Contributor at leading neoconservative magazine says that Muslims are different from us

In the previous entry I mentioned, among the signs of a turn toward reality on the subject of Islam, Charlotte Allen’s article in the March 14 issue of The Weekly Standard. Allen spent some time in Tunisia and Egypt recently, and not just in the chic, Westernized areas, but in ordinary neighborhoods among ordinary people, and her impression of Muslims and of what they “yearn for” is the exact opposite of that of Western political leaders and of the editors of the magazine in which she writes. Further, she points out that the secular despots whose overthrow we now root for represent the actual Westernizing tendencies, such as they are, in those countries, while the people whose freedom and acquisition of democratic political power we cheer for are the ones who want Islam, and more of it. Here are two excerpts:

It’s not surprising that there’s so much optimistic reporting that ordinary Muslims “yearn” for freedom, democracy, human rights, and to be just like the West. But outside the touristed enclaves of cosmopolitanism, I saw just the opposite: societies that were obstinately Islamic in the face of efforts by leaders with vast state-police apparatuses at their disposal to shove them into secular modernity. Indeed, the ordinary Muslims of Tunisia and Egypt seemed determined to be more Muslim than ever, some 50 or 60 years after policies of aggressive Westernization in both countries had been put into place. I could sort of understand why the Ben Ali-loyal airport cops had greeted my arrival in Tunis so heavy-handedly. They probably saw themselves as a thin Armani line between civilization as they knew it and a rolling low-key jihad that threatened to sweep it away and substitute in its place an ominous Muslim near-theocracy.

* * *

I also wondered on my walks where all those emancipated women were that [former Tunisian leader Habib] Bourguiba’s modernization blitz had promised would materialize. After more than 50 years of official campaigning against the hijab if not forbidding it outright (Bourguiba called it an “odious rag”), at least half of Tunisian women were covering their hair. That was in downtown Tunis; in the countryside the percentage was close to 100, many of the women wrapped in a Berber veil that folded around the entire body. In Egypt, even in Cairo and Alexandria, almost the only local women who went veil-less on the streets were Coptic Christians. Many married Egyptian women went all the way and curtained themselves from head to toe in black, their shrouded faces an almost comical contrast to their Western-attired husbands and their small children in kidwear that could have been bought at an American shopping mall.

Those hijab-wearers weren’t grannies, but, rather, young and pretty girls, many of them university students, who had turned Islamic dress into something chic and figure-flattering: a long-sleeved, close-fitting, high-necked jersey topped by an overblouse or tunic and worn with skinny jeans or a long slim skirt. The hijabs themselves were Scheherazade headdresses: gossamer-light and ornamented with sequins, bling, and glittery little crowns. The hijab and its male equivalent, the lightly stubbled chin that satisfies Muhammad’s injunction in the Koran that good Muslim men wear beards, were ubiquitous among young people in both countries. In that self-presentation they were finding and expressing identity, distinguishing themselves from a West that they deemed decadent and unholy: the tourists in their shorts and miniskirts and tiny tops. They have resacralized an existence that they believe was forcibly taken away from them by their own Westernizing, secularizing dictators. I’m certain that in some elite and very wealthy sectors of North African society a different ethos prevails. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of this parallel Islamic universe that seemed to exist in exclusive suburbs far from city centers: dark-haired, bikini-clad girls on the upscale beach at Gammarth in Tunisia riding camels for hire and flirting with sheesha-smoking young men with plenty of leisure, a nail salon that I frequented whose bareheaded female customers wore elegant slacks and high heels, a billboard depicting a female newscaster who looked like a ringer for Katie Couric. But that was not the world in which the overwhelming majority of the people lived, even in the most sophisticated of their capital cities.

No one can predict what’s going to happen next in Tunisia, Egypt, or anywhere else in the Islamic world. The sudden reappearance of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt’s political scene is troubling, and one of the byproducts of an Islamic monoculture is persecution of Christians. Christianity may have been nearly eradicated in Tunisia, but Copts account for 10 percent of Egypt’s population. No one talks much about them right now, and the New Year’s Eve bombing that left 23 of them dead in an Alexandria church seems to have been already forgotten. It is not that many ordinary Muslims aren’t admirable, likable people making do and living sociably with very little. I enjoyed the small and courteous commercial encounters I had with Tunisians: adding dinars to my cell-phone card, for example, or visiting the bedraggled zoo animals at the Parc du Belvedere. During Ramadan in Egypt, every night was a festival of families picnicking outdoors with their children overjoyed at the gluttonous breaking of the fast. It was just that they were different from us. They were living in their own world, and it is a world that is not necessarily friendly to ours.

How strange—indeed, how subversive and revolutionary—are the words, “It was just that they were different from us, they were living in their own world,” in The Weekly Standard, a magazine that believes that everyone in the world is just like us or yearns to be just like us and can easily become so, and that anyone who disagrees with that proposition is a despicable cretin. By The Weekly Standard’s usual scale of values, Charlotte Allen’s observation is virtually racist.

- end of initial entry -

March 18

Charlotte Allen writes:

Thank you for linking my Weekly Standard article. I’d like to clarify one thing: The Weekly Standard does not demand orthodoxy. My pessimistic views about Islam vs. the West are actually shared more or less by several editors and writers for the magazine, and I have never had any trouble expressing my views over many years in articles and book reviews. True, other writers for the Weekly Standard have a much more sanguine view of the various recent uprisings in the Islamic world, but no one has ever tried to impose those views on me or (as far as I know) any other contributor.

LA replies:

Thanks for writing. I’m glad to hear that TWS doesn’t have a rigid orthodoxy on this matter. While I haven’t read the magazine much in recent years, the overall impression one gets is that the magazine is devoted to the Democracy Project, certainly its main editors and contributors are. Indeed it is a leading organ of the Democracy Project. I don’t remember seeing previously an article like yours, whether in the Standard or in any neoconservative publication, which states so directly and plainly that Muslims are different from us and not assimilable into Western ways. So, to me, your article represents something new and highly unorthodox in the neoconservative world.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 17, 2011 10:56 PM | Send

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