Marxism and Islamophobia
By Thomas Riggins
Last Thursday’s Arts section of The New York Times (2-8-07) has an interesting article about a rift within the world of book awards. This is admittedly an arcane world that most people are unaware of, yet it reflects the reality of the everyday world in which we all live.
This article, "In Books, A Clash of Europe and Islam" by Patricia Cohen, is about a controversy regarding nominations for the National Book Critics Circle award. The brouhaha in this relatively small world can tell us something about the larger world about us and, I maintain, can only be understood from a Marxist perspective.
The controversy is over one of the books nominated for the award, namely "While Europe Slept" by Bruce Bawer. Eliot Weinberger, one of the board members of the Circle, when he presented the list of nominations for the award, stated that Bawer’s book was an example of "racism as criticism."
Following that, the president of the Circle, John Freeman, announced that "I have never been more embarrassed by a choice than I have been with Bruce Bawer’s ‘While Europe Slept.’ Its hyperventilated rhetoric tips from actual critique into Islamophobia."
If what is said is true it reveals that reactionary and racist views are now openly being embraced by many in so called intellectually enlightened elite. After all, the 24 board members of the Book Critics Circle no doubt consider it slanderous to suggest that they could be tainted with racist or ethnic insensibility.
Here, for example, is the reaction of J. Peder Zane of "The News & Observer" published in Raleigh, N.C., and member of the committee that selected the book. It "was not a contentious selection," he said. He was also very putout with Mr. Weinberger’s comments. "He was not only completely unfair to Bruce Bawer [we shall see about that] he’s also saying that those of us who put the book on the finalist list are racist or to stupid to know we’re racist." I think we will see that the latter is the case but then the former characterization would also follow.
So what are Mr. Bawer’s views? He calls himself a "liberal" cultural critic but his views are anything but liberal, and he is much in vogue with the ultraconservative National Review types as well as the ethno-nationalist "intellectuals" in Europe where he lives. He is an American but lives in Norway.
Bawer's views are highly critical of radical, fundamentalist Islam, but there seems to be some blurring of the distinction between Islam as a religion in general and those who are fundamentalists. There is also a spill over involving immigrants to Europe from Islamic countries. Bawer rejects the characterization of "racism" because he says he is actually criticizing religious views. This is a red herring as he also attacks people who are ethnically distinct from Europeans (many in the Muslim community), advocates mass deportations, and appears sympathetic to neo-Nazi fringe political parties.
Here is what he says about his critics: "One of the most disgraceful developments of our time is that many Western authors and intellectuals who pride themselves on being liberals have effectively aligned themselves with an outrageously illiberal movement that rejects equal rights for women, that believes that gays and Jews should be executed, that supports the coldblooded murder of one's own children in the name of honor, etc., etc."
Here the distinction between radical extremist Islam and Islam in general is blurred. Liberal intellectuals defend the civil rights of immigrants, including Islamic immigrants, and the freedom of religious practice within the confines of the civil law. Liberal intellectuals do not support radical Islamists and none of the practices Bawer mentioned in his quote are practices any educated person, Western intellectual or otherwise, would condone.
Marxists see religious beliefs as an alienated reflection of the social environment in which people live. What appear to be backward beliefs caused by religion are really caused by backward social and economic conditions. Blaming these beliefs on religion per se is simply a way of ignoring the real causes and avoiding having to deal with social and economic relations resulting from human exploitation and class differentiations under feudalism and capitalism.
The extreme religious practices we find unacceptable in some sections of immigrant communities usually disappear as immigrants integrate into the host community. Progressives want to encourage such integration while ethno-nationalists such as Bawer want to prevent it, and thus actually reinforce the practices that they say they condemn.
Let me quote, from the Times' article, Imam Fatith Alev of the Islamic-Christian Study Center in Copenhagen. He says, "I think there is of course a legitimate concern with regard to the differences of culture. The real problem is that the ones who ought to know better, who are well educated and well informed on the diversity of culture" are using these problems for their own purposes.
Rushy Rashid, a Muslim author who grew up in Denmark where she lives, said, according to the Times, the real problem is not between Islamic and European values so much as it is a difference between the generations within the immigrant groups. She says, "the clash between the first, the second and third generations is huge. If you can digest that kind of a clash, then you can overcome and integrate into the society you are living in."
Bawer has his own solution to the "immigrant question." He tells us his views are unfairly attacked by people who call him names "instead of trying to respond to irrefutable facts and arguments." If Mr. Bawer's arguments are indeed "irrefutable" what would be the point of trying to respond to them? People who believe their opinions and arguments are "irrefutable" are manifesting that very same fundamentalist mentality they claim to be opposing.
Here is Bawer's solution. "European officials," he writes, "have a clear route out of this nightmare. They have armies. They have police. They have prisons. They're in a position to deport planeloads of people everyday. They could start rescuing Europe tomorrow."
Clearly, when you are calling out the army and advocating deportation of planeloads of people daily, there is more to it than a crackdown on violent militant Islamists. This looks like a call to a general assault on Muslim immigrants in general.
This may also explain his sympathetic defense of the Sweden Democrats in an opinion piece he wrote for the December 8, 2006 New York Sun. This article, "While Sweden Slept" is an incontinent attack on Swedish Social Democracy. The Sweden Democrats he champions in this article are a small radical right-wing party of ethno-nationalists. It grew out of the racist "Keep Sweden Swedish" movement of the 1980s. Their basic ideology is of the ein Volk, ein Reich variety. One of their own leaders resigned saying the party was infested with neo-Nazis, racists and holocaust deniers. The party is opposed to immigration and if it ever got into power would no doubt take Bawer's views on how to "rescue Europe" (or at least Sweden) seriously.
Zane, of the The News and Observer, and others who voted to nominate Bawer for the Book Critics Circle award, might want to reconsider the implication they are not aware of their own racism.
--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org