Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Globalization of Islamist Censorship

A French journalist named Patrick Sabatier has written a good, balanced overview of Islamist censorship in Europe for Yale Global Online. In his analysis, Sabatier stresses the impact of globalization and new media in enabling extremists to dominate the headlines and generate controversy:

These “clashes” are to some extent a toxic byproduct of a globalized media system. Instant information and misinformation, through satellite TV and the internet, tend to obscure complex issues, feed on widespread ignorance on both sides and pour oil on long-simmering fires of historical resentment, economic frustration and political conflict. The large and fast dissemination of extremist minority views on isolated events whip up collective passions, making a dialogue based on tolerance and rational criticism more difficult. To that extent, it might be argued that globalization plays in the hands of Islamists who preach “jihad,” or holy war, against the West, and those who dream of Europe walling itself against Islam.

Sabatier also correctly notes how the unwillingness of moderate Muslims to condemn the Islamists feeds into this process of polarization:

The absence of clear denunciations by moderate Islamic theologians, preachers and representatives to calls of violence and censorship is perceived as a sign of Islamists’ growing clout. It also feeds suspicions that silencing criticism of religion is, like female oppression, part and parcel of Islam. The threats against France, recently reiterated by Al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, for the 2004 law prohibiting the Islamic veil in schools and public-service jobs have reinforced the feeling that Islam is trying to force its prejudices on secular European societies.

Sabatier makes some good points in his conclusion, along with several I take issue with:

On the one hand, then, Muslims react more violently and internationally to criticisms they deem “blasphemous” and “Islamophobic.” On the other, books and essays denouncing Islam as “the new totalitarianism,” in the line of fascism and communism, have been popular since the 2002 anti-Muslim bestseller by Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, “The Rage and The Pride.” European fear of a “green peril” is a mirror image of Muslim phantasms of a Western conspiracy against Islam,” an inexorable spiral of false perceptions fueled by the media cauldron of instant TV images and internet pronouncements by radicals.

All this obscures the fact that Muslim furor, as shown during the caricature controversy, is often staged for media consumption by small groups of extremists while the vast majority of Muslims remain indifferent. Over 70 percent of Muslims living in Europe, according to a 2005 European-wide study, describe themselves as hostile to Islamists. Most practice a peaceful and tolerant brand of Islam, and many wish for the emergence of a European form of Islam, through reforms that adapt the faith to the modern world.

One point that concerns me is Sabatier's implied moral equivalence between Islamists and critics of Islam. Yes, some of the latter are xenophobic and irrational. However, concerns about the growth of Islamist sentiments among Muslims, and the ability of Muslims to culturally integrate, have arisen across the European political spectrum.

To tar all condemnations of Islamism, or even Islam itself, as "Islamophobic" extremism, is utterly simplistic and wrong headed. For one thing, it draws an absurd moral equivalence between totalitarian extremists and those who would stand up to them. Secondly, if mainstream Europeans don't confront Islamism, then it will be left up to the actual bigots and Islamophobes to do so, thus helping to bring about the very polarization Sabatier rightly fears. Finally, Sabatier's implied condemnation of anti-Islamists contradicts his accurate diagnosis of the need for moderate European Muslims to combat extremism. How can the former be expected to stand up to the Islamists if non-Muslim Europeans won't?

My other disagreement is that, in my view, Sabatier underplays the threat posed by radical Islamists in Europe. On the one hand, he is right that they are a minority of a minority. Yet, as he admits, Islamists have gained a disproportionate influence through their use of violence and propaganda. Plus, thanks to the globalized media environment Sabatier outlines, radical Islamists in Europe are anything but a few isolated fanatics: they are the manifestation of a global totalitarian movement. As long as moderate Muslims refrain from speaking out against them, European Islamists will continue to grow in both numbers and influence, and threaten the intellectual freedom of both Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans.


Post a Comment

<< Home