Islam and Western Society

Michael Coren
November 26, 2009
Michael Coren asks whether Islam is reconcilable with western, pluralistic values. Using examples of the Islamic reaction to the Danish cartoons of Mohammad and how one particular town in England has changed through Muslim immigration, he raises severe doubts about the future of the relationship unless we change out current attitudes. Coren explains that while many Muslims simply want to live as westerners, we have yet to fully understand the radical Islamic imperative which seeks to transform the nature of any society where it settles. It would be simple, but incredibly dangerous, to assume that Islam follows similar patterns to other religions. He argues that this debate is the most important of the age.

Islam and Western Society

Michael Coren
November 26, 2009
Michael Coren asks whether Islam is reconcilable with western, pluralistic values. Using examples of the Islamic reaction to the Danish cartoons of Mohammad and how one particular town in England has changed through Muslim immigration, he raises severe doubts about the future of the relationship unless we change out current attitudes. Coren explains that while many Muslims simply want to live as westerners, we have yet to fully understand the radical Islamic imperative which seeks to transform the nature of any society where it settles. It would be simple, but incredibly dangerous, to assume that Islam follows similar patterns to other religions. He argues that this debate is the most important of the age.
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Ever since large-scale immigration began, there have been complaints from the host community about newcomers changing the traditional culture, threatening the way of life or bringing crime or even disease into a stable, civilized and generally homogenous society. Many of these complaints have been spurious and the stuff of bigotry, entirely invalid, mere fear and panic. Others have been rational concerns based on experience and fact. Most, if we are honest, have been a combination of both.

The vast bulk of modern immigration, of course, is a history of Western, Anglo-Celtic, Christian-based but secular democracies – Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada and so on – accepting immigration from Third World countries partly for political but overwhelmingly for economic reasons. At its least attractive, Western society even at the most sophisticated and powerful levels has reacted badly and with examples of prejudice – a member of the British parliament in the years before the First World War spoke of Jews being unwelcome because they were dirty and kept coal in the bath. But just because some arguments have been absurd does not mean that all arguments against immigration or fears of immigrant groups are similarly ridiculous.

There are naturally various issues related to culture, crime and assimilation that concern all immigrant groups and the countries to which they move. In the contemporary world, one almost universal has appeared, one frequently repeated scenario that obliges all informed people to perhaps re-think and certainly to analyze immigration as a concept and ask whether all newcomers can be authentically and successfully glued to an existing state and body politic. Race is not an issue because this particular group is of more than one ethnic background; nor is wealth because the group includes both rich and poor. The issue is one of religion. One religion. Islam. The question is whether Muslims who hold to the orthodox version of their faith can exist comfortably and without friction and discord in Western, pluralistic, secular, liberal societies. To even ask the question is, most of us know, politically incorrect and even dangerous. Yet to ignore it is has far more serious consequences.

First, we have to define our terms. An immigrant or child of an immigrant who is born Muslim but is secular is irrelevant to anyone but a racist. His or her religious origin is simply not an issue. Muslims who believe in some aspects of Islam but fully embrace Western culture are also not an issue. What we have to wonder is whether orthodox Islam is compatible with our values and virtues and if there is a direct contradiction between traditional Islam and the post-Christian societies of the West. In other words, are Muslims who accept the West genuine Muslims, and can true Islam exist as a minority religion is a society that encourages diversity?

One useful example because it is something of a microcosm is from my homeland, Great Britain, and a particular town in the south of England called Walthamstow. It is in the county of Essex but has long been an annex of East London. Working class, earthy, bland, safe. I remember the local park where we played soccer until it was too dark to see the sweaters we had thrown down on the grass to act as goalposts. Yet earlier this year, Walthamstow-raised, 28-year-old Abdulla Ahmed Ali would meet with his gang in this same park to plan the largest terrorist bombing in British history, one that would have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women, children and babies, including Canadians flying on Air Canada jets from London to Toronto and Montreal. Ali and two others, Tanvir Hussain and Assad Sarwar, were convicted this week of conspiracy to commit mass murder. A fourth man was convicted of conspiracy to murder.

The group promised, “martyrdom operations upon martyrdom operations will keep on raining on these kuffars [non-believers]” and “ripping amongst your people and scattering the people and your body parts.” When asked if they had been brainwashed, their leader replied, “Yes my brain has been washed in the clean and cleansing waters of Islam and the Koran and the Sunnah [the path of the Prophet].”

It would be comforting to a certain degree, of course, to smugly assume that these men were aberrations, mere manifestations of angry and dysfunctional youth. There are two answers to such complacent and dangerous relativism. First, angry and dysfunctional youth tend to fight and steal; they generally do not spend months planning slaughter. Second, these young Muslims are far from unique in a community that is deeply troubled and replicated throughout Europe.

Walthamstow itself is worth studying. It was home to one of the men who helped kidnap American journalist Daniel Pearl, he who was told to “admit” he was a Jew before having his head cut off in front of a video camera. His kidnapper attended the expensive local private school in Walthamstow. My friends and I came from families that could never have afforded such luxury. The town and surrounding areas have also seen an unparalleled increase in violent anti-Semitic incidents. In virtually every case, the local police reports reveal that the culprits are Muslim.

British media has revealed that the intelligence services have prevented dozens of terror attacks by Muslim extremists, and there have been many major exposés of English mosques where violence and intense hatred are regularly preached. There also exist several recordings of Taliban fighters speaking in strong regional accents used only by people born and raised in England.

There are 1.6-million Muslims living in Britain and, according to the most extensive survey so far conducted, 45 per cent of them believe that 9/11 was an American or Israeli conspiracy. Almost 25 per cent argue that the July 7, 2005, attacks in London were justified because of the British government’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same number believes Britain is not their country, and 30 per cent would rather live under Sharia law. Twenty-eight per cent hope that Britain will eventually become a Muslim fundamentalist nation and a massive 78 per cent advocate punishment for anybody who displays cartoons offensive to Islam, such as those of Mohammad that were published in Denmark.

Similar numbers are reflected in other surveys, and what is particularly obvious and repeated is how little support there is within the Muslim community for notions of free speech when Islam is allegedly mocked or even critiqued. There were arrests and convictions, for example, of demonstrators in London publicly calling for the Pope and leading Catholics to be slaughtered after Benedict XVI dared to make reference to a question asked about Islam by a 14thcentury Byzantine emperor.

It is difficult to see how a civilized country with public education and healthcare, a reliable and fair police service, judiciary and bureaucracy and a tolerant culture and tradition of decency and moderation can have produced so many such people. Certainly not because they have been oppressed or denied the privileges of every other British citizen. It is deeply significant that two of those charged in the Walthamstow terror plot were converts to Islam, as were three men convicted in the United States this year of planning attacks on a group of synagogues and Jewish centres.

As we saw earlier, race is not an issue. Hindus and Sikhs came to Britain at exactly the same time as Muslims and the Sikhs, because of their distinctive headgear, probably faced the most acute racism. These communities certainly encountered problems but also enjoyed legal support and the backing of intelligent British society, which is the vast majority of people. Both groups have produced extensive middle classes and they are part of the greater British fabric. As for foreign wars, British Muslims are overwhelmingly South Asian and most authorities view their alleged fraternity with Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan as mere pose.

The problems are deep, profound and disturbing and are as vital in Canada as they are in Britain or the rest of Europe. This summer, I interviewed 74-year-old Kurt Westergaard, the bearded, gentle and disarmingly unassuming man who set off an international crisis in 2005 when his cartoon of the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb as a turban was published in Denmark’s leading newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. The subsequent protests and violence led to more than 100 deaths, attacks on embassies and the storming and burning of Danish and Western buildings throughout the Islamic world. Just this October, three men, one of them Canadian, were convicted of planning to firebomb Westergaard’s newspaper.

It is worthy noting that Westergaard, now obliged to live with 24-hour police protection, is very much on the political left, still dresses in the red and black colours of anarchism and is someone who advocated open doors and immigration. Now the great Dane is more angry than he is frightened. He grimaces as he recalls the December evening in 2005 when the Danish secret service contacted him and said he had to leave his home, immediately. For the next nine months, he lived in 10 different safe houses, and he was driven in a dozen different cars. “Did I know that the cartoon would put my life in danger and cause so much trouble? No. But if you want to know if I’m sorry or if I will apologise for what I did, absolutely not.” A pause. “No, absolutely not.”

The story has context. Proudly tolerant Denmark had been shaken by a wave of extremism from elements of the Islamic community. First, a noted author could not find anyone sufficiently courageous to illustrate his book about Islam. Then leading Danish comedian Frank Hvam openly stated that he would “urinate” on the Bible on television but would not dare criticise the Koran. Finally, a professor of Moroccan-Jewish descent was abducted and badly beaten by an Arab gang for merely reading passages of the Koran to a class of non-Muslims.

The Jyllands-Posten decided to test the genuine state of free expression by inviting cartoonists to depict the prophet. Westergaard’s became the most notorious, but in truth, it is far from shocking and nothing as severe as the habitual drawings of Jews and Christians in much of the Arab press. “At first there were peaceful demonstrations in Denmark from Muslims. Entirely acceptable. Then the cartoons were taken to the Middle East in a direct attempt to cause trouble and attack the West and Western freedoms,” he explains. “They added other pictures that had never been printed in Denmark.”

One of the illustrations was a photograph of a man dressed as a pig. It was taken from a French squealing contest. Bizarre and, well, French, but nothing to do with Islam. “There was never any serious attempt at dialogue. I was cursed, abused, threatened,” says Westergaard. “I remember a television debate I had with one of Denmark’s leading Imams. Here was an educated, intelligent man. He suddenly told me that he knew what was going on. My newspaper, he explained, was owned by American Jews – ‘dark forces’ as he called them – and unless I attacked Islam I’d be fired and the paper closed down. I didn’t know how to react. The paper is owned by Danes – mainly Lutherans and secular, no Jewish people anywhere. Yet this man is convinced that we are controlled by these ‘dark forces’ of foreign Jews. There is no possibility of compromise with lunacy.”

What particularly disappointed him was the lack of support from other artists and intellectuals. When he had previously drawn cartoons mocking Christianity, for example, there had been a consensus of approval from what he calls “the creative establishment.” Not this time. “Relativism. Islam is the adopted pet minority of these people and I was offending it. Never mind freedom of speech and the right of speaking my mind. A different response, however, from what you might call the man on the street. Ordinary Danes supported me. It’s interesting that the same journalists who thought I’d gone too far said not a word recently when a Muslim leader in Denmark stated that Jews were causing AIDS and that the country should live under Sharia law where apostates would be killed and women who committed adultery stoned to death.”

So the traditional upholders of liberal values are frightened, the right is marginalized and accused of racism, moderate Muslims are denounced as being self-hating and often intimidated by others in their community, and the political establishment – always slow in responding – has yet to be convinced that there is any problem. The greater question breaks down into the following.

Can Islam evolve, as has Christianity and Judaism? In that it is an exclusive monotheistic religion, it can never be as inclusive as Hinduism, but surely, as with Catholic or Protestant Christianity, it can hold to exclusive truth and still be tolerant of others who disagree. The problem is that there is limited evidence that this is happening. The Islamic heartland of the Middle East and Pakistan and even Nigeria and Indonesia evince a severe lack of acceptance for people who leave Islam for another faith, marry outside of the religion or criticize the founder, Mohammad, or the primary text, the Koran. Syria may not be as bad as Iran, Jordan may not be as bad as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia may not be as bad as Egypt, but it is only Turkey – where a militantly secular regime won a Kulturkampf against Islam, where anything resembling Western pluralism exists. It is, however, a pale imitation, and polls repeatedly reveal a personal intolerance of Christians and Jews unparalleled anywhere else in Europe.

In Canada, there have been several cases of so-called honour killings where fathers and brothers murder daughters and sisters who shame the family by becoming too Western. While this does occur outside of Muslim communities, it is overwhelmingly an Islamic phenomenon. Polygamy also occurs in Canada, with multiple and illegal marriages performed by Imams, and the police and judicial authorities are too timid to intervene. There are also cases of violent and hateful sermons delivered in Mosques, death threats made to critics and financial, moral and even physical support for foreign terrorists fighting and killing Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

This makes for depressing reading and paints a bleak picture of the Western, including Canadian, future. Obviously many Europeans already believe this, proved by the increasing support for right wing and sometimes even semi-fascist parties in countries such as Holland and Britain where tolerance is a way of life. We must also be extremely careful not to paint all Muslims with the same brush of suspicion. Most followers of the faith are peaceful people more concerned with paying the rent than preparing a rebellion. What, though, when Islam’s numbers grow and give it something other than cringing minority status? Christians in the Middle East will tell you that there are two radically different Islams: that of the minority and that of the majority.

If this problem is to be solved in a civilized manner, we have to transform the conversation and reform the vocabulary. First, the word “Islamophobia” must be expunged from the debate. It is meaningless, but it is used to silence contrary opinion and to place all critics of Muslim actions on the defensive. Second, there must be a collective show of courage and solidarity from assorted media and a willingness to display pictures and publish articles and books that, while not gratuitously offensive, are as cutting and critical of Islam as are those habitually drawn and written about Christianity. Third, we must hold Muslims to the same standard as anyone else and not indulge in the racism of lowered expectations. It is genuinely patronising to assume that a brown Muslim cannot act according to the same rules of civility and tolerance as a white Christian. Fourth, we must break from self-denial and admit that while we are not at war with Islam or Muslims, our liberal values are in conflict with many of the core concepts and precepts of Islam. We won the Cold War because most of us were prepared to say that capitalism, for all of its faults, was morally superior to communism. Today we are confused about what we believe, frightened to promote what we love and terrified of being seen as intolerant.

If enough people are willing to stand, read, write, act and know, we can carve out a new and successful West that includes the finer points of Islamic culture and history. If we are not – well, the thought is horribly rhetorical.

Michael Coren is an author, columnist and television host. His website is

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