Rarefied Islamophobia: When Americans Duplicate the European Cultural Talk

There is an increasing trend among European intellectuals, politicians, and essayists to describe Islam as a major cause of the current identity crisis of most European countries. Christopher Caldwell’s book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West [see “New Book Stokes Fear of a Muslim Europe” by Bruce B. Lawrence], is based on the same simple premise that permeates today’s political and public discourse on Islam: Europe’s Muslims are responsible for the radical transformation and increased vulnerability of the continent’s culture and identity.

It is undeniable that many of these changes were triggered by the arrival of large numbers of immigrants from Africa, North Africa, and Asia; as a result, cultural and religious institutions in Europe are facing many serious challenges. And yet even if this central assumption is true and Caldwell’s overall analysis of cultural and demographic evolution of Europe is correct, the author examines the questions within the primitive trappings of “The Green Peril.” Following a long list of European intellectuals such as Oriana Fallaci, Michel Houellebecq, and Caroline Forest, he argues that Europe is succumbing to an “Islamic culture” incompatible with its “core” political and cultural values.

The intriguing question is: Why is Caldwell’s book receiving more attention in the American media (such as the front page of the New York Times Book Review section) than the traditional Islamophobe pamphlet “a la Oriana Fallaci?” The reason, astutely inferred by Matt Carr at the Institute for Race and Class, is that this book presents itself as an objective and rational work; based on facts, data, and informed research.

Despite this polished façade, Caldwell’s book is nothing more than a patchwork of clichés and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims; exploiting the fear of, and insecurity about, Islam. Consider for example the book’s demographic argument. It is true that the natural demographic growth across Europe (2.1 children per woman) currently trails the rate of natural population loss. It is also true that Europe’s current population growth is largely the result of immigration. However, immigration is not synonymous with Islam. While it could be said that most Muslims in Europe are immigrants or have an immigrant background, not all immigrants are Muslim.

Caldwell tries, though, to sound the alarm by repeating the common refrain that Muslim families in Europe tend to maintain a very high level of fertility. Once again, this statement contains a partial truth and misses the big picture. Population growth indeed tends to be high in Muslim countries compared to their European counterparts. Still, birth rates within many Islamic countries have declined drastically over the past 20 years. A more accurate assessment of demographic trends among Muslims would reveal that high variations in fertility occur throughout the Muslim world; from Egypt to Morocco and Indonesia. Such analysis would attribute variation in fertility rates not to Islam, but to the specific cultural and political conditions within each locality. It is certainly true that immigrant communities often exhibit higher fertility rates than host populations overall. But over time these rates usually fall in line with those of the indigenous population, as shown by serious demographers for second- and third-generation Algerian immigrants in France.

The second main point of Caldwell’s book concerns the supposed incompatibility of Islam with European political and cultural principles. The author defends the assertion by stating that Islam in Europe constitutes an “adversary culture” whose religious leaders intimidate critics and display scant loyalty to the countries in which they reside.

Such rhetoric follows a pattern that Mahmood Mamdani identified as “cultural talk” in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. “Cultural talk” is based upon a view of Islam as a unified ideology which spreads from Europe all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to this outlook, Muslims are petrified in history and occupy a mold from which they cannot escape; defined by their so-called conformity to the past and their incapacity to address the current challenges of political development and liberal religious thinking. Such an approach justifies the creation of an insurmountable boundary between modern and pre-modern, and between secularism and Islam.

A more accurate assessment of Muslims in Europe should abandon the false precept of a monolithic Islam. Instead it should focus on the multiplicity of cultures belonging to Muslims around the world, and highlight results from surveys which regularly point to the important role played in an individual’s relationship to Islam by acculturation, secularization, and individualization. One such survey was derived from the results of focus groups conducted in Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Berlin from 2008-09. It concluded that of the 500 Muslims questioned from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, individuals overall had highly flexible approaches to Islam and were willing to adapt their religious practice in order to fit into Western society.

In the end, Caldwell does not delve into the social, economic, and migratory conditions that form the experience of many Muslims in Europe. An understanding of Muslims in Europe today cannot be achieved through facile analyses of a monolithic Islam; but instead in the unpacking of several important assertions that tend to conflate Islam, immigration, and socio-economic issues.

As mentioned above, most Muslims in Europe are immigrants, but the opposite is not true. Although immigrants arrive in Europe from all over the world, the countries with existing Muslim populations tend to attract those from the same ethnic background. Among current European Union member states, only Greece has a significant indigenous population of Muslims, residing primarily in Thrace. Therefore, categories of “immigrant” and “Muslim” overlap in Western Europe; unlike in the United States where immigration debates center on economic and social concerns such as wages, assimilation, and language. This conflation between Islam and immigration explains why several proposals for immigration and naturalization reform (for example in the Netherlands or Germany) openly target Muslim migrants. It is a pity that Caldwell reinforces the misconceptions which so frequently confuse European discourse on this topic.

While Muslims are part of an underclass of Europe, this is not caused by some factor unique to Islam but by specific conditions of labor migration and structural changes in the labor market over the last 25 years. These changes in turn led to the deterioration of significant parts of the working classes across Europe.

The various problems and implications of these topics have been subsumed under general analyses of Islam. Many scholars have unpacked and illuminated these intertwined subjects. But Caldwell ignores surveys and research conducted on Muslims in Europe that have tried to deconstruct a false perception that related questions are a uniquely “Muslim problem.” And by simply duplicating for the American audience the “cultural talk” of Europe, the author ignores the unique situation which exists in Europe among Muslims. He also fails to see that the real conflict occurring is not one between a mythified Europe and a frozen unhistorical Islam, but among Muslims themselves who are struggling to redefine their religious identities in the European context.

Caldwell has the right subject in mind: Europe is undergoing a cultural and political evolution. Islam and Muslims, however, are a catalyst—not the cause. Pitching a fixed Europe against a fixed Islam is playing the game of fundamentalists who use exactly the same discourse. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, after all, is structured around just such an argument, and one should not forget that the work remains a favorite of radical Muslims to this day.