September 5, 2014 | The Weekly Standard

A Muslim Identity Crisis

The massive sexual abuse case in Rotherham, England, has revealed again how awkward and self-defeating the Western response often is to matters that touch on religious identity. Although the independent inquiry led by Professor Alexis Jay is tersely graphic about the 1,400-plus girls, some as young as 11 years old, who were sexually assaulted over several years by organized gangs of mostly Pakistani men, it isn’t detailed about the male predators. The report strongly suggests that all of the rapists and sex traffickers were men who, if you asked them to self-identify, would probably describe themselves as Muslim. A Muslim identity in Europe has become similar to identity politics among Christians in Northern Ireland: It has next to nothing to do with worship and religious ritual and everything to do with the social and cultural milieu in which one is raised. The report shies away from talking much about “ethnicity” and “race”—the preferred words for alluding to the Muslim origins of the boys and men who were methodically raping, and often impregnating, overwhelmingly non-Muslim British girls. British and American press reports that refer to the male predators as “Asian” are also trying to avoid the issue of religion as the common denominator among these men, since surely no one meant to suggest that immigrants of Chinese, Lao, Japanese, Burmese, or Cambodian ancestry were involved in this organized crime. The inquiry and subsequent British press reporting reveal that local officials covered up this entire affair in part because they were concerned about being accused of racism.

Critics of using religion as a common denominator of these rapists and child molesters might argue that there is nothing in the Islamic faith that condones this behavior, and these rapists, if they were even practicing Muslims, were obviously failing to uphold the mores of nearly all Muslims in the United Kingdom, who are surely repulsed by what has happened in Rotherham. Some might say that Great Britain is chock full of non-Muslim rapists, pimps, and sex offenders, which is undoubtedly true. Grotesque sexual predation now seems to be common in the West—more common than in Islamic lands, where sex with minors who are not wives is a deadly risk since family structure, even among the poor, remains fairly solid and male honor is tightly bound to female virtue. Sexual predation of the type seen in Rotherham surely must have as much Western inspiration as Islamic.

This may all be true, but it is beside the point. It ought to be obvious—and it ought to be a major subject of conversation and heated debate—that there is a moral distemper within the Muslim communities of the West, as there is in the Muslim lands of the Greater Middle East. The most severe disorder—the jihadism of groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda and the creed of Wahhabism, based in Saudi Arabia but exported everywhere—afflicts a small percentage of Muslims, but those numbers are sufficiently frightening, especially in an age of technology and global travel. A less severe moral derangement, however, the kind that turns jihad-promoting, raging anti-Semitic legal scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi into popular icons, is much more common. These new moral codes, fed by the dark sides of both Western and Islamic civilizations, are a cancer that non-Muslim Westerners, Western Muslims, and Muslims in the Middle East are poorly combating. It’s not at all ridiculous to suggest that the mores loose in Rotherham, a midsize working-class town of 260,000, where taxi and limousine services run predominantly by South Asian Muslims targeted, gang-raped, prostituted, kidnapped, and trafficked overwhelmingly non-Muslim English girls, are part of the same ethical matrix that encourages young men to abandon Europe for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.

Islam conveys a powerful sense of group identity. As all monotheisms do, Islam divides the world between “us” and “them.” Unlike Christianity, the other universal faith, which has been fundamentally transformed—compartmentalized and miniaturized—by Europe’s wars of religion and the Enlightenment, Islam retains a greater attachment to the idea of a borderless religious community, the umma. Even when the faith is attenuated or gone, most often by the unrelenting secularization that comes with Westernization, the collective identity can remain. This shared identity has a greater pull on men: Islam is a profoundly fraternal religion. Even when the traditional faith has evanesced, this sense of brotherhood can remain. It can be easily politicized. This is one reason why Westernized Muslims who have rarely if ever gone to mosques, have little idea of the Koran and the Prophetic Traditions, and have never lived by the Holy Law can quickly—maddeningly fast in the eyes of Western counterterrorist officers trying to find, follow, and neutralize them—mutate into holy warriors who could turn on their former, non-Muslim compatriots. This same sense of fraternity, perversely twisted and Westernized, can lead Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Afghan men to band together in wolf packs to hunt girls in Rotherham. These girls existed outside of their moral universe where the predators’ wives, sisters, and daughters live.

Western criminals—the Mafia most famously—often similarly segregate their souls and families. But it is an undeniable fact that within Islam this ethical stratification is easier to do since historically, legally, the world was sharply bifurcated between believer and unbeliever. Classical Islamic legal scholars, who’d fortunately advanced beyond the Arab tribal practices that viewed the killing of foreigners as more a question of etiquette than moral deliberation, resolutely defended the sanctity of non-Muslim life and property within Muslim realms. But even in the best of circumstances, there remained a moral division between Muslim and non-Muslim, superior versus inferior. This separation can allow for considerable hubris and abuse. In modern times, in the hands of poorly educated young men, in the West and in the Middle East, it can aid unspeakable crimes.

Muslim immigrants to the West, and their descendants, can have a very difficult time losing the sense of “otherness” that all immigrants have. My Pakistani-English roommate at university in Great Britain, a bright, curious, fun-loving fellow who was studying medicine, had the damndest time self-identifying as an Englishman even though he was born and raised in England, had no real knowledge of Pakistan, couldn’t read the Koran in Arabic, and really had no idea of what it meant when he read it in English. Khalid was an Englishman, almost as thoroughly English as my classmate from Kent, John Smith. But for Khalid to call himself an Englishman was in some sense an act of betrayal to his parents’ homeland, which he’d never seen, and, most importantly, his beloved, devout parents, who’d risked all so that their children could have better lives even if—as Khalid’s father once put it to me—it meant that their children lost their faith.

All European identities—even the Albanian and Bosnian Muslim ones—have been forged through a Christian experience. Secular Britons may no longer see the crosses of Europe’s most beautiful flag; Muslims do. When the English and Pakistani worlds collided in Khalid’s home, there was a sadness amidst the bountiful love that nourished and launched five clever children into educational and professional success. That sadness—the inevitable friction of incompatible ideas and sentiments living side-by-side—when not enveloped by love and humor and a tangible sense of progress can easily drown youths desperately in search of an identity. The West, with its unrelenting individualism, can be a harsh, cold place for third-world immigrants and their children. Add on the bigotry that comes so easily in Europe, where, unlike America, there are deeply rooted national cultures of which the natives are justifiably proud and protective, and European police and counterterrorist officers face a Molotov cocktail of deviancies.

How to confront this alternative moral universe is confoundedly difficult. When it comes to criminality like that in Rotherham, however, it’s not that difficult: The predators need to be locked up, and all those who looked away, who feared the animadversions of the politically correct or thought less of good English girls who talked about sexual encounters with “Pakis,” should be fired. The Labour party, which controls Rotherham, and is more sensitive to, partly because it is more successful with, the “Asian vote,” ought to do some brutal soul-searching. Non-Muslim Europeans and Americans ought to have the basic decency to criticize Muslim citizens and denizens within their lands as they would criticize themselves. If Muslim immigrants to Western lands refuse to adopt the standards that Westerners consider fundamental to their identity, both cultural and political, then Westerners should rise in high dudgeon.

This doesn’t preclude a generous spirit toward the travails that these immigrants, and the children of these immigrants, face. European cultures are heavy and often unforgiving, and the Western progressive ethic keeps liberating new corners of the human soul that many more traditional peoples find troubling, if not revolting. But kindness should never become a slippery slope for a cruel multiculturalism that leaves Muslims in Western lands bereft of a solid Western identity. We may already be in the absurd situation where the grandchildren of Muslim immigrants to Europe have become jihadists who proudly decapitate Americans.

Since the July 7, 2005, suicide-bombings in London, the British government under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and now David Cameron has deployed fairly aggressive outreach programs to British Muslims. These were essentially just an extension and amplification of a philosophy that had gained broad currency on both the British left and right. To wit: A multicultural Great Britain offered a welcoming home to Muslims. They could find a place in the United Kingdom without forsaking all that much from their Muslim past. Points of friction were downplayed, common bonds were played up. Extremist Muslims were the rare rotten eggs (who ought to be pinpointed to Scotland Yard and the domestic intelligence service MI-5) despoiling the happy moderate British Muslim basket.

The British might be wise to review this analysis. There is a lot to be said for multicultural Britain. London is an incomparably more exciting place now than it was when it was more English, aristocratic, and pub-and-club-ridden. But there need to be standards that don’t slip, especially about women. Muslims should be able to lock onto a British dream with pride and dignity, knowing that what they’ve gained is greater than what they’ve lost. Outreach programs shouldn’t be chucked. But they should probably be recast, especially at the highest levels of government, where the bully-pulpit can do the most good. It’s a bit of a mind-bender to imagine David Cameron making an appealing argument in favor of a clearer British culture, but that is surely the direction that he and others ought to go. Doing so, of course, when economic growth is precarious and Britain’s massive welfare state may do as much harm to Muslim immigrants and their children as it does good, is a challenge.

Americans should pay attention to our British cousins, and the rest of our European friends who have large Muslim populations, proportionately much greater than our own. The Europeans have, knowingly or not, undertaken a great experiment in absorption, vastly more daunting than anything that they have tried before. They—at least the British and the French, the two former great imperial powers—have done better in transforming Muslim immigrants into citizens than most Europeans de souche believe. But the predators of Rotherham, like the hundreds of young European Muslims who’ve gone to join Islamic radical groups in Syria and Iraq, ought to signal that there is a serious illness within that needs to be more aggressively treated.

Like the last three British prime ministers, Barack Obama has had a philosophy and plan to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, both overseas and at home. It has been an American variant of British multiculturalism. Beyond withdrawing from the Muslim Middle East, he stressed his reverence for Islam and Islamic civilization, and the (mostly illusory) bonds between Americans and Muslims around the world. In Cairo in 2009, he even said that it was “part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” He suggested that Americans would not interfere in how Muslims (that is, Muslim rulers) ran their own affairs.

This fraternal and felicitous experiment doesn’t seem to be going well. It might be wise if he, too, considered an alternative approach. A good first step might be to say unequivocally that there is a serious problem within the House of Islam. And it’s not incidental to the faith.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.