Reviewed by Garth Stevenson
Doug Saunders, the European bureau chief of the Toronto Globe and Mail, has written an interesting book with the intention of dispelling some of the anxiety about Muslims and their religion that has flourished in North America and Europe, particularly since September 11, 2001. The book is divided into four chapters, each of which is divided into subchapters designated by Roman numerals, and is brief enough to be read in three or four hours. Saunders has previously written a book entitled Arrival City, which deals with the experience of migrants from rural areas who settle in large cities throughout the world, and which is referred to occasionally in the present work.
Islamophobia is a subject that can be approached from different points of view. In various forms it has existed in the Western world at least since 1453, when the expanding Ottoman empire captured the Greek city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and thus put an end to the Byzantine empire. In its modern form it is closely associated with more recent events such as the wars between Israel and its Muslim neighbours, the Iranian revolution of 1979, and of course the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. While these events have kept Islam in the news, large numbers of Muslims have migrated from Asia and Africa to Europe and North America, part of the general mass migration of people from poor countries to richer countries where they can hope to achieve a higher standard of living for themselves and their children.
Saunders’s first chapter, entitled “Popular Fiction,” describes some of the myths and misunderstandings about Muslims that have flourished in the Western world, as represented by an extensive anti-Muslim literature of varying quality, by certain European and American politicians, and also by criminal acts like that of the Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Brievek, whose senseless murder of 77 other Norwegians in 2011 was ostensibly a protest against “multiculturalism.” This chapter provides a useful overview of the anti-Muslim backlash in both its extreme and relatively moderate manifestations. It is unfortunate, however, that Saunders chose to stigmatize two very distinguished scholars, Niall Ferguson and Martin Gilbert, neither of whom has devoted much of his scholarly career to the study of Islam, as “conservative popular historians.” The word conservative has become more an epithet than a useful description of anyone’s political beliefs, and calling someone a “popular historian” is a subtle way of implying that he doesn’t do original research, which is grossly unfair to both Ferguson and Gilbert.
The second chapter, entitled “The Facts,” accounts for nearly half of the book’s pages and is by far the most interesting and important. With facts and figures Saunders convincingly demolishes 13 myths that have contributed to Islamophobia. He demonstrates that Muslims are not going to become a majority of Europe’s population in any foreseeable future; that most Muslim immigrants, like most immigrants in general, want to integrate with their new country of residence; that they are not trying to impose their own religion on the rest of us; and that only a very small minority are religious fundamentalists, extremists or terrorists.
The third chapter, entitled “We’ve Been Here Before,” was of particular interest to this reviewer but proved to be disappointing. Saunders suggests, as I do in my forthcoming book, that parallels can be drawn between anti-Muslim prejudices today and the anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudices that flourished earlier. However, his knowledge of the relevant history is sketchy and his treatment of the subject is superficial. More than four of his eleven and a half pages on anti-Catholicism are devoted to a now-forgotten book called American Freedom and Catholic Power, which appeared in 1949 (a time when there was very little immigration into the United States) and in a revised edition nine years later.
Astonishingly, Saunders fails to mention the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant “Know-Nothing” party, which was formed a century earlier in response to the massive Irish immigration of the 1840s. At their peak the Know-Nothings held 75 seats in the U.S. Congress and controlled the legislatures of half a dozen states. Even before that party existed, and after it disappeared, there were many anti-Catholic riots and acts of violence in the 19th-century United States. Saunders also fails to mention the U.S. presidential election of 1928, in which anti-Catholicism doomed the chances of the Democratic candidate, Al Smith. He even fails to mention the anti-Catholic Orange order, which played such an influential part in 19th-century Canadian politics and still remains an important political force in northern Ireland. On the other hand he cites as evidence of anti-Catholicism a bureaucratic memo about Italian immigrants written by a French Canadian Catholic public servant in the 1950s. The section on anti-Semitism is even briefer (ten pages) and equally superficial, and erroneously suggests that Prussia expelled its Jews in 1885. In fact it expelled 32,000 illegal immigrants, most of whom were Polish Catholics. Jews remained very influential in Prussian life until the Nazis took power in 1933.
The last section of Saunders’ book is called “What We Ought to Worry About” and makes a number of useful suggestions for helping Muslims integrate into North American and European societies. It also provides a sensible reminder that most Muslims think of themselves primarily in terms of their ethnic origin or nationality and that the notion of “Muslims” as a homogeneous category is a Western invention. Like Christians, Muslims include many ethnic groups, a variety of different sects and schools of thought, and great variations in the extent of their religious faith and observance.
Despite its faults this book is well worth reading. Any book that attacks prejudices and encourages different peoples to live harmoniously as neighbours and to settle their differences without violence should be welcomed in these troubled times. In particular, observant Christians, Muslims and Jews should recognize the close kinship among their respective religions, as even George W. Bush pointed out on more than one occasion. Saunders, who is not religious, does not emphasize this fact but it is worth remembering nonetheless.