Muslims: Integration or Separatism?

By Pryce-Jones, David | New Criterion, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Muslims: Integration or Separatism?


Pryce-Jones, David, New Criterion


Down the many centuries, Muslims have seen themselves inhabiting the Dar al-Islam, and in this exclusive House of Islam they are to have their way in all matters great and small. Conquest delivered into their hands the unbelievers of many lands, and these were offered terms: death for the recalcitrant, and for the rest either conversion to Islam, or the status of dhimmi, that is to say, they were deprived of the rights of Muslims and subjected to special taxation, inferiority in law courts, restrictions on worship, residence and dress, and other social disadvantages.

Persians, Berbers, and Kurds were among those choosing to convert, so that today they are almost entirely Muslim while still retaining their national and cultural identity. Jews and Christian communities, such as the Chaldeans in Iraq or the Copts in Egypt, became dhimmis. Meanwhile, unbelievers in unconquered countries were said to be living in the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, a phrase indicating that one day they too would be obliged by force of arms to choose between death, conversion, and dhimmitude.

This mind-set--and the cultural assumptions that stem from it--goes a long way towards explaining the phenomenon of the loss of creative energy, of scholarship and inquiry, which afflicted the whole House of Islam, inducing an unrealistic self-perception that could only generate stagnation. A few rare Muslims journeyed to the West, mostly as seamen and pirates, or sometimes as envoys. One such was a Muslim visitor to Europe in the 1790s, who investigated the reasons why the West seemed to be thriving, and so endangering the House of Islam. Taken to a session of the Westminster Parliament, this visitor, otherwise an inquisitive man, reported that these were people so benighted that they did not possess a divine law, but were therefore obliged to make their own laws. The upshot of innumerable but unequal encounters such as this was that the House of War conquered and occupied most of the House of Islam.

Granted Muslim history, the fact of conquest was in the nature of things; it was what the strong do to the weak. As the words "sepoy" and "askari," "zouave" and "spahi" testify, Muslims saw no impediment to volunteering for the British and French armies, and fighting bravely, and in huge numbers in colonial as well as international wars.

Gradually Muslims came to learn about their new rulers, the British, the French, the Dutch, and to travel in their countries, to receive a Western education, and in exceptional cases mostly involving the rich or the rebellious, to settle there. The imperial powers accepted that their Muslim subjects would one day acquire independence, but there were all manner of debates about the ultimate nature of that independence. Napoleon III elaborated an imperial concept of France as "une puissance musulmane"--a Muslim power--signifying the intention to ensure the country's standing as a great power by incorporating the Arab world into it. In 1896, a mosque was built in Britain, in the town of Woking, the first ever in the Christian House of War. In 1926, the French opened the Great Mosque in Paris, the first in France, as an expression of gratitude for the Muslim effort in helping to win World War I, and a concrete step towards becoming "une puissance musulmane."

World War II altered the relationship between the House of Islam and the House of War out of all recognition. Nationalists in Muslim countries first of all expected that Nazi Germany would win that war, and to the best of their ability reproduced its ideology and practices. The onset of the Cold War, and the apparent strength of the Soviet Union, provided another totalitarian model to imitate. Military officers or strongmen had perceived that the mainsprings of the former European empires had been broken beyond repair, and they themselves could now take power on a wave of popularity inspired by nationalism and the single-party politics of the police state.

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