Whether they admit it or not, all foreign correspondents deal in comparisons, and western reporters in the Islamic world more than most. How does Turkey compare to Norway in the fields of human rights and poverty eradication? Can the Muslim Brotherhood be compared to Germany’s Christian Democrats, is Tehran filthier than Bern and what does the Spanish Inquisition reveal to us about the persecution of Shias by Islamic State? For much of the 1990s and 2000s, when I was a journalist in the Middle East, I traded in such equivalences, and often the sagest of the western experts I consulted (academics, ambassadors, country experts at the World Bank) would conclude their analysis by flourishing an ur-comparison which in turn opened up a vista of further, derived comparisons. ‘Why do you think Islam never experienced an Enlightenment?’ they would ask. ‘Isn’t that one of the most necessary questions of our time?’
It has been asked with rising shrillness ever since the jihad landed on European shores earlier this decade. According to Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, writing in Le Monde shortly after the attacks on Paris in January 2015, the answer is the kind of Islam that is in tune with the Enlightenment and sharply delineated from jihadism. ‘What a boost that would be for an enlightened Islam,’ he wrote, ‘what an example (while awaiting a genuine reform of Islam), and what a beacon!’
The imputation of Védrine and many other commentators before and after him is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from an indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.