Anne Norton. On the Muslim Question. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. xi + 265 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-15704-7.
Reviewed by Mujeeb Khan (University of California, Berkeley)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Anne Norton, a political theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, has written an incisive volume analyzing a question at the heart of a number of contemporary vexing domestic and foreign policy issues. She brings to the task an impressive command of the subject matter as well as exceptional insight and judgment as a political theorist. The title of the book is an obvious allusion to Karl Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question, and Norton makes clear that just as the “Jewish question” in nineteenth-century Europe was seminal to a whole series of debates and struggles around national identity, secularism, democracy, capitalism, and early modernity, the “Muslim question” is central to contemporary Western ones surrounding national identity, secularism, gender, sexuality, democracy, and foreign policy and empire.
The first part of the book is centered on a series of “Muslim questions” dealing with freedom of speech, sexuality, women and war, terror, equality, and democracy. The second section of the book, titled “In the Western Street,” examines the boundaries of Europe, “Islamofascism” and the burden of the Holocaust, American empire, and the ostensible “clash of civilizations.” As Norton shows, often these questions have less do to with specific challenges and issues posed by Muslims and more to do with particular identities, anxieties, and agendas held by majority populations in Western societies and particularly their political and intellectual/cultural elites. This, of course, is hardly a recent development. For the Western philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, from Machiavelli’s Prince (1532) and Discourses (1531) to Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721) and Voltaire’s Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet Le Prophete (1736), the Muslim question was a foil and mirror to critically examine and engage the “self” rather than genuinely understand the “other.” Voltaire’s five-part play, for example, could have served as the script for Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s notorious film The Innocence of the Muslims (2012) in charging the Prophet with being a licentious and megalomaniacal charlatan. However, Voltaire would later confess that he actually admired Muhammad for introducing monotheism and a host of social reforms in Arabia and that the actual target of the play was the Catholic Church and organized religion in general.
Since Norton’s book is very much focused on contemporary controversies she alludes to this past political and intellectual history but does not fully develop it. Instead, she offers a series of revelatory critical engagements on the Muslim question with heavy-weight contemporary thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek, John Rawls, and Jacques Derrida as well as with decidedly lightweight but influential provocateurs such as Paul Berman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Flemming Rose.
At the outset, the continuing salience and even centrality of both the interlinked Muslim and Jewish questions in Western history must be delineated inasmuch as they embody the very tension in politics and philosophy between the “universal and the particular,” “self and other.” Indeed, for the acclaimed Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, in his Muhammad and Charlemagne (2001), the very notion of Christendom and the West first emerges from the ruins of classical civilization in opposition to pagan northerners and Muslim and Jewish southerners in Iberia, Sicily, North Africa, and the Levant. It is an often overlooked fact, as well, that the Muslim and Jewish questions were often inextricably and tragically intertwined as a shicksalgemeinshaft from the Spanish Reconquista and the Crusades, to czarist Russia’s brutal nineteenth-century expansion into hitherto Ottoman territories in the Balkans, the Crimea, and the Caucasus in what was an attempt to solve the Ottoman Eastern/Muslim question in Europe via a program of genocidal ethnic cleansing. This campaign to expel the Turk "bag and baggage” from eastern Europe enjoyed tremendous elite and popular support in the rest of the continent and prefigured twentieth-century programs of genocide and ethnic cleansing in both Europe and West Asia.
Furthermore, it must be underscored that both “questions” have undergone various iterations throughout history and continue to shape global politics in profound ways. Karl Marx was convinced that secularization and capitalist modernity would do away not only with religious superstition and intolerance, but also all particularity in solving the Jewish question through assimilation into a rational universal whole. Marx here was deeply influenced by G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and in particular his “master-slave dialectic,” which would serve as the model for his presentation of the proleteriat as the subject-agent of history overcoming social inequality and difference and replacing the realm of necessity (Reich der Notwendigkeit) with the realm of freedom (Reich der Freiheit). In the conclusion of this review essay, which will address Norton’s critique of the “clash of civilizations” paradigm, I will demonstrate how the philosophical underpinnings of the Jewish and Muslim questions helped to frame two of the leading contending post-Cold War theories of international relations presented by Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. I will also briefly explicate how and why the resilience of these two questions in European history accounted for the Holocaust in 1942 and the reemergence of genocide in Europe in 1992.
The first chapter of Anne Norton’s book centers on freedom of expression and specifically the notorious Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy. She underscores that this did not emerge from any specific eruption of outrage from Denmark’s tiny Muslim minority. Rather, Flemming Rose, the neoconservative cultural editor of the Jyllinden-Posten and admirer of the anti-Muslim polemicist Daniel Pipes, had heard that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad remained controversial and so took it upon himself to expand the boundaries of freedom of expression by commissioning insulting caricatures of Muhammad in his paper. When this baiting of the Muslim community at home and abroad failed to generate the desired controversy, Rose had the caricatures with some additional ones sent to the country’s imams, seeking to provoke a response. When the Danish Muslim community complained to the government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, they were patronizingly informed that such provocation was the price of living in a liberal democracy. In response, some of the imams took the published cartoons along with some even more provocative unpublished ones they had received to a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. As the controversy grew along with a very effective boycott of Danish agricultural products in the Muslim world over outrage at Rasmussen’s government, not for refusing to censor the cartoons, but for refusing to even condemn racial and religious incitement directed at a minority, other leading European newspapers quickly rushed to “defend Western values” by publishing the cartoons. The controversy grew from there, leading to a significant number of deaths and damage to Danish embassies as both radical Muslim groups and authoritarian governments in the region sought to exploit the issue in turn.
In her analysis of the controversy, Norton makes a number of judicious points. First, testing the boundaries of freedom of expression by targeting a powerless minority population rather than establishment groups, icons, and institutions is a form of moral cowardice rather than courage. Norton also underscores that controversies over and limits to such expression encompass a wide variety of more established groups in Europe rather than just Muslims, including strictures on expressions of Holocaust denial and homophobia. Finally, she makes the nuanced point that, as with Muslim responses to the controversy, there was not one uniform Western position either. Here, the Anglo-American tradition of secularism and liberalism, as in the controversies surrounding veiling, proved to be more enlightened than the continental European one. Mainstream American and British newspapers accepted the right of individuals or papers to publish inflammatory or derogatory material directed at specific groups, but they also reiterated that they were under no obligation to publish or valorize such endeavors if their main purpose was some sort of incitement.
The chapters on sexuality, veiling, women, and war are equally insightful and nuanced. Again, Western fixations on sexuality and women in the Islamic world often unveiled certain Western desires, anxieties, and repressions more than they did the realities of the lives of Muslim women. In the age of Romanticism, for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lord Byron, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Richard Burton, Benjamin Disraeli, and Gustave Flaubert, the exotic and not too distant “Proche Orient” was alternatively the site for exploration, titillation, fulfillment, reproach, and judgment, symbolized above all in the images of the seraglio and the odalisque. In the Victorian heyday of Western imperial expansion, Muslim societies were reproached for their alleged sexual licentiousness, overt homosexuality, and indulgence of bodily pleasures and appetites. Today, for the likes of Michel Houellebecq, Ian McEwan, and Richard Dawkins, they are reproached for their puritanism, homophobia, and generalized repression.
In the case of the slain homosexual Dutch politician Pym Fortyn, (assassinated by a disturbed Dutch animal rights activist and not a Muslim immigrant, as commonly assumed), this libidinal economy of pleasure was threatened by Muslim immigrants adhering to traditional values and family mores. As Norton demonstrates, Fortyn, as a member of a previously persecuted and marginalized group, felt licensed to launch sweeping derogatory attacks on Islam and the Muslim presence in Europe. In doing so, he opened a door for formerly neo-Nazi groups like the English Defence League and the Swedish Democrats to sanitize what had been formerly verboten expression of bigotry by claiming they were actually defending Western freedoms and previously persecuted groups like homosexuals, women, and Jews from an alleged Islamic threat. This path was soon followed by Theo Van Gogh, who was assassinated by a disturbed Muslim immigrant; Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and Geert Wilders, who in turn would make alliances with American Islamophobes like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.
In the chapter “Women and War,” Norton offers a series of startling juxtapositions and disjunctures which force us to reconsider commonly held assumptions. She employs a similar approach to subsequent chapters on democracy and equality which are as brilliant as they are thought-provoking. The critique here starts with the established paradigm wherein “Western women are enlisted with Western men, in the tired project of saving brown women from brown men” (p. 67). Norton demonstrates how such an attempted engagement, rather than engaging Muslim women as dialogic subjects able to critically express their own struggles and hopes, reduces them to colonial ciphers who must be represented and spoken for, not by their patriarchal husbands and fathers, but this time by their liberated Western sisters. On the subject of veiling, she notes that a number of Western feminists have found the notion that many Muslim women are able to reconcile traditional religious attire with a burning ambition to purse higher education and independent careers incomprehensible. In doing so, they have often indirectly allied with opportunistic and chauvinistic male politicians like French prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy or the Turkish Kemalist generals in exploiting the status of Muslim women for their own ends.
While Norton does not mention these specific examples, the Turkish Kemalist “soft coup” of 1997, which banned access to higher education and public employment to millions of ambitious young women who choose to wear head scarves, and the systematic destruction of Gaza’s educational infrastructure in the Israeli Operation Cast Lead are further revealing in this regard. We are familiar of course, with the vicious Salafi-Jihadi campaign to strictly circumscribe and delimit the rights of Muslim women, rendering their bodies and social roles into central battlefields in what is ostensibly a resistance to Western cultural imperialism. This was most shockingly seen in the Taliban’s attempted assassination of the incredibly courageous and inspiring Pakistani girl and female education activist Malala Yusufzai. However, in the Turkish case, where even Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s daughters were forced to go abroad in order to access higher education, the European Court of Human Rights in 2005 (Leyla Shahin v. Turkey) actually upheld the Kemalist strictures limiting access to higher education for pious Muslim females. Revealingly, it has been completely overlooked in the West that this decision would have denied Malala Yusufzai the opportunity for public school education in France and a university-level education in Turkey, because she chooses to wear a head scarf, or Aurnee, in the loosely draped South Asian style. Similarly, young women made up a significant portion of the university students in Gaza where the higher educational infrastructure was deliberately devastated by Israeli strikes, leading to the surreal spectacle of members of Congress decrying the Taliban assault on schools in Afghanistan while cheering the even greater devastation to higher education facilities for women in the Gaza Strip.
A second, related critique, made by others as well, is how the politics of Muslim women’s liberation has served once again to justify Western imperialism. This included repeated assertions by First Lady Laura Bush justifying U.S. military operations in Afghanistan as being done on the behalf of Afghan women. In the case of Iraq, Norton brilliantly reverses the gaze, not only by illustrating how the United States simply remodeled and reopened Saddam Hussein’s torture centers, but also by demonstrating how the rhetoric of female empowerment and liberation was used by the U.S. military to degrade Iraqi prisoners as well as female U.S. soldiers. Using Raphael Patai’s controversial book The Arab Mind (1973) as a manual, the U.S. military deliberately preyed on cultural stereotypes and organized the sexual humiliation of both male and female prisoners as a tactic at facilities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In the case of the widespread use of torture by France in the Algerian War, Jean-Paul Sartre noted how torture dehumanizes not only its victims but also in a broader sense, the society which perpetrates it. In the American case, U.S. servicewomen were employed to sexually abuse and humiliate Muslim prisoners as a way of “unmanning” them while also sending a not-so-subtle signal about Western cultural superiority and female empowerment. However, having female interrogators perform lap dances, lead men around on leashes, and smear fake menstrual blood on prisoners left both debased and shattered in the end.
While the above examples serve as salutary warnings about how empire and the will to power have, since the time of Ramses the Great and Ashurbanipal, been couched in the rhetoric of liberation and mission civilisatrice, one is still left with the question of whether and how particular identities can be transcended in appeals to some sense of universal values and a common humanity. After all, nativist critiques of foreign interlopers and appeals to cultural and religious authenticity often veil local forms of exploitation and degradation which can be every bit as noxious and self-serving as foreign imperial ones. In the case of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the systematic rape of Muslim women by Serbian forces, Western feminists played a leading role in trying to mobilize resistance. This activism was later extended to opposition to the Taliban’s oppression of Afghan women on the basis of a gender solidarity which, for many such activists, actually trumped racial, cultural, or sectarian aspects of their identities. We all, of course, carry multivalent forms of identity; parts of which may be activated in various contexts. Nor are we simply prisoners of ascriptive identities and social roles, as seen in the examples of white activists who joined their black brothers and sisters in resisting slavery and apartheid. Norton does not directly address such questions and issues but does hint at the possibility of overcoming the antinomies of “self and other” and the “universal and the particular” by attempting to see the self in the other; and by always insisting on a dialogic intervention and engagement that does not assume a stance of superiority and omniscience. Still, this discussion is attenuated in the book, and one is left wishing that she would have moved beyond critique to more fully engage with the vexing question of how and when interventions and engagements across cultural lines and transcending the tension between the universal and the particular, may be effected.
In the United States, self-exculpatory bigotry toward Muslims has revolved around American empire in the Muslim world and attendant “blowback” in the form of terrorism. Connected with this has been uncritical support for Israel and the recasting of the Jewish question in the form of the neologism “Judeo-Christian civilization,” most often defined in foreign policy terms by right-wing Jewish and evangelical groups as a shared enmity toward the Muslim world. It is no exaggeration to state that bigotry toward Muslims is one of the last openly accepted forms of prejudice in the United States. It is, in fact, widespread in large sections of the Republican Party, as seen in the presidential primary debates as well as in concocted controversies surrounding the Park 51/Ground Zero Islamic Center and the alleged “Shariatization” of American law. The similarity with earlier, virulent forms of anti-Semitism in troubled parts of Europe was also apparent in the innuendo surrounding President Barack Hussein Obama’s allegedly Muslim identity. What was astonishing and revealing about this widespread usage of the term “Muslim” as a slur was the response in establishment American media and political circles. With the exception of Colin Powell, the response was not to condemn such slurs and emphasize that there would be nothing wrong if Obama were a Muslim any more than if he were Jewish or Buddhist. Rather, the response on the part of liberal Democrats was to deny that Obama had anything to do with being Muslim with an alacrity which would have shamed the right-wing Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky when he was denying that he was in any way Jewish.
This American anti-Muslim bigotry actually predates 9/11 and gained currency with the 1967 Israeli capture of Arab East Jerusalem, which was seen by many apocalyptic evangelical churches as ushering in “end times prophecy.” During the Reagan Revolution of 1980, the Christian revival led by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim Lahaye commenced an alliance with neoconservative associates of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who also had intimate ideological ties with Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s recently triumphant Herut Party and Likud bloc in Israel. This erstwhile alliance has actually been central in shaping American foreign policy toward the Middle East over the last thirty years. Norton neglects to address this crucial alliance, though perhaps it should have been addressed since it does vividly illustrate her point about how some forms of obsessive philo-Semitism in relation to the Muslim question revolve back into anti-Semitism. In a revealing interview between Bob Simon of 60 Minutes and the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, the latter’s supporters were shown dressed as Jewish people dancing to the Israeli national anthem Hatikva while Falwell solemnly intoned that there was no issue foreign or domestic more important to his church than Israel. When Simon further interrogated Falwell about reconciling his love for the Jewish people with his stated apocalyptic beliefs that once all Jews are ingathered in Israel and the temple rebuilt over the site of the destroyed Muslim holy places, the battle of Armageddon would commence and 90 percent of the Jewish people who will have rejected Jesus Christ would be consumed in a sea of fire, neither Falwell nor his followers disagreed.
Norton’s main focus, instead, is to interrogate the neoconservative writer and self-proclaimed liberal Paul Berman and his linear connection of Islam, terrorism, and fascism in the neologism “Islamofascism,” which he popularized alongside David Frum and Christopher Hitchens. Ironically, this neologism itself was a transparent and unattributed rip-off from the distinguished Israeli polymath Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who had three decades before coined the term “Judeo-fascism” to describe the Gush Emunim settler movement. Norton, of course, does not deny the existence of Islamist movements which amply resort to terror as a tactic or demonstrate certain proclivities in common with fascist movements. The problem is that Berman tends to consign all Muslims and their supporters who are to the left of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s strident neoconservative worldview as residing in the “Islamofascist” camp. Norton tellingly makes the point that nowhere does Berman concede that like some Palestinian groups, some Jewish groups like the Irgun and Lehi made ample use of terrorism as well during the Mandate period. She also notes another glaring bit of amnesia in his discussion of fascism in Lebanon, where he indicts Hezbollah but nowhere mentions Lebanon’s one historic and avowedly fascist group, the Maronite Phalangists, who were close Israeli allies.
On the subject of the Nazi German attempt to solve the Jewish question through the Holocaust and its relation to the Muslim question, Norton notes how a genocide which took place exclusively at the hands of nominally Christian Europeans on European soil has in recent decades come to be identified with the Muslim world. This was partly due to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s obnoxious interjections on the subject, though the connection actually goes back much earlier. The most obvious connection with the Holocaust is, of course, the understandable conclusion by many Westerners of Christian and Jewish background that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was a pressing need in response to this immense crime and tragedy. However, since many in the Muslim world also understandably objected to Palestinians having to pay for the crimes of Christian Europeans, there has also long been an attempt to link Muslims more directly to the crimes of the Nazis. This sleight of hand was accomplished via the controversial figure of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, who sought refuge in Nazi Germany from British colonial prosecution. While the Mufti’s praise for Nazi anti-Semitism deserved opprobrium, his one-time, five-minute audience with the Fuhrer hardly made him a central figure in the Holocaust, as many Zionists have insisted. Indeed, this absurdity was noted by the Holocaust historian Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life (2000), who pointed out that Yad Vashem for many years had a picture of Hajj Amin alongside Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, giving them all equal billing for the Nazi Final Solution. By this logic, Bengali Hindus, the unfortunate Nazi appropriation of the swastika aside, share a much greater responsibility for the Holocaust since the great Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose had much more significant dealings with Germany and Japan in his formidable Burmese military campaign against brutal British colonial rule in India, a supposition most reasonable people would find absurd. Norton also ably exposes many of the falsehoods propagated by Berman concerning the ostensibly widespread appeal of Nazi ideology in the Muslim world, including amongst the Muslim Brotherhood. She shows that while there was near universal opposition to British and French colonial rule in the region as well as to the Zionist project in Palestine, there was also widespread criticism of Nazi racism and militarism in the Muslim press at the same time.
The Arab Spring and the July 3, 2013, coup in Egypt against the country’s first democratically elected government make Norton’s discussion of liberalism, democracy, and Western involvement in the Muslim world particularly relevant. Many in the non-Western world noted with astonishment how the African Union, true to its bylaws, immediately suspended Egypt following the coup and the massacres of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in what was the largest such atrocity since Tiananmen Square; while in sharp contrast, both the EU and the United States responded with great diffidence. The Obama administration simply ignored American law, flouting explicit regulations mandating an immediate suspension of aid to militaries which overthrow democratically elected governments. Sadly, this was in keeping with a long, consistent Western aversion to democratization in the Muslim world, commencing with the CIA’s overthrow of Iran’s Mohammad Mossadeq government in 1953. The reasons for this aversion have been transparent; despotic client regimes from the absolutist royal families of the Persian Gulf to military dictatorships like those of Egypt and Algeria could be expected to be much more pliant on issues like access to cheap energy resources or uncritical support for Israel than democratic governments in the Muslim world would be.
Norton shows that this antipathy to the possibility of democratic transformation in the Muslim world is also shared by ostensibly liberal and progressive thinkers like John Rawls and Jacques Derrida. Derrida, in his 2005 book Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, is scarcely distinguishable from Victorian imperialists in establishing the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, a facile assertion he admits is based on no particular expertise. In fact, he defends the eradicateurs of the Algerian junta in their derailment of the 1991 election which the moderately Islamist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) Party was poised to win, a decision which had the backing of both Paris and Washington. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the junta or Le Pouvoir, whose agents had turned the much more radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA), carried out the massacres of tens of thousands of civilians who had voted for the FIS in regions like Blida, while falsely blaming the atrocities on Islamic fundamentalists. Derrida surely must have been aware of these facts since they were given widespread publicity in France in the interviews and book of a defecting Algerian special forces officer, Lt. Habib Souadia.
Nevertheless, Derrida chose to repeat the mantra for those justifying despotism in the Muslim world, including recently in Egypt, and which was first enunciated during the Algerian coup of 1991: that allowing the election of popular Muslim-oriented parties would result in “one man, one vote, one time.” At times, the self-serving and quasi-racist views which underpin such support of despotism in the Muslim world are delivered unvarnished, as was the recent case concerning Egypt where the ostensibly moderate neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks celebrated the coup while asserting that Muslims lacked “the basic mental ingredients” for democratic rule. These cynical elocutions, however, have the causality for democratization backward: one doesn’t need Jeffersonian democrats, whose avid indulgence of slavery itself is often conveniently elided, in order to produce democracy; but rather democracy in order to produce democrats. The very iterative process of democratic deliberation and electoral contestation, if allowed to proceed unhindered, leads to moderation, social reflexivity, and, to reference Pierre Bourdieu, a habitus which gradually removes politics from a Schmittian realm of deadly contestation between friend and foe.
In reading against the grain, Norton offers a number of brilliant insights, such as her rebuttal of Derrida’s contention that Aristotle’s Politics was absent in the Islamic importation. “Derrida managed three errors in one sentence: Aristotle was imported not to Islam from Europe, but to Europe from Islam in the period he cites; references to the Politics are present in Islamic philosophy of the period; and al Farabi not only takes more than the philosopher-king from Plato, he moves Plato in a democratic direction. The substance of the errors here is less interesting than Derrida’s willingness to construct Islam as antidemocratic based on what he himself calls his own ignorance” (p. 121). Another gem is her reading of Sayyid Qutb’s 1949 book Social Justice in Islam in response to both Paul Berman’s and John Rawls’ positing of an unbridgeable chasm between traditional Islamic political thought and modern liberal democracy. While many are familiar with the militant Qutb, who served as the intellectual font for jihadi movements following his torture in Nasser’s prison cells, Norton demonstrates that his earlier writing on the ravages of income and wealth inequality, women’s rights to careers and roles in the public sphere free of sexual harassment, and the moral responsibility of the state to correct capitalist market failures by assuring a basic social and educational safety net for all citizens actually predates much discussion on these themes in the West.
Anne Norton’s On the Muslim Question should be required reading for students of contemporary political theory as well as those generally interested in some of the most pressing domestic and foreign policy issues facing diverse Western societies. In the conclusion, she rejects Samuel Huntington’s paradigm of the “clash of civilizations,” arguing for the continued vitality of Enlightenment ideals and liberal democracy. Nevertheless, the challenge posed by this question, like any other, begs an answer. In the case of the Weimar Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss, the Jewish question was central in many ways to his oeuvre and indeed, very survival. He first confronted it intellectually in his engagement with Baruch Spinoza, who in his own engagement with the Jewish question in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1677) first considered a form of proto-Zionism as well as secularization as potential solutions. Strauss, however, felt that Zionism or assimilation could only ever be partial solutions in as much as the Jewish question embodied the theological-political predicament and the tension between reason and revelation and the universal and the particular. For her part, Norton, in addition to Enlightenment ideals, also points to the medieval example of Andalusia, celebrated as “the ornament of the world” (p. 156) for the brilliant coexistence and achievements of its Jewish, Christian, and Muslim inhabitants.
Nonetheless, while such paragons should never fail to inspire, we can also never lose sight of the fact that in 1492 the fall of Andalusia and the last Muslim Kingdom of Granada led to the ethnic cleansing and forced conversion of Iberia’s Muslim and Jewish populations. Nor can we forget the disillusionment of the Enlightenment with the launching of the Nazi Endlosung to the Judenfrage in 1942. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama, borrowing from Alexandre Kojeve’s reading of Hegel, proclaimed the “end of history” and the universal triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism in an essay in The National Interest. However, within a year of George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of a “New World Order” outlawing international aggression and the advent of the EU at Maastricht in 1992, and exactly five hundred years after the fall of Granada, it was a supreme irony but no coincidence that one of the last surviving pockets of indigenous European Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina were subjected to the Continent’s first post-Holocaust genocide, with the West looking on indifferently. As I write this review in my residence in Sarajevo’s old city, where I am researching the origins of the recent Bosnian genocide, I can see from my windows a site unique in all of the West: four monumental religious buildings, all within a stone’s throw of one another, representing the Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic faiths. Bosnia, at its best, represented one of the last surviving remnants of a European al-Andalus in 1992; and its democratically elected and largely secular, liberal, and multiethnic leadership and citizenry were confident that the leaders of the West would never again allow brazen genocidal threats like those of Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and later, Franjo Tudjman, to be carried out. They were wrong; from 1992-95 the West looked on, intervening only to impose an arms embargo on the victims, as Serbian and later Croatian forces carried out the mass murder and rape of hundreds of thousands of mainly Bosnian Muslims while attempting to systematically destroy all traces of the unique Ottoman Islamic heritage in this corner of Europe.
One often hears a myth repeated in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times by neoconservative writers that the West intervened in Bosnia to save the Muslims. Western policymakers at the time also issued a barrage of pious protestations denying that the Muslim question was central to their indifference or open complicity with the Serbian genocidaires; the facts, however, spoke a more disturbing truth. Under the direction of U.S. secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger and national security council advisor Brent Scowcroft, the United States actually worked assiduously to cover up the emergence of a genocidal campaign by Serbian forces in April of 1992 so as to deflect domestic and international pressure to intervene. Indeed, due to this cover-up, the full scale of the atrocities and concentration camps was only uncovered when the journalists Ed Vulliamy and Roy Gutman along with an ITN television crew stumbled across the Omerska concentration camp in early August 1992.
The role of the British and the French was even more sinister, as they actually colluded with the Serbian architects of genocide. This was confirmed at the highest level recently by the White House historian Taylor Branch in his book The Clinton Tapes (2009). In taped interviews with Branch, which were released after a ten-year hiatus, President Bill Clinton recounted how the British and French insisted on maintaining the embargo on the defenseless Bosnians: “They justified their opposition on plausible humanitarian grounds, arguing that more arms would only fuel the bloodshed, but privately, said the president, key allies objected that an independent Bosnia would be ‘unnatural’ as the only Muslim nation in Europe. He said that they favored the embargo precisely because it locked in Bosnia’s disadvantage.” Branch, in conversation with Clinton, continued: “When I expressed shock at such cynicism, reminiscent of the blind-eye diplomacy regarding Europe’s Jews during World War II, President Clinton only shrugged. He said that President Francoise Mitterand of France had been especially blunt in saying that Bosnia did not belong, and that British officials also spoke of a painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe.” None of this was lost on Serbian leaders like Radovan Karadzsic, Momcilo Krajisnik, or Nikola Koljevic, who would repeatedly state that they were actually doing the West a favor by preventing the emergence of a Muslim-majority state in Europe. We are confronted then with the deeply troubling question of why and how genocide in the form of the Muslim question returned to Europe a few hours from Vienna at the “end of history.” There is, in fact, another deeper reading of Hegel/Alexandre Kojeve and the link between genocide and “struggles for recognition” at the level of distinct groups and collectivities and that of tyrants or demagogues as presented by Xenophon in his Hieron (fifth century BC), which actually served as the source for Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic” and which in turn served as the basis for Fukuyama/Kojeve’s “end of history” thesis. Tyrants like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic were central to modern genocidal campaigns launched as a path to achieving absolute power and recognition at the individual level by unleashing the “twin Hobbesian passions” of fear and the desire for eminence at the broader societal one, targeting distinct racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural minorities. For their part, distinct religious and cultural minorities like Jews and Muslims became particularly vulnerable in such “struggles for recognition” over identity and difference when they were constructed as aliens in the European body politic. By seeming to transgress definitional boundaries between “self and other,” in the propaganda of would-be tyrants and demagogues, they became a vexing question and repeated targets for forced assimilation or expulsion where practical, and extermination when not.
In response to the Bosnian slaughter and as a rejoinder to the Fukuyama “end of history” essay, Samuel Huntington echoed Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political (1927) in presenting his “clash of civilizations” thesis insisting on the primacy of conflict stemming from particular religious/cultural identities and fault lines. The tragic denouement of the Muslim question in Europe’s most recent genocide calls into question the efficacy of modernity and Enlightenment ideals in providing a permanent solution to the tension between identity/difference, self/other, and the universal/particular. However, the Huntington/Schmittian thesis of primordial conflict and the eternal distinction between “friend and foe” cannot be the last word, either. Two blocks east of my residence in Sarajevo is the Latin Bridge where the young Serb nationalist/terrorist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heirs to the Hapsburg Empire, sparking a world war which devastated Western civilization, sounded the early death knell for Western imperialism, and showed that savage hatred and bloodletting could just as well take place within racial and religious boundaries as across them. Two blocks west of my residence is the National Theater and Suzan Sontag Square, named for an American Jewish intellectual who came to Sarajevo during the height of the siege to bear witness and extend solidarity to Europe’s latest victims of genocide. This is also a testimony that shows that while there may be no permanent resolutions to the challenges posed by the likes of the Jewish and Muslim questions, our common humanity and shared ideals can indeed, for individuals as well as even groups, serve as the basis for transcending ascriptive identities and primordial attachments in the name of higher truths and virtues.
. William Ewert Gladstone, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (London: John Murray, 1876), 61-62.
. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18; Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22-49.
. For the connections between Flemming Rose, Daniel Pipes, and Lars Hedegaard in promoting anti-Muslim bigotry and the “clash of civilizations” paradigm, see the important book by Danish sociologist Peter Hervik, The Annoying Difference: The Emergence of Danish Neonationalism, Neoracism, and Populism in the Post-1989 World (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011).
. Zhirinovsky back in 1992 had notoriously quipped, “My mother was a Russian, my father was a jurist.”
. See Bob Simon interview with Jerry Falwell, 60 Minutes, CBS News, October 6, 2002.
. Among others, these details were revealed by former Algerian special forces officer Habib Souadia in his La Sale Guerre (Paris: Gallimard-Jeunesse, 2001).
. David Brooks, “Defending the Coup,” New York Times, July 4, 2013.
. Benedict de Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover Pub.,1951), 55-56.
. For the critical engagement between Alexandre Kojeve, Leo Strauss, and Carl Schmitt as well as for the two contending post-Cold War paradigms presented by Fukuyama and Huntington, see Mujeeb R. Khan, “The Islamic and Western Worlds: Beyond the Fukuyama-Huntington Paradigms,” in The New Crusades? Constructing the Muslim Enemy, ed. Michael Sells and Emran Qureshi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
. I discuss these details in Mujeeb R. Khan, “The Ottoman Eastern Question and the Problematic Origins of Modern Ethnic Cleansing, Genocide, and Humanitarian Interventionism in Europe and the Middle East,” in War and Diplomacy: The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz and Peter Sluglett (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2011).
. See Taylor Branch, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 9-10.
. These connections are made clear in the dialogue between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve. See Leo Strauss, On Tyranny: Revised and Expanded Ed, Including the Strauss-Kojeve Correspondence, ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (New York: The Free Press, 1991),142-143.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Mujeeb Khan. Review of Norton, Anne, On the Muslim Question.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|