It was on my 15th birthday in the Summer of 2005 in Northern Morocco that, by chance, I got my hands on a series of online articles about the European Enlightenment. What I read was as transfixing as it was transformative, and marked the beginning of a radical change in my life.
It was particularly impactful to learn that until the 18th century, Europe — now a developed and free continent — had been characterized by the same religious dogmatism, sectarianism, and attacks on free expression that today underpin many Muslim states. It was encouraging to read that those philosophers of Europe on the front lines of the struggle for freedom — advocates of individual liberty, intellectual openness, and the eradication of religious oppression — had accomplished so much while being so few. They were lone voices without popular support, suffering from persecution, and living in exile; akin to many secularists and intellectuals in the Muslim world today.
This philosophical and political movement rose above the barriers of geography and language in espousing lessons with a universal resonance. They spoke of the “Human race” rather than the “European race” and welcomed the progress made by the “Human spirit” and not the “European spirit.”
This Europe, with its literature, philosophy, and revolutionary heritage, was a source of inspiration. I was a young Moroccan who had a complicated history of religious education — obliged to leave school and join a Salafi Madrasat the age of 14 — but reading the works of enlightenment intellectuals served as the catalyst of my own personal enlightenment.
The views of Spinoza on religion as an organized dogma, and the courage of Voltaire in the face of religious persecution, or Diderot and his belief in the importance of science and reason are particularly relevant and speak to the present challenges of the Islamic world.
To understand such fascination with the European Enlightenment in the Muslim world, we must be cognizant of the historical context of both.
Today, in France, Germany and England state-sponsored religious persecution is unheard of. One need not fear repercussion for speaking their mind or practicing their religion as they see fit, or not at all.
Meanwhile, the situation in the Muslim world is radically different from today’s Europe, but at the same time very much akin to the Europe of Spinoza and Denis Diderot. The issues with which these thinkers grappled continue to pose a serious challenge to many around the world, anywhere from Tangier to Jakarta.
I encountered Europe in person in the Spring of 2011, when I arrived in Geneva as a political refugee. It was a great shock to discover that the Europe of the enlightenment — the Europe that I read about in the books that had moved me to write and fight for freedom — had ceased to exist. While it may still exist geographically — you can still see it and you can visit it — you can no longer unconditionally immerse yourself in its ideas or experience the values and humanist principles it was founded upon.
It is now another Europe. It is a Europe where artists and writers must censor themselves in fear of death threats. A Europe where making caricatures of Jesus is considered freedom of speech, but drawing Mohamed is hate speech. A Europe where many liberals and feminists bury their heads in the sand when faced with the suffering of apostates, women, and minorities in the Islamic world; At the same time, far-right populists exploitatively portray themselves as the new voice of freedom and enlightenment values, while their actions demonstrate an utter rejection these principles.
Regrettably, I was not surprised to see a French documentary about supporters of the far-right National Front political party, who seemed to crave a return to the pre-enlightenment era, with one middle-aged man stating on camera that “I want Louis XIV to be back.”
It is equally unsurprising to see radical Islamists in Europe calling for Sharia law and demonizing the secular pluralist societies in which they live freely, while being supported by many liberals who confuse criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry or hate toward Muslims.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand how the delegation of Sweden’s government — “the first feminist government” — to Tehran could possibly accept to be subjugated to wearing clothes which accommodate the Islamist dress code; something they would almost certainly refuse to do if any white male was to impose it on them. I wonder what words they have for Dorsa Derakhshani, the Iranian chess grandmaster who was banned from competing for the national chess team. Her crime: not wearing the hijab.
Moreover, I do not comprehend how people who claim to be liberal and defenders of the oppressed attempt to silence me when I challenge their ideological worldview. Recently, when Swiss political scientist Regula Staempfli shared one of my articles about Islamophobia and the regressive-left on her Facebook page, a left-wing cultural relativist commented by accusing me of being an “Islamophobe, self-hating Arab and Euro-centrist.” Similarly, fellow leftists complain that I should call for social justice and the overcoming of capitalism rather than advocating for what they consider “bourgeois liberties” such as freedom of religion and sexual freedom, forgetting or ignoring that “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism” as pointed out by Marx himself.
It is discouraging that for many in Europe I am not supposed to have a critical opinion about Islam or hold fellow immigrants responsible for what they say or do. On the other hand, I apparently have every right to criticize the West, and they would love me if only I were a victim of “racism, discrimination, and xenophobia.” Playing this oppressed poor immigrant card might very well boost my social standing and perhaps even pave the way for a successful political career. To refrain from it, however, means that I am just another self-hating foreigner.
This betrayal of religious and sexual minorities in the Muslim world by some of those who identify as leftists is disheartening. Their characterizations of ex-Muslims, feminists and liberals in the Islamic world as being euro-centrist or traitors of their own tribe are condescending and reek of ideological paternalism. However, there have also been many reasonable voices within the left who don’t simply blame all the current misery in the Muslim world on Western foreign policy, but acknowledge and denounce the role of violent theocratic regimes such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their responsibility in sponsoring terrorism and promoting the ideology of extremism.
So, has Europe ceased to exist? Perhaps the Europe which once inspired me never existed in the first place, and I am just confronted with the harsh realities of a continuing struggle towards enlightenment. Perhaps, in a moment of deficit, I was simply projecting my hopes and dreams onto my favorite philosophers and their books. Or maybe it did exist and still does; as long as I can speak my mind freely, as long as I can criticize the left, the right, and the Islamists without fear of persecution or jail, and as long as I am not taking my freedom for granted, Europe, this Europe which inspired me, will always exist.