Religion | The François option
Should Europeans convert to Islam?
Western Europe is undergoing a demographic change that is likely to radically alter the religious and ethnic composition of the continent by the end of the century.
Muslims will make up a significant portion of the youngest and most dynamic sectors of several countries, notably Britain and France.
Consequently, Islam will come to play a major part in national affairs, even though Muslims will remain a minority – if a substantial one.
Since secular Western societies are atomised and not unified by a strong faith, the views of a relatively determined and unified social cleavage can carry more weight than they would otherwise. If we add to this the fact that radical Islamists are prepared to use lethal violence in defence of their religion, we find that Islam has both greater potency and unity than other religions and ideologies in the West. In other words, Islam can punch above its weight in terms of influence on secular Western societies.
The religious transformation of Europe has already prompted a novel, Sousmission (2015) by Michel Houellebecq, in which a near-future France is governed by an Islamist party. The lead character, a Frenchman called François, eventually decides to convert to Islam and embrace the new order with open arms. He goes on to find a sort of contentment in a newly Muslim France that was absent in his previous secular, nihilistic, and post-Christian life.
The purpose of this essay is to evaluate whether or not the “François option” is really desirable for Europeans, most of whom have embraced, like François, a nihilistic, atomised, and post-Christian life devoted to simple hedonistic pleasures.
There are a variety of reasons for admiring Islam. The religion is martial and anti-liberal, and it retains views on sexuality and the position of women that are more healthy than current Western sexual mores. Islam’s absolute acceptance of the will of God is both fatalistic and reassuring – you really can find peace in the total submission Islam requires. It is, admittedly, the peace of Tacitus, the peace that says, “They make a desert and call it peace.” But, of course, Islam came from the desert, and we cannot deny the lifeless and beautiful serenity of that landscape.
From an English perspective, Islam is attractive because the English have a masochistic streak. We enjoy making ourselves hurt and Islam, with its strict fasts and scourges, provides many opportunities for the self-abasement that we have been missing since we became post-Christian. T.E. Lawrence was drawn to the Arabs because of their austere and brutal lifestyle. The desert is a kind of sea, and the English are a people of the sea. Accordingly, we can be at home with the dry seas of Arabia, and with its religion.
For the French, the motivation is different. François, in Houellebecq’s novel, is partly attracted to Islam because it will afford him the opportunity to have many wives.
The French, whatever religion they follow, must have their mistresses.
Now, while it is true that Muslims in Europe tend to be socially conservative when compared to their Western counterparts, we should not exaggerate the trend. Girls in niqabs crop up in my Tinder carousel, and if a girl is wearing bottom-hugging jeans along with a hijab, as many do, you can hardly say that she is being modest. In short, humans are often hypocritical and, regardless of what people say on social attitude surveys, many Muslims have functionally embraced the mode of life common to Western secular modernity.
We should not, therefore, idealise Muslims and Islam as being completely outside modernity. As radical Islamists would be the first to attest, Western secular modernity also draws Muslims away from the faith. It is not a one-way street of Islamisation, and for every François joining Islam there is a Faisal abandoning the faith for secular modernity.
Historically, Islam has been admired by the hardest Western European right – precisely because the religion instantiates the martial values and authoritarian organic forms of social organisation favoured by the hard right, particularly fascists. It is not for nothing that the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung described Hitler as a “new Muhammad”.
From the traditionalist side of the hard right, the French radical René Guénon left Roman Catholicism and joined Islam because, he believed, it was a faith that, in a degraded age of quantity, still retained the deep traditions that sustained a whole human life. Christianity, particularly his former faith, Catholicism, had not survived modernity.
When looking for societies that have survived the ravages of modernity, I can only think of two: the hermit kingdom of Bhutan and Afghanistan under the Taliban. These are the only regimes in the world that, through their complete isolation, up to and including restricting or eliminating television and audio-visual recordings, have attempted, in the materialist age traditionalists call the “Kali Yuga”, to reject everything about the modern world.
Traditionalists like Guénon and his more pagan counterpart Julius Evola would look at a society like Saudi Arabia, regarded as astoundingly pious and oppressive by progressive liberals, and see utter decadence and the defeat of tradition. The Saudis, secure in their visits to Starbucks and their SUVs, are a long way from the perennial tradition lauded by Evola and Guénon. Nevertheless, Islam still gave birth to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, two of the most potent and fearsome forces against modernity in contemporary times. This demonstrates that Islam is one of the few religions to not only resist modernity but also to carry the fight to the enemy.
The softer Western right, the neoconservatives and neoliberals, tends, by contrast, to be hostile towards Islam. In their reading, Islam is seen as anti-liberty, quasi-socialistic in its commitment to equality, and totalitarian. Since neoconservatism and neoliberalism incline quite far to the left – supporting ideas like feminism and gay liberation – they also disdain Islam’s social conservatism.
Indeed, they hate Islam for what is traditional about it. This is not surprising, these ideologies are materialist in nature and arise from the Western technocratic state. They serve the corporate bureaucracies and military sector of the state, so inclining them, relatively, to the right, but their ideologues, such as the anti-Islamist Douglas Murray and the journalist Christoper Hitchens, are committed to the Enlightenment. They hold out for materialism and egalitarianism, and what they disdain about Islam are its traditional and quasi-fascistic elements. Accordingly, neoconservatives and neoliberals are fond of the rhetorical term “Islamofascism”, which is sometimes used by them to refer to radical Islamists and sometimes to refer to the religion as a whole.
Neoconservatism and neoliberalism take their lead, on a slight delay, from the West’s dominant ideology, progressive liberalism. This ideology holds that all religions, when parsed by scholars, turn out to be progressive liberalism. Just as the Soviet Union produced rabbis, priests, and imams who swore that – correctly interpreted – their religions endorsed Marxism-Leninism and Communism, so the contemporary West produces Muslims, Christians, and Jews who, while maintaining that they follow different faiths, all repeat exactly the same verities. It turns out that Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad were all for gay pride parades, feminism, and transsexualism – if you believe the “official version” of the religions produced by the contemporary Western technocratic and educational complex.
This leads to some confusion, since many people take the propaganda version of the religion at face value, and regard people who object as “fundamentalists” – usually a “fundamentalist” turns out to be someone who interprets the religion as it has been interpreted for centuries (i.e. correctly, within the terms of the religion). The term is mere demonisation to displace the traditional understanding of the world’s faiths and replace that understanding with a modernist interpretation in line with the dominant Western ideology.
Despite all that can be said in favour of Islam, I think conversion to the faith is a poor option for Europeans for the following reasons:
1. The prestige language of Islam is Classical Arabic. Your status and influence within the religion and its collateral institutions will be linked to your ability to master this language. Europeans, even highly intelligent Europeans, will find this very challenging. Accordingly, European converts to Islam are likely to have very low status and lack influence within Islam as a group.
2. Islam is ethnically an Arab religion in the same way that Christianity is a European religion. While it is true that Islam, like Christianity, is a universal faith that encompasses people of all ethnicities, we cannot escape the historical reality that Islam originated with and was spread by the Arab conquests – just as Christianity was spread by European imperialism. The mere fact that Muhammad was an Arab gives that group ethnic prestige within the religion, and, further, the religion was, from the very beginning, integrated into a system of political rule: Muhammad was a great military commander and leader, not just a religious visionary. He was, specifically, a great Arab political leader. To follow Islam is to subordinate yourself to this ethnic group.
3. Islam is opposed to technological development and the scientific method. Islam, partly off the backs of the conquered Persians, was once in the vanguard of scientific development. However, under the influence of the philosopher al-Ghazali in the 12th century, Islam detached itself from science in order to defend its theology and so retarded technological development for the Muslim lands. The analyst David Goldman has noted that while the Christian God creates a universe with rules that bind Him, Allah is not bound by any rules – even his own. He may change his mind on a whim, so making the universe arbitrary and incomprehensible. The notion of a law-governed universe was crucial for science to develop, but it is largely absent from Muslim theology and philosophy.
The crisis of Islamic scientific and technological development was noted by the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s. Qutb acknowledged that the West had outclassed Islam in technology and economic development, but he maintained that Islam could sustain a superior level of moral achievement. He seems to have been, judging by the current lamentable ethos of the West, correct. However, war is, as Heraclitus observed, the master of all. Societies that cannot master advanced technology will perish in war and fail. This counts against Islam.
4. Islam and Western Europe have been opposed and in constant contest with each other for centuries. The conflict between Christianity and Islam never ended – it merely changed form. Today’s West is governed by a degraded form of Christianity, progressive liberalism, that is still hostile to Islam. To adopt Islam is, for a Westerner, the equivalent of turning their back upon this long history and rebuking their entire patrimony and actions of their ancestors. Although modernity and progressive liberal ideology tells us that we can step out of history, this is not possible. We are made by history whether we like it or not, and changing sides comes at a terrible cost.
5. A constituent element of the West is its questing and uncertain nature. This position is represented by the touchstone figure of Socrates, a man who tries to keep everything open and provisional. Islam, by contrast, seeks to close everything down through its absolutism and simple faith. This is part of its strength as a religion, but it is in direct contradiction to the Western tradition of provisionality and exploration.
6. Westerners, to borrow a point from Guillaume Faye, practice their religion in a private and individualistic way. Christianity never had the Muslim structure of prayers at fixed intervals. You may pray when you wish and your prayer can have its own content. Your relationship to God is personal. Islam, by contrast, offers collective prayers of a fixed type and at a fixed time. The advantage of Islamic prayer is that it grants access to the numinous through mystical states, but the disadvantage is that it destroys individuality and a personal relationship with the divine.
7. The neoconservative critics of Islam are correct that the religion is amenable to a form of socialism and a sort of quasi-socialistic thinking. The strict prohibition on usury in Islam, though cleverly circumvented by Islamic banking, is just one the blocks to the development of capitalism within the religion. Socialism is a danger to stable societies.
8. The West has a strong tradition of representational art that is largely absent in Islam and actively reviled in radical Islam. If a European becomes a Muslim, he is turning his back on the legacy of statues, paintings, films, and, in a sense, the body itself. The Ancient Greeks, the foundation culture of the West, perfected the depiction of the body in marble, but Islam seeks to cover the body – either through the hijab or the beard. It disdains the body, but the West celebrates the body.
9. The Quran is the supreme and holy text of Islam, and within the framework of the religion it is understood in Classical Arabic. To adopt Islam is to turn your back on Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible (whether you believe or not, the latter is still beautiful and part of our history). If, as Heidegger said, language is the house of Being, then to relegate the poetry and language of your own tongue to a position subordinate to another language is, in a sense, to dismantle your dwelling place and alienate yourself from a constituent element of your existence and destiny as a person. For this reason, Western traditionalists should reject conversion to Islam, since it amputates access to the most primal aspects of their situated life.
In sociological terms, Islam will probably make its greatest inroads into the Western underclass. This is because Muslims in Western Europe are usually recent immigrants and tend to be in a weaker economic position relative to the rest of the population. They are in closer contact with the indigenous underclass, a group, that, thanks to the Welfare State and social liberalism, has suffered an almost complete collapse of the family and a degradation into absolute nihilism and atomisation. For these indigenous groups, mired in drugs and petty crime, conversion to Islam will probably be a net benefit, disciplining them with healthier social values.
Sufi Islam may become popular among the middle and intellectual Western classes. This sect, one of the smallest in Islam, has always been idiosyncratic within the religion and, indeed, esotericists have suggested that it contains many Christian, if not Zoroastrian, elements; and this means that it is perhaps as distant from Islam as Islam is from Christianity. It is suitably softened so as not to be threatening to the professional classes who still want to drink wine and hold “Enlightenment” values while also conforming to a rising Islamic tide that may threaten these activities and outlooks.
In practice, Sufism in the West has been put through the same ideological meat grinder as Zen Buddhism. Since the late 19th centrury, these mystical traditions have been eagerly embraced by Western intellectuals and filtered through progressive liberalism. You will find, therefore, that Zen Buddhism and Sufism in the West both say remarkably similar things about social mores and values – nothing that would be out of place in the New York Times or the Guardian. Their martial traditions, for example, are often nkt mentioned in the West and both approaches are made to sound as if they were developed by ‘60s hippies.
Aside from these trends, there will be some Europeans who will convert to the ersatz Islam created by progressive liberalism. Although they will use their newly acquired status as Muslims for virtue signalling and as an intellectual cudgel against their conservative opponents, they will say nothing out of line with the assumptions of progressive liberalism. They will be, as the Church of England is for Christianity, people who wear the clothes of religion while speaking in the terms of progressive liberalism – especially the terms of social justice.
Although neoconservatives become hysterical when Islam is presented in its progressive liberal form (think of the reaction to the American politician Ilhan Omar), the actual intention of progressive liberalism is to do to Islam what it did to most of Christianity and Judaism – subvert it. When you hear that “Islam” stands for feminism, science, and social justice you are not – for good or ill – hearing about the real Islam. You are hearing about progressive liberalism.
Radical neoconservatives like Tommy Robinson and Douglas Murray basically agree with radical Islamists who claim that the Islam described above is not an accurate description of the faith. They agree for different reasons: the former think that Islam is dissembling and the latter think Islam is being subverted. Consequently, both groups see the “Islam” presented in the mainstream media as false. They are right, since for the most part it is progressive liberalism in drag.
In the long term, the progressive liberal effort to induce a “Reformation” in Islam will probably fail because Islam is, unlike Christianity, quite robust in the face of modernity – Guénon was right about this. We already see in the UK that Muslim parents are successfully resisting attempts to teach their children about LGBT issues in schools – especially in the UK’s second-city Birmingham. This resistance to progressive liberal ideology puts the dominant ideology in a quandary, since it formally supports a “coalition of the oppressed” that should, in theory, include gay people and Muslims. This only works, however, if Islam is sufficiently subverted to progressive liberalism, and this is not so.
Why does Islam resist modernity and progressive liberalism?
The answer lies in Christianity’s death by modernity.
Christianity was undermined by modernity in a fourfold process:
1. The translation of the Bible into the vernacular allowed ordinary people to read the Bible and develop their own interpretations or, alternatively, to point out contradictions (the proverbial village atheist was right, there are many contradictions in the Bible). The Reformation started with Martin Luther giving his interpretation of the Bible, but it didn’t stop with Luther. Thanks to the printing press and mass literacy, every man became his own Luther. Every man could have his own take on the Bible. The logical conclusion of the Reformation was always going to be: I’m not religious, but I am spiritual. In the end, every man becomes a church of one.
2. Close textual analysis in the 19th century turned the Bible into just another historical document. This process steadily unveiled the many iterations that the Bible passed through. The revelation of the textual history of the Bible, its many forms, and the interpretative ambiguities associated with all these texts caused vast levels of doubt and uncertainty to spring up.
3. The scientific method, once applied freely, produced findings that contradicted many aspects of Christianity – not least among these was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Ironically, the scientific method was itself rooted in the Christian injunction to tell the truth.
4. A rival ideology, the Enlightenment’s religion of reason, sought to become more Christian than the Christians. Influenced by Puritanism, this “religion of reason” became progressive liberalism and various iterations of socialism. It outcompeted Christianity with a purer, secular, and more credible version of the Christian message.
The net result is that it is almost impossible to believe in Christianity today, assuming you are a literate and aware person. We are post-Christian, but most lack the courage that Nietzsche had and so refuse to jump into the complete wildness of rejecting all Christianity’s values.
Consequently, people cling to progressive liberalism, scientism (the ideology of salvation through science and technology), and socialism because the alternative view of a completely meaningless universe is too hard to bear. These secular versions of Christianity tell of our eventual liberation through progress, reason, and technology into the materialist heaven of communism, social justice, or “the singularity”. These ideologies deny that they are Christians because they are a rival sect with the same thought process and different clothes. The narcissism of minor differences means that these ideologies hate their Christian relatives more than anything.
These ideologies are just Christianity minus the supernatural, though, as Nietzsche observed, these new beliefs have destroyed the foundations that sustained them. In their own terms, they are false. The final and most complete atheism, not attempted by Richard Dawkins, questions the scientific method and scientism, egalitarianism, socialism, and progressive liberalism.
If we turn modernity upon modernity and take the quest for truth – as Nietzsche demanded – to the limits, we dissolve these assumptions and values: we lose the moral injunction, for example, to be honest in pursuit of the scientific method. The pursuit of reason and science destroys the Christian values – the pursuit of truth in particular – that underpin the scientific method. It’s no wonder there’s a replication crisis in the sciences, since the “values capital” of Christianity in science has been eroded by secularisation. Why be honest if there’s no God and you just want funding for your experiment so as to advance your career? Why not fudge the results? It was a Christian moral culture that prevented these sorts of thoughts.
Further, the scientific method itself becomes another biological process when we understand it under the lens of modernity. We can begin to analyse it as a Darwinian artefact or social status game, and so we come to doubt it as a method for seeking truth. It suffers from the biases common to all ape-like activities.
Nietzsche was the most complete Christian. He took the pursuit of truth to the limit and reached the same conclusion as Pilate: “What is truth?”. There is no “truth” or “reason” as the the pseudo-Christian progressive liberals claim: there are, instead, truths and reasons.
We have shot so far for the truth that we have destroyed the tools that we use to seek truth – or at least significantly undermined them – so that we can no longer trust them as we once did.
We enter the giddy world of post-modernity. This is a world similar to pre-modernity insofar as all the assumptions of rationalism, the Enlightenment, and the scientific method are under doubt, but it is unlike pre-modernity because we are still sceptical of the old traditions.
If modernity is the fragmentary process that shatters the glass of our beliefs, post-modernity is the moment when all the fragments are melted down into a multi-coloured melange that is in turns beautiful, repulsive, and bewildering.
In this post-truth world, we are confronted by esoteric Duginists, Marxist-Leninist Islamists, and traditional Catholic anarchists.
This the state that the West lives in today: clinging to remnants of modernity, to the superstition of the Enlightenment, while simultaneously being dragged into the cataract of the postmodern.
Islam, by contrast, is more secure than Christianity because it discourages a vernacular understanding of the Quran. The Quran purports to be the word of God as received by Muhammad; it is, being the word of God, perfect, beautiful, and true. It can only be truly understood and appreciated in the language in which it was received. The problems of Lutherism and the “village atheist” are reduced in Islam because the holy text is less accessible to popular interpretation and critique. Muslims simply learn the Quran by rote, not always understanding what they are repeating. It’s only in their spare time or retirement that a few will learn enough Classical Arabic to read the Quran in the original.
Further, Muslims jealously guard the Quran from deep textual analysis, with such studies incurring some risk or, at least, neglect. This helps to maintain the textual integrity of the Quran, something that was lost in the 19th century with the scholarly parsing of the Bible.
The Bible was never claimed as the perfect and infallible word of God by Christians. The existence of four gospels, aside from any detailed textual analysis, always suggested four slightly different accounts of Jesus that did not entirely agree from the very beginning. From relatively early in Church history, Christian theologians began to use metaphorical thought to explain biblical events. At its heart, Christianity was more ambiguous, less literal, and less dogmatic than Islam. It contained the seeds of modernity within it from the start.
The Quran is both fragile and strong at the same time. Its Classical Arabic form protects the text from easy critique, but the Quran’s exalted position leaves her vulnerable in a particular way. If the Quran is the word of God, received directly, it must all be true – any falsehood or error means the whole document is suspect. The Bible, never claiming complete perfection, is not vulnerable to a single assault. She must be picked apart piecemeal. Islam is vulnerable to a single fact that can destroy the whole rationale of the religion, but she is secure insofar as few can say that they have mastered the Quran sufficiently to uncover an untruth in it. Their ignorance protects the faith.
The Muslim scholars who detached Islam from the scientific method in the 12th century were wiser than the Christians. They perceived that to follow this method to its conclusions would lead to catastrophe for the religion. They were right, Christianity stayed so loyal to the injunction to seek and tell the truth that the religion ate itself.
This possibility was always remote in Islam because the faith stresses absolute obedience, not the pursuit of love or truth. Islam allows for taqiya – for deception in times of duress – and so, unlike Christianity, does not stress the particular value of truth above all. Since the relentless pursuit of truth present in Christianity brought forth modernity, Islam’s comfort with deception shields her from modernity.
Deception and ignorance are the strengths of Islam.
A final safeguard against modernity for Islam is the way the religion intertwines politics and religion. The separation of church and state is actually a lie of the Enlightenment. There is always a state religion. The West has a state religion, progressive liberalism, that pretends it is not a state religion – it pretends to be neutral, even though it dominates the media and the education sector. To be “educated” is to be a progressive liberal; it is to consider yourself secular and, in your own mind, non-religious. The radical Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria has a name that literally means “Western education is unclean”. Western education basically means the Western religion: the ideology of progressive liberalism. That is why “education” is unclean.
The priests of the Enlightenment used the concept of church and state separation in order to displace rival religions and set themselves up as the state religion instead. They say, “Educate yourself!”. They mean, “Join our religion!”. Islam’s unitary approach to religion and politics is entirely normal and rational – it is only in the West, through the lens of ideology, that we do not see how our own state religion is abnormal historically. The Greeks, Romans, and the Medievals all took religion and politics as one. Islam is in the historical mainstream in this respect. Islam is, therefore, constitutionally inoculated against the descendants of the priests of the Enlightenment and their related sect, progressive liberalism.
All this is relevant because it means that the kernel of Islam is well-placed to ride the maelstrom of modernity and post-modernity. Islam, particularly radical Islamism, will not be in a position to defeat other forces technologically. However, as a coherent and in some ways beautiful bundle of traditions, Islam has a sociological advantage over other ideologies and faiths. Islam is more Darwinian than progressive liberalism – an ideology that nominally follows Darwin. Muslims have families. Large families. Progressive liberals – hobbled by divorce, pornography, sexual promiscuity, and feminism – do not.
The world is run by those who turn up.
Muslims turn up.