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Islam and the West? The dilemma of Young Ahmed

In January 2015, the infamous Harvey Weinstein wrote a column in Variety condemning the Islamist attack at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Calling the murderous rampage “a stunning blow against freedom of speech and freedom of joy,” Weinstein declared “this has become a fight, good versus evil.” Despite Weinstein’s known personal failings even at the time, his sentiment was broadly echoed by America’s liberal elite, with various Hollywood stars including George Clooney donning “Je suis Charlie” badges at the Golden Globe Awards on the same night Weinstein published his piece.

Weinstein’s call to action proved naïve, unsurprisingly lacking a moral foundation. As usual in liberal modernity, Weinstein’s appeal to “freedom” meant live-and-let-live, coexistence, pluralism, and tolerance. He concluded, “I hope we can all raise glasses…to toast with 300 million viewers around the world: ‘Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis Ahmed.’” But it doesn’t work that way. In Weinstein’s example, even the inclusion of alcohol as an agent of unity is comical, since Muslims are officially abstemious.

Weinstein, like most pre-BLM liberals, assumed the norm of a neutral public square where each can celebrate his or her unique religion and culture. Instead, the myth of neutrality has enslaved the West to the whims of iconoclasts and the devious devices of terrorists. Meanwhile, our elites continue to live hedonistically and without impunity, provided they parrot the talking points of the latest thing, except in the most egregious cases like that of Weinstein himself. (NB: Even in Weinstein’s case, he initially thought he could get the heat off his sex crimes by offering to fund women filmmakers.)

Anyway, the collapse not only of a common culture but of the basic conditions of human flourishing have hastened in Europe since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, with massive migration from the Islamic world and a steady rise in violence and anti-social behavior. Is now clear that Islam simply refuses to ever participate in the utopian dream of secularism. One is hard pressed to hear anyone say with a straight face these days that actually Islam is a religion of peace. As I write this, France is dealing with the latest entry to a depressingly long list of terrorist killings, the knifing murder of a school teacher in Arras by a young man motivated by Hamas’ gruesome attack on Israel.

Charlie, juif, and Ahmed will never get on together.

The 2019 film Young Ahmed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne from Belgium illustrates the crisis, with the eerie coincidences both of the same name used by Weinstein and of the crime in the film being similar to the aforementioned recent murder in Arras.

Young Ahmed is the story of an awkward thirteen-year-old boy living near Liège in Wallonia, where all of the Dardenne brothers’ gritty, realist tales are set. Ahmed’s absentee father is Arab-North African, and his working-class Belgian mother struggles to make ends meet on her own. Ahmed begins to idolize his dead cousin, a terrorist who left Belgium in pursuit of jihad, and he falls under the influence of a pathetic, reckless imam. Ahmed blames his mother for his father’s demise, disdaining her for drinking wine and dressing in western garb. Like most parents of teenagers, Ahmed’s mother is frustrated and worried. A month earlier, her little boy was playing video games with his brother; now he sneaks watching You Tube channels of charismatic jihadist influencers.

Ahmed becomes obsessed with the apostasy of his teacher, Madame Inès, who enrages the more conservative local Muslims not only because of her Jewish boyfriend, but because she uses singing as part of her instruction of children in the Arabic language. Although Inès has helped Ahmed overcome his dyslexia, he repays her by attacking her with a knife and is subsequently sent to a juvenile detention center. He declares himself a “true” Muslim, and wants to be smuggled off to Medina when his criminal case is resolved.

On the one hand, Young Ahmed is a standard coming-of-age tale that calls to mind Truffaut’s 400 Blows; but on the other hand, it is a unique statement about the sad state of the modern West. The Dardenne Brothers likely meant the film as an indictment of all religious extremism and as a dream letter to young Muslims to assimilate. In light of current events, however, it is hard to see past the intractable problem the film presents: Muslims in Europe can either be true to their faith or blend into a secular society that bears distinct marks of its former Christian identity. Not both. And the latter seems less likely all the time.

After being taken into custody, Ahmed’s jailers show him kindness, accommodating his demanding prayer schedule. A worldly Muslim case worker named Nasser even offers to discuss problematic hadiths with him. “We’ll exchange our views,” he says cordially to Ahmed. Then, as part of his rehabilitation, Ahmed is sent to work on a farm, where he and the proverbial farmer’s daughter, Louise, quickly take a shine to each other. The rural Belgians represent the best intentions of European liberals, whose generosity to immigrants is rooted in a distant memory of Christian charity. They don’t see – or perhaps willfully ignore – how their ancestors’ way of life is disappearing.

Ahmed, determined to finish what he started with Madame Inès, breaks out to find her after feeling ashamed of himself for his behavior with Louise. The film ends, as with most Dardenne movies, with aporia consistent with the duo’s realist philosophy. There is always hope, but the problems are never solved. Whether Belgium and Ahmed can co-exist remains an unanswered question for the directors and their audience. For my part, I think not.

As we see in Harvey Weinstein’s own situation, his assessment, “this has become a fight, good versus evil,” is not quite right. But nor is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s view complete: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.” Ahmed is motivated by personal hurt, but his actions are not only pubescent acting out. Even the most Pollyanna-ish apologists for Islamic integration in the West now recognize that the religion itself is at least partly to blame.

What is left of the once great Christian societies of Europe and her progeny is simply an impossibly poor fit for Islam. It is us or them. There are signs that Europe is waking up to this reality now. But is it too late?

We live in hope.


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