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Ross Douthat’s Minaret Moment

December 7, 2009

In today’s column, Ross Douthat describes the quest for unity among European nations as essentially elitist, with the Lisbon Treaty representing the greatest success of the European elite, and the integration of Muslim immigrants its greatest failure. With respect to the latter, Europeans assumed in the decades following World War II that the divide between Islam and the West was “as antiquated as scimitars and broadswords” and that “liberal, multicultural, post-Christian federation would have no difficulty absorbing new arrivals from more traditional societies.” Yet the cultural divide between Islam and the West has obviously persisted. To take one example from Douthat’s column, the publication of depictions of the prophet Mohammed by a Danish cartoonist in 2005 provoked riots throughout the Muslim world.

Recently, a majority of Swiss voters chose to ban Minarets in a referendum, suggesting to Douthat that Europe is currently experiencing a “rising backlash, in which European voters support extreme measures and extremist parties because their politicians don’t seem to have anything to say about the [immigration] problem.” Like Christopher Caldwell, whose Reflections on the Revolution in Europe he cites approvingly, Douthat recounts Europe’s failures with great attention to detail and even zest, but offers little in the way of solutions. While not quite so pessimistic as Caldwell, Douthat predicts that Europe will continue to live “under the shadow of violence” for years to come.

Severed from its Christian roots, is Europe doomed? Despite his reliance on Caldwell, Douthat, a Catholic, has none of the limitations of his Burkean conservative mentor — for Catholicism has never demanded blind deference to habit and custom from its adherents (if anything, it puts too much emphasis on human reason). My guess is that Douthat thinks only a re-conversion to the Catholic faith can save Europe. Since he can’t exactly come out and say that on the pages of the New York Times, he relies on warnings of what is to come if Europe continues down the road of secularism (see my post on a related Douthat column).

Yet it is possible to be a Catholic without condemning the ideals or viability of secular Europe. We needn’t wind back the clock to 1095 to set things aright. Here’s a simple suggestion: rather than combating religious intolerance with more intolerance, as the Swedes have recently done, insist on tolerance for everyone — whether the Muslim who wishes to build a Minaret or the Dane who wishes to depict Mohamed.

Now that is a secular ideal worth believing in.

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