On Ross Douthat and Islam

This past week the New York Times published three pieces on the minaret issue on its opinion pages. There was one, quite Neanderthal, written by Ross Douthat, the Times‘s resident conservative who has opined on the dangers of Islam before; another — by Peter Stamm, a Swiss writer — bland and half-way apologetic, and a third more courageous and reasonable than much of what the Times has published on European Islam recently. Unsurprisingly the third piece was written by the senior director of Amnesty, Claudio Cordone. The second piece shows at once the inevitable truth that tolerant voices still exist in Europe and that too often such voices fail to grasp the gravity of the problem with their compatriots’ “Muslim problem”.*

Douthat’s is more pressing from the American standpoint than either Cordone’s or Peter Stamm’s. Ross Douthat’s writing on Islam to date is disappointing from the standpoint one concerned with the well-being of western Muslims, and it deserves examination and criticism, as it represents the provincialism and bad judgment that persists in even the “reformist” set among the new generation of conservatives and Republicans, so rooted in the Culture War and revenge politics. This is not surprising, though it is disappointing and worrisome nonetheless.

Douthat has been labeled by liberals and conservatives all over, magazine and newspapers, as one of American conservatism’s up-and-coming leaders. In 2008, with Reihan Salam (whose piece on the Fort Hood massacre is worth reading), Douthat authored Grand New Party: How Conservatives can win back the Middle Class and save the American Dream (Doubleday) a tract on how to make the Republican Party credible with its “base” once more. In Douthat’s writings on “Islam,” one finds a provincialism and illiteracy that reinforces the dogmatism that make so much of American conservatism inaccessible to minorities, American Muslims in particular. Pity his lack of creativity in the time of Obama. For instance, in Douthat’s column of 25 October, in which he observed the Catholic and Anglican churches, calling their leaderships to reconciliation because the great trouble was “not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.” In this, he wrote, “Catholicism and Anglicanism share two fronts,” in Europe and Africa. The Europeans, Douthat informed readers, are caught between “a secular majority and an expanding Muslim population,” while in Africa “both are facing and entrenched Islamic presence across a fault line running from Nigeria to Sudan”. Douthat sees Catholic-Anglican dialogue as “the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.” So this is the lense from which Douthat approaches Islam, particularly Europe. In an episode of Bloggingheads he affirmed his belief in a “clash of civilizations,” in a debate with Matthew Yglesias. In that debate the two, each alumni of the Atlantic Monthly, compare the European experience with Muslim immigrants and the American experience with eastern and southern European immigrants (which is itself flawed, and this is reflected in the conversation). Douthat casts the problems associated with European Muslims in economic terms but the general matter for him is that “the level of violence available to potential terrorists” in western Europe today is greater than in the past, that Muslims will “continue to be a problem, but a manageable one.” Douthat’s thoughts on American Muslims are more obscurantist, but he has written on the weakness of violent Islamism, for instance challenging the foolishness of much of the American thinking-class in writing on 9 November that “Islamism isn’t in the same league as the last century’s totalitarianisms” and treading more carefully than some other conservatives on the Fort Hood killer than he does on the subject of Islam in general. His brief comments on Islam while blogging at the Atlantic.com are not especially enlightening as to his knowledge or attitude towards that faith, except that he holds some sympathy for the skepticism of European Muslims common on the right and one observes increasing curiosity with it over time. One must understand his view of Islam in the context of his broader attatchment to faith — the semi-revivalist Catholic sort, basically — and his view that this is under assault in modern society, from liberals and atheists and secularists and so on. His conservatism positions itself as a vanguard of a political community overlapping with a faith community under siege from corrosive forces infiltrating from without. Islamism (code for Islam proper in the form of Muslim converts and immigrants) is one of these tentacles of cultural decline. His reading of Islam sounds quite like Tom Buchanan’s anxiety about “other races” having “control over things” or some such.

Douthat & Caldwell, Responsibility & Failure

Returning to his commentary on the referendum, which might also be a happy advertisement for Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Douthat links the Swiss move to the “European elite’s greatest triumph” in the Lisbon Treaty: “they’re both the fruits of the high-handed, often undemocratic approach to politics that Europe’s leaders have cultivated in their quest for unity.” This draws directly on Caldwell’s contention that the introduction of mass immigration in the post-war period was unwanted and undemocratic. Muslim immigration, but somehow not any other sort of immigration, is symptomatic of a “political style — forge a consensus among the establishment, and assume you can contain any backlash that develops — is also how the Continent came to accept millions of Muslim immigrants, despite the absence of a popular consensus on the issue, or a plan for how to integrate them.”

This is central theme in Caldwell’s book, the unfair and undemocratic origin of immigration in Europe and the similarly unfair and undemocratic rules imposed on those who dare to question it by a stiff and arrogant elite. The milieu is one-sided: there are the indigenous, cowering from an aggressive and confident Muslim intruder whose deliberate Islam makes Europe’s ambiguous, secular and post-modern “faith” look and feel anything but. A “clash of civilization on its own frontiers,” as Douthat calls it. But in Caldwell’s account — and Douthat’s too — there is nothing of the other end, beyond “Islamic” primitivism and polygamy: what of the problem of the nation-state and its associated identities, that have yet to adopt a coherent notion of “multiculturalism,” whose recent iterations have been the bane of the right, on both sides of the Atlantic, or the failure of political institutions and parties to integrate the children of Muslim immigrants. These are troubles that cannot be heaped on some variety of “radical Islamism” or the disconnected belief — common among some in the majority — that newcomers prefer to live in dim and sullen ghettos. When Douthat mentions European failure, it comes as a generalization that is not the result of an abdication of duty on the part of the European political class and civil society, but rather a fundamental inability of European and “Islamic” culture and civilization to match up. Here, and this perhaps the most serious problem with Caldwell’s book, is the dismissal of European agency and responsibility. It is the failure to accept that, as Douthat writes, “they can’t undo decades of migration. A large Muslim minority is in Europe to stay.” Here is where Caldwell’s vision, and Douthat’s version of it, actually reveal something. There are hordes of European voters who are under the impression that there is something they can do about, however small the opportunity might be. If it is banning expressions of Muslim identity, those are the ones who will seize it; if it is keeping cloth off Muslim women’s heads, they will pursue it; if it is banning mosques, however ridiculous that sounds, there is a set for that, too. In defense of the realm, anything goes.

The most egregious and dangerous failure among European elites has been that they did not prepare the indigenous population for the changes now manifest in practically any European country worth migrating to. It was simply unforeseen. Instead, the Muslim population has become a political football used by elites for votes (from the Muslims) or to channel popular sentiments of bigotry and post-industrial discontent (looking for “native” votes). In his book, Caldwell discusses an International Crisis Group report on European Muslims and dismisses its findings and conclusions, ignoring its implications for the European political class. These include that, in France for instance, parties should engage Muslim voters not as a block via notable politicians but as citizens and individuals; the report includes important information on the rise of individualism — albeit promoted by Salafist teachings — among French Muslims. It also notes an increasing political apathy in the French Muslim community. Caldwell simply dismisses this as Muslims rallying to “team Islam” in the 2005 riots, also ignoring that non-Muslims rioted alongside those youths and there were virtually no religious symbols raised by these heavily Muslim rioters. The picture is, as any moving from a doctrinaire and simplistic dogma, simple and logical but violently out of relation to the facts.

Abandoning critical observation

The terminology Douthat (and Caldwell) use are problematic for one reads not of European Muslims who are citizens and members of European communities but instead of some menacing “Islam” or “Islamic” thisorthat and there are no real Muslim faces or voices — or even “native” European ones. Douthat makes the Swiss victims living “under the shadow of violence,” having “spent the last week worrying about the possibility that the minaret vote might make them a target for Islamist terrorism.” There is nothing of what about Islam in Switzerland ought to make us sympathize with the ban; it should be taken as a given. Apparently using minorities as a punching bag to vent populist anger with some remote “elite” is in line with how civilized peoples behave. The discourse relies on abstraction and the deprivation of Europeans, Muslims and non-Muslims, of their own agency. European “elites” and “leaders” are at fault for how easily important segments of the European population have embraced a kind of bigotry American writers now accept as a valid response to immigration.

This goes beyond understanding the origins of European displeasure with immigration. The real problem becomes that there are Muslims in Europe and that Muslims — as a clump — refuse to conform to “European norms,” accepting the narrative of Europeans confused and disappointed with their governments’ handling of immigration, some of them genuinely concerned citizens others mere populist scoundrels. There is more blame than criticism.

Lost in this, particularly in Douthat’s column and Caldwell’s book (and others like it which Douthat calls “less circumspect”), is that too many Europeans have refused to conform to European norms in recent years. It is convenient and comforting to blame the elite in isolation for so rude and abhorrent a result as the Swiss one (it is short-sighted and dishonest to call it unimportant or insignificant in Europe’s current religious and racial climate). It is more honest to look at the fact that Swiss citizens went out to vote not to express their desire to integrate Muslims or to assimilate them, but to send the message that Islam are unwelcome. It is not just an elite failure. The growing notion of a “Muslim problem” in Europe is a broader moral failure. Douthat’s conclusion, then, is better applied to this evaporation of the norms around the protection and rights of minorities that have evolved in Europe since World War II than to the continued existence of European Muslims: “They’re right to worry. And all of Europe has to worry as well, thanks to the folly of its leaders — now, and for many years to come.”

Can there be European Muslims? Caldwell thinks that Europe cannot be the same with “different people.” Douthat, following up his column with a blog post, questions the power of Islamism among young European Muslims and the real challenge to European cultures and “civilization.” Here, though, he displays a know-nothing approach to the issue.

The Muslim immigrants filling Western Europe’s cities aren’t emissaries from Harun al-Rashid’s Caliphate or the Ottoman Empire; they’re undereducated escapees from some of the world’s most stagnant societies. This makes them susceptible to radical appeals and capable of causing enormous political trouble. But it also makes them an unlikely vehicle for the wholesale transformation of European culture.

Douthat makes no mention of European-born Muslims at any point in his reflections on “Euro-Islam” — the exception is Tariq Ramadan, born in Switzerland. This reflects another issue with his and Caldwell’s analysis wherein the entire discussion on Muslims in Europe is about “immigration” or “immigrants” when many of these supposed problem children are second, third or fourth generation Germans, Frenchmen, Dutchmen or Britons. What is it about these people that is so difficult to assimilate or integrate? Douthat appears unprepared to answer this. A better question might ask if the previous question is even viable given the reality of European Muslim life (which is undeniably European) and the rejectionist tendencies among “native” Europeans that refuse to accept the permanence of these communities and the validity of any grievance from this particular minority. Douthat’s association of European Muslims and their unhappiness (which is often the result of European discrimination and economic woes) with terrorism appears in just about all of his writings on Islam. The cause of alienation and social fragmentation does not matter: the Muslim problem is fixed and unilateral. Here he appears tough on both the “Islamic challenge” and the terrorist component of national security in a very 2005 kind of way. There are no hard questions answered no heady revelations about the subject revealed. He resists introspection into real cultural and policy failures in “the west,” and evinces surely no empathy for the lived experience of the stigmatized and suspect minorities about which he writes. Douthat on Islam is tiresome repetition.

The conservative and Muslim problems: Douthat’s contribution

The real problem with his analysis is not what it attempts to say about European Muslims or European elites, but rather what it says about Americans conservatives and Islam. American conservatives often pride themselves on America’s religious tolerance. Coming from the diversity of the first Protestants and the struggle of Roman Catholics and Jews, American civic religion is not hostile to religion as in some European cases. Hypothetically, there is nothing stopping a Muslim from putting his religion into the American social and political tradition. In some ways American Muslims have less trouble with this than Jewish Americans once did. The real problem for American Muslims is one of perception — on their part and by many in the majority — that Islam is alien, that it is recent, that is backward, that it is terroristic or that it is simply un-American. It took time for American Jews to have a firm place in the American setting, for one to be able to speak about a “Judeo-Christian” culture in North America. What blocks a “Christo-Judeo-Muslim” (one day such a thing might be more eloquent) consciousness is politics, perception and bigotry all at once. Douthat rejects this possibility, because “Christian tradition seems to have more respect for the essential integrity and God-givenness of pre-Christian Judaism than does Islamic tradition.” (His take on that issue is interesting and in itself deserves engagement.) Discourse around American Muslims is frequently one that attempts to transplant the sort of thinking Douthat likes about Europe to the United States. There are myriad problems with this and they should be obvious enough that they do not bear spelling out here. This benefits the Democratic Party, with its social liberalism. One finds upwards of 80% of American Muslims voting for Barack Obama — for various reasons — while poll after poll has shown that on the “bread and butter” issues, American Muslims are more or less “conservatives,” in a nuanced and complex way.

There are multiple issues associated with American conservatives and American Muslims. There is the fact that the Bush administration — against its own promises — violated the civil liberties of many American Muslims, often without cause, and that conservative judges have done terrible harm to Muslims seeking justice for those violations. There is the fact that the previous administration waged an ill-advised and disastrous war in Iraq and unfailingly supported the Israeli position against the Palestinians (and that American policy continues this trend, in general). There is the ignorant and prejudiced conversation among conservative religious figures on the subject of Islam and Muslims in general and hostility towards their personage among many in that wing of the conservative movement. And then there is the foolishness about Islam in general from the newer, more cosmopolitan voices in the party. Republicans have made themselves the party of Christians — of all stripes, not just Anglo-Protestants, but conservative Catholics, too. Still, the party is increasingly that of a narrow set, as many commentators acknowledge: the rich, the white, the religiously stringent, the angry and others dipping in nostalgia and angst at having lost power in some way or another.

Douthat, whose career has been celebrated for his erudition and sophistication and critical thinking (not often associated with Republicans on the East Coast) seems to be prisoner to the hostility, skepticism and ignorant around Islam that has taken the place of orthodoxy among too many conservatives and many Republicans. Barack Obama was troubling to some Americans because he was thought to be a “Muslim,” which he of course was not. For too many it was easy to accept this smear because it was well-known that as a result of 9/11, and the beliefs of terrorists America was fighting, Americans looked on Islam with hostility. That was profoundly alienating for even long-time American Muslims who called themselves either Republicans or conservatives. That the party’s organizers and candidates should have become vehicles for the prejudice was enough to make many vote for Barack Obama, in addition to real everyday issues, and the concerted (and often dishonest) efforts of the Obama campaign to “reach out” to Muslims for their votes. The Fort Hood massacre has come quickly as a symbol for many on the right that Americans, too, may have a “Muslim problem”.

If Douthat represents the Republican Party’s — or even conservativism’s — modernization or reformulation for future success, Americans have a problem. That his caricature of Islam as an enemy of Christians will be a part of conservative world view is printable in the New York Times, there is also a problem for American society at large. In other words, if conservatives are recycling the same doctrines of a decade or more previous they are committing the same deviations from their own natal principles that have put them in so wretched a state as now. It was not that the principles of the conservative movement were implemented poorly that the Bush presidency was a failure. It was precisely because the movement became an ideological one, incoherent and uncompromising, that it could not govern well.

Douthat and the politics around Muslims

The movement mutilated what made the conservative idea viable — namely the ability to see the value in institutions and traditions and to change when necessary and possible. Opposition to Islam as an idea simply because many Americans know or can think little of it beyond 9/11 is in the best tradition of he modern conservative movement’s liberalism with the American take on religion. Opposition to toleration for minorities — be they blacks or immigrants or Jews or Muslims — is not conservative: it is the politics of pandering and base, primal instinct. Recent conservatism’s oppositional and crude character made immigrants, minorities and intellectuals enemies of the people and their values. And that was a good bit of nonsense. The main beneficiaries, for better or worse, are Democrats. Perhaps rightly so.

Douthat’s posture on Islam reflects that tradition. It is cowardly because it does not challenge the reigning dogma among the unenlightened and the malicious, perhaps to stave off attacks from those further and more blindly to the right. His opinions might be genuinely represented this way. Or perhaps it just goes to show that even the brightest minds are given to flicker. Whatever the reason for Douthat’s writings on Islam, they do not present the thinking person with grounds to be optimistic about conservative attitudes towards that religion or its practitioners. Islam as an enemy, a foil, in the vein of Huntington has come as an article of faith for some. That view has not gotten the United States very far in recent years, and it is not based on any special element of truth. Yet it remains politically salient and a master-key for the intellectually lazy.

That an up-and-coming conservative placed so prominently continues to propagate a view of an increasingly important American religion (not a “world religion”) speaks to the extent to which religious tolerance for American and other western Muslims — and that does not refer to polygamy or other arcane customs that occasionally come up in North America — remains debatable among some in the American elite. If Douthat’s estimation of Islam is that it presents Christians with an enduring and formidable enemy, how does this translate into the American setting? It means a consistently narrow set to which conservatives can appeal and it leaves the intellectual base of the party not much further along with minorities than it was a couple of years ago. President Obama has said that the United States is not at war with Islam; a member of the loyal opposition, does Ross Douthat think otherwise? The melodrama of such an idea is out of sight for most reasonable people. That begs the question, then, the voice of a more competitive and more real conservative movement, is Ross Douthat and what he is struggling for reasonable? Time will tell.

It cannot be the case that Muslims find themselves accepted by only one tendency in their country — and grudgingly at that. For American Muslims — and Muslims in Europe — integration and assimilation into society ought to be bi-partisan. As Caldwell says, one of those “nonnegotiable moral duties that you don’t vote on.” Why? Because it is a matter of citizenship, and the only way that can happen is for there to be an adjustment in the overall way that particular segments of society look at Islam and at Muslims. Americans often pride themselves on integrating Muslims better than Europeans have — and that is true at many levels of society. And yet large segments of the population admit to being contemptuous and distrustful of Islam and Muslims, and big percentages are happy to see Muslims have their rights taken away. If there is such a thing as a leadership class in American society, to which one might assume columnists in the largest papers to be a part of, it ought to think harder about how best to preserve American — and “western” — civic traditions. In the cultural sphere, deliberate provocations to religious minorities and uncritical acceptance of what comes out of populist megaphones is not a bad place to start. That this is not the case is the result of broader troubles within the thinking class, likely to be resolved only at a time of electoral necessity or by a reordering of priorities.

* [ The better of the three deserves some summary. Cordone’s piece goes like this: “xenophobic and, specifically, Islamophobic sentiment is much more widespread than even the most pessimistic observers had thought,” for early polls showed that a slim majority of Swiss voters were actually opposed to the ban. Those who made up that majority were evidently not impassioned enough to turn out, or changed their minds. Cordone laments the “failure of civil society and the leading mainstream political parties to campaign aggressively against the referendum”. The lack of an engaged and direct challenge to the prejudice that made the ban possible, Cardone has it, and this was a “big mistake”. What this blogger wrote in rambling and deliberately unreasonable prose Cardone writes poignantly and successfully. “Discrimination,” Cardone writes, “tears societies apart. Of all continents, Europe should know a thing or two about this.” Of course this blogger would have put it more bluntly, but this is why his comments remain those of a blogger. ]


4 thoughts on “On Ross Douthat and Islam

  1. I think the fact that “we’ve been here before” can not be over-stated with regards to muslims and America. Remember that the last time the US was going through major economic and social changes (the turn-of-the-century, “Gilded Age” industrialization era), there were large groups of people moving in from heavily catholic countries in southern and eastern Europe that were overtly despised and hated by the heavily protestant political culture in the United States.

    It’s almost eerily familiar when you read some of the rhetoric from that period on catholics, including so-called “sympathetic” anti-catholic writers saying, “There’s nothing wrong with catholics, it’s just that their religion is inimical to America and democracy, etc”. And those were the “friendly” ones, nevermind the paranoid folks who thought that Al Smith was going to install the Pope in the White House if he was elected in 1928.

  2. Ill be honest, I’m not sure of Europes immigration policy, but living in the States aLl my life I can tell you right off the bat that I’ve always felt America’s very selective, and for most part, strict legal immigration policy has quite a bit to do with legal immigrants of all stripes doing quite well here. And as a matter of fact, many African and Middle Eastern immigrants actually do BETTER, in both school and wages, on average than native, white Americans.

    That said, your talk of American Conservatism is spot on. And they’ve had this problem dating all the way back to the beginnings of the New Deal. During that era, younger Democrats began shedding the racist, monolithic party of the past and reaching out (directly and indirectly) to minorities. This angered the Conservative and Southern Democrats and they began to split from the party, beginning with the States Rights party. However, this angered coalition couldn’t make a viable third party so during the 50’s, starting with Eisenhower, they began to assimilate into the Republican Party and the new emerging Conservative counter revolution that began in the late 50’s and early 60’s and reached its high point in the 80’s. This coalition has, unfortunately, become entrenched in the Conservative movement thanks in large part to Reagan and later in Bush Jr. So now, they have a problem in that trying to reach out to minorities, and in this case Muslims, will only anger their base. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon because the Conservative movement has been taken over by those authoritarian social Conservatives and while there may be quite a few moderates left, their voices aren’t nearly as loud or powerful as said Social Conservatives.

    • I agree with your assessment of Muslim immigration in the US. The post-1965 policies have been deliberately calibrated to attracted educated and “useful” additions to the labor pool (though there are differences by country; it is more restrictive and the standards are higher for Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners; and it is of course confused in its general scheme when it comes to the illegal aspect from Latin America and Asia). The social setting is vastly different than in Europe, as well. Minorities are always a challenge for ethno-religiously defined nation-states. There was a recent report that showed British Muslims being better integrated than continentals. I think that has a lot to do with the history of immigration and the historical attitudes towards it in Britain vs. say, France or Germany or Italy. There’s an issue where the Europeans have a way of thinking of themselves and this new reality that is quite different from that, and there is an issue of adaptation on both sides, native and newcomer.

      That said, I agree with your assessment of the party. In New England there is less of the social conservative element, tough the conservative appeal is mostly to immigrant minorities (i.e., non-Afro-Americans and many Latinos). There are several Muslims in elected office in Connecticut, for example. And even in the Southern states, one can find Muslim Republicans (though many have gone to the Democratic Party over civil liberties issues). But on the whole the prospects for “widening the tent” are dim. But who knows?

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