The Internal Threat

The New York Sun,September 2007

In 1995, having read Olivier Roy’s The Failure of Political Islam (1992), Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes asked, “How can someone who knows so much be so completely wrong?” Mr. Roy’s latest work, Secularism Confronts Islam, prompts the very same question. It is a remarkable book: articulate, original, lucid, without a paragraph that fails to contain an interesting thought. It is clearly the product of a wide-ranging intelligence in possession of a refined analytic sensibility, a first-rate historical education and a generous spirit. And one wonders how someone who knows so much could have written it.

The book’s title, “Laïcité face à l’Islam,” has been translated as “Secularism Confronts Islam,” but the book’s argument rests upon the distinction Roy draws — an important one — between laïcité, a French concept involving the legal relegation of religion to a narrow and circumscribed sphere, and secularization, a broader social phenomenon that occurs when religion ceases to be at the center of human life. Although the translated title does not fully reflect this, Mr. Roy is concerned to demonstrate that contrary to received wisdom, there is no inherent incompatibility between Islam and laïcité, and that Islamic extremism does not emerge inherently from the Islamic tradition, but is instead a reaction to secularization.

Mr. Roy begins by noting that many have asked whether Islam is compatible with the West. To this he replies that the question itself is improperly formed, for it rests upon the view that there is but one Islam and one West. He is right to remind us of this, for it is true that both the West and Islam are complicated things. Yet it is also true that the word “chair” may be defined in thousands of ways. That doesn’t mean that I am not sitting on one right now. It is possible to define almost any problem out of existence, but it is not necessarily useful to do so.

If there is such a thing as the West, Mr. Roy continues, are its values Christian or secular? And which of these make it distinctly Western? Here he replies — again, accurately — that Western secularization arrived via multiple paths, all of them religious. If it is often said that Islam is in need of a Reformation, it is also often forgotten that Catholics were secularized without one.

Criticism of contemporary Islam, he observes, unites two intellectual families that have hitherto been opposed, the Christian right and the secular left. Both argue that Islam is inherently incompatible with laïcité. But if Christianity can be reconciled with laïcité, he asks, why not Islam? The critics’ arguments, he says, fall under two categories. The first is that the separation of religion and politics is theologically irreconcilable with Islam; the second is that Islam is more than a religion, it is a culture. Both arguments he dismisses. It is not true that Christians have always accepted laïcité, he remarks; from Gregory the Great to Calvin, the history of Christianity is replete with examples of its attempts to exert political control. About this he is absolutely correct, as any student of the Investiture Controversy will agree. The emergence of laïcité in France, he notes, was a political solution to a political conflict. The theological justification for accepting laïcité — the emphasis upon rendering Caesar his due — achieved prominence after the political settlement. Mr. Roy concludes, therefore, that it is theoretically possible that Islamic authorities can accept laïcité, for to say that there is only one proper way to interpret the Koran is to accept precisely the formulation of Islamic extremists.

This is a valid argument, and a useful corrective to lunatics on the extreme of the debate who argue that there never has been and never will be a moderate Muslim. It is also largely irrelevant. Islamic moderates don’t pose a problem for the West, but Islamic extremists do. I am happy to accept that Islamic moderates exist; I will even accept for the sake of argument that they are the majority. But, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, it takes only a few extremists to do an immense amount of damage. And as it happens, there are a lot of extremists.

Likewise, Mr. Roy rejects the argument that Islam is incompatible with the West because its roots lie in Arab culture. Islamic fundamentalism, he argues, emerges not from traditional Arab cultures but from the challenge posed by Western secularism to these traditional cultures. Far from being a uniquely Arab — or Islamic — phenomenon, religious fundamentalism is a global reaction to the marginalization of religion in human life. This section of the book is extraordinarily interesting and in some ways correct; certainly, there are important European influences on modern Islamist thought, and yes, Mohammed Bouyeri, the murderer of Theo van Gogh, is a perfect exemplar of the deracinated extremist he describes. Yet it is also incomplete: Islamic extremism may have taken on new forms in the past century, but it is hardly without historic roots that have a uniquely Arabic cast. It is also, again, irrelevant. The similarities between Islamic and Christian fundamentalism are sociologically interesting, but it is the differences between them with which critics are rightly concerned.

At this point Mr. Roy’s analytic acumen fails him. If Islamic fundamentalism and various Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms originate from the same sociological Petri dish and share certain characteristics, why, he asks, are we concerned with the former but not the latter? Is it not obvious, he argues, that it is not religious dogma with which we are au fond preoccupied, but rather immigration and race?

How can someone so smart, so obviously capable of drawing subtle distinctions when he is so inclined, even come to ask this question? The rejoinder may be found — to take but one example — in Fritz Gelowicz. and Daniel Schneider, the native-born German Muslims who earlier this month were arrested in possession of detonators and 730 kilograms of bomb-making chemicals. According to German security officials, they planned to use these to perpetrate outrages on German soil dwarfing in scale those of Madrid and London. Mr. Gelowicz and Mr. Sschneider are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are not immigrants, and furthermore, they are white.

“Disquiet in the face of Islam is real in all Western countries,” Mr. Roy writes, but “we reject Islam for very different reasons. For example, the veil is a focus of French rejection but causes no problems in Great Britain, which, in contrast, prohibits the ritual slaughter of animals.” For Roy, this is not merely a cultural curiosity. “The reaction against Islam is formulated very differently from one European country to the next, which means that, taken one by one, the elements that seem incompatible between Islam and the West … are not really so.” Does he really think the reader will fail to notice what he has left out? There is one concern absolutely common to all Western countries threatened by radical Islam, and it is the main concern. That concern is violence committed in the name of Islam and committed on a mass scale. That concern is an ideology whose express aim is to destroy Western civilization in an age of asymmetrical warfare. That concern is embodied by Fritz G. and Daniel S.

This is the issue around which this debate truly revolves — not hallal meat, not arranged marriage, not even the veil. The West, I expect, could make its peace with all of those practices. But it cannot make peace, quite literally, with those who would make war against it.

France, Mr. Roy suggests, should be unconcerned with the dogma embraced by even the most extreme French Islamists so long as they obey the law. But this is precisely the problem: They don’t.

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