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Posted Nov. 20, 2008; updated Jan. 8, 2015.

Commmentary on Christopher Caldwell’s presentation Nov. 19, 2008 at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Hosted by Zócalo.

© Bruce T. Murray

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'Beyond the Clash of Civilizations'

Inside the Global Jihad

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‘Just not into us’

How to integrate Europe's Muslims

‘The Spiritual Malaise That Haunts Europe’


Free Korans in Germany

What is the West’s Problem with Islam?

Author Christopher Caldwell takes on wrenching cultural and ‘civilational’ issuesottoman

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

More than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it’s easy to forget slogans like “the war on terror,” the “clash of civilizations” and jihad.

Author Christopher Caldwell reminded a Los Angeles audience of these dim thoughts-of-the-not-too-distant-past in his lecture, “What is the West’s Problem with Islam?”

Caldwell, who is the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, posed the big “civilizational” questions: Is Islam compatible with Western society – Europe in particular? Will Muslim immigrants and their children assimilate into European culture, or will they remain a distinct and “adversarial” culture within the heart of Western Civilization?

Naturally, Caldwell did not offer simple “yes” or “no” answers to these questions, but beckoned his audience into his more than 400 pages of observations on Islam in Europe.

Caldwell granted that it is, indeed, a distinct possibility that Islam and Europe are incompatible; and a dire and violent future lies ahead for both the Continent and Britain. Supporting this view is renowned Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis, who predicts that Europe will be absorbed into the Arabic West to become part of the Maghreb. But Muslims can and do integrate into European society, Caldwell said; and they even offer credible alternatives to some of Europe’s social ills.

Caldwell described the numerous areas where Islam comes into conflict with European society in day-to-day life – gender-related issues primary among them. The Islamic head scarf, arranged marriages, the practice of female circumcision/genital mutilation among east African immigrants, and differing views of the overall role of women in society – these are all cultural flashpoints.

The hijab, in particular, has become a lightening rod in the culture clash. In 2004, France banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools. Some German states prohibit public school teachers from wearing headscarves. Oftentimes, these laws are written to apply generally to all religious garb, but they are obviously aimed at Islamic practices, Caldwell noted. This puts European lawmakers in the tortured position of pretending to be neutral, while in reality they are singling out Islamic culture for discrimination.

Over the centuries, Europe has evolved from being the cradle of Christian civilization to what Caldwell describes as a “post-Christian” or “post-religious” society. Europe is no longer defined by the church in Rome or even the Protestant reformers of the North. Instead, Europeans define themselves by nationality, language and common secular values.

Feminism is a defining facet of modern European society, Caldwell said. Leaders as diverse as French President Jacques Chirac and Islamic-critic – the former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali – enunciate a similar feminist vision.

Short of feminism, “sexual autonomy” is the prevailing European principle. This means women are allowed choose their own partners, wear – or not wear – the clothing of their choice, and follow their own destinies. Many Europeans feel these hard-won rights are threatened by Islam.

On the other hand, Islam presents some valid counterpoints. Caldwell said a Muslim in Holland might point to decadent Amsterdam, where prostitution and sexual exploitation are ubiquitous. “How is requiring a woman wearing a cloth over her head worse than allowing women to sell their bodies for sex?” a Dutch Muslim could credibly ask.

The valid cultural criticisms that Muslims present compounds the threat many Europeans feel; while others embrace the alternative. Conversion to Islam by “native” Europeans is a small, but well-publicized trend.

During the Q&A session, a dreadlocked man – who identified himself with an Arabic name – pointed out that Europe has centuries of contact and familiarity with Islam, going back to the medieval Caliphate and Islamic Spain. Therefore, Islam is really not foreign to Europe at all, the man said.

In early medieval times, Muslims came to Europe as conquerors, scholars and traders, but not as immigrants. Mass immigration from the Islamic world to Europe is a modern phenomenon that began after World War II, Caldwell said. The situation is both the legacy of European colonialism and the shortage of labor in Europe in earlier decades.

Comparing the immigration experience in Europe to America – where the overwhelming majority of immigrants come from Mexico and Latin America – Americans have it easy, Caldwell said. Cultural differences between Anglo Americans and Latinos are minor compared to the “clash” between Muslims and Europeans.

So, one could leave Caldwell’s lecture at least with a little uplifting Schadenfreude: Times might be tough, but at least someone else has it worse.

Further reading

The West and the Rest

Niall Ferguson Ferguson posits that there were six “killer apps” that allowed the West to overtake its competition in the rest of the world. The West harnessed science, property rights, consumerism, medicine, and its work ethic. But now the Rest have downloaded these apps, while the West is slacking in its application skills.

Test of American tolerance

The University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective, includes a discussion of Muslims in America and a comparison of the American immigration experience to Europe’s.

Caldwell: Europe loses ‘clash’

In his book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell argues the 'clash' between Western civilization and the Muslim world has already been lost in Europe. "A relatively weak, self-doubting Europe, he argues, has allowed mass immigration from a fundamentally alien, basically antagonistic culture on such a scale that the continent's future is no longer its to decide," writes Tim Rutten in a review in the Los Angeles Times.

Mass Migration: A Worldwide Phenomenon

A primer with Bruce Murray and Dean Yang, assistant professor of public policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan: “World income distribution is vastly uneven: A relatively small number of people live in rich nations, while the vast majority of the world population lives in poverty. There is an amazing lack of distribution in the middle,” Yang said.

The Economics of Immigration

A primer with Bruce Murray and Judy Gans, director of the University of Arizona’s Immigration Program at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy: “Does immigration help or harm the U.S. economy? Does it help or harm American workers? On a deeper level, immigration raises fundamental questions about American society: What does it mean to be American? Who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them?’”


‘Implacably hostile’

The deadly anti-Western protests throughout the Islamic world “highlight the unintended consequences of America’s support of movements to overthrow those autocrats, which have empowered Islamist groups that remain implacably hostile to the West.”

Americans take up the jihad

Naturalized but radicalized

Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad is a naturalized U.S. citizen, but his family's circle of acquaintances included two future militants — a Taliban leader and one of the participants in the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India. In recent years, Shahzad reportedly grew upset over repeated CIA drone attacks on militants in Pakistan, and he contacted the Pakistani Taliban via the Internet.

Islamic extremism on the rise in U.S.

Anti-terrorism officials and experts see signs of accelerated radicalization among American Muslims, driven by a wave of English-language online propaganda and reflected in aspiring fighters' trips to hot spots such as Pakistan and Somalia.

‘Just say No to jihad’ message irks some

Some Muslim groups are speaking publicly about the radicalization of Muslim youths and even developing scared-straight-type programs to steer young people away from extremism. Critics contend that this tact panders to outsiders who equate Muslims with extremism.

Jihad Jane

Colleen R. LaRose, from suburban Pennsylvania, is accused of providing material support for terrorists and for plotting with others to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had depicted the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog. See NPR story, Terrorism Recruits No Longer All Fit The Mold.

Adam Gadahn

Adam Pearlman grew up on a farm in California before changing his name to Adam Gadahn and becoming a propagandist for Al Qaeda. In 2006, Gadahn was indicted for giving aid and comfort to al Qaeda with intent to betray the United States and for providing material support and resources to Al Qaeda.

David Coleman Headley

The 49-year-old Chicago native pleaded guilty to scouting for targets for the 2008 assault in Mumbai that killed about 170 people. Headley also acknowledged in U.S. District Court that he scouted targets for an attack that was never carried out against a Danish newspaper that drew the ire of much of the Muslim world after publishing unflattering cartoons about the prophet Muhammad.

Anwar al Awlaki

Born in New Mexico, Awlaki spent much of his life in the United States before moving to London and then Yemen. Awlaki, a Muslim cleric, has been linked to the Christmas Day, 2009, bombing plot of an airplane over Detroit. "With the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other Muslim," a man believed to be Awlaki said in a recorded message. Awlaki is now subject to a targeted killing.

Nidal Malik Hasan

Virginia-born Nidal Malik Hasan, a 39-year-old military psychiatrist, is charged with the shooting rampage at Ft. Hood that left 13 people dead and at least 38 wounded. Hasan exchanged email messages with Anwar al-Awlaki before the rampage.

5 American citizens accused of plotting terrorism

Pakistani authorities have arrested and indicted five young men from Alexandria, Va., for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Pakistan, with a broader motive to wage holy war against American forces in Afghanistan.

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Texas residents take up sides on proposed mosque

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