By Reuel Marc Gerecht
November 07, 2016
One of the most striking features of the British cemetery at Gallipoli is the attention given to honouring the diversity of the dead. Final farewells from loved ones carved upon stone plaques line the footpaths up the hillsides where the Ottomans rained down machine-gun and artillery fire. Fallen Muslim soldiers, children of the Raj, lie side by side with Christians who died for king and country. Arabic and Persian inscriptions often immortalize the grief and love of the Muslim families; Persian was the court language of the Moguls and the Indian Civil Service.
There is a long history of Muslims fighting for the British and the French against other Muslims. The Algerian wars—the rebellion against France and the following purge of Franco-Algerians—were so awful (perhaps the bloodiest internecine strife in the Middle East before the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's war against Syrian Sunnis) because so many Algerians allied with France against the rebels-cum-liberators. Albert Camus's plea in his Chroniques algériennes is heartrending because he urged France to embrace all the Muslims of Algeria as her children or risk a civil war that could poison Muslim-non-Muslim relations far beyond North Africa.
It's good to recall how intimate and complicated modern Muslim-Western interactions have been, given the widespread sentiments among American conservatives that something ought to be done to better screen, diminish, or even end the immigration of Muslims into the United States.
This unease with Muslims surely isn't just counterterrorist anxiety. The massive refugee influx into Europe, which has skyrocketed in the last year because of the Syrian war and the door opened by German chancellor Angela Merkel, spooked the American right, which has become since the early 1990s increasingly hostile to immigration. Although the United States isn't a Christian country, its still-dominant traditions are a Catholic-Protestant amalgam. Faithful Christians make up a big slice of the electorate. The Western Christian identity was in part forged through its profound struggle against Muslim power. Even for the ahistorical, history matters.
And anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiments are widespread among Muslims: It's often difficult even for highly secularized and integrated European Muslims to embrace fully their Western identities because of this lingering collision. As the historian Bernard Lewis spent a lifetime pointing out, Christian-Muslim animosity has often been so strong precisely because their religious cosmology is so close. The Muslim and Christian conceptions of good and evil aren't interchangeable but they are mutually comprehensible. Islam negates the divinity of Jesus and much of his teachings but recognizes him as a Muslim prophet, a forerunner to Muhammad.
The recurring violent controversies that arise from humorous and mocking depictions of the prophet Muhammad show that many Muslims in the West brought with them the ethics of their ancestral lands. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's cartoon of the prophet as terrorist also revealed how many Westerners are inclined to treat Muslims differently—more timidly—than they would treat Christians or Jews who might be aghast at the comedic harshness not infrequently aimed at their faiths. The brilliant Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani is able to use biting Muslim and ethnic stereotypes, but American humorists wouldn't dare do to Islam what Monty Python did to Christianity and Jesus. (The HBO political satirist Bill Maher is the exception that proves the rule.)
Secularism, an abiding concern for religious tolerance, and political correctness make the public expression of the omnipresent, organic tension between Islam and Christianity socially unacceptable in the United States and Europe, at least among secularized Christian elites.
This existential unease may be even more acute between Muslims and Jews. The Islamic world is rife with anti-Semitism that seamlessly combines an old Islamic distrust of the Jews, who'd rejected the prophet Muhammad in Arabia, with modern European Jew-hatred. Anti-Zionism has become almost a tenet of the Muslim faith and its declaration often (barely) camouflages anti-Semitism. As Muslim populations have risen in Europe, so has anti-Semitism. Not long ago the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala would have been irretrievably ostracized in France and Belgium. Today he has become a cult hero among many on the left, by no means all of them Muslim. Affluent Parisian Jews are buying second homes in Tel Aviv and among themselves mordantly discuss how their secularized Catholic compatriots have failed to stop resurgent Jew-hatred. Jewish Americans understandably worry that such anti-Semitism could rise in the United States.
It's a good guess that many on the American left, too, wouldn't be that upset to see Muslim immigration stay low, way below the levels that we see in Europe. Politically correct left-wingers tend to be better behaved when discussing third-worlders whom they esteem from a distance. Fear of Islamophobia is powerful even among Washington Democrats who really don't like the fundamentalist-friendly, Congress-lobbying Council on American-Islamic Relations and don't hesitate to speculate in private on the violent distemper within Islam. Yet Donald Trump's Muslim-suspicious histrionics and his exuberant love of maladroit invective, both on display in his remarks about the parents of the fallen American soldier Captain Humayun Khan, have made all conservatives who question Muslim immigration look like troglodytes.
The perverse fascination that the American right-wing blogosphere and even more respectable media, including Fox News, have had with Huma Abedin, the Muslim assistant/confidante to Hillary Clinton, shows that many conservatives have become unhinged.
That so many could believe that Abedin, who married a prominent Jewish-American politician, had a child by him, and stayed in the marriage even after it became obvious that Anthony Weiner was a deeply troubled exhibitionist, could be a mole for sinister Islamic forces shows how criminally stupid a significant slice of the American right has become. (The Sharia, the Muslim holy law, expressly forbids, on punishment of death, Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.) Abedin ought to be seen as a Muslim-American success story. She is obviously a woman of heart and fortitude. She is a poster child for Islamic fundamentalists who incessantly warn against the ethical hazards that come with Westernization.