by Bruce Bawer
It seems long ago. When I wrote my 2006 book While Europe Slept, I was confident that America was all but immune to the forces that were bringing Europe down. In the book, I spoke of “a philosophical gulf” between Europe and the U.S. that “sometimes seemed as wide as the Atlantic itself.” It was Europe that had appeased and buckled under to Hitler in the name of peace; it was Americans who had crossed the ocean to crush him in the name of freedom. On some level, Europeans still thought like serfs, viewing the state as their protector; in America, every man was a king, and the government worked for us. Europeans wouldn’t give up their long vacations for anything; Americans didn’t mind putting in long hours in order to get ahead. Europeans, seduced by multiculturalism, thought of themselves and others as members of groups; Americans saw everybody as an individual with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Europeans cherished their welfare states; Americans, their freedom.
As I say, it seems long ago. I’ve long since come to understand that most of those quaint distinctions just don’t hold anymore. Saudi-funded American “experts” on the Middle East and their allies in the American media have spread pretty lies about Islam throughout American society. Some of America’s most influential legal minds argue tirelessly for the acceptance of sharia in American jurisprudence and for the watering down of the First Amendment where speech about Islam is concerned. The State Department is run by people who have been lying to themselves for years about Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, you name it, and who are eager to come to some accommodation with the Islamic world on the question of what Americans should and should not be allowed to say about the religion of peace. Top-level figures in the U.S. military preferred to treat the Fort Hood jihadist as a psychiatric case. The so-called Department of Homeland Security is in the hands of people all too many of whom would like to pretend, if at all possible, that acts of terror committed on American soil are just ordinary crimes. From Hollywood to Broadway, from the art galleries to the news media, self-censorship about Islam rules the day. In short, America is at least as susceptible as Europe to the steady accumulation of Islamic power.
As always, Ayaan had many valuable things to say that afternoon. But what especially struck me were her answers to my questions about America and Europe. When she first came to America, she told me, she was overwhelmed by the generous reception she received from the mainstream media, as compared to the condescension with which Dutch journalists so often treated her: she was interviewed on CNN and 60 Minutes, got a positive review in the New York Times, appeared on Bill Maher. Her initial impression was that in America, “the sun shines every day when it comes to shedding light on Islam.”
She now, alas, sees things very differently. “You’re not supposed to use the word jihad….The United States of America does not recognize Islamic terrorism. It’s called ‘violent extremism.’ That is worse than Europe – any country in Europe.” In Europe, she noted, there’s at least “some form of recognition” on the part of officials that terrorist acts are connected in some way to Islam; American leaders, however, prefer the most absurd kind of euphemism. “’Violent extremism’ is the biggest joke of the twenty-first century,” she charged. “The biggest semantic – the most cynical joke of the twenty-first century.” For Ayaan, all this is beyond lamentable, for back when she was living in the Netherlands, America was “the example” for her and others who cherished liberty. It’s for this reason, she said, that it’s so distressing “to see the developments here” in recent years. If America isn’t going to be America any more, she wondered, where is there for freedom-loving people to go?
To be sure, Ayaan insisted on the continuing reality of “American exceptionalism.” The problem, she lamented, is that too many Americans (President Obama among them) fail to recognize the specialness of America – of what it is, and of what it has given the world. Even after living in the West for two decades, Ayaan said, she’s still awed by all the little day-to-day things that make up a free life. The problem is that most Americans take all those little things for granted. They simply can’t “perceive possession of these basic freedoms as something that can be taken away from then.” They don’t realize that their freedom, historically speaking, is an “anomaly”; they don’t understand that it can “evaporate” – and fast.
Ayaan compared the gradual decline in Americans’ appreciation for freedom to the decay that a family business can undergo over, say, four generations (one thought immediately, of course, of Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks), as the industrious founders are succeeded in turn by increasingly decadent and indifferent descendants who are used to the money rolling in. Those who reject the idea of “American exceptionalism,” Ayaan pronounced, are, by doing so, simply identifying themselves as members of that fourth generation – as, that is, the decadent and undeserving heirs of a precious legacy that they didn’t earn, don’t value, and are unwilling to take risks, make sacrifices, or exert themselves to preserve for their progeny.
Ayaan recalled people she’d known in Somalia and Ethiopia who, out of fear, had only discussed ticklish matters “behind closed doors” with those whom they fully trusted. In the Netherlands, she was dismayed to watch the very Dutchmen who’d taught her the ABCs of freedom morphing into versions of her acquaintances in the Horn of Africa, scared to breathe a word about Islam lest their careers be endangered. And then she moved to Washington, D.C., the capital of the free world and, she thought, the world’s last, best hope (not to mention the final stop on her long pilgrimage) – only to catch some of her colleagues there behaving in exactly the same dispiriting way: “You wait until someone you suspect of reporting you goes out of the room and then you have your honest conversation. Essentially these are no longer open societies.”
Ayaan’s message to America was clear: “We’re deteriorating. We’re becoming like the rest of the world, instead of the rest of the world becoming like us.” A sobering thought. But the words I haven’t quite been able to get out of my mind since our interview are the ones about America’s refusal to “recognize Islamic terrorism” – namely, Ayaan’s flat statement that our leaders’ failure to face the simple truth makes America “worse than Europe – any country in Europe.” When, in the last year of the last century, I first encountered Muslim enclaves in Amsterdam and saw the whole future nightmare of Europe unfolding in my mind’s eye, I never imagined I’d be hearing such words about America – and nodding in dour agreement.
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