The European Dilemma

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Free Press, 368 pages, $26.00)

Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma (Penguin, 288 pages, $24.95)

The world came to know Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a result of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, with whom she had collaborated on a film holding Islam responsible for the battering and humiliation of Muslim women. In November 2004, a Moroccan Dutch Islamist named Mohammed Bouyeri shot van Gogh in a street in Amsterdam, slit his throat, and pinned to his body a death threat against Hirsi Ali, who was already a highly visible member of the Dutch parliament despite having arrived in the Netherlands as a Somali immigrant only 12 years earlier. Now living in the United States, she has been alternately celebrated and excoriated on both sides of the Atlantic as an uncompromising critic not only of Islam but also of multiculturalism, which she contends is mistakenly tolerant of the Muslim world's endemic benightedness and cruelty.

Bouyeri's murder of van Gogh and the emergence of Hirsi Ali as a magnetically appealing and inflammatory inter-national celebrity have crystallized a debate among liberally minded Europeans about what their societies ought to do in response to the growth of poorly assimilated Islamic immigrant communities. In contrast to those who call for tolerance of religious and cultural diversity, Hirsi Ali urges Europe to launch a frontal assault on Islam's seemingly inherent misogyny.

Hirsi Ali argues that the fable of the Prophet Muhammad's infallibility keeps alive an outmoded warrior ethos characteristic of a 7th-century Arab tribal culture and consequently authorizes both violence against women and the punishment of apostates with death. In Hirsi Ali's view, adherence to "true Islam" is "irreconcilable with a secular liberal state," and even incompatible with a willingness to share the planet with non-Muslims. She interprets the events of September 11, which triggered the loss of her residual faith in the existence of God, as an authentic expression of Islam. And today her political mission is to cajole Europe's Muslim immigrants into reforming what she provocatively calls their "backward" religion.

Two new books, Hirsi Ali's memoir, Infidel, and Murder in Amsterdam, by the Dutch English writer Ian Buruma, help us make sense of the events in the Netherlands and the wider controversy over Islam in Europe. Through a series of character sketches, Buruma's book circles outward from the murder of van Gogh and provides a novelistic exploration (Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent comes to mind) of how Holland, once virtually a "playground of multi-cultural utopianism," turned into a savage crime scene.

Bouyeri himself appears as a radical loser on welfare, one of those "desperadoes who imagine themselves as part of a small elite, blessed with moral purity, surrounded by a world of evil." In their film Submission, van Gogh and Hirsi Ali had shown verses from the Koran justifying misogynist violence projected onto a female body, implying that religious texts impel Muslim men to "write" male superiority on women in the language of wounds and bruises. Bouyeri was apparently responding to this film when he "wrote" Islamic superiority on van Gogh's body by pinning to it the death threat against Hirsi Ali.

Bouyeri and Hirsi Ali, Buruma remarks, represent "two different visions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious." Whereas the young Dutch Moroccan man wants to awaken the sleeping Muslims, the young Dutch Somali woman wants to awaken the sleeping Europeans. In exploring such parallel lives, Buruma is not being impartial toward a murderer and his real and potential victims, as some intemperate critics have recently alleged; he is simply trying to make sense of these and other psychologically complex, often tortured, characters.

Hirsi Ali's Infidel is the vivid story of her own voyage to escape bigotry and violence, moving "from the world of faith to the world of reason," as she came to see it. Instead of fantasizing, like Bouyeri, about a super-harsh father figure (Allah) who could humiliate the proud West, she fled to Europe to escape her real father's stifling demands. And whereas Bouyeri came to see the West as frustration and Islam as salvation, she came to view Islam as a cage and the West as liberation.

The daughter of a Somali resistance fighter, Hirsi Ali was brought up partly in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Ethiopia -- an itinerant life that exposed her to many varieties of cultural prejudice and loosened the hold of the parochial customs of her native land. Although she claims to have become an ardent individualist and a believer in personal responsibility, she does not seem to blame her grandmother for inflicting genital mutilation on her when she was 6 years old, viewing this bit of primitive cruelty as the action not of her grandmother, really, but of the premodern culture that inhabited most Somali women of her grandmother's generation.

When Hirsi Ali arrived in Europe, escaping an arranged marriage and thereby breaking dramatically with her father, she was shocked to experience firsthand the gaping divide between Islamic and non-Islamic societies. To her, the most obvious difference was that the so-called House of War (the nonbelieving West) was not "soulless," as she had been warned, but prosperous, welcoming, and basically at peace, whereas the House of Islam remains mired in poverty, cruelty, inequality, and bloody conflict.

Although her decision to run away was wholly individualistic (inspired, she says, by the romantic heroines of "trashy" novels), she managed to survive thanks largely to the collectivist efforts of a Dutch welfare state that generously granted food, shelter, and a temporary stipend to an unknown runaway from Africa. This palpable dependency of individual freedom on social resources managed by a government provides a lesson that might usefully be contemplated by her free-market colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, where she currently works.

For Hirsi Ali, the supremacy of reason means that a Muslim woman today who is told to subject her 6-year-old daughter to genital excision should not kneel before authority, but rather use her own head and ask if this is really a good idea. Hirsi Ali says her aim is to find "other women held captive in the compound of irrationality and superstition" and convince them "to take their lives into their own hands." To this end, she speaks passionately about the dark side of multiculturalism, which she believes has "reinforced the immigrants' urge to build enclaves." And she argues fiercely against the idea of "elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life." This tolerance, she contends, will needlessly and painfully prolong the transition to modernity in immigrant communities. To those who warn that her uncompromising attitude risks alienating a potentially receptive audience, she retorts that secular liberals who express chronic uncertainty about the superiority of their own ideals will never compete successfully with religious extremists for influence over the minds of confused young European Muslims. It is simply incoherent, she argues, to affirm both the freedom of the individual from traditional authority and the right of immigrant subcultures to smother individuality (especially of women) in the name of traditional authority.

Buruma, for his part, disapproves of European politicians who pretend that Muslim immigration is not a problem and refuse to discuss high crime rates in Muslim communities. He agrees, as a matter of principle, with much of what Hirsi Ali stands for. While he too thinks that it is futile to speak sweet reason to inflamed zealots, and that the sexual mutilation of children and honor killings cannot be justified religiously or in any other way and should be punished as crimes, he disagrees both with Hirsi Ali's most rhetorically prominent explanation of the problem and her recommendation for what to do about it.

What causes violent extremism? Hirsi Ali focuses attention on Islam itself, with its premodern worldview seemingly frozen in its unalterable sacred texts. Buruma answers plausibly that the Koran didn't cause Bouyeri to kill van Gogh any more than Das Kapital caused Stalin to create the Gulag. Honor killings, forced marriages, and female genital mutilation are the vestiges of rural, village, and tribal culture, not of Islam per se.

Moreover, Buruma argues, young Berber men from the Rif Mountains in Morocco, if compelled to transit practically overnight from a strictly regulated society to a freer and more open one, may suffer a partial disintegration of personality, causing them to clutch at certainties and to attribute their inner torment to a scapegoat such as "the West." To state flatly, as Hirsi Ali sometimes does, that a radical interpretation of Islam causes extremist violence is to ignore plentiful evidence that young immigrants whose ambitions are blocked are drawn to radical interpretations of Islam that promise to make sense of their existential rage, suggesting that Islamist beliefs are as much a symptom as a cause.

Why have many Islamic immigrants failed to integrate successfully in countries such as Holland? Hirsi Ali focuses on postcolonial guilt, moral relativism, and the melting away of European self-confidence. Pim Fortuyn -- the anti-immigrant gay Dutch political leader who was assassinated by a non-Muslim in May 2002 -- held much the same view, declaring that the Dutch had become "too tolerant of intolerance." Buruma answers that technology, especially the satellite TV that beams Arabic- and Turkish-language programming into immigrant neighborhoods, has as much to do with the failure of integration as the purportedly excessive tolerance of Europeans toward Muslims. Persuading European authorities to become less hospitable toward Islamic practices that violate elemental principles of Western individualism will do nothing to reverse the revolution in global communication and travel that has made cultural integration more difficult than it was before.

Moreover, when Buruma describes the Dutch attitude toward Muslim immigrants as "an odd combination of charity and indifference," he is suggesting that European tolerance for the alien habits of immigrants has less to do with meek cultural relativism than with its opposite: a residual arrogance about the cultural, if not racial, superiority of Europeans. In the age of colonialism, Europeans were never overly concerned about the moral life of natives, and they seem to have imported this colonial laissez-faire back into the heart of a democratic society.

In her fine print, if not in her head-lines, Hirsi Ali acknowledges many of these complexities. For example, after saying that the kind of thinking she observed "in Saudi Arabia, and among the Muslim Brotherhood in Kenya and Somalia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values," she adds, "It preserves a feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame." Similarly, when discussing how her female Moroccan friends in Holland would rail about humiliation by the Dutch without mentioning the violence they suffered at the hands of their husbands, she diagnoses anti-Dutch feeling as "really a comfort mechanism, to keep people from feeling personally inadequate and to externalize the causes of their unhappiness." Furthermore, her descriptions of everyday life in Somalia and Saudi Arabia and at her multi-denominational school in Nairobi thoroughly corroborate Buruma's point that Islam is highly variable in practice. Nevertheless, Hirsi Ali relentlessly presses the case that Islam is grimly uniform in some respects, such as its insistence that women cannot marry without the approval of a parent or guardian. Her general point seems to be that Islam has an inherent tendency to keep alive premodern traditions that are incompatible with peaceful adaptation to a modern society.

Perhaps the most important difference between Hirsi Ali and Buruma lies in the latter's belief, following the French political scientist Olivier Roy, that the only way forward is for Islam to be fully accepted as a European religion. Buruma is noncommittal about the claim of some moderate members of the Dutch Muslim community that "only properly organized religion will stop young men from downloading extremism from the Internet," but he wants to avoid making Islam itself responsible for the disappointments of Muslim integration in Europe, because the majority of Europe's Muslims are not going to follow Hirsi Ali into outright atheism. This is what leads Buruma to conclude: "Attacking religion cannot be the answer, for the real threat to a mixed society will come when the mainstream of non-revolutionary Muslims has lost all hope of feeling at home."

One of Hirsi Ali's reiterated themes is that well-meaning Europeans frequently hesitate to criticize Islam "for fear of being called racist." Buruma is more troubled than Hirsi Ali is about the unintended political consequences of eradicating such a fear. Indeed, he worries, not unreasonably, that her version of the Enlightenment has been brazenly converted into a weapon of the racist right, which opportunistically paints its xenophobia with a veneer of universalism. Something of the sort happened during the "cartoon intifada," when anti-immigrant activists with scant interest in freedom of the press invoked that liberal ideal to justify their "right to insult others on the grounds of race or creed." Hirsi Ali argues that the anti-racism of western Europeans, a lesson painfully distilled from the Nazi cataclysm, has prevented them from recognizing the threat posed to European values by unassimilated Muslim immigrants. It is no reflection on her motives to point out that her high-minded criticism of anti-racism and her plea for Europeans to stand up and "fight" for their civilization have inevitably appealed to people who refuse coexistence with Muslim immigrants on much cruder and more emotional grounds.

One of the most fascinating of Buruma's characters is Fortuyn, the outspoken critic of Islamist homophobia and sexism, the "populist who played on the fear of Muslims while boasting of having sex with Moroccan boys." Fortuyn's spectacular political success, Buruma suggests, was due to his willingness to listen sympathetically to the hate raging in the hearts of the Dutch against Moroccan and Turkish immigrants. Political entrepreneurs of hate do not strike Buruma as particularly worthy heirs to the tradition of Spinoza, however, even if the source of their "venom" is that they have only recently and "painfully wrested themselves free from the strictures of their own religions" and cannot stand the thought of restarting that particular struggle from scratch.

The leader of the party founded by Fortuyn, Buruma adds, "saw Islamic and Western civilizations at war on Dutch soil." That a clash of civilization is also heartily endorsed by Islamist extremists should make us sit up and take note. Rather than signaling an admirable willingness to defend the Enlightenment against its enemies, eagerness to participate in such a clash implies a wholesale abandonment of one of the Enlightenment's main pillars -- namely, the overcoming of collective punishment or group-on-group revenge by the strict individualization of culpability. The Islamophobia of the European right is obviously no less tribalistic than the Islamists' hatred of the West. Although the tribalization of the Enlightenment by European xenophobes clearly distresses Buruma, it does not even interest Hirsi Ali.

One comes away from these two remarkable books suspecting that neither compromise nor confrontation will do much to avert the coming train crash between a resentful minority of indigenous Europeans and a potentially violent minority of young men among the millions of Muslims now permanently residing in Europe. Various scholars have published statistics suggesting that the slow but successful integration of Europe's Muslims is already under way. But Buruma and Hirsi Ali do not leave their readers feeling so complacent. Read together, their books suggest that no simple formula will work -- neither Western chauvinism nor multiculturalism, neither assailing Islam as "backward" nor offering Muslims a perhaps insincere and therefore erratic respect. Accommodations may whet the appetite of the radicals, whereas a refusal to make accommodations seems bound to drive more young men into the radical camp. Perhaps Europe needs politicians who can artfully shift back and forth between adherence to principle and accommodation to diversity as each case demands. If such wise and skillful leaders do not appear sometime soon, the long-term consequences of current trends may prove impossible to manage peacefully.

One might even argue that, in today's Europe, the Enlightenment ideal of universal citizenship is already dead. Europeans are becoming increasingly habituated to living in dual states, where "real" citizens live side by side with poorly assimilated immigrants who (in the minds of the majority) will never become full-fledged members of the community. This may not be a clash of civilizations destined to evolve into violent confrontation, but it is a profoundly disquieting moral crisis, which these two original and stimulating books invite us to ponder.

Stephen Holmes is a professor at New York University Law School and the author, most recently, of The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror.

You may also like