Friday, August 19, 2005

David Rieff on Muslim alienation in Europe

My dear friend David Rieff (and co-author, I am proud to say, of a chapter expressing skepticism of "global civil society," in Mary Kaldor, et al., Global Civil Society 2005) has written a short, must-read essay in the New York Times magazine of August 14, 2005, here. David was thinking and writing about immigration and population migration long before Muslim migration hit the big-think radar screen - he wrote books on the immigrant experience clear back in the 1980s and 90s. He, along with Christopher Caldwell and, in an academic demography sense, Nicholas Eberstadt, are the people to watch writing in the United States on this topic. (It is striking, and appropriate, too, that David would emphatically praise the bravery of the murdered Theo van Gogh in challenging the reactionary assertion of the multiculturalist left that the "real" problem was permitting blasphemy.) This is a genuinely must-read short essay.

An Islamic Alienation
New York Times Magazine
August 14, 2005

Even if they produced no other positive result, the attacks on the London Underground have compelled Europeans of all faiths to think with new urgency about the Continent's Muslim minority. Such a reckoning was long overdue. Some left-wing politicians, like London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, have chosen to emphasize the proximate causes of Muslim anger, focusing on the outrage widely felt in Islamic immigrant communities over the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the harsh reality is that the crisis in relations between the European mainstream and the Islamic diaspora has far deeper roots, consoling as it might be to pretend otherwise.

COUNTING FAITH: Percentage of Muslims in E.U.-member populations: Greece 1.3%Denmark 2% Slovenia 2.4% Britain 2.7% Germany 3.7% Austria 4.2% The Netherlands 5.5% France 5-10% Cyprus 18% World 19.9%
(Source: C.I.A. World Factbook)]

Indeed, the news could scarcely be worse. What Europeans are waking up to is a difficult truth: the immigrants who perform the Continent's menial jobs, and, as is often forgotten, began coming to Europe in the 1950's because European governments and businesses encouraged their mass migration, are profoundly alienated from European society for reasons that have little to do with the Middle East and everything to do with Europe. This alienation is cultural, historical and above all religious, as much if not more than it is political. Immigrants who were drawn to Europe because of the Continent's economic success are in rebellion against the cultural, social and even psychological sources of that success.

In a sense, Europe's bad fortune is that Islam is in crisis. Imagine that Mexican Catholicism was in a similar state, and that a powerful, well-financed minority of anti-modern purists was doing its most successful proselytizing among Mexican immigrants in places like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago, above all among the discontented, underemployed youth of the barrios. The predictable, perhaps even the inevitable, result would be the same sort of estrangement between Hispanics and the American mainstream.

Whatever the roots of the present troubles, what is undeniable is that many immigrant Muslims and their children remain unreconciled to their situation in Europe. Some find their traditional religious values scorned, while others find themselves alienated by the independence of women, with all its implications for the future of the ''traditional'' Muslim family. In response, many have turned to the most obscurantist interpretation of the Islamic faith as a salve. At the fringes of the diaspora, some have turned to violence.

So far, at least, neither the carrot nor the stick has worked. Politicians talk of tighter immigration controls. Yet the reality is that a Europe in demographic freefall needs more, not fewer, immigrants if it is to maintain its prosperity. Tony Blair just proposed new laws allowing the deportation of radical mullahs and the shutting of mosques and other sites associated with Islamic extremism. But given the sheer size of the Muslim population in England and throughout the rest of Europe, the security services are always going to be playing catch-up. Working together, and in a much more favorable political and security context, French and Spanish authorities have, after more than 20 years, been unable to put an end to the terrorism of the Basque separatist group ETA. And there are at least twice as many Muslims in France as there are Basques in Spain.

At the same time, it is difficult to see how the extremists' grievances can ever be placated by conciliatory gestures. It is doubtful that the British government's proposed ban on blasphemy against Islam and other religions will have a demonstrable effect. (What would have happened to Salman Rushdie had such a ban been in force when ''The Satanic Verses'' was published?) Meanwhile, the French government has tried to create an ''official'' state-sanctioned French Islam. This approach may be worth the effort, but the chances of success are uncertain. It will require the enthusiastic participation of an Islamic religious establishment whose influence over disaffected youth is unclear. What seems clearer is that European governments have very little time and nowhere near enough knowledge about which members of the Islamic community really are ''preachers of hate'' and which, however unpalatable their views, are part of the immigrant mainstream.

The multicultural fantasy in Europe -- its eclipse can be seen most poignantly in Holland, that most self-definedly liberal of all European countries -- was that, in due course, assuming that the proper resources were committed and benevolence deployed, Islamic and other immigrants would eventually become liberals. As it's said, they would come to ''accept'' the values of their new countries. It was never clear how this vision was supposed to coexist with multiculturalism's other main assumption, which was that group identity should be maintained. But by now that question is largely academic: the European vision of multiculturalism, in all its simultaneous good will and self-congratulation, is no longer sustainable. And most Europeans know it. What they don't know is what to do next. If the broad-brush anti-Muslim discourse of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France or the Vlaams Belang Party in Belgium entered the political mainstream, it would only turn the Islamic diaspora in Europe into the fifth column that, for the moment, it certainly is not. But Europeans can hardly accept an immigrant veto over their own mores, whether those mores involve women's rights or, for that matter, the right to blaspheme, which the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh so bravely asserted -- and died for.

Figuring out how to prevent Europe's multicultural reality from becoming a war of all against all is the challenge that confronts the Continent. It makes all of Europe's other problems, from the economy to the euro to the sclerosis of social democracy, seem trivial by comparison. Unfortunately, unlike those challenges, this one is existential and urgent and has no obvious answer.

(David Rieff, a contributing writer, is the author, most recently, of ''At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention.'')

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