Mar 9, 2014
Claire Wasserman on Europe’s Islamic Immigrants
Posted on Nov 20, 2009
Christopher Caldwell’s new book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West,” is both timely and important. Known for his generally conservative views (he helps edit The Weekly Standard, founded by Rupert Murdoch, after all), Caldwell deserves to be taken seriously. He is refreshingly iconoclastic in his approach, by no means dogmatic and writes a prose mercifully free of cliché.
Caldwell’s book is a thoughtful, well-written account of the current Islamic immigration influx and its implications throughout Europe. Caldwell argues that Europe’s inability to effectively absorb its Islamic immigrants is a consequence of Europeans’ own inability to understand themselves. Europe, he is convinced, is thus experiencing an existential crisis. “When Europeans assert their ‘values’ against Islam,” writes Caldwell, “what are they asserting—a religious heritage? A philosophical heritage? A morality? A lifestyle? Clearly they do not know.” The English, the French, the Germans, the Spaniards and the Swedes: They want to “defend” their cultures, but, the truth is, they cannot even define them with any precision. Ever since the Crusades, Christian Europe has considered itself, in some deep sense, fundamentally opposed to the Islamic world. Contemporary Europe’s difficulty to “deal with” its growing population of Muslim immigrants reflects more than just poor public policy, argues Caldwell; it is the result of a profound confusion of identities.
Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
By Christopher Caldwell
Doubleday, 432 pages
What Europe (and France in particular) grasps as its strongest pillar upon which to construct its contemporary identity is secularism. For Europeans, their own bloody history of centuries of religious wars has taught them to beware of the fevers of fanaticism, to keep at bay the religious temptation, to embrace the secular virtues of tolerance that are the legacy of the Enlightenment. One consequence of embracing secularism, however, has been a further widening of the gulf between Europe and its Islamic immigrants. It should perhaps be no surprise that second- and third-generation immigrants in Europe are more religious than their parents. Caldwell cites a myriad of statistics that show younger generations (all European-born) feel closer than their parents to the culture and religion of the older generation. Caldwell terms this “dis-assimilation”—a phenomenon that, interestingly, does not appear to have occurred among immigrants in America. In a compelling argument, Caldwell writes that the fervent embrace of Islam by ethnic youths is not a reaction to poverty or social exclusion. Instead, he sees Islamic immigrant youths as part of a movement occurring in many places across the world: a palpable shift back toward religion, partly as a kind of inchoate resistance to the pulverizing forces of modernization and globalization. Caldwell nonetheless argues that it is the European Christians who are the outsiders—the lone group refusing to participate in this global trend of religiosity.
Secularism—a lofty ideal—is complicated in its real-world applications. French secularism is not synonymous with the sort of separation of church and state that exists in America. Its roots are in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, a bloody horror that divided and destroyed much of Europe along religious lines. Ultimately, secularism would triumph, informed by the heritage of France’s revolutionary principles of liberty, fraternity, equality. That legacy, however, now threatens to alienate Europe from its immigrants, according to Caldwell. Secularism, in this view, has become an overwrought universalism. The French state, for example, enforces uniformity in the name of equality; however, the difference of language, religion and skin color immediately renders Muslim immigrants incompatible with such a secular and universalizing ideology. Because cultural and civic uniformity is highly valued, there is little tolerance in traditional French society for cultural differences.
After describing Islamic immigrants as a European subculture, Caldwell turns the argument on its head and suggests that perhaps Europe is the true subculture in the larger, Islamicized world. Due to advances in technology and transportation, immigrants can connect to their country of origin (and to the whole Islamic world) by the click of a television remote or the flick of a radio knob or the boarding of a jetliner. Immigrant youths dis-assimilate not because they are unable to integrate into European society, Caldwell insists, but rather because they don’t want to. Their parents and grandparents, who came to France seeking work, were forced to integrate into society in order to find jobs and to declare citizenship. The younger generation, by contrast, is not faced with the pressing need to assimilate itself: It is already part of French society. Yet, that society is one that prizes uniformity, prides itself on Enlightenment ideals, and frowns upon any departure from the secular model. Thus, immigrants are seen as an inherent obstacle to those values; and due to their age, young Muslims appear as a destabilizing force, particularly threatening to French society.
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