Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
By Christopher Caldwell
Christopher Caldwell has written a very bad book. His argument is internally inconsistent, his history is distressingly selective, and his terminology is uncritically general. Unsurprisingly, the book is Islamophobic. More unexpectedly, he has presented something anti-Semitic; the book’s passion for Israel is of a kind with the bigot who is very much in favor of other cultures, so long as he does not have to bump into them anywhere in “his” country.
But in full, his Reflections most reminded me of those imperial British bureaucrats who could not reconcile their contempt for Islam with their envious admiration of its alleged qualities: brute and irrational, yet sensual and virile. It is sufficiently telling that Caldwell cites Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, “describing the waves of cultural anxiety and sexual insecurity” felt by a white European teacher whose intellectual achievements mean nothing to his classes; his crush on a female student is unreturned, because she prefers the attention of a “a macho African student,” a “baboon.”
Christopher Caldwell has also written a disquieting book, which anyone interested in Islam or Europe simply must read. As a columnist for the Financial Times, writer for the New York Times Magazine and senior editor at the Weekly Standard, Caldwell’s reactions to the global processes that have provoked massive population flows and undermined the hegemony of the nationalist narrative are fascinating.
That he prefers argument by culture, metaphysics, and identity reveals a deep anxiety among even the most privileged, a sign that capital and its inherent desire to destabilize have unmoored and unsteadied every part of the world. We should take any such argument seriously, especially for the almost existential helplessness it admits. Caldwell fears the dilution of an ideal Europe, whose countries had and should have distinct yet interchangeable cultures, all equally incompatible with a Muslim culture that should have never been allowed into Europe. Hence his book; warning Europe of the threat posed by mass Muslim immigration, legitimated by elites who never consulted their populations on whether they wanted so many foreigners among them in the first place. Caldwell believes that Islam has now established itself, like a persistent, radioactive sludge, in every nook and cranny of an aging, brittle Europe, and cannot be erased. (Islam, apparently, has a very long half-life.)
What we are to do with this information, I do not know. I suspect Caldwell hasn’t the least idea, either: “When an insecure… culture meets a culture that is anchored… it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.” Missing something “hard to define,” Europeans, insufficiently committed to any value system as a result of their own unchecked individualism, are ripe for conquest. The conquerors-in-waiting are Europe’s marginalized Muslims. That is not the only thing that is “hard to define,” let alone hard to believe. Caldwell never explains the terms and concepts on which his alarm depends. How does Islam have the power to infiltrate Europe when it is not even an agent? Why should we believe that underperforming minorities could dominate countries with the world’s highest standards of living? What is Europe, anyway? Is it the European Union, or, as his title also suggests, the West? When was Europe a happy land of monotony, free of pesky minorities, indulging in its unchanging cultural preferences, such as—I kid not—pea soup? Why is this essentialized Europe incapable of growing to accept Muslims, and why do Muslims have neither the right nor the ability to integrate?
As an American, I have every right to ask, for his assumption that Muslims cannot be Westerners assumes my commitments are fraudulent. He is in effect calling me, and millions like me, liars.
The “Disaster” of Muslim Immigration
Caldwell makes numerous basic errors throughout his book; it would be unfair to allow his mistakes to pass uncorrected. Caldwell describes the Muslim world as a “basket case,” and to prove his point, he recycles numerous statistics about Arab backwardness. A writer for the Financial Times, Caldwell should understand that if fewer than one in five Muslims is Arab then, ipso facto, Islam is not isomorphic with Arabness.
He describes the “vanquished enemy” of World War II as racist, although many of the vanquishers were structurally racist themselves. When describing large-scale Algerian immigration into France, he blames the violence of the “Algerian revolution,” though who or what Algeria was revolting against is evidently immaterial. Reinhard Schulze clarifies: the French military visited a comparable level of death and destruction on Algeria as affected Germany in World War II. This fact could explain why so many Algerians were so eager to get out of Algeria, if Caldwell only bothered to share it. But in the service of communicating a deep cultural unease with rapid social change, Caldwell has attempted to provide a veneer of neutral correctness (he has, in effect, internalized the multiculturalism he professes to so detest.)
When it comes to immigration, Caldwell is at his shoddiest—and, unfortunately for us, that is his theme. Over and over, we are told that Muslim immigration to Europe is different. While immigration between European countries is healthy and positive, Muslim immigration to Europe is disastrous. Unbelievably, Caldwell argues that there is no difference between Europeans (read: white Christian Europeans) moving between EU member-states and New Yorkers heading out for California. Except, of course, that New York and California never fielded armies against one another.
Then again, if Europe could leave historic animosities behind—and it did—Caldwell’s argument has little weight. Caldwell anxiously digs himself a deeper hole: He distinguishes Hispanic immigration to America from Muslim immigration to Europe, arguing that the former does not represent the intrusion of an alien culture. (Tell that to the right-winger for whom the Hispanic promises to implode America.) Since Hispanics correspond to a more culturally conservative West from a few decades back, it will not be hard for Hispanics (mere antiquated Westerners) to be assimilated. Islam, on the other hand, “is in no sense Europe’s religion and it is in no sense Europe’s culture.” Halfway through the book, however, he tells us that Turkish attitudes to marriage are deeply similar to European attitudes from just “a very few decades ago.” Surely the stuff great arguments are made of.
Ultimately, Muslims are a danger because, all insistence aside, Caldwell is a racist who has translated religion into a set of unchangeable and interchangeable believers. He believes there are no meaningful differences among Muslims; at one point, he even underlines the point by noting that although Volvos are not Volkswagens, both are still cars (and of European manufacture, I might add)—another example of Caldwell’s argumentative impotence.
Not only are Muslims indistinguishable, which is the religious equivalent of the racist assumption that all colored folk look (or talk, or think, or dream, or smell) alike, these Muslims are all opposed to the West, incapable of change, and opposed to democracy. Let us consider these three points sequentially.
That Muslims are all opposed to the West is nonsense: America’s Muslim community is culturally Western, politically active, and socially dynamic. Two of our Congressmen are African-American Muslims—are they opposed to the West? I have met numerous European Muslims committed to their countries of residence and deeply shaped by those cultures. (One such acquaintance, a candidate for British Parliament from Glasgow, represents the Scottish National Party.) That Muslims are incapable of change is similarly inaccurate. I will let Caldwell disprove himself on this point. He observes that Turkey has democratized over the past decades, and this partway explains the more confident role Islam plays in Turkish culture. Is that not a change?
That Muslims are all opposed to democracy, absolutely central to Caldwell’s polemic, is belied by the unhelpful fact that the majority of the world’s Muslims live in democracies: Mali, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, among other countries, with 700 million Muslims; more than half the planetary total.
Other millions of Muslims live in majority non-Muslim dictatorships, such as Russia and China. But the best proof of Islam’s allergy to liberty is found in democratic Senegal. Independent in 1960, this 90%-Muslim country proceeded to elect a President, Leopold Senghor, who shared the Catholic religion of the country’s former colonizer (France). He was subsequently reelected four times, serving until 1980. How many European countries have had a non-Christian leader? But none of this is of any interest to Caldwell. What excites him is the dream of a traditional Europe, in which there are at most a tolerable handful of minorities.
For someone who spends so much time focusing on Islam’s alleged rigidity, and the danger this presents to Europe, so much fictive nostalgia seems hypocritical. But you will not understand Caldwell if you do not understand that, for him, Islam is not the cause of the problem so much as its main consequence.
His book continues in the traditions of, among others, Alfred Lyall: “The Mahomedan faith has still at least a dignity and a courageous unreasoning certitude, which in Western Christianity have been perceptibly melted down.” Caldwell’s hatred for Islam masks his hatred of the European and Western social trends that, in his view, enshrined an amoral hedonism as the ultimate cultural value and so deprived Europe of any larger meanings. Europe has no cause to fight for, and Islam, the “courageous” and “unreasoning” force (indeed, it is courageous because it is unreasoning) has taken advantage of the European crisis of confidence.
Moors and Christians
Legitimately, we might ask what a confident West could look like. Caldwell is saddened by the suppression of Moros y Cristianos, Spanish celebrations of the Reconquista. These festivals often employ effigies termed “Muhammads,” whose heads are exploded by fireworks to cheer the historic restoration of Catholicism. The same militant Catholicism which tortured, expelled, and killed tens of thousands of ethnically Spanish Muslims, Jews, and insufficiently doctrinaire Christians; what Muslim or Jewish reader does not shudder when Caldwell argues that such time-honored traditions should not be dismissed by a supine policy of multiculturalism?
There is more where that came from. Christianity is dying across the Continent, Caldwell admits, but Christianity is still the essence of Europeanness: “Spain is less concerned that its immigrants be white than they have similarities of worldview with the people already established there, starting with knowing what the inside of a Church looks like.”
While Caldwell makes much of Islam’s anti-Semitism, his argument for a Judeo-Christian Europe depends on events that run back only six decades or so. His idealized Europe is far older. By this argument, the Jewish connection to Europe is founded largely on European Christian regret for the sins of the Holocaust; although Caldwell’s inexcusable indifference to the Bosnian genocide makes one wonder whether it is Judaism and Jews that have intrinsic worth, or simply the European reaction to Judaism. Similarly, while criticizing what he interprets as Europe’s politically-enforced embrace of homosexuality, Caldwell argues that homosexuality is not “at the core” of European tradition; much more time has to pass before homosexuality can be accepted as essentially European.
For Europe’s Muslims, however, no such generosity is in the offing. Arriving in Europe as guest workers, Muslims have long since overextended their welcome. (Caldwell pays no mind to the hundreds of thousands of Muslims, from Senegal to Bengal, who fought for Britain and France in World War II, and so helped save Europe from itself.) Unanswered: Where are these Muslims to go? What are they to do? Caldwell hints that Muslims should convert to Christianity, or otherwise detach themselves from their spiritual identity, but fundamentally he feels it is too late. Islam confronts Europe and Europe is likely to lose: Because Islam is in no mood for compromise (somehow, Islam is an actor with a foreign policy) and because Muslims cannot by their nature compromise.
Caldwell is right to point out that much of the European Union, as a project, is undemocratic, including the strange attraction among many European elites for admitting Turkey even though most Europeans strongly oppose the idea. European citizens have every right to protest the ways in which capital has undermined their cultural production, although they cannot do so with broad and racist strokes (as Europe’s culture is a product of a sustained interaction with Muslims, among other peoples).
Caldwell is also right to point to a number of challenges within the European Muslim population; for one thing, too many Muslims are happy to exclude and be excluded, comfortable in self-selected isolation, and indifferent to the worth of the wider, non-Muslim society around them. Such attitudes contribute to alienation and extremism. There are also deep currents of misogyny, illiberalism, intolerance, and anti-Semitism within some forms of Muslim discourse, which Muslims must combat with resolve and urgency.
More should be done to cultivate an Islam that incorporates the right priorities; understanding what is crucial and what is simply confrontational. A telling anecdote: Some Muslims insist on constructing mosques in sensitive locales, with outsize minarets. Why would a Muslim community insist on symbolic architecture that draws the attention of an insecure majority to the practices of a largely unknown and distrusted minority?
That said, the overwhelming majority of European Muslims faces problems that are not merely cultural, but economic and political—and not of their making. This majority wants to stay in Europe and contributes to Europe in numerous ways. Still more could be offered if the Muslim faith and Muslim cultures were not offensively challenged or insensitively ridiculed. For Nicolas Sarkozy to argue that the burqa must be banned is stunning; does Sarkozy propose the introduction of a French laicité police?
Why does the state have the right to define religiosity? Caldwell seems categorically unable to imagine the perspective of the minority on such issues. How does he expect Muslims to react to liberal states using the language of secularism to target Muslims, as Caldwell freely admits occurred in the foulard affair? But only Muslims can persecute, and incidences of Muslims persecuted for their beliefs are brushed off. Last this reviewer checked, the most recent genocide in Europe was visited upon Muslims whose presence dates to well before the Spanish Reconquista. (There have been Muslims on the European continent since before there was a distinct Roman Catholic identity.) Caldwell makes nothing of this slaughter (which few European countries did much to stop), though its recent occurrence has tremendous significance for Europe’s Muslims.
In the end we are supposed to believe that the question of religion is not the question of race, except that the Jewish “problem” of Europe past is the Muslim “problem” of Europe present. Jews were a religious population made by their enemies into a purely evil race, ascribed negative genetic characteristics that they could not escape. And the same now for Muslims: there can be no such thing as a meaningfully moderate Muslim.
Hence Caldwell makes an existential challenge out of the kind of debates that, although difficult, will gradually be resolved through compromise and acculturation. If there are existential threats to the European project, they are far more likely to be found in the deep disagreements between EU member-states, on topics such as economic aid to poorer member-states and the threats potentially posed by Russian policies. But by the end of his book, it is easy to understand why identity triumphs. Caldwell believes that Europe can only survive if it returns to its origins, the Christian and Enlightenment foundations that gave Europe such single-minded purpose. In effect, Europe should rejuvenate itself with some of Islam’s courageous unreason, but Europe will not and—worse still—cannot. Blame it on Europe’s “long, melancholy roar/ Retreating,” that “hard to define” Europe is missing, the reason for which Europe is terminally ill.
There is a part of Caldwell that wishes his Europe was Muslim, and he hates himself for it.