Magazine December 21, 2009, Issue

Rising Tide

The Swiss minaret ban and the leaked climate e-mails are really the same story — or, more precisely, are symptoms of the same disease. In the Times of London, Oliver Kamm deplored the results of Switzerland’s referendum, consigned it to the garbage can of right-wing populism, and for good measure dismissed my analysis of Euro-demographics (“This is nonsense,” he pronounced magisterially). Instead, Mr. Kamm called for a “secularist and liberal defense of the principles of a pluralist society.” 

That’s not the solution to the problem, but one of the causes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for liberalism and pluralism and whatnot. And, in the hands of a combative old bruiser like Christopher Hitchens, they’re powerful weapons. But most people are not like Mr. Hitchens. And so in much of the post-Christian West “a pluralist society” has subsided into a vast gaping nullity too weak to have any purchase on large numbers of the citizenry. In practice, the “secularist and liberal defense” is the vacuum in which a resurgent globalized Islam has incubated.

It is only human to wish to belong to something larger than oneself, and thereby give one’s life meaning. For most of history, this need was satisfied by tribe and then nation, and religion. But the Church is in steep decline in Europe, and the nation-state is all but wholly discredited as the font of racism, imperialism, and all the other ills. So some (not all) third-generation Britons of Pakistani descent look elsewhere for their identity, and find the new globalized Islam. And some (not all) 30th-generation Britons of old Anglo-Saxon stock also look elsewhere, and find global warming. “Think globally, act locally” works for environmentalism and jihad. Adherents of both causes are saving the planet from the same enemy — decadent capitalist infidels living empty consumerist lives. Both faiths claim their tenets are beyond discussion. Only another climate scientist can question the climate-science “consensus”: You busboys and waitresses and accountants and software designers and astronomers and physicists and meteorologists are unqualified to enter the debate. Likewise, on Islam, for an unbeliever to express a view is “Islamophobic.” As to which of these competing globalisms is less plausible, I leave it to readers: Barack Obama promises to lower the oceans; Hizb ut-Tahrir promises a global caliphate. The Guardian’s ecopalyptic Fred Pearce says Australia will be uninhabitable within a few years; Islam4UK says Britain will be under sharia within a few years. I’m not a betting man but if I had to choose . . .

 “Think globally, act locally”: but, if you’re on the receiving end of globalized pathologies, it’s very hard to act locally. A conventional if tyrannical nation-state is free to act against both Islam and “the environment.” China is happy to stick it to the Uighurs and to turn the Yangtze into a frothing toxic cauldron. But these days non-tyrannical nation-states are barely nations at all, and certainly not to the extent of having anything so déclassé as a “national interest.” If the Swiss are indeed the raging right-wing populists Oliver Kamm says they are, their knuckle-dragging neofascism is a limp and effete strain. If you truly believe that Islam is the cuckoo in your clock, you might ban new mosque construction or even Muslim immigration. Instead, they have banned a symbolic architectural flourish, while the mosque-building and the immigration continue — which means that one day the minaret ban will be overturned. And were the country a member of the European Union, even this forlorn gesture would not be permitted.

In Switzerland’s defense, it was pointed out that Saudi Arabia prohibits not just church spires but churches. But this argument went nowhere, except to give detractors an opportunity to tut that the Swiss had chosen to become an Alpine Saudi. To progressive opinion, it’s taken as read that “multiculturalism” is a one-way street: It seems entirely reasonable for a Wahhabist to say an Anglican church in Riyadh would seem, gee, I dunno, just somehow kinda un-Saudi, whereas it is entirely unacceptable for Heidi’s grandfather to say a Deobandi mosque in Lucerne is un-Swiss. In contemporary Western discourse, a commitment to abstract virtues — secularism, pluralism — must trump any visceral sense of ethnocultural allegiance.

That’s a very shifting patch of sand to draw a line in. Recently, the writer Barbara Kay testified to the House of Commons in Ottawa about a Jewish teacher at a francophone school in Ontario. Around 2002 she began to encounter explicitly anti-Semitic speech from Muslim students: “Does someone smell a Jew? It stinks here.” “You are not human, you are a Jew.” Had Anglo-Saxon skinheads essayed such jests, Oliver Kamm’s warriors of secular pluralism would have crushed them like bugs. But when the teacher went to the principal, and the school board, and the local “hate-crimes unit,” they all looked the other way and advised her that it would be easier if she retired. Sixty out of 75 French teachers at the school opted to leave: A couple were Jewish, a few more practicing Catholics, and most of the rest were the liberal secularists on whom Oliver Kamm’s defense of the West rests. The francophone children withdrew, too. And now the principal and most of the students and faculty are Muslim.

Maybe it would have wound up like that anyway. But having nothing to stand in your way except liberal progressives certainly accelerated the process. And as it went at one schoolhouse, so will it go on the broader horizon: If you believe in everything, you’re unlikely to stand for something.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

In This Issue

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