On the Muslim Question by Anne Norton – review

Anne Norton rejects the ‘clash of civilisations’ view of Islam and the west, but offers little to replace it. Lawrence Rosen is the author of Varieties of Muslim Experience and The Culture of Islam offers the review of Anne Norton’s new publication On the Muslim Question.

 

Anne Norton thinks that the “Muslim question” is, if anything, a question about non-Muslims. She is straightforward in denying the claim that Islam and the west are involved in a “clash of civilisations”; castigating writers of various political persuasions who have, blatantly or inferentially, put forward this view. She thus criticises writers such as John Rawls (as well as those, such as Michael Walzer and Michael Ignatieff, who “have urged them on”) for saying that Muslims constantly seek empire and territory, for stereotyping Muslims’ political orientation as the antithesis of liberalism, and for promoting a false history that conceals liberalism’s own failings. In an effort to find more common ground, she underwrites Derrida’s assertion that Islam is “the other of democracy” because Muslim states could retain their distinctiveness while recognising Israel and promoting democratic values. And she surprisingly lauds Sayyid Qutb, the Islamic theorist executed by Nasser in Egypt, because “even this intolerant, fanatic man has something to teach us about human rights, human dignity, and equality”, given his support for private property and women in the workplace.

 

In a series of chapters on sexuality, freedom of speech and democracy, Norton recognises that valid differences of orientation exist. But she does not always help her own case by making assertions that are variously vague, trivial or wrong. For example, she says that terrorism is the precursor to democracy (as if the course of the Arab spring was inevitable), that randomness is “terrifying” (so much for evolutionists), that “Germany has no neo-Nazis” (when they number upwards of 5,000), that the publishers of the Danish cartoons “intended to provoke” (and not just insult) Muslims, that the veil is “profoundly erotic” (for elderly women?), or that calling your sports team the Redskins “honours an old enemy” (tell that to Native Americans).

 

But if the clash-of-civilisations approach is false, what options exist for addressing the differences presented by a Muslim minority in a western country? Having dismissed many of the arguments of western intellectuals about Islam, Norton indicates that neither outright assimilation nor distant toleration is to be preferred: rather she chooses the third option, moving “us” closer to “them”. Indeed, she seems to regard this as already having happened. True, some issues may be resolving themselves internally: many Muslim women have found common sartorial ground, older ones having given up the full veil, younger ones the miniskirt, both adopting a simple head scarf. And once we eliminate the clash-of-civilisations notion from our vocabulary, the mutual accommodations that already exist at the local level may only increase. But a common meeting ground is not always easily achieved.

 

Such a position may, however, come at the price of not really attending to the distinctiveness of the “other”. Norton knows little about Muslims: she gets her few references to Arabic wrong and never discusses the scholarship on Islam and Muslim cultures. In the absence of any understanding of Muslims in their own terms, moving closer to them risks being yet another exercise in self-congratulation: it yields few insights about us and none about them, and thus lacks both genuine understanding and real moral bite.

 

Muslims, like every minority, appreciate the need for camouflage in the face of muted suspicion, even if that need has diminished somewhat in the years since 9/11 and 7/7. But living as a chameleon may be harder now that we all notice each other noticing each other. Under such circumstances, anonymity, for many Muslims, may stifle their sense of valid difference and deprive non-Muslims of really seeing their neighbours. If that happens, we may avoid the “clash”, but it may come at the cost of an arrangement neither community should be eager to call “civilisation”.