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Who are we? An ancient, many-faced question, now with acute relevance
From National Review, 9/12/05 by David Frum

WHO are we? It's an eternal human question, and though it is only three words long, it can be posed in three radically different ways. "Who are we?" can be the question of the newly independent country or the newly liberated group: Where do we come from, what is our story? "Who are we?" can also be the question of the troubled or the uncertain, the question of conscience. And finally, "Who are we?" can be the question of the nation at war or the group under attack: Where is the boundary to be drawn between us and those who threaten us--who is in the group and who is out?

Phrased that last way, this eternal human question has suddenly become immediate and urgent for the nations of Europe. At the Labour party's national conference nine days after the first London bombing, British prime minister Tony Blair offered a powerful and memorable answer: "The spirit of our age is one in which the prejudices of the past are put behind us, where our diversity is our strength. It is this which is under attack. Moderates are not moderate through weakness but through strength. Now is the time to show it in defense of our common values."

Some might scoff that Blair is putting the prejudices of the past behind us in order to vacate more room for the prejudices of the present. But unpack Blair's words more fully, and you do get a coherent proposition. What is under attack, says Blair, is a "spirit of the age," the spirit that hails "diversity" as "our strength." The attackers are Islamic extremists who "demand the elimination of Israel; the withdrawal of all Westerners from Muslim countries ...; the establishment of effectively Taliban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one caliphate of all Muslim nations." And from there, Blair could have added, ultimately to all the world-for the London bombers very much envision Britain as a subject territory of the new caliphate.

All true, and all well said. But what about the attacked? What are these common values they share? What do they believe? Who are we?


From the very beginning of the 9/11 conflict between radical Islam and the West, these hard questions have haunted national leaders, strategists and writers, and the general public. In the early days of the War on Terror, there used to be a species called "the liberal hawk." George Packer (himself one of the most impressive of the species) wrote an article about them for The New York Times Magazine. The species is endangered now. These birds turned out to be highly susceptible to even the slightest change in the climate of their native habitat. They fell victim too to the disease of anti-Bush distemper, and over the past few months almost all of them have shed their once bold plumage, changed their colors, or disappeared altogether.

In their heyday, however, the liberal hawks offered a bold definition of the issue at stake. It was, Paul Berman argued, a battle of liberalism against terror. Or, as Andrew Sullivan argued in October 2001: "This surely is a religious war--but not of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity. This war even has far gentler echoes in America's own religious conflicts--between newer, more virulent strands of Christian fundamentalism and mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism."

The liberal hawks offered many opinion leaders a war they could understand and welcome: Round CCCLV of the ongoing struggle between the forces of enlightenment on one hand and religious obscurantism on the other. Ecrasez l'infame, as Voltaire demanded so long ago-and as the American Civil Liberties Union is still busily attempting to do. "Crush the infamous thing"-that thing being the Christian Church and especially the Catholic Church. You may have caught echoes of this line of argument in your daily life. "You oppose same-sex marriage? So how are you different from those Islamic extremists?" Or: "Hey, I would have thought you would approve of the way the Taliban treated women." Think of all those jokes about the "Taliban wing" of the Republican party.

Tony Blair was the original liberal hawk, albeit one endowed with rather more staying power than most of the breed. Still, you can catch a continuing echo of the Old Labour way of thinking in his July 16 speech to the Labour-party conference: They believe in the global caliphate; we believe in ... diversity, which is to say, in everything, which is again to say, in nothing. That's why Blair refers to "our common values" without dropping any hint as to what those values might be. To name them would be to exclude others, and to exclude things is to acknowledge limits to our diversity.

But of course all societies are diverse, and in many respects more diverse than our own. Compare Britain to, say, Egypt. Egypt is home to English-speaking Harvard graduates with second homes in Switzerland--and to illiterate peasants who have seen little more of the world than the backside of an ox. The differences between rich and poor, urban and rural, men and women, adults and children, the military and civilians, the religious and the secular, those connected to modern technology and those cut off from it, those with access to the law, banks, and education and those denied it, those who support the social and political status quo and those who oppose it--all of these are vastly greater in Egypt or almost any Middle Eastern country than they are in Western Europe or North America.

You could even argue that the most arresting thing about modern Western societies is their stupendous absence of diversity. An American can travel 3,000 miles from coast to coast while speaking the same language, using the same money, watching the same television programs in identically laid out hotel rooms, eating the same dishes at the same national restaurant chains, his property and rights protected by the same legal code, meeting people who share more ideas, more habits, more assumptions, more of everything with him than at any previous time in the nation's existence. The same is increasingly true from one end of Europe to the other.

Those liberal hawks who sought to define their society by its tolerance, by its openness, by all the things of which it was not certain, by all the things that it did not believe-they were on to something, yes, but not the most important thing. Beneath all those uncertainties and doubts, and supporting them, were the things in which that society did believe: believed so strongly that it never articulated them, did not even know were there. The Islamic extremists speak for deeply humiliated people.

They say: "We may be poor, we may be backward, we may lack technology and lose wars. We may no longer write anything the world cares to read or produce anything the world cares to buy, except for the oil under our soil that your geologists found and for which your engineers developed a use. But none of that matters. We have the truth-and you do not." Those who define Western society by all that we do not believe: Don't they rather agree with these Islamic extremists? "Yes, we are rich, we are advanced, we have technology, and we win wars. The whole world wants to have what we have. But you are right: We have no truths to offer, only doubts and guilt." The debate over same-sex marriage perfectly exemplifies this bizarre tacit agreement.

The Islamic extremists accuse the West of lacking any sexual morality. Indeed, the alleged immorality of the West--the indecent liberty of women, the lewd explicitness of entertainment--is one of the principal grievances of Islamic radicals in the West. (One of the perpetrators of the second London bombing, Somali-born Yasin Hassan Omar, was also offended that alcohol was sold in Western cities in violation of Islamic law.) They think: The West believes in nothing but personal whim. Anything goes! And those Westerners who draw comparisons between Islamic extremists and defenders of traditional marriage--don't they think just the same thing? Yes! We believe in nothing but personal--well, not whim, that sounds ... whimsical--but choice. Anything goes!


But "we" do believe in something more than choice, or did. "We" believed that relations between men and women were governed by a moral code that acknowledged both the differences between the sexes and the equality of the sexes. We believed in companionate marriage because we believed that the sexes were complementary: different in ways that sparked desire, similar in ways that made possible lifelong intimacy and friendship. "We" had an affirmative vision of relations between the sexes that was both egalitarian and moral-moral, precisely because it was egalitarian. Indeed, as Edward Said complains at some length in his famous book Orientalism, from the 18th century until recently a long Western literary and artistic tradition dwelt lingeringly on the lascivious fantasies summoned by the subordination and segregation of women in the Middle East. When 19th-century painters wished to fill their canvases with voluptuously naked women, they set the scene in an Ottoman harem.

The reality, of course, was more brutal than titillating--both then and now. That reality was vividly expressed in a June 19 television interview with a Saudi cleric, Sheikh Abd al-Muhsin al-Abikan, as transcribed and translated by the indispensable Bear in mind here that al-Abikan is one of the good guys of Saudi Islam: a critic of terrorism who has ruled the suicide bombings in Iraq a violation of Muslim law.

ABIKAN: [We should] expose the false slogans spread by the West, claiming that they are the people of democracy, of justice, and of freedom, and that their regimes bring about good for all mankind. If we compare these societies to Muslim society, Muslim society would be superior in all aspects. In fact, they are more advanced than we are only in modern technology and material development, but at the expense of social behavior. These societies lack many things. The women ... They say there must be equality between men and women? Equality in what way? For example, they talk about equality in how they are treated, but, in fact, they have no equality. The woman is more advanced than the man. The husband opens the car door for his wife, and lets her speak before him. Is this equality? No, it's the opposite. This is advancing the woman before the man. Western men should object to this.

HOST: She has the same rights as others.

ABIKAN: Western men should say: 'You've given women preference instead of equality.' Equality should mean, for example, that the woman has to walk next to the man. If they enter a place, they should enter together, or whoever gets there first. Why should he open the door for her? Why should he carry the bags, while she walks ahead? You see such things. The woman walks ahead, and the man lags behind with the bags. Is this equality? They are spreading empty and false slogans. This is not equality but rather the opposite. They have turned upside down what religious law has decreed with regard to men and women in Islam. If we compare the status of women in our society and in the West, we find that our women enjoy a status of respect. The woman is honored, protected, and respected, and she enjoys the full rights accorded to her in Islam, whereas in other societies she is persecuted. She goes out to public places like men, and serves the men, and works twice. At home, she has an important task-raising her children. She's burdened by hardship of working outside, as well as the hardship of working at home. Who is supposed to prepare the meals and make the home suitable for living and for a happy marital life? Who will carry out this task? The woman, of course. Is she a servant? In this case, she won't be able to do this work. This is a woman's basic work, and if she goes out it is more work. In other words, they have burdened her with more work, on top of her basic work, and they have oppressed and exploited her. On the other hand, in our society, she is honored and respected, thank God.

As migration from the Middle East and North Africa brings West and East together in the same European cities, imported brutalities have begun to occur under the jurisdiction of Western police and Western courts: "honor killings," forced marriages, and the below-the-horizon pressure for the tacit legal recognition of polygamy. Britain's Inland Revenue acknowledged in December 2004 that it was considering legal changes that would permit a husband to divide his estate tax-free among more than one wife. In at least one U.K. case (A-M v. A-M, 2001), British courts have held that polygamous marriages contracted outside Britain could be recognized as valid by British authorities. Although it remains a crime in Britain to enter into a second marriage before the first is dissolved, senior Muslim officials estimate that up to 4,000 British Muslim men have multiple wives. And one British Muslim group plans to launch a challenge to British marriage laws before the European Court of Human Rights.

These imported arrangements are often excused on grounds of choice. Reading through half a dozen handbooks of Islamic family law, one finds strikingly similar language recurring again and again: "Polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man." Although one may entertain doubts about the reality of this "consent," at least theoretically it could be true that multiple marriage could occur as a result of the free choice of consenting adults.

What happens then? Will "we" make a place for this new way of life as just the latest tile in the "gorgeous mosaic" of our diversity? Or will some kinds of diversity prove just too diverse for "us"?

Back in 2001, back when the liberal hawks were arguing that the War on Terror was a war of enlightened liberalism against religious obscurantism, I wondered: Would anybody point out that enlightened liberalism itself rested on a religious foundation? And that when severed from that religious foundation, enlightened liberalism might discover that it had severed itself from the strength it needed to survive in a world of harsh competing systems of belief? Quickly it became apparent that while many might think so, few cared or dared to say so.

And of course the situation in Europe is even worse. Now, as Europeans struggle to find the words to justify their self-defense--as they scramble to persuade themselves that they are worth defending--they must wake up to this hard thought: National survival in the age of terror is not just a matter of intelligence operations and security measures. It's not just a job for armies and police. National survival depends on the willingness and ability of the targets of terrorism to assert and defend a national identity: an identity that is more than a catalogue of self-doubts and self-criticisms, an identity that is more than a statement of disagreements and diversities--an identity that can say, in English, in French, in German, on behalf of the nations of the Atlantic community on both sides of the ocean, This is who we are--and we are prepared to fight for it.

COPYRIGHT 2005 National Review, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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