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Clash of civilizations in Europe

Is Europe losing the battle, or are there grounds for hope?

by Ian Malcolm

Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West. New York: Doubleday, 2009. 422 pp.

In the 2005 British election, the Conservatives ran under the slogan, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” They set the slogan in ads next to what they hoped would pass for blunt assertions of common sense: “Put more police on the street and they’ll catch more criminals” or “What’s wrong with a little discipline in schools?” The most controversial ad proclaimed, “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Labour, of course, attacked the ad as racist. More problematically from the Tories’ perspective, the ad failed to sway voters. The Conservatives fell to Labour for a record third time in a row.

Four years later, however, the two parties are clambering over each other to keep up with a public that now wants nothing more than cuts to immigration. The issue regularly tops polls of public concerns, with even 70 per cent of Labour supporters wanting sharp cuts. The dramatic change is a reaction to an unprecedented surge of immigrants and an acompanying crisis of faith in multiculturalism.

The numbers are by any measure extraordinary. In 2004, on the eve of the European Union’s expansion to the east, the British government predicted that when eastern Europeans were free to move around the continent, as many as 13,000 might move to the U.K. each year. More than a million have registered to work in the country since (though not all have stayed). In the same period, the country’s Islamic population has grown by about 550,000 to 2.4 million, driven by a combination of soaring immigration from Pakistan and Bangladesh and exceptionally high birth rates.

As the numbers have rocketed, so has anxiety about the effects on British culture. Here, eastern Europeans are not the main concern. Whatever natives might feel about continentals competing for British jobs, few feel culturally threatened by the new stock figure of “the Polish plumber” or by rising attendance in Catholic churches. (There are even stories of marks in English classes improving in some neighbourhoods where Polish families have settled.) Concerns about culture, rather, focus squarely on Muslims.

Immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh were not warmly welcomed when they first came to Britain in the 1950s, but they were not less popular than other immigrants, nor was their religion singled out as a problem. The worldwide rise of Islamic radicalism in the past 30 years, in Britain as in other places, began to change that. Then came September 11 and, more important, the London bombings of July 2005. Muslims and Islam were uncomfortably in the spotlight. Fears about terrorism have been stoked since by failed or foiled plots to blow up, among other targets, the Houses of Parliament, restaurants, nightclubs, airports, malls and flights to the United States and Canada. These fears have been accompanied by quieter worries about endless, if sometimes exaggerated, stories of ghettoization, forced marriages, honour killings, anti-Semitism, homophobia, pressure to veil, crime and demands to import shari‘a, or Islamic law. After decades of resenting but putting up with immigration, Britons are now hostile, and to no immigrants more than Muslims.

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About the Author

Ian Malcolm
Ian Malcolm is Senior Publishing Editor (humanities) with the European office of Princeton University Press in Woodstock, England.


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