The Wise Orientalist and the Flying Dutchman

One in five of mankind is Muslim. That fifth demands the attention of the rest: often with oil, mostly with menaces, sometimes with violence. There is a certain irony in the terminology still used in Arabic to distinguish between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds: the “House of Islam”, where peace is meant to reign, and the “House of War”,  where infidels are supposedly locked in perpetual strife. The Muslim world generates more of the world’s conflicts than the other four-fifths of humanity put together. Those of us who are not Muslims are bewildered by the spectacle of permanent revolution, not knowing whether to hope or fear the consequences. But one thing we do know: the West is neither the House of Islam nor the House of War; and we intend to keep it that way.

Two men who have changed the way Islam is seen in the West have recently published autobiographies. Bernard Lewis and Geert Wilders could scarcely be more different: in generation (Lewis, at 96, is exactly twice Wilders’s age); in profession (Lewis is an eminent Anglo-American academic, Wilders a maverick Dutch politician); and in perspective (Lewis has spent his long life studying Islam as a religious and cultural phenomenon, Wilders his short career fighting Islam as a political ideology).

One thing Lewis and Wilders do have in common is notoriety. Both men have been marginalised, ostracised and even demonised in their respective fields. Lewis describes how he was held responsible by the media and many of his professional colleagues for the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 — a decision he in fact argued against. (What he proposed was the recognition of a “Free Government of Iraq” to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime from within.) On the basis of a few meetings with Vice-President Dick Cheney, Lewis was depicted as a would-be Machiavelli, manipulating a naive president into launching the most disastrous war of modern times. Whether it was really so disastrous is another matter. Nearly a decade later, as he describes in his Standpoint essay this month, Amir Taheri found that many Iraqis of all stripes see George W. Bush as a liberator.

However the second Iraq war may be judged with hindsight, one thing is certain: American policy after 9/11 undoubtedly benefited from the fact that Cheney consulted Lewis, a British-born Jew, who had observed the Middle East first-hand since before the Second World War, and was celebrated not least among Muslims for his erudition and insight. It is an indictment of the Western academic world that this pre-eminent connoisseur of the Islamic world should have been eclipsed on campus by the toxic influence of the late Edward Said, whom Lewis vanquished in debate and whose egregious errors he again exposes in his lucid, wise and mischievous memoir.

As the title of his book implies, Geert Wilders and his family have lived under the shadow of death ever since the ritual murder by an Islamist of Theo van Gogh eight years ago on an Amsterdam street. By comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf and insisting that Islam be treated as a totalitarian ideology every bit as dangerous as Nazism or Communism, Wilders has not only sacrificed his own liberty, but forced his countrymen to choose whether or not to protect his right to free speech. In 2008 he provoked an outcry with his anti-Islamic film Fitna and he later stood trial in Amsterdam for incitement to hatred and discrimination. Though he was acquitted, he is routinely referred to as “far-Right” in the Western media. In fact he comes from an anti-Nazi family, is an outspoken philosemite and (like his friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali) belonged to the centrist People’s Party until he left to form the Party for Freedom, which is now the third-largest Dutch party. Many of his policies — limiting immigration, dismantling multiculturalism and supporting Israel — have now been adopted by the Dutch mainstream. 

One episode recounted in his book should be a source of shame for free-born Englishmen. In 2009, Wilders was invited to Westminster by two British peers for a screening of his film. Britain’s first Muslim peer, Lord Ahmed, objected, claiming that Wilders’s mere presence “would lead to the incitement of religious and racial hatred”. Ahmed later denied threatening to bring 10,000 Muslims to Westminster but the Labour government caved in to his bullying. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, banned Wilders from entering Britain as a danger to “community harmony” and “public security”. Wilders came anyway, but was arrested and deported, despite a formal protest from the Dutch government. The ban was overturned by a British tribunal and Wilders returned, to be greeted by about 40 Islamists hurling abuse and chanting: “Freedom go to hell.” There was, however, no riot. 

Britons should be ashamed of the fact that the threat of violence and intimidation apparently carries more weight with our authorities than freedom of speech. As Lewis says, Muslims may care more about justice than freedom. But justice demands that we listen to those with important, if often unwelcome, things to say — including Dick Cheney’s  octogenarian orientalist and the latter-day flying Dutchman.

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