“Cultural” uniformity within Europe

The BBC news site carries two stories today that really deserve more attention, especially in light of many debates on European culture and identity. The two stories highlight trends that have been going on for quite a while now and I suppose you could consider these trends to be intrinsically ‘cultural’ as they reflect contemporary behaviour patterns. Culture is not only about the arts, it is also, and maybe foremost, about the way people actually live and behave.

The first BBC story talks about the famous Parisian Left Bank losing its renowned cultural identity:

In the 1940s Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli gave the area its own jazz sound while in the cafes and bars, Sartre penned his theories on existentialism and literary geniuses Orwell and Hemingway were inspired to write novels. But the heritage of the Left Bank is now under threat as McDonald’s, Starbucks and souvenir shops begin to take over the traditional bookshops and cafes. (…) Deputy Mayor of Paris, Lyne Cohen Solal, is adamant that Paris’s prized Left Bank should resist uniformity. “All the cities all over in Europe are starting to look the same. London, Berlin they’re going to have the same streets with the same shops.”

It is a trend I have observed myself when visiting several European capitals. Culture and history are increasingly being replaced by uniform commerce. One could of course point out that much of culture and history have been shaped by commerce anyway, but I do not believe it has ever been so… uniform. At least, in my perception.

At the same time culture is carried by people. And if those people prefer uniform shopping over their own more or less unique heritage, well, to what extent should one deny them that way of life? In a way one could say that consumerism itself is part and parcel of contemporary culture. From the article:

The state representative in charge of economic development Michel Lalande believes it is time that Paris welcomed in the spirit of the 21st Century. “If the bookshops are closing down, it’s also because they have fewer customers. Preserving these bookshops is all very well, but what would be even better is if tourists and Parisians actually went to them.

The second story is even more familiar to me. It is about the touristic development of the Mediterranean. Author Julian Pettifer writes:

This is how I described what had happened to a familiar street in Torremolinos: “…then (in the 50s) it was filled with dark little shops selling oil, wine and olives and formidable-looking corsets to peasant women with long black dresses. Donkeys were the main traffic. It was intensely Spanish. Now, it could be just about anywhere. The shops have that international chic I associate with boutiques in big international airports. “The restaurants are anything but Spanish. There are French, Danish and Dutch “bistros” and something called “The New West End Fish and Chip Boutique de Poisson Frites”. This loss of national identity has introduced a new word into the Spanish language: El Boom.”

The development of the Spanish coastline I have been able to observe firsthand. I have seen how the coast of Murcia, for instance, has gradually taken on the ‘allure’ of a true Atlantic wall consisting of countless more or less uniform holiday resorts that are now obscuring from view the once so beautiful Mediterranean sea. More often than not city planning is horrendous and I know of at least one resort where the sheer amount of concrete and a lack of cultural activity have managed to make life quite dreary in the land of sun and sea. The sun has become the primary and sole reason to buy there. Or even elsewhere if local real estate prices become too high. Many Mediterranean countries seem to be perfectly interchangeable in this regard. As long as there is sun, who cares about local culture. El Boom is now expanding to countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bulgaria and even Libya. And its pattern is invariably the same. Claim a piece of land near the sea and turn it into a saleable patch of pretty uniform concrete. One wonders when supply will start to outpace demand.

Very often I hear people talk about the threat of Islamic culture to the identity and culture of Europe. But what exactly is that culture of Europe nowadays? Is it really much different from that of Americans shopping in New York, of Japanese consuming in Tokyo or Chinese people buying Coca Cola in Peking? To what extent is our cultural ‘behaviour’, driven by prosperity, really unique? And would it be worth our while to protect whatever is left of our historical heritage, like that deputy mayor of Paris wants to do, against the, no doubt envigorating, spirit of commercialism? Has it become, in short, outdated, reactionary and selfish even, to express one’s non-profitable love for something and to fight for the realisation of one’s desire to keep some things just the way they are?

Update: First of all, the comments and link have been fixed. Secondly, Paul Currion from The Unforgiving Minute weblog has an interesting follow-up to this post entitled Cleaning up in Montenegro. As it happens Paul was interviewed by the very same Julian Pettifer that is quoted here on the very same subject of the Mediterranean coastline for BBC4’s Crossing Continents. Sadly, he did not make the final cut himself but, as a bonus, he does graciously provide a link to that BBC4 broadcast.

50 years of EU Foreign policy

Browsing through the archives of EUTUBE, “the YouTube space of the European Commission”, I came across a video called 50 years of EU in the world. Since we haven’t really done anything special here on AFOE to commemorate the European Project’s 50th anniversary, I thought this video might be an appropriate birthday gift to our readers. I am sure there will be plenty to debate… especially in light of some current events.

PS: When it comes to promoting something we really have a lot to learn from the States, even when I personally appreciate the calm tone of the EU vid. And, of course, do not forget to have a look at some of the other videos at EUTUBE.

Iraqi Employees: Action Alert

We’ve said this before: but it’s worth saying again. In fact, it’s never been more worth saying. Now, British forces in southern Iraq actually are drawing down, and the government still doesn’t want to take the people who worked for us along.

If you are resident in the UK, please take a moment to read this post, mention it on your blog, and write to them. We currently need an MP to help organise a lobby of Parliament, and we need them now; time is running out, for good tactical reasons.

There’s also a petition here. Graphics are here, and there’s video here. Time is short.

Secular science confronts Islam

Physics Today has a very interesting, and refreshing, online article (hat tip Sargasso) on Islam and science that ties in neatly with AFOE’s review of Olivier Roy’s latest book Secularism confronts Islam. The article is written by Pervez Hoodbhoy, nuclear physics professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. As usual, I shall give our readers one quote, but please do and go read the whole thing.

In the quest for modernity and science, internal struggles continue within the Islamic world. Progressive Muslim forces have recently been weakened, but not extinguished, as a consequence of the confrontation between Muslims and the West. On an ever-shrinking globe, there can be no winners in that conflict: It is time to calm the waters. We must learn to drop the pursuit of narrow nationalist and religious agendas, both in the West and among Muslims. In the long run, political boundaries should and can be treated as artificial and temporary, as shown by the successful creation of the European Union. Just as important, the practice of religion must be a matter of choice for the individual, not enforced by the state. This leaves secular humanism, based on common sense and the principles of logic and reason, as our only reasonable choice for governance and progress. Being scientists, we understand this easily. The task is to persuade those who do not.

Secularism confronts Islam by Olivier Roy

When I look at contemporary public discourse, no day seems to go by without at least someone mentioning the threat of Islam. Last week Dutch MP Geert Wilders even went as far as to call for a ban on the Koran itself, comparing it in true Godwin style to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, because “it incites violence in the name of a fascist ideology”. His idea was widely condemned, even by people who would normally sympathize with at least some of his views, but the fact that he was confident enough to put this idea to the test is very telling. Islam is a hot topic and the threat of Islam, the Islamic monster as it were, either perceived or real, sells.

At the same time there has been real violence in the name of Islam. 9-11 and the bombings in London and Madrid are obvious examples but, the scope of the inflicted destruction notwithstanding, they could be placed in a wider geopolitical context. Far more telling, for me, was the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. He was killed in the name of Islam by a young, Dutch Muslim extremist of Moroccan descent called Mohammed Bouyeri. This particular murder has been as devastating as the aforementioned bombings, not in scope but in psychological impact. He brought the threat of Islam home… from the inside out. His religious radicalization leading up to his murder of Theo van Gogh cannot be explained merely by geopolitical events or by what some people, like Wilders, would call inherent traits of the Islamic religion. The prosecutor in his murder trial formulated it like this: “The defendant rejects our democracy. He even wants to bring down our democracy.”

The murder of Theo van Gogh was seen as proof of the failure of multiculturalism and, much more important, a direct link was established, in the public mind, between Muslim immigrants and religious violence. What had thus far been a sociological problem, the cultural integration of immigrants who had, by the way, been around for decades, turned into a debate on the position of, in this case Islamist, religion in Western society. Islam, in short, had become a subversive force in Western society threatening traditional values and democracy. Islam was no longer just another religion, it had become a political, assertive and proactive force. Again, in the public mind. I remember fifteen odd years ago there already were lively debates on the position of immigrants in Western society. But those debates hardly ever considered religion. What exactly happened between then and now? Why did some young Western Muslims radicalize and how did they, arguably a minority within a minority, manage to have such an impact on Western public opinion?

With these introductory questions I can finally introduce world renowned expert on Islam Olivier Roy and his excellent new book Secularism confronts Islam, published by Columbia University Press. As far as the body of the book goes, Columbia University Press already did a great job summarizing this online:

Analyzing the French case in particular, in which the tension between Islam and the conception of Western secularism is exacerbated, Roy makes important distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, hegemony and tolerance, and the role of the umma and the sharia in Muslim religious life. He pits Muslim religious revivalism against similar movements in the West, such as evangelical Protestantism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and refutes the myth of a single “Muslim community” by detailing different groups and their inability to overcome their differences.

The great value of Secularism confronts Islam, which should make it a lasting classic, is that it recognizes the complexity of the issues at hand and that it offers us, by revealing their diverse and often surprising underlying dynamics, the tools to understand them better. Olivier Roy hands his readers a wealth of material that will allow them to interpret past, ongoing and future developments in a more objective and different manner. And, maybe most important of all, he reduces “the Islamic threat” to its just proportions and, in doing so, gives us the means to deal, both intellectually and emotionally, in a more appropriate and effective way with that very same threat. One example to illustrate this:

Laïcité creates religion by making it a category apart that has to be isolated and circumscribed. It reinforces religious identities rather than allowing them to dissolve in more diversified practices and identities.

In other words, by fighting a monster the wrong way, you can actually make that monster stronger.

Olivier Roy does not necessarily provide conclusive, foolproof all-encompassing answers to the questions I asked in my introduction, but he does provide a wealth of insights that may help us understand not only what is going on, but how things have developed and how they should be seen in a wider context. To rephrase it using my monster metaphor: Who is the Frankenstein behind the monster and how tall and threatening is that monster really?

It is here that Olivier Roy excels. Instead of focusing on the monster itself, I am of course talking about the public perception in the West of Islam, he takes a hard look at the surroundings and circumstances in which it was created. In the preface to Secularism confronts Islam, which can be found online on this page of the Columbia University Press website, he states:

The redefinition of the relations between religion and politics is a new challenge for the West, and not only because of Islam. Islam is a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis. We live in a postculturalist society, and this postculturalism is the very foundation of the contemporary religious revival.

With this observation Olivier Roy takes his readers on an intellectual, yet fact-based, journey that ends with another remarkable observation:

What I have attempted to show here is that even fundamentalism has at bottom incorporated the religious space of the West (individualism, separation between politics and religion) and is striving to promote its conservative, indeed reactionary, values in a discourse and practice that mirror those of Christian and Jewish conservatives. The problem is not Islam but religion or, rather, the contemporary forms of the revival of religion.

Olivier Roy comes to this conclusion by analyzing the true meaning and origin of the French laïcité policy and by contrasting laïcité with secularism, by exploring the different attitudes different countries in the West have adopted to Islam and immigration, by comparing neofundamentalist doctrines (and finding too many similarities for comfort), by explaining the political dimension of religion, by pointing out the importance of and quest for identity, etcetera. In the end it all comes together nicely and clearly and the reader is left, not necessarily with clear-cut answers to the (re)integration of religion, and notably Islam, in Western societies, but with a clearer vision of all the different elements that are working together in (re)shaping our societies.

In short, even when Secularism confronts Islam focusses on the confrontation between Islam and secularist values, which, as Olivier Roy demonstrates, are not necessarily exclusively Western, it is most of all a work that, by its sheer depth, inspires readers to think about many other concepts. It inspires readers to even rethink some of those concepts in order to gain a better understanding of all the dynamics at play. As we all know, the first step in solving a problem is understanding that problem. Or, to pick up my silly monster metaphor again, if you are afraid of something, the best thing to do is to confront the scary monster by trying to understand it. More often than not you will find it to be much less threatening than you initially thought it would be. The monster may even confront you with yourself… Or, in this case, with the dynamics of our own societies.

So, if you feel the need to chase some monsters, imagined or real, from under your beds, go and read Olivier Roy’s Secularism confronts Islam. As he himself states this is:

…an invitation to think about Islam in the same framework as we think about other religions and about the religious phenomenon itself. This is true respect for the other and the true criticial spirit.

Christopher Caldwell: Untrustworthy on Facts

Christopher Caldwell, senior editor of neocon house journal the Weekly Standard, once wrote a six-page feature in the New York Times magazine in which he claimed that Robert Kilroy-Silk would “transform European politics”. Despite this, he is still taken seriously by some people; disturbingly, this includes the editors of the Financial Times. In his column this weekend, he issues a rant against trades unions and specifically French ones. I am not going to trouble my readers by taking issue with his ideological position; this is well-known, hence there’s no informational gain in arguing with it.

Instead, I’m sticking to his factual assertions.

Sixty per cent of SNCF cancellations are due to strikes.

The only source for this statement I can find is the French Government’s spokesman; anyway, as the overall 10-minute punctuality rate is of the order of 90 per cent (source: SNCF Annual Report 2006), this is equivalent to saying that 3 trains in every hundred are affected by industrial action. In fact that is a considerable overstatement itself, as not all trains that run 10 minutes late are cancellations. Anyway, this is a theoretical issue; Le Canard Enchaine published the actual figures, according to which strikes accounted for 140 out of 6,043 delays recorded in 2006 – about 2 per cent. Caldwell is wrong.

The young anti-union orator Sabine Herold drew tens of thousands to her speeches during the strikes of 2003.

Fortunately, I’d recently seen some of her old election posters, so I actually knew who she was, which puts me ahead of the vast bulk of the French public. It is actually possible that Mme Herold pulled in at least 10 kilodemonstrators; French Wikipedia claims she did, citing Le Monde as saying she got 30,000, but I can’t find a root-source for this anywhere; just a lot of wingnuts clapping each other on the back. It hasn’t stopped her claiming 100,000 in order to sell books. But it’s hard to be sure, as her political party didn’t get enough votes to be broken out independently in the official results of the 2007 parliamentary election. Neither could they find 500 local councillors willing to sign their presidential nomination. To place a lower bound on her popularity, though, we can say with certainty that she pulled some 345 votes on her home turf, the very bourgeois 16th arrondissement of Paris. That is, 1.4 per cent of the vote. Her fellow leader, Edouard Fillias, pulled a whacking 228 votes in the 12th – 0.52 per cent.

This didn’t stop various right-wing anglophone papers lionising her; fortunately she kept the tributes on her own website. Here’s Matthew Campbell of the Sunday Times predicting that if Segolene Royal wasn’t elected, she might be. Here’s the Daily Telegraph asking whether she really did speak for millions. I think you got your answer, son.

Anyway, moving swiftly on:

They rest on government-accorded privileges, particularly that of compelling membership, whether formally or informally – a privilege that, if it were exercised by a church or a political party, would horrify the public.

“They” are trade unions; it’s a pity Caldwell appears not to know that the closed shop has been illegal in France since 1956.

Next Up: Northern Niger

Le Monde reports on a fascinating crisis, one that incorporates essentially all the themes of the times. In northern Niger lurk huge reserves of uranium, and the French nuclear power industry covers about a third of its requirements from mines there owned by Areva SA. It was this mining industry that Joe Wilson was ordered to investigate, with fateful consequences. Now, with the price of uranium historically high on roaring demand, a curious confluence of developments twirls across the desert..

For a start, back in June, the chief of security at Areva was ordered to leave Niger immediately. Unsurprisingly, Gilles Denamur is a retired French Army colonel who used to be the French military attache to Niger – one of that very specific type of all-purpose soldiers/spooks/businessmen/crooks France’s continuing involvement in Africa produces. He was accused of colluding with a local group of rebels, the National Movement for Justice (MNJ) – a local chapter of the spreading, water-stressed trouble across the continent from Somalia, this lot are mostly Touaregs. According to the Niger government, he was secretly arming the rebels, perhaps as an alternative to the government troops posted at the mines.

More recently, on the 25th of July, the managing director of Areva in Niger was himself rousted. Dominique Pin is another of those men; a veteran of Mitterand’s Africa policy cell that was at the heart of the vast network of scandals around the Angolan war. He’s accused of intriguing with the MNJ, too – after all, if baroudeur had a job description attached, intriguing would be the first or second item on it. And the Niger government has something to be angry about. After all, their crack commando unit that was (of course) stationed to protect the mines has deserted to the rebels in its entirety.

There is of course something else the government has to be angry about; Areva and its predecessors have had a monopoly of uranium mining in Niger for the last forty years, or to put it another way, ever since independence. Now, Niger would like some more of the money, what with the raging demand from China. And they reckon there may be much more uranium out there; the desert is now positively crowded with prospectors after it. Wouldn’t it be terribly convenient, then, if some of the French execs were caught doing something absolutely intolerable? And, indeed, Niger has announced that the monopoly is over. Although Areva got some five new exploration permits, Niger has secured the right to market some of the production from the existing mines itself.

The French claim that the Chinese are offering arms in return for exploration rights, but this may merely be propaganda. And there is an important fact that is missing from Le Monde‘s story; on the 7th of July, a Chinese mining executive from Sino-U was kidnapped by the MNJ. Their spokesman, who is based in Paris (one can perhaps see why Niger is suspicious of French motives), claims it’s because the Chinese paid for the government to buy a pair of Mi-24 attack helicopters, and also because the Chinese are digging too close to a major traditional gathering-place. He was released soon enough, after some trouble due to the fact he didn’t speak French or English, let alone a local language. At the time, Le Monde was noticeably sympathetic to the Touareg cause; I think they have cooled on it quite a lot, going by the tone of the latest dispatch.

You May Have Noticed

That there’s less blogging going on in August. On the other hand, you may already be en vacance and not have noticed.

In any event, a number of AFOE people got together in Paris this weekend just past. Alas, I was not one of them, so I can neither confirm nor deny that new innovations, guests, posts, seminars or interviews were discussed, planned or possibly even confirmed. You’ll just have to wait. For all I know, they just had a great time and completely neglected to discuss AFOE.

The world, of course, doesn’t stop for August. Last I checked: the intergovernmental conference was well under way and working on a reform treaty for the EU, text to be completed by the end of the year; Europe still did not have an Iraq policy; Turkey still has a good claim on membership; likewise Ukraine; Russia and Belarus had settled their latest gas-related spat, but Lukashenka’s regime was far from sustainable; Russia was also suspending its observance of the treaty on conventional forces in Europe; and demographic trends were good news for Polish plumbers (at home and abroad), but worrying over the long term.

On the other hand, it’s summertime. Why not enjoy?