Immigration and Islam
In his recent book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell describes what he sees as the problem Europe faces with the recent increase in Muslim immigration and how it has changed our continent. For a conservative writer from the Weekly Standard to invoke Edmund Burke in his title, it should a clearly significant work.
While dealing with the question at length, he offers few solutions. One might expect in a book such as this that there might be a short summarizing chapter asking where we should go from here. Early in the book, he does praise the merits of the points-based system of immigration, and his chapter Europe’s Crisis of Faith, Mr Caldwell targets what he sees as the fluidity of moral precepts in European countries. This, indeed, seems to be his ultimate thesis. He writes, “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”.
Caldwell certainly makes a valuable argument that we should recognize that immigration did not happen in the way that was expected, and that the needs that existed after the Second World War do not still need to be fulfilled by continuing immigration. Continuing immigration is sometimes justified as a solution to Europe’s demographic problem, where with an aging population and declining birth rate, we will soon have a problem paying for social welfare and pensions. Of course, the immigrants themselves will surely claim the same benefits when they retire. What we will need to implement to tackle this problem is an increase in the retirement age (the health of a 65-year-old has improved dramatically in the years since social welfare provisions were implemented) and a reduction in state pensions (lifetime earnings have also increased, so that people should be able to save more for their retirement). Such practical suggestions are lost on Caldwell, which even if they would not tackle the problem, they would alter incentives. European countries should also consider the levels of unemployment benefit, and could legitimately strengthen provisions on years of residency for qualifying eligibility.
His response is that of a social conservative. He blames the rise and success of Islamic extremism in Europe on our cultural uncertainty and lack of strong values. He criticizes an informational video by the Dutch authorities for immigrants, explaining Dutch laws and customs, for the fact that it asks immigrants to handle the country’s moral peculiarities, specifically showing a gay couple expressing affection in public. But this is a norm in the Netherlands, and there is no reason this should be hidden from immigrants till after they are settled in the country and then notice what they deem to be moral laxity. He misses the fact that in modern times, Europeans can be secular while maintaining links with their older culture. He wonders how the Italian Oriana Fallaci can threaten those who harm Florentine landmarks such as the Santa Maria Cathedral given their religious meaning. Such a feeling is not a break from any European secularism, but something that people can and do feel strongly about for cultural reasons.
Caldwell makes a valid case that we can’t expect Islam to experience an Enlightenment if we aid in shielding it from the criticism of a latter-day Voltaire. But the response to this should not be a fearful consolidation of the right, to see the progress of Western civilization as at fault. Europe’s intellectual tradition is one of slow change in response to circumstance, something that could be interpreted as relativist if one wishes to be derisory, but more properly reflects a cautious conservatism. European politicians and intellectuals need to put the moral case for a liberal secular capitalist pluralist society. We do need to be clear about where we stand. There should be no special provisions or protections for beliefs, and to that end, we should go the way of implementing laws prohibiting blasphemy. The laws in European countries should make it clear to immigrants that they cannot expect to change the rule of law as it exists, but that they are otherwise welcome. And, while recognizing the Continent’s Christian heritage, we should not ignore, as Caldwell does by asserting that our views of human rights have exclusively Christian origins, its pre-Christian philosophical and political tradition, of Aristotle, Perikles and Cicero.
The book is, of course, ostensibly about immigration, and the problem with Islam. But it is Europe’s cultural response that is Caldwell’s concern. His use of statistics also show a certain disconnect throughout the book. He cites the low levels of support among Muslims for operations such as the Iraq War, while acknowledging only briefly the low (if not quite as low) levels of support among the population in general. Towards the end of the book, he mentions the fact that 90% of Spanish voters disapproved of the Iraq War, but he fails to make this connexion when relevant.
In discussing the declining strength and increasing moral weakness of Christianity, he wonders why it is we hear of converts from Christianity to Islam, but not vice versa, suggesting that it is lack of conviction of Christians relative to Muslims, and the general decline in the West. But later he mentions that there have been thousands of converts to Christianity from Islam, but who have kept quiet about it because of the reaction in Islamic communities to apostasy.
He makes the claim that it is clearly a failing of democracy if majorities in opinion polls favour a reduction in immigration, as if a question like this should be a litmus test in a tradition of representative government.
In a few odd pages, he justifies the anti-immigrant policies of each a series of the extremist parties in Europe. He defends Vlaams Belang’s policies as they are in a context of general Flemish separatism and nationalism (of course the Nazi’s anti-Semitism was only in the context of their general German nationalism). He claims that we Jörg Haidar could not have been an absolute bigot because he created links with Col. Gaddafi, with whom he found common cause on anti-Semitism. And the Danish People’s Party is ok because one of its senior members is a lesbian bellydancer.
In as much as we need to have this debate about immigration and how to tackle the changing demographics in Europe, Caldwell’s contribution is useful. Of course we need to address the oppression of women, whether honour killings, genital mutilation or forced marriages. And we cannot allow terrorist groups to organize within our country. My criticism is not of the real cause for concern presented by Caldwell and others. But a confident response need not be a conservative one. Whatever marginal increases there have been in religious identification there have been in Europe recently, we should not expect to see any significant return to religious faith. So we cannot rest our hope there. We must be confident in a neutral application of the rule of law, and be proud of our democratic traditions, if we are to set out a message as to what Europe is, and what it should remain.