April 28, 2010
An ‘Intellectual’ Pursuit
Paul Berman’s new book a controversial polemic on religious fundamentalism
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The reception of Islam in Europe has been a controversial question. On the one side are those such as Bat Yeor, who insists that Europe has effectively lost its cultural patrimony and become “Eurabia” — as referenced in the title of her book. This is also the argument, although more nuanced and careful, of Christopher Caldwell in his recent book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.” Others, such as Garton Ash, Buruma, Tony Judt and Kenan Malik, argue that Europe can retain its patrimony by staying true to its principles.
The proposed ban on a veil will highlight these issues even more powerfully in France. How much scope ought one give in a free society to religious practices that seem discriminatory, noxious, dangerous, degrading or simply wrong? What are the societal impacts in France, for example, where 10 percent of the population is Muslim?
Berman’s book is not about the veil but is about how intellectuals seek to untangle these issues. Again and again in international affairs, the question arises: Does tolerance breed tolerance, or is it a sucker’s game where extremists take advantage of the open society’s allowances to grab more power and influence? Should we, in short, allow speech and practice up to the point where the speech and practice are such that they will ultimately curtail other speech and practice?
The temptation is to pick one side or the other. That is almost certainly wrong. Not every conflict should be seen with Churchillian eyes. Not every question is a question of mobilization alone. A strategy of confrontation is important, but it must be allied to embrace; not every Muslim nation is the same, and to assume that Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are identical, or that all the Muslims of France or England hold the same views, is to fall into a laziness the urgency of the hour cannot afford.
Intellectuals are trained to see differences, arguments, and not bright, clear lines. But there are times, as Harry Truman famously said, when you have to put aside your principles and do what is right. The West has standards, values and foundations that are the best hope the world has known. To abdicate them is cultural and intellectual suicide. Bruckner, a notable combatant in these cultural wars, has written a book about the powerful effects of guilt in Western societies, “The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism.” His point is not that the West has not done terrible things — undoubtedly it has. But the West has also created mechanisms for correction, repentance and renewal.
We should not negate the reality of enlisting those in the Muslim world who wish to live in a pluralistic, peaceful society. They are the most important allies we have. Neither should we deceive ourselves that speaking in the accents of the West means fidelity to the principles of the West. Islam, it has often been said, awaits its reformation. Some Islamic teaching and practice is simply incompatible with a free, uncensored, pluralistic, critical society. This is a serious civilizational struggle. Berman’s book reminds us what is at stake.
David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings on facebook.com/rabbiwolpe.