Fundamental Flaw

Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom by Bruce Bawer

For Bruce Bawer, like Barry Goldwater, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. Surrender is a passionate, fluent, compelling, arresting and troubling work with many virtues. And one great flaw. 

A polemic in defence of Enlightenment virtues, and in particular the indispensable US Constitution First Amendment liberty, freedom of speech, Surrender is written with a fierce urgency that compels attention. The manner in which freedom of speech has been relativised, circumscribed and betrayed in the face of extremism is powerfully documented. The specific challenge to democratic freedom posed by Islamist fundamentalism is presented with bracing clarity. But Bawer’s call to arms in defence of freedom is, in this reviewer’s eyes, tragically compromised by his failure properly to identify who the enemies of liberty truly are.

That’s not to say Bawer is off beam or wrong-headed in many of the individual targets he picks. He is right to focus on the fatal lack of resolution the West’s political classes showed when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie. He is spot-on in his anatomy of our similar loss of nerve following the publication of a series of provocative cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. On both occasions, extremists were testing their strength against ours. They took deliberate offence, threatened violence in order to intimidate us into apology or silence, and won. They proved that their commitment to their ideology of submission was more powerful than our commitment to our tradition of liberty.

Bawer is also excellent in his analysis of how Western thinkers and writers have reacted to two very different children of Islam. He submits to close and unsparing critical attention the coverage enjoyed by the Islamist thinker Tariq Ramadan and the reception given to the writings of the Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Bawer shows how distinguished Western writers, who would unhesitatingly call themselves liberal, have sought to relativise or excuse Ramadan’s support for stoning, and for clerics who endorse wife-beating, while at the same time damning Hirsi Ali as a “fundamentalist” for speaking out so vigorously against the forced suppression of women. Bawer is quite right that the desire not to give offence to certain cultural traditions or ideological religious positions has led far too many people who ought to know better to acquiesce in, or pass over, hideous prejudice towards women and gay men.

But Bawer weakens the force, both of his analysis and his argument, by broadening his critique beyond Islamist extremism, and its appeasers, to the whole of Islam itself. Bawer argues on page 62 of his book that “while there is such a thing as moderate and liberal Christianity, there is no such thing as a moderate or liberal Islam.”

He goes on to maintain that, “there are millions of good-hearted individuals who identify themselves as Muslims and who have no enmity in their hearts for their non-Muslim neighbours and co-workers. Some of these Muslims are religiously observant, but their moderation is not an attribute of the brand of Islam to which they officially subscribe…liberal Islam does not yet exist in practice.”

Bawer’s judgement that liberal Islam is a chimera does not reflect my own experience. Sufism, the dominant strain of Sunni Islam among British Muslims, is explicitly moderate in theology and practice. There are many millions of Sufi Muslims who derive great spiritual enrichment from their gentle and contemplative faith and who are horrified at the crimes committed in the name of Islam by extremists. By instinct, most Sufis, and other moderates including traditionalist Shias, do not get involved in politics because they are quietists and wish to see a, properly liberal, separation between throne and altar. They are totally opposed to the ideology we know of as Islamism, which seeks to make any territory in which Muslims live an explicitly Islamic state bound by the austere and unforgiving rule of Sharia.

And because there are so many Muslims — pious, believing, sincere and faithful Muslims — who detest fundamentalism and disagree with the ideology of Islamism, who reject the worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood and Tariq Ramadan, who regard Sayyid Qutb and Jamaat-i-Islami with disdain, they are the natural allies of all those of us who want to defend liberal values from extremists. People like Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, or Tarek Heggy, Taj Hargey or Khurshid Ahmed, of the British Muslim Forum, or the Sufi Muslim Council, or the American Shia writer, Reza Aslan are all liberal Muslims whose lifestyles and worldviews are threatened by extremism just as much as mine or Bawer’s.

Bawer quotes George Orwell at one point, saying that freedom, if it means anything, means telling people what they don’t want to hear. And there are some writers and thinkers who prefer a world in which the battle lines can be drawn with flinty clarity between rationalist defenders of the Enlightenment on one side and those in thrall to the austere faith of desert warriors on the other: Reason versus Islam. But defending freedom means we must never surrender to such terrible simplicities, or we will hand freedom’s real enemies a victory they do not deserve.

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