European Union

A Revolution in Europe


In the latest print edition of The New Republic (not online, alas), Anne Applebaum reviews Christopher Caldwell's new book on Islam and Europe, Reflections on a Revolution in Europe. I read it a few months ago and happily noticed that, unlike many shrill commentators on this issue, Caldwell actually did an enormous amount of on-the-ground research (when I was living in Sweden, he stopped by Timbro, my former employer, to talk about the situation in Stockholm and Malmö) and speaks a handful of European languages. For those of us that are reflexively pro-immigration in the United States—and if I were to hazard a guess, I would say the Caldwell is not one of those fearful of "Mexifornia"—he provides a compelling and convincing argument as to why the situation in Western Europe is rather different than the one in Texas and Southern California. Here is Applebaum giving the reader a rough précis of Caldwell's argument:

Caldwell's is a complicated argument, with both religious and social elements, not all of which I am qualified to judge. Among other things, he notes that Muslim dislike of European attitudes to women and sex leads Muslim men--even second-generation Muslim men--to import wives from their home countries. The imported wives, who often do not speak European languages, in turn tend to preserve the customs of the home countries in their adopted countries for another generation. He also observes a phenomenon that historians of American immigration would certainly recognize: in practice, contact with European culture has tended to make Muslims more conservative, not more liberal, about the culture they remember from the past. Their children and grandchildren, meanwhile, are able to keep in touch with that culture in a way that previous generations never could, through the easily manipulated world of satellite television. Back in Bangladesh, young people may long to be "modern" and go to nightclubs, but in the Bangladeshi enclaves of London, one sees a much different sort of Islamic world on Al Jazeera.

Applebaum gives Caldwell a fair hearing, and seems to broadly agree with his diagnosis of Europe's current immigration challenge. And she is also right to point out that his argument is far more complex and nuanced than one can possibly convey in 3000 words. But diagnosis and prescription and rather different things; Applebaum sees a rosier future, one in which Europe's intergrationist impulse and the benefits of liberal society eventually overwhelm the tribal and illiberal:

Perhaps because I belong to the group of people who fondly and naovely imagine that Islam may evolve--every other monotheism has--I am not entirely persuaded by Caldwell's elegant pessimism. There are multiple examples--many multiples of examples--of Muslim immigrants who have integrated seamlessly into Europe. I am thinking of the secular and sophisticated Iranians of Paris, the Pakistani shopkeepers on British high streets, even individuals such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of Europe's most fervent exponents of Enlightenment values. All have succeeded because some elements of European life--the entrepreneurial tradition and the blandishments of capitalism; the cosmopolitan cultural scene; the large role given to public intellectuals, particularly those who have something new to say--are well suited to the absorption and the cultural adaptation of outsiders. I do not see why Muslim immigrants will remain magically immune to all the integrationist influences that have shaped other immigrants into contented citizens of Western societies.

There are also some historical precedents. As noted above, the habit of importing spouses from the old country was also practiced by American immigrants--Jewish, German, Irish--some of whom also remained isolated in their own communities into two, three, or more generations. But these groups were finally integrated, partly through the lure of prosperity--in the end you had to speak English in order to get on--and partly through schools and peer pressure. Caldwell is right when he notes that Europeans always underestimate how deeply conformist American society is, and how much overt pressure there has always been to assimilate; but it is not impossible to imagine that a few changes in Europe could make a big difference. Indeed, that ban on the veil in schools in France is now widely perceived as an enormous success, precisely because it has tended to accelerate the assimilation of Muslim girls (and thus it might eventually be possible to drop it). Nor is it impossible to imagine that Europe could recover from the current recession--from which, with the exception of Britain and Ireland, it has suffered less drastically than the United States--and that a subsequent burst of economic growth could pull immigrants into the mainstream.