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

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.

Versions of this British story have been repeated across Europe, with national variations. Since World War II, Muslims have moved as never before to all corners of the continent: Turks to Germany, Moroccans to Spain and the Netherlands, Algerians to France, and a mixture from crisis zones around the globe to Scandinavia. There are now about 20 million Muslims in western Europe. As their numbers have increased, especially in recent years, so has opposition to their presence. Hostility has been heightened by a combination of headline events – Islamist bombings in Madrid, riots in France, the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Holland – and the predictable daily stresses of historically antagonistic cultures living side by side. According to a Pew survey in 2008, 52 per cent of Spaniards, 50 per cent of Germans, 46 per cent of Poles and 36 per cent of the French have negative attitudes toward Muslims.

Yet even with public concerns at a record high, it remains difficult for European elites to speak frankly about the problems of Islamic immigration. Weighed down by guilt over imperialism, fascism or the Holocaust, scared of being labelled racist (or of being racist), inspired by liberal optimism or simply worried about playing the demagogue, journalists, academics and politicians practise evasion or engage in wishful thinking, euphemisms or wink-and-nudge rhetoric like the British Tories’ “Are you thinking what we’re thinking.” It’s no surprise, then, that the best book yet on the subject of Muslims in Europe has been written not by a European but by an American.

Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is a sober and sobering account of Islamic immigration since World War II. The subtitle on the cover of the British edition1 poses the book’s core question: Can Europe be the same with different people in it? Its answer is an emphatic no. Caldwell, a journalist for the Financial Times, the Weekly Standard and the New York Times Magazine, tackles this complex and emotionally charged subject with an impressive command of numbers and historical detail, sharp and subtle argumentation and a nose for cant.

He also writes with a level head. This is no diatribe against Muslims. As a social conservative Caldwell agrees with Muslims on much, especially the importance of strong families and the tendency for sexual liberation to verge on sleaze. He says about the risks of a permissive society, “Because it is attentive to such pitfalls, Islam – especially in its preachiest and most conservative form – can appear like a real enrichment, and not just to Muslims.” He has no disagreement with scholars who write about Islam’s great historical achievements, nor does he think we should impose Western ways on dominantly Islamic countries. As its title indicates, evoking Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, this is a book written in the spirit of Burke, respectful of diversity as long as cultures are left to evolve slowly in their own space. In Caldwell’s view, Islam is fine in its place, but its place is not Europe.

The book is implicitly a lament for old, conservative Europe, rich in tradition and self-confidence, a place that would have resisted the cultural challenge of Islam without hesitation. The new Europe, in Caldwell’s view, is weak, excessively liberal and relativistic, and easy pickings for strong and confident immigrants anchored in a robust and rival culture. Europe was once the unshakeable bastion of Western civilization; now it is nervous, doddering and apologetic. Caldwell comes from the more confident climes of the United States and, as he looks at Europe, he writes in the tone of a man baffled that a respected friend has become a chump.

Caldwell begins with the mystery of why European elites have blithely allowed in so many Muslims against the wishes of the general population, and with so little to recommend the policy. He considers and dismantles the usual economic arguments: that postwar Europe needed immigrants to staff its factories and that today’s Europe desperately requires immigrants to balance its low birth rates and pay for the future of the welfare state. He shows that Europe’s postwar labour shortage was mild and short. And he notes that replicating Europe’s current age structure and support ratio would actually require impossible levels of immigration over the next 40 years, another 701 million to a continent that currently has 500 million people. Similarly, he shows that the benefits of immigration for Europe’s GDP are at best negligible, and that in many places immigrants are a serious drain. In Germany, for example, the number of foreign residents rose from 3 million to 7.5 million between 1971 and 2000, but the number of employed foreign residents stayed exactly the same, at 2 million. In France, he notes, two thirds of imams live on welfare. In economic terms, he concludes, immigration has been and remains a bust.

According to Caldwell, Europeans opened the door to immigrants in a fit of absence of mind and have been frightened of closing them ever since for fear of conjuring up the ghosts of violent nationalism and racism. Elites would rather lecture natives on accommodating Muslims than accommodate natives by cutting immigration. The result has been a cultural transformation, especially in major European cities. Driven mainly by Islamic immigration, a fifth of children in Copenhagen, a third of children in Paris, and half of children in London are born to foreign mothers. “Mohammed” is the most popular name for newborn boys in London, Birmingham, Oslo, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Brussels. In Britain, the population of Muslims is growing ten times as fast as the rest of the population.

This might be unproblematic or at least manageable if a Muslim moving to Stockholm or Glasgow was like an Australian moving to Manchester or a Mexican to Chicago. But Caldwell writes that Muslims don’t fit easily into existing cultural niches, hold dramatically different social assumptions and in many cases are overtly antagonistic to their host cultures. (Caldwell is eloquent on why Hispanics fit into the United States more easily than Muslims fit into Europe, arguing that Americans would be having the same problems as Europe if they faced comparable Islamic immigration. Presumably he would say the same about Canada.) As Caldwell notes, 46 per cent of German Muslims think German law is incompatible with Islam, and in Britain 40 per cent of Muslims want shari‘a in Islamic neighbourhoods. Other polls back Caldwell’s views. For example, 32 per cent of British Muslims say Western culture is decadent and corrupt. In a Gallup poll earlier this year, not one of 500 British Muslims contacted said homosexual acts are morally permissible – the poll was widely reported as “zero tolerance” for homosexuality. (The same poll, though, found that 35 per cent of French Muslims thought homosexual acts were permissible.)

It was at first assumed that such radical views among immigrants to Europe would disappear as newcomers acclimatized, lost touch with their old countries and raised children who would fit in more easily. But against expectations and usual patterns, immigrants are not blending in and children of the first generation are markedly more radical and separatist than their parents. Young Muslims are more likely to want shari‘a, for instance, and are less likely to feel loyal to the new country. According to one poll, alarming in substance as well as its finding of growing radicalism among the young, nearly a third of 16- to 24-year-old British Muslims say that converts to other religions should be executed, while “only” a fifth of those over 55 support execution.

What’s happening is that many Muslims in Britain actively seek to separate themselves from the surrounding culture (which surly natives make all too easy), stay in close touch with their old cultures through the Internet and satellite TV, decline to learn English and overwhelmingly push their children to marry people from back home. Their communities, moreover, receive considerable money from oil states to build cultural centres, mosques and outreach programs. Caldwell patiently builds a picture of Islamic communities across Europe recreating the dynamics of a clash of civilizations within rather than between countries. In a gloomy closing chapter, he writes that the clash is a battle that Europe is losing: “Europe finds itself in a battle for the allegiance of its newcomers. For now, Islam is the stronger party in that contest, in an obvious demographic way and in a less obvious philosophical way … When an insecure, malleable, and relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by a common doctrine it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.”

Caldwell’s book represents the state of the art on its subject. It has been reviewed widely and almost entirely positively, even where one wouldn’t expect it – in the Guardian, for example, and by the Islamic scholar Fouad Ajami in the New York Times. But several reviewers, I think rightly, have questioned the book’s despair. Caldwell is right to worry, but there may be more reasons for hope than he thinks.

Caldwell underestimates the strength of liberalism, for one. It is not simply a doctrine of permissiveness and relativism, but rests on a deeply moral and not always flexible vision of individual freedom and the good life. Liberalism has teeth. As the late Yale scholar Joseph Hamburger argued, John Stuart Mill was as much concerned with control as with liberty, and his liberal heirs are certainly not advocates of “anything goes.”

European liberals may have been slow in recognizing that Islam poses challenges, but since 9/11 they are no longer complacent. Indeed, Caldwell almost admits as much when he writes of growing concern that “the first European generations in 1,300 years that did not see Islam as a threat also turned out to be the last.” Europeans wouldn’t sit idly by if religious activists actively sought to undo social and legal gains for women and gays, nor would they shrug off the execution of apostates with relativistic indifference, should such killings occur. (It is perhaps worrying, though, that the British left has greeted the spread of shari‘a councils – which mainly deal with family law – with relative silence, as the councils are systemically biased against women. A proposal to establish such councils in Ontario was of course defeated, largely thanks to a campaign by liberal Muslims).

It’s also the case that immigration is likely to be cut. Conservatives are on the rebound in much of Europe, and typically support immigration reform – in part for the unfortunate reason that they are under pressure from a resurgent far right. Britain’s Conservatives, for example, plan to put an annual quota on immigration from outside the EU, and the party looks certain to take power in 2010.

Such cuts notwithstanding, it may be the case that the high birth rates in Islamic communities will give Muslims the demographic power to challenge even determined liberals in the future. But in the meantime Islamic liberals have been emboldened in many parts of Europe, often with the active help of governments, and they have had some successes. Mosques that were once hotbeds of radicalism – like London’s notorious Finsbury Park Mosque, where prayers used to be followed by AK-47 training – have become moderate under intense pressure. And older Muslims, frustrated by public perceptions of their religion and anxious about the increasingly radical young, have started to work much harder to steer youth away from extremism. Even the Guardian, which once regularly ran columns by extremist Muslims from groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir on its website, has replaced many of the old-guard Islamist writers with moderates.

Caldwell’s pessimism also implicitly rests on the idea that dominantly Islamic countries are only going to get more militant and religious. That might be true in some places – Egypt, for example, or Sudan. But in many places, Iran and Pakistan most obviously, religious militants are increasingly unpopular, and in almost all Islamic countries support for Al Qaeda has been plummeting as bombs have killed locals instead of Americans or Europeans. Moderation in Islamic countries would almost certainly be followed by moderation among European Muslims.

Despite Caldwell’s gloom, then, there are grounds for optimism. Indeed, the considerable popular and critical success of his excellent book is itself a reason to be cheerful, as is its evident status as a must-read in policy circles. But few readers will go away from the book with any illusions that Europe and its Islamic minorities have an easy few decades ahead.

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