Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2003/ 25 Adar I, 5763
What's it all about, Alfie?In fact, if instead of al-Fie it were al-Qa'eda or even al-Jazeera, it would be the theme song of the age. When you look at what happened on the streets of the West's great cities last weekend, that's really the only thing at issue: what's it all about? Not in the sense that 'It's all about oil'. Yes, it's all about oil - for the French, whose Total Fina Elf boys have just signed a big bunch of contracts with Saddam. But, for everybody else, what's really going on here?
Barbara Amiel said in these pages that the London anti-war march was an 'anti-America, anti-free enterprise, anti-Israel display'. Her fellow columnist, Vicki Woods, evidently thought Barbara was bonkers. She reckoned the massed ranks of demo virgins were there because they were 'anti-Blair'.
Laying out the world's changing attitudes to Israel and America so barely, makes it sound like a conscious decision - which is absurd. But changes in the spirit of the times are as difficult to explain as those immense flocks of birds you see sitting on some great African lake, hundreds of thousands of them at a time, till all of a sudden, successively, they fly up and turn in a specific direction. One can never analyse which bird started it and how it became this incredible rush. All you see is the result.The world is always changing. No one would have thought, a mere 30 years after Britain decriminalised homosexuality, that there'd be mainstream politicians advocating gay marriage. If you're a gay who's been longing to marry since 1968, that's an eternity. But it's a blink in the eye of British social evolution. So what will the 'spirit of the times' look like in the Western world in ten or 20 years' time? Here's a couple of early birds on the lake, plucked more or less at random from recent headlines:
Last month, Judge Beaumont, the common serjeant of London, ruled that, in the case of a Muslim cleric accused of inciting the murders of Jews and Hindus, no Jews or Hindus or the spouses thereof could serve on the jury.
On 21 January, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported that the court of appeals in Eidsivating had acquitted a Middle Eastern immigrant of raping a retarded woman on the grounds that he had only lived 12 years in Norway and so could not be expected to understand her condition.
The man was 22 years old. Thus, he had lived virtually his entire conscious life in Norway. But the court ruled that his insufficient understanding of the language was a mitigating factor. He was a cab-driver and the woman was his customer. She paid for the ride with a 'TT' card - a form of transport subsidy for the handicapped, which he evidently recognized because he accepted it. Nonetheless, because of his 'cultural background', an adult who'd lived in Norway since he was ten years old could not be expected to know that this woman was mentally incapacitated and that he should not assault her.
In the second week of January, Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park cancelled its tour of a specially commissioned new play by Glyn O'Malley called Paradise. The subject of the work was the suicide bombing in March last year by an 18-year-old Palestinian girl, Ayat al-Akhras. You may remember our old friend, the then Saudi ambassador in London, Ghazi Algosaibi, wrote a poem in praise of Miss al-Akhras. O'Malley's approach was a little subtler. His starting point was a Newsweek cover story contrasting young Ayat with one of the Jews she killed, another teenage girl, a 17-year-old Israeli, Rachel Levy. To some of us, this is already obscene - the idea that murdered and murderer are both 'victims'. They're linked only because Ayat couldn't care less whom she slaughtered as long as they were Jews.
But there wouldn't be much of a play in that. So O'Malley did the decent liberal thing and bent over backwards to be 'balanced'. In his play, 'Fatima' gets all the best lines, raging at the Israelis because they should know better: 'How can you do this? You! You who know camps and humiliation and hate and death.' 'Sarah', by comparison, is just a California airhead who's come to Israel for the guys and can't really get a handle on the Holy Land: 'It's, like, old.'
But O'Malley didn't stop there: he moved the scene of the bombing from within Israel proper to one of those 'illegal' West Bank settlements. He even managed to remove any kind of religious component: to dear old Ghazi, Ayat was acting as a good Muslim; in O'Malley's play, 'Fatima' insists, 'This is not about Allah!' This is not some crude Muslim-Jew thing, but instead arises from complex socio-economic issues unconnected to one's faith.
And what was the upshot? At a read-through before invited members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, the latter denounced the work as 'Zionist propaganda'. A few days later, the Jewish director was removed from the production. A few days after that, the play was cancelled entirely.
What normally happens with 'controversial' art? I'm thinking of such cultural landmarks of recent years as Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ' - a crucifix sunk in the artist's urine - or Terrence McNally's Broadway play Corpus Christi, in which a gay Jesus rhapsodises about the joys of anal sex with Judas. When, say, Catholic groups complain about these abominations, the arts world says you squares need to get with the beat: a healthy society has to have 'artists' with the 'courage' to 'explore' 'transgressive' 'ideas', etc. Yet with this play, faced with Muslim objections, the big, courageous, transgressive arts guys fold like a Bedouin tent. And, unlike your Pi-s Christs, where every liberal commentator wants to chip in his two bits on artistic freedom, pretty much everyone's given a wide berth to this one, except for Christopher Caldwell, whom the Weekly Standard sent to Cincinnati to interview the various figures involved. What was interesting from Caldwell's account was that the Muslim community figures didn't really care in the end whether the play was pro- or anti-Islam: for them, it was beyond discussion. When you soak a crucifix in urine, you may get a few cranky Catholics handing out leaflets on the sidewalk. When you do a play about suicide bombers, who knows what the offended might do? The arts world seems happy to confine its trangressive courage to flipping the finger at Christians.
These are a few straws in the wind, birds on the lake. The great issue of our time is whether Islam - the fastest-growing religion in Europe and North America - is compatible with the multicultural, super-diverse, boundlessly tolerant society of Western liberals. If I were a feminist or a gay or an 'artist', I wouldn't be reassured by these early birds winging their way from Norwegian courts and Midwestern playhouses.
Meanwhile, those of us who talk of reforming Iraq are assured by our opponents that it's preposterous to think that Arabs can ever be functioning citizens of a democratic state. If that's so, isn't that an issue, given current immigration patterns, not for Iraq tomorrow but for Britain, France, Belgium and Holland right now?
What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? Very possibly. Given Europe's birth-rates, the survival of the West depends on conversion - on ensuring that the unprecedentedly high numbers of immigrants to the Continent embrace Western pluralism. Some of us think it would be easier to do this if the countries from which they emigrate are themselves democratic and pluralist. But to say there's no problem here except Texan cowboy fundamentalist paranoia is to blind yourself to reality, to march to suicide as surely as Ayat al-Akhras did.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.
02/19/03: The curtain will come down on the peaceniks