Notes on Islam, and Notes on Europe


Is Islam compatible with European culture?

It’s a question that has obsessed European political life for the past fifteen years, and not one to which it’s easy to find a straightforward answer. Can you live as a practising Muslim and a well-integrated member of European society at the same time? I don’t know; I’ve never taken much of an interest in Islamic theology, and I couldn’t cite a Quran verse if you held me at gunpoint (so if I ever fall into the hands of ISIS or Al Shabaab, I’m doomed). It probably depends on which imam you ask – revealed truths have a habit of being open to interpretation.

I do, however, know a few things that definitely aren’t compatible with European culture:

  1. The idea that a woman is under the guardianship of her husband, father or brother, rather than a free human being who makes her own choices.
  2. A social code which greatly constrains individual freedom in the name of “family honour”.
  3. Rejection of homosexuality.
  4. Claiming an untouchable place in the public sphere for any religion.
  5. A sexual morality which holds that women must cover themselves when they leave their homes, because men are horny beasts who won’t be able to control themselves otherwise.

The question, then, could be rephrased as: to what extent can these “touches of medieval darkness” be separated from Islam? I am reminded of an interview with two female, reformist members of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, the closest thing the country has to a parliament (link in Dutch and, unfortunately, behind a paywall). They point out that the most reactionary elements in Saudi society come not from Islam but from a tribal culture that long predates it, and actually use “society should be based on Islam” as an argument for less conservative policies. But in the European context, whether or not these elements have anything to do with Islam on paper is a largely philosophical distinction; the point is that they often come bundled with it in practice.


Islamic or un-Islamic, whenever Arabic tribal culture rears its ugly head in Europe, the response from institutions – schools, social workers, police – is often less steadfast than one might hope. The furious rhetoric of the populist right dominates the political debate, but “in the field” we often see the opposite problem. Consider the case of the Syrian family living in Switzerland, whose two teenage sons refused to shake their female teachers’ hands. The family’s Swiss citizenship procedure was suspended, and rightly so, but only after a media storm provoked the interference of the federal government; initially the school had found a workaround by requesting the boys not shake their male teachers’ hands either.

I don’t want to shake a woman’s hand. I don’t want my child to learn about homosexuality in school. I don’t want a male doctor to treat my wife. I don’t want my daughter to take swimming lessons together with boys. The only appropriate response to such ridiculous requests is, “Have you lost your mind? That’s not how it works here.” The actual response is all too often, “Well, okay, we’ll find a way to make it work.” (And that’s not even going into the darker cases such as the infamous Rotherham scandal, where the truth about a long-running child abuse ring was covered up because of the uncomfortable political implications, and an official who spoke against this was sent on “ethnicity and diversity training.” More recently, authorities attempted to cover up or downplay sexual assaults in Cologne and Stockholm, for much the same reasons.)

Tolerance, willingness to compromise, not wanting to make a fuss over something small – in many situations these are highly desirable qualities. But in conflicts between European and Arab culture, which occur across Western Europe every day, they are the wrong approach entirely.


So much for Arab culture, but is it really impossible to make Islam work within a European context, without the nasty bits? Surely no one in Europe begrudges Muslims their fasting during Ramadan, their daily prayers or their pilgrimages to Mecca. (Some of us do begrudge them their ritually slaughtered sheep, but I say these people are overly sentimental about animals, and hypocrites besides: if you’re going to kill an animal for food anyway, how much moral high ground can you claim by worrying about how comfortable its final hours are?)

Indeed, I would welcome a more sophisticated, reflective version of Islam as an enrichment of the European cultural palette. I’m vaguely aware of such traditions actually existing within Islam, but only vaguely, because the Islam which Europe is faced with in practice is nothing of the sort – it is a ghastly tribal cult. A religion of the heart, not a religion of the brain.

Modern Europe was shaped largely by religions of the brain. Calvinism, Lutheranism, and even some strands of Catholicism appealed not to raw emotion, but to thought, study, and reflection. Though religions of the heart, like Anabaptism, made some headway during the turbulent Reformation years, their radicalism scared both Catholic and Protestant authorities so much that they were mercilessly crushed.

Where in the Christian world did religions of the heart gain a solid foothold? To the east, where the Eastern Orthodox Churches run on a powerful, emotional kind of devotion. And to the west, in the United States (particularly in the South), where all sorts of crazy Baptist and Evangelical sects run wild, charming their followers with singing, dancing, snake handling, and other theatrics. (Undoubtedly the stereotypical “flashiness” of American culture, which annoys many Europeans, is largely rooted in the prevalence of these emotion-based strands of Christianity.) In both East and West, it is obvious that religions of the heart are strongly linked with a reactionary political mindset: the Russian Orthodox Church is on the front lines in the Kremlin’s culture war against the “decadent West”, and the bizarre (to western Europeans) attitudes to abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex that still circulate in the US are fueled by evangelical religion.

If we’re looking to define something like a “European identity,” I think this divide in religious traditions goes a long way. Of course, this raises uncomfortable questions about whether countries like Greece, Serbia and Ukraine with their Orthodox traditions, or even Poland with its passionate blend of Catholicism and nationalism (where have we seen that before?) can ever be truly European, but that’s a topic for another time. The point here is that if Islam is ever to find a real place within European societies, it must be an Islam of the brain – not an Islam of the heart.

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