It is likely that Abdou Menebhi’s denunciation of the Dutch government’s film was deeply felt. A film that some Dutch people found normal is likely to be interpreted as immoral and provocative by some Muslims. The Dutch may not make a fuss about nudity, but Islam does. For Muslims, public nudity is not a personal choice; it’s a violation of their religious outlook.
For many Muslims, modesty is a virtue. Islamic ideas of shame and immoral behaviour are closely associated with the uncovering of the body. Homosexuality is regarded as a perversion, and many Muslims believe that its acceptance as a lifestyle choice is no less degraded than its practice. From their standpoint, watching topless sunbathers and men kissing one another is the moral equivalent of asking Western parents to view images of child abuse.
Not so long ago, when Europe still took religion seriously, people’s reaction to public nudity and homosexuality was not that different to Menhebi’s. Though these sentiments have been legally and culturally outlawed in Western Europe, they still persist in places. So quite independent of the tensions between Islam and secularism, clashes over values are a regular feature of European political life. See, for example, the conflicts between the EU oligarchy and East European states, especially Hungary and Poland.
Cultural insecurities, which predate the current migration crisis, exercise a powerful influence over public life. These tensions continually raise a question that is studiously ignored: what do European societies believe in? It’s clear where Muslim migrants get their moral outlook from, but where do young secular Europeans draw their values from? Schools and secular institutions mistakenly believe that the language of morality is the monopoly of outdated religious organisations. Values, though, can change with the wind. Environmentalism, healthy eating, homosexuality, self-esteem, anti-racism, multiculturalism and mindfulness all compete with one another to gain the attention of young people today.
In education and public institutions, questions to do with right and wrong, or good and evil, have been displaced by a narrow emphasis on the instrumental and therapeutic ethics of wellbeing. Children are taught that emotions like anger and hate are bad, but they’re not taught what to love. Previous objects of love – God, country, family, humanity and so on – have been displaced by inarticulate sentiments that, at best, amount to ‘it’s okay to feel good about yourself’.
There are relatively few issues on which a moral consensus prevails. But the sexual assault of women is one issue on which old-fashioned traditionalists and anti-traditionalist cosmopolitans can agree. That is one reason why the official critique of migrant behaviour has focused on sexual harassment. That is, if they couch their concerns in the language of sexual harassment, critics of migration can avoid accusations of xenophobia or Islamophobia.
The morally illiterate leaflets European local authorities are distributing to migrants reflect the problems that official EU culture has in the realm of values. The issues that separate an enlightened secular society from the outlook of North African or Middle Eastern migrants are far more fundamental than attitudes towards sex or the disciplining of children. Contemporary attitudes to sex and personal behaviour are the historical outcome of the foundational values of the Enlightenment. The ideals of sexual liberation and equality presuppose the prior emergence of liberty, equality and tolerance.
The valuation of the individual, moral autonomy, liberty, tolerance and democracy are the sentiments that provide the foundation for the best aspects of the European way of life. The valuation of individual autonomy is particularly relevant today. The exercise of autonomy provides the singular pre-condition for the management of a pluralistic society. It is only if people can act in accordance with their own values and inclinations that people from very different cultural backgrounds can coexist. Migrants to Europe, or anyone else for that matter, do not have to like nudity or gay sex. But they all have to agree to abide by the values of tolerance and recognise that the violation of another person’s bodily and moral autonomy is not acceptable in an enlightened society.
There are no easy answers to the question of how to manage the cultural chasm disturbingly revealed on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. One could do worse than to begin by acknowledging the scale of the problem. It took England decades to wake up to the reality that multiculturalism de facto meant submitting to a regime of multi-values and multi-rules of conduct. Even after the disturbing events in Cologne, policymakers refuse to accept the fact that EU multiculturalist policies foster a climate of community segmentation.
Instead of trying to understand why the policy of multiculturalism has failed, politicians and the media have tended to focus on the regrettable behaviour of groups of male migrants. This focus on the symptoms allows policymakers to avoid engaging with the underlying cultural and moral malaise afflicting large parts of Europe.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)
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