When I write that we don’t have much to fear from the Islamic aggressor, one reaction I often get is that I am overly and unduly optimistic, making light of a massive threat. Recently someone paraphrased my position as: “Europeans can go to sleep peacefully tonight.” This is an allusion to what, according to legend, the Dutch Prime Minister Hendrik Colijn said in a radio speech on the eve of the German invasion in May 1940, in a ludicrous world record of false reassurance. In reality he said it years earlier, though on a related occasion, viz. the German remilitarisation of the Rhineland. Moroever, he said it after announcing a partial mobilization of the army, thus presenting the common people’s peaceful sleep as the reward for the vanguard’s vigilance. At any rate, I am not at all saying that Europeans should go to sleep. On the contrary, my position is that we should be alert and outwit the Islamic aggressor.
In this endeavour, we may take inspiration from some of our ancestors, who faced the same problem. Not that they were successful in their counterstrategy, we should learn from their limited results as much as from their correct premises. They had at least got the basics right: the solution for the Islam problem is to liberate the Muslims from the mental prison-house of Islam.
The first Orientalists were Christians trying to re-establish contact with the various Christian churches in the Muslim world, and to lay the intellectual foundations for the conversion of the Muslim heretics. (In Catholic theology, Muslims are not so much pagans, who have never known Christ, but heretics, who have known Christ but embraced a false doctrine about him, viz. that He was a mere prophet and was superseded as such by Mohammed.) The most famous example should be Raimundus Lullus, the polymath from Catalonia who went to North Africa to preach, but died as a consequence of the stoning he received. He is not known to have wrought any lasting conversions.
An example from the Netherlands was Nicolaas Beken Cleynaerts, better known as Nicolaus Clenardus (1495-1542). He grew up in Diest, a town in the eastern corner of Flemish Brabant, now called “Diestanbul” by its fast-growing Turkish community. He spent most of his working life teaching Greek and Hebrew in Leuven University. After studying Quran Arabic on his own, he went to Spain and Portugal to learn spoken Arabic, all while teaching his usual courses. He crossed to Morocco, initially only to get to know the place, but took ill soon. Shortly after his return to Spain, he died and was buried in the Alhambra in Granada. So, mission not accomplished at all. A statue in Diest commemorates him: “Verbo non gladio gentes Arabas convertere ad Christianam fidem nisus est”, “He made the effort to convert the Arabs to the Christian faith with the word, not the sword.”
Preaching on a town square in Tunis or Fez proved to be less than effective as a method to free the Muslims from Islam. Elsewhere, even military conquest rarely proved successful. The Russians left the defeated Tatars and Chechens to their Islam, and the French, British and Dutch colonial policies only strengthened the position of Islam in their respective domains. So in that respect, the past does not offer us much guidance. It is our own job to find better ways of reaching out to the prisoners of Islam. If this lack of alternatives for self-reliance is a reason for pessimism, then please consider that we may not be all that important.
Can’t you feel the impact of knowledge and its novel ways of direct availability in colleges and private homes throughout the Muslim world? The phenomenon of ex-Muslims speaking out openly and informing their stay-behind relatives is slowly but surely changing the ideological landscape of the Muslim world. The attempts by Muslims to present their religion as tolerant and pro-woman are admittedly untruthful but do nonetheless show an impact of non-Islamic values and sensibilities that is bound to increase and hollow out the attachment to Islam.
This wind was already blowing in the colonial age, when a full option for modernization could have been the end of Islam. Through calculations of short-term interest and a lack of ideological focus, the colonial administrators instead chose the way of compromise with the Islamic establishment, thus giving it an unnecessary new lease of life. In the postcolonial age, de-islamization can no longer be imposed from above even if we had wanted to, but it is now growing from inside. It is up to us to find inconspicuous but effective ways of strengthening this tendency. This is an appeal to European alertness and resourcefulness.