Thursday, August 16, 2007

Islam must reform to provide for legal equality

In this convincing and thought-provoking discussion of Islam in the August 2007 edition of the New English Review, Theodore Dalrymple dwells on the chequered history of the Jews of Algeria as described in Les Trois Exils by Benjamin Stora (See here and here). The Jews of Algeria fought with the Muslims against European imperialism in the 16th century, but ultimately threw in their lot with the French - despite outbursts of colonial antisemitism - when they understood that only French law could guarantee their citizens' rights.

"The nationalist movement (in 1950s Algeria) gained strength, and the violence increased enormously; a million people were eventually killed. Officially, the FLN, the Front National de Liberation, was a secular movement; it appealed to Algerian Jews to join the struggle against the French, and promised them equal treatment after independence. However, the Algerian Jews did not believe it, for they had the examples of other Jews in other Arab countries before them; the famous Jewish-Algerian singer, Raymond, was assassinated in 1961, and Moslem attacks on Jews increased; the Jews naturally thought that the Moslem tradition would prevail over the secular nationalist ideology, and in 1962 they left en masse for France. If they had not, it is not difficult to imagine their fate in the civil war waged between the military government and the FIS, the Front Islamique de Salut.

"But what is the moral of this history, if there is one? It is certainly not one of the immemorial goodness and tolerance of the western tradition and the immemorial wickedness and intolerance of the Islamic one. I suppose a Martian, on reading this story, might come to the conclusion that human beings were a bad lot, and that he had better leave Earth as soon as possible.

"But there is another moral to the story, and I do not think it is one that is encouraging about Islam as a force in the modern world. For many centuries, the record of Islam was probably no worse, and might even have been better, than the western one, at least in point of religious tolerance (the Jews of the Maghreb in the Sixteenth Century certainly thought so). Unfortunately, this is a pretty dismal standard to measure anything by. There was, in fact, plenty of room for the Islamic record to be as good as or better than the western one, and still be very bad. Between dhimmitude and death, who would not choose dhimmitude? But that is not to say it was an enviable or morally defensible fate.

"By 1962, however, things were very clear: for Algerian Jews, France, its chequered record notwithstanding, offered hope for the future and equality under the law, while Algeria offered the prospect of future pogroms, the promises of its leadership notwithstanding. And there was a reason for this: while France had a theory of legal equality, Islam did not (My emphasis -ed). And the Jews of Algeria thought that the hold of Islam over the pays réel would more outweigh the hold of secular nationalist ideology of the pays légal. The former, and not the latter, would determine their fate in Algeria. They did not believe the promises of the FLN, not because the individuals who made them were insincere, but because the forces against their being kept were simply too strong.

"This suggests that there is a conflict between Islam and modernity, at least if one of the important components of modernity is equality under the law. Such equality means that Moslems would have to accept that, even in polities where they were in the immense majority, Islam would have no special claim to consideration, and that (for example) apostasy would have to become a normal and acceptable part of life. Whether, under these circumstances, Islam would remain truly Islamic is a question for scholars, not for scribblers such as I."

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