Claire Wasserman on Europe’s Islamic Immigrants
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.
To see long excerpts from “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West,” click here.
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. Caldwell is correct. Youths of immigrant families in Europe “dis-assimilate,” a phenomenon largely unknown among America’s second- and third-generation immigrants. That is because Islamic immigrants have little in common with, say, Latin American Catholic immigrants arriving on the United States’ southwestern borders. Caldwell usefully compares Europe’s immigrant problem with America’s race problem. The dis-assimilation he speaks of actually resembles the way in which African-Americans have constructed their identity both around, and in opposition to, the “white” mainstream culture. The African-American identity and experience, though they may have been constructed as an adversary culture, have been marketed and exported worldwide. A huge profit is made from the “coolness” that black culture represents. While rock music sales dwindle, rap artists continue to sell. Basketball players become household names, and Lebron James’ face can sell a pair of shoes. “Flavor of Love,” P. Diddy’s Twitter account: These are all things that draw huge global audiences and make or help make a handsome profit. Muslim youths get this. As seen in footage of the 2005 riots in France, many Muslim youths emulated and empathized with African-American culture; many Europeans, in turn, viewed the young, mostly Arab immigrants as, according to Caldwell, “enviable in an existential way. They were cooler. They were aristocrats of identity.”
Preferring to err on the side of pessimism, Caldwell doesn’t discuss the ways in which immigrant youths have been successfully integrated into and embraced by popular European culture. Though their slang and sideways caps may stand as affronts to those who appreciate Baudelaire and classic French literature, their “enviable” cool is just that: enviable. And mainstream European youths accept their immigrant counterparts with an ease and grace that eludes almost every government official. By the measures of music heard, clothing worn and everyday language and dialect spoken, there seems to be a growing reconciling of European habits and immigrant challenges. Reality suggests a more culturally porous and pliant Europe. The most obvious example is verlan, an updated 19th century French pig-Latin in which Maghreb youths invert syllables to create a new language. While verlan may represent a private form of communication with which immigrants can distinguish and separate themselves, the language of alienation has paradoxically become a means of integration. Words such as meuf (from femme, woman or wife) and chelou (formerly louche, shady or dubious) have now made their way into mainstream French vernacular and are heard throughout France, especially among the young.
Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
By Christopher Caldwell
Doubleday, 432 pages
remains, to a certain extent, the language of “outsiders”: youths, lower-income people, immigrants. The creation of verlan as a separate language of alienation fits the “dis-assimilation” thesis at the heart of Caldwell’s argument. The acceptance of verlan, however, into the pop culture lexicon acts as a counterpoint. Verlan’s status as a language of outsiders is the reason it is ultimately integrated into the larger society; to speak verlan is to be cool. Middle-class white French youths adopt the slang as a way of showing their solidarity with “the streets.” Caldwell is keen to compare the Muslim immigrants with African-Americans but oddly doesn’t bother to explore how a subculture can be regarded as simultaneously beyond the pale (dis-assimilation) and coveted (seen as cool). But perhaps that would have been another book.
Caldwell makes bold predictions about the future of Europe. Even though Britain has arguably integrated its immigrants relatively well, it remains the country with the most serious incidents of violence and political extremism. Caldwell is cynical about the segregation in Sweden, and he sees Spain as being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of immigrants flooding over its borders. He is slightly more upbeat about Germany’s Turkish immigrants, but it is, perhaps surprisingly, France that Caldwell looks to as offering Europe’s best chance at successfully assimilating its immigrants. It is not France’s social programs or public policies that Caldwell commends, but rather precisely France’s “republican traditions,” which he sees as the best way for later generations of immigrants to fully assimilate. France, he writes, “is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely.”
Unlike in America, however, where assimilation is regarded as a sign of the successful embrace of patriotic citizenship, assimilating into French society (or, for that mater, into other European countries) is difficult. All over 21st century Europe the question is asked: What does it mean to be French, Swedish, Spanish, German? For Muslim immigrants who live in two worlds, the requirement to embrace Voltaire is much more than recommended reading. It is expected that immigrants must forge new identities once they arrive in their adopted country. What is less obvious but equally important is that the host country must reconstruct its identity just as the immigrant must rebuild his. This vexing predicament is what Caldwell’s book is about. Caldwell foresees an almost inexorable merging of European and Muslim cultures. Whether, in the end, this is a good thing or a bad thing, he leaves largely for the reader to decide. But it is clear that, for Caldwell, there will be enormous consequences for the Enlightenment values that are at the heart of the modern European project. The surprise is that it may be Europe that must become more accommodating to its Islamic immigrants, and not the other way around.
Claire Wasserman, a recent graduate of Boston University and frequent visitor to France, is a writer who lives in New York City.
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.