Portents of Eurabia

Books Christopher Caldwell's trenchant study of the 'revolution' in Europe, Perry Anderson writes, overstates the importance of religion for Muslim immigrants and downplays the reality of assimilation.

ca. 2001, Manningham, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, UK --- Asian children play cricket in a park in Manningham, an area where primarily Asian Muslims live. --- Image by © Gideon Mendel/CORBIS
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Christopher Caldwell's trenchant study of the 'revolution' in Europe, Perry Anderson writes, overstates the importance of religion for Muslim immigrants and downplays the reality of assimilation. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West Christopher Caldwell Allen Lane Dh90 Christopher Caldwell is a white crow among American journalists today, to use a Russian expression. Not merely is his cultural range perhaps without equal - more than just fluent in the major European languages, he is conversant with what is written in them. But in the cast of his intelligence, he is quite unlike most reporters or commentators. Although his background is in literature, it is a philosophical turn of mind that most distinguishes his writing from his peers. What typically attracts his interest are dilemmas - conceptual, moral, social - obscured or passed over in standard discourse about leading, or even marginal, issues of the day. About these, his conclusions are nearly always unconventional - in one way or another, quizzical or unsettling. A senior editor of the Weekly Standard, flag-bearer of American neo-conservatism, his columns in the Financial Times make much liberal opinion look the dreary mainstream pabulum it too often is.

It is thus no surprise to find that he has produced the most striking single book to have appeared, in any language, on immigration in Western Europe. In scope and argument, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe has a predecessor in Walter Laqueur's Last Days of Europe (2007); each book disserved by an overblown title borrowed from a too illustrious author - Edmund Burke and Karl Kraus. But Caldwell's is a much cooler and more penetrating work. Its empirical range is also considerably wider. Indeed, no study of contemporary European immigration has the same breadth of coverage, including not just Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, but Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland too. Analytical, statistical and reportorial strands of the account are integrated in a crisp, vivid prose that is a pleasure to read, even when a strain to accept. The book well deserves the wide discussion it will provoke.

Central to its strengths is Caldwell's comparative angle of vision. Post-war immigration to Europe is contrasted throughout with immigration to the United States, to bring into focus what has been most historically specific about it. From the start, of course, the United States was a society of settlers, organised around inflows from labour from abroad. Today, over one in 10 of its citizens is foreign-born, and another 11 million are undocumented immigrants. Despite tensions along its border with Mexico, American society has in recent decades proved generally able to absorb these new-comers without undue strain. Such success, Caldwell argues, has been based on a set of advantages that radically distinguish the United States from the European Union. These include relentless pressures on immigrants to conform to American mores, inculcated by a longstanding ideology of assimilation, backed by the state; the large amount of physical space available of a still far from densely inhabited continent; the relative closeness between the religious background and cultural outlook of Catholic Hispanics from Latin America - the most numerous contingent of recent immigrants - and North American norms; the proliferation of low-wage, low-skill jobs in services of one kind or another; and last but not least, the presence of a criminalised black under-class at the bottom of the social hierarchy, allowing immigrants to enter it at a rung potentially above the worst-off.

European societies, on the other hand, are not recent settler communities, and do not require continuous flows of foreign labour for growth. Post-war immigration was a temporary expedient to cover manpower shortages in industry or transport, profitable to specific groups of employers more than it was programmed by the state. Many of these jobs disappeared when de-industrialisation set in, leaving immigrants not only unemployed, but unintegrated in their surroundings - in the lowest stratum of societies that were often densely inhabited and had little assimilative tradition, but rather long-standing attitudes of colonial racism.

Moreover, at least half the new-comers - far the largest single group - were Muslim, coming from religious backgrounds entirely foreign, if not antagonistic, to the Christian traditions of Europe. The result has been rising ethnic tensions throughout the western member-states of the EU where immigrant communities are concentrated. The population of these countries was never consulted about their arrival, which was not even much planned by their elites, rather developing inadvertently, as the chance outcome of passing labour shortages, subsequent family reunions and asylum laws. In no case are the newcomers really welcome, and in not a few countries - France, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark - xenophobic parties have emerged, whose success has been based on declared hostility to them.

The upshot, in Caldwell's eyes, is an increasingly combustible set of conditions, compounded of three main elements. Although the new Muslim communities within Europe are heterogeneous in ethnic and regional background - comprising Turks in Germany, Maghrebins in France, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain - they share, Caldwell contends, exposure to a common ideology, one form or another of Salafism, that is virulently anti-western. At the same time, their demographic weight is shooting up within the host societies, because their birth rates are so much higher than those of the local populations, which are now - in Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere - often failing even to reproduce themselves. The combination of growing Islamic communities in the big urban centres of Western Europe, and latent or overt expressions of Salafism, has led in turn to a shrinkage of freedom within the EU, in two ways. On the one hand, fear of Muslim terrorism has generated a vast new apparatus of state surveillance - omnipresent security cameras, biometric data, electronic eavesdropping and the like. On the other, appeasement of Muslim fundamentalism has produced a pusillanimous political correctness that has become a new form of intolerance, restricting the free expression of opinion if it should be critical of Islamic beliefs or customs.

Caldwell says at the outset that he will seek to avoid either alarmism or euphemism. There is no doubt that he succeeds in the second aim, with brio. His characterization of the general historical contrast between post-war immigration in America and Europe is a tour de force of hard-headed pertinence and trenchancy. It is not exhaustive, since Reflections on the Revolution in Europe says little or nothing about the racist discrimination, harassment and animosity so widely meted out to Muslim or other arrivals from overseas, by officials and natives alike. Caldwell explains that his book focusses on "the difficulties immigration poses to European society", not "the difficulties faced by immigrants". The two can hardly be separated, however, as if the objective experience of immigrants at the hands of European society were irrelevant to their subjective attitudes towards it, about which Caldwell writes at length. Tacitly, he is certainly aware of this side of the situation, though choosing not to dwell on it. But there is a much larger dimension to which he appears completely blind.

Reflections on the Revolution in Europe might in this respect be compared to the work of another robust conservative intelligence from America, Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power, which also offers a calm and clear-sighted analysis of differences between the US and EU, focussing on their respective attitudes to military strength and its uses, and the historical reasons for the divergence between these. In both cases, however, this lucidity stops short at the confines of the contrast itself. Beyond it, a worldview that is entirely conventional and unargued is taken for granted, in which the West is under threat from a violent religious fanaticism spreading havoc wherever it can strike, born of irrational resentment and centred in the Middle East. It is infection from this contagion that makes Muslim communities potentially dangerous breeding-grounds of terrorism in Europe.

The reality, of course, is that it is western intrusion into the Arab world, the long-standing imperial domination over the Middle East and its marches, in particular, that quite understandably inspires popular hatred of the United States and of Europe across the region. The vice-like grip of Washington and its allies on the oil resources and assorted client states of the area, the bases strung along the Gulf, the armies occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, the drones wiping out villagers in Pakistan, not to speak of the unstinted arming and funding of the nuclear settler state of Israel; all of these things find no place in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. But if Muslims in the EU feel little attachment to the states in which they live, it would be surprising it were otherwise, given the record of these in their homelands, of which British collaboration in the invasion of Iraq, and pan-European participation in the occupation of Afghanistan are simply the latest examples. Imperialism, not fundamentalism, is the root of what Muslim alienation there is from Europe.

In substituting the one for the other, Caldwell ascribes central importance to religion in his story. His treatment of it avoids the liberal piety that would have all major faiths basically agree with each other, instead taking Islam and Christianity seriously enough on their own terms to accept them as incompatible creeds. But if we are spared the sickly tones of Obama's recent address to functionaries of the Mubarak regime in Cairo, a characteristically American note is struck all the same, when Caldwell lets drop that "it is a liberation to be able to talk about God once more, even if in someone else's language".

A consistent over-estimation of the importance of Islam in the new immigrant communities of Europe follows. It is material needs and hopes, for a better standard of living, not spiritual beliefs, that are the driving forces of emigration from Africa, the Near and Middle East, or the Subcontinent. Immigrants are in search of security and prosperity, rather than salvation. When they encounter unemployment and hostility instead, religion readily becomes a protective shield for communities at risk, providing some base-line of collective identity and solidarity. But such defensive functions are a far cry from any summons to war against the infidel. In attributing the second to the first, Caldwell falls into the alarmism he wished to eschew. It is not just that: though he registers it, he probably underestimates the reality of assimilation by the more fortunate immigrants to their host societies in Europe. But it also the case, even more pointedly, that Islam has not been the driver of rebellion against these when it has occurred: where real riots against state and society have erupted, it is the least religious sectors of the immigrant population - jobless urban youth - that have taken to the streets, as in the great insurrection of the French banlieues in 2005. Anger at deprivation and discrimination, rather than at disbelief, is what is liable to ignite further such uprisings. They will not lead to any revolution, though for some that might be cause more for regret than relief.

In nevertheless suggesting that Europe is confronted with an all but revolutionary danger to its traditional being, Caldwell not only overstates the problems that Muslim minorities - which still amount to no more than about five per cent of the population of Western Europe - present to the EU, but unusually for such a cogent writer, falls into contradiction with himself. On the one hand, he declares that "the conditions unifying Europe culturally have not been better for decades, and Islam is part of the reason why. Renewed acquaintance with Islam has given Europeans a stronger idea of what Europe is, because it has given them a stronger idea of what Europe is not". On the other hand, he pronounces Europe to be "a civilization in decline", in which many Europeans already feel themselves exiles in their own homelands, as the number of immigrants rises around them, and an alien creed looms ever larger.

His final word is that "Europe finds itself in a contest with Islam for the allegiance of its newcomers. For now, Islam is the stronger party in that contest, in an obvious demographic way and in a less obvious philosophical way. In such circumstances, words like 'majority' and 'minority': mean little. When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthed by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter".

Both judgements cannot be right. But they can be, and are, equally mistaken. Europe is neither being galvanized into a new sense of unity by the reemergence of Islam as its historic adversary, nor demoralized by the superior faith of its Muslim immigrants. If it has cause for disarray, that lies elsewhere, in the combination of servility and resentment it regularly displays in its role as camp-follower of the American hegemon. So far as its relations with the world of Islam are concerned, the best thing that could happen to Europe would be for it to be evicted, bag and baggage, from the Middle East, along with its overlord. That would be a revolution worthy of the name.

Perry Anderson teaches at UCLA.