Huffpost WorldPost
Joost Lagendijk Headshot

On the Muslim Question

Posted: Updated:

In 1843 Karl Marx , the iconic 19th century philosopher and co-founder of Marxism, wrote an essay called "On the Jewish Question." In this work Marx criticizes one of his contemporaries, Bruno Bauer, who had argued that Jews could achieve political emancipation only by relinquishing their particular religious consciousness. Marx argues that Bauer is mistaken in his assumption that in a secular state religion will no longer play a prominent role in social life. In Marx' analysis, the secular state is not opposed to religion, but actually presupposes it.

Recently, Anne Norton, professsor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, published a small book titled On the Muslim Question. The direct reference to Marx' essay is no coincidence. According to Norton, the Jewish question was fundamental for politics and philosophy in the Enlightment. In our time, Norton claims, the Muslim question has taken its place. The key issue in the Jewish question was the need to change the laws that had relegated Jews to second-class citizenship. In Norton's words:

The freedom of Jews to vote, to participate in politics as equals and to walk through their cities as equals accompanied the expansion of democracy and marked the achievement of liberal constitutions.

In the 19th century, struggles over faith and secularism, equality and difference were fought out on the terrain of the Jewish question. In the 21st century, as Norton puts it,

the fıgure of the Muslim has become the axis where questions of political philosophy and political theology, politics and ethics meet. Islam is marked as the preeminent danger to politics; to Christians, Jews, and secular humanists; to women, sex, and sexuality; to the values and institutions of the Enlightment.

In her book Norton makes a passionate argument against the fear of Islam in Europe and the U.S. She starts off by reinterpreting some of the infamous clashes over Islam and freedom of speech that we have witnessed over the last decade: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the murder of the Dutch film producer Theo van Gogh and the riots following the Danish cartoons of Muhammed.

Fascinating and, according to me, very much to the point, is her description of the Netherlands and the reasons why so many liberals, including Van Gogh, feel extremely uncomfortable with the presence of rural immigrants from Turkey and Morocco with their customs and traditions rooted in Islam and local traditions considired as backwards by most Dutch. Norton convincingly analyses the rejection of Islam as the refusal to accept the return of religion in the highly secularized Dutch society. The immigrants remind their uneasy hosts of a past in which all the pleasures and the freedoms now available in most cities were not yet accepted or allowed in a pre-modern country of villages and religious restrictions. Norton:

For women, for homosexuals, indeed for many who enjoy the consumer pleasures of postindustrial Europe, that past was a prison. The presence of the immigrants is the presence of the past. Often what is feared in them is not the alien, but the familiar.

This is only one of the many creative and often provocative ways in which Norton deconstructs many of the established truths about Muslims and Islam. She strongly denounces renowned liberal critics of Islam such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Paul Berman and underlines the intellectual flaws in the work of prominent academics like John Rawls and Jacques Derrida.

Her style is confrontational, at some places even aggressive. Norton is clearly irritated by what she sees as analytical sloppiness, conceptual laziness or plain ignorance among many of the supporters of the idea of a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam.

Her pamphlet ends with many examples of different cultures and religions living side by side or mixing in attractive blends that demonstrate that both Europe and the US have become multicultural societies a long time ago and will remain so. She recognizes that it won't always be easy when Muslims and non-Muslims meet and sometimes clash. But in the end she sees no other possibility for Europe and the U.S. than to solve the Muslim question.

I agree with most of what Norton writes and stands for in her book. The problem is that she presents the realities of today's multicultural European and American societies as the ultimate proof that people like Berman and Rawls got it wrong and Muslims are not the main stumbling block. I am afraid that is putting things a bit too simplistic.

My guess is that for the foreseeable future we will be faced with two parallel realities that do not necessarily have an impact on each other. Especially in urban areas, the U.S. and Europe will get even more heterogeneous with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds living and working together. That could turn out alright, as Norton suggests. It can also create a lot of problems, as the critics assert. I don't expect the skeptics to stop criticizing and analyzing the problematic parts of multicultural societies, including the role of Islam, just because there are good examples as well.

What one could hope for is that, eventually, most open-minded intellectuals will refrain from blaming all the multicultural drawbacks on one particular religion, Islam.

Norton is right: in order for democracy to resurge in the 21th century, the Muslim Question will need to be solved. But it won't be as easy as she fervently claims.