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If you want to read a European book decrying Islam and Muslims, you have many to choose from. The dominant style on the continent is memoir, recounting the horrific experiences of a Muslim (or formerly Muslim) woman in her Islamic milieu. Infidel andThe Caged Virgin, by former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are the most familiar in this genre. The best-selling French titles speak for themselves: Dishonored;Mutilated; The Sold Ones and The Fatiha (both on forced marriages); Disfigured; Souad, Burned Alive; and Latya, Her Face Stolen.
Europe’s anti-Islam sentiment may be expressed most visibly in memoirs because Europeans have been reticent to condemn Islam—or religion more generally—outright. Americans, however, seem to prefer a less subtle approach. In the United States, alongside the autobiographies, we find two kinds of direct attack on Islam: as a “gutter religion” (as Louis Farrakhan once described Judaism) and as a threat to our fundamental values—a threat that has already overrun Europe and is now heading this way.
Robert Spencer’s The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran illustrates the first style of attack. I am interested in the second style. They’re asleep; we’re next—so we are warned in Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within. We hear a similar message in his Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom; in Brigitte Gabriel’s They Must Be Stopped; and Mark Steyn’s America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.
Perhaps these books are innocent, less about an animus against Islam than an expression of Americans’ secret delight in knocking weak-kneed French and English politicians. Or maybe we simply prefer displacing our anxiety about Islam from the nice Pakistani surgeon next-door onto jihadists invading European cities.
But these cheerful readings do not do justice to the books’ somber tone or their striking thematic consistency (shared with many like-minded Web sites). Islam, they argue, has shocked Europeans, the shock comes from Islamic values, and the clash is unlikely to subside. These three themes—Islamic shock, value conflict, and unending struggle—evoke Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” but with added urgency: Muslims are now on the wrong side of the Huntingtonian line.
We need to take this argument seriously and understand what is wrong with it. And—to cut right to the chase—it is wrong on every detail that matters.
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Consider first the idea of an Islamic shock, that Islamic immigrants have disrupted European life in ways completely unlike previous waves of immigrants. On its face, the argument is valid: before World War II, most workers migrating into a Western European country were European Christians (usually Catholics), who looked more or less like the natives. By contrast, the new workers coming into Germany, Britain, France, and elsewhere after 1945 included more non-Europeans than ever before, and most were rural Muslims from Africa or Asia. Post-1970s we have been witnessing a third wave of people from Africa and Asia trying to make their way into Europe’s supranational regime of immigration, the Schengen Area, a zone comprising 25 countries. For many securely inside the Area, Europe may seem a fortress with its Maginot line at Calais (confusingly, Britain is outside the Area) and its porous points on the shores of Mayotte and the walls around the Spanish North African enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Storming the walls, swimming the seas, or trekking across borders are refugees and asylum seekers, people claiming family-reunification rights, people working without proper papers, people on the way, perhaps, to having proper papers—all immigrants less welcome but pressing to get a toehold on the Old Continent.
For those not on the far right, complaining of too many ‘immigrants’ has been a relatively safe way of complaining of too much Islam.
There are real differences among these three historical streams of immigrants. And the Islamic character of much of the second and third waves has indeed bothered many Europeans. Mayors refusing to allow the construction of—and, a few times, razing—mosques; landlords refusing to rent to Muslims; controversies over headscarves; and now, in Switzerland, minarets, singled out as signs of “Islamism.” All these recurrent actions testify to the Islamic shock felt by many, not to mention the rhetoric of far-right political parties. For those not on the far right, complaining of too many “immigrants” has been a common and relatively safe way of complaining of too much Islam.
But Islamic shock is not simply a description of differences in flows of people. The claim is that the new wave of immigration has been uniquely disruptive of a European “way of life.” This narrative of pre-Islamic immigration by white Europeans sharing the same values, going to the same churches, and welcoming new immigrants with their good hearts, it turns out, is baloney. Yet even the most knowledgeable of the European-Islamic-threat writers, the journalist Christopher Caldwell in his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (2009), describes an undifferentiated Europe now besieged by Muslims. Conveniently forgotten are centuries of religious wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions, attacks on Belgian and Italian immigrants to France, and, of course, the events of the early 1940s, in which good French and Dutch people joined good Germans in denouncing and arresting Jews and transporting them to death camps.
Lest we relegate those events to a distant past, we should ask how much serious reflection on 1940s culpability one hears from the Netherlands, say, or Norway (or Poland or . . .), or why it remains so difficult to extradite war criminals from Germany, or why old-style anti-Semitism (by hooligans, not Moroccans) remains so firmly-entrenched in the European landscape.
The pertinence of these objections comes from the Burkean core of Caldwell’s complaints, highlighted by his title. People, he argues, should not have to radically change their ways of life. But the massive arrival of Muslims has forced such changes, wrested quiet Europeans from their peaceful ways, and forced them to look at minarets next to their steeples. Yet when about one-third of French people freely admit to being racist, and some Britons on camera casually compare Muslims to cockroaches, the conservative argument loses some of its bite. Perhaps some Europeans need a good jolt to confront the persistent racism that plagues the continent. It was not by calming troubled souls that the United States moved from centuries of slavery and Jim Crow to electing a black President. Confronting the American dilemma required a long fight for civil rights. Most of us think that we are a better society for it. Perhaps Europeans would take a comparable and proper pride in confronting the European dilemma, making good on their own premises and promises of social equality.
Caldwell’s Burkean argument does not involve new policy. Burke himself championed the gradual, English way of change over the abrupt French one (forgetting how much violence accompanied the Glorious Revolution). What then are the practical conclusions to be drawn from anti-Islamic Burkean sentiments? Europe is already a plural society. Do we send Muslim European citizens “back”? More common are calls to reverse the misguided “multiculturalist” policies that engendered large Muslim populations in the first place.
This is an odd argument, given that neither culture nor its multi-ness had anything to do with the arrival of the workers and their families. Workers came out of mutual economic self-interest. After World War II, European governments recruited workers (who happened to be mainly Muslims) to rebuild Europe. The governments placed these workers in lodgings away from the rest of the population. The schools taught immigrant children in Arabic or Turkish not out of multicultural correctness but on the theory that they would one day leave with their families. When the immigrants did not leave, and the recession of the 1970s made their presence less desirable, family reunification became the main argument for allowing new immigrants to settle legally in Europe; this remains the case today. Muslim migration after the years of labor recruitment is not the product of a theory of cultural diversity. It is almost entirely due to Europeans obeying international legal requirements that people be allowed to lead a “normal family life.”
In Europe and elsewhere, there is a widespread assumption that all Muslims think one way and all non-Muslims another.
Indeed, current laws and policies in most of Western Europe do not promote immigration, but mainly guarantee residents’ legal rights. In Britain this means the right to wear religiously motivated dress to school and eat religiously required foods in the school canteen. In the Netherlands and France it means the right to have state support for religious schools that open their doors to anyone. These rights were won by earlier generations of Catholics and Protestants; they have nothing to do with naïve multiculturalist Islamophilia. While these legal rights are often challenged—by onerous language requirements in the Netherlands, or severe restrictions on family reunification in Italy—in principle, they are assured.
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The second thesis, about a conflict over values, is similarly shaky. The central idea is that Muslim culture or religion (or both) have been disruptive not because of local prejudice but because Muslims do not share European commitments to universal values. The argument has nation-specific inflections: in the Netherlands, it often crystallizes around the Dutch tolerance for gay men versus Islamic intolerance of same; in Norway, around cases of forced marriage; in France, Belgium, and, most recently, Italy around the oppression of women symbolized by a few hundred niqabs or burqas.
These arguments suffer from two defects: shallow historical memory and “block thinking.” As Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn remind us in their When Ways of Life Collide (2007), a generation ago those Dutch people who today vaunt their egalitarianism and their toleration of all lifestyles were authoritarian in family life and homophobic in public and in private. A recent study found a rising number of young Dutch men who espouse attitudes of tolerance, but then attack gay men. Nor have Europeans always been gender-equal. Two generations ago, French women were not able to vote and did not have the same rights to property as men, and Muslim women in much of the world had more avenues to gaining divorce than did most European women. Europeans, Africans, and Asians all have been moving gradually toward greater legal recognition of equal rights for women and men, and everywhere it has been a struggle.
Perhaps more insidious is block thinking, whereby the diversity of perspectives within a social group is collapsed into a single caricature. Today, in Europe and elsewhere, there is a widespread assumption that all Muslims think one way and all non-Muslims another. True, polls show that in relatively non-religious Europe, Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to be opposed to abortion, homosexuality, and suicide. According to a 2009 Gallup survey, in France 78 percent of the general public finds homosexuality morally acceptable, compared to 35 percent of French Muslims. We could also, however, compare Europeans with Americans on this question. A 2009 Pew study reported that 49 percent of Americans find homosexuality to be “morally wrong,” that regular church-going means a greater likelihood of disapproval, and that American Protestants and American Muslims disapprove of homosexuality in equal measure—60 percent. The gap is not between Islam and the West, but between more religious and less religious people.
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What about the idea of an unending struggle? Some Islamophobes claim that differences in civilization and religion between Islam and Europe will last because a fast-growing Muslim population is poised to take over European cities and establish political control in the name of a global ummah. This argument disputes the notion that Muslim immigrants (and, a fortiori, their children) will do what most immigrants do: adapt. To the contrary, the argument says, multiculturalist—as opposed to assimilationist—policies isolated Muslims just as ummah TV was reaching youth with calls for jihad, and the new generations will continue to be motivated by radical Islam in all areas of their lives: as they plan families, build schools, and riot, all with Islamic political victory as their goal.
Proponents of this argument can point to the greater Islam-mindedness of Muslims growing up in Europe from the late 1980s on. That generation began to organize—using the opportunities and political styles characteristic of each host country—to achieve equal social, political, and religious rights. British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis organized local action committees and sharia councils; French North Africans formed national confederations of mosques; rival factions of German Turks tried to reach the level of agreement required to form a public corporation and receive state aid (they still have not done that).
In creating sharia councils, British Muslims began to look “separatist,” and some do call for greater authority for sharia mediation. Against that British institutional background, a good number of younger Muslims call for governance “by sharia,” whatever that might mean. French Muslims began to look “corporatist,” as national organizations sought control over local mosque financing; everyone—Muslims included—calls for laïcité (secularity) to be applied equally. Throughout Europe, some Muslims developed ties with transnational groups: intellectual ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, spiritual ones with West African Sufi orders, financial ones with Gulf sheikhs.
In other words, these Islamic political actors have adapted to national opportunity structures with more or less success: more in the cases of British, French, and Belgian Muslims, less in the cases of German, Dutch, and Swedish ones. The organizing that ostensibly proves Islamism is on the rise in fact shows that these immigrants are following the examples of their predecessors. Like Catholics and Jews before them, Muslims build religious schools and associations—usually with external financial aid—and get involved in elections. In Britain, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are more likely to vote than others. This might look to some like evidence of Muslims trying to take political control, but political engagement seems to be accompanied by trust in government. The 2009 Gallup poll on Islam and integration found that Muslims in Germany and Britain had more confidence in the courts and the national governments than did the general German and British publics. (French Muslims had slightly less confidence in each.) In France, half of all Muslims supported the law most often cited there as anti-Islamic: the 2004 ban of Islamic headscarves from public schools. Muslims are adapting like everyone else and are divided like everyone else.
Since European Muslims are working through national political structures, some of them become frustrated when those structures fail to make good on the promise of equal treatment. The most extreme response to this frustration is France’s urban strife, from the riots that began in late 2005 in some poor areas to rising everyday violence ever since. France’s FBI, the Renseignements Généraux, analyzed the 2005 violence as “popular revolts” fueled by joblessness, family breakdown, and discrimination—an analysis with which the not-terribly-liberal Economist concurred. If one assumes that Islam governs all antisocial acts committed by people with Arabic or Turkish last names, then the French authorities cannot be right. Thus Caldwell’s surprising and unsupported conclusion that although the rioters may not have said they were rioting for religious reasons, in fact they were all fundamentalists who believed in Team Islam.
Attempting to refute arguments about assimilation, anti-Muslim writers also assert that Muslims will continue to have high birthrates because the Prophet told them to and because it serves the Islamist strategy to conquer Europe. Anti-Muslim Web sites predict that in 2050 Europe will be half Muslim. The German government is supposed to have said this; though, in reality, it said the opposite. Conservative pundits from Patrick Buchanan and Bernard Lewis to the commentators at the partisan Population Research Institute warn that Europe and Christianity will succumb to Islam because of differential birth rates. The now-viral “Muslim Demographics” video on YouTube tells viewers that France has 1.8 children per family but “Muslims, 8.1 children per family” and that “in just 39 years, France will be an Islamic Republic.” Both the BBC and the skeptic Web site Tiny Frog have assembled detailed rebuttals.
Putting aside the faulty data—France does not even collect demographic data by religion—these arguments have two deficiencies. First, total fertility rates (TFR) are falling in many of the Muslim-majority countries sending people to Europe. During the period 1985-2003, the TFR fell from 3.3 to 2.2 in Turkey and from 4.5 to 2.5 in Morocco, thus approaching European rates—France has a TFR of 2.1. Second, Muslim women born in European countries are doing precisely what demographers predicted: having fewer children. Fertility rates for Muslim women born in European countries are declining quickly, heading toward rates for natives.
But even if European Muslims are increasingly acting like other Europeans in the polling place and the bedroom, don’t Islamic institutions—mosques and schools—feed the ranks of al Qaeda? A number of jihadists have come from Europe’s cities, but as the counterterrorism expert Marc Sageman argues in Leaderless Jihad (2008), they were woefully uneducated in Islam and thus incapable of evaluating the jihadist arguments. “It follows,” he writes, “that more religious education for these young men might have been beneficial.” Developing centers of religious learning and teaching—as the governments of many European countries are committed to doing—will help spread more sophisticated understandings of Islam.
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Europe will survive its changing composition, as it has before. But the political shape of the Europe that emerges will depend on how European leaders frame the matter of citizenship. Europeans have some experience, not particularly rosy, of dividing people by religious affiliation and of making one group the scapegoat for all that ails them. A sequel probably will not lead to a happier end. Most European leaders—on the right and left—know this and are seeking ways to build and broaden national institutions to include, on equal grounds, their Muslim citizens. They are supporting the creation of schools and mosques, debating the hard questions of sociability and religious freedom, and developing new ways of enforcing anti-discrimination laws. To be sure, some European political figures are rekindling old fires. Those of us on the other side of the Atlantic would do well to understand the constructive efforts rather than fanning the flames.
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