Islamo-pessimism is the rational position
Note from the author This is a translation of my original essay in Dutch. It is a response to a book written by the Flemish moral philosopher Patrick Loobuyck, titled Living together with common sense [Samenleven met gezond verstand]. All translations are mine. Although some references to people and Dutch texts may be less relevant to an international audience, I have kept them to maintain the original flow. They are not essential to follow the main argument.
The philosopher Patrick Loobuyck has written a book: Living together with common sense. It is the book of the year according to journalist Joël De Ceulaer, who already knew that before it was published. The book thus enjoys great interest, despite the somewhat dull title that twenty years ago would have been met with a long yawn. And we all know why. Indeed, a better title would have been: Living together with Islam.
Unsurprisingly, Loobuyck chose a passage about Islam as a pre-publication. In this text he gives a clear overview of the views of "Islamo-optimists" versus "Islamo-pessimists". That is the preparation to state his own position, namely "Islamo-realism":
I advocate Islamo-realism. I am more optimistic than the Islamo-pessimists. From the perspective of religious study, religious sociology and the phenomenology of religion there is no reason to think that Islam cannot evolve and thus cannot undergo a learning process. I am more pessimistic than the Islamo-optimists. A lot of Islamic branches have a difficult relationship with the principles of political liberalism and the learning process will be even more difficult than what the Roman Catholic Church has gone through.
By taking a middle ground position Loobuyck exposes himself to the predictable reproach of vagueness. But of course only his arguments count. I think he is mistaken with his optimism, and I will explain why.
Religion and evolution
Evolution is often interpreted as progress, but that is not correct. If humanity decimates itself tomorrow by a nuclear war, that is irrelevant for biological evolution. An ideal biotope for radiation-resistant insects is an equally valid triumph of the survival of the fittest.
Loobuyck makes the same mistake when he associates his optimism with evolution. Surely Islam can evolve. But it is not certain in advance that it will be in the "good" direction.
To explain this, I refer to Maarten Boudry, an unusual philosopher that I would characterize as "the philosopher of clarity". Boudry recently gave a lecture discussing the confrontation between religion and modern society. In the first scenario, the religion adapts, its sharp edges are smoothed and a modus vivendi emerges. But the opposite scenario is also possible: religion retreats into its dogmas and becomes more resilient than ever.
Boudry discusses the latter scenario to show how religion can be an obstacle to integration, not to suggest that integration is impossible. However, a much darker analysis with a bad ending is also possible. The fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the context of the amazing success story of the Enlightenment may point to an evolutionary selection of resilience. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment, tolerance of those with different views, may be its Achilles' heel in the confrontation with a religion that is sufficiently intolerant.
Washing machine or shredder?
Loobuyck is not blind to the challenges posed by Islam, on the contrary. He even recalls the late Pim Fortuyns' statement that "Islam must go through the washing machine of the Enlightenment". He points out that the process will be even more difficult than with the Catholic church. He gives a host of reasons for this, and illustrates them with a number of personal, rather worrying anecdotes.
However, he seems convinced that the washing machine scenario is very likely. He does not seem to contemplate the possibility that the Enlightenment may be destroyed by the shredder of islamism.
The demographic argument
Even if my analysis makes sense, there are currently no reasons to worry according to Loobuyck. He notes that the number of Muslims is being overestimated systematically and that, in reality, there is no large political shift to be feared:
About 7 percent of both the Belgian and Dutch people have a Muslim background. And three quarters of all inhabitants of Belgium with immigration background are not Muslims. Most immigration forecasts predict at most a doubling of that percentage in the coming decades. One can think that 10 to 15 percent of Muslims is a lot or not, but it is not a percentage that could cause a political earthquake in the direction of Muslim rule. However, locally, in neighborhoods and cities where the Muslim percentage is higher, this might happen. In Antwerp, Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the percentage of Muslims is between 20 and 25 percent, and it may increase by 10 percent in the future.
Here, Loobuyck is greatly mistaken. With these percentages, major political shifts are definitely possible. It just depends on the characteristics of the minority group.
To clarify that, I refer to Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb is an unusual thinker who radiates a cheeky self-confidence. With some of his statements I frown my eyebrows. But he is also the man behind the bestseller The Black Swan, that put the concept with the same name into our collective knowledge.
The intransigent minority
Recently published Taleb a text about the "dictatorship of the minority". I will present a number of his arguments in detail and take over some examples.
Taleb's argumentation is based on two concepts: the minority rule and renormalization. We can explain that with an example. Let's say you want to give a party to a large number of friends. You know that the majority prefers beer, but has no objection to wine. However, a small minority detests beer and only wants wine. What do you do to simplify logistics? Right: you serve wine. Everyone is satisfied, but it is the intransigent minority that gets its way. That is the minority rule.
At the party itself, the impression may arise that wine is preferred by the majority. It is also possible that some traditional beer drinkers begin to appreciate wine, so their preference shifts. Thus, wine becomes "the new normal". That is renormalization.
According to Taleb, an intransigent minority will ultimately impose its will through a sequence of renormalization steps. We can illustrate that by an abstract representation of a "fractal" evolution. Fractal means that the lower level resembles the higher. Here, for example, we can see squares with four subdivisions that are part of squares with four subdivisions:
Let us consider an example. The lowest level represents a family of four with classic eating habits (yellow). One day, the stubborn daughter decides to eat organic only (purple). For simplicity, the family then decides to buy only organic food (minority rule). The whole family now eats organic (renormalization).
At a higher level, the family is part of a group of four families. Because one family eats strictly organic, the joint barbecues are organic also from now on. So the process repeats itself. And that goes on: the local grocery store only orders organic products. The wholesaler adapts and the process repeats itself again. Eventually, the intransigent minority wins.
These concepts are applicable in many domains, such as markets, science and of course religion. According to Taleb, Christianity won because it was so uncompromising. It was not prepared to simply add its god to the flexible Roman pantheon. Similarly, Islam wins from Christianity because of its greater stubbornness. And within Islam, the most intolerant branches have the wind in their back.
Of course, the evolution of a religion depends on a number of other aspects. Judaism may be as uncompromising as Islam. However, you are only declared Jewish if your mother is Jewish, while you are declared Muslim if either one of your parents is Muslim. In addition, a man must become a Muslim to marry a Muslim woman, and it is reportedly not so easy to become an ex-Muslim. With such rules one can understand why Judaism remains in the minority while Islam can spread rapidly.
All this may be true, but what about our secular society? Sometimes you hear that it is strong enough to keep religious practices in check and confine them to private life. However, we should not harbour too many illusions. In the following, I may be able to debunk a few of them.
Illusions about lamb
New Zealand is an important exporter of lamb, and the Middle East is an important market. New Zealand lamb is 100% halal for economic reasons. This is a textbook example of the minority rule.
The exporters clearly indicate that the lamb is halal. This poses a problem for imports into secular countries, as one can expect a lot of resistance to religious symbolism. The solution? Just don't tell. The local distributors simply repackage the meat to avoid resistance. You can read all about it here.
It is a remarkable story. In Belgium, the controversy about slaughter without pre-stunning re-emerges at the rhythm of the Ramadan. Opponents clearly want to entertain the illusion that they can ban religious practices from civil society. Meanwhile, the lamb lovers among them regularly eat halal. I will not skip my lamb rack over it, but it does bother me.
But there is another remarkable fact. New Zealand lambs are indeed slaughtered with their head pointing to Mecca by a Muslim butcher calling "Allah Akbar" at the appropriate time. However, pre-slaughter stunning is applied as per an agreement with the Muslim world. A compromise is therefore within reach and with more transparency we could avoid a lot of useless discussions. But why don't we see such a compromise proposal from the stakeholders themselves, that is, the Muslim community in Belgium? I think you know the answer by now.
The secret of the breakfast flakes
I invite you to take a closer look at the packaging of some foods. On the left you see breakfast flakes of a popular brand, on the right pasta of a premium brand.
You may not have noticed the icons previously, and otherwise you probably do not know what they mean. That is fine, because they are not there for you. They are intended for insiders who can infer at a glance that the products are kosher and halal.
The communication is transparent, but it is also asymmetrical. That is a second way to avoid resistance to religious symbolism.
Halal is good for you
There are also techniques to facilitate renormalization. One possibility is to remove the religious connotation of a concept for use by unbelievers. For example, Knack just published an article stating that halal cosmetics are also good for non-Muslims.
Here too we see asymmetry. For the non-Muslim, halal is simply presented as "healthy product". But for a Muslim, it is of course a part of an all-encompassing religious practice. The fact that only the Muslims can work in the halal industry is covered with the cloak of religious freedom.
Recently, we also learned how schools implement "reasonable adjustments" during ramadan, in respect of "Muslim youth". Patrick Loobuyck gave it a nod of approval (on Twitter). The discussion now centers on what such reasonable adjustments may be. I call this renormalization through diminishing insight, because we no longer talk about the essence.
The essence is that we live in a secular society. In such a society, religion is a private affair of mentally competent adults, not of children. In other words, Muslim youngsters do not exist, only children with Muslim parents. Imposing an intensive religious practice such as the ramadan upon children is unreasonable. If there are "reasonable adjustments" to be made, then not by the schools, but on the ramadan itself.
The most abominable renormalization technique is good old newspeak. In this case, a word is abused in such a way that it not only loses its meaning, but actually starts meaning the opposite. Think of the history of the word liberal in English.
That is what happens currently with the word diversity. In an open society there is naturally a steady increase of diversity, often with positive consequences. The danger of Islam is exactly that this evolution is reversed towards monoculture. However, this trend is now called "diversity", at least by many self-declared opinion makers. And as the problems are getting bigger, they already talk about superdiversity.
In his novel Soumission, the French writer Michel Houellebecq intuitively understood the concepts of the minority rule and renormalization. Loobuyck mentions that book, but apparently did not understand (or read) the message. He greatly oversimplifies a part of the story by describing it as "the Muslims win the elections". What actually happens is that a wide anti-Le Pen coalition wins the elections. In that coalition, the Muslim party is a minority, but it is an intransigent one with unwavering demands. A renormalization then follows, in the form of islamisation.
I think that Patrick Loobuyck is mistaken in believing that everything will turn out alright with Islam (to quote Pim Fortuyn myself). Of course, he is not the only one to misjudge it. This essay can hopefully help you to uncover false and misleading rhetoric. I will summarize once more. It is the intransigent minority that eventually wins because it is much more committed to its preferences than the flexible majority. The process happens as a sequence of renormalization steps.
So next time you hear someone say that "it's just a piece of cloth" or advocate "reasonable adjustments" in the workplace, or state that "no one is troubled" by halal meals at the university, it should ring a bell. Here is someone from the flexible majority speaking. The minority thinks very differently. With the risk of renormalization in mind, it is not all that innocent.
One more thing. The described mechanisms are morally neutral: they work both in the "wrong" and in the "right" direction. The actions required to preserve the Enlightenment also must come from an intransigent minority.
There is however a need for inspirational figures that make the right analysis. One major problem is that the Islam debate is completely corrupted. Even left-wing people with justified criticism easily end up in a corner where it is difficult to get out. Yet such people still exist, and they are not necessarily noisy troublemakers. A sophisticated intellectual like Hendrik Vuye is in my opinion the best example. Vuye & Wouters just published a text that is remarkably similar to mine. My advice: read their text. They too are right.