HRS International

Debating Islam

They don’t deserve to wash her feet, I found myself thinking as Storhaug climbed into her car, and yet they look down at her as if she is some racist buffoon. It was certainly no comfort to reflect that one day, sooner rather than later, each of those young people will gradually come to face the fact that Storhaug was right all along. But by then, I fear, none of them will be able to do anything about it.

By Bruce Bawer

It all starts with how you pose the question.

The other day, a debate about Islam was held at New York University. The place was packed. Even to me, watching the event on the Internet, it was obvious that the audience – which didn’t consist exclusively of NYU students, but looked rather like a mixed-age cross-section of upper-middle-class Manhattanites, the sort of people who generally show up for lectures, readings, debates, and the like – was extremely interested in the topic under discussion and eager to hear both sides.

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The two sides, each consisting of two people, were asked to address the proposition: “Islam is a religion of peace.” Agree or disagree?

Agreeing with the statement were two Muslims, a middle-aged British man and a young American woman. I’d never heard of either of them, but they were apparently connected to moderate Muslim organizations. Both came off as liberal-minded people who wanted the audience to view them as representative of their religion.

Disagreeing with the proposition were two familiar faces. One was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali Muslim refugee turned apostate who became member of the Dutch Parliament and is now a writer living in self-imposed exile in America and working for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Joining Hirsi Ali was Douglas Murray, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion in Britain.

The debate, moderated evenhandedly by an ABC-TV journalist, was riveting. Before it began, a plurality of audience members said that they supported the proposition – in order words, they believed that Islam is a religion of peace. When it was over, however, they disagreed. Hirsi Ali and Murray, in short, had changed their minds. In order for that to happen, of course, their minds had to be open. They had listened. They had thought. They had processed the information presented to them.

As someone who spent years in Manhattan surrounded by the kind of people who go to such events at places like NYU, I was delighted and, frankly, somewhat surprised by this result. A liberal Manhattan crowd that was willing to reject the politically correct view that Islam is a religion of peace? Maybe there was hope.

Or maybe not. Last night, I attended another debate at the University of Oslo. The setting was a grim concrete monstrosity of a building that is misleadingly known as Chateau Neuf. (The auditorium in which the debate took place is more aptly called Betong, which means concrete.) There I found myself surrounded by approximately hundred people, most of whom were of student age.

The question under debate: “What is the difference between Islam criticism and Islamophobia?”

The difference from the New York debate was embodied in that question. The New York debate set its sights on Islam itself – quite reasonably, since, in the wake of 9/11 and several other major terrorist acts, cartoon riots in Denmark, assassinations in the Netherlands, and so on, all of them perpetrated by Muslims who made it clear that they were motivated by their faith, it is indeed Islam that we should be talking about. The Oslo debate, by contrast, shifted the focus to non-Muslims who speak out critically about Islam, placing them, as it were, on trial, just as Geert Wilders is now on trial in the Netherlands, in an effort to decide whether their criticism of Islam should be judged to cross a line, and whether they, therefore, deserve to be branded with the scarlet letter “I” – for Islamophobe.

There were five panelists, plus the moderator. The star was Hege Storhaug, information director of Human Rights Service, expert on immigration and integration policy, author of bestselling books about the Islamic oppression of women, and probably Norway’s most notable – and controversial – critic of Islam. The other familiar face on the panel was Lars Gule, a middle-aged man who is a former leader of Human Ethical Society in Norway. The three remaining panelists were younger and unknown to me. Cora Alexa Døving looked as if she was barely into her twenties, but holds the title of senior researcher at the Holocaust Center in Oslo; Majoran Vivekananthan, a 33-year-old born in Sri Lanka, edits a “multicultural newspaper” called Utrop.

The final member of the panel was Linda Alzaghari, who also looked very young but is apparently the “administrative coordinator” of a recently formed “think tank” called Minotenk, founded and run by Norway’s most ambitious and – in my view – dangerous Muslim politician, Abid Q. Raja. Though Alzaghari is a native Norwegian (she certainly looks and sounds like one, with her very long, free-flowing blonde hair), she described herself as a Muslim. She was also terribly distracted and incoherent, and gave the impression that she found the very idea of an Islam-related debate insulting.

All five panelists were asked to give opening statements. It soon became clear that this was a four-against-one scrap. Gule condemned unnamed Islam critics for their “conspiracy theories,” by which he obviously meant their recognition that jihadism – the compulsion to bring the infidel-dominated “House of War” into Islam’s “House of Submission” – is a core doctrine of the faith. Døving defined Islamophobia as an offense that involved “generalization about Islam” – as if it were not legitimate to “generalize” by pointing out that all Muslims are, indeed, obligated to affirm certain eternal “truths” and to obey certain unalterable commands that were (according to Islam) handed down directly from Allah to Muhammed and thereupon set down in the Koran.

Of course, accusing Islam’s critics of “generalizing” is a common, lazy tactic among the defenders of Islam, who like to point out that there are over a billion Muslims who adhere to a variety of schools of law whose understandings of the faith vary considerably. What they leave out is that the variation usually takes the form of disagreeing on such details as which kind of capital punishment an individual should be sentenced to for being homosexual. (After the debate, I googled Døving and found that she had actually had the nerve, three years ago, to accuse Sara Azmeh Rasmussen, an extraordinary brave young woman who was the first Muslim lesbian to come out of the closet in Norway, of exhibiting a “generalization problem” in her criticisms of a religion a great many of whose adherents would like to see her dead.)

Nor did Vivekananthan and Alzaghari have anything more substantial to offer. For example, Alzaghari, who was apparently too tired, bored, or hostile to the entire enterprise to even muster up a coherent sentence, tossed out a few vague words about how she experiences a “constant negative focus” on Islam that leads to a “polarized” situation in society. (She sounded like a stage actress who has been performing for so long in a bad, unconvincing play that she can no longer bring herself to recite her lines with any conviction.)

Four of the five panelists, then, barely rose above name-calling. Conspiracist! Generalizer! Polarizer! Only Hege Storhaug, when her turn came, got down to brass tacks, pointing out that the label Islamophobe had first appeared, years ago, in the glossary of Islamists, who pasted it onto feminist Kate Millett when she dared to bring up the question of Islam’s oppression of women, and onto Salman Rushdie when he wrote a certain book the reaction to which forced him to spend the next several years in hiding.

Unsurprisingly, virtually the entire audience turned out to be solidly against Storhaug and on the side of her four co-panelists. Everything she said, no matter how factual and cogent, met with tepid applause, silence, or grumbling sounds of disapproval. Almost everything any of the other four said, however inane and platitudinous, was greeted with lusty enthusiasm.

As the debate moved on, the participants were invited to expand on their remarks and ask one another questions. Døving defended the equation of Islam criticism to racism on the grounds that Islam, like skin color, is an inborn, unalterable aspect of identity – an essential, defining characteristic that is impossible to change. Inborn? Unalterable? Impossible to change? Yes, leaving Islam is punishable by death, but somehow one doubted that that this was what Døving meant. She seemed genuinely unaware that some people in this world do switch religions and that there is an immense difference between having a certain skin color and subscribing to a certain ideology.

Storhaug, reacting to Døving’s astonishing obtuseness on this score, brought up the word ideology – whereupon Alzaghari declared her dislike for that word. She didn’t make any effort to justify her dislike for it – no, she just didn’t like it. Vivekananthan, for his part, didn’t like another term – “moral police,” which some Norwegian media have employed to describe the Taliban-like thugs who prowl Oslo’s Muslim community seeking to intimidate those who show signs of deviating from orthodoxy. Vivekananthan didn’t express disapproval of the moral police themselves – he just didn’t like the media’s use of the term “moral police.”

And so it went. Nobody but Storhaug had anything resembling a substantial argument to offer. And when she did start to provide solid facts or statistics that supported her position, the moderator cut her off. Storhaug protested, but to no avail. Meanwhile the moderator allowed other panelists to engage freely in character assassination and to wander off for minutes at a time on absurd tangents, whining in familiar victim-group mode about alleged anti-Muslim discrimination for which they had absolutely no evidence.

At one point Løving read out, in a tone of utter contempt, the titles of a half dozen or so books about Islam, noting that most of these disgusting screeds had been issued by major publishers – imagine! – and been translated into several languages. The first title on her list was that of my own book, While Europe Slept. Her point was to show how extreme and horrible Islamophobia had gotten. The audience, already in her hands, laughed heartily as she reeled off the titles. Needless to say, she made no mention of the actual contents of any of these books, and didn’t attempt to engage any of the arguments made therein and to reply to them in a serious fashion. In short, she was not interested in real debate, real discussion, a real exchange of ideas; no, her aim was just to read out the titles and get cheap laughs from an audience that she knew would provide them.

I wanted to ask her: what did she make of the fact that several serious writers had chosen to write such books within the last few years, and that several major publishers had been persuaded to put them out? Didn’t this suggest, quite contrary to her own argument, that perhaps there might be something there? If not, how did she account for the fact that all these writers had suddenly chosen, at roughly the same time, to become “Islamophobes”? Why hadn’t any of them decided to go on the warpath against, say, Buddhism or Hinduism or Bah’ai? Had they decided independently to write these books – which certainly would be quite a coincidence if they really were, as she argued, so wrong about Islam – or was there, in fact, some kind of conspiracy going on among them and their publishers? Gule had denounced the supposed “conspiracy theories” that he claimed were so popular among Islam critics; was Løving, in serving up this list of books, accusing their authors and publishers of being part of a grand Islamophobic conspiracy?

When it came time for Q & A, a patently irate young man named Abdul took the microphone and railed, quite aggressively, at Storhaug. (His bullying manner might have shocked someone who had never before attended a debate on Islam.) “Do you believe that all Muslims should be assimilated?” he demanded, his tone making it clear that he found the idea reprehensible. Storhaug answered calmly that yes, she believed all Muslims should be assimilated into such Western values as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and sexual equality. You’d think at least this might get a smattering of applause. Think again.

As the evening wore on, Alzaghari, the distracted young woman from the Muslim think tank, only grew more and more addled. Eventually she seemed barely capable of formulating a sentence, let alone an argument. In answer to a question about the problem of Islamism in Europe, she mumbled without conviction, “Islamism isn’t a problem in Europe.” Storhaug’s jaw dropped, and this time – gratifyingly – she wasn’t alone. Rabidly partisan though the audience was, Alzaghari was such a feeble debater that by this point they’d actually stopped applauding her.

For me, however, the lowest point of the evening was when Gule announced that he had never received a death threat. He attributed this to the fact that Muslims know that he doesn’t just criticize their religion – he criticizes other religions too and he doesn’t want to deny people the right to wear hijab or burka. In short, they know he’s fair – he treats all religions equally. Gule was manifestly proud of this fact. He was bragging. All I could think of was my courageous friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has to be accompanied everywhere by armed bodyguards because of the death threats she has received.

Admittedly, Gule didn’t say straight out that Hirsi Ali deserved the death threats she lives with. Nor did he say that people like Geert Wilders and Robert Redeker and Wafa Sultan deserved their death threats, or that when Theo van Gogh was murdered he had it coming. But Gule didn’t have to say any of these things. The insinuation was clear: he’s a balanced Islam critic; they’re Islamophobes. Implicit in his comment was that Muslims who issue death threats are, in their own special way, reasonable – that they don’t target people who don’t deserve it.

If Gule was deplorable, Døving, Vivekananthan, and Alzaghari were just lightweights; they spent two hours slinging vapid P.C. rhetoric and not proving anything. Yet at the end the crowd was still overwhelmingly on their side. And – oh, yes – toward the end, an agitated young Norwegian woman sitting near me, who apparently couldn’t deal any more with the un-PC facts coming out of Storhaug’s mouth, rose to her feet, grumbled aloud about “Hege Storhaug” (I couldn’t make out anything else), and stomped to the entranceway, from which she screamed, at the top of her lungs, a single word: “Racist!”

When I stepped out into the night I found Storhaug standing there with two people who seemed to be supporters of hers. Both were middle-aged. Nearby stood – or, rather, hovered – three young Muslim men. I recognized them from the event: they’d been sitting near me, and had shot me dirty looks every time I applauded Storhaug. Now here they were outside with us. Their placement in our immediate vicinity was clearly intentional. If they weren’t waiting to get Storhaug alone so they could jump her, they were plainly trying to scare her into thinking that’s what they were up to. Inside the auditorium, Storhaug’s fellow panelists had poured out virtually nothing other than honeyed rhetoric about the peaceableness of Islam and the bigotry of its opponents – rhetoric that had no connection whatsoever to living reality. Now here we were back out in the world, and reality had instantly reasserted itself in the form of this threatening trio.

After a brief chat, Storhaug asked her two companions and me to accompany her to her car. We did. Standing with her by the car, I was thrust back in my memory to a similar moment earlier this year, when, along with two or three others, I had stood out on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk with Ayaan Hirsi Ali after a banquet, keeping her company while waiting for her car to come around the corner and whisk her off to safety.

This, I thought as I said good night to Storhaug, is the world we live in now. This, increasingly, is the world to which you’re confined if you dare to criticize Islam in public. This is the fate of the brave.

And yet millions of people like those students in that audience are in absolute denial about the reality of this world.

Storhaug had walked into the lion’s den, presumably in hopes that one or two of those young people might listen – and learn. But there was no sign that any of them had even wanted to listen. A significant percentage of the audience members at NYU had changed their minds about Islam because of what Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray had had to say. But these Norwegian college kids? Nope. Was it generational? Probably in part. Was it an America/Europe thing? Probably partly that, too.

And one suspects that those New Yorkers’ memories of 9/11 figured in there as well.

In any case, the response of those kids at the University of Oslo was no surprise. After all, unlike the mostly older folks at the NYU event, they’ve been brainwashed throughout their lives by multicultural ideas that they cling to even though the ideas are utterly belied by the reality around them. They cling to those ideas because the ideas form a delicate edifice that they’re scared to risk crumbling with a single touch; they cling to those ideas because these kids are this little country’s budding elite and they know damn well that if you want to walk the corridors of power here (such as they are), those are the ideas you have to cling to, whether you really buy them, deep down, or not.

They don’t deserve to wash her feet, I found myself thinking as Storhaug climbed into her car, and yet they look down at her as if she is some racist buffoon. It was certainly no comfort to reflect that one day, sooner rather than later, each of those young people will gradually come to face the fact that Storhaug was right all along. But by then, I fear, none of them will be able to do anything about it.