the Front Islamique de Salut. 
But what is the moral of this history, if there is one? It is certainly not one of the immemorial goodness and tolerance of the western tradition and the immemorial wickedness and intolerance of the Islamic one. I suppose a Martian, on reading this story, might come to the conclusion that human beings were a bad lot, and that he had better leave Earth as soon as possible.
But there is another moral to the story, and I do not think it is one that is encouraging about Islam as a force in the modern world. For many centuries, the record of Islam was probably no worse, and might even have been better, than the western one, at least in point of religious tolerance (the Jews of the Maghreb in the Sixteenth Century certainly thought so). Unfortunately, this is a pretty dismal standard to measure anything by. There was, in fact, plenty of room for the Islamic record to be as good as or better than the western one, and still be very bad. Between dhimmitude and death, who would not choose dhimmitude? But that is not to say it was an enviable or morally defensible fate.
By 1962, however, things were very clear: for Algerian Jews, France, its chequered record notwithstanding, offered hope for the future and equality under the law, while Algeria offered the prospect of future pogroms, the promises of its leadership notwithstanding. And there was a reason for this: while France had a theory of legal equality, Islam did not. And the Jews of Algeria thought that the hold of Islam over the pays réel would more outweigh the hold of secular nationalist ideology of the pays légal. The former, and not the latter, would determine their fate in Algeria. They did not believe the promises of the FLN, not because the individuals who made them were insincere, but because the forces against their being kept were simply too strong.
This suggests that there is a conflict between Islam and modernity, at least if one of the important components of modernity is equality under the law. Such equality means that Moslems would have to accept that, even in polities where they were in the immense majority, Islam would have no special claim to consideration, and that (for example) apostasy would have to become a normal and acceptable part of life. Whether, under these circumstances, Islam would remain truly Islamic is a question for scholars, not for scribblers such as I.
Personally, I doubt whether the auguries are good. When the now-president Sarkozy asked the second-hand car salesman of Islamic fundamentalism, Tariq Ramadan, whether he believed in the stoning of adulterers (that is to say, not doubt, of the majority of French politicians or their wives), he replied that he was in favour of a moratorium.
A moratorium, indeed! The dilemma is this: if the answer is no, that we are no longer in favour of the lapidation of adulterers, any more than we are in favour of burying them up to their necks in sand and letting the sun and the ants do the rest, then the injunctions of our religion are not eternal truths, and the whole of its sacred basis must be questioned; if the answer is yes, that we are in favour of the lapidation of adulterers, as an example of the merciful correction of wrongdoers to be expected of the righteous, then we reveal ourselves as primitives unfit for the modern world. Islam is not the only religion about which such questions might be raised; but it is the only one that has not made a concerted attempt to deal with them (and its decentralisation, or lack of structure, makes it difficult for it to do so).
The question of adultery is a much less important one than that of apostasy, of course, because if open apostasy were allowed, who knows where it would end? In all likelihood in the secular society, complete with music and dancing, that so appalls Moslem fundamentalists (and which in truth does have unpleasant aspects but which, taken all in all, is the best we can, or at any rate do, hope for).
In other words, the moral of Professor Stora’s book is that Islam, whatever its past glories, achievements, strengths and even tolerance by comparison with extremely low standards prevailing at different times elsewhere, has no means as yet of dealing with the modern world in a constructive fashion, and perhaps (though here it is impossible to be dogmatic) never can have such a means without falling apart entirely. I leave it to the experts to decide.       

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