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Summer 2014
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Books and Culture

Jacob Laksin
A Study in Defeat
Bruce Bawer calls out Western apologists for radical Islam.
26 June 2009

Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, by Bruce Bawer (Doubleday, 352 pp., $24.95)

With the release of his new book, Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, the American writer and critic Bruce Bawer (some of whose work has appeared in City Journal) may have committed a crime in his adoptive Norway. In 2005, Norway’s politically correct parliament passed the so-called Discrimination Act, a law that, among other curbs on free speech, criminalized “utterances” that may be “insulting” to those of certain religious beliefs. Since Surrender is a searing indictment of Western opinion makers, especially in the media, for capitulating to the rise of radical Islam in Europe, and since Islamic extremists are bound to take issue with the author’s appeal for a sterner defense of Western freedoms, it’s a real possibility that Bawer could be prosecuted for what he has written.

That it has come to this in politically progressive Norway makes Surrender urgent reading. It also serves to bolster Bawer’s chief contention: that many in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the United States, are prepared to roll back essential civil liberties in order to pacify (or so they hope) Muslim radicals. Bawer embarks on a broad offensive, counting leading political, religious, and academic figures among the defeatists. Mainly, though, he directs his rhetorical fire at the press. In their eagerness to forfeit the free-speech rights on which they depend—whether through self-censorship or through craven reporting that casts avowed Islamists as “moderates”—journalists may present the most agonizing illustration of Bawer’s theme that, for too many in the West, surrender is indeed an option.

In Bawer’s telling, the white flag first waved in 1989. That year, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, earned him a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. In his decree, Khomeini called on Muslims across the world to hunt down and kill Rushdie and anyone involved in the book’s publication “so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctities again.” The fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding and led to the murder of his Japanese translator. But while many writers rallied to Rushdie’s defense, some perversely blamed the novelist for provoking his own death sentence. Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper sneered that he “would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring Mr. Rushdie’s manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” At the time, he writes, Bawer dismissed the Trevor-Roper view as an anomaly. Surely, he reasoned, most civilized people would defend free speech against its Islamist despisers. He was wrong.

Fast-forward to November 2004. Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo Van Gogh has just been savagely murdered on an Amsterdam street by Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri. The Dutch-born son of Moroccan immigrants, Bouyeri killed Van Gogh for the offense of making Submission, a documentary-style film highlighting the mistreatment of women in Islamic societies. If Bouyeri had hoped to silence criticism of Islam, he succeeded: the response to this deadly act of censorship was more censorship. In the most depressingly ironic instance, shortly after Van Gogh’s death, Submission was withdrawn from a festival of censored films by its producer, Gijs van de Westelaken, who feared that it would incite Muslim violence. “Does this mean I’m yielding to terror?” asked Westelaken. He candidly answered his own question: “Yes.”

Similar scenes have played out across Europe. In January 2006, Vebjørn Selbekk, the editor of the small-circulation Christian journal Magazinet, became a public enemy in Norway when he reprinted the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that had triggered an uproar in the Muslim world when they first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in the fall of 2005. Selbekk did so in protest against what he saw as a culture of self-censorship among Western newspapers, most of which refused to publish the offending caricatures. For a time, he stood by his decision, even as everyone from his fellow editors to Norway’s foreign minister pressed him to apologize. Ultimately, Selbekk, too, gave in, lamenting that he had not understood “how wounding” his decision had been for Muslims.

Bawer also condemns the Western press for downplaying the abundant evidence of extremism in Muslim communities. Of the many examples he provides—Surrender is meticulously sourced, and Bawer includes a comprehensive list of notes and quotations—the most outrageous may be a May 2007 Pew Research Center poll on Muslim attitudes. One of the poll’s more widely publicized findings was that 80 percent of young American Muslims opposed suicide bombings, a statistic presented as proof that, as a Washington Post headline trumpeted, Muslims are “opposed to extremism.” Few in the establishment press deigned to notice the disconcerting fact that a double-digit percentage of Muslims in the U.S. supported suicide terrorism. It was a spectacular case of what journalists call burying the lead.

Bawer finds many such cases in the course of his thorough—and thoroughly disheartening—account. In Amsterdam, a series of violent attacks on gays—often in broad daylight—has destroyed the city’s reputation as one of the most tolerant in Europe. Muslim immigrants from Morocco have committed most of the attacks, but this fact is apparently too controversial to mention, leaving the press to grasp for any explanation save the obvious one. The German magazine Der Spiegel demonstrated perfectly the absurd lengths to which the press will go to evade inconvenient facts. In 2007, the magazine’s website ran a story on Amsterdam’s anti-gay violence that found any number of ways to account for the attacks—perhaps society had stigmatized the perpetrators, or they were “struggling with their own sexual identity.” That the violence could have something to do with the attackers’ Islam-inspired hostility to homosexuality never came up.

Evasiveness of this sort often coexists with another media sin: the tendency to define Muslim moderation down. Take the high-profile case of globetrotting celebrity Islamist Tariq Ramadan. Time and again, Ramadan has belied his media-made reputation as a “moderate.” For instance, he has refused to condemn outright the Islamic practice of stoning women for adultery, advocating only a “moratorium,” while at the same time defending the “right” (often forced) of Muslim women to wear the veil. But to Stéphanie Giry, an editor at Foreign Affairs, Ramadan is merely encouraging “modesty among Muslim women.” The writer Ian Buruma has been equally generous. In a New York Times Magazine profile of Ramadan, he noted approvingly that “unlike some Islamic activists, Ramadan has not expressed any hostility to Jews in general.” If this is now the standard of moderation, then Bawer is surely right to scoff that the term “moderate Muslim” has come to denote “someone who might not stone an adulteress to death himself, but who would defend to the death another Muslim’s right to do so.”

It has become unacceptable to point all of this out. If there is one thing the media like less than challenging Islamic radicals in print or pixels, it’s being called out on their cowardice. Thus Bawer decries the oft-heard admonition to marginalize extremists “on both sides,” a refrain that more often than not draws a moral equivalence between Islamic terrorists and extremists and those who speak out against them. Bawer may not be entirely disinterested here: already, the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet has denounced Surrender for perpetuating “foaming-at-the-mouth racist fantasies,” notwithstanding the reviewer’s notable failure to find evidence of either racism or fantasy in the book. But the fact that Bawer may have a score to settle with some of his more unscrupulous detractors hardly justifies their attempts to equate jihadism’s critics with its practitioners.

Surrender at times treads closely on the heels of Bawer’s 2006 book, While Europe Slept. The sections on Theo Van Gogh and the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, especially, read like summaries of his earlier work. On the other hand, given the prominent role that both men have played in the debate over extremist Islam, some repetition is inevitable, and perhaps necessary. Moreover, because Bawer pulls no punches—he spiritedly dismisses one writer for composing a “breathtakingly mendacious tissue of calumnies”—his book is a bracing and lively read.

And even his critics cannot accuse Bawer of exaggeration. If you think the book’s title overstates his case, listen to Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, who instructed his readers in 2007 “to recognize that coping [with Islam] is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and . . . our expectations should remain low. So long as a sizeable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full political reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected.” Doubtless some see this as an admirable expression of pragmatism. Bawer rightly recognizes it, instead, as a declaration of defeat—and he, for one, is not about to give up the fight.

Jacob Laksin is a senior editor at Front Page Magazine. He is coauthor, with David Horowitz, of One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy.

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