Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Muslims and Me

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from an old friend in Switzerland in which he proudly informed me that, for the first time ever, he'd donated to a political cause. Yup, you got it: he sent money to the anti-minaret cause.

After the "why didn't you send me the money?" tape stopped playing in my head (after all, he reads and speaks French, and he could have figured out the PayPal page you get when you press that button over there; I can't figure out how to get it to display English, unfortunately), another tape started, of the Specials singing "If you have a racist friend/Now is the time for that friendship to end." I hate that song. Not only is it one of the band's least efforts, with a crappy tune, the lyrics shocked me when it came out and, after I started hearing it again, they still had that power. Here's the deal, guys: if the person's really your friend and you don't know he's a racist, how did that happen? Or if the person suddenly revealed this unfortunate tendency, isn't it maybe better to sit down and talk with them?

For those of you who may not have caught this piece of stupidity, Switzerland just had a referendum banning the construction of any further minarets on mosques in the country. Of which there are currently four (4). Minarets, that is, not mosques. Out of consideration for the neighbors, none (0) of them broadcast the call to prayer. I have no idea what Europe's Muslims think of this, but a number of human rights organizations signalled alarm, and there's talk that this may go to the European courts.

Not that this is any great surprise, either. Those of us who can remember back to 2007 will recall this charming election poster:

Sad to say, this party did very well in the elections, controls Parliament, and was behind this anti-minaret action, too.

Which is why I find myself in an odd position of defending Europe's Muslims. I'm not a Muslim, and I'm not particularly drawn to Muslim culture. Some Muslim extremists indirectly lost me €75,000 on September 11, 2001, and I'll never see that money again. I've discovered that I don't much like the food of at least the Arabic and Turkish Muslim peoples (I'm holding off on the North Africans until I have a better sampling), and the art and music does very little for me. I genuinely dislike the various costumes women in many Muslim cultures are obligated to wear, and the way the Koran is interpreted to assure extreme patriarchal domination by many Muslims is another reason I wouldn't want to live in a Muslim country.

But I could say the same about ultra-conservative Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are in the process of trying to destroy the United States and Israel, respectively. The so-called Hindu fundamentalists (a neat trick, because there's no central scripture to Hinduism) are India's biggest problem, and I don't like what I've heard about some of the Buddhist monks in Thailand, either. Fortunately, I'm at no risk whatever of joining up with any of these folks.

But when it comes to Muslims, well, where I live, they're everywhere you look. Montpellier has the largest population of Algerians in France. There are loads of Moroccans around here, as well as Tunisians. I'd guess that a healthy percentage of the black folks I see walking our streets are from former French colonies like Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, which are overwhelmingly Muslim. And yeah, some of them wear funny clothes. There are men who wear kaftans and odd hats, and many more women who wear headscarves, although anything more than that is rare. There's an "Arab quarter" here, Figuerolles, although you'll be hard-pressed to find a Saudi there; it's overwhelmingly Maghrebi, northern African.

My next door neighbor is a young student named Yazid. Except for his name and his skin-color, he's pretty much what you'd expect a French university student to be. Downstairs is Les Délices du Liban, whose owner has become a friend thanks to his knowledge of how things work and the fact that when the German moving men deserted my stuff in the street the day I moved here, his friend Ali showed up and moved me in. Oh, and his cooking is great, but I already knew I liked Lebanese food thanks to my friend Jim in Austin, whose ancestors were Christians and whose mother was a powerhouse in the kitchen.

Everywhere you go here (well, except for the bars) you'll see Muslims. They're not buttonholing you to convert or to give to their charities; they're not, as far as I can tell, fomenting jihad (although one of the 9/11 crew was recruited out of the Figuerolles district here); they're not spitting on women in miniskirts (although they do ogle them, and some of the young women also dress in ways which stretch the modesty rules nicely); they're holding hands with their boyfriends and girlfriends in public, running businesses, working in the bank and the post office and the police department. They riot just as predictably when Algeria wins a soccer game (they apparently have been having quite the year) as a more mixed crowd did earlier in the year when Montpellier's rugby team ascended to the first division. And, according to a survey the Open Society Institute published on Tuesday, they prefer to live with the rest of us instead of in ethnically-segregated neighborhoods.

And as far as minarets go, for eleven years I lived two doors away from a church in Berlin with huge bells in it that sounded like trash cans -- very loud trash cans -- being beaten when they rang. Now, this church had, I estimate, about 20 parishoners on any given Sunday, with an increase around Christmas and a mob scene on Children's Day in November. There was a point at which the bells tolled the hour from 7am until 7pm, but a petition from the neighbors finally shut that down. There was nothing to do about Sunday mornings, though. So begrudging a Swiss mosque a minaret that doesn't make a sound would be like my begrudging that church its steeple and belfry if they'd shut the bells up.

My correspondent's Swiss city can't say this, but the city I live in became prominent because a millenium ago it was a spice port (yes, the Mediterranean came up all this way), where Arabs brought spices in from the eastern Mediterranean, Jews financed the trade, and the Christian French did the distribution north to the rest of the country. Eventually the three realized that some of the stuff that was coming in from the exotic lands they traded with really did have the medicinal properties alleged for it, and that a systematic study (a specialty of the Arabs and the Jews) would be a good thing. Thus, Europe's first medical school was born, and the foundation for today's sprawling university was laid. Later, of course, the French invented antisemitism and the Muslims were kicked out of Spain and the Crusades started, but that's another story.

The bottom line is, I can live with Muslims if they can live with me. They're far less annoying than, say, Les Lunkheads downstairs, they run vegetable stands which are open on Sunday, which is a good thing, and all in all, they seem like normal people. My correspondent said that one of the things he liked most about Switzerland was that the people there had a sense of order. To that I would reply that except for some of the more macho teenage boys, that seems to be true of the folks here, and that one of the things that drove me out of Germany was the fact that orderliness was esteemed as the highest achievement of humankind, an idea which I firmly reject.

So the Specials be damned: I don't think I have a racist friend, just someone who should get out of the house a bit more and realize that he's in no danger from a minaret. Not that he's likely to see one any time soon.


  1. Some of the Alergerian women here are insanely beautiful.

  2. When did the desire for cultural self-preservation become a priori racism?

    Is it racist to not want the symbols -- or the spread -- of an intolerant, anti-humanist, totalitarian religion in my country?

    The minaret issue was never about noise pollution, so that argument is a red herring. And I agree with you about church bells; I'd vote to ban them, too, tomorrow -- as indeed I would any intrusive encumbrance publicly promoting organised religion of any stripe. It took Europeans centuries to get out from under the yoke of the church, and I'm sure the overwhelming majority of Europeans would like to keep it that way -- whatever religious stripe that yoke may carry.

    Distrust of Muslims is based on what has been happening in Europe over the last 50 years; wherever Muslim immigration to Europe has increased (which is to say virtually everywhere) parallel societies have developed. Take just *one* urban example: the city of Bradford. 40 years ago this was an English city. Today it is more like Lahore with anglo-Victorian architecture. Leaders of the Muslim (majority) community of Bradford have been vociferously calling for the 'right' of their followers to be ruled by Sharia law and not British law. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury (!) recently suggested that this might not be such a bad idea.

    The American journalist, Christopher Caldwell, summed up the situation very well in his new book, 'Reflections on the Revolution in Europe': 

    "One reason that Europeans have not paid much attention to the political leanings of ethnic minorities is a faith in democratic decision making that verges on superstition. Even if people are worried about what will happen when when ethnic minorities make up 50.1 per cent of the population...they seem not to consider that anything could possibly go wrong until that moment arrives."

    Switzerland's decision to ban minarets was certainly based on fear, but is that so unfounded? I know of no Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains (you get my point) who are flying jets into skyscrapers, who are blowing up public transport in European cities, who are murdering in the street film-makers who disagree with their religious views, who are calling for their own states-within-a-state. I know of no other religion than Islam whose main scripture specifically calls *over a hundred times* for the enforced conversion of 'infidels' or, failing that, their *murder or enslavement*. The minaret is a symbol of a culture that sui generis is about the suppression of freedom of thought and the promotion of monolithic subjugation to an intolerant religious code. The very word 'Islam' means 'submission'. The ban on minarets is the Swiss electorate's way of saying 'we refuse to submit.'

    I repeat my opening question: When did the desire for cultural self-preservation become a priori racism?

  3. Please, don't anyone even bother with the Anonymous coward above. It's people with asinine believes like his that are destroying Europe.

  4. Well, Mariel. You obviously disagree with his/her position while offering no thesis of you own. How did you determine that the writer was a male? He/she is at least a good writer with a clear mind making a coherent argument.

  5. The writer is, in fact, the same person I was writing about, since I also got this text from them as an e-mail.

    In answer to it, I'd say this: I don't really think that European culture or cultural identity is in much danger. I do think it may be changing, but hey, change happens.

    Characterizing Islam as an "intolerant, anti-humanist, totalitarian religion" is ridiculous. Sure, some Muslims meet that description. So do many Christians and Jews. Most of my friends in America have been battling Christians like that for a couple of decades, particularly the friends with kids, particularly the *Jewish* friends with kids. Who wants to deal with a bawling 8-year-old who's been told by an adult who showed up on the playground *with school approval* that they're going to hell unless they accept Jesus?

    Most Muslims, as I noted, aren't like that. They're after what all immigrants are after: better conditions, more money, a chance to make a better life. And as for minorities making up 50.1% of the population, let's just take a look at California these days. ¿Habla Español?

    The post mentions Bradford, which is an interesting situation. As far as I know, before Bradford became a majority Asian city, it was a total cesspool. It is now a sort of laboratory for integration into England, and as such has had its ups and downs. Hanif Kureishi had a wonderful story about Bradford in Granta some years ago. Worth taking a look at.

    I don't fear Muslims. True, they have yet to have their Martin Luther, but I think that day is coming, in part as Islam meets contemporary European society and its mores. Not every imam is a fundamentalist throwback, and there are secular Muslim intellectuals who are trying to change things.

    And it's curiouis to speak of cultural self-preservation in a country with four languages, each representing a different culture. There *is* no "Swiss culture," per se. And it's not frictionless, but the combination seems to work.

    So yes, it's fear of change and fear of The Other, just as the white sheep/black sheep poster is. And I really thought this person was beyond that.

  6. "He/she is at least a good writer with a clear mind making a coherent argument."

    That's great. So was Hitler. Seriously, that impresses you? Really?

  7. Mariel, it is interesting that you refer to Hitler. The world missed its warning by not taking his writings and the intentions stated therein seriously. Likewise to-day, many are not taking the tenants of Sharia law and even the evidence of the terrorist attacks seriously.

    Perhaps many of us can agree on at least one positive fundamental tenet of Western society. To me, perhaps the most important element in Western society is the rule of law. You know – no one is above the law; everyone is equal before the law. I think that this is something worth fighting for and if necessary dying for. In my opinion, any other secular or religious option would not measure up.

    Under Sharia law, as practiced in traditionalist Muslim homes this equality does not exist. In fact, should Mariel be part of such a family, the closest she would get to a computer would be to dust it for use by her father, spouse, or brothers. Therefore our Western values ensure that she has the right to massacre words and electrons to make her facile observations.

    As you may know, Canada is a land of immigrants all living generally in a state of peace. I generally credit the rule of law as being a cornerstone of that success. However, within the last two years, our inept Premier of Ontario and his merry band majority political party almost made Sharia law lawful for Civil and Family law issues. The remainder of Canada adheres to the British Common Law, except for Quebec, which utilizes the Civil Code, similar to that used in several European countries. My point here is that Sharia law was ultimately rejected due to pressure from thoughtful Ontarians. Thank goodness.

    Not all immigrants are keen to adopt the ways of their adopted country. Some wish to benefit from an economically better life, while retaining the “old” ways and detesting Western morals, morays, and culture. I regret that while Islam awaits its Martin Luther, young women who have the misfortune to be raped will continue to be stoned to death. And, in Britain, Canada, and the US young women will continue to suffer honour killings at the hands of fathers and brothers for what they consider to be inappropriate conduct.

    These events are well documented. Proof is readily available for those who choose to investigate. As has been said by others, if you don’t believe in something, you will fall for anything.

    In any event, I am very happy that my 6 ½ year old granddaughter will be able to aspire to anything she may wish to be, at least during my lifetime.

    Finally, I’d like to comment that I enjoy Ed Ward’s site and his writing very much. Perhaps he will choose not to introduce this type of topic in the future. Unless he is courting controversy, that is.

  8. It's not "courting controversy" so much as observing the place where I've chosen to live. A place which includes Muslims, most of whom are nice folks.

    Where I'm sort of with Don is that immigrants anywhere have to have an idea what the norms are in their new country. Were I to move to a Muslim country, my wine-tasting education would take a serious hit, as would my enjoyment of anything made with pork. Muslims moving here should realize that Sharia is not how things are done here -- and most of them do.

    It's always more memorable to point to the crazy Muslims who bought a sheep and butchered it in their apartment than it is to point to the ones who go to work or school and come home and watch Algeria play football on TV. The fact that the latter outnumber the former several thousand to one just doesn't make the news.

    I'd be a lot more concerned about Christian fundamentalists trying to impose "Intelligent Design" on your school system than Canadian Muslims forcing your granddaughter into a chador, though.

  9. As regards my granddaughter and other young women, we will do our best to shield them from extremists of all stripes and benefit from the potential of all of our people.

    What first got me twitterpated in this discussion was actually the type of comment, notwithstanding the subject, of people who write/text like Mariel. They leave little lumps of poo all over the place and contribute nothing. I sincerely hope that Mariel and her ilk seek an education. There are lots of them out there. As a writer, you must cringe.

    I suspect that this whole issue will not resolve itself until long after we are gone and it will eventually take its place as another blip in history. I was sitting beside a Canadian professor of Sociology on a plane a few years ago. He explained during our chat that integration problems exist with the first generation of immigrants, but by the third generation they are completely integrated. I can think of at least 5 young American citizens from middle America who would disagree with him. They have been in the news and custody in Pakistan for the last couple of weeks as they sought Jihad and a chance to kill American soldiers. Islam's war with the West did not end at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

    Actually, the subject that really interests me is overpopulation. Our (most scientists and political leaders) failure to not even acknowledge that it is a problem and to begin a discussion on the effect of overpoulation on everything else is well, a problem. Maybe that is our legacy from World War 2.

    On a "real" level, what I'd really like to learn more about is the art and influence of Erskine Butterfield and King Tubby. Your thoughts about them and other great artists would be much more fun.

  10. Ed, I've just got back to reading your blog, like I do every now and again, and am always pleased I do. This Minaret-ban, and in particular the kind of justification for it given above, is something that makes no sense whatsoever. So some people have different "cultural norms", "vales", values "alien to this society" etc. blah blah blah.

    Well - firstly, most of society isn't particuarly interested in freedom of thought, or democratic values. Much of society doesn't like foreigners much, and this is what it is really about.

    I am reminded of the kinds of campaigns run by the (basically) Green Party ginger group in Berlin calling itself the "Lesben- und Schwulenverband Deutschlands" - the Gay and Lesbian Association of Germany. Of course, they campaign against homophobia, and homophobic attacks. But for some reason, they always have to go on about muslims.

    This might seem the obvious thing to do when it's young male muslims doing some occasional gay-bashing. Yet they justify this by releasing surveys showing that the most homophobic people in Berlin are young male Muslims in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. But I know of other surveys that show no difference between the level of homophobia between religious muslims and, say, actively religious Christians.

    There are more than enough active Christian religious sects in Berlin that preach hate. But, of course, their members are generally white Germans, or "good" foreigners, i.e. from western Europe or North America. And of course, Christianity - and racism, and sexism, and homophobia, is all part of "our" culture, isn't it. I suspect such views are common amongst most active religious people (not to mention CDU members...). So why don't they concentrate on religion?

    Wife beating is obviously only a "muslim" problem, as well, isn't it? At least, that's the impression given in the German media. The way they go on about foreigners, you'd think the Germans were all tree-hugging hippies, and not in the majority wanting to bring back hanging and maybe embrace a new Hitler at the first possible opportunity.

  11. ..."and not wanting to bring back hanging and maybe embrace a new Hitler..."

    - I don't mean that to be interpreted as being anti-German. The sentence could equally pass for the French, the British, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Italians....


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