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Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West

By Christopher Caldwell

(Doubleday, 422 pp., $30)

 

As its subtitle makes clear, this is a book about immigration, Islam, and the West. But at the same time this is also a book about a particular moral culture, a set of attitudes, habits, and beliefs that has developed in Western Europe over the past sixty years. There isn’t a good shorthand way to describe this moral culture. Sometimes it is called “political correctness,” though politics as such does not define it. Sometimes it is called “the culture of tolerance,” though at times it is not tolerant at all. Christopher Caldwell mostly winds up calling it the “European project,” which is not bad, since it implies that it is something that Europe is still building, an ongoing but incomplete enterprise, a “project” for the future.

The focus on the future is correct, for the source of these attitudes, habits, and beliefs--the European mentality that is Caldwell’s subject--is a deep desire both to forget and to atone for the past. At the heart of the European project lies a set of memories: of the vast physical destruction left in the wake of World War II, of the cycles of hatred and violence that followed the Nazi invasion of most of the continent, of the tyrannies of communism, and above all of the Holocaust. The primary task of this project is to purge these memories. This may be done in two ways: by rejecting anything reminiscent of traditional nationalism and traditional religion, and by promoting a halcyon form of cultural relativism. Early in his book, Caldwell explains:

The war supplied European thinkers with all their moral categories and benchmarks, whether the issue at hand was the progress of civilization, criteria for ethical statesmanship, or rationales for military intervention. Avoiding another European explosion meant, above all, purging Europe’s individual countries of nationalism, with “nationalism” understood to include all vestiges of racism, militarism, and cultural chauvinism--but also patriotism, pride, and unseemly competitiveness. The singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags became, in some countries, the province only of skinheads and soccer hooligans. 

Raymond Aron inquired into the same phenomenon back in the 1970s, observing that Europeans “would like to exit from history, from la grande histoire, from the history that is written in letters of blood.” The most obvious achievement of this project, the European Union itself, is explicitly designed to do just that. Indeed, it is no accident that among the EU’s original founders--Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy--were nations whose elites felt deep guilt about their wartime aggression or collaboration. For some, the sacrifice of a part of their sovereignty seemed a small price to pay for the chance to become “European” instead of, say, “German.”

Caldwell is not the first to describe this culture, though he does so in a blessedly objective way--his interest, he says, is “neither to defend it as common sense nor to reject it as claptrap,” and his book lives up to this stringent standard. This is important, in this context. For many of the arguments about Islam in Europe are really arguments about the European project--and about racism, militarism, cultural chauvinism, patriotism, pride, and competitiveness--which is why they often become so quickly inflamed. Frequently they deteriorate into name-calling, as one side accuses the other of different forms of fascism. I am not sure that Caldwell has avoided all of the pitfalls of this difficult debate, but at least he has tried to do so. This is a book written in good faith.

 

What does all this have to do with Islam? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Caldwell’s central argument is that the European project, which was never designed with immigration in mind, let alone Muslim immigration, became the foundation upon which millions of Muslims came to live permanently in Europe. Certainly the European project shaped the conditions under which Muslims and others were initially invited to the continent. In the past this would not have happened, if only because immigration officials would never have allowed so many people, and certainly not from such foreign cultures, to settle permanently in their countries. In postwar Europe, however, bureaucrats did not allow themselves to take into account cultural differences, even when considering immigration requests in large numbers: cultural differences were not supposed to matter anymore, because that way lies fascism and its corpses.

Postwar guilt was also closely related to post-colonial guilt, and post-colonial guilt was the reason why some countries, notably France and Britain, initially opened their doors so widely to Algerians, Tunisians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis, among others. Surely, the argument went, their former imperial rulers owed something to the inhabitants of the British Commonwealth and the Francophone world. This argument even worked in countries that had never possessed any colonies, as all immigrants coming from ex-colonial countries were automatically classed as members of oppressed cultures who deserved the assistance of modern, anti-racist, anti-colonial, secular Europeans. In this sense, the postwar European project represented an admirable attempt to transcend Europe’s old and ugly anxieties about sameness and otherness. The European project also nurtured an admirable instinct to welcome asylum-seekers--people who had a justifiable fear of persecution in their own countries. Some European Jews had been saved during the war, after all, because they had successfully sought asylum elsewhere--and many had died because they had been refused.

Over time, however, European enthusiasm for the offering of asylum was dampened by the exponential expansion in numbers of asylum seekers, not all of whom, as it turned out, were truly suffering from political persecution. Still, the real problem for European immigration services was never the “bogus asylum-seekers,” as the British tabloids call them, but the real ones. At the end of 2008, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees counted more than sixteen million legitimate refugees, all of whom technically have a right to European asylum. Particularly when the humanitarian need to reunite them with their spouses, parents, and children is taken into account, along with the need to make amends for colonial cruelty, this is potentially a very large number of people.

Indeed, a very large number of people--in fact, an unprecedented number--arrived, and are still arriving. Some 1.5 million of the nine million people who live in Sweden are immigrants or the children of immigrants, as are some three million of the sixteen million inhabitants of the Netherlands. At current rates, one-quarter to one-third of the population of most Western European countries will be of non-European origin by the middle of this century. In many major cities--Rotterdam, Marseille, Leicester--Muslims may soon be in the majority. In some districts of major cities, including London and Amsterdam, they already are.

Once the immigrants had arrived, the complicated morality of the European project also made it hard, rather paradoxically, for Europeans to absorb the newcomers, especially those from the Muslim world. Europeans who were trying to abandon their own national identities were not going to thrust those identities on immigrants. After all, who was to say whose culture was better? No one saw the need to promote assimilation--to teach Turks to be German, or Moroccans to be Dutch. The very idea was embarrassing. Strangely, in retrospect, very few Europeans even felt that it was necessary to induct newcomers into the European project itself. No one explained to them that being “Dutch” now meant respecting womens’ rights, or that being “German” was incompatible with Holocaust denial, or that open distaste for homosexuals would be considered socially unacceptable. No one felt comfortable inflicting any moral or historical lessons upon them at all. This led to a great deal of mutual incomprehension. As Caldwell writes, 

Just because they were migrating to Europe did not mean immigrants accepted, understood, or even noticed the European project to leave behind “the history written in letters of blood.” On the contrary, many immigrants, and many children and grandchildren of immigrants, considered it a duty to shout from the rooftops their wish for a Palestinian state or a Kurdish homeland or an Islamist Algeria. They kept alive dreams of cultural, national, and even racial glory that were beyond the reach of Europeans’ universalism because they were beyond the reach of Europeans’ understanding. The misunderstanding was mutual.

 

Worse, when some European governments belatedly came to the conclusion that they would have to make active efforts to assimilate their immigrants, they often found that it was too late. The immigrant communities had taken the rhetoric about cultural relativism to heart, and immediately perceived any such efforts as “racist.” When David Blunkett, the British home secretary in the late 1990s, began for the first time to criticize the practice of forced marriages among some British Asians and to advocate the mandatory teaching of English, his remarks were considered biased and beyond the pale. Shahid Malik, a former member of the British Commission for Racial Equality, accused him of “unsettling hundreds of thousands of non-white Britons.” Blunkett’s remarks, Malik said, “felt like a kick in the teeth.”

But if the immigrants were not going to be German or Dutch or British, but were no longer Turkish or Moroccan or Pakistani, what were they going to be? The answer, as it turned out, was that many of them were going to live in ghettos, where their identity as “Muslims” would matter far more to them than it might ever have done in their country of origin, and where many of them would begin to practice the politics of fundamentalism. Finding the fuzziness of the European project unappealing, they returned to--or, among the young, discovered--their Islamic roots. And here is the tragedy of the story: for all its well-meaning secular earnestness, for all its determination to avoid the mistakes of the past, the European project wound up creating an angry and alienated religious minority where none had existed before.

 

Caldwell’s account of how we got to where we are today is elegant and accurate, and I am sorry to simplify some of his arguments here. His discussion of the continually evolving explanations that European politicians have given their countrymen about the necessity of maintaining a continually growing immigrant population--the explanations are sometimes economic, sometimes moral, sometimes gastronomic--is particularly splendid. He also goes through many familiar controversies--veils, cartoons, the interpretation of September 11--adding both amusing and telling details to all of them. There is a lot of hypocrisy in the debate about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe, and he exposes all of it.

I suspect, though, that the strongest objections to Caldwell’s book are not going to lie in his description of the status quo ante, but in his discussion of “where we go from here.” For the essence of the second part of his argument--stripped, again, of Caldwell’s subtleties--is not merely that European Islam is now incompatible with European culture, but that it always will be. Having explained why no efforts at assimilation were made in the 1960s and 1970s, and why such efforts are not succeeding now, he goes on to predict that they will never work at all. This line of argument is aimed directly at those Europeans and Americans who have fondly and naïvely placed their hopes in “moderate Islam,” and who assume that Islam will eventually evolve into something more compatible with contemporary secular Europe--something, perhaps, like European Christianity, which in fact plays only a minor role in public life.

Caldwell’s is a complicated argument, with both religious and social elements, not all of which I am qualified to judge. Among other things, he notes that Muslim dislike of European attitudes to women and sex leads Muslim men--even second-generation Muslim men--to import wives from their home countries. The imported wives, who often do not speak European languages, in turn tend to preserve the customs of the home countries in their adopted countries for another generation. He also observes a phenomenon that historians of American immigration would certainly recognize: in practice, contact with European culture has tended to make Muslims more conservative, not more liberal, about the culture they remember from the past. Their children and grandchildren, meanwhile, are able to keep in touch with that culture in a way that previous generations never could, through the easily manipulated world of satellite television. Back in Bangladesh, young people may long to be “modern” and go to nightclubs, but in the Bangladeshi enclaves of London, one sees a much different sort of Islamic world on Al Jazeera. As Fouad Ajami recently remarked, in connection with Caldwell’s book,

In its original habitat, there could be an honest reckoning with Islam. Men and women could wrestle with the limits it places on them; they would weigh, in that timeless manner, the balance between fidelity to the faith and the yearning for freedom. But it isn’t easy in Amsterdam or Stockholm. There, the faith is identity, and the faith is complete and sharpened like a weapon. 

Caldwell also analyzes the writings of Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic philosopher often hailed for his advocacy of “European Islam.” Although Ramadan does speak of finding ways for the two cultures to become compatible, Caldwell believes that he means something different from what many of his admirers think he means. In Caldwell’s reading, Ramadan argues that Islam will be a force for the purification of a spiritually bankrupt and materialist civilization. The cultures will thus one day become compatible--because Islam has changed Europe, and not the other way around.

In different places in different ways, this transformation of Europe is already under way, made more difficult by the fact that the rules of the European project make the discussion of this fact taboo. When the Danes decided that they wanted to limit the ability of Muslim immigrants to import wives from abroad, they passed a law making it difficult for any Danish citizen to marry anyone from outside the EU. The law did indeed reduce the number of immigrants entering the country by marriage. It also stripped all Danes of some of their historic civil liberties.

France’s notorious decision to ban headscarves in schools followed a similar pattern. The decision was taken because authorities feared that the veil was becoming a symbol of an international political movement. But in order to avoid accusations of racism--in free societies, it is not easy to ban a scrap of cloth--they banned not only headscarves but other religious symbols as well, including “large crucifixes,” whatever that means, and yarmulkes. “Again,” writes Caldwell, “over the long term, the price of managing immigration is paid by the broader society in the form of rights. Jews attending violent public schools may have considered the loss of the right to wear a yarmulke a small price to pay for some sign of state action against the Islamization of institutions. ... The non-Muslim public understood that this was the best deal it was likely to get.”

And now, of course, a real fear of immigrant violence--as witnessed in Madrid, London, Berlin, and Paris in recent years--plays a role as well. A Berlin opera house set off a passionate debate a few years ago when it decided to cancel a performance for fear of terrorism. The director had decided to illustrate the “death of the Gods” by placing the heads of Jesus, Buddha, Poseidon and, yes, Muhammad in the final scene. This was not political correctness, it was fear. (The same was true, incidentally, of Yale University’s recent decision to omit the offending images from a book about the controversy over Danish cartoons.) If police are afraid to enter certain parts of Paris or Birmingham, it follows that the people who live in those areas are going to feel less pressure to assimilate over time, not more. Second-generation, even third-generation immigrants are growing up far more radical than their parents.

In effect, Caldwell is saying that things are bad, and they are going to get worse, and there is nothing to be done about it. He does hint that it might help if Europeans went back to their Judeo-Christian roots, and became more robust about religion. He suggests that a more unified European approach might help. He implies that Europeans ought to think about having more children. But since neither a revived Christianity, nor European unity, nor a demographic boom, is in the cards, the logic of the situation seems unalterable: “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.”

 

Perhaps because I belong to the group of people who fondly and naïvely imagine that Islam may evolve--every other monotheism has--I am not entirely persuaded by Caldwell’s elegant pessimism. There are multiple examples--many multiples of examples--of Muslim immigrants who have integrated seamlessly into Europe. I am thinking of the secular and sophisticated Iranians of Paris, the Pakistani shopkeepers on British high streets, even individuals such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of Europe’s most fervent exponents of Enlightenment values. All have succeeded because some elements of European life--the entrepreneurial tradition and the blandishments of capitalism; the cosmopolitan cultural scene; the large role given to public intellectuals, particularly those who have something new to say--are well suited to the absorption and the cultural adaptation of outsiders. I do not see why Muslim immigrants will remain magically immune to all the integrationist influences that have shaped other immigrants into contented citizens of Western societies.

There are also some historical precedents. As noted above, the habit of importing spouses from the old country was also practiced by American immigrants--Jewish, German, Irish--some of whom also remained isolated in their own communities into two, three, or more generations. But these groups were finally integrated, partly through the lure of prosperity--in the end you had to speak English in order to get on--and partly through schools and peer pressure. Caldwell is right when he notes that Europeans always underestimate how deeply conformist American society is, and how much overt pressure there has always been to assimilate; but it is not impossible to imagine that a few changes in Europe could make a big difference. Indeed, that ban on the veil in schools in France is now widely perceived as an enormous success, precisely because it has tended to accelerate the assimilation of Muslim girls (and thus it might eventually be possible to drop it). Nor is it impossible to imagine that Europe could recover from the current recession--from which, with the exception of Britain and Ireland, it has suffered less drastically than the United States--and that a subsequent burst of economic growth could pull immigrants into the mainstream.

At times Caldwell underestimates the power of the European project itself, which for all its frequent stupidity, hypocrisy, and fluffiness does have some cultural and even moral attractions. The very mildness of modern Europe, the absence of extremes, the irony and the distance from national symbols, the low-key and humble attitude to the past: all of this has an appeal. And over time, as the consequences of rampant ethnic and religious passion become clearer, that appeal may grow. It is true that Christianity in Europe is anemic, and it is possible that a religious revival might be good for the souls of many Europeans. But I am not so sure it would be a useful “response” to Muslim immigration. Who wants a renewal of religious conflict in Europe?

I remember once flying into Heathrow airport on my way back from a dusty and fatiguing trip to the Middle East. As we were landing, I looked down and saw suburban London--green, rainy, boring, polite, agnostic--and felt a kind of relief. I was living in England at the time, and I suddenly felt a rush of happiness to have returned to precisely this culture of mildness and moderation, to those damp hedgerows. The chances are, of course, that Christopher Caldwell is right; and Bernard Lewis has predicted that Europe will be Islamic by the end of this century. But I wonder whether the liberal order is really quite so weak and inept, whether the story is quite over just yet.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post and Slate, and the author of Gulag: A History (Doubleday).

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