It is dawning on Europe at last that if a state is to survive, citizenship must mean something more than an aggregate of tribal affiliations. All that “land of the free and home of the brave” stuff is, perhaps, starting to look less like jingoism and more like a sound sense of national identity. With France’s occasional Muslim riots morphing into a steady Muslim boil, the French are beginning to wonder about this thing called immigration—why is it becoming the French nightmare if it has been so integral to the American dream?
Isolated in squalid quartiers sensibles or touchy neighborhoods, France’s Muslim immigrant communities are becoming an increasingly insular state within a state. Following their homelands’ mores and customs, the only needs these homogeneous communities have of larger France are the ample state benefits doled out, no questions asked. In what feels like an emergency measure, France has decided to foster the idea of citizenship in these religious and cultural enclaves: the French government has just launched a program to train its Muslim clerics in Frenchness. The first class of 25 began meeting at the Catholic Institute of Paris in January. The program’s director, Olivier Bobineau, says he wants students to better comprehend the values and rules of France, particularly in regard to the relationship between religion and politics. In some cases, foreign-born clerics don’t even know how to speak French. (This, too, would presumably be addressed.)
Well, triage is a French word; perhaps they can start there. But then what? What do you do if, at the end of the day, being French means . . . being French? What enduring principle can these instructors point to as an ideological foundation for French citizenship? The French have made indispensable contributions to ideas and art, but how does that translate into a practical vision of statehood? Is there even a consistent direction in which French history moves, so that one can speak of an ideal not yet attained? Since 1776, France has done repeated stints as a monarchy, a republic, an empire, and once, a puppet regime of neighboring fascists. More recently, it has teetered on the brink of fuzzy socialism. (For all the talk about America’s youth as a country, it is the oldest existing democracy on the planet.)
Another problem is that citizenship is not a top-down proposal. France cannot redefine by fiat the motives of those who have already taken up residence inside her borders. Having come to France to be paid isolates, these immigrants will not suddenly wish to emulate Pascal or Voltaire because of a government-sponsored class. Any step towards bringing France’s Muslims into the fold has to begin much further upstream, with a clear definition of what France hopes to be and with a better understanding of what prospective immigrants expect to contribute to this vision.
On November 6, the New York Public Library’s “Conservators Evening” for annual contributors of $1,500 will honor Charlotte Mosley, editor of the new Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters from HarperCollins. By far the most gifted of these siblings was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), who produced droll, perceptive histories of France like The Sun King, Madame de Pompadour, and Voltaire in Love, as well as translations of the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves and the modern stage comedy by André Roussin, La Petite Hutte.
Ever gracious to literary colleagues, Nancy Mitford also contributed an affectionate preface to Lucy Norton’s worthy translation of excerpts from Saint-Simon. Nancy’s sister Jessica Mitford, (1917–1996), by contrast, produced a now-outdated critique of undertakers, The American Way of Death, (1963) as well as a vast amount of now-faded radical polemics. The rest of the Mitford sisters achieved even less. Two were rabid adorers of Hitler, Unity Mitford (1914-1948) and Diana Mitford (1910–2003), the latter of whom was the worshipful wife of Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), the rabidly anti-Semitic founder of the British Union of Fascists.
Contrary to popular belief, the French are not really respecters of persons. They like to scoff, and they are better at it than most people. Philippe Val is a good example. In his mid-fifties, he is an ex-singer, a film buff, and a self-professed anarcho-kook. Since 1992 he has been editing a weekly satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo, which has a circulation of 100,000. A collection of his writings has been published under a title that tells its own story, and may be translated as Good Screwings with bin Laden.
Jyllands Posten, a Danish publication, was hardly more in the public eye than Charlie Hebdo when in 2005 it commissioned a dozen cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and ran them. A Danish imam, an Islamist, saw his chance and raced around the Muslim Brotherhood cells in several Arab countries. Soon they had arranged demonstrations, the burning of the Danish embassy in Beirut, and the boycott of Danish exports like cheese and Legos. To its lasting disgrace, Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, made a point of advertising that it did not sell Danish products.
Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim celebrity academic and British government adviser who teaches at Oxford, is complaining again of his exclusion from the United States, where he was unable to take up a chair at Notre Dame. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he claims that he has been denied a visa “because of my criticism of [the Bush administration’s] Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel.” He lists an impressive-sounding array of U.S. organizations that “have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech” and support his legal challenge.
In fact, Ramadan was denied a visa because of his donations to a Palestinian “charity” that supports Hamas. His claim that he was then unaware of this link is implausible, given his record as a hardline Islamist who has repeatedly refused to condemn Palestinian terrorism. In fact, Ramadan has a record of contacts with Islamist terrorists. The Algerian terrorist Djamal Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, claimed that he “took charge of preparing the lectures of Tariq Ramadan” while studying with him in Geneva. Ramadan was excluded from France for his contacts with Algerian terrorists, though this ban was later lifted.
So much controversy now surrounds the interpretation of the Qur’an that it is perhaps worth recalling the man who gave us the first reliable translation into any language: George Sale. So little regarded were Oriental scholars in his day that we do not even know his date of birth, but we know that when he died in 1736 he was not quite forty. Sale was praised for the accuracy of his scholarship by Voltaire and Gibbon, but the former mistakenly claimed that Sale had spent 25 years living in the Middle East, while Gibbon mischievously suggested that the work of translation had left Sale “half a Mussulman.” Deists such as Voltaire and Gibbon admired Islam more than Christianity, but the suggestion that Sale placed the two religions on an equal footing was scandalous to most of his countrymen.
In reality, Sale not only did not travel in the Ottoman lands: he never even left England. He learned Arabic from the small community of Arabs living in London, and accumulated a small but valuable collection of manuscripts, which are now in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Sale remained a Christian, but he conceded that Mohammed “gave his Arabs the best religion he could, preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers.” He appended to his translation, which first appeared in 1734, a “Preliminary Discourse” of more than a hundred pages, which gives a remarkably fair account of Islamic history and theology.
Sale made his living as an attorney, and he dedicated his translation to Lord Carteret, which suggests that he had at least one patron. Yet he is reported by Isaac Disraeli (father of Benjamin) to have “pursued his studies through a life of want.” In his Calamities of Authors, Disraeli asserts that “this great Orientalist . . . when he quitted his studies, all too often wanted a change of linen, and often wandered in the streets in search of some compassionate friend who would supply him with the meal of the day.” The Dictionary of National Biography rejects this claim on the grounds that Sale possessed a library, but it seems to me quite possible that the great scholar preferred to go hungry and unwashed rather than to part with his books and manuscripts.
The central defect of Sale’s version is that he translates the Qur’an as prose rather than poetry, ignoring the division of the text into verses—though by turning it into a continuous narrative, he certainly renders the Qur’an more readable. His language is simple yet elevated; it recalls not only the King James Bible but also his contemporaries: John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and David Hume. The most sensitive passages, on issues such as jihad and the treatment of infidels, are clear and unambiguous. There may be more modern translations of the Qur’an—but Sale’s still remains the best prose.
In the midst of Europe’s week of official mourning for the Holocaust, the question of how the continent should preserve that terrible memory and transmit it to future generations was the focus of a great controversy. The boycotting of Holocaust Memorial Day by prominent Muslim organizations has by now become an annual ritual. With the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) first among them, these groups believe that a “more inclusive” event should replace the “selective” ceremonies devoted to remembering the Nazi war against the Jews.
What organizations like the MCB have in mind is plain: a “Genocide Memorial Day” focusing on allegedly “ongoing” genocides like that of Israel against the Palestinians. And the MCB’s argument to replace the day with a different sort of commemoration is making headway—so much so that, this year, the city council of Bolton decided not to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to replace its usual event with an observance more to the MCB’s liking. According to the city council, the decision to move the commemoration to June and to call it Genocide Memorial Day was reached in consultation with an interfaith council, although several prominent Jewish leaders were not consulted. Bolton has a rapidly growing Muslim population. With Europe’s shifting demographics, one might wonder how long it will be before such changes sweep the continent, from Sweden’s Malmö—where one-quarter of the population is Muslim—to Sicily’s Mazara del Vallo.