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Black Sheep and Exploding Turbans


May 15, 2010

Europe is struggling to come to terms with its Muslim minority. What are the consequences of the intolerance and the violence for the continent and for literature? Paul Berman and a lauded panel chime in.

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The violent reaction four years ago to the publication in Denmark of a series of satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed suggests that the cultural divisions highlighted two decades ago by The Satanic Verses controversy have intensified rather than dissipated. Europe is currently facing what some call its biggest challenge: trying to come to terms with its Muslim minority. Across the continent, debates over the veil, the burka, and more recently the Swiss referendum banning the building of minarets, have prompted passionate, often violent responses. What are the consequences of this, for Europe and for literature, in a society that appears to be segregating along sectarian and racial lines and where intolerance is increasing on both sides of the divide? Listen as Jamal Mahjoub, Paul Berman, Alina Bronsky, Peter Stamm, Janne Teller, and Sadanand Dhume discuss and debate the issue.

Highlights:

3:30—4:15: Joel Whitney quoting Salman Rushdie speaking during the fatwah: “Carlos Fuentes has called the novel a privileged arena. By this he does not mean it’s the kind of holy space which one must put off one’s shoes to enter. It is not an arena to revere. It claims no special rights, except to be the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted. ‘The novel,’ Fuentes writes, ‘is borne of the very fact that we do not understand one another, because unitary, orthodox language has broken down. Quixote and Sancho, the Shandy brothers, Mr. and Mrs. Karenin, their novels are the comedy or the drama of their misunderstandings. Impose a unitary language—you kill the novel, but you also kill the society.’”

9:15: Janne Teller on the task of a writer exploring new ground. She claims that, “As writers, we often don’t know why we take on certain directions that later seem totally natural. I think that’s because it’s our job to pick up and gather all the energies around us.”

19:30: Peter Stamm believes that, in Switzerland, the Muslim population becomes entirely Swiss in as quickly as one generation because they believe that, “In fifty years, things will have changed and we’ll have our minarets.”

28:45: Sadanand Dhume explains how radical Islam has recently become a concern in Indonesia. “It took the Bali bombings to concentrate people’s minds and raise questions about the future of Indonesia… As Paul has written, it make sense to think of these movements in terms of the ideas behind them, and to think of them as global.”

50:00: Moderator Jamal Mahjoub to Paul Berman: “By implication, you seem to be saying that Tariq Ramadan has this concealed agenda, which is pretty far to the right. And yet he isn’t politically engaged. He’s not running a party, he’s not looking for votes. What is Tariq Ramadan after?”

50:30: Paul Berman responds: “I don’t think he has a concealed agenda. He writes everything in the books… I myself scratch my head over what he’s trying to do. He remains something of a cipher or mystery to me. On the one hand he argues that he’s creating a new reformed Islam that can take its place properly in a liberal society. On the other hand, if you read the footnotes, you see that he’s also trying to promote the Islam of a certain sort that you find in the Muslim world that’s represented by people like Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi. On the one hand, Tariq Ramadan is calling for a peaceful and liberal and admirable adaptation of the old ideas. And on the other hand, he promotes the worst sort of violent sheiks.”

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