Once Again, Islam in Europe

In the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash reviews two new books–Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Ayaan Hirsi Ali The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam–and add his two centimes on the issue of Islam in Europe.

Buruma rightly emphasizes the cultural diversity of Muslim immigrants: Berbers from the Rif mountains are not quite like Moroccans from the lowlands; Turks have different patterns of adaptation from Somalians, let alone Pakistanis in Britain. In the nineteenth century, European imperialists studied the ethnography of their colonies. In the twenty-first century, we need a new ethnography of our own cities. Since European countries tend to have concentrations of immigrants from their former colonies, the new ethnography can even draw on the old. At the same time, the British, French, Dutch, and German ways of integration—or nonintegration—vary enormously, with contrasting strengths and weaknesses. What works for, say, Pakistani Kashmiris in Bradford may not work for Berber Moroccans in Amsterdam, and vice versa.

We have to decide what is essential in our European way of life and what is negotiable. For example, I regard it as both morally indefensible and politically foolish for the French state to insist that grown women may not wear the hijab in any official institution—a source of additional grievance to French Muslims, as I heard repeatedly from women in the housing projects near Saint-Denis. It seems to me as objectionable that the French Republic forbids adult women to wear the hijab as it is that the Islamic Republic of Iran compels them to wear the hijab, and on the same principle: in a free and modern society, grown men and women should be able to wear what they want. More practically, France surely has enough difficulties in its relations with its Muslim population without creating this additional one for itself.

On the other hand, freedom of expression is essential. It is now threatened by people like Mohammed Bouyeri, whose message to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali is “if you say that, I will kill you.” Indeed, Buruma tells us that Bouyeri explained to the court that divine law did not permit him “to live in this country or in any country where free speech is allowed.” (In which case, why not go back to Morocco?) But free speech is also threatened by the appeasement policies of frightened European governments, which attempt to introduce censorship in the name of intercommunal harmony.