Toward the end of the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past – and when you get that far, it is a moment to savour – a phrase caught my eye. (It is at page 353 in Volume 6 of the Modern Library boxed set.) During one of those endless meditations on character in time, we get from the narrator:
I had seen the vices and courage of the Guermantes recur in Saint-Loup, as also at different times in his life his own strange and ephemeral defects of character, and as in Swann his Semitism.
I cannot recall seeing Semitism without the anti- before. The narrator is saying that he could see the Semitism in the man called Swann. Swann is a Jewish character, and the narrator appears to be saying that he could see those characteristics in Swann that made him or identified him as a Jew.
Before you can be against (anti) something you have to be able to identify what that something is. This, then, is the start of the slippery slope. You have to put people in a box, to brand them. Having identified the person as having the characteristics of a group, you then treat that person by their membership of the group, rather than on their own merit. How long will it be before the narrator or a Vichy gendarme pins a yellow cross on M. Swann?
What struck me as odd about this reference to Semitism only became apparent on reflection. What was it about M. Swann that identified him to the narrator as being Jewish? It is hard to think of a decent answer – of an answer that does not reveal that the narrator uses the types for Semitism that we associate with anti-Semitism. M Swann was not an orthodox Jew – they make themselves as plain by their dress and appearance as a muslem woman wearing the facial veil (niqab).
People who show off their differences can hardly complain if those differences are noticed. And if they want to live separately from the rest of the community, they may not be surprised if the rest of the community treats them differently. If they want to live with their own laws, with their own language, and in a distinct area or ghetto, and with their own garb and customs, then they may not be surprised if others in the wider community get unsettled by their apartness. People who remain determinedly separate do not generally do so because they feel that their way is inferior – they do it because they feel that their way is superior. This is likely to lead to feelings of rejection in others, and to an adverse reaction. People who want to confront others with their differentness may be trespassing dangerously on the tolerance levels of the rest.
It is very bad for supporters of Israel in their conflict with Muslems to accuse their critics of being anti-Semitic. Criticising Israel, for example for its policy on settlements or for its handling of Gaza, has nothing of itself to do with anti-Semitism, any more than my criticising Australia for its treatment of refugees would make me a socialist, racist, or not a patriot, whatever that awful word means. Yet this attack or riposte is too often made or threatened, and every time that happens, those responsible risk making their false assertion come true.
I cannot help feeling that something like that is going on with the curious word Islamophobia. A phobia is a kind of fear. It is perfectly possible for a person to have rational fear of Islam without being subject to an irrational fear of or prejudice against any one Muslem or most of them. A rational fear of what a religion might do to its adherents, or those who do not adhere to their faith, is very different from an irrational rejection of or prejudice against individuals of that faith, or even the religion as a whole.
The word Islamophobia does not appear to have a settled meaning, but it gets loaded and fired often in response to the remarks of people who do not subscribe to Islam about murders committed in the name of Islam that we call terrorism. It sounds a little like what happens when critics of Israel are branded as being anti-Semitic. It is called playing the race card.
Is the fear felt by some about the role of Islam in the world a rational fear?
The main causes of terrorist attacks in the West over the last thirty or so years appear to me to include the following.
- The conflict between Israel and the Arab world, or between Jews and Muslems in and around Israel. It is hardly possible to see any resolution of that conflict in the foreseeable future. There is no appetite for peace on either side, and some think that the end will only come with the bomb. My sense is that most Australians are fed up with both sides.
- The schisms in Islam, particularly between Sunni and Shia.
- The misplaced intervention by the West in the Middle East, in particular the drawing of an imperial map over the Middle East after the Great War, the betrayal of the promises made to Arabs during that war, the failed interventions in Iraq, and Afghanistan – the failure is probably irrelevant: what matters is the invasions – and the current action in Syria and Iraq. The Arab world, and a substantial part of Islam, says that the creation of the state of Israel by western powers is by far the most destabilising and war-provoking act of the West. It is not easy to think of any intervention by the West in the Middle East that has not made things a lot worse there.
- The complete failures of governance in Muslem countries or areas. Examples are the rise of Boko Haram in and around Nigeria and of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. It looks like all of North Africa will descend at one time or other into this kind of chaos and misery – together with Muslem areas in other parts of Africa – as one state after another fails. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States all look ripe for revolution, and will fall apart as oil loses its power. They are sitting ducks for impoverished puritans. Generations of misery await all those nations, with the possibility of generations of spreading conflict from the outraged oppressed.
- The failure of Muslem communities in the West to integrate and get on in their host country, and the consequent feelings of failure, rejection or frustration that alienate young Muslems from their host country and lead some of them to go off to a murderous fairy tale of jihad in their spiritual homeland.
- The failure of Muslem communities properly to educate their young or to shepherd their disaffected members. Host nations like England, America, and Australia do not have these problems with other migrant groups from Asia or from other faiths. France is the most exposed because of its appalling imperial record.
They seem to me to be the main factors behind the worse forms of terrorism facing the West. The problem has got worse for host countries after the London bombings since when it has been apparent that the West faces threats from home-grown terrorists – who profess Islam. The attack on the Twin Towers was mainly made by Saudis organised by an evil man from abroad, but we now have to face and to monitor and be asked to change our laws in a way that we would rather not do in response to native born terrorists who were brought up in the faith of Islam and who claim to kill in the name of that faith.
You can be as critical as you like of the US and the rest of the West, and as critical as you like of the policy and territorial ambitions of their number one client state, Israel, but it is impossible to ignore the role of Islam in each of those elements.
What we do know is that the most dangerous sentiment that you can harbour is that you should expect aggression from those who have been oppressed; it is second only in dangerousness to the sentiment that conflict and bitterness can decently pass from one nation and generation to another.
You might then consider the following about Islam in the world at large.
- It is difficult to find one Islamic nation to admire. There are so many black holes in Africa and the Middle East. The richest, like Saudi Arabia, are the most backward, brutal and corrupt. The Saudis are more preoccupied with feudalism and royalty than Australia even, and Saudi Arabia ought to be treated as a pariah state. The geographic and spiritual heart of Islam is a viciously intolerant clerical state. Governors and clerics compete in violent repression, and it is the main source of financial support for jihadis around the world. It is of course a trusted ally. Egypt was a post-card Arab Spring nation that has lapsed back into evil military rule that is now bent on standing over Islamic ‘fundamentalists’, and which was holding an Australian journalist after a legal process that would not be admitted here in a cattle auction and on charges that would have made Hitler and Stalin blush. What is happening elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East is unthinkably barbaric to a degree not seen since the Attila the Hun and the Dark Ages. Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia have claims to civilisation, but they differ from most of the West in their corruption, their susceptibility to religious intervention in the affairs of state, and a control of communications that we would find both unacceptable and uncivilised. Malaysia has just jailed an opposition leader for being homosexual and Indonesia is set to execute foreign nationals after a cruel and unconscionable delay.
- It is difficult to see many nations where the host country is happy with its Muslem minority or where the Muslem migrants are successfully integrating. In many there is actual conflict or political movements against Muslems. That is likely to get worse as terror attacks continue, and the foreign wars involving Muslems continue.
- Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the positive influence of Islam in the world has waned. It is difficult to point to the Islamic centres of learning, law, science or art that have made any lasting contributions to the civilisation of the world.
- The Ottoman Empire was a disaster for humanity. Not one former member is in good shape, specifically including Turkey and Greece, each of whom would rather forget or deny it. The notion that there might be another Caliphate is about as attractive as that of another Holy Roman Empire or a Fourth Reich.
- Islam itself is ill defined and is claimed by warring sects. There is no hierarchy that allows spokespeople to speak on the behalf and bind them. People may not like the Pope or the Vatican, but at least they know who they are dealing with. At least the Vatican can officially disown ratbag sects. People distrust shadowy outfits like the Masons or the CIA who do not want to own up to their past or to show their present.
- Worst of all is the lack of certification for the Imams. It is unthinkable that the mainstream churches in the West would unleash clerical representatives like these ragamuffin upstarts many of whom are evangelists of violence. This is a huge problem because too often the poison is seen to have been planted by nasty, ignorant, unbalanced men who are crooks or quacks who should never have been allowed any status to purport to teach or preach on behalf of any faith. Even the best of them look unpersuasive. Even after the recent Paris murders, too many Islamic commentators said that it was bad – but….people who play with matches might get their fingers burnt. When the Twin Towers went down, Muslems danced in the street in many parts of the world. The problem of getting good spokespeople for the Arab or Muslem cause has troubled the BBC’s Dateline London – experienced Arab journalists come on and you count down until the rant starts. This is shockingly unhelpful, because it reinforces all of those stereotypes about irrationality in that region.
- Young men who fight for IS get a spiritual charge from, and they claim a theological basis for, their killings. Other Muslems may say that the faith of the killers is perverted, but the argument about whether the killers are Muslems at all is at best sterile. One issue is that there is no Muslem body that can effectively rule these people out of Islam, and dealing with these terrorists without dealing with spiritual and religious issues is like fighting the Viet Cong without worrying about the hearts and minds of the people. There has to be a theological and spiritual response. This craving for death and the everlasting does not come from social failings.
- The attitude of Islam to half of the world – women – is not acceptable in the West. The full facial veil is an affront to the beliefs of most people in equality. Muslem educational insitutions do not look encouraging, and they attract, fairly or otherwise, frequent allegations of massive corruption and fraud on the state, and a failure to reach local standards. Sharia law is a ghastly throwback to the Dark Ages that is more alarming than the Old Testament. It is appalling that some seriously suggest it might be allowed here in Australia.
- The lack of integration and social success brings its own images of failure and foreignness. The Muslem communities look separate and unassimilated and unattractively Asian in ways that the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, for example, do not. Those communities are assimilating while retaining their own traditions, and they are rising to the top in all fields of life. The failure and frustration within Islam in Australia in turn becomes a function of the community’s separatism. And so the cycle goes, and the youth leave for purer devotion, and so, terrorism. If people want to live apart and be seen to live apart, not to say down at heel, they need not be alarmed if they are treated as different; if they want to be exclusive, they need not complain if they get to be excluded.
- Above all, there is the difference in the space that religion occupies in their lives and in the lives of their nations. For the most part, people in the West are relaxed about religion – even those who adhere to one, who are becoming a minority. Churches and synagogues are used to coming under fire from all directions, and their adherents accept that it is just a matter of luck which faith you are born into, rather like race, and that each of the three faiths to come from the Middle East claims to have the answer, and so is committed to denying a central tenet of the others: this is just one of the hurdles at which many of the unbelievers fall. The state is secular, and the people are relaxed and tolerant. Islam, to put it softly, does not fit well in this scheme. In no part of the world where it has prevailed does it accept the separation of church and state which is fundamental in the West, and has been since the Reformation.
- You then have to add the fact that the exercise by infidels of their right to express their opinions freely, which is equally fundamental, too often leads to conflict that leads to violence and then to murder. Adherents to Islam hunger for a penal law of blasphemy which they will never get in the West, but which those in the West are revolted to see enforced in the Islamic East by the lash and beheading. The short answer to those Muslems in the West who have these feelings is that they know where they can go – but, as ever, people want to have their cake and eat it. They could go to Bahrain and be in state where a new TV station lasted for only thirty minutes.
- Finally, while the other faiths are waning perceptibly, Islam is growing overseas and here, and it just as a matter of time before they have the numbers here. You would seriously understate the matter if you said that other people might find this consequence to be a little disturbing. There is the ironic twist that the excesses in the name of Islam is rubbing off on religion generally, and this will help Islam claim the field.
You might then see how the foreign and domestic woes of Islam come together in Australia, and most other host countries in the West.
- If you add the difficulties that we see in Islam overseas to those we see in Islam as we import it into Australia, you will understand why the host country here, like host countries elsewhere, is looking at the a nightmare for a migrant country – its migrants are not just bringing in conflicts and hatreds from their mother countries or regions, but they are spawning offspring here who return to the old country and refine their hatred and study how to return and murder their hosts.
- The West sees its civilisation as resting on Judaeo-Christian traditions. You will never see the West claiming Christian-Muslem values. The Jewish communities are assimilated and successful. The natural temper of those communities at large and their host nations is to back Israel against the Arabs. That has been almost obligatory in the U S, and therefore Australia, which follows the US on foreign policy almost blindly. This adherence to Israel is fading in both Australia and the US, because of the territorial ambitions of Israel and its leaning toward becoming a dominant theocratic state, but such movements do not appear to be helping sentiment toward Islam. However that may be, most Australians do not want to see the hatred of the worst flashpoint on the planet reflected in conflict between their own peoples who claim to be Australians. As what passes for the Left gets animated against Israel, what passes for the Right gets animated against Islam, and that split helps nothing. As time goes by, we may see in Australia a tendency to treat conflict between Israel and the Arabs in a similar way to that in which they saw conflicts imported here from the Balkans in the 1950’s, and just regard them all as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The short answer is that we do not need any of it.
- The blend of failure at home and abroad, whether that failure is real or perceived, leads to true believers reaching out for prophets who have the answer. The answer takes away all doubt and fear, and the price is unquestioning and mindless obedience – life then becomes so simple. The prophets themselves are the product of rejection and frustration – the model of the frustrated reject and angry young man turned fanatic is Adolf Hitler – and the true believers have a cause which brings its own crazy togetherness. The cause offers redemption, here and above. These believers, unlike the secular fascists or communists, are also assured of eternal life, the ultimate gift or prize. That prize easily outweighs any life that stands in the way of these credo killers. How do you deal with an enemy for whom death is the reward and who just gets more dangerous in jail?
- The enemy is not terrorism, but the beliefs and promises that underwrite it. The contribution of Islam to that result is unique. The faith may be said to be false, but how do you destroy an idea that gives meaning to peoples’ lives? And what do you do to criminals who get worse in jail and who long for martyrdom?
Now, most of the matters raised above are very general, and they all involve questions of degree, but there is in each of them enough to understand why many people in Australia, and other host countries, fear what Islam may do to people, whether they adhere to that faith or not. It is quite impossible to seek to stigmatise and dismiss fears that naturally arise, which are entirely rational, under some pejorative epithet like Islamophobia. Indeed, it is the apparent inability of so many Muslems and their leaders to square up to these sorts of problems that just makes other people more afraid.
In speaking of the murders at Charlie Hebdo, Tariq Ali, the voice of the Godless Left, in the London Review of Books, in a piece headlined The Muslim Response, quoted someone as saying that ‘It didn’t need to be done.’ But what was unnecessary was not the murders, but the action of the journalists in provoking religious people. The personal judgment of Mr Ali was that ‘the radicalisation of a tiny sliver of young Muslims….is a result of US foreign policy over the last decade and a half. Some of these Muslims have been happy to acquire new skills and priorities while fighting in Bosnia and more recently, Syria.’
Well, there you have it – the Americans started it, and the French journalists asked for it. It is not the wanton lack of logic that causes concern – it is the absence or revulsion or pity. And if you are having your head sawed off by an ourangatang gone berserk, it may not be much comfort to your or your children that this mad killer is part of a ‘tiny sliver’ of young Muslems. who refined his sawing in Bosnia or Syria.
The great scourges of mankind have been tribalism, nationalism, and religion – the order you choose will reflect on where you stand. The terror we now face draws on all three, but religion does look to be the worst.
The believers might ponder the following. Five men on death row or in a hospice are doomed to die shortly. There is one each of the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslem, Jewish, and Christian faiths. Each has acquired his faith from his parents and each does his best to live by it. Are we to take it that what happens to each after his death will depend solely upon the lottery of the faith that he was born into, and that each of them follows a faith that decrees that one of them might enter Paradise while the other four are just left for dead – or worse?
It matters not that Christianity in previous times perpetrated much worse crimes against humanity, or if you take the view that the greatest single threat to world peace and terrorism now comes from the territorial ambitions of Israel, or that the United States and its allies have just made everything else so much worse by their imperialism and belligerence – if you allow all those assertions and more, you are still left with the same problems of Islam.
Nor does it reduce the fear of the West that it can show the most remarkable hypocrisy about its role in poisoning Muslems against it. American Sniper is a film about a young American man who specialises in killing Muslems who do not know that he is there. He kills dozens and dozens of them, far, far more than were killed in Paris, on the footing that ‘you kill every male you see.’ He was a disaffected young American who saw people on television being senselessly killed on the other side of the world, and who decided to go and kill those on the wrong side – who just happened to be Muslems. He refers to his victims as ‘savages’.
The picture was nominated for six Oscars and had the best debut in January ever in the U S. This roaring commercial success is not there to build bridges to Islam. It is set to overtake The Passion of Christ, another film that reached out to conservatives. This serial killer is the hero of the crowds in the cinemas. A talking head on Fox news, the voice of the Far Christian Right, thought that Jesus would thank the sniper for dispatching unbelieving Muslems to the lake of fire. And it might be as well just to pass over the obsequies for the recently deceased King of Saudi Arabia.
And to come back to Proust, you might get an idea of what something like Islamism might look like to those who are outside of it, and why that picture is so unattractive beside that which is apparently seen by people inside it. There are in truth many things about Islam that make others very afraid of what it might do to people and it just does not help to say that other religions have the same effect on people, or worse – the problem is the failure of the followers of Islam around the world to come to terms with the rest of the world. Their problem is that they do not see the problem. The main reason for the fear of Islam is that so many Muslems do not see what there is to fear.
I should make a disclosure. I hold some shares in Westfield and Scentre. The credo killers claiming to represent Islam have said that they will kill people attending properties of those companies because of the Jewish connection of the principals of those companies.