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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europe's Conflict of Fundamentalist Ideals

What is it like to be a bat?" asked philosopher Thomas Nagel in a 1974 essay. The answer: We humans can't know as long as we aren't bats ourselves. I am a member of another species that has engendered almost as much speculation as the light-shy mammals, the "Enlightenment fundamentalist," and can offer insight into what it means to be one.

It can't be said with any certainty who gave our species that name. It was probably Professor Timothy Garton Ash, whose main profession is that of journalist/historian. The credit for being the first to describe one of us publicly as a "fundamentalist," however, goes to Mohammed Bouyeri. He wrote: "I know for sure that you, oh Hirsi Ali, will go down! I know for sure that you, oh unbelieving fundamentalist, will go down!"

Bouyeri's main profession is not historian, but Muslim radical, so his words did not premier in the New York Review of Books, as Ash's did last October, but in a letter. The letter was not sent by regular mail, but hand delivered, so to speak, when he pinned it to Theo van Gogh's chest after first shooting the filmmaker and then cutting his throat on a street in Amsterdam in late 2004. This fact might have led a member of the species "Oxford professor" to be a bit more careful in his choice of words.

I can reveal to you the first characteristic of our fundamentalists: We're a lot less trigger-happy than the Islamist variety. Our discoverer, though, insists that we're as closely related as the black wildebeest is to the blue wildebeest: "For secular Europeans to demand that Muslims adopt their faith -- secular humanism -- would be almost as intolerant as the Islamist jihadist demand that we should adopt theirs," Ash wrote. Of course, he anticipated our objections. "But, the Enlightenment fundamentalist will protest, our faith is based on reason! Well, they reply, ours is based on truth!"

And so we look really silly, head down, antlers to antlers, as hopelessly entangled as two gnus on the African savannah. But Ash knows how we can easily get out of the entanglement. His advice: Give up our "faith" and strike a deal with Islamists or, as he put it: "We have to decide what is essential in our European way of life and what is negotiable." And so I know at last what we should call the species to which Ash belongs: "Enlightenment negotiator."

He has already revealed what he's prepared to negotiate away: We old Europeans have no say over whether Muslims in Europe force their women to wear the veil. And if we exercise gentlemanly restraint, the "Islamist jihadist" will immediately be willing in return to accommodate us on the issue of freedom of speech -- about which the professor is less willing to negotiate.

I will spare Ash the question whether his detached view of the issue of forced veiling has anything to do with the fact that no Islamic fundamentalist would ever think of requiring male Oxford professors to wear such a garment.

The Enlightenment negotiator's main argument against us is this: It is a fact that there are more and more Muslims in Europe. So we will have to take on some of their values, whether or not they accord with ours. In other words, the fusion trend that has conquered Western, urban cuisine should be expanded to the field of ethics. None of us would deny that it is a culinary gain to eat falafel instead of sausage with our baked beans in the morning. But not even the most talented fusion cook has been able to explain how the belief in individual freedom, reason and conscience is to fuse with the belief that a person is nothing if he does not submit to Allah.

Now, I would not like to accuse the Enlightenment negotiator of being unfrightened by the idea of possibly living one day in an Islamic theocracy. The negotiator gets his detachment mainly from the hope that it won't be that bad. Ian Buruma, author of clearheaded works such as "Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies," and until recently himself a member of our species, recently declared that he doesn't consider radical Islam to be a totalitarian threat, at least not for Europe. The opposite view would have to assume that the next generation of immigrants will be as badly integrated as the previous one, and, Buruma said: "We can only hope this won't be the case."

We can only hope? Admittedly, we reveal here another characteristic of our species: We are not very good at the discipline of hoping. We're better at making clear demands to ensure that, one day, hope won't be the only thing we have left. This brings us to the delicate question of what means we are willing to use to lend force to the demands of the Enlightenment.

Many of us are both admirers and masters of verbal jousting, but none of us has any hope that words alone can be sufficient weapons in every situation. Or, as our top alpha female, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, describes it: "There is a pacifist ideology that violence should never be used in any circumstances, and so we should talk and talk and talk. Even when your opponent tells you, 'I don't want to talk to you, I want to destroy you,' the reaction is, 'Please, let's talk about the fact that you want to destroy me.'"

Yes, in some circumstances, we Enlightenment fundamentalists do call for the use of force. Particularly when the opponent has long since left the realm of discourse and is deep into the realm of violence. But never fear: Even if we support a ban on headscarves in public educational institutions, none of us wants to see heads roll. Robespierre is not part of our family tree.

I've now come to the point where I can impart to you, as promised, a glimpse of our feelings and thoughts: We see that Europe is well on its way to maneuvering itself once again into a mess. The laboriously erected dams of civilization could once again be breached. And we are convinced that there is only one way to prevent this: by unmistakably and unyieldingly supporting the values of the Enlightenment and requiring everyone who lives on the European continent to adhere to them. As far as I'm concerned, we can call this "fundamentalist."

There are rumors that we as a species are no longer native to Europe. Thus Buruma, referring to the trans-Atlantic move by our alpha female, said: "I think Ayaan Hirsi Ali belongs to America. Also because of her own personality. She is very much a sort of pull yourself up by your bootstraps and reliance on your talents and energy and so on. And she's a bit like Margaret Thatcher, actually, in the sense that both of them have very limited tolerance for people who are in similar circumstances who don't have the ways or the intelligence or the push to make it themselves."

Margaret Thatcher: a closet American? This is how the liberal, paternalist shepherd speaks, driven by the fear that his weak sheep will collapse under the "burdens of civilization." Is our Ayaan viewed so distrustfully because her biography terrifically proves the opposite? A little Somali girl, whose community had planned for her a career as a completely veiled, son-producing factory, managed to become a proud, courageous, very headstrong individual. Certainly, not everyone has the capacity to become a Hirsi Ali. But whom does it help if you convince people not to even try to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps"?

Maybe Buruma is right and the belief in the individual, that a person can develop, can work on himself, can learn to be independent, is no longer European, but American. Maybe we Enlightenment fundamentalists in Europe really are a dying breed. But we still exist.

Thea Dorn is a writer and television host in Germany. This essay was translated from German and published by The Wall Street Journal.