Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.
New York: Penguin, 2018. 304 pages.

Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale University, is one of the chastened “cosmopolitans” whose political loyalties are on the centre-left and who are trying to explain why the centre-left is in retreat in much of Europe and North America. Among the most prominent in this “tribe” are Paul Collier (Exodus: How Migration is Changing our World), David Goodhart (The Road to Somewhere), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), Thomas Piketty (Capital and Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right), and Joan Williams (White Working Class).1 Like the others, Chua’s book is critical of conventional wisdom on the left. Again like the others, this is a book attempting to reach a wide audience beyond academia.

Chua and her colleagues share two core ideas. The first is a critique of centre-left governments of the last quarter century – think Clinton and Blair – that did not respond adequately to rising income inequality. These governments refused to acknowledge that globalism, the rise of China as the world’s leading manufacturing country and large-scale low-skill immigration are part of the explanation for growing inequality. The inhabitants of multicultural cities like Toronto, New York and London have benefited from these trends, but elsewhere many “tribes” within high-income countries have not. Their economic stagnation became more acute in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, which itself is attributable in part to centre-left governments too accommodating of financial institutions.

The second core idea is that the left in power, however well intentioned, has contributed to its electoral disarray through the manner in which it has championed selected disadvantaged minorities at the cost of excessive denigration of national majorities. The minorities championed include immigrants fleeing badly governed violent states in Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa; indigenous groups in “settler” societies from Oceania to Canada; and – albeit not a minority – women. An inherent tendency of identity politics as practised by the left is to ignore dysfunctional internal dynamics within minority groups – recall the reluctance of many on the left to grapple with Islamic extremism – and to explain these groups’ (often substantial) economic disadvantage as a consequence of majority discrimination.

Chua is primarily interested in the second of these core ideas, the implications of identity politics:

“While many in our multicultural cities may well celebrate the “browning of America” as a welcome step away from “white supremacy”, it’s safe to say that large numbers of American whites are more anxious about this phenomenon, whether they admit it or not. Tellingly, a 2011 study showed that more than half of white Americans believe that “whites have replaced blacks as the ‘primary victims of discrimination.” Meanwhile, … a recent survey found that 43 percent of black Americans are skeptical that America will ever make the changes necessary to give blacks equal rights.”

Her thesis is the ubiquitous presence of “political tribes” whose members define themselves by some combination of religion, language, ethnicity and social class. The above passage is an introduction to her conclusion that the left’s use of identity politics has contributed to the emergence of a white American tribe. The key criteria that define a political tribe, whatever they are, will also serve to define members of other tribes. If belief in a particular religion is a criterion, those who subscribe to another religion or another sect of the same religion will usually define themselves as a separate tribe. With only rare exceptions, members of one tribe mistrust members of other tribes.

Five of eight chapters are devoted to case studies intended to illustrate how ideological faith in liberal democracy among the American elite led to failure. One of these chapters deals with Vietnam, three others discuss the more recent cases of Afghanistan, Iraq and Venezuela, and a fifth chapter explores the tribal appeal of jihad among young Muslim men. Only her last two chapters treat politics in America, where she does not add much to what others have said in discussing American political polarization.

Unlike post–World War II American elites, she notes, leaders of the most successful colonial powers, Britain and France, studied anthropology and history. They understood the role of political tribes and, by mediating among them, succeeded with minimum armed force in governing much of the world over the last 300 years. In the 20th century, imperialism went out of style, replaced by two competing ideologies: communism, some version of which was endorsed by the radical left, and liberal democracy. By the last quarter of the 20th century, the centre-left idealized peaceful social democratic states that combined democracy, capitalism and generous social programs. As a utopian ideology, communism collapsed with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Three decades later, Chua argues, liberal democracy is in danger of collapsing too. Why? American leaders, the leading champions of liberal democracy, have allowed ideological blinkers to block appreciation of the fundamental human tendency to form competing political tribes based on ethnic differences. For a nation-state to survive, its governing elites must manage the inevitable conflicts arising from domestic political tribes. American liberal elites have seemingly lost this pragmatic requirement of governing.

Intervention in Vietnam led to the worst military defeat in America’s history. Defeat was inevitable, she argues, because Americans analyzed the country in ideological terms, as a theatre for playing out the conflict between communism and liberal democratic capitalism. Before being a communist, Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, a leader able to articulate the millennium-long hostility of ethnic Vietnamese to Chinese imperialism. This much is conventional historical explanation for America’s defeat.

Chua adds a second dimension. Like the French before them, the Americans identified closely with the Hoa, the Chinese living in Vietnam. By the mid-20th century under French rule, the Hoa had become a “market-dominant minority tribe” that controlled much of the Vietnamese economy and had predictably generated deep hostility among ethnic Vietnamese. After defeating the Americans in 1975, the victors undertook aggressive ethnic cleaning. Little commented in America, five of six Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s were of Chinese origin.

Chua draws a parallel conclusion in her Venezuela chapter. In Vietnam the Hoa were a market-dominant minority. In Venezuela, she describes a dominant minority that controls most of the economy and has defined itself in terms of its European origins and “white” features. “From a tribal politics point of view,” she concludes, “Chávez’s rise is simple to explain. He was a product of a battle between Venezuela’s dominant ‘white’ minority and its long-degraded, poorer, less educated, darker-skinned indigenous- and African-blooded masses.”

That market-dominant minorities often generate a dynamic of majority hostility and subsequent backlash is the theme of her 2003 book World on Fire in which she described the politics of market-dominant versus majority tribes. It is an ad hominem observation, but Chua probably thought about this dynamic initially in the context of her family history. Her mother, born in China, emigrated when very young to the Philippines. Her father’s family belonged to the Chinese diaspora that dominated the Philippine economy. After World War II her parents emigrated to the United States, where she was born.

In Afghanistan, both the Russians, who invaded in 1979 and left in disarray a decade later, and the Americans, who invaded in 2001 and are still embroiled, suffered from ideological blinkers. Both seriously underestimated the centrality of multiple ethnically defined tribal loyalties among Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pashtuns, the last being the most populous and important but not dominant in Kabul. At the height of the Raj, in 1893, the British had imposed the Durand Line as the western border of British India; post-1947, it became Pakistan’s western border. The line split Pashtuns between two countries – more Pashtuns live in Pakistan than Afghanistan – and Pashtun leaders have never considered the border legitimate.

With the departure of the Russians, Afghanistan descended into the anarchy of competing warlords. As leader of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar captured Kabul and brought a brutal Islamist version of political stability to much of Afghanistan. Post-2001, Americans naively believed that their ideological commitment to democracy would enable Afghanistan to emerge from Communism and Pashtun Islamist fundamentalism and evolve into a modern society. Seventeen years after the American invasion, Afghanistan remains politically unstable, its future – and that of Pakistan – highly uncertain.

In the case of Afghanistan, Chua is too harsh on the Americans. The question to put to her is: What would she have done post-9/11 given the rise of Islamic sectarianism among Sunni Muslims across central Asia? The 2002 Loya Jirga chose Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, as president. He tried but failed to stabilize the country, and the Taliban regrouped – much aided by the Pashtun presence in Pakistan and the Machiavellian politics in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Her market-dominant minority thesis applies much more neatly in the case of Iraq, where the Americans acknowledged that Sunni Arabs constituted a dominant minority ruling over Iraqi Kurds and Shia. However, the senior team around George W. Bush naively believed that, with Saddam removed, Iraqis would create a viable democratic state accommodating the Shia majority and the two sizable minorities. Instead, Iraq descended into civil war.

Ironically, the American “in country” military proved far more astute than their political masters in Washington in comprehending the nature of tribal politics. Employing traditional imperial divide-and-conquer tactics that had served the British and French, the post-2007 “surge” in American military involvement succeeded by 2010 in bringing peace to a tormented country. Admittedly, the peace was fragile, but most Iraqis acknowledged that it was superior to Saddam’s dictatorship. A relatively tolerant coalition led by a nonsectarian Shia won a narrow plurality in the 2010 national election.

In explaining why the post-2007 surge succeeded whereas Donald Rumsfeld’s invasion in 2003 manifestly failed, Chua quotes General David Petraeus and the British Arabist Emma Sky. Petraeus holds a PhD from Princeton in international relations and wrote the manual on how to wage successful counterinsurgency in Iraq. Sky’s memoir of her career as adviser to senior U.S. military officers from 2003 to 2010 is the public account of the Iraq war from the perspective of the American military.2 She said publicly what the senior American military and diplomatic personnel in Baghdad could not: Bush’s team failed to understand the complexity and passions of tribal politics in Iraq – but so did Obama’s team. In his rush to exit Iraq, Obama enabled the sectarian Shia leader who narrowly lost the 2010 election, Nouri al-Maliki, to remain in office. Al-Maliki’s winner-take-all policies “unravelled” the accomplishments of the surge and drove many Arab leaders to make common cause with the Islamic State, which at its peak came close to capturing Baghdad. Its subsequent eviction from Iraq has been slow and bloody.

Chua’s discussion of jihadism is a summary of psychological research. Unlike serial killers, jihadists are not psychologically disturbed individuals. Indeed, many are well-integrated members of their respective communities. (The case of six young Bangladeshis from privileged families who killed 16 foreigners in an upscale Dhaka restaurant in 2016 is a case in point.3) The key to understanding those who opt for terrorist activity, Chua summarizes, is “group inequality”:

“Every major terrorist movement of the last several decades … arose in conditions of group inequality, group disempowerment, group humiliation, and group hatred … Once we take group identity and tribal politics into consideration, it becomes unsurprising that the leaders of terrorist organizations are sometimes well-off and well-educated. The point is that they are well-off and well-educated members of frustrated, humiliated, economically and politically marginalized groups. Extremist organizations … will often be led by the better situated, more ambitious, charismatic, and talented members of these groups. That’s just how group dynamics work.”

Only in the last two chapters does Chua turn to American politics and Trump’s success. The domestic dynamic is, she concludes, perfectly understandable once we understand the failures of American foreign policy: “Just as America’s foreign policy establishment repeatedly fails to understand the group realities that matter most to people abroad, America’s elites have been blind to – or dismissive of – the group identities that matter most to ordinary Americans.”

In these final chapters, her argument parallels that of Joan Williams: the cosmopolitan liberal elite in America does not understand white working-class culture. For Chua, Trump is America’s Chávez. Chávez’s regular television program may have championed Latin American socialism; more important, it showed the majority a leader who consistently disparaged the Venezuelan “white” elite and identified with the poor. Unlike Venezuela, the American white working class is not drawn to socialism; its members approve of Trump’s paean to wealth. Trump may be a sexist millionaire whose family roots are far removed from his electoral base, but his reality television program and tweets have affirmed white working-class values and attacked the “deep state” of liberal technocrats and the cosmopolitan liberals who control Hollywood and elite media, in particular the New York Times and Washington Post.

Worse, U.S. liberal elites frequently dismiss the white working class as inherently racist. Over the last quarter century, liberals have elevated the amorphous idea of white racism against minorities into the omnipresent fundamental evil that allegedly is frequently on display among Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables.” In this environment, aggrieved minority groups have proliferated and subdivided to the point that the left’s traditional plea for inclusiveness rings hollow. The majority among the white working class (those without college degrees) are in the process of forming an opposing tribe, and now vote Republican. In a discussion that resonates with me as accurate, universities display the problem in its starkest form. Almost any academic critical analysis of marginalized minorities risks being interpreted as racism.

Chua concludes with an optimistic epilogue: the United States is a “super-group,” and hence unlike European nations constructed in terms of shared ethnicity and/or religion. A super-group is exceptional inasmuch as most of its members have historically been willing to welcome new members from foreign groups – provided they identify strongly with the shared American identity. She provides examples of American tolerance reasserting itself. In a note, she acknowledges that Canada may be another super-group, but its Quebec component is European in outlook inasmuch as it fears loss of cultural identity, and this hobbles Canada’s ability to erect an overarching national identity.

As the conclusion of a book whose thesis is the importance of political tribes with a penchant for intertribal conflict, her epilogue falls flat. Why are America and perhaps Canada super-groups, and most other nation-states not? She admits that her evidence “could just be congenital optimism on my part.” Nonetheless, hers is a contribution to American self-analysis worth reading.

Continue reading “The American Failure to Understand Political Tribes”

In the British Columbia general election of May 2017, the incumbent Liberals elected a plurality of members to the legislature (43). The NDP won fewer seats (41) but, with the support of the small Green contingent (3), an NDP-Green government has come into office. In this section, we present two articles on two very different priorities for the new government: pursuing electoral reform and deciding the fate of the Site C dam.

Electoral reform

For predictable reasons – they won 16.8 per cent of the popular vote but only 3.4 per cent of the seats – the Greens are very keen to introduce some form of proportional representation and scrap the present “first past the post” electoral system. In principle, the NDP is also in favour, but being in office they lack the Greens’ fervour for changing an electoral system that brought them to power.

Following the 2001 provincial election, B.C. was in a similar situation inasmuch as the victors (the Liberals) held all but two seats; the formerly incumbent NDP won only two, a gross underrepresentation relative to its 22 per cent popular vote. The Liberals agreed that a citizens’ assembly could decide on an alternative voting system, which would be adopted if approved in a future referendum. The assembly recommended the single transferable vote (STV), a complicated form of proportional representation that failed the Tim Horton’s test. Within the length of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, no one can explain how STV works. Nonetheless, STV was twice put to a referendum. In the 2005 referendum, support came close to the 60 per cent threshold set for adoption. After another four years of discussion at Tim Horton’s, support for STV in the 2009 referendum collapsed. The status quo has prevailed.

David Moscrop has written an excellent article summarizing the recent history of electoral reform in B.C. and the prospects for changing the electoral system in the near future. To accelerate the process of deciding between multiple alternatives, the government has hinted that it will adopt an alternate vote referendum whereby voters rank alternatives (including first past the post). The winner depends on iterative counting. First, votes are ranked based on first choices; the bottom option is dropped and its second choices reallocated. The process continues until one option gains 50 per cent support. Moscrop’s prediction: first past the post will survive this exercise and remains as our electoral system.

In my own view, the great virtue of our present electoral system is that, usually, it generates majority governments able to govern. Furthermore, when a plurality of voters converges in support of some other party, the next election gives the boot to the incumbents. That is often a useful form of accountability. However, very large deviations between distribution of seats in a parliament and in popular vote are undesirable. They lead to public disengagement from politics and suppression of important currents of public opinion. I would like a small dose of proportionality in the form of, say, 10 per cent of the seats in the legislature devoted to topping up the most underrepresented parties. Most elections would continue to yield majority governments.

Proportional representation is guaranteed, almost always, not to produce majority governments. Advocates believe this incentivizes politicians to learn the art of compromise. Admittedly, in northern Europe with relatively high rates of “social trust,” proportional representation and multiparty coalition governments work fairly well. In southern Europe, where trust is lower, coalition governments don’t work well.

Worth noting, the most adamant opponent of the Site C dam and the least willing to acknowledge any benefits from the project is the small Green caucus. The Green Party ran an online petition, which invited readers to endorse the following statement: “The Site C Dam is environmentally, economically and socially reckless. Add your name to demand Christy Clark halt construction on Site C so we can vote on it at the ballot box in election.” If multiparty government encourages compromise, the Greens don’t seem to have got the message.

Site C Dam

Ten years ago, I wrote a whimsical article comparing the elites of Alberta and British Columbia. The Calgary elite wanted to run Canada, and in 2007 was doing so under Stephen Harper. By contrast, the Vancouver elite was Canada’s Candide, content to cultivate its west coast garden and leave running of the country to others. Ten years on, the Calgary elite is not running Canada and is feeling sorry for itself because oil prices have fallen, tar sands development has stalled, and no major pipeline to either the Atlantic or the Pacific is under construction.

On the other side of the Rockies, British Columbians have not much changed. Few want to run Canada. Whether the now deceased Social Credit, the Liberals or the NDP have held office in Victoria, the Vancouver elite primarily worries about its garden.

In addition to legitimate concerns over the potential damage from pipeline leaks or run-aground oil tankers discharging their cargo onto a pristine coast, B.C.’s Candide syndrome is evident in attitudes toward the Site C dam. Along the Peace River in northeastern B.C., this dam is currently under construction on the third site on the river able to generate substantial electricity. (The estimated power to be generated is roughly 10 per cent of domestic B.C. consumption.) On the first two sites, dams were in place by 1980. Ever since, whether to build Site C has been a subject of simmering, now aggressive, debate.

Bypassing a protracted review by the provincial utility commission, the previous government authorized construction in 2014. To date, the publicly owned utility BC Hydro has spent over $2 billion, leaving $7 to $8 billion as cost to complete. Most (but not all) First Nation communities have opposed the project, as have the major environmental groups, whose supporters are largely urban. A typical position of environmental groups is that of the Sierra Club: “Site C is bad for B.C., and … residents don’t want to pay $9 billion to destroy an important and beautiful river valley for energy we don’t need.” The most prominent supporter of completion has been the provincial labour movement: Site C construction is generating more than 2,000 well-paying construction jobs, which would continue until 2024, the projected completion date.

The fate of Site C became the most prominent issue in the recent provincial election. The Liberals vowed to complete the project; the Greens adamantly opposed it. The NDP faced internal divisions between union supporters and urban environmentalists, but tilted toward cancellation. I recall a boisterous anti–Site C election rally organized by a coalition of environmental groups in a park in East Vancouver. The rally’s centrepiece was a large inflated white elephant labelled Site C. When a rally organizer asked me to sign the anti-Site C petition she was circulating, I declined, which prompted a shocked look of severe moral disapproval.

In office, one of the first initiatives of the new government was to order a quick review by the BC Utilities Commission, with a November 1 deadline.1 The Commission confirmed that BC Hydro had spent more than $2 billion to date. It predicted a cost overrun that could amount to $1 billion, potentially raising the cost to complete to $8 billion. In the case of cancellation, it predicted the cost of remediating the dam site at nearly $2 billion. The first implication of cancellation is that it implies ratepayers absorbing substantial “sunk” costs of nearly $4 billion on an abandoned dam site and remediation of the river valley.

In his article in this section, Marvin Shaffer estimates the present value at the date of completion (in 2024) of the power generated over the first 60 years of the dam to be in the range of $9 to $10 billion.2 He assumes that power surplus to B.C. needs would be exported, either to Alberta or the United States, at the low end of the forecast price range of both BC Hydro and the Commission consultants (Deloitte). Further, Shaffer writes,

If Alberta and B.C. were a single province, there would be no issue about the need for Site C. Its development, combined with increased intertie capacity, would serve as an important component of the Alberta government’s commitment to phase out coal-fired thermal power production and thereby dramatically reduce GHG emissions in the electric sector.

If we allow the reduction in Alberta greenhouse gases that Site C would enable as a benefit of completing the project, then the present value benefits of completion are higher than $9 to $10 billion. Valuing the avoided greenhouse gas emissions at $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent adds another $1.4 billion to the benefits.3 A key feature of Shaffer’s article is the recommendation to establish a Peace River Trust, analogous to that accompanying development along the Columbia River. To compensate First Nations and others for damage done to the river valley, the trust should be generously funded and its priorities should be defined locally.

The Commission acknowledges that BC Hydro can export Site C power in the early years, but is extremely pessimistic in its estimation of export prices. Furthermore, it makes no allowance for the potential benefit of accelerating decarbonizing of electricity generation beyond B.C. Instead, the Commission undertakes extensive analysis of the potential for soft options (demand side management and wind) that could substitute for Site C power in the case of cancellation (see figure 1, taken from the Commission report). Here, the Commission is very optimistic – optimistic that rate adjustments can dramatically reduce domestic demand and that the cost of wind power will substantially decline over the next decade. Based on pessimistic assumptions about cost to complete Site C, pessimistic assumptions about the value of Site C exports and optimistic assumptions about a portfolio of alternative technologies, the Commission concludes that the present value of costs for completion of Site C and the present value of costs for cancellation of the dam and pursuit of alternative technologies are similar.

I grant that the Commission may well be right about the cost to complete Site C and the cost of remediation if Site C is cancelled. And the Commission’s implicit recommendation to pursue demand-side management and wind power makes sense, provided it is treated as a supplement to, not a substitute for, Site C power. The scepticism that the Commission displayed over BC Hydro’s Site C revenue and cost projections should equally be applied to the potential for “soft” alternatives like solar and wind to generate large supplies of energy at costs below Site C. Obviously, in projections of costs and benefits over 60 years, there is much uncertainty.

The costs of climate change are beginning to mount. The forest area burned in B.C. during the summer of 2017 set a new record. Record fire damage occurred in many western American states. The damage from this season’s hurricanes in the Caribbean were at near-record levels. If we extend the discussion beyond B.C. borders, the need for non-carbon sources of energy is urgent. Site C could make a modest but nonnegligible contribution to decarbonizing the continent’s energy system.

I return to Voltaire and Candide. Despite ominous signs, B.C. environmentalists are content to describe Site C’s potential production of non-carbon-based power as “energy we don’t need.” Sometimes we need to look beyond our garden.

Click to read John Horgan’s Site C Problem by Marvin Shaffer.

Continue reading “British Columbia is Candide, Cultivating its Garden”

From Europeans arriving in the U.S. Midwest and Canadian Prairies in the late 19th century to (primarily) Asians arriving in Canadian cities in the late 20th century, the key to intergenerational integration of immigrants has been a high-quality education system, leading to immigrant employment levels similar to those for nonimmigrants. The first rung on the education ladder is high school completion. Nine of ten young Canadian adults aged 20–24 have at least a high school certificate.

However, this is a low rung. To have a good chance at a job yielding a middle-class income usually requires a trades certificate, college diploma or university degree. Nearly seven of ten Canadians aged 25–34 have reached one of these rungs. If we set aside the shameful fate of Aboriginal students, the Canadian K–12 school system overall is not faltering – among either native-born or immigrant children. But there is no guarantee that its present performance will persist.

While overall, immigrant students fare as well as native-born students or slightly better, immigrant education poses two potential problems. Within some ethnic communities, high school completion rates are mediocre, especially for those who arrived after 2000. Second, in the long term the prominence in Toronto and Vancouver of “ethnic enclaves” – the term the geographer Daniel Hiebert employs for census tracts in which visible minorities comprise over 70 per cent of the population1 – may generate difficult-to-manage education dynamics.

Why analyze ethnic origin?

The factors relevant to explaining students’ school performance range from school quality to parental education and family income to education expectations of students and their school peers. Whether ethnic origin should be included as one of these factors is a contested question.2

Some argue against. The correlation between student education outcomes and family ethnic origin may be high, but what appears as the impact of ethnicity should be understood as the impact of other features of the student’s family, its socioeconomic condition or school quality. Furthermore, to identify ethnic differences in education outcomes potentially aggravates social divisions based on ethnic differences, thereby increasing attitudes of marginalization among groups with weak school outcomes and ethnic superiority among those with strong outcomes. France is a country that officially subscribes to these arguments and gathers no official data on ethnicity, including the role of ethnicity in school outcomes.

Overall, however, the case for gathering, publishing and analyzing ethnic-based data is stronger than that against. While ethnic origin is never the sole factor in explaining children’s education outcomes, in most rigorous quantitative studies, after accounting for independent explanatory factors, family ethnic origin still appears as a statistically significant and often important determinant of those outcomes.

The channels through which ethnicity influences outcomes may be differences in family expectations for children’s education between ethnic communities or school peer effects among students of a particular ethnic origin. A subtle but important form of discrimination may play a role: for students of ethnic groups with weak outcomes, teachers and school administrators may develop low expectations; among ethnic groups whose families display high expectations, teachers may develop very high expectations, which in turn discourage students from other ethnic origins. If ethnic origin does play a role in one generation and ethnic communities tend to congregate geographically in enclaves, then intergenerationally the role of ethnicity is amplified.

Furthermore, in the absence of open analysis of ethnic differences, anecdotes prevail. Relative performance of neighbourhood schools is a key factor in parents’ decisions on where to live. Better that such decisions be based on results of objective analysis of schools than on anecdotes, which distort by accentuating the exceptional.

Outmigration from neighbourhoods whose schools display weak outcomes frequently hampers the potential to use education to reduce interethnic income gaps. Outmigration denies potential positive student peer effects to the remaining students. In U.S. schools, this dynamic has made closing of education gaps between black, Hispanic and Indigenous students on one hand and ”white” students (which in this context includes visible minorities such as East Asian) on the other a Sisyphean undertaking. Similar dynamics of visible minority concentration in particular urban enclaves are taking place in Europe.3

How immigrant children perform in school

Until the last quarter of the 20th century, the United States was ahead of other industrial countries in providing education – first primary and later secondary – to all.4 No longer are U.S. K–12 results impressive. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), organized by the OECD, has become the most respected comparative measure of performance among national school systems.5 The most recent available data are from the 2015 “round” of PISA tests. Canada ranked well above the OECD average on all three subjects assessed. Its overall ranking among all participating countries (whether or not OECD members) was tenth in mathematics, third in reading, seventh in science. The difference between Canada and the respective OECD average is statistically significant for all three. By contrast, the United States ranked 40th in mathematics, 24th in reading, 25th in science.6

PISA results also show that immigrant education outcomes in Canada (and Australia) are exceptional relative to other OECD countries with large immigrant populations, and that U.S. immigrant student results are mediocre.

For each participating country in the 2012 round, PISA divided sampled students into three categories: students born in the relevant country to nonimmigrant parents (nonimmigrant), students born in the relevant country to parents born in another country (second generation) and students who themselves were born in another country (first generation). A good school system seeks both to maximize the share of students performing at high levels, and to minimize the share performing at low levels. Figure 1 illustrates immigrant and nonimmigrant student performance in mathematics for selected countries: the share performing at or above level 3 (Figure 1A) and the share at or below level 1 (Figure 1B). Among the high-immigrant OECD countries illustrated, Canada and Australia enjoy the highest and second-highest share of first-generation students scoring at level 3 or above, and the lowest and second-lowest share of such students performing at level 1 or below. U.S. performance is slightly, but only slightly, better than the overall OECD average.

Relative to most countries, Canada and Australia have the crucial advantage of being surrounded by large oceans and having no land border with a low-income country. Hence both countries have been able to impose stringent education and language requirements on legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants are few. For economic immigrants (as opposed to family members or refugees), Canada’s point system places over half of the 100 potential points on two criteria: education level (maximum 25 points) and proficiency in one or both of Canada’s official languages (maximum 28 points).7 The combination of geography and a “points system” is almost certainly the explanation for the fact that immigrant student PISA results in these two countries are as good as those of nonimmigrant students, and in some cases better.

Immigrants and high school completion

The data in Figures 2 and 3 concern young adult first-generation immigrant cohorts aged 20–24 at the time of the 2011 census.8 This is the youngest tabulated cohort for which it is reasonable to expect completion of secondary school. While they are all in the same age cohort, the immigrants’ ages at time of arrival obviously differ. The 1981–1990 arrivals were infants when their parents or guardians reached Canada; the 2006–2011 arrivals came between the ages of 15 and 24.

On average young adult immigrants aged 20–24 outperform their Canadian-born counterparts in terms of high school completion (Figure 2). Specific immigrant group completion rates range from 84 per cent to 98 per cent. As Colin Busby and Miles Corak document, there is a late-arrival disadvantage.9 As illustrated in Figure 2, the gap is small among many immigrant groups, but among two groups (Southeast Asians and West Asians) the late-arrival disadvantage is nearly 10 percentage points.

Two reasons explain the disadvantage. For students whose families speak neither French nor English as mother tongue, it is much easier to learn a Canadian official language (often by osmosis from other children) when under age 10, which excludes those in the two most recently arrived cohorts. A second reason is that recent arrivals will have undergone most if not all of their primary and secondary education in their country of origin. If that training is of considerably lower quality than that in Canadian schools, students may, independently of any language difficulty, face frustration and fail to complete.

Figure 3 renders the story more complex. The trend line linking average completion rate to period of arrival displays the late-arrival disadvantage. Admittedly, the trend lines of individual immigrant groups resemble random strings of spaghetti, but they display relevant information. Two groups (Koreans and Filipinos) display consistently superior completion rates with little variation by period of arrival. The potentially worrisome results are among those groups displaying large declines between the pre- and post-2000 periods of arrival. West Asians and Southeast Asians experience a decline in excess of 10 percentage points between cohorts arriving in 1991–2000 and in the most recent period. Completion among the most recent arrivals for these two groups averages below 80 per cent. Chinese immigrant students remain at or above the average for all immigrants, but they too have experienced a large decline in completion rates, of nearly 10 percentage points, between pre- and post-2000 periods of arrival.

Immigrants and postsecondary education

High school completion is the minimum education level for a Canadian adult to have more than a 50 per cent chance of being employed (as reported in the Canadian census).10 However, jobs available with just high school are typically low-wage and lack security. To realize middle-class Canadian incomes, some form of postsecondary education is typically necessary. The youngest tabulated cohort for which it is reasonable to expect adults to have completed postsecondary education is ages 25–29. The statistics in Figure 4 display the share in this cohort with a bachelor’s or higher university degree, a college diploma or a trades certificate. If we are to flag potential problems, there are three ethnic groups (Latin Americans, blacks and Southeast Asians) whose average postsecondary education completion rates are at least five percentage points below the comparable rate for nonimmigrants.

The Youth in Transition Survey (YITS) provides evidence on many interrelated factors that may be relevant in determining immigrant student choices with respect to pursuit of postsecondary education. Two detailed studies, one by Ross Finnie and Richard Mueller and the other by Victor Thiessen, used YITS data.11

Thiessen defined four sets of variables: indicator variables to distinguish otherwise unspecified aspects of a student belonging to a particular regional ethnic grouping and whether the student is first- or second-generation immigrant; variables describing the family’s socioeconomic condition (parental income, presence of two parents, status of parental occupation, employment status of mother, number of siblings); variables describing relevant aspects of the family’s “culture” (importance of postsecondary education to parents, importance to student peers, student academic effort); and “performance” variables that reflect grades and courses chosen in secondary school. Finnie and Mueller defined similar sets of variables, and in addition added a set of variables to indicate province of residence.

After allowing for available controls, certain variables emerged in all specifications as having a statistically significant impact on the probability of an immigrant student pursuing a university degree, relative to settling for high-school only:

  • Parental education: More education matters. The education impact is particularly powerful if at least one parent possesses a university degree.
  • Family income: It matters, but much less so than parental education.
  • Ethnic origin: As with data used in this article, YITS ethnic origin identification is mostly at the regional level. The overwhelmingly most important ethnic effect reported is the large positive impact on university attendance among Chinese-origin students, both first- and second-generation, even after allowing for all other controls.12 The impact is smaller but there is a positive impact associated with students from other Asian countries.
  • Parental and peer expectations for children’s education: Parental expectations as to the level of education for their children are significant, as are peer student plans for postsecondary education, albeit less so.
  • High school performance: Good high school grades and choice of pre-university courses are extremely powerful indicators of a student’s subsequently pursuing a university degree.

The “gold standard” for assessing the impact of any particular factor on education outcomes is a random control trial in which a random sample of students is selected and divided between those who receive a “treatment” (for example, participation in an early childhood education program) and those who do not and thereby can function as “control.” If, at the end of the experimental period, the treatment group performs significantly better or worse than the control, the difference can with little doubt be attributed to the treatment.

Obviously, random control trials are not feasible in assessing most factors bearing on children’s education. Instead, rigorous analysis relies on multivariate regressions, controlling for as many potentially relevant factors as possible. Unfortunately, regression analysis cannot eliminate all ambiguities. For example, one of the most powerful variables in the YITS data in terms of its impact on pursuit of a university degree is for the student to have chosen university-preparatory courses in high school. Should this variable be considered a proxy for the student’s ambition and capacity? Or is it better modelled as an outcome determined by parental expectations, which in turn are partially determined by ethnic origin?

A tale of two Vancouver suburbs

In a recent study of the geographic distribution of visible minorities (whether born in Canada or abroad) in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Daniel Hiebert documents shifts between the 1996 and 2011 censuses in visible minority share of Census Metropolitan Area population and in share of visible minorities living in “ethnic enclaves.” Shifts in Montreal are modest, but in Toronto and Vancouver they are large (see Figure 5).13 Had the additional post-1996 visible immigrant population spread itself evenly across all census tracts of Vancouver and Toronto, the proportion living in an enclave would have risen by 2011, but the share would be under 25 per cent in each. Had the increase in each census tract been proportional to its 1996 visible minority share, the enclave share would have risen to about 30 per cent. The actual 2011 enclave shares reported by Hiebert imply a heavy concentration of visible minority immigrants choosing to live in neighbourhoods that, already in 1996, contained sizable visible minority communities.

To illustrate potential education policy dilemmas, consider the two suburban municipalities in Vancouver in which over half the population are visible minorities and approximately half the neighbourhoods, as defined by Hiebert, are “ethnic enclaves.”14 In Richmond the dominant visible minority is East Asian, in Surrey South Asian. The best comparative education data readily available are from the low-stakes provincewide test (Foundation Skills Assessment or FSA) in three core subjects (numeracy, writing and reading). All provincial students take these tests in Grades 4 and 7, and the provincial education ministry publishes results using three scores.15 For these two school districts, Figure 6 shows school district deviations, at Grades 4 and 7, from the corresponding provincial averages. (Table 1 shows distributions of provincial level results for the two grades.) In general, Richmond scores are above the provincial average; Surrey’s are below. The most dramatic difference between the two school districts arises in the numeracy results.

There is no reason to believe provincial support for schools is different in Surrey than in Richmond. However, FSA scores differ substantially, and ethnicity is almost certainly a significant factor. Do school peer effects also play a role? Is there evidence of outmigration among families not belonging to the dominant ethnic minority? The data provided in Figure 6 are suggestive, but nothing more. Jane Friesen and Brian Krauth have addressed some of these questions in detail: “We find that attending an ‘enclave’ school provides a slight net benefit to Chinese home-language students and a large net cost to Punjabi home-language students. The results are consistent with a simple model of peer effects in which the academic achievement of peers is much more important than their home language.”16

The link between schools and attitudes toward immigration

Overall, all but three immigrant groups realize high school completion rates among young adults aged 20–24 above the comparable rate for nonimmigrants – which is reassuring. But Southeast Asians and West Asians display a disturbing trend in that the high school completion rates for both have declined continuously since the 1991–2000 arrivals. Relative to those arriving in 1991–2000, the decline among the most recent arrivals is in excess of 10 percentage points and, for both, the completion rate among the most recent arrivals is below 80 per cent. In addition, there is a clear disadvantage in high school completion among most immigrant children arriving as teenagers.

These results indicate the importance of immigration services, in particular English or French as second language programs in provincial schools. School districts in metropolitan areas are devoting resources to this task but improvements are feasible. On the basis of qualitative analysis in Vancouver, Angela Rai reports evidence that provincial authorities do not adequately recognize teaching of an official language to immigrants as a major career path for teachers. In Quebec, schools are attempting simultaneously to integrate immigrants into French as the provincial langue commune and teach English as a second language. Here, linguistic immigration services have loomed as a larger issue than in the other provinces.17

The snapshot of recent student performance in two Vancouver school districts is only suggestive (“two swallows do not a summer make”). However, the large increase in immigrant share of Toronto’s and Vancouver’s population and the dramatic increase in the proportion of visible minorities living in “enclaves” should invite some concern. Will these cities over the next generation generate ethnic-based education inequalities similar to those that have arisen in cosmopolitan U.S. and European cities?

Observing the PISA results among first- and second-generation immigrants, Canada’s performance is an obvious outlier – as is Australia’s. Almost certainly, the ability to require rigorous education and language qualifications among potential immigrants is a key explanation for Canada’s superior immigrant student results. Given the importance of well-educated parents able on arrival to speak and read one of Canada’s official languages and able therefore to tutor their children, political pressure to relax the language and education requirements is disconcerting. A high-profile example of such pressure is the lobby by several Vancouver MPs in ridings with large South Asian communities.18

At present, Canada’s school system is doing relatively well and the majority of Canadians hold generally favourable attitudes toward immigration. Successful schools and favourable attitudes to immigration are linked. If our school system falters – as has the U.S. K–12 system – immigrant education and integration will suffer. And the large minority (38 per cent) who agree “strongly” or “somewhat” that “overall, there is too much immigration” would no doubt increase.19

Continue reading “Integrating immigrants: How well are Canadian schools doing?”

Four days prior to the second-round election on May 7, the two remaining candidates for the French presidency conducted a televised debate. Marine Le Pen opened with the following tirade:

Electing Mr. Macron means choosing savage globalization, Uberization, economic uncertainty, the war of all against all, economic pillage of major social groups, asset stripping of France and communautarisme … The French have been able to see the real Macron in this second round: benevolence has given way to slander, the studied smile turns into a smirk in the course of his meetings, the enfant chéri of the system and the elites has let fall his mask.1

Emmanual Macron’s initial response was measured. He accused Le Pen of lacking in “finesse d’esprit.” By the end of the two-and-a-half-hour debate however, the ferocity of his attacks matched hers:

Your political project lives on fear and lies. They are what animate you, they are what animated your father over the decades; they are what has animated the extreme right in France. I do not want any of it in our country. The France that I want is better than that. It will not be divided. But to achieve it, we must escape from a political polarization that you have helped create. You are one of the products of the status quo you denounce. You thrive on the status quo. You are a parasite.2

Le Pen’s overture was an ad hominem attack that, with a few modifications, could have been a Trump campaign speech attacking Hillary Clinton. In return, for someone wanting to heal wounds in the French body politic, Macron’s tirade against her had the feel of Clinton’s denunciation of intolerant “deplorables.” If exploitation of “fear and lies” is one pole of French politics, what is at the other pole? As an iconic representative of the cosmopolitan elites that Le Pen attacked, Macron might have at least hinted at the sins of the Parisian technocrats who have run France for the past half-century. He lectured Le Pen on the incoherence of her proposals; he did not “feel the pain” of her supporters.

Ultimately, the French opted, 66 per cent against 34 per cent, for the enfant chéri over the parasite. Like many in the French political elite, Macron is a graduate of the École Normale d’Administration, a technocrat who had never previously run for office. During the campaign, Le Pen’s strength was to articulate deeply held frustrations of native-born French who feel abandoned. While Macron made tepid claims to understand her supporters, he remained at the level of the earnest liberal wanting everyone to be reasonable. He remained excessively vague on how to reform the country.

And the country needs reform. Unemployment and immigration are two examples. To tackle the decades-long persistence of a disastrously high French unemployment rate, among the young and immigrants in particular, requires German- or U.K.-style relaxation of the labour code. It is an understatement to say that this will be controversial. Will Macron dare to touch it? On immigration, Macron has acknowledged the failure of immigrant integration. His proposals, which turn on better education starting at the primary level, make sense. But it is far from clear whether he can make progress on this dossier without controversial initiatives such as a dramatic limit on immigration, especially from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Imposing tough border controls would violate the Schengen Agreement, which eliminates border controls among most European Union (EU) member countries and a few non-EU countries. An immigrant who enters a Schengen-member country has the right in principle to move freely to any country in the Schengen zone.

At time of writing (the day after Macron’s second-round victory), Macron’s immediate hurdle is the general election in June for the French National Assembly. His own political party, En Marche, created over the last year to support his campaign, lacks local political roots and may win few parliamentary seats. The National Front will make gains over the two seats it currently holds, but “ganging up” by its opponents in the legislative second round will limit its potential. Given public hostility to the outgoing Socialist President, François Hollande, the Socialists will not fare well. The legislative winners may well be the Republicans, the centre-right party, whose éminence grise is former President Nicolas Sarkozy – in which case Macron will wind up in effect cohabiting with a National Assembly dominated by Hollande’s predecessor.

France is déjà vu all over again

The results of last June’s U.K. Brexit referendum, last November’s U.S. presidential election and the April 23 first round of the French presidential election share obvious similarities. In all three, more than 40 per cent of voters in effect rejected core institutional arrangements that had seemed subject to electoral consensus for over a quarter-century. At the core of current populism is the argument that free trade and large-scale immigration have led to stagnant incomes for most of the native-born and unacceptably rapid change in the ethnic composition of communities. The two dimensions, stagnant incomes and fear of lost identity, are related inasmuch as immigrants are perceived not only to be culturally alien but also to be lowering wages among native-born citizens with low formal education.

Geography matters in this discussion. In the cosmopolitan cities – in London, Paris, New York and San Francisco – the majority have overwhelmingly rejected populist candidates. The populists, in general, have succeeded in regions beset by declining industries, below-average education levels and above-average unemployment.

In examining the recent French election, we can start with the map showing the winners in the first round by department. In the centre of Paris, a friend observed, Marine Le Pen could not get herself elected dogcatcher. She garnered 5 per cent of the vote. With the exception of Seine–Saint-Denis (about which more below), Macron headed the polls in the eight departments encompassing Paris and its extensive suburbs. On the other hand, Le Pen led in nearly all departments of the north and northeast, and in the Midi (south). In addition to most of the cities, Macron prevailed in departments in the west and southwest.

Unique among countries beset by populist revolts, in France left-wing populism inspired by a long tradition of Marxism has proved nearly as prominent as right-wing populism inspired by long traditions of cultural nationalism. In the first round, the four leading candidates realized popular votes within a narrow range: 19.6 per cent for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left populist leader of a newly founded party, France Insoumise, a competitor to the French Socialist Party; 20.0 per cent for François Fillon, winner of the primary organized by the centre-right Republicans; 21.3 per cent for Le Pen, candidate of the National Front, founded by her father; and 24.0 per cent for Macron, head of the newly founded En Marche.

Random events and small shifts in turnout could readily have generated a second round – a runoff between the first and second ranked candidates – from any combination of two among the four leading candidates. Several months ago many predicted a runoff between Fillon and Macron or Fillon and Le Pen. Unfortunately for Fillon’s electoral prospects, a weekly left-wing satirical paper, Le Canard Enchaîné, revealed massive abuse of his expense account as a member of the National Assembly over the last decade.

Mélenchon nearly doubled his vote in the final month, most of his votes coming from Benoît Hamon, hapless winner of the Socialist Party primary, who ultimately received only 6.3 per cent of the vote. Had Mélenchon’s rise commenced earlier, he might have shifted even more votes from Hamon, and ranked first or second. A hypothetical shift of three percentage points from Macron to Mélenchon would have sufficed, all else unchanged, to generate a runoff between Mélenchon and Le Pen.

Worth noting, the French presidential election has once again illustrated the famous Arrow “impossibility theorem.” Kenneth Arrow is an American economist who demonstrated formally that any electoral system can be gamed. There is no guarantee that a voting system will generate the outcome favoured by a plurality.

The trouble with French Islam today

A number of years ago Irshad Manji, a liberal Muslim originally from Vancouver, wrote a book called The Trouble with Islam Today. Her thesis was the loss of critical thinking among current Muslim leaders and the retreat of many into a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, one that is deeply suspicious of Western culture. Islam in France is currently undergoing its own trials, related to the problems Manji identified but in a specifically French context.

The first large-scale Muslim immigration to France came from the Maghreb in the 1960s. At the time, France was enjoying its trente années glorieuses following World War II. Its economy was growing rapidly and this first wave found employment and integrated reasonably well. Many had had close contact with the French during the decades of colonialism; some had sided with the French against the liberation movements. Subsequently, they were joined by many from francophone sub-Saharan ex-colonies. No official statistics exist but estimates place the present share of Muslims at 10 per cent or more of the French population.

It is an understatement to note that Muslims are less integrated today than half a century ago. Why? Some blame discrimination on the part of the French, too rigidly attached to notions of laïcité. Some blame an overly generous welfare state that provides few incentives for the poorly educated to take low-paying jobs. Some blame a rigid labour market that makes it impossible to fire, and hence employers do not hire. And some blame the rise of conservative political Islam as an ideology inviting Muslims in France to reject Western culture. I give some weight to all of the above.

Le Pen’s insistence on strict laïcité and her call to extricate France from the Schengen accord in order to impose strict immigration controls are anathema to most Muslims. Fillon also adopted a “tough” stand. On July 14, 2016, a jihadist in Nice drove a large truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 and wounding well over 100. Following the attack, Fillon published a short book entitled Vaincre le totalitarisme islamique (To Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism). The title reveals the plot: France must be tough in response to political Islam, whether it be the Islamic State or terrorists within France. This is a dossier on which Macron has said little. Which left an opening for Mélenchon.

Mélenchon is a product of French Marxist tiers-mondisme, a tradition that includes celebrities such as Jean-Paul Sartre and has been maintained by papers such as Le Monde Diplomatique. To his credit, Mélenchon has not minimized the misogynist features of political Islam; instead, he has consistently articulated the social demands of the Muslim community. The result is that he captured well over half the Muslim vote. Mélenchon did well in departments and cities with large Muslim diasporas.3 The one department in the Parisian region that Macron did not win was Seine–Saint-Denis, in the northeast of Greater Paris. It has a majority Muslim population and Mélenchon won a plurality. Similarly, in France’s second city, Marseille, the Muslim share of the population is high, and Mélenchon prevailed. However, overall in Bouche-du-Rhône, the department encompassing Marseille, Le Pen prevailed. The Midi is a region where Muslim-French relations are tense. Not surprisingly, the majority in Nice voted either for Le Pen or Fillon.

Were this a “normal” election, a victory of 66 per cent to 34 per cent would indicate stability, a solid majority and a “loyal” opposition. But in the age of mainstream versus populist and Muslim alienation, this is not the case. One symptom of malaise is the exceptionally high percentage of spoiled ballots, votes blancs (ballots submitted with no candidate selected) and nonvoters. Most foreign observers, understandably sympathetic to Macron, are projecting onto him their proposed policy solutions and minimizing the difficult institutional reforms required to realize them.

… and across the Channel

In early June, shortly before the French legislative election, the British will vote in a snap general election called by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. There is currently no British equivalent to Macron. Instead, the Conservatives are en route to winning a resounding victory and continuing their “Brexit means Brexit” strategy of rapid withdrawal from the EU. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is en route to presiding over Labour’s worst defeat in three decades.

Nigel Farage, the most prominent proponent of Brexit, is to Marine Le Pen as Jeremy Corbyn is to Mélenchon. Both Corbyn and Mélenchon view the EU as an institution whose primary purpose is to persuade the working class to accept rampant free trade. Both leaders have tiers-mondiste sympathies: they support the agenda of the immigrant diasporas in their respective countries. Both passionately dislike the legacy of the major centre-left parties in their respective countries.

Corbyn is the dog that didn’t bark in the 2016 U.K. referendum debate. Nominally, Labour supported Remain, but Corbyn’s heart was not in the fight. (Four decades earlier, at the time of the first referendum on U.K. withdrawal, he had argued for Brexit.) Conscious that Labour supporters are divided between many in the Midlands and north who support Brexit and those in the south, in London in particular, who want to remain in the EU, he mumbled.

The bitter conflicts within Labour ranks over Leave versus Remain and over the legacy of the Blair-Brown government have produced disarray analogous to that among the French Socialists. U.K. local government elections took place a few days prior to the second-round election in France. Labour fared disastrously, losing a large number of local councillors. For the Conservatives it was a resounding success in terms of councillors gained. Their hard drive to exit the EU has co-opted the majority of Farage’s supporters in the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as well as many Labour supporters.

As a member of David Cameron’s cabinet, Theresa May nominally supported Remain in the referendum campaign. But, like Corbyn, her heart was not in it. Upon Cameron’s resignation as prime minister, she won the internal struggle for party leadership. Tactically, she has outmanoeuvred both UKIP and Labour, and the disarray within Labour has given the Conservatives a very large lead in the polls. The five polls conducted so far in May give them an average 18-point lead over Labour.

French and English political institutions are in disarray. Macron’s victory gives France a reprieve, but it is far too soon to relax. In the U.K., May is a brilliant tactician able to win battles against immediate opponents within and beyond her party, but her “Brexit means Brexit” strategy dooms Britain to a cramped marginal status.

One of the few high-profile voices to make the case for continued British participation in the EU and resurrection of the centre-left is Tony Blair. It is unlikely that he will be able to replicate the role of Churchill, condemned to political purgatory in the 1930s for his early aggressive hostility to Hitler. Blair’s reputation has been severely tarnished by accusations of his having manipulated parliamentary support for the U.S. military removal of Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, Blair deserves some credit: he recently contributed the majority of his wealth (£10 million) to found a new foundation on behalf of centre-left politics in Europe.

As Napoleon reputedly said, on s’engage, et puis on verra.

Continue reading “The centre holds – just”

The Western media usually limit news coverage of Bangladesh to casualties from collapsed buildings, factory fires, cyclones and capsized ferries. In the last several years, coverage has extended to brutal assassinations of “atheist bloggers” and, in the summer of 2016, to the murder of 20 foreigners in a Dhaka restaurant.1

One evening last summer a half dozen young men invaded a popular restaurant in the diplomatic zone of Dhaka. By the next morning government commandos had stormed the restaurant and killed them. During the night the terrorists killed two policemen and the 20 foreigners who had the misfortune to choose this particular restaurant. Seven of the victims were Japanese engineers designing a subway system for Dhaka; nine were Italians involved in the garment sector.

The terrorists were not psychologically disturbed loners; they were from prosperous families, well educated and idealistic. During the night, Nibras Islam, their leader, lectured the restaurant staff. A staff member later reported that Nibras reassured them:

We are not here to kill you who are Muslims. We are here to kill non-Muslim foreigners who, by helping the government and business elites, are providing an undeserved legitimacy to a corrupt non-Islamic state. Bangladesh needs devout Muslim leaders committed to governing on the basis of shari’a. Both major parties are equally corrupt and non-Islamic. As good Muslims, you should never vote.

With approximately 170 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populous country. It deserves closer attention from the world’s media. What follows is a very brief introduction to the country’s political history over the 20th century, the paralysis afflicting its governance and the threat that it could follow the unfortunate path taken by Pakistan.

An ineffective democracy and an Islamist response

In the 1940s, the last decade of the British Raj, Bengal was a province with an elected assembly enjoying sovereignty over domestic matters – not unlike Canada in the mid-19th century. Its residents shared a common language, the great majority were farmers, and its one metropolitan centre was Kolkata. What Bengali did not share was a common religion: the majority were Muslim, a large minority Hindu. At the time, many among the Muslim elites, including the Bengal chief executive (i.e., premier), favoured a postcolonial future as a sovereign country, separate from the rest of South Asia.

It was not to be. The Hindu elites adamantly opposed becoming a minority in a sovereign Bengal. The Muslim League, dominated by elites in the Indus Valley, wanted to assemble all Muslim-majority regions of the subcontinent into a new – inevitably noncontiguous – state. The provinces of East and West Pakistan remained formally one state from 1947 until the 1971 “war of liberation” whereby East Pakistan seceded. Constitutionally, Bangladesh emerged as a secular, socialist republic. Many of the first generation of Bangladesh leaders and senior civil servants subscribed to the Marxist tradition of Bengal, which was prominent from early decades of the century.

Why, over the last half century, has idealism in Bangladesh evolved from a secular rebellion against a government in Islamabad, dominated by feudal elites in the Indus Valley, to a religiously inspired rebellion against a government in Dhaka, dominated by nominally democratic elites engaged in modern activities such as managing garment factories? There are many answers. We might start with the answer given by Nibras: secular democracy as practised in Bangladesh has not lived up to minimal expectations.

The collapse in 2013 of Rana Plaza, a garment factory, is worth a detour. At least 1,100 workers died; most of the 2,000 survivors suffered serious injuries. By far the most serious industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh, Rana Plaza was the result of appalling government laxity in regulating industrial safety.2 Many members of Parliament have direct or indirect ownership stakes in garment factories and the building’s owner was a local leader of the governing party. It is a reasonable hypothesis that political influence prevented adequate regulation.

Hizb ut Tahrir, founded in Palestine, is a prominent international Islamist organization that proselytizes on behalf of shari’a and reestablishment of a caliphate. The organization is banned in Bangladesh but it has an underground presence. While its leaders are ambiguous about use of violence to realize their goals, its publications provide arguments similar to those of Nibras. Below is the text of a Hizb ut Tahrir media release, widely distributed online, following the Rana Plaza tragedy:

The Only Way to Free the People from the Clutches of Politics is for the Sincere Military Officers to Overthrow the Ruling Regime and Transfer the Authority to Sincere and Aware Politicians who will Establish Islamic Rule

… Democracy has been killing the people of the country all along and in numerous ways. The desperate cries of those who lost their loved ones in Rana Plaza still ring loud in our ears. We can make an endless list of killings by democracy. Furthermore all of the following hold true of democracy:

Democracy = corruption and looting

Democracy = half the people living in poverty

Democracy = oppression of women

Democracy = vilifying Islam and

Democracy = imperialist domination

One does not need to subscribe to the solutions posed by Nibras and Hizb ut Tahrir to acknowledge that their critique of the political status quo rings true. The bitterly polarized “winner take all” tactics adopted since the 1980s by the two major parties have deeply disappointed the majority of Bangladeshi. Since its birth, Bangladesh has oscillated between corrupt, ineffective, nominally democratic governments and somewhat more effective but also self-serving military-led ones. During the most recent general election, in 2014, the governing party won reelection by default, gaining a majority in parliament by acclamation. It kept the leader of the major opposition party under house arrest. This is not to imply that the major opposition party is much better. When in office, it adopted similar tactics.

The young have known nothing better all their lives. Is it surprising that some among them, at this point only a small minority, advocate violent opposition to the status quo?

The governance factor

How bad is Bangladesh governance? The short answer is “pretty bad.” Comparing governance among countries is inevitably subjective, but many organizations prepare indices of national governance quality
. The exercise illustrated in figure 1 relies on two dimensions of the comprehensive governance indicators prepared annually by the World Bank.3


Quality of governance and economic prosperity are linked in reciprocal ways. Citizens of more prosperous countries can more effectively demand, and usually get, better governance than do citizens of poorer countries, but causation also runs the other way, from better governance to higher incomes. Bangladesh has suffered a “winner take all” dynamic whereby the political party that manages to win an election does its best to crush opposing parties and buy loyalty via clientelism in appointments at all levels of the public sector. These practices are so excessive and so obviously counterproductive to social and economic progress that they are undeniably part of the explanation for the country’s low per capita income, slow rate of per capita income growth and high income inequality.

For the five major South Asian countries, figure 1 plots each country’s 2014 per capita income against its percentile ranking on two governance dimensions.4 For each dimension, the horizontal axis illustrates the country’s percentile ranking relative to all countries (approximately 200) included in the World Bank assessment. The two trendlines illustrate, among the five countries, the bilateral association between each governance dimension and per capita income.

For both control of corruption and effectiveness of delivery of basic services the association is obviously positive. In terms of control of corruption, Bangladesh is lowest; in terms of effectiveness, second lowest. On both dimensions, roughly 80 per cent of the world’s countries display higher governance quality.

There are qualifications to make. India’s population is 1.2 billion, and its most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has a population larger than that of any of the other four countries. The quality of governance among Indian states varies widely. In general the quality is superior in the south; in some northern states governance quality is similar to that of Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 2009 India, at the 11th percentile, ranked highest in terms of political stability (not shown in figure 1). In 2014, the three populous countries (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) remained below the 20th percentile. The two others improved domestic political stability dramatically and rose above the bottom quintile: Nepal from 7th to 22nd and Sri Lanka from 10th to 35th.

Currents from the Middle East

Pakistan and Bangladesh are respectively the second and third most populous Muslim-majority countries in the world. Counting 140 million Muslims in India there are 500 million Muslims in South Asia, more than in Arab countries of the Middle East plus North Africa. The overwhelming majority are Sunni – as opposed to Shi’i or some other minority denomination. However, the theological centre of Sunni Islam is not South Asia. In explaining the changing role of Islam in Bangladesh, we cannot understand events such as the recent assassinations without taking account of religious and political currents transmitted from the Middle East.

The fundamental religious shift over the last half century in the Middle East has been the waning influence of Islamic “modernizers” in the tradition of Atatürk, Nasser and Bourguiba, and the rising influence of Islamist political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Wahhab-inspired imams of Saudi Arabia. Many political and religious leaders in the Middle East subscribe to a variant of Salafism, an austere reform tradition in Sunni Islam that claims that the writings of Muhammad and the early generations of his followers are to be read literally. Salafist teachings are dismissive of modernism as practised by Muslim leaders in the last century, and highly critical of all theological traditions that do not subscribe to Salafist ideas.

Why Salafism has achieved its present prominence among Sunni Muslims is open to several explanations, not necessarily contradictory. Nibras’s lecture to the restaurant staff embodies one of them: like Bangladesh, most nominally democratic, nominally socialist postcolonial governments in the Middle East degenerated into corrupt hypercentralized states dependent on a politicized police force. Salafism provides a counter-discourse.

Another explanation is the role of Saudi Arabia, where imams in charge of the two holiest sites of Islam enjoy an implicit contract with the Saud family. They legitimize family control of the country, provided the state finances an ambitious proselytizing campaign throughout the Islamic Ummah on behalf of a Salafist interpretation of Islam. The most extreme manifestation of Salafism is the Islamic State (IS) caliphate.

Jamaat, the largest organization with Salafist tendencies in South Asia, was founded in the 1940s. It is active in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In 1971 it opposed secession of East Pakistan, and many Jamaat leaders actively collaborated with the Pakistani army in combating the guerrillas fighting for a sovereign, secular Bangladesh.

From March 1971, when East Pakistani leaders announced secession, to December 1971, when the Indian army invaded and routed the Pakistani army, a brutal civil war raged. The great majority of deaths were due to the army, dominated by soldiers from the western provinces aided by local collaborators. Estimates of the number killed during the nine-month civil war vary widely; a low estimate is 300,000. Motivated by the need for reconciliation, Sheikh Mujib, the first prime minister of the new country, declared an amnesty on war crimes. Four decades later in 2010, Sheikh Hasina, the present prime minister and daughter of Sheikh Mujib, organized a “war crimes tribunal” to prosecute Jamaat leaders who, in their youth, had allegedly committed atrocities.5

An unexpected consequence of the tribunal was extensive blogging by university students on behalf of Bangladesh’s secular traditions and against the Islamist leaders on trial. Not surprisingly, the government supported this student activism. However, Jamaat and other Islamist organizations exploited the presence of “atheist bloggers” as a means to mobilize. A rallying cry was for their execution as apostates. Since 2013 unidentified jihadists have tracked down and killed several bloggers and secular liberals allied with them. Initially enthusiastic about student support for the war crimes tribunal, the government subsequently disowned the bloggers.

Initially, jihadists restricted assassinations to Bangladeshi liberals. The first among the recent assassinations of foreigners in the name of Islam took place in the autumn of 2015. A trio of jihadists shot and killed an Italian NGO worker who was jogging in the diplomatic zone of the capital. The Islamic State claimed credit and called for expulsion of all foreigners from Bangladesh. Whether IS has had a direct role in the assassination of foreigners over the last year, provided financial support to local jihadist organizations or merely claimed credit for activities undertaken independently is unclear.

Until the mass murder of foreigners this past summer, the government minimized the significance of a few random religious-inspired assassinations. Cabinet ministers implied that Jamaat, in alliance with the major opposition party, was probably organizing the assassinations to sully the country’s international reputation. While Jamaat is sympathetic to Salafist Islam, there is no evidence that the organization is responsible for recent assassinations.

What happens next?

The impact of Salafism is more evident in Pakistan than in Bangladesh. Many predict, however, that the violence and political instability apparent in Pakistan will in time loom equally large in Bangladesh. I hope those foretelling doom will be proved wrong, but maybe my hopes are naive. What is the evidence?

To be optimistic …

While partition in 1947 divided Bengal, Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal share a sophisticated culture most – although certainly not all – of whose iconic writers have promoted interfaith tolerance. The tip of this iceberg, visible even in the West, is Tagore.


The Pew Research Center has this decade conducted an ambitious series of international surveys on “religion and public life.” Table 1 provides some germane results from a 38,000-person random survey of Muslims across the world (the Bangladesh sample is 2,000). I contrast attitudes in Turkey, a relatively modernized Muslim country, with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Question 10 surveys respondents’ perception of the extent of tolerance in their country for “religions different from yours” and whether they approve what they perceive to be the present degree of tolerance. The question is somewhat ambiguous: does “different” refer to non-Muslims or solely to Muslim denominations other than that that of the respondent? Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority perceive the practice of other religions in their respective countries as “very free” or “somewhat free,” and virtually all think that that is a “good thing.”

To the extent that improvements in social outcomes predispose a society to peaceful reform over violence, Bangladesh public health outcomes, the best among the three populous countries of South Asia, are a source of optimism. Life expectancy at birth is 71, compared to 66 in Pakistan and India. Bangladesh is known as the “country of NGOs.” A network of very large, competently managed NGOs compensates, in part, for the low quality of public administration. The NGOs are more adept than the government in forging institutional compromises and improving on-the-ground outcomes. For example, over the last quarter century imams in Bangladesh have cooperated with NGOs and the government to lower the birthrate. The present total fertility rate in Pakistan is about 3.5 children per woman; the rate in Bangladesh is below the Indian rate and is now at the replacement level of 2.2. The under-five mortality rate has declined by over half since the early years of the previous decade. It is half the rate in Pakistan and a fifth lower than the rate in India.

In 1971 Bangladesh had no substantial industrial sector able to compete internationally. It is now the world’s second largest ready-made garment exporter. The garment sector employs four million workers (the great majority women) with above-average education levels, earning wages well above what they could earn in their villages or in the urban informal sector. The silver lining to the Rana Plaza tragedy is that it obliged the government and garment manufacturers to increase wages, and the major importers are imposing improvements in factory safety.6

To be pessimistic …

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of universal literacy as a means to enhance equality between men and women and to facilitate economic progress. Bangladesh is far from having achieved universal literacy. The second Millennium Development Goal was universal primary education by 2015. The Bangladesh government blatantly “gamed” this particular goal. Over the last quarter century the official primary school completion rate among children in the relevant age cohorts has risen from about 40 per cent to 80 per cent. However, government certification of children as having completed the five-year primary school cycle has been achieved by a lowering of standards.

As an alternative to low-quality government schools, parents may choose a religious education for their children. Currently, over a million Bangladeshi children are studying in madrassas (5 to 10 per cent of the total). Saudi Arabia generously finances these madrassas, which serve as a means to spread conservative religious ideas.

Question 58 in the Pew survey asks who should decide about wearing a veil. In Turkey 90 per cent respond that it is a matter for women to decide. In both Pakistan and Bangladesh the minority who deny women such a right is much larger. According to question 79a, in Turkey there is little interest in adopting shari’a as the basis of family law and criminal punishment. In both Bangladesh and Pakistan large majorities favour implementation of shari’a. In contrast to the tolerance implicit in responses to question 10, the distributions with respect to question 92b about apostasy are not optimistic among Bangladeshi – and even less so among Pakistani. A telling demographic statistic on the fate of religious minorities in Bangladesh is that, at the time of the liberation war, approximately 20 per cent were non-Muslim – mostly Hindu but also Buddhist and Christian. This decade that share has fallen below 10 per cent.

Bangladeshi cannot count on NGOs to preserve them from a fate comparable to Pakistan. Unless the next generation of political elites abandons “winner take all” tactics and devotes itself more diligently to better governance, it is hard to be optimistic. Continue reading “Will Bangladesh go the way of Pakistan?”

Brexit, immigration and the fate of the European Union

An introduction by John Richards

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In 1919, as Irish rebels combated the British army and Unionists, William Butler Yeats wrote one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming.” The poem has drawn new readers since the financial collapse of 2008, as a spare, lucid evocation of the spirit of the times. More prosaically, the three contributors to this section analyze “things fall apart” a century later.

Eric Shaw dissects the complex divisions within the British Labour Party occasioned by the issue of immigration. When Labour was in office before 2010, it was generous in admitting immigrants from new European Union member states in Eastern Europe – the iconic “Polish plumbers.” Now, anti-immigrant sentiment has become strongly entrenched, particularly among low-income working-class voters who traditionally voted Labour but now disproportionately support the anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party. Shaw summarizes the rifts within Labour among the holders, who want to maintain a pro-immigration stance, defuse advocates who pessimistically believe the most Labour can do is to ignore the subject and adopters who believe the economic costs from immigrants to low-income Britons de souche and cultural conflicts are so profound that Labour must adopt a much more restrictive set of immigration policies.

Pending Britain’s June 23 referendum on its EU membership, Jan Eichhorn surveys respondents in six EU member states on attitudes to a possible British exit. The majority want Britain to stay; not surprisingly, the least enthusiastic are the French. The unexpected result from his survey, at least for me, does not concern attitudes to Brexit but the extent of the desire among respondents in the six countries (France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Poland and Ireland) to conduct their own national EU-exit referendums. A plurality in Sweden, Spain and Germany favour holding such a referendum; in France, an overall majority are in favour.

Patrick Webber offers a grand tour d’horizon of populist parties from Syriza in Greece to the Donald Trump / Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns in the United States. He seeks to explain why the legitimacy of centre-left and centre-right parties is crumbling and identifies the similarities among the populists regardless whether they define themselves as left or right.

In the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Inroads, we introduced three secular Muslim writers from the Maghreb, each of whom had written essays on the danger of Islamism in the wake of the January 2015 assassination of the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo. Among them was the Algerian journalist and novelist Kamel Daoud. I also reviewed Daoud’s prize-winning novel The Meursault Investigation, comparing him to Albert Camus.

Not surprisingly, the wave of refugees entering Europe from Syria and other conflict-torn Islamic countries and the Islamist attack in Paris in November 2015 have prompted intense debate among the French. Far more than in Canada, the question of Islam’s problematic relation to modernity has become a subject of public anxiety. The sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve prompted Daoud to write a sharply critical essay in Le Monde. While the problem of Islamism is more complex than Daoud’s essay implies, his is an important voice on the major political conflict of our times.

His essay prompted a collective response in Le Monde by 19 academics and journalists. I personally find the response unconvincing in its refusal to acknowledge the ideological threat posed by Salafist currents in Islam. We here publish both in translation.

— John Richards, co-publisher

Cologne, source of many fantasies

by Kamel Daoud
Originally published in French as “Kamel Daoud : « Cologne, lieu de fantasmes »,” Le Monde, January 31, 2016, retrieved here.

What took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve? Reading eyewitness accounts it is impossible to know exactly, but we can guess what took place in the heads of the aggressors, and we know with more certainty what took place among those in the West who read about the incident: conflicting fantasies. The events correspond to Western stereotypes of the refugee/immigrant as “the other”: as both angelic victim and terrorist.

The events rekindle the fear of ancient barbarian invasions: the immigrants we welcome are barbarians who will attack, harass and rape “our” women. These are ideas of the right and extreme right, fantasies that support arguments against accepting refugees. All refugees are seen as sharing the attitudes of those who harassed women in Cologne, even if we are not sure in individual cases. Are long-settled immigrants guilty of such crimes? Or only recent refugees? Or criminal organizations? Or are the aggressors simply hooligans? The “facts” surrounding Cologne have reactivated the debate among Europeans: should they welcome immigrants or close the borders against the misery of the world?

Relations with women

And angélisme? Yes, it too is an element in Western fantasies. Europeans who welcome those seeking asylum from the Islamic State often suffer from a surfeit of naiveté. They see the refugee’s status, but not his culture. They perceive him as a victim on whom to project their own Western culture, or as someone who prompts their sense of humanitarian obligation or guilt. Europeans see the refugee and forget that he comes from a cultural trap best described in terms of its ideas about God and women.

In the West, a refugee or immigrant will be able to change his physical condition and save his life, but he will not so easily change his culture. We forget this at our peril. His culture is what remains to him in the throes of being uprooted and transplanted. The role of women in Western culture, fundamental to the idea of modernity, will for many years remain incomprehensible for him.

The immigrant or refugee will negotiate the terms of his life in a new country on the basis of his fears, compromise or the will to keep his culture. Changing his culture will proceed very, very slowly. It will take little – an affirmation of group instinct or an emotional rebuff – for his traditional cultural ideas to emerge. The European welcome to Middle Eastern immigrants is naive in being limited to the bureaucratic requirements of settlement.

So, is the refugee a “savage”? No, just different. It is not sufficient to welcome him with the appropriate papers and a place to live. Welcoming requires not only providing him with physical asylum but also convincing him to change his soul. He comes from the vast painful and terrible universe of sexual misery in the Arab Muslim world, the sickness of his relationship with women, the body and desire. Welcoming him does not cure him of that sickness.

Men’s relationship with women is the Gordian knot in the world of Allah. Women are denied, refused, killed, veiled, hidden or possessed. It is a world that implies a denial of the desire to live, to create, to be free. Women are the symbol of what one should not acknowledge. Women are the incarnation of desire and are guilty of a serious crime: life.

This conviction is widely shared, but especially prevalent among Islamists. Islamists do not value life. For them, life is wasting time while waiting for eternity – a temptation, something useless, something that distances man from God and from heaven and from a rendez-vous with eternity. Life is the product of disobedience, and disobedience is the product of a woman.

The Islamist resents women who create life, distance men from paradise with their unhealthy temptations and embody the distance between humanity and God. Since women are givers of life, and life is a waste of time, women cause men to lose their souls. The Islamist is anguished by women, because they remind him of the importance of the body – his body and theirs.

Freedom: The refugee wants it but does not accept its consequences

A woman’s body is in the public cultural domain: it belongs to all, not to the woman herself. Here is my conclusion, written some years ago, about a woman’s role in the Arab world:

To whom does a woman’s body belong? To the nation, her family, her husband, her oldest brother, her neighbourhood, the children of her neighbourhood, her father, the state, the street, her ancestors, her national culture. To everyone except herself. Her body is where she loses her identity … A woman’s body is the burden that she carries on her back. She must define what is legitimate for everyone, except herself. She is responsible for everyone’s honour, except her own. Honour prevents her from being naked because that implies making the other naked by viewing her.

A woman is a woman for everyone, except herself. Her body is an unclaimed object for everyone else to use and for her to endure. She cannot touch it without unveiling herself, or love it except by way of all the others in her world, or share it without parcelling it out among ten thousand laws. When she uncovers it, she exposes the rest of the world and finds herself attacked because it is the world and not her breast that she has bared. She is the prize in a game in which she is not a player; a sacred object, but with no respect for her person; a point of honour, but not hers; an object of desire, but with no desire of her own. A place where everyone comes together, but she is excluded. Life is lived through her, but she is forbidden from having her own life.

The refugee or immigrant wants freedom but does not understand its implications. The West is seen via women’s bodies. Female freedom is perceived through religious categories of licence or “virtue.” A woman’s body is not an indication of freedom, an essential value in the West, but something decadent: it should be constrained by possession, as a crime to be covered up.

Women’s freedom in the West is not seen as a reason for the West’s supremacy but as a whim of its cult of freedom. In Cologne, all Westerners of good faith reacted because the incidents challenged the “essence” of modernity – whereas the aggressors saw only a diversion, a night of excess fuelled by the holiday and perhaps alcohol.

Hence, Cologne is a source of fantasies: fantasies of the extreme right that fears barbarian invaders and fantasies of the aggressors who want women’s bodies naked because they are “public” property that belongs to no one. For those who fear barbarian invasions, identifying and arresting the guilty is less important than advancing the fantasy of conservative clichés. For the aggressors, there is no understanding that asylum means not only acquiring the required papers but also accepting the social contract underlying modernity.

The problem of values

Sex is the greatest cause of misery in the “world of Allah.” It has given birth to a form of porno-Islamism employed by Islamist imams to recruit the “faithful.” The paradise they describe is more a brothel than a reward for the pious. They describe fantasies of virgins for suicide bombers, chasing women in public spaces, puritan dictatorships, veils and burkas.

Islamism is an attack on desire. And the desires of Islamists sometimes explode in the West. In Islamic lands, what counts is the final judgement and life after death. Life as lived is an interlude in which the living person becomes a zombie, or a kamikaze who dreams of merging death with orgasm, or a sexually frustrated coward who goes to Europe to escape the moral constraints of Islam. These men want sex with women but refuse to let their sisters experience love with a man.

To return to the fundamental question: is Cologne a warning that the West should close its doors and close its eyes? It should do neither. To close doors will lead, sooner or later, to a closing of windows – which would be a crime against humanity. But helping refugees implies that those who welcome them work on themselves and on the refugees. Those in the West who close their eyes and ignore this arduous exercise are guilty of angélisme, which in turn can enable future acts of terrorism. Refugees and immigrants cannot be reduced to the delinquents in Cologne, but the events in Cologne pose the problem of Western values, values that must be shared, imposed and defended, and that refugees must understand. After refugees are welcomed, there is a responsibility that needs to be assumed.

Kamel Daoud is recycling the most outdated Orientalist clichés

Originally published in French as “Nuit de Cologne : « Kamel Daoud recycle les clichés orientalistes les plus éculés », Le Monde, February 11, 2016, retrieved from

While claiming to deconstruct the caricatures promoted by “the right and extreme right,” the author recycles outdated Orientalist clichés: Islam a religion of death as Ernest Renan (1823–1892) insisted, the psychology of Arab mobs as seen by Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931). Far from opening the calm, thoughtful debate that the severity of the situation requires, Daoud, on the pretext of rejecting angélisme, merely feeds the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing number of Europeans.

Daoud’s article relies on three sets of arguments.


First, his text rests on a culturalist approach, which has been subject to numerous critiques by researchers over the last 40 years. It is a dangerous line to pursue. Daoud reduces more than a billion people in a territory extending over several thousand kilometres to a homogeneous entity, defined solely by its religion, “the world of Allah.” All men are supposedly prisoners of God and their behaviour is determined by sexual pathology. The “world of Allah” is a world of pain and frustration.

Obviously marked by his experience during the Algerian civil war (1992–1999), Daoud ignores nuance and accuses all Islamists of being promoters of the logic of death. The mirror image of his vision, in which he ignores sociological reality and creates a nonexistent space out of whole cloth, is the West as as the home of a happy, emancipated modernity. Of course, the multiple forms of inequality and violence against women in Europe and North America are not discussed. His radical essentialism produces a fantastical geography that opposes a world of submission and alienation to a world of liberation and education.


In addition, Daoud offers a diagnosis of the supposed psychological state of the Muslim population. He imputes responsibility for sexual violence to sexual deviants to whom he denies any autonomy, attributing their behaviour entirely to their religion.

Muslims are portrayed as prisoners of Islamist doctrines, reduced to a state of suicidal passivity (as “zombies” and “kamikazes”). According to Daoud, upon arriving in Europe refugees respond to their being uprooted by segregating themselves in cultural ghettos. And inevitably, there arises a “reaffirmation of group instincts” against women, who are simultaneously objects of desire and hatred – especially women who present themselves as liberated.

Daoud’s use of psychology to explain sexual violence is doubly problematic. First, it eliminates consideration of the social, economic and political conditions that predispose people to commit such acts (for example, the housing conditions of refugees or the disproportionate number of immigrants who are young men). Second, his analysis contributes to the image of a flood of potential sexual predators, all suffering from the same psychological ailment. PEGIDA could not hope for a better advocate of its policies.


Is the refugee a savage? asks Daoud. He replies in the negative, but to pose such a question reinforces the idea of an unbridgeable otherness. The potential for savagery is a burden borne by all asylum-seekers, who become associated with an exogenous mass of sexually frustrated living dead. Having allegedly nothing to offer to Western society, in Western perception asylum-seekers lose their individuality – which, in fact, may well be diverse and rich.

Culturally ill-adapted and psychologically deviant, refugees must be reeducated. Not contenting himself with a diagnosis, Daoud proposes a familiar recipe: offer asylum but persuade the immigrant to change his soul. He is proposing an exercise in social engineering, with cultural and psychological dimensions. Western values, starting with respect for women, must be imposed on this collection of mentally ill people.

This project is scandalous, and not only because it invokes the indefensible mission civilisatrice and the superiority of Western values. Over and above this colonial paternalism, the project affirms (against “angélisme that can enable acts of terrorism”) that the deviant culture of Muslims is a danger for Europe. It amounts to a conditional welcome to victims fleeing war and devastation. As such, it is an antihumanist project, no matter what Daoud claims.

What does Daoud represent?

Like other Algerian writers such as Rachid Boudjedra or Boualem Sansal, Daoud engages in public affairs as one of the small number of secular intellectuals of his country. He is in daily combat in Algeria with a religious puritanism that is at times violent. In the European context, however, he embraces an Islamophobia that has assumed majority status.

Going beyond his writing, we are alarmed at the tendency in European society to racialize sexual violence. We are alarmed by the masking of racist writing in humanist clothes that fit poorly. We are alarmed that an admittedly grave random event should serve as the rationale for Daoud’s grim projects. Faced with the potential for violence, we must rely on facts, as Daoud insists. But we must do so without recourse to ancient Islamophobic clichés. In such grave times, this is something we cannot afford.


Noureddine Amara (historian), Joel Beinin (historian), Houda Ben Hamouda (historian), Benoît Challand (sociologist), Jocelyne Dakhlia (historian), Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun (sociologist), Muriam Haleh Davis (historian), Giulia Fabbiano (anthropologist), Darcie Fontaine (historian), David Theo Goldberg (philosopher), Ghassan Hage (anthropologist), Laleh Khalili (anthropologist), Tristan Leperlier (sociologist), Nadia Marzouki (political scientist), Pascal Ménoret (anthropologist), Stéphanie Pouessel (anthropologist), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (political scientist), Thomas Serres (political scientist), Seif Soudani (journalist).

Among the “real change now” promises of the Liberals is to make a substantial contribution to reduction of Canadian greenhouse gases, to break with the Harper tradition of climate change scepticism and the Chrétien-Martin era of climate change symbolism without substance. Given that the UN is convening the next major conference on climate change at the end of November, Trudeau’s government cannot ignore this file.

To date (writing in late October), Trudeau is relying on the fragile interprovincial dynamic that emerged over the last year. The provinces have agreed to let a hundred flowers bloom: some will undertake explicit carbon taxing; some will join interstate/interprovincial markets in emissions trading; some will enact tougher sectoral regulations; some will subsidize green innovations. Trudeau has invited most of the Canadian political elite to join the Canadian delegation in Paris. Invitations have been extended to Tom Mulcair, Elizabeth May and interim Tory leader Rona Ambrose, to the premiers and to leaders of national environmental groups.

Relative to Harper’s legacy, this is an improvement. And it is natural, in the postelection honeymoon phase, to hope that love will triumph over self-interest. Maybe the fact that summer 2015 was the hottest on record will help. It generated unprecedented forest fires across northern and western Canada – here in Vancouver smoke from the fires intermittently interfered with the pleasure of a Starbucks latte on a thousand outdoor patios. However, being a practitioner of the “dismal science” (economics), my instinct is that love will not triumph; “real change” requires “real change” in financial incentives.

Immodestly, I invite readers to dig up my editorial in the last issue of Inroads on the Tories’ two “big ideas.”1 The first of these ideas was to turn Canada into a low-tax country. They succeeded. In terms of taxing effort, Canada fell over the last decade from its rank as a typical OECD country to its present rank at the bottom quartile (three quarters of OECD countries tax more aggressively). For the time being, Canadians still subscribe to this first idea. The evidence? During the election campaign, the Liberals championed a personal tax increase for the “1 per cent” but accompanied it with an offsetting cut for the “middle class.” To offset its tax-and-spend reputation, the NDP promised balanced budgets subject to a modest corporate tax increase. It is an understatement to conclude that these were timorous responses to an honest discussion of tax increases to pay for new programs or for the inevitable health care cost increases to provide for the aging boomer generation.

The Tories’ second big idea was that Canada become the Saudi Arabia of North America through aggressive development of its vast hydrocarbon resources – greenhouse gas emissions be damned. That the Tories failed to realize this second goal is due not to Canadians’ collective conversion to sustainable development somewhere on the road to the UN gathering in Paris. They failed because the Saudis decided in 2014 to maintain their world market share in oil exports. They did not restrict output to maintain oil prices in the $100-a-barrel range. At $50 a barrel, most of Canada’s ambitious tar sands, liquefied natural gas and international pipeline projects were not financially viable. As corporate executives cancelled planned investments and laid off workers, Canada entered into a mild recession in 2015. As an aside, had the Saudis not cut world oil prices in half, would Stephen Harper still be prime minister?

It is a measure of the Tories’ success in realizing this second goal that the Liberals and NDP were ambiguous in discussing future oil and gas developments, and their proposals for new climate change policy are long on process, short on substance.

From the “dismal science” perspective of climate change modelling, a financial incentive of sufficient magnitude to reduce Canadian emissions substantially – say, 80 per cent reduction by 2050 relative to “business as usual” projections – will require a carbon price that rapidly ramps up to $200 or $300 per tonne of CO2 equivalent. That is a rate seven to ten times higher than the present British Columbia carbon tax. If this carbon price increase came about via a carbon tax, it would coincidentally raise Canada’s taxing effort by two percentage points of GDP, would raise about $40 billion annually and would restore Canada to the middle range of OECD countries in terms of taxing effort.

During the election campaign, not even Elizabeth May talked about a $40 billion annual tax increase. Maybe love will prevail … Continue reading “Climate change policy: Will love prevail?”

Emma Sky, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. New York: PublicAffairs, 2015. 400 pages.

It is easy to dismiss Emma Sky as a romantic reincarnation of the eccentric British diplomat and Arabist Margaret Bell, who played a major role after World War I in the creation of the Iraqi state from remnants of the Ottoman Empire. From the beginning, Iraq was an unhappy multicultural state; so it remains a century later.

Sky is the most unlikely of policy wonks. A petite Oxford-educated Arabist with liberal politics, she became the chief political adviser to Ray Odierno, the hulking U.S. general whose troops managed to tamp down the vicious Iraq civil war in the years 2007 to 2010. Her thesis is straightforward. America displayed unbelievable incompetence in planning the invasion in 2003. More so than the politicians, the senior U.S. military commanders learned from their mistakes. From 2007, they waged an effective counterterrorist campaign that, by 2010, created a social and political environment much superior to the tyranny run by Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, in the rush to exit, the Obama administration “unravelled” the military achievement. Obama’s administration – in particular, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Chris Hill, Clinton’s choice as ambassador to Iraq – comes in for blunt criticism. It is as responsible for the present chaos as George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair et al. are responsible for the chaos in Iraq in the years following 2003.

This is a memoir to make both left-liberal pacifists (from Thomas Mulcair to Jeremy Corbyn) and interventionists (from liberals such as Michael Ignatieff to neocons such as David Frum) squirm. It is part of a modest revisionist trend to look again at the role of military force in the context of deeply dysfunctional political regimes – of which Saddam’s Iraq was undoubtedly one. The major motivation for revisionism is, of course, the Syrian civil war and emergence of Islamic State, whose ramifications now reach across the Middle East and Europe. I happen to be in Bangladesh as I write. It appears that the tentacles of Islamic State may have reached here. This week (late September) a group of jihadists gunned down an Italian NGO worker while he was jogging in the diplomatic neighbourhood of the capital and, a few days later, a Japanese businessman growing herbs on a commercial basis in northern Bangladesh. Islamic State has claimed credit, saying all citizens of crusader nations are legitimate targets.
In 2003, Emma Sky was innocuously working for the British Council, an organization dedicated to promoting British literature and education throughout the world. An official email invited volunteers to work in Iraq. She accepted. The British in Basra had no job for her. She went north and ultimately offered her services to the colonel in charge of Kirkuk.

Iraq can be compared to Yugoslavia as a contested meeting ground of religious and ethnic communities with a history of mistrust. Hussein was a more vicious equivalent of Tito. Upon the removal of both dictators, their respective countries degenerated into civil war. The Kirkuk district was particularly prone to conflict. It contained not only a mix of Shia and Sunni Arab, but also many Kurds and significant minorities, such as Yazidis and Armenian Christians whose ancestors had fled massacre in their home country a century earlier. Finally, it contained much of the country’s oil wealth.

As political adviser to the U.S. colonel in charge, Sky honed her skill as diplomat. The two of them put in place an interim governing structure that avoided open conflict. The locals may not have loved the American colonel and his British adviser, but they tolerated them as a major improvement over Hussein’s tyranny. In 2004, Sky returned to her old job in Manchester. She was bored. When came the summons from Odierno, about to take operational control of U.S. military forces in Iraq, she agreed to return as his political adviser.

Over the next four years this odd couple simultaneously waged war and practised diplomacy. As Christopher Dickey wrote in his review of Sky’s book in the New York Times, the situation moved “from horrible to tolerable to seeming really pretty good” by 2010. In Sky’s telling of multiple meetings with Kurds, Shia and Sunni Arab leaders, the heart of “really pretty good” was the skill with which Odierno implemented a sophisticated counterterrorism campaign and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, cajoled the mistrustful politicians toward reconciliation.

The climax came with the 2010 election in which several coalitions confronted each other. The two major coalitions were one headed by Nouri al-Maliki, a devout Shia and prime minister at the time, and another headed by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia and former post-2003 prime minister. Maliki’s coalition was adamantly committed to maintaining Shia dominance of the country, deeply mistrustful of all Sunni Arab leaders and opposed to granting much to the Kurds. Allawi headed the second major coalition. It enjoyed the support of nearly all Sunni Arabs and a fair number of the more secular Shia. In a reasonably peaceful election with a respectable turnout of over 60 per cent, Allawi won two seats more than Maliki. Neither, however, enjoyed a majority in parliament.

Maliki turned to a range of legal and political manoeuvres to prevent Allawi from getting first crack at forming a government. Vice President Joe Biden was point man for the Obama administration. He made it clear that he preferred Maliki, a strong man with a track record, to Allawi, who headed an untested interethnic coalition. For Biden, interethnic coalitions were unworkable. Better to let a tough Shia leader with strong support in the majority ethnic-religious community run the show. Odierno protested vigorously via reports to the Defense Department in Washington that Maliki was too authoritarian, too paranoid to be capable of interethnic compromise, too prone to patronage and corruption and too close to the Iranians. Leaving him in charge risked a return to the civil war of 2004–06.

Events have proved Odierno right and Biden wrong. America’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq has ushered in a second civil war, potentially more murderous than the first. Since 2014 much of the Sunni Arab leadership has rallied to Islamic State. At the time of writing, the U.S. Congress is grilling generals over the inability of Iraqi “boots on the ground” to make headway against Islamic State. Maliki’s disregard for professional merit has turned the Iraqi army into a shell, its officers unwilling to lead and its soldiers unwilling to fight. While the United States has reluctantly rejoined the battle via air strikes, the only effective “boots on the ground” are Islamic State, Shia militia heavily influenced by Iran and the Peshmerga in Kurdistan. Iraq has unravelled.

emma-sky2 emma-sky3

In late April, Joe Oliver, Canada’s current Finance Minister, delivered his first budget. In a nice touch, the budget began with Oliver’s homage to his predecessor: “Our first balanced budget since the downturn is the legacy of a man who steered our nation through the worst economic crisis since the 1930s: my predecessor, colleague and friend, Jim Flaherty.”

We can quibble about the accounting, but essentially Oliver is right: the Tories have balanced the budget despite an unexpected collapse in oil and gas prices over the last year. When, post-2011, the Tories became a majority government, Flaherty had more discretion to follow his instincts. The result is, as the budget announces, the lowest ratio of federal tax revenue to GDP in 50 years. On the other side of the House, claims such as this have prompted Liberal and NDP MPs to predict an end to Canada’s Nordic tradition of a compassionate welfare state.

If you download the budget1 and look at the graph on page 340, you will see that the maximum sustained federal tax/GDP ratio over the last 50 years was about 18 per cent. This was during the years from the late 1980s to the late 1990s when Tory and Liberal governments sought an end to two decades of continuous federal deficits. In 2000, the Liberals lowered tax rates significantly and the ratio fell to about 16 per cent. Since 2008, the Tories have lowered the ratio to 14 per cent – initially in a grudging Keynesian exercise of lowering taxes and maintaining spending during a recession, subsequently in a conservative exercise of constraining spending to match the lower tax revenues.

For many reasons I would like a return to 16 per cent, but there are other more important questions to debate. There is something surreal about Canadian politicians devoting so much rhetoric to the wisdom or error of a two-percentage-point reduction in the federal tax/GDP ratio since the Tories assumed office.

The most important question raised by Harper’s leadership, I suggest, is: do we want Canada to be the Saudi Arabia of North America? Beyond lowering taxes, the “big idea” among Tory leaders over the last decade has been to put an end to eastern domination of Canadian politics by exploiting Canada’s vast energy resources – tar sands in particular. A corollary to this “big idea” has been to label concern with expanding world use of fossil fuels and consequent climate change left-wing paranoia.

That a Calgary-dominated government has sought to minimize climate change as an issue may not be honourable, but is understandable. Less understandable is the timorous criticism by Liberal and NDP leaders of the Tories’ “big idea.” There have been exceptions. Thomas Mulcair made a few speeches in 2012 to the effect that Canada is suffering from “Dutch disease”: excessive resource development, distorted prices and wages and stagnant productivity. When challenged, he backed off. A more notable exception was Stéphane Dion’s “green shift” campaign in 2008. His inability to make carbon taxing a politically palatable subject was due to more than a stilted rhetorical style. The NDP played a disingenuous role. During the 2008 campaign Jack Layton vigorously attacked both Dion’s “green shift” and British Columbia’s recently enacted carbon tax:

Our plan works without taxing your family like the tax Campbell imposed and that Harper approved and that Dion wants to make three times worse. Our plan makes the big polluters pay instead, and it doesn’t tax ordinary families like yours.

This was staggering political opportunism. By 2008 the evidence on cap and trade was clear: it is open to so much manipulation by governments issuing permits that it usually doesn’t work. And if any such scheme is vigorously implemented, the “big polluters” pass on the cost of permits to “ordinary families.” Not content to attack Dion, Layton damned B.C.’s carbon tax, which is now widely credited as the most ambitious initiative to date in North America to introduce emissions pricing.

The post-2008 conclusion drawn by both Liberal and NDP leaders has been to avoid challenging the Tories’ “big idea.” However, for many reasons, this “big idea” is a bad idea and should be challenged.

First, it led to an unwarranted appreciation of the Canadian dollar against its U.S. counterpart, from 65–70 cents in the early 2000s to above par in the early 2010s. As Tom Courchene has argued, speculative expectations of rapidly expanding oil and gas exports created a demand for the loonie beyond economic fundamentals.2 The unwarranted increase in the exchange rate exacerbated the post-recession problem of maintaining manufacturing jobs in the Canadian economy. The decline of the Canadian dollar to 80 cents over the last year is due to the Saudis’ refusal to curtail production and to other geopolitical conflicts over oil and gas exports – not to any rethinking among Canadians of the value of the “big idea.”

Second, the hegemony of the “big idea” has meant that Canada has dragged its feet on the diplomatically difficult task of defining climate change policy. For example, the opposition often criticizes pipeline proposals, but only under the cover of objection by Native groups making land claims or by environmentalists fearing oil spills. What an NDP or Liberal government would do on this file, were either in power, is unknown.

Third, the Liberal/NDP quasi-endorsement of the “big idea” has minimized public discussion of Canadian productivity growth, which has been less than impressive in recent decades. At the core of productivity growth is promoting education success among successive generations. And the foundation of education success is students doing well in Grades K–12.

How is Canada faring internationally in terms of K–12? The best answers to this question come from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the OECD’s international evaluation of math, reading and science knowledge among upper-secondary students in randomly selected schools in more than 60 countries. Overall, Canada fares pretty well in terms of PISA, but its performance has declined over the last decade, both absolutely and in international ranking. And performance across provinces varies immensely. The most precipitous declines have occurred in Newfoundland, Alberta and Manitoba.

Almost certainly, the declines in Newfoundland and Alberta are due to these provinces’ oil-based economies. If – until recently – a teenager could earn $75,000 annually driving a truck to and from Fort McMurray, why struggle with grade 11 algebra? Why finish high school? Not only did PISA scores decline sharply over the last decade in these two provinces, but according to the latest census their high school dropout rates are well above the national average for young adults.

Much of Manitoba’s decline can be attributed to a rising share of Aboriginal students, whose K–12 education outcomes remain very weak. With Aboriginals comprising nearly a third of Manitoba and Saskatchewan school-age cohorts, the productivity and social cohesion of these prairie provinces require that Aboriginal education outcomes improve dramatically. As the controversy over the First Nations Control of First Nations Education demonstrates, improving Aboriginal education is a crucial but politically sensitive subject.3 Liberal and NDP MPs have been absent from the debate.

Fourth, the prospect of easy prosperity from oil and gas exports has coarsened provincial political debate in western Canada and encouraged provincial politicians to evade tough choices. In the early 1990s, Roy Romanow’s NDP government in Saskatchewan inherited the largest provincial debt (relative to provincial GDP) and in its first term raised taxes and reduced spending. The skill with which his government balanced the budget over its first term was such that the NDP was comfortably reelected in mid-decade. Could a western premier repeat such an exercise this decade? In particular, will Rachel Notley be able to do it? I’m not sure.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has become the most consistent premier in voicing scepticism over climate change. In 2013, B.C. Premier Christy Clark won reelection by wearing a hard hat and promising thousands of construction jobs and billions of dollars in future royalty revenues from liquefied natural gas exports. Admittedly, there is a case for using natural gas as a substitute for coal. If that was Clark’s primary goal, however, she would have been talking to her Alberta and Saskatchewan colleagues on use of B.C.’s gas for the rapid phase-out of their coal-fired power plants. She wasn’t.

This “coarsening” has afflicted not only our politicians but all of us. Albertans have something in common with Greeks faced with the European Union’s post-2008 recession. Both Greeks and Albertans have abandoned the political establishment that prevailed during good times. In both cases the plurality has swung left; a substantial minority has swung right. Jim Prentice deserved to be humbled in Alberta’s recent election. He was among the inner core of Calgary corporate leaders promoting western Canadian oil and gas exports over the last decade. Nonetheless, he was right to insist that Albertans bear collective responsibility for having endorsed low taxes, high public sector salaries and a bloated provincial budget overly reliant on resource royalties.

I don’t want to be merely a curmudgeon. Had I been in Alberta, I too would have voted for the NDP. After four decades, the Tories had become dependent on donations by the Calgary corporate elite. Rachel Notley is a sophisticated politician who, on climate change, has hinted at sensible initiatives – such as expanding the interprovincial power grid and buying B.C. electricity to be generated from the large Site C dam as a means to rapidly phase out Alberta’s coal-fired power plants.

It is too soon to know how the Alberta NDP will govern. Maybe Notley will lead Albertans away from infatuation with the Tories’ “big idea.” Maybe she will display Romanow’s skill in balancing the provincial budget while maintaining services. We shall see.

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