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

By Mustafa Malik

Middle East Policy, 2010.

In the spring 2004 issue of Middle East Policy (Vol. XI, No. 1), I argued that, while earlier groups of immigrants assimilated into European societies, “Muslims are unlikely to do so.” A majority of those who commented on it thought I didn’t get it. They basically said that modernity would eventually assimilate Muslims into European societies, as it had other waves of immigrants. Remy Leveau, a French sociologist whom I have known for years, wondered if I had “spoken too soon.”

A recent book also makes the argument I did. In his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell predicts that Muslims will not assimilate into native European societies and will “retain the habits and cultures” they acquired from Islam. He notes that Muslim immigrants and their European-born offspring “feel at home in Europe.” But, while the offspring of Christians who had migrated from one European country to another assimilated into host societies by second and third generations, a trend toward Muslim assimilation “went into reverse” by the second generation.

Caldwell says European Muslims, now about 20 million and increasing rapidly, will change the continent’s cultural ethos. They are “anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines,” while the dwindling white native population languishes in “an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture.” The author, an American conservative, quotes German jurist Udo di Fabio as lamenting:

During my research trips through Europe I have found native liberal intellectuals the most resentful of the continent’s growing Islamic space. Among the not-so-liberal Christian believers, the growth of Muslim communities has triggered a twofold reaction. One group, mentioned by Caldwell, is led by Pope Benedict XVI. These Christians view Islam as a threat to global — and especially European — Christianity. They would wish to rally European Christians, religious and secular, to resist the spread of Islamic culture in Europe. The pope has also lined up some liberal intellectuals for this mission. Jurgen Habermas, the atheist German philosopher, declared after a meeting with Benedict: “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization.”

Why in God’s name should a member of a vital [Islamic] world culture want to integrate into Western culture, when Western culture … no longer has any transcendental idea, is approaching its historical end? Why should he get caught up in a culture marked as much by self-doubt as by arrogance, which has squandered its religious and moral inheritance on a forced march to modernity, and which offers no higher ideal of the good life beyond travel, longevity and consumerism?

Other Christian believers consider liberalism, rather than Islam, the main threat to Christianity. They are collaborating with Muslims in what they view as a common struggle of all faiths against Godless liberalism. Among them is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. In February 2008, the head of the Anglican Church said Britain could implement parts of Islamic law, the sharia, in marital and other issues in Muslim communities.

In the early 2000s, the French Catholic clergy (and some Jewish rabbis) were supporting Muslim protests against public hostility and government strictures. Father Jean-Marie Gaudel, adviser to the French Catholic Bishops Conference, told me in Paris that Muslims, Christians and Jews “drink from the same moral well” of the Abrahamic tradition. They should “join hands” in strengthening societies’ moral values. In Marseilles, I saw white fathers defending the right of Muslim girls to wear headscarves to public schools, taking a stance that was opposed by the liberal establishment. I haven’t checked their positions since the ascendancy of Pope Benedict.

Caldwell is an editor at the American neoconservative publication The Weekly Standard, and he makes no secret of where he stands. “Islam,” he says, “is a magnificent religion that has also been, at times over the centuries, a glorious and generous culture. But it is in no sense Europe’s religion and in no sense Europe’s culture.” However, the author doesn’t make a convincing argument as to why “Europe’s culture” can’t accommodate Islam. Hasn’t Europe been hospitable to liberal, Christian, Greco-Roman, Slavic, Germanic and Celtic cultures? Some of these cultures clashed violently with one another. Caldwell doesn’t delve into the underlying variables that have pitted Europe’s white social mainstream against its Islamic sub-society.

A growing number of philosophers, anthropologists and social scientists have been exploring these variables, however. Peter Berger, one of my favorite social anthropologists, argues that liberalism has relativized Western societies, and by so doing, has diminished the certainty and plausibility of Western values and cultural norms. “Relativism liberates,” he says, “but the resulting liberty can be painful” as it challenges people’s long-nurtured assumptions and norms, driving them into the quest for “liberation from relativism” (A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity, 1992). They become attracted to new systems of beliefs and worldviews. I agree and see Islam’s robust institutions thriving in this drift of mainstream European culture.

Some Western thinkers posit that liberalism has failed to achieve its main goal: bringing happiness into human life through secular and material means. They note that consumerism, hedonism, anomie and so forth, which are fruits of the liberal-materialist Weltanschauung, have robbed man of real happiness and fulfillment. Alastair MacIntyre attributes this predicament to liberalism’s “inability to provide any post-Christian means of understanding [man’s] situation in the world” (Secularization and Moral Change, 1967).

Caldwell says the parts of Europe that are taking on an “increasingly Muslim character” are expanding inexorably, and he calls it a “revolution.” His failure to explore the roots of this historic phenomenon stems from his unwillingness or inability to look into it from outside the traditional Western vantage points. Happily, others are making outside-the-box inquiries into “post-Christian [and post-liberal] means of understanding” the evolving Western civilization and culture. I call them the John the Baptists of a new epistemic paradigm and hope that the messiah of that paradigm is waiting in the wings.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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