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Revisiting the 1930s with Tony Judt

Last Thursday, October 12, NYU sponsored a forum on “Religion and the Limits of Tolerance” in the Netherlands. On one side were Fritz Bolkestein, an articulate critic of Dutch immigration policy, and the now famed Hirsi Ali, the Somali and Muslim born Dutch woman whose criticism of Islam has produced Islamist death threats so that she’s been forced to live under guard. On the other side were the self-described Leftists, novelist Bas Heijne and NYU professor Tony Judt, who served as both moderator and participant.

Bolkestein, a large thick bodied man in his 60s with a shock of white hair, acknowledged that there should be “leeway for Islamic practices on matters such as slaughtering and burial practices, but not on basic values.” Using as his yardstick the UN Declaration of Human Rights, he said Western culture was far superior to a “fossilized Islam.” “I am judgmental,” he smiled, “I prefer New York to Philadelphia.” Noting that such statements led some to accuse him of “triumphalism,” he quipped that people in the third world shout “Yankee go home, but then add please take me with you.” His comment reminded me of a visit to the Arab village of Um El Fahem, which lies at the narrowest point in Israel right on the Israeli-Palestinian border. It’s a well to do town of beautiful red tiled roofs atop three and four story houses. When I asked the mayor, who is an Islamist, if he wanted, as had been suggested by Israeli rightists, to join Palestine as part of land swap, he replied, “No, we have a very high standard of living here.”

Heinje, who praised Bolkestein for raising the right issues, agreed that multiculturalism had failed “because it was naïve about the need for local identities like being Dutch.” “Fritz,” he went on, “was right about the realities that destroyed multiculturalism.” But then Heinje backtracked, describing its failure as in large measure a matter of “nostalgia” for a lost Holland, a “panic” instigated by the lack “of a Dutch identity to fall back on.” What’s needed, he argued “is a language to criticize multiculturalism and Islam without alienating” Dutch Muslims. We must, he insisted “accommodate difference which is not the same thing as relativism.”

Hirsi Ali argued that what Muslim leaders in Holland wanted was even more in the way of subsidies for self-segregation. Describing herself as a “universalist,” she said she opposed “tolerance for the intolerant.”

Up until that point the discussion was, with the partial exception of Heinje’s hat tip to Bolkestein, unexceptional. It was what those who follow these matters expected to hear. But then came Tony Judt, no so much a defender of Islam as someone who was anti-anti-Islamist.

As Judt saw it, in discussing the difficulties of Muslim immigrants adjusting to the Netherlands, “Islam was not the issue.” A bemused Bolkestein later replied that if Islam isn’t the issue, why was there such a violent reaction to the Danish cartoons? There are, he noted, 100,000 Hindus living in and around The Hague, but they hadn’t insisted on imposing their values on the larger society.

Judt, far more critical of those critiquing Islamism than of Islamism itself, accused Hirsi Ali of being an “enlightenment fundamentalist” whose dogmatism easily slid into “xenophobia.” “Universalism and integration,” Judt asserted, are at odds. Hirsi Ali flicked away his comments as a search for “red herrings.” And Bolkestein later noted that the responses to the criticism of Islam are usually reproaches, not arguments. Then, turning to Judt, he asked, “give me the reasons why Islam is not inferior?” He got no answer.

But Judt did question Hirsi Ali’s belief that Christians and Jews were more tolerant than Muslims. He noted, for instance, that the Polish Prime Minister, a devout Catholic, had complained to German Chancellor Merkel about an article that had appeared in a German newspaper. At bottom, Judt’s argument comes down to a matter of proportions. In the 1930s, critics of Stalinism were answered by noting Southern lynchings—as if the two, ugly as each was, were equivalent.

Advancing his point about free speech being a matter of power, Judt recounted the recent dust up over a new version of a Mozart opera in which the severed heads of Mohammed and Poseidon appear in the last scene. Skirting the edge of the audience’s knowledge, Judt said there was no violence over the severed head of Poseidon, “since there aren’t that many Poseidonites.” But in the closing scene the severed heads of Jesus and Buddha appear as well. Are there so few Christians in Germany?

“The emphasis on free speech,” asserted Judt in the language of the Depression era, “is something of a self-indulgence.” In the standard language of Leninism, he argued that the question is a matter of “who is asserting this right,” who is doing what to whom. “What’s gained, he asked, “by the freedom to insult Islam?” In his view, only the Right can benefit. For Judt, it seems that, as with 1930s’ Stalinists, the only question worth asking is “Which side are you on?” Does he want to train Western Europeans to practice what in the Communist bloc was once described as the “virtue” of self-censorship and “pre-emptive obedience?”

As for the reasons behind Judt’s position, I can only suggest another parallel to the 1930s. In those years it was taken as a given without need of proof that capitalism was inherently evil, so there was no necessity to look too closely at Stalin’s Russia. But for those who noted some of its failings, there was the faith that it was only a matter of time before Russia morphed into a liberal democracy. In Judt’s case it is nationalism which is the unquestioned evil. Thus there is no need—in fact in his terms it is outright reactionary—to look too closely at the practices of Islam, because given the time it will reform itself. Besides, close scrutiny would divert attention from what he sees as the real danger, namely nationalism in Holland and elsewhere.

This essay originally appeared on the New American Liberalism website.

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