- May 14, 2009
- 12 minutes read
Realism is back, because democracy is an uncertain proposition
Bernard Lewis, the Princeton University scholar of Islamic history, was asked in 2004 whether he thought Europe would become a superpower by the end of the century. By that time, he scoffed, Europe would be “part of the Arabic west, of the Maghreb.”
Professor Lewis’s star has waned recently, since his views on the problems of the Arab world were used by Washington neoconservatives to justify the war in Iraq. But the idea he expressed – that Europe is falling to an army of Muslim immigrants – is flourishing, at least in the US.
On the internet you can see bogus or distorted statistics indicating that the conquest of Europe is at hand through the extraordinary fertility of the Muslim family. On one website, foreign-born mothers in France are said to have 8.1 children on average (the real figure for mothers from Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco is 3.3 to 3.4). This bogus figure is now used in webchat to apply to Muslims in the US, extending the supposed demographic threat there.
The latest salvo comes from Christopher Caldwell, an editor on the conservative Washington magazine The Weekly Standard, who has just published a grim prognosis for Europe in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe.
The title is chosen to imply that Muslim immigration will reshape Europe as surely as the French Revolution of 1789. The author has spent a decade interviewing politicians and extremists in Europe, so this is not a quick cut and paste job. But still his tone is alarmist, and he casts the issue in military terms: immigrants are “seizing territory”, he writes, as part of “Islam’s pretensions to global domination”.
He concludes that Europe is in terminal decline, its spirituality reduced to an empty consumerism. It no longer wants to “write history in letters of blood”, to use the words of the French thinker, Raymond Aron. In Caldwell’s view, the migration across the Mediterranean to the north is no different from the military led colonisation of the southern shores of Mediterranean by Europe in the 19th century.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch feminist who is now a resident fellow at a conservative think-tank in Washington, has weighed in with her own military metaphors. If Europe falls to Islam, she writes, it will be because the Europeans are too “lily-livered” to fight for their values and their future.
There is no doubt that immigration – or rather halting the trend towards segregation of Muslim communities – is a major political issue for Europe. But these blasts from America generally confuse several issues. They conflate the anxiety felt by Europeans at globalisation, which is stripping away their economic security, with the loss of sovereignty involved in the European Union, and the rising number of immigrants. Half these are not Muslim, but in the rush to create a threat, the non-Muslims are quietly forgotten.
Mass immigration has always spread panic. When the Irish arrived in large numbers in the US, they were seen as violent, crime-prone and, as Roman Catholics, followers of a religion that was resistant to progress. The Italian peasants who came to work in the French mines in the 19th century appeared subhuman, while the arrival of Jews from central Europe in London provoked riots.
Times have changed, and there are solid reasons why modern immigrants will not integrate so easily as those in the past. Satellite television and cheap air travel mean that immigrant communities retain their home language for generations. The cultural distance between immigrants and host communities grows every year: a Muslim family arriving in England in the 1950s could expect to find an industrial job for the head of the household, and be surrounded by people who treasured respectable family life and frowned – for the most part – on drunkenness. Nowadays, industrial jobs have gone, to be replaced by the service industry, which favours women, who are paid to act out a cheery role, or even flirt with the customer. Alcohol is the universal social solvent.
These are some of the real reasons why immigrant communities are tending to segregation. But American conservatives prefer to base their arguments on a moral foundation, which echoes well in the country’s heartland.
Caldwell likes to quote writers and thinkers on the envy felt by white Europeans at the vitality, sexual drive and cultural certainties of immigrant communities. But this is a thin argument. A European author who cited the popularity of hip-hop and black street fashion as a sign of the decline of the white man in America would be laughed at.
Europe, having written history in letters of blood for the first half of the 20th century, made a conscious decision to dissolve its nationalisms into a federation, leaving an amorphous idea of tolerance as its only god.
This is anathema to conservative American thinkers, for whom America has a moral duty of leadership in the world. At a time when US armies are retreating from Iraq and struggling in Afghanistan, the moral battleground of Europe seems surer territory to fight on than any real battlefield.
American writers have a point that Europe has indulged its immigrants – especially rabble-rousing preachers. Europe could indeed learn something from America – in terms of making clear to immigrant communities that they can keep their religion in the home, but unless they join the mainstream in the workplace, they will remain poor and marginal. Talk of war and conquest, however, does not help Europe resolve its problems.
Caldwell’s book provides no prescriptions for addressing the issues arising from immigration in Europe. Rather it is a moral fable, a scare story, to show the Americans what happens when nations lose their religion, their patriotism and their sense of identity. At a time when President Obama is expressing respect for Islam and proposing consensus as a way to solve world problems, it can be seen as a desperate cry to stiffen US moral fibre