“On The Muslim Question” – Or Avoiding It

UnknownAnne Norton’s On The Muslim Question is one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

A foreword says it’s “free of academic jargon and cultural studies clichés.” I disagree. The book piles sentence upon sentence of pseudo-portentous, pseudo-profound non-sequiturs. Like this (page 23): “It is not the foreign that fills people with fear, but the familiar; not the future, but the past.”

And little of it concerns Muslims. This is a bait-and-switch; as the flap says, the book is really “about the values not of Islamic, but of Western civilization.” Unknown-1The “Muslim Question” is a trojan horse for what is mainly just a typical lefty screech against Western society. For example (page 67), “attention to the plight of women in the Muslim world turns the gaze . . . away from the continuing oppression of women in the West.”

And much of that indictment is twisted — e.g., repeating that Western women earn a “fraction” of men’s pay. Norton says the “true issue” of the veil in France is not secularism but capitalism: women’s bodies must be treated as goods for sale! Such pathological nonsense is unaccompanied by any discussion of the matter as pertaining to Muslim societies. Norton’s only point about female genital mutilation is that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s (“exceptionally harsh”) was perpetrated by her grandmother against the wishes of her father and imam. As if to prove

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Muslim men don’t condone this widespread barbaric practice. If only that were so. And the term “honor killing” appears precisely once – in a quote Norton sneers at.

She purports to debunk negative Western ideas about Islam, but meanders in a swamp of irrelevancies. For instance, discussing “Islamofascism” and the whole issue of democracy, Norton spends pages raging that author Paul Berman pegged Tariq Ramadan as the intellectual heir of his Muslim Brotherhood forebears rather than acknowledging Ramadan’s views as his own. What Norton refuses to acknowledge is any democratic deficits in the Muslim world. Iran is not even mentioned. But she puts great weight on the writings of one Al Farabi (Norton omits placing him in the Tenth Century) with seemingly advanced views of what a democratic society should be – as if that settles the matter. Never mind that most actual Muslim societies look nothing like Al Farabi’s forgotten vision.

Then Norton has a chapter boldly titled “There Is No Clash Of Civilizations,” referring to historian Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis. Her entire argument here is that Muslims and non-Muslims actually get along fine in non-Muslim societies. But Huntington was talking about relations among societies. Moreover, Muslims do not get along fine with non-Muslims in Muslim countries – about which Norton is silent. (Huntington was all wet, but for different reasons – see my review of his book.)

It’s striking how disproportionately the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims. Why is this? Yet again, Norton has nothing to say. She blows off the Danish cartoon affair, in part, by saying the violence “occurred in places where violence is common.” But she is determinedly incurious about why it is common in those places. In discussing the Theo Van Gogh murder, she slimes Van Gogh at great length, with nothing said about his Muslim attacker. And of course in the Rushdie affair, all the shame belonged to — Rushdie!

imagesEgypt’s horror is the latest manifestation of a problem I’ve written about. You’d think Syria’s catastrophe might have dissuaded Egypt’s military from treading the same path. But no; rather than conciliation, the resort to violence seems tragically instinctive.

But on every issue, Muslims get a pass from Norton, as if any critical word were taboo. Only the West incurs her wrath and scorn. And again that’s mostly overblown to the point of ridiculousness. She doesn’t think we’ve expiated our supposed collective guilt for the Holocaust – citing Wernher von Braun’s role in the U.S. space program – and that “We drive Volkswagens”!Unknown-3

Not surprisingly, in our conflict with (a sector of) Islam, Norton sees America as the bad guy. She’s obsessed with Abu Ghraib. And when I read the sentence, “No one should have to argue any longer that terrorism can be a rational and reasonable strategy,” I thought that here at last was something I agreed with. But no; it’s just Norton’s bad writing. She actually means that terrorism is unarguably rational and reasonable. So naturally she does not bother to explain how.

Norton’s book would more accurately have been titled “Avoiding The Muslim Question.” I should have avoided this vile book.


7 Responses to ““On The Muslim Question” – Or Avoiding It”

  1. Jud Says:

    You stated “Muslims and non-Muslims actually get along fine in non-Muslim societies”. However, Muslims don’t even get along with other Muslims in Muslim countries. Shiites vs Sunni.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Actually, I was merely reporting what NORTON says. And you are certainly correct that in MUSLIM societies, not only don’t Muslims not get along with non-Muslims, they don’t even get along with other Muslims either.

  3. Pedro Dunn Says:

    When you read books like this one, you realize the world is full of editors in need, and lacks authors willing to research. Whatever your favorite non-fiction topic, it has Wikipedia level writers who find a press (and in this case I do a disservice to some Wiki entries).

    There are much better books on Islam, Muslims, and the challenges facing their integration into greater tolerance. If their time frame follows Christianity’s historical progression, they’re about due a reformation full of Jean Calvins and Martin Luthers. Hopefully we’ll get someone better than Norton to cover that story.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    This book was actually published under the auspices of Princeton University. I was frankly astonished that Princeton would publish such a piece of —-.

  5. Government Drone Says:

    I don’t know if Islam needs a Protestant-style “reformation”; one writer (I think if was Fareed Zakaria) points out that one of Islam’s problems is that there is no real central religious authority. Even today, the Roman Catholic Pope tends to be taken seriously by non-Catholics. But since 1923 or so, there’s been no Caliph, Islam’s closest equivalent. And one of the major features of Islam is that anyone with some knowledge of the Quran can claim authority to issue religious/judicial opinions. The long-term effect is that Islam is prone to falling under the influence (if not control) of the most loudest & fantatical people. To paraphrase Fareed, Islam may really need a Pope at this time, if only to act as a brake against the more fanatical movements.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Well, at least it needs more vocal moderates to counteract the influence of fire-breathers. Unfortunately moderate voices within Islam seemed cowed by them. (Yet another matter Norton fails to address.)

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