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Jews Then, Muslims Now: How Imprudent Judgments Desecrate Western Values

| July 9, 2015

minarets switzerland referendum islamophobia

In 2009, some 57.5 percent of Swiss voters approved a referendum banning new minarets. (rytc)

By Ian Buruma

Vidkun Quisling, Norway’s wartime fascist leader whose name has become synonymous with collaboration with evil, lived with his wife in a rather grandiose villa outside of Oslo. That villa is now the Norwegian Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, a fine transformation of a tainted place.

Earlier this year, I visited the center for a fascinating exhibition on the first independent Norwegian constitution promulgated in 1814. It was a remarkably enlightened and progressive document, composed by learned scholars, steeped in history, law, and philosophy. Some were experts on the Greek classics, others on ancient Hebrew; all were keen readers of Kant and Voltaire.

There is, however, one extraordinary clause: Article II proclaims freedom of religion in the Lutheran state, with the caveat that “Jews shall still be banned from entering the Realm.” This was peculiar, even at the time. Napoleon, defeated in that same year, had secured civil rights for Jews in the countries he had conquered. And just before the clause entered Norwegian law, the King of Denmark had granted citizenship to Jews in his realm.

What is most interesting about Norway’s 1814 constitution is not that it contains this clause, but why. The stated motives of the intellectuals who created it were not racist; they did not assume Jews to be biologically inferior. Rather, the question was argued in terms of culture and faith, with Jewish beliefs and customs deemed incompatible with modern, enlightened Western values.

One of the writers of the constitution, Frederik Motzfeldt, argued that Jews would never assimilate themselves with the people of any country. Another asserted that Judaism encourages its followers to deceive Christians and other Gentiles. Jews, it was believed, would always form a “state within a state.”

The constitution’s writers were undoubtedly aware that Jews had long been persecuted in other countries, but they concluded that it was not Norway’s problem. For Norway, it was best not to let them become citizens at all. Experts in Hebrew culture explained that Judaism and Norway’s constitution were irreconcilable. Mosaic law was, so the experts said, the only constitution recognized by Jews, and so it should be feared, in the way modern critics of Islam fear Sharia law.

So the main issue was religion, not race – though the two could easily be confused. As Håkon Harket, the greatest Norwegian scholar on the subject of the anti-Jewish clause, explains: “Even those who fought for civil rights for the Jews held often an ambition to liberate Jews from Judaism.”

The parallels with current notions about Muslims and Islam hardly need to be pointed out. Now, too, the Enlightenment is often invoked as shorthand for the Western values that are supposedly in danger of “Islamization.” Now, too, people warn of Muslim tricksters, states within states, the impossibility of assimilation, and the necessity for staunch secularists to free the benighted Muslims from their faith.

To be sure, in 1814, there was no Jewish equivalent of the violent Jihadism that poisons relations with Muslims in the West today. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from the Norwegian constitution’s misguided anti-Jewish clause, which, it should be noted, was repealed just a few decades later. Bad judgment can arise even from decent motives, and knowledge (of Islam or of Judaism) is no prophylactic against stupid ideas.

The most important lesson, however, is that it is always foolish – and, indeed, dangerous – to judge people by what we think they believe. To assume that all Muslims think alike because of their religious background, that they have “a mind” rather than individual thoughts, is as big a mistake as to assume to know the minds of Jews, Christians, or anyone else. And to claim that something as diverse, and sometimes vague, as a religious faith can be pinned to a fixed ideological position, because of certain ancient texts, is utterly misleading.

There are populist demagogues in the West who would ban the Koran and prohibit Muslims from immigrating to their countries. They have a following, which might be growing, fueled by the widespread anxiety about terrorism spilling over from the Middle East. But they are not yet in the majority, and the belief that the West is in imminent danger of being “Arabized” or “Islamized” is not quite yet mainstream.

Yet even mainstream politicians, sometimes for the best of reasons, are in danger of making the same kinds of mistakes as the members of the 1814 Norwegian Constituent Assembly. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, is aiming to crack down on Islamist extremism by banning the expression of ideas that the government deems to be promoting or glorifying it. People who “reject our values” will be prosecuted, he has declared, “whether they are violent in their means or not.”

Cameron is not a known racist, or a bigot. He is attempting to tackle a real problem: the promotion of violent extremist ideologies. But, while people should certainly be punished for acts of violence, going after people purely for what they think – or, worse, what we think they think – has the air of a witch-hunt.

Cameron is right: “key values” like “democracy and tolerance” are fine things, and they ought to be defended. But it is hard to see how banning ideas, or penalizing those who do nothing more than express them, is the best way to do so.

ian-burumaIan Buruma an Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and, most recently, Year Zero: A History of 1945. © Project Syndicate.

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4 Responses for “Jews Then, Muslims Now: How Imprudent Judgments Desecrate Western Values”

  1. Dan says:

    Unfortunately, the author, while well intentioned is making an argument using false equivalence. There was never any clause in the Jewish texts that said that Jews should ‘take over’ Norway. Rather the opposite, it says that Jews must contribute and cherish the host countries. That is why Jews were able to coexist and contribute in various nations as minorities in ancient times when others were not.
    To compare put all religions in one bucket is like putting all political camps in the same pale. Its like saying that because Capitalism caused effect a, then socialism will cause the same effect. No.
    It would be more correct to compare Christianity and Islam in that both are trying to convert the entire world, however, some have said that Islam has violent texts, and that Mohammed was an convert by conquest type of persona (I haven’t read these texts so can’t attest).

  2. Outsider says:

    Here is a compilation of polls taken of the peace loving Muslims. Some of the more notable results include 19% of AMerican Muslims support jihad to force Sharia law on America. Twenty-five percent of American Muslims support jihad against the United States. It is a tenet of Islam that lying in furtherance of Islam is acceptable and promoted, so we can’t even rely on these polls for the whole truth. Islam, in it’s pure form, is not compatible with western values, including freedom and peace. That’s just a fact no matter how you try to slice it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Norway was a bad example for the author to use. Norway supports some of the most rabidly Anti-Zionist NGO’s in the Middle East. They call themselves “Pro-Palestinian” and make a big deal about their self-titled “human rights activism” but they are only interested and invested in discrediting Israel and destroying it, many times through the invention of “Pallywood” propaganda which they proudly promote as though it is not only the ultimate truth personified but will “save” the Middle East from “Zionist genocidal intent.” These NGO’s are often funded through certain churches, which makes the situation all the more appalling. For all their much-vaunted commitment to “human rights” these organizations swarm all over the Palestinian territories without finding it necessary to post a noticeable presence in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya or anywhere else in the Muslim world (including Nigeria and Afghanistan) where death, brutality and human rights abuses kill thousands (including women and children) and rule the day. They have this strange focus on places where Jews have a decided presence which is more than a little suspect. In some ways, this historical problem may have even gotten worse, as too many seek to place a mantle of morally righteous respectability over the spector of Anti-Semitism that refuses to die.

  4. Lancer says:

    Having had the pleasure of living abroad for years, I will never forget the first time I ever heard the early morning call to prayer in a muslim country. Their countries are religious states and that “religion” is Islam.

    There is no denying that Muhammad created Islam as a religion of conquest. Subsequently, earlier conquered cities had a choice: Convert or die. In this way, Islam flourished. Slowly, a more tolerant view crept in…they fully knew many converts were only converting to save their own lives. Thus, the conquered were taxed instead of killed.

    What people don’t realize or admit is: Our principles, based on individual freedom and tolerance, is the very anti-thesis to Islam. Fundamentalists of Islam seeing our culture permeating theirs declare Jihad. Virtually, everything a fundamentalist Muslim see in our culture is a threat to their existence: TV, Movies, Music, Video Games, Clothing, Lifestyles, individual rights, womens rights, etc., etc. These are ALL a threat, in their view, to their spiritual lives. This will not change over the course of a “decade”. We are unbelievers, “the great satan”, unpure.

    Then, there is the value of individual life. We have a value for life not seen in that culture. I believe this is based on our fundamental belief in individual rights. In those countries, which they share with socialist states, you don’t have individual rights. You are a ward of the state, your fate decided by others who”know better”. Very few times are individuals, even very talented ones, allowed to break free and succeed. In those cultures, your talent is used by the power structure. (The power structure, I might add, live much differently than those they control).

    I could go into this in much greater detail, having lived in the Muslim world for years…I’ll spare you.

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