- On the Muslim Question by Anne Norton
In On the Muslim Question Anne Norton attempts to demolish the dominant view in the post-9/11 context in Europe and the United States of a clash between Islam and the West. The clash is articulated in neat terms. Both Islam and the West are seen as monolithic entities, incapable of existing together. Since the West supports democracy, freedom of speech, equality, and human rights plus the liberation of women, the argument goes, it must be in conflict with Islam, which does not submit itself to these Western values. As opposed to the West, we are told, Islam is against democracy and it supports violence and terrorism, and treats women in a way that cannot be tolerated by Western civilization. Norton questions each of these points of view in her attempt to reject the “us versus them” thesis, something that is widely accepted by both academics and the dominant political paradigm. The Muslim question, for her, lies at the center of political and philosophical discourse that is going to shape our world in the twenty-first century, much like the Jewish Question that shaped the nineteenth century. Both, she argues, revolve around the questions of citizenship, equality, and discrimination.
There are two dominant themes in the book. One questions the grounds of the clash-of-civilizations thesis while the other attempts to bring to the fore the lived experience of Europe and America in which people are shaping “a common life together.” Norton derives her inspiration from the Enlightenment ideals of equality, freedom, and fraternity, and is deeply committed to democracy and multiculturalism. In her opinion, the Muslim question is a question not about Islam but more about Western values. She rejects Derrida’s view that “Islam is the other of democracy.” In a world as diverse as ours there may be different forms of democracy that prosper in areas where Muslims are in the majority. Muslims sometimes take violent measures against free speech, but she suggests that Muslims in the West have not taken recourse to violent measures against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or against the recent anti-Muslim Danish cartoons, which she maintains were provocative, and that Muslims were within their rights in voicing their anger against these publications. British citizens were asking for equal treatment in matters relating to the blasphemy laws. But this is not how things were seen then or afterwards in public discourse.
Although she sees some aspects of Rushdie’s writings in a positive light, Norton is quick to point out that her orthodox students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, made a common cause with conservative Muslims in expressing dislike for Satanic Verses. She further points out that Rushdie’s life was not endangered by British Muslims, and [End Page 800] that they did not set out to carry out the fatwa declared by Ayatollah Khomeini. She deals with possible counter-examples such as the killing of Theo van Gogh, the producer of the provocative film Submission, and the loss of lives (almost all of them Muslim) during protests in the Islamic world against anti-Muslim cartoons by arguing that the former was the individual act of an angry Dutchman, while the latter is explained in terms of the prevalence of violence in those countries where people lost their lives. Such violence has not been limited to the cartoon issue alone. A brief explanation in this regard would have been helpful. Norton maintains that freedom of speech need not be provocative or insulting—here criticizing those who hold that whatever can be said must be said, an attitude that she finds widely prevalent.
The status of women, their dress, sex, and sexuality are recurrent themes of the book. Agreeing with Alain Badiou, Norton explains the opposition to the veil in terms of its being a challenge to capitalism and the commodification of female sexuality. As sex is now taken to be more of an...