Saturday, February 9, 2008

Britain Embraces the Future II

As all too usual, an exchange with Shane has challenged me to clarify, elaborate, and reexamine my thoughts on my previous post. This is why I keep you around, you keep me intellectually honest. So here we go.
Europe is not very accommodating of the Muslim religion, and it simply doesn't fit well with Europe's cultural (but nonreligious) values.
I would agree with this statement, but only as it relates to Europe's historical cultural values of tolerance, individual liberty, social justice, and rule of law. The danger I see is the recent ascendancy of tolerance to a preeminent position over and above the rest, reaching a point where much of Europe has seemed willing to tolerate the intolerant and the intolerable. This does seem to be changing for the better, however, with greater public awareness and rejection of culturally-tied abuses (honor killings, female genital mutilation, and the like) that until recently had been kept under wraps for fear of seeming to malign someone's culture. That, however, is all on the side of civil society. Europe's political establishment is, in general, still working very hard to be accommodating of Islam with publicly-funded Islamic schools and mosques, and endless consultation with Muslim cultural organizations and councils on Islamic relations and the like. This of course means walking an impossible line between natives and conservatives resentful of being forced to appease the impertinent demands of relative newcomers, and immigrants and liberals for whom no amount of money spent on mosques or time spent in discussion will disprove the assumed societal bigotry against Muslims. It makes one very thankful for the Establishment Clause. There are any number of factors and theories why Muslim immigrants to America are visibly better-integrated than those in Europe, but I think America's ingrained culture of public tolerance of religion -- due, in my opinion, to the generally successful separation of church and state -- has preemptively defused the sense of conflict for most American Muslims (CAIR notwithstanding).
I'd like to think that Islam has no chance of substantially changing western values, and that as the Middle East modernizes they will moderate their own views.
So would I, my friend. It's one of those things that's hard to read. The idealogical resilience of a culture is very difficult to pin down, and it could well be that Europe's commitment to Western values is far stronger than it appears on the surface. There are some hopeful signs of a "backlash" of sorts, as I've mentioned above. I think the most hopeful sign is the reaction from those Muslims in Europe and America who've embraced Western political values and come to their own accommodation between those values and Islam, and are increasingly willing to openly defend their embrace of those values. In the end, this conflict may turn out to be intra-Islam rather than between Islam and the wider society. It is telling, and perhaps encouraging, that the strongest counterpoint to Dr. Williams has come from Muslim political and religious leaders who oppose the cultural balkanization these sorts of policies would engender. The response from Britain's Muslim communities, as far as anyone can read these things, seems to be bemusement more than anything.

As far as the modernization of the Middle East goes, I am actually somewhat hopeful, at least for select countries in the region. Several polls (which I will irresponsibly cite without reference) have shown public opinion in the Middle East to be more moderate than that of European Muslims on certain issues. The "wiring" of the Middle East and their enthusiasm for contact with the rest of the world can only be a good thing in the big picture. While the internet does also provide a medium for extremists to spread their agenda, I suspect and hope that the liberal axis of moderate Muslims in the West with reformists in the Middle East will prove stronger and more influential in the long run. Additionally, as Middle Eastern countries move tentatively forward on their political reforms, a return migration of wealthy, educated, and globalized expatriates could provide a massive stimulus for political and economic development, as it has in India and other places.

So, yesterday caught me in a pessimistic light, and Shane's challenge has forced me to acknowledge that there is as well considerable space for guarded optimism in this, as in many things.

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