Islam, from a bore's view

A mediocre book on an important topic always is disappointing.

When the treatment also is shallow and vulgarly argued -- as is the case with Bruce Bawer's "Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom" -- this reader is inclined to get up with a sour sense of resentment over time wasted, the sort of feeling that comes from being seated next to a garrulous bore at a dinner party.

A literary critic and writer for various neoconservative cultural and political journals, Bawer is also openly homosexual and has written extensively for a number of gay publications. He and his partner have lived in Europe for some time, and since moving there, Bawer has become one of those writers alarmed by what he sees as a cultural fifth column of Islamic immigrants gnawing at Europe's traditions of tolerance and democracy.

There certainly are dangerous, intolerant Islamists among Europe's immigrants, and their allies, he argues (not always inaccurately), are the dogmatic multiculturalists who find cultural equivalency between Magna Carta and sharia. The problem is that Bawer spins glancingly off that interesting, rather important point into descriptions of a vast, interlocking conspiracy of cultural, literary, journalistic and even entertainment elites he believes want to appease fundamentalist Islam and sell out the West's tradition of individual and civil liberties.

Why they're engaged in this betrayal is anybody's guess. That doesn't stop Bawer from enveloping one alleged case in point after another, rather like the rhetorical equivalent of a kudzu vine -- and with about the same logical structure.

Too often Bawer simply gets things wrong, both factually and by degree. For all his academic prominence, the late Edward Said never enjoyed anything close to the influence Bawer imagines for him; the notion that his debated book "Orientalism" changed the way the majority of Western writers and intellectuals perceived Islam simply is preposterous. Similarly, if the ranks of "journalists, editors and producers" are so thoroughly peopled with dogmatic multiculturalists, why is it that so many of the critics of that tendency cited by Bawer make their living in the media? Richard Bernstein, Leon Wieseltier, Christopher Hitchens and this critic are but a few such writers whom Bawer quotes approvingly.

Bawer's notions of cultural and historical causality -- and they are notions rather than ideas -- are tenuous to the point of being not simply arguable but simple-minded. He quotes Jesus' admonition against judging others: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" Bawer then asserts, "Thanks largely to the influence of the Gospels, the capacity for self-criticism and self-correction is especially strong in Western culture and is a major reason for the West's success."

Part of that sentence is true: The West's capacity for critical introspection is a vital cultural attribute, but if you want to chart its lineage, you'd have to start with the Aristotelian revival of the high Middle Ages and follow it from there. If its origins were primarily religious, then why has the Western religious institution with the greatest historical continuity, the Roman Catholic Church, found it necessary to armor itself against criticism by promulgating the doctrine of papal infallibility and declaring unfettered intellectual criticism a heresy called Modernism? Moreover, if the West's capacity for self-criticism was a product of the Gospels, why did the church wait until the late 20th century and Vatican II to reject theological anti-Semitism and until the papacy of John Paul II to apologize for persecuting Galileo?

Making errors

Similarly, if one is going to acknowledge in passing the United States' failure to live up to its 1st Amendment obligation, why cite the usual high school civics class laundry list of examples -- John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson -- and ignore the example of greatest relevance to Bawer's case: that Andrew Jackson ordered the U.S. Post Office not to deliver abolitionist newspapers, journals or tracts? Adams, Lincoln and Wilson were acting under the exigencies of war; Jackson's ban was supposed to be a guarantor of social peace, an aim far more congruent with that of the multicultural ideologues.

Factual errors large and small infest this text like weevils. Their homophobic views played a role in the cancellations of Michael Savage's and Laura Schlessinger's short-lived, not particularly popular television shows. Neither lost their highly rated radio shows, as Bawer writes. In fact, Schlessinger was America's third most-listened-to talk show host last year. Bawer sets out a sequence of terrorist and other violent incidents, then castigates the Western media for not "educating themselves seriously about Islam" in their wake.

Curiously, the list includes the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972 and the seizure of the Achille Lauro in 1985. The problem here is that the Munich operation was carried out by members of Black September, a purely secular creation of purely secular Fatah's intelligence wing. The Palestine Liberation Organization faction to which the Achille Lauro hijackers ultimately belonged was headed by George Habash, a Palestinian Christian. Bawer also tosses the Iran-Iraq war into that sequence, even though that terrible conflict did not begin because the Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite theocracy was expansionist but because the thoroughly secular Baathist Saddam Hussein thought the new revolutionary regime in Tehran was weak.

Just as Bawer seems unable to distinguish in any meaningful way between Islam, Islamism and Jihadis and between Sunni-based Jihadism and theocratic Shiite Islam, he also seems unwilling to admit that there is a difference between Arabs and Jihadis. When Bawer gets to Hollywood and the film industry's role in promoting accommodation with Jihadi violence . . . well, suffice to say he quotes Pat Sajak as an authority -- and at length.

In at least one instance, Bawer is explicit in his distaste for the fog "of nuance," which may explain his virulent attacks on the rather valuable Anglo-Dutch writer Ian Buruma. He's also quite explicit about his resentment that the New York Times reviewed Buruma's work on Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn, who was murdered by an Islamic extremist, while ignoring Bawer's own book on the Muslim "threat" to Europe. I have not read Bawer's earlier work, but if it is, as the author says, a companion to this volume, one's sympathies incline toward the NYT's editors. What's particularly odd about Bawer's obsession with Buruma is that he takes him to task for a much-criticized "soft" New York Times magazine profile of Tariq Ramadan without noting that the writer more recently has referred to the dubious Islamic theologian and political theorist as "slippery." Buruma also has written that the European variant of multiculturalism has "a lot to answer for." Not exactly your standard PC cant, but then nuance isn't Bawer's thing.

A missed point

One question Bawer never asks of his argument is why millions of Muslim immigrants have successfully accommodated themselves to the political and civil culture of the U.S. while resisting the blandishments of Islamism. It's also hard not to contrast this cartoon-like book with the scholarship and deep reflection that a number of French writers (particularly Gilles Kepel, Olivier Roy and Tzvetan Todorov) have brought to bear on these questions.

As Todorov (himself an immigrant to France from Bulgaria) puts it in his new book, "La Peur des barbares: Au-dela du choc des civilizations" ("Fear of the Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations"), the paths to assimilation and accommodation converge in a single, secular insight: "Even if its application can be problematic in some cases, the law in a democracy has to take precedence over custom . . . . The values of a society are expressed in the Constitution, the laws, or the structure of the state itself; if they are violated by custom, then custom must be abandoned."

That isn't multiculturalism; it's democratic pluralism -- and, hysterical books like Bawer's aside, the fight for that is what this is all is about.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 30, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction "Surrender": A review of Bruce Bawer's book "Surrender" in the May 20 Calendar said that Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn was murdered by an Islamic extremist. Fortuyn was murdered by an extremist objecting to Fortuyn's views of Muslims in that country.
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