In September of last year, Robert Redeker, a French philosopher, went into hiding after getting death threats for an op-ed piece he wrote on Islam. In his short piece for the conservative daily Le Figaro, Redeker argued that while Jesus was a “master of love,” Mohammed was “a master of hate.” Islam, he noted, was the only major religion for which war was integral to its theology.
Outside of a handful of intellectuals, like André Glucksmann, and a stray politician or two, Redeker had no defenders. When famed Al Jazeera personality Sheik Youseff al-Quaradawi, scourge of the Jews and crusaders, took to the airwaves to denounce the blasphemer, Le Monde echoed his condemnations. Yet just ten months later, Nicolas Sarkozy has been elected French president on a platform of affirming France’s Enlightenment heritage.
Sarkozy’s road to the Elysee Palace was paved not only by the mini-Intifada in the Paris banlieues, but also by a memorable public exchange about Islam. An intellectually confident Sarkozy, then the interior minister, debated suave, articulate Tariq Ramadan, the grandson and heir of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. With 6 million viewers watching, Sarkozy asked Ramadan, famed as an Islamic version of a Euro-Communist, if he agreed with his brother Hani Ramadan—who had argued, in line with Muslim law, that adulterous women should be stoned to death. Pressed to agree or disagree without obfuscation, Ramadan, his Western facade crumbling, said he favored a “moratorium” on such stoning. Sarkozy responded with anger, “A moratorium?” He went on to mock the Islamists’ leftist apologists. “If it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.”
Across the channel, the British elites went even further than did the French in abasing themselves before Islamic extremists. In the wake of the 7/7 London bombings, Prime Minister Tony Blair named the same Tariq Ramadan—hailed as a moderate by supposed liberals like Oxford’s Timothy Garton Ash—as an advisor on Islamic matters. In a similar vein, London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, praised Sheik Quaradawi as a moderate and treated him as an honored guest. Many British intellectuals and pols had once rallied to the defense of Salman Rushdie when the Iranians issued a fatwa for his death, but in more recent years they’ve ignored or downplayed his plight. Similarly, the Danish cartoon affair, which raised the most fundamental issues of freedom of speech, produced a cowed response from the British press and pols about the importance of not offending Muslims.
But there are signs of a shift in England as well. Blair, who is about to leave office, has knighted Rushdie. A Pakistani legislator greeted the announcement with a call for suicide attacks on England. Blair responded in turn with aplomb.
Writing in the Observer, the jihad-friendly Guardian’s Sunday paper, left-wing journalist Will Hutton has admitted that “the space in which to argue that Islam is an essentially benign religion seems to narrow with every passing day.” “The West,” he continued, “provokes Islam not by doing anything, although what it does is hardly helpful; it provokes at least some strands of Islamic thought simply by being.” That means “the only way we can live together peaceably with Islam is if we don’t compromise our own values.” Hutton’s argument buttresses the point made by repentant jihadi Ed Husain in the left-wing New Statesman. Husain, who has received veiled death threats, argues that “the most powerful weapon against Islamists and jihadists is to create public spaces in which former extremists can discuss why they entered Islamist networks and why they left.” “This removes,” he said, “the impenetrable mystique of these networks. It opens up their underworld.” Here is a liberal answer to the problem of illiberalism.
In recent months, notes David Goodhart, the editor of the liberal journal Prospect, the British government has changed its attitude toward purportedly moderate Muslim spokesmen. Goodhart himself had previously defended Tariq Ramadan from criticism, including Paul Berman’s recent piece in the New Republic. But he now has second thoughts about the Oxford philosopher, prompted by a recent Ramadan article in the Guardian advocating a different kind of moratorium—on asking Muslims to integrate into British society. It appears, says Goodhart, that the real Tariq Ramadan has instructed British Muslims to remain in social and intellectual isolation.
For the past decade, men like Ramadan have played a skillful double game. They have used Western liberal tropes to undermine Western values—extremism, they would suggest, was just another form of free speech. Aiding them in this game have been Western apologists for Islamic extremism such as Ian Buruma and Tony Judt, who brand courageous dissenters from Islamist orthodoxy like Ayaan Hirsi Ali “enlightenment fundamentalists.”
The British have tried multiculturalism; the tolerant Dutch have allowed Muslims to create a separate “pillar” within their society; the French insist on the model of Jacobin uniformity; the Spanish have been merely craven. All have failed. But as Hutton argues, the best route for the West is to be true to its own heritage. If, like the courageous Danish prime minister Anders Rasmussen, Europeans unambiguously stand up to the Islamists, they will flush out double dealers like Ramadan while allowing the Ed Husains of the world to directly engage the extremists.
Let the open debate begin.
Fred Siegel is a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.