By Richard Landes Religion Last updated: August 17th, 2011
Islam displays its honour-shame sensibilities
Politeness is not saying certain things lest there be violence; civility is being able to say those certain things and there won’t be violence.
A recent series of polls indicate that European public opinion is substantially concerned by the increasingly aggressive Islam that their substantial immigrant populations have taken to expressing. To quote Soeren Kern, Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Strategic Studies Group:
|The findings – which come as Europeans are waking up to the consequences of decades of mass immigration from Muslim countries – point to a growing disconnect between European voters and their political masters regarding multicultural policies that encourage Muslim immigrants to remain segregated rather than become integrated into their host nations.|
The survey results mirror the findings of dozens of other recent polls. Taken together, they provide ample empirical evidence that scepticism about Muslim immigration is not limited to a “right-wing” political fringe, as proponents of multiculturalism often assert. Mainstream voters across the entire political spectrum are now expressing concerns about the role of Islam in Europe.
The disconnect referred to in the article constitutes one of the most worrying developments in Western culture over the last decade: between a elite that controls much of the discussion in the public sphere (journalists, academics, talking heads, mainstream politicians) and who fear being called Islamophobes and racists more than they fear Islamist racists, and a population of people who, whenever they voice concern about the behavior of the Muslim neighbors, are told not to be Islamophobic racists. The problems are knotty and painful to disentangle. Here’s my outline of an approach. (For a longer version of the following essay, see my blog, The Augean Stables.)
Honour-shame and Islamism:
In an honour culture, it is legitimate, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honour, to save face, to redeem the dishonoured face. Public criticism is an assault on the very “face” of the person criticised. Thus, people in such cultures are careful to be “polite”; and a genuinely free press is impossible, no matter what the laws proclaim.
Modernity, however, is based on a free public discussion, on civility rather than politeness, but the benefits of this public self-criticism – sharp learning curves, advances in science and technology, economic development, democracy – make that pain worthwhile.
But such a system represents a crucible of humiliation for alpha males, especially those who believe that the social order depends on the honour of ruling elite, like the anti-Dreyfusards around 1900, ready to sacrifice a single man for the honour of Army and Church.
This is particularly true for Islamic religious culture. In Dar al Islam, a Muslim’s contradiction/criticism of Islam was punishable by death, a fortiori did this hold true for infidels. Modernity has been a Nakba (psychological catastrophe) for Islam, and Islam in all its variegated currents has yet to successfully negotiate these demands of modernity.
On the contrary, the loudest voices in contemporary Islam reject vehemently the kind of self-criticism modernity requires. Criticism constitutes an unbearable assault on the manhood of Muslims.
Indeed, global Jihad and the apocalyptic prophets who nourish it with genocidal rhetoric, represent a particularly virulent form of abreactive modernity, in which the powers of modern society (especially technology) are turned to the task of destroying a modern culture of public, free debate about what is fair.
Secularism demands more maturity, it requires that religions be civil, that they not use force (the state) to impose their beliefs on others. Religious communities have to give up their need to be visibly superior as a sign of being right/true. This involves high levels of both self-confidence and tolerance for public contradiction.
For Islam this is a particularly difficult challenge. For Islam’s formative period, it dominated. Dhimma laws spelled out the principles: infidels were “protected” from violence and death at the hands of Muslims as long as they accepted a visibly humiliating, inferiority. And among the key demands made on dhimmis, was that they not challenge, criticise, or in any way “insult” Islam or Muslims.
Contemporary manifestations of Islamic revival tend to handle the infidel “other” poorly. The peril to contemporary Christians and Jews in Muslim majority nations is mirrored in the behavior of Muslims in the expanding European enclaves, those zones urbaines sensibles, or Sharia zones, where the state’s writ no longer runs.
Thus, Islam’s – Muslims – relationship with the “other” (kufr, infidel, lit. one who covers [the truth]), is the great problem to resolve in this coming generation, and at the heart of that problem lies the ability of Muslims to tolerate criticism from outsiders.
We in the modern (and post-modern) West, who first forged these remarkable rules of self-restraint and created so rich, so variegated, so tolerant a culture, have a right to demand that Islam adopt these rules, certainly those who live in and benefit from the civil polities we have created. Indeed, if we treasure these values of tolerance, and freedom, and generosity towards the “other,” we owe it to ourselves and to the Muslims in our midst, to make this demand. Anything else, including the fantasy that this is not a problem, is cultural suicide.
And yet, so far, we are doing very badly, mostly because we avoid dealing with the problem. The “thin skin” of Muslims is proverbial, and much public, diplomatic, and even academic discourse tacitly acknowledges and placates that cultural reality. When Western positive-sum principles (we do everything we can to “get to yes,” win-win) meets Arab zero-sum principles (they can only win, if we lose), we most often lose (Oslo “Peace” Process).
In the last decade this has gotten much worse. The behaviour of the self-identified “progressive” “left” – traditionally the bastion of stinging public criticism of abuse of power, misogyny and belligerence – has been overwhelmingly placatory towards touchy Muslims. Repeatedly, as in the case of Pope Benedict, they step in to prevent anyone (fellow infidels), whom they smear as Islamophobes, from saying something that might bruise Muslims feelings. Indeed, they seem more worried about “us” provoking Muslim violence than about exploring the sources of Muslim violence. And often they attack those defending democratic principles with a shrill and contemptuous tone that they would never dream of using with Muslims.
Which brings us back to the “disconnect.” Our journalist and academic talking heads are subject to a different kind of Islamophobia: an inordinate fear of criticising Islam. And as a result they betray their own real constituencies, those of us committed to the rules civil polities. We cannot defend modern, tolerant, liberal political culture with such fearful people dominating the public sphere.