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A civil letter on Islamic fundamentalism in Europe

Posted on March 6, 2010 in Default

Stephen Handley, who has written on this site before, has allowed us to publish a letter he wrote to a fellow member of his schul on the divisive question of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe. The letter is a good example of how to have a civil dialogue about a difficult issue. We reproduce it here prefaced by Stephen’s intro to the letter:

I wrote something that was published in “Degel” which is a magazine of divrei Torah produced by a shul I belong to. I was told that it had created a stir, which manifested itself in the form of one or two individuals challenging me as to whether Islam stood for anything good. One of these people loaned me a copy of the book, “While Europe Slept” by Bruce Bawer.

The book is about the effect of Islamic extremism in Europe: think of Melanie Phillips’s “Londonistan”. Mr. Bawer is an American journalist, living in Norway with a Norwegian partner, who left the United States partly because he was upset at American anti-gay prejudice. He had written a book called “Stealing Jesus” on American Christian fundamentalism, which I suspect did not go down to well in his own country. When Mr. Bawer arrived in Europe, he percieved it as dominated by Islamic fundamentalism.

I only read the book once and have now given it back to its owner, but if I have understood it correctly it is a critique of “multiculturalism”. It argues that Europeans have failed to stand up for their own values, in order not to be seeen as racist, and have thereby allowed themselves to be overtaken by Islamic extremism. It also suggests that in contrast to America, where everyone is encouraged to see himself as American, we have created in Europe ethnic ghettoes of people who see themselves as excluded from the mainstream, or indeed exclude themselves from the mainstream, and whose loyalties lie elsewhere than here.

Here is the letter:

Dear XXX

Thanks for the loan of “While Europe Slept”.

I will now pare down what I could say, which would probably fill another book, to the essentials. When I wrote what I did to Degel magazine, I was told I had caused a considerable stir. I did indeed challenge a considerable number of received “orthodox” or “modern orthodox” opinions. But the only matter on which anybody actually took me up was whether or not Islam stands for anything good. I find that interesting.

Like the radical Islamists, I used to reject modern Western culture. I did so because I felt it was responsible for the Holocaust. When I was living in Stamford Hill, between 1998 and 2001, I used to reflect with glee on how corrupt, inefficient, and politically correct the local Council was, because it was too weak to prevent us doing whatever we liked. I recall sitting around a Shabbat table and sharing in the laughter at the news that my host’s eleven year old boy had succeeded in hoodwinking the school inspector into thinking that the school taught the national curriculum. It was great fun to get one over on the State. More recently, I used to sit in a shtiebl, no more than 400 metres from LSJS, where the man in charge told us that the Western world was rotten to the core. It was clear to me that he didn’t think any of the laws of the land were worth the paper they are printed on, and that we should live as if the only law was the Torah.

Indeed, it is notorious that the Western world invented the lie that the Jews killed Jesus, the blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Communism, and Fascism. The “New Testament” of Christianity, if you read it at face value, is anti-semitic to its boots. It is easy to conclude, as some do, that European culture has no value whatsoever, and that we should replace it with something different.

The reason I no longer think that way is that I have considered my ways, and resolved that I will not be against anyone. We all think we are perfectly right, given our worldview. What we have to do is to examine our fundamental beliefs about life, God, the universe, and other people: which, to me, are all the same thing for all practical purposes. You would agree that God made mankind in His image. I suggest that implies that because God is a unity, so are we: because He is a spiritual being, so are we: because He is eternal, so are we. It isn’t easy to grasp this idea at first, because we are all walking around in physical bodies and we all look different from each other. The physical world that we inhabit is a world of illusions: it has to be, because we cannot function in the physical world unless our perceptions are limited. If you could see all the angels that surround you, you’d have no vision left for road traffic hazards. The ultimate reality is that humanity is a spiritual creation in which we are all one.

That is how, for example, giving tzedakah within halachic boundaries does not make you poor. You are in fact giving to yourself as much as you are giving to the poor man. You are the only one in the room.

Thus, I feel obliged to see the rest of the world as if it were part of me. This is a paradigm of social action that is not based on dualism or indeed on any other philosophy of life that I have encountered elsewhere. If you want to know where I got all this from, please call or e-mail me: I would love to meet you and your family in order to discuss it properly from the sources.

Turning to the book, Mr. Bawer makes a great deal of the collapse of Communism, but as far as I can see events in Europe had very little to do with it. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, as the Duke of Wellington thought, then it seems clear that the Berlin Wall was pulled down on the mountains of Afghanistan. The Soviets, for whatever reason, chose to invade. The Afghan muhajadeen, with the help of American weapons, fought them off, and the illusion of overwhelming Soviet military force went up in smoke. From then on, it would only be a question of time before the Soviet empire collapsed.

We were quite happy to have fanatical Muslims doing our fighting for us then. The fact that we left them hanging out to dry after the conflict was over has much to do with our present troubles. Had we handled them with more wisdom, the situation may have been very different.

What comes to my mind when I think of Islam is the government of Spain before the expulsion of 1492, and of the medieval philosophers of Islam who brought the Greek classics back to Europe, and of the Sufis. My neighbours also come to mind, who are upstanding members of the local mosque, and have absolutely no time for the antics of the extremists. What passes for Islam these days is light years away from the way it used to be practised, or is practised by sensible people. Unfortunately, it is clear from reading “While Europe Slept” that there is little or no financial incentive nowadays for anyone to behave sensibly.

Like Mr. Bawer, I am a libertarian. I would agree with him when he says that the state interferes way too much in our lives, and doles out money with no thought of the consequences. I also agree that the European focus on immigration is misguided, in that we Europeans tended to get former subjects of the Empire in to do the jobs that we wouldn’t do, rather than encouraging people to come here and contribute something really worth having.

I cannot agree with his views on the EU. It is far from perfect, but if you don’t get involved in it with a view to reforming its institutions, it will not get any better. I see the EU as an attempt on our part to run our affairs on the American model of a collection of states, sharing one land mass, and working together for the good of the whole. The United States of America used to be anything but united. Over time, the states learned to submit their own interests to that of the Union. That is what we have to learn to do in Europe. I’m passionately convinced that for all its faults, the EU has done more to prevent further armed conflict than we could have dreamed of, mainly because the economies of the member states are interlinked in such a way that it would be insane self-destructiveness to go to war.

If you were to ask me what I would do about Islamic, or indeed any other religious, extremism in the UK, I would suggest that all religions have to moderate their practices for the sake of democratic principles. (May I say in passing that not all extremists are Islamic: I have personally suffered at the hands of fundamentalist Christians.) We’ve all heard of the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach. What follows is the next step forwards from there. It is pretty well agreed around the world that we should have democratic governments, because the alternatives are far worse. Now for a democracy to work, you need certain preconditions: the rule of law, equality before the law, universal education so that we know what we’re voting about, equality of opportunity, equality of the sexes, and so forth. If we want a working democracy, we have to trim our religion to suit.

The entire reason that the Torah was given was so that we would have a society that functions properly. This was the view of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, known as the Mey Shiloach. Had mankind on Planet Earth managed to invent such a society, then the Torah would not have had to be given. I believe that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that did devise fully functional modes of living, and therefore they did not need to be given the Torah. But that’s another story.

Anyway, for the sake of democracy and social institutions that work, we all would have to agree to change our religious practices. To take a few examples from many, Islam would have to stop insisting that women wear veils, to offer women the same education as men, and to give women the opportunity to be imams and judges of Islamic law. The Church would need to have women bishops. We would be required to allow women to become Rabbis and Dyanim. To do otherwise would be contrary to democratic principles of equality for women. If the religious leaders do not agree with this, the answer would be very simple: No money. No recognition. No state funding. No planning permission. No Government help of any kind, until you agree to put democratic principles into practice.

But I wonder how much the Beth Din would like the above paragraph?

My opinions on everything are subject to change. My love for you will not change.

Kind regards,

Yours sincerely,

Simcha Handley