Friday, February 09, 2007

With friends like these...

I'm catching up with this far too late, and - since real-world work calls - I will have to deal with it far more briefly than I'd prefer.

I think, however, that Geoff Coupe was absolutely right about Pascal Bruckner's essay 'Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?', which took Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash to task for, apparently, not demonstrating sufficient and unquestioning adoration of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Geoff - rightly, if generously - refers to Bruckner's article as 'shrill' and describes the experience of reading this way: 'I felt as though I was being hectored by someone shouting in my ear and waving his arms about wildly...'

So, I must say, did I, although I think Ash put it even better by referring to Bruckner as 'the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies.'

Neither Buruma nor Ash need defending here, as their responses (Buruma's is here and Ash's is here) are everything that Bruckner's essay was not: carefully argued, well-written and - despite an understandable testiness - thoroughly reasonable. (Bruckner's essay was translated, so, some of the more exhausting stretches of prose might not be entirely his fault. Considering how far over-the-top it actually is, though, I doubt it.)

In fact, I think Bruckner's essay is one of the most blundering and silly hatchet jobs I've seen in a long time.

Nonetheless, it has been suggested that since Bruckner provides quotes from Ash and Buruma, his argument is fair. I can't accept that, not least since the quotations in question are both highly selective and, even when taken individually, do not sustain the arguments they are intended to back up.

Just to take one example, Bruckner says the following about Ash's 'outmoded machismo':

In his eyes, only the beauty and glamour of the Dutch parliamentarian can explain her media success; not the accuracy of what she says. (Emphasis added)

Graciously (or foolishly, take your pick), Bruckner provides a footnote, leading to the following comment from Garton Ash's recent NYRB review:

In fact, she is irresistible copy for journalists, being a tall, strikingly beautiful, exotic, brave, outspoken woman with a remarkable life story, now living under permanent threat of being slaughtered like van Gogh. ... It's no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.

Recall that 'only' I highlighted in Bruckner's sentence: not only does it skip over the other qualities that Ash actually mentions ('brave', 'outspoken', 'remarkable life story' 'living under permanent threat of being slaughtered') which cannot be put down to 'machismo', but Bruckner also fails to put this comment in context.

(Bruckner's ellipses also left out the following sentence of Ash's: 'That's how we like our heroes—glamorous', which broadens the point he's making well beyond Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Is he wrong? Is it impossible that her 'media success' is related to the factors Ash mentions? How naive do you have to be to believe that the attention Ayaan Hirsi Ali has received is purely a result of her devastating critique of Islam and not also related to her charisma and the drama inherent in her story? It seems to me that this was all Ash was saying.)

Thus, it is a shameful rhetorical stunt for Bruckner to follow up thus:

It is her wilful, short-fused, enthusiastic, impervious side to which Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash object, in the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes.

What!? Did Bruckner miss Ash saying (in the same essay Bruckner alleges to have read) 'I have enormous respect for her courage, her sincerity, and her clarity', 'Ali performs a great service in drawing our attention to these horrors, which are the dark underside of a supposedly tolerant "multiculturalism"' or 'I regard it as a profound shame for Holland and Europe that we Europeans could not keep among us someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose intention was to fight for a better Holland and a better Europe'? Or did he, more likely, read them and - recognising that acknowledging them would make his hyperactive huffing about 'enemies of freedom' and the 'spirit of the inquisitors' look a little bit more silly than it already does - pretend that they didn't exist?

These are only a few examples, but - though I wasn't keeping precise count - just about every other sentence of his essay seems to contain something which is equally deceptive or rhetorically or logically overblown.

I'm not, as it turns out, an enormous fan of Timothy Garton Ash, whom I find to be a sometimes insightful but too often uneven (and occasionally just plain wacky) thinker and writer. But if Bruckner wants to class him as an 'inquisitor', then it's Bruckner who looks a fool, and the weird caricature drawn here of Buruma's magnificent and complex book Murder in Amsterdam is further proof, were any necessary, that Bruckner doesn't know what he's talking about.

It's true, of course, that both Ash and Buruma have critiqued Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (What, is that not allowed?) Both of them agree with a significant amount of her critique (indeed, I would say with nearly all of it); however, they question - reasonably enough - the effectiveness of her approach in helping to encourage moderation in European Islam. One may agree with that specific critique or not, but it thoroughly escapes me how such critiques (Buruma, for instance, notes his own 'scepticism' about her analysis but suggests it is 'a matter of emphasis' rather than a fundamental rejection) make either writer an 'enemy of freedom' or any of the other strange epithets hurled at them by Bruckner...

...or, in a later response by Necla Kelek, who, bizarrely, seems to think Buruma is a 'cultural relativist' of the most spineless sort, one of those who, as she puts it, 'prefer not to hear about arranged marriages, honour killings...and other violations of human rights.' (An even later response by Paul Cliteur takes it one step further, claiming Buruma has a 'postmodern relativist outlook' and associates him with 'nihilism'.)

Ms. Kelek, though, seems to have forgotten that Buruma not only has 'heard about' such things, but he has also written about them with great moral clarity in Murder in Amsterdam and elsewhere. In her world, suggesting any amount of accommodation with Europe's Muslims is equivalent to accepting blood vengeance, slavery and the oppression of women. Does she really think that Buruma doesn't give a damn about Muslim women? And could it possibly be true that, rather than freeing Muslim women, he thinks that a response to European Islam based solely on an uncompromising secularism might drive them further into the suffocating embrace of their own separatist communities?

Well, golly, yes, judging by what he wrote, it would seem to be his argument:

I would not dream of defending dictatorship in the name of tolerance for other cultures. Violence against women, or indeed men, is intolerable, and should be punished by law. I would not defend the genital mutilation of children, let alone wife-beating, no matter how it is rationalized. Honour killings are murders, and must be treated as such. But these are matters of law enforcement. Figuring out how to stop violent ideologies from infecting mainstream Muslims, and thus threatening free societies, is trickier. I'm not convinced that public statements, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made, that Islam in general is "backward" and its prophet "perverse", are helpful.
However, while strangely seeming to ignore anything that Buruma has actually written (except, perhaps, the fragments offered up by Bruckner), Kelek works herself up into a needless frenzy about the truly strange claim that Buruma 'attempts to reduce the West's confrontation with Islam to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's personal problem'. That Buruma points out the fact - not, Kelek's word, 'stereotype' - that Islam (like any other religion) is embedded globally in different cultures is twisted by Kelek into the very different claim, which Buruma does not make, that those cultural practices must all be allowed or even respected.

Bruckner made a similar point to Kelek's, scorning Buruma's reference to European muslims as 'a vulnerable minority in the heart of Europe' by asserting,

this statement disregards the fact that Islam has no borders: the Muslim communities of the Old World are backed up by a billion faithful.
This is a common enough observation. Nonetheless, it was recently Christopher Hitchens - no pansified appeaser of cultural relativism he - who pointed out the problem of this kind of statement, in a review of Mark Steyn's latest book:

Yet Steyn makes the same mistake as did the late Oriana Fallaci: considering European Muslim populations as one. Islam is as fissile as any other religion (as Iraq reminds us). Little binds a Somali to a Turk or an Iranian or an Algerian, and considerable friction exists among immigrant Muslim groups in many European countries.

And this, it seems to me, is one of the crucial points emerging from Buruma's subtle analysis (in Murder in Amsterdam, for instance) of the cultural differences among muslims, something which is of great practical, political significance in working out how real integration is going to be most quickly moved forward. What evidence - other than Buruma's own assertions to the contrary - might lead us to the conclusion that there is something more than multicultural, relativist cowardice behind his words?

Well, Hitchens, building on the point he made above, makes a good argument about one of the key issues in European Islam:

The main problem in Europe in this context is that many deracinated young Muslim men, inflamed by Internet propaganda from Chechnya or Iraq and aware of their own distance from “the struggle,” now regard the jihadist version of their religion as the “authentic” one.
Now, in Buruma's response to Cliteur's own wilful mis-characterisation of his book, Buruma says the following, and, if you listen closely, you might hear something familiar:
One example of his methods should suffice to make the point. I wrote that young European Muslims are sometimes fatally attracted to radical Islam, because of their cultural dislocation. Feeling neither at home in the traditions of their fathers, nor in the societies of their European homelands, they seek the "purity of modern Islamism", which "has been disconnected from cultural tradition." It is indeed a universalist creed, just as belief in the fundamental values of the Enlightenment are. Thus what we see in Europe is "not a straightforward clash between culture and universalism, but between two versions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious."
Where Buruma stands with regard to these two worldviews is hardly a mystery. And this should be immediately apparent to any serious reader of his work, let alone people with educational credentials implying that they have the capacity for things like careful reading and subtle, differentiated judgements rather than simply juvenile name calling.

Is it just me, or is there something odd and disquieting to see these self-proclaimed defenders of the Enlightenment and reason using dishonest rhetorical tricks, apocalyptic visions of social decline, overblown, emotionally-laden vocabulary and the kind of blanket denunciations more appropriate to Politburo commissars than free-thinking intellectuals?

I hate the term 'Enlightenment fundamentalist' as much as anyone, and I still think that it's meaningless and thought-killing.

However, I can't stop thinking that if Bruckner, Kelek and Cliteur represent reason's front line of defence in Europe, the positive legacies of the Enlightenment are even more endangered than I realised.

1 comment:

Ario said...

Just a quick note to show my appreciation of the three posts you mentioned in your email.

Yes, they are long, but more than worth the time spent on them. Needless to say I echo your arguments (I think I wrote similar on my deleted blog yellowduckpond, just not as well).

It is a great exercise of the mind to follow your argument step by step here. This is part of an ongoing debate of course, but yours seems to be one voice of clarity in the cacaphony - a clarity that is sadly often lacking.

But then, that's why I keep on reading this blog :)