Commentary Magazine


Eurabia by Bat Ye’or

Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis
by Bat Ye’or
Fairleigh Dickinson. 384 pp. $49.50

For the past 30 years, the Jewish scholar Bat Ye’or, born in Egypt but long resident in Geneva, has been developing formidable credentials as a chronicler of “dhimmitude,” a term with which she is closely associated. Constructed from the Arabic dhimmi, the word characterizes the submissive status of peoples conquered by Islam but allowed to live. Sometimes at the edges and sometimes in the face of an academic world that has become increasingly politically correct, Bat Ye’or (a Hebrew pen name meaning “daughter of the Nile”) has been challenging myths about the history of Islamic civilization by examining the actual record of Islam’s encounters with Christianity and Judaism in the West, Hinduism and other religions in the East.

Most of Bat Ye’or’s writing career has been conducted in French. It began with Les Juifs en Egypte (1971), a comprehensive study of the historical fate of the Jews in Egypt. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, published in 1985 and still in print in several languages, was an expansion and enlargement of an original French study of the oppression, reduction, and, in many cases, destruction of European societies that fell under Muslim conquest. The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam (1996) shows the same systematic process at work in the Ottoman empire.

It is worth underlining the word “systematic.” Bat Ye’or has made it her business to document the similarity in the modes employed from one cultural location to another, especially the peculiar “ratcheting method” by which, over time, a subject group is pressured to convert to Islam—in order to escape oppressive taxation, dispossession, enslavement, or periodic massacre. What makes her writings the bolder is her insistence—she is hardly shy about quoting or citing references to the Qur’an and hadiths—that the oppression of minorities under Islam is not a product of historical accident and circumstances. Indeed, she argues, sometimes with stridency, it is intrinsic to the religion, which everywhere insists not only upon the subjugation of all non-Islamic peoples but upon their humiliation.

Although seldom in direct conflict with the facts provided by most mainstream histories, hers is a radically different account, focusing on conditions that more conventional (or politic) historians pass over lightly. In particular, Bat Ye’or explodes the myth of “al-Andalus”—the supposedly glorious civilization of medieval Islamic Spain in which Muslim, Jewish, and Christian poets, artists, scholars, and philosophers flourished in a kind of fraternal paradise of multiculturalism. In the case of Jews and Christians alike, according to Bat Ye’or, life in Muslim Spain was in fact made livable only for those who could materially advance the interests of rulers, which is to say the expansion of Islam.

As in Spain, so it was in North Africa and the Near East, where, in Bat Ye’or’s telling, the ratcheting principle patiently and progressively eliminated evidence that these areas had ever been Byzantine and Christian. And just as Christian civilization was scraped from the ground of North Africa, so, too, was Zoroastrianism progressively vaporized in what is now Iran, and the once resplendent Buddhist cultures in Afghanistan and Central Asia utterly annihilated. By the time the British lifted Islamic rule from India, Bat Ye’or writes, there was little left even of the ruins of its long Hindu past; although the majority of the inhabitants remained outwardly Hindu, they had been reduced to poverty, illiteracy, dependency, and spiritual defeatism through centuries under “the Islamic lash.”

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According to Bat Ye’or’s new book, Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, the same fate now lies in store for modern Europe. Her thesis has been made topical by Bernard Lewis’s casual remark to a German newspaper last summer that, if present trends continue, “Europe will be Islamic by the end of this century at the latest.” Lewis’s thought—or warning—has reverberated in European discussion ever since.

The argument of Eurabia is that a formal structure to accommodate the transfer of Europe to Islamic rule began to be assembled long ago. The impetus came during the first OPEC oil embargo in 1973-4, but the process really began to take off with the second embargo of 1979. Soon thereafter it assumed the form of a specific bureaucratic initiative: the “Euro-Arab Dialogue,” an official program of the European Union. This long-running project has left an immense paper trail, which Bat Ye’or expounds throughout the length of her new book.

On the face of it, the claim she makes is astounding: namely, that the “Euro-Arab Dialogue,” has by now evolved and been institutionalized to the point of becoming the tail wagging the European dog. But Bat Ye’or has devoted years of tedious labor to assembling the mountain of documents and transcripts that sustain this claim. She lays out her thesis twice: first in a continuous narrative, interrupted by passages of deep historical background, and then in a series of appendixes and notes that provide the key policy documents issued by the various summits and conferences of the “Euro-Arab Dialogue,” as well as texts touching upon it from outside sources.

In the early 1970′s, when the “dialogue” began, Europe was quite literally over a barrel, its economies entirely dependent on oil overwhelmingly of Middle Eastern origin. The Arab success in creating and wielding the OPEC weapon was sufficient to bring Europe to its knees, even before fresh waves of Muslim immigration made the accommodation of Islamic political and cultural demands into a European domestic necessity.

From the beginning, Bat Ye’or shows, the Arabs tossed the existence of Israel onto the table. The essential condition for Arab participation in the dialogue was for Europe to recognize the “legitimate grievances” of the Palestinian people, pledge itself to the creation of a Palestinian state, and acknowledge Yasir Arafat’s PLO as the sole representative of Palestinian aspirations. It is thus no coincidence, according to Bat Ye’or, that, around the same time, Europe’s former sympathies with a beleaguered Israel began to evaporate.

Along with this came a common Euro-Arab stance against the United States, Israel’s chief defender. Anti-Americanism, more and more explicit, was written into the structure of European policy, gaining momentum with the collapse of the Soviet empire when Europe found itself suddenly freed of the necessity of U.S. military protection. Anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment also benefited from Charles de Gaulle’s grand strategic vision of the late 1960′s, according to which France would assume a leading role both within Europe and as the head of an emerging Mediterranean bloc including Algeria and the other newly independent North African states. The result would be a unified Franco-Arab front capable of mounting an effective challenge to Anglo-American cultural, political, and economic hegemony.

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Of course, de Gaulle was a paternalist, not a supplicant. He envisioned Arabs speaking French, not Frenchmen speaking Arabic. In the hands of his successors, however, the French dream has been incrementally inverted; from leading the advance of continental power, France now leads the retreat. But the retreat itself, Bat Ye’or shows, is continent-wide.

The mushrooming growth of Muslim immigrant communities in Europe has pushed cultural issues increasingly to the fore and contributed to a ratcheting effect of its own. As Muslim demands increase, whether for the teaching of Arabic in European schools and universities or for the right to proselytize for Islam in these same venues, European authorities have more often complied than not. Just as the myth of medieval Andalusia is pushed as a “positive” model for Euro-Arab interaction—already signifying, Bat Ye’or points out, a surrender to the Muslim view of the relationship—a counter-myth of the Crusades is held up as the embodiment of European rapacity and imperialism, yet to be lived down or compensated for.

All this plays into modern Europe’s strange, cringing psychic need for abasement after the self-inflicted carnage of two world wars. Along with Europe’s collapsing birth rate, other signs of a culture hollowing out from within are the decay of institutional Christianity and Europe’s abandonment of its own historical identity and mission, including its centuries-long rivalry with Islam. The multiculturalist ethos acquiesces in demands for the removal of Christian symbols from the public square, while permitting the proliferation of Islamic ones.

In what I found the most interesting chapter of the book, Bat Ye’or examines the Islamization of what remains of institutional Christianity in Europe, especially in the Protestant mainstream. There are a dozen pregnant pages here on “Christianity’s flight to Marcionism,” named after the 2nd-century gnostic heretic who taught that Christianity was a gospel of love to the absolute exclusion of law, and who discarded the Hebrew Bible in toto. This plays smoothly into what she calls the new “Palestinian theology”: the contemporary Islamic view that the oppressed Palestinian people have, by “perverse imitation,” replaced the historical Jews as the rightful inheritors of the Holy Land. As Bat Ye’or sees it, although traditional Catholics still grasp that Islam is a threat to the West, post-modern Protestants have already been adapting themselves to the condition of dhimmitude.

In short, if a “dialogue” implies some meeting of minds, what Bat Ye’or presents us with is a one-way dictation. The documents generated by the huge bureaucracy in aid of the “Euro-Arab Dialogue” may be couched in the language of “mutual benefits,” but the reality, as she sees it, is that for three decades Europe has done nothing but concede, and the Arabs have done nothing but accept the concessions.

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As a book to read, Eurabia is frankly a slog. It is more like a dossier, with notes. It has been written in English by a person who thinks in French, and whose rhetorical gestures are sometimes rather conspicuously Egyptian. The voice is repetitiously and relentlessly accusatory, and much is taken for granted by way of both information and attitude. By the end, one almost longs for the dry indifference of a conventional academic style.

This is not to say that there is anything untruthful in Bat Ye’or’s account of things. She is emphasizing a dimension of current reality—the challenge of a resurgent Islam—from which the politically correct try to look away. The flaw lies rather in her partiality (in the sense of incompleteness). If we pull the camera back, we can see that the “Euro-Arab Dialogue” is really a small component of a much vaster Euro-bureaucracy, whose concerns are diverse and multifarious. But Bat Ye’or’s camera never pulls back.

In addition, although the “Euro-Arab Dialogue” is demonstrably a part of the structure of modern Europe, and although it has been written into the arrangements of the European Union, it is hard to get one’s mind around the shape of it. Much of its operation appears ad-hoc. There is, for instance, no single “appeasement czar” to whom we can look for authoritative pronouncements. There is no discrete building or department to which we can go to collect press releases. It is an affair not of legislation or of discernible political activity but of seminars and conferences and policy meetings and blathering “directives.” In the absence of political bricks and mortar, the argument about what the beast is up to and how far it has advanced inevitably develops a paranoid flavor.

One could, in fact, take Bat Ye’or’s argument a step farther than she does and still come out at a somewhat different place. At the root of the contest today between Western and Islamic ideas is, after all, a thoroughly discrepant view of “dialogue” itself. In the clash between West and East, not only now but over the last fourteen centuries, Westerners have been studying Islam, and translating the Qur’an, and trying to figure out where the Muslims are coming from ever since the moment of their first encounter over Byzantium’s eastern frontier. In radical contrast, orthodox Muslims have been expressly taught that they must not read or hear or absorb Christian or any other external religious arguments, in principle on pain of death. In all this time, the Bible has never once been formally translated into Arabic or (I think) any other Muslim language by a Muslim.

That is a big difference, to put it mildly. President Bush, who for the moment has become the central player in this drama, may know more than he cares to admit about the degree to which he is in fact a Crusader in Afghanistan and Iraq. The democracy he represents is, by its very nature, a frontal assault on orthodox Islam.

There can be no real “dialogue” between these civilizations, only a contest of will. Zarqawi gets it; Osama gets it; Zawahiri gets it. Americans seem to get it, perhaps more instinctively than rationally. Post-modern Europeans cannot get it.

But—and this, too, is missing from Bat Ye’or’s narrative, even as a possibility—the story is not over; the surrender has not fully taken place. Even in Europe, the patient is not yet in a true coma, only in a deep and troubled sleep. That he may be fitfully beginning to awake is suggested, for example, by the political convulsions in today’s Netherlands. There, longstanding policies of open immigration, multiculturalism, and appeasement of Islamist fanaticism, melding with the de-spiritualization and demoralization of traditional Christian culture, have produced an explosion, symbolized in the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh and its aftermath. Holland is now waking up to a shambles, but what will become of that shambles is as yet unforeseeable.

Other developments, too, suggest grounds for (guarded) hope. Bat Ye’or is right to insist that the issue of the Islamic challenge is the single most important item on the European agenda. But her book may also, just possibly, be overtaken by events—and specifically by the rippling effects of American success in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The recent Iraqi election is triggering deep seismic reactions throughout the Arab and Islamic world. It is not out of the question that we may see a sudden spread of Western secular values and constitutional democratic aspirations throughout a region ossified by generations of authoritarian, mostly military rule. Within Islam itself, there are suddenly two rival currents—Islamism and “democratism.” These truly are mortal enemies.

Will the advance of democratic, constitutional, and bourgeois practices and habits transform the Islamic world faster in the direction of the West than Europe is being transformed in the direction of Islam? We shall see. For the present, Bat Ye’or’s is a voice crying in the desert that ought to be carefully attended to, even as the desert itself shows fugitive signs of greenery.

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About the Author

David Warren, a columnist and commentator for the Ottawa Citizen, reviewed Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi in the October 2006 COMMENTARY.




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