History rewritten

Bat Ye’or’s new book suggests the existence of a powerfulEuropean-Arab axis of hatred aimed at Israel. Her claims, writes Sholto Byrnes, are as ludicrous as they are overstated.

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Europe, Globalization, and the Coming Universal Caliphate
Bat Ye'or
Farleigh Dickinson University Press

Meet Bat Ye'or. According to her, "Muslims in general deny the Shoah [Holocaust] and make Hitler their super hero". She thinks the High Level Group of the United Nations' Alliance of Civilisations set up by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, would "doubtless" be in favour of "the rehabilitation of Nazism". The European Union has orchestrated a "brutal and totalitarian campaign of hatred against Israel", and has at last succeeded in turning even the US against the Jewish state (she can't have heard US President Barack Obama's extraordinary ode to Israel in New York last month). EU leaders have secretly been plotting to "Arabise" and "Islamise" their continent for decades. Oh, and they have also been "concocting transnational structures that tomorrow will bring a worldwide caliphate to power". "It is to this end that the blind termites in the chancelleries of Europe and America are today working so assiduously," she writes. Indeed, this will be the "crowning achievement of almost a century of the Palestine-Nazi alliance, reminding us of the time when Christians followed Jews into the extermination camps".

It would be tempting to dismiss these outrageous statements as the ravings of a deranged mind. But although her name is unknown to the wider world, Bat Ye'or's work has had tremendous impact on those who wield considerable influence in North America and Europe, especially at certain upper echelons of the media and politics. She has been praised by the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, the American think-tank director and author Daniel Pipes, and the British columnist Melanie Phillips. Of her last book, Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, the US critic Bruce Bawer wrote: "It's hard to overstate [its] importance ... for anyone seriously interested in understanding Europe's current predicament and its probable fate". Pipes and Phillips are both right-wing polemicists, a caveat that does not undermine the extent and reach of their readership. But perhaps her most notable and credible cheerleader in recent years has been the prize-winning Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson. "No writer has done more than Bat Ye'or to draw attention to the menacing character of Islamic extremism," he says. "Future historians will one day regard her coinage of the term 'Eurabia' as prophetic. Those who wish to live in a free society must be eternally vigilant. Bat Ye'or's vigilance is unrivalled."

Her vigilance has come to the attentions of others, too. While none of the above can be held responsible for his actions, one man who took Bat Ye'or's writings seriously turned not to chilling words but to fatal action - Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people in a bombing and shooting rampage in Norway last July, and whose manifesto cited her conclusions approvingly numerous times.

So who is she? Gisele Littman, to use her real name, is an Egyptian-born Jew whose long-term home is in Geneva. Writing mainly in French, she made her name in 1980 with The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam and expanded on her thesis that it was a myth that non-Muslims were treated benignly under Islamic empires, such as that of Andalusia in Spain and that of the Ottomans, a decade later in The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam:From Jihad to Dhimmitude and then in 2002's Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilisations Collide. She has never held an academic position, but was lent the mark of intellectual respectability when the Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, an eminent historian of Islam (and the man who came up with the term "clash of civilisations") began referring to her work in his own.

Her books thus possess a scholarly veneer, which has led many on the forums of the internet where those who obsess about the perceived threat of Islam gather to quote her words as though they were of unimpeachable authority. Given the handful of her sentences I have listed at the beginning of this review, it is not hard to imagine how inflamed the subsequent discussions are.

And this is despite the stream of howlers and ludicrous overstatements that litter her prose. In this new book Haj Amin al-Husseini is described as the founder of Hamas, even though the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had been dead 13 years by the time that organisation came into existence in 1987. Jerusalem itself, we are told, is not mentioned in any biographies of Muhammad, which may come as a surprise to readers of, for instance, Karen Armstrong's excellent 1992 Life of the Prophet. Just before the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, says Bat Ye'or, "massive self-flagellating marches honouring two criminals, Arafat and Saddam Hussein, took place in European capitals".

As one of the million who attended the protest in London's Hyde Park, I can put her straight on that: averting an invasion that led to tens of thousands of deaths was our hope. The notion that anyone was there to pay homage to Saddam is as absurd as it is offensive. Even more bizarre is her startling assertion that Obama's first name is Hussein, rather than Barack, which is a claim even the president's most Islamophobic critics on the American right have not had the audacity to make.

At the heart of her latest publication is a vast conspiracy theory: that from 1973 onwards, the leaders of the European Economic Community (as the EU was then called) concluded agreements with the Arab League that led to a "semi-official, quasi-secret policy ... aiming at the establishment of a Euro-Arab-fused Mediterranean civilisation (Eurabia) through a programme of coordinated measures ... It generated a fundamentally Judaeophobic culture, punctuated by anti-Jewish attacks, perpetrated within Europe by Palestinian terrorists under the protection of European police forces and secret services. This campaign, focused on hatred of Israel, became particularly virulent under the European Commission presidency of Romano Prodi and Chris Patten, then European Union Commissioner for external affairs."

It is hard to see what could possibly justify levelling these charges, let alone against two such impeccably moderate politicians as Prodi and Patten. But that, of course, just goes to show how cunning and how successfully clandestine the conspiracy has been.

Part of it, says Bat Ye'or, is that European MPs, and particularly those members of the Parliamentary Association for Euro-Arab Co-operation - whom she describes as "loyal agents" of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference - have created their own Trojan Horse in multiculturalism.

The merits and pitfalls of that particular theory have long been debated, but most have agreed that multiculturalism is about trying not to place one particular culture or custom above another, and thus allowing diversity, both within the indigenous population and immigrant communities, to flourish. To Bat Ye'or, however, it means the acquiescence of European leaders in "minimising" and "erasing" their Judaeo-Christian history, dissolving the continent's culture into "a Mediterranean magma", and affirming not only that Islam is "part of Europe" - which it most obviously is, and historically has been - but is also "the root of European civilisation". For good measure, she also thinks the EU is keen on establishing Sharia "whenever possible".

Well, they do say the Swiss can be rather inward-looking, but one's instant reaction to this preposterous bilge is to ask: just where has she been living for the last few years? This is a continent now so prejudiced and scared about Muslim women covering their faces that France and Belgium have both passed laws banning the wearing of the burqa or niqab, while the Netherlands and Italy have plans to do so. The number of women thought to have been affected by this ruling in France is estimated at between several hundred and two thousand. They hardly constitute a mortal threat to the French traditions of laicism and secularism, one would have thought. But in the midst of potentialy the worst global recession since the 1930s, putting this law on the statute books was clearly a priority.

Meanwhile, far right parties pandering even more to fears of Islam have been on the rise across Europe and have tasted power in coalitions in some countries. Switzerland itself is a part of this trend, holding a referendum in 2009 on whether the construction of minarets should be banned. There were only four in the whole country, but a majority voted for the ban - earning condemnation from the Vatican. Perhaps Pope Benedict is a part of this secret plot too?

It would be too low and easy a blow to refer to the author as "batty". It would also be too kindly to use a term that often denotes eccentricity. Bat Ye'or is far more dangerous than that.

Her theories may seem outlandish, but too many serious people take them seriously. To turn Professor Ferguson's summation on itself: those who wish to live in a society free from unwarranted prejudice must be eternally vigilant. And that vigilance should certainly be applied to the strange, spiteful but influential books of Bat Ye'or.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.