Thursday, August 06, 2009

Strangers in the land

A departure and a return: In the legend of Moorish Spain, Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, is said to have paused on a ridge for a final glimpse of the realm he had just surrendered to the Castilians. Henceforth, the occasion, and the place, would be known as El ě╣ltimo Suspiro del Moro, The Moor’s Last Sigh. The date was Jan. 2, 1492.

More than five centuries later, on March 11, 2004, there would be a “Moorish” return. In the morning rush hour, 10 bombs tore through four commuter trains in Madrid, killing more than 200 people and wounding some 1,500. It was the deadliest terror attack in Europe since World War II. This was not quite a Muslim reconquista (recapturing) of the Iberian peninsula, but a circle was closed, and Islam was, once again, a matter of Western Europe.

In his “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” Christopher Caldwell, a meticulous journalist who writes for The New York Times Magazine and other publications, gives this subject its most sustained and thoughtful treatment to date. The question of Islam in Europe has occasioned calls of alarm about “Eurabia,” as well as works of evasion and apology by those who insist Islam is making its peace with European norms. Caldwell’s account is subtle, but quite honest and forthright in its reading of this history. “Islam is a magnificent religion that has also been, at times over the centuries, a glorious and generous culture. But, all can’t to the contrary, it is in no sense Europe’s religion and it is in no sense Europe’s culture,” he writes.

It hadn’t taken long for Islam to make its new claim on Europe. Caldwell’s numbers give away the problem: “In the middle of the 20th century,” he tells us, “there were virtually no Muslims in Western Europe.” Now there are more than 15 million, including 5 million in France, 4 million in Germany and 2 million in Britain.

The native populations in Western Europe hadn’t voted to have the Turks and the Moroccans in Amsterdam, the Kurds in Sweden, the Arabs in London and the Pakistanis and Indians in Bradford and West Yorkshire. The post-World War II economic boom, and labor shortages, brought the immigrants, and they put down roots in their surroundings. In time, labor immigration “gave way to refugee immigration and to immigration aimed at reunifying (and forming) families. . . Admitting immigrants changed from an economic program to a moral duty.”

A fault line opened in European society. On one side were those keen to keep their world whole and theirs; on the other was elite opinion, insisting on the inevitability and legitimacy of the new immigration. For their part, the new arrivals, timid at first, grew expansive in the claims they made. This was odd: They had fled the fire, and the failure, of their ancestral lands, but they brought the fire with them. Political Islam had risen on its home turf in the Middle East and North Africa, in South Asia, but a young generation in Europe gave its allegiance to the new Islamist radicalism. Emancipated women had shed the veil in Egypt and Turkey and Iran in the 1920s; there are now Muslim women asserting their right to wear the burqa in Paris.

The European welfare state tempted and aided the new Islamism. Two-thirds of the French imams are on welfare. It was hard for Europeans, Caldwell writes, to know whether these bold immigrants were desperate wards or determined invaders, keen on imposing their will on societies given to moral relativism and tolerance. In Caldwell’s apt summation, the flood of migration brought with it “militants, freeloaders and opportunists.”

The militants took the liberties of Europe as a sign of moral and political abdication. They included “activists” now dreaming of imposing the Shariah on Denmark and Britain. There were also warriors of the faith, in storefront mosques in Amsterdam and London, openly sympathizing with the enemies of the West. And there were second-generation immigrants who owed no allegiance to the societies of Europe.

A study by Britain’s House of Commons of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London’s Underground linked the hostility of the new Islamism to the idea of assimilation, to the principle of nationality itself. Three of the four bombers were second-generation British citizens born in West Yorkshire. The fourth, who was born in Jamaica and brought to England as an infant, was a convert to Islam. Mohammad Sidique Khan, age 30, was the oldest of the group. He “appeared to others,” the report notes, “as a role model to young people.” Shehzad Tanweer, age 22, was said to have led a “balanced life.” He owned a red Mercedes, and enjoyed fashionable hairstyles and designer clothing. The evening before the bombings, he had played cricket in a local park.

Years earlier, the legendary theorist of the Islamists, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, had written of the primacy of Islam: We may carry their nationalities, he observed, but we belong to our religion. The assailants from West Yorkshire, and the radical Muslims from Denmark who, after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 2005, traveled through Islamic lands agitating against the country that had given them home and asylum, were witnesses to the truth of Qutb’s dictum.

“The guest is sacred, but he may not tarry,” Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes in a set of remarks that Caldwell cites with approval. Many of Europe’s “guests” have overstayed their welcome. They live on the seam: The old world of Islam is irretrievable and can no longer contain their lives; the new world of modernity is not fully theirs. They agitate against the secular civilization of the West, but they are drawn to its glamour and its success.

In the way of exiles, once on safe ground they tell stories about the old lands. The telling speaks of Damascus as bathed with light, and the sea by Tunis and Algiers and Agadir as a piece of singular beauty. In its original habitat, there could be an honest reckoning with Islam. Men and women could wrestle with the limits it places on them; they would weigh, in that timeless manner, the balance between fidelity to the faith and the yearning for freedom. But it isn’t easy in Amsterdam or Stockholm. There, the faith is identity, and the faith is complete and sharpened like a weapon.

It wasn’t always so. Little more than four decades ago, when I left Lebanon for the United States, I, and others like me, accepted the rupture in our lives. I knew there would be no imams and no mosques awaiting me in the New World. I was not traveling in quest of all that. I was in my late teens, I accepted the “differentness” of the new country. News of Lebanon rarely reached me, air travel was infrequent and costly; I lost years of my family’s life. I needed no tales of the old country.

Nowadays, air travel is commonplace, satellite television channels from Dubai and Qatar reach the immigrants in their new countries, preachers and prayer leaders are on the move, carrying a portable version of the faith. We are to celebrate this new movement of peoples, even as it strips nations of what is unique to them. It goes by the name of globalization. It makes those who oppose it seem like nativists at odds with the new order of things.

It is a tribute to Caldwell that he has not oversold this story, that he does not see the Muslim immigrants conquering the old continent and running away with it. There is poignancy enough in what he tells us. It is neither wholly pretty, nor banal, this new tale of Islam in the West.

— Fouad Ajami teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift.”

Dubai boom ends as one cheque in four bounces

Up to one quarter of all the cheques written in Dubai may be bouncing as expatriate residents in the Gulf state struggle as the economy slows.

Blank cheques are used to underwrite financial arrangements, such as credit cards, in Dubai, guaranteeing future payments such as a rental agreement or bank loan.

This system arose in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which includes Dubai, because of the difficulty of doing credit checks on foreign workers. As many of these workers have now lost their jobs in the recession, the number of bounced cheques has risen.

The penalty for failing to honour a cheque is severe and some people have ended up in jail. Dubai’s police chief said this year that about one fifth of all prisoners in the emirate were there because of bounced cheques. Most of these are likely to be foreign workers.

Official figures for the first four months of this year showed that 544,196 cheques bounced — equivalent to 5.7 per cent. However, analysts believe that the total figure may be much higher once all private sector cheques are included.

As many as one in four cheques could be bouncing, according to Ghanem Nuseibeh, senior analyst at Political Capital, a consultancy firm. His estimate is based on data from local banks and figures for departing expats. Cheques are a fundamental part of the Dubai financial system — Mr Nuseibeh, for example, wrote 70 cheques to cover payments for his car.

RAK Bank, which operates in Dubai but is based in neighbouring Ras Al Khaimah, has said that 2,500 of its expatriate customers were leaving every month with unpaid credit card bills. These individuals were also likely to be leaving behind bouncing cheques for accommodation and cars.

During Dubai’s boom years, expatriates from around the world took advantage of cheap credit and a booming economy to live a luxury lifestyle. Easy credit arrangements meant that they could buy penthouses, motorboats and expensive cars with little or no scrutiny from lenders. When the economy slowed, many foreign workers lost their jobs or had their salaries cut and became unable to keep up with their payments.

Some abandoned their luxury cars at Dubai airport as they fled their debts and possible imprisonment. Some have been jailed while others have struggled to stay in Dubai.

“Many of the British expatriates in particular tried to hang on as long as possible to life there and sadly many have ended up writing bounced cheques, having their passports confiscated so they cannot leave the country and really living in appalling conditions in bedsits shared with maids, or even in cars parked in car parks,” Mr Nuseibeh said.

About 10 per cent of expatriates in the UAE have lost their jobs, according to a Yougov survey this month. This does not include the large number of construction and blue-collar workers who have also had their contracts cancelled.

The large number of redundancies has led many to forecast that the population of the UAE — and Dubai in particular — could shrink this year, partly because visas are revoked 30 days after leaving a job, prompting many foreign workers to leave.

UBS, the Swiss bank, has estimated that Dubai’s population of 1.5 million could fall by 8 per cent this year while Political Capital estimates the decline could be between 14 per cent and 28 per cent.

The UAE economy grew rapidly in recent years, driven by high oil prices and Dubai’s construction and tourism boom. Economic growth is now expected to fall to minus 1.4 per cent this year before recovering to 4.1 per cent next year.

Many of the large construction projects in Dubai have stopped as a result of the downturn. House prices and rents have reportedly fallen by about 40 per cent.

Engulfed in the downturn

• Dubai is one of the seven emirates and the most populous city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Its main revenues are from tourism, property and financial services Property and construction form a large part of the Gulf state’s economy. Revenues from petroleum and natural gas account for less than 6 per cent of Dubai’s $37 billion (£22.5 billion) economy. It is estimated that Dubai produces 240,000 barrels of oil a day as well as substantial quantities of gas from offshore fields.

• Dubai’s oil reserves are expected to be exhausted in 20 years Property values, construction and employment have all fallen as the economy has slowed As of February 2009, Dubai’s foreign debt was estimated at $100 billion, which means that each of its 250,000 UAE nationals are responsible for $400,000 in foreign debt