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Book of the month

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

By Christopher Caldwell
(New York: Doubleday, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin A. Schain, New York University


Martin Schain is Professor of Politics at New York University. He is the author of The Politics of Immigration in France, Britain and the United States (New York: Palgrave–Macmillan, 2008)

Martin Schain This is a deeply critical book about the emergence of a multi–ethnic society in Europe and the role of Islam in this “new” Europe. It is also critical of how, Caldwell argues, European leaders developed policies of immigration “…in a fit of absence of mind” with severe and unintended consequences. Finally, this is a short history of immigration policy, but mostly an analysis of its consequences. The problem, as Caldwell sees it, is Europe’s ability to assimilate large numbers of immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular. The core question he asks is, “Can you have the same Europe with different people?” His answer: a clear “no.”

The story begins with postwar reconstruction and labor shortages in Western Europe. European planners, he argues, either recruited workers from their former or present colonies, or in the absence of colonial labor, developed guest worker programs. Thus, in this mindless or market way, workers were recruited from Muslim countries in North Africa and Turkey and eventually settled in Western Europe.

This story, however, is misleading. While it is true that there was labor recruitment from Muslim former colonies, this was neither the preference of European planners, nor did it begin during the first phase of postwar reconstruction. In France, for example, until the beginning of the 21st century, the largest number of foreign residents was from Portugal — not Algeria. Recent figures indicate that about a third of the foreign population is now from North Africa, and this proportion is steady, and not growing. Similarly, the Irish were the largest single immigrant group in the UK after the war, and other Europeans (including refugees from the DDR) were sought by German planners during the height of German reconstruction. Caldwell writes of the arrival in Britain of the Empire Windrush in 1948 with the first large contingent of Jamaican workers (who arrived as British subjects.) He implies that the government viewed this as something positive — but this is not true. We now know that their arrival provoked the first serious questioning of empire/commonwealth citizenship that resulted in the redefinition of that citizenship in 1962.

No European government sought immigration from Muslim countries (most of them former colonies.) Only when the economies of European labor–exporting countries began to grow in the 1960s, (and when their fertility rates began to drop) did Europe reluctantly accept immigrants from its former colonies. Caldwell is right of course, when he argues that immigration, once begun, is hard to stop. Every country in Western Europe suspended or stopped immigration by the 1970s, and yet immigrants continue to arrive. However, it is simply not true that admitting immigrants changed from an economic advantage to a moral duty, and that “this change in emphasis actually increased the flow of immigrants at the very moment when politicians claimed to be shutting it down.” (p. 65)

Immigrants continued to arrive primarily because European courts ruled that under constitutional law, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, immigrants legally residing in Europe could not be totally deprived of the right to family unification. European governments have done their best—under law—to cut back on this right, however, and the number of immigrants arriving is generally half or less what it was before the 1970s. Some immigration is also being driven by labor needs. This category of immigration has been increasingly defined in terms of skilled labor, but despite the arguments presented in this book, European Commission reports indicate that there is still a demand for unskilled labor in certain sectors.

Immigrants also come as asylum–seekers. However, as Caldwell notes, asylum has become far more difficult to obtain under European law. The real story is that fewer asylum seekers can make it past the airport detention centers, and among those who do, only a small percentage can gain asylum. Far from demonstrating the softness of European governments, the evolving process of asylum demonstrates that on both the national and European levels, Europe is determined to limit access to its territory.

There is a clear problem in Caldwell’s framing of the question. We might think that until the period after the Second World War, countries in Western Europe were politically, culturally, and demographically stable, and ethnically unchanged for centuries. This is certainly not true. For some countries, such as France, immigration from other European countries (and beyond) has been important since the middle of the nineteenth century. For others, such as Italy and Ireland, vast waves of emigration have altered the demographic landscape in significant ways. In yet other countries, such as Spain and Britain, regional identities and languages have been sufficiently strong to bring into question the stability of the political system, and in all European countries, the tensions of class conflict have until recently challenged the existing order. Moreover, population movements and boundary changes after World War II involved millions of people. Movements and changing populations are nothing new in Europe, but for Caldwell, the changes of the past 50 years have been a “rupture” in European history.

For Caldwell, the real problem is Islam. All immigration, he notes, tends to erode national cultures “that have shaped and comforted people for centuries, and it does so no matter who is doing the moving.” (p. 10) Islam, he says, is different, however, in the way that it disrupts European cultural norms and raises deep questions of assimilability. Islam is in no sense Europe’s religion, and it is in no sense Europe’s culture, he argues. There are now about 15 million people born in Muslim countries who reside in Europe, about three percent of the population. They are a highly diverse population, both ethnically and religiously, and very few are Arabs. By most estimates, fewer than half are practicing Muslims, although this varies by ethnic group and by definitions of “practice.” About half of them are citizens of the countries in which they reside, and that proportion will grow over the next decade or so, as citizenship laws change, and as more children of these immigrants are born on European soil.

Although they are less than three percent of the population of Europe, Caldwell feels that the immigrant population from Muslim lands represents a special problem. He focuses on the wide gap that exists between European cultures and the cultures of Islam. The “clash of civilizations,” he argues, is now within Europe. Certainly, part of that clash is religious, but it is also related to larger changes within Europe—that “Europeans have lost faith in parts of the civilization to which migrants were drawn in the first place.” (p. 107) Indeed, Caldwell notes that it is difficult for immigrants to embrace rules and values that are themselves rapidly changing. The changes he elaborates are generally those he dubs “the ideology of tolerance:” a political correctness that has, over time, hardened into laws and regulations that protect and support multicultural expression. The series of cases that Caldwell references illustrate well how freedom of expression can be, and has been, compromised in the name of protecting minorities, and (in the case of the Holocaust), protection of the integrity of history. Indeed, we might come away with the impression that minorities, immigrant minorities in particular, are perhaps overprotected through administration and law.

However, Caldwell tends to focus too heavily on only one side of what Americans refer to as the “culture wars.” Although the cases that he cites often appear to come directly out of Gilbert and Sullivan, and there is no doubt that the issues are real and often painful (particularly for scholars and journalists), the struggle to control ideas and expression is not new in Europe; nor is the hegemony of the left in the institutions through which this struggle is shaped. For many years, some Europeans have seen the developing world as exotic, and have supported its causes with considerable passion, but this is only one side of the story.

Far from being shut down, for better or worse, measured challenges from scholars and more hysterical opposition from the anti–immigrant right–wing have certainly not been silenced in countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, France, or most of all The Netherlands. We can discuss whether “Islamophobia” is an appropriate term to characterize some of the attacks on immigrants and Islam, but there is no question that these attacks have been strong and often nasty. The emergence of powerful and popular political parties of the extreme right throughout Europe has undermined any movement towards an “ideology of tolerance.” There have been clearly documented patterns of violence against Muslim immigrants, and an increasing number of studies show clear patterns of discrimination as well.

Moreover, the policy trends throughout Europe have been exactly the opposite of what Caldwell implies. While there is still support for some policies of multiculturalism, all European governments have been developing policies of integration that focus on imposing neo–national standards on immigrant communities. These range from new requirements for family unification to new tests to measure cultural and political–culture standards for entry and citizenship. The real problem, as Caldwell frequently admits, is that Europe itself is a changing society.

The standards of what it means to be French have never been as clear as it is sometimes presumed, and what it means to be German or British has been even less clear. Not surprisingly, when British newspapers began evaluating the new citizenship test for naturalization in 2005 and for settlement in 2007, they found that most citizens did not pass. The religious component of identity in most European countries has been diluted and redefined by a dominant secularism that is informed by religious heritage. Thus, at the very moment when European identities seem to be the most in flux, European states are imposing policies that presume to define these identities and impose them on an immigrant population.

The reinforcement of identity through state action, however, is directly related to the emergence of Islam within Europe. For Caldwell, Islam, to which more than a third of this book is devoted, is at the core of the revolution in Europe. As succeeding generations of Europeans have become increasingly secular, [he argues,] succeeding generations of Muslims have become increasingly committed to Islam. This European “clash of civilizations” is intensified by two core factors, according to Caldwell. The first is that the culture of secular Europe is Christian; the second is that Muslim Europe increasingly rejects this Christian culture. Thus, the cultural gulf between natives and immigrants is growing rather than shrinking.

Far more than a cultural challenge, however, he says that Islam presents an existential challenge for Europe. Radical, violent jihadist movements that challenge the legitimacy of the European order are relatively small, but Caldwell argues that that they are linked directly to Islam: “If Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, then why do all European governments feel the need to reach out to Muslim groups in the aftermath of any terrorist attack?” (p. 283) Islam, he says is an “adversary culture” in the heart of Europe, and for that reason, integrating this population is a struggle and not an ordinary immigration problem at all.

Traditional Islam and Islamic culture —in ways ranging from dress codes to arranged marriages—challenge European societal norms. In the end, the price of managing this adversary culture, he argues, diminishes the liberties of everyone. Because of the liberalism of Western regimes, there has been a tendency to impose regulations on everyone, when in fact Muslims are the real targets, recalling Anatole France’s famous saying: “The majestic equality of the law …forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Indeed, in this book, Europe appears to be without means to combat the rising menace of Islamic immigrants, and without the political will to find the means. By the time we arrive at the last two chapters, we are left with the distinct impression that Europe is about to be overrun by Islamic culture. It can neither limit immigration, nor can it measurably shape the lives of those who get past the gates. Instead, Europeans seem committed to protecting the very trends that would destroy European values and European liberties.

Yet, we are told, all is not lost! Although Britain is the country with the most serious dangers of violence and political extremism, and Spain is most at risk of being overrun, Germany will succeed (slowly). France will have the best chance of fully assimilating its immigrant population; “It is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely,” he argues. (p. 301) It is difficult to understand why Caldwell steps back from the brink after making an unmitigated case that immigrants from Muslim countries cannot be assimilated: the cultural gap is too large; the gap is growing larger; and it is linked to religious differences. He concludes a symphony of doom on this relatively optimistic note (at least for France) without any clear support or even a clear argument.

Throughout the book, Caldwell relies mostly on anecdotes and brief case studies, most of which are clear and true enough, but some of which are just wrong. The French National Front can be described in many ways, but it certainly is not a party “made up largely of ex–Communists and whites stranded in heavily immigrant projects.” (p. 314) One can argue, as Caldwell does, that “the impact of anti–immigrant radicalism on day–to–day European politics can be exaggerated” (p. 314), but in fact, Caldwell only presents evidence that radical right parties have other fish to fry as well. Most research indicates that radical right parties consistently use immigrant populations as a means of mobilizing support. The brief analysis of the French veil law of 2004 makes no mention of the considerable support the law had among immigrant associations (SOS Racism for example) as well as among French Muslims. This, of course, would lend some support to the otherwise unsupported optimistic conclusion about France at the end of the book. Finally, it simply is not true that the EU “stripped national governments” of their capacity to either defend borders or to defend cultures, at least if we are still talking about Muslim immigrants. Although the internal borders of most of the EU states are now open, the external borders are closed, indeed very closed, with detention centers at every major airport, and a vastly increased network of frontier police.

Indeed, the real problem with this book, is that the main lines of its argument are only half true, with the other half left out or referred to only with a passing reference. For example, throughout the book, Caldwell describes and refers to an unthinking policy by European governments that recruited immigrants from Muslim countries without considering the consequences. I noted earlier that no European country had sought immigrants from Muslim countries; instead, they were accepted as a last resort. In the 1960s, policy–makers throughout Europe saw these immigrants in much the same way as Caldwell, and acted to exclude them as quickly as they could. Britain first passed exclusionary legislation in 1962 and other countries a decade later. What they did not count on was a series of court decisions that limited their ability to exclude family members. So, the unintended consequence of suspending immigration for labor was an increase in family unification. One could argue about the reasonableness of the courts, but this was hardly the fault of the governments, which in fact thought quite a lot about the changing patterns of immigration.

Finally, the cultural impact of Islam is vastly overblown in Caldwell&’s account. Throughout the book, an assertive Islam is paired with a passive and uncertain “Christian” Europe. The success of the former is dependent on the failure of the latter. Most of what he describes as a clash of adversary cultures involves the give and take of negotiating identities. The process may differ in content from earlier waves of immigration, but not so much in form, since Muslim immigrants have borrowed most of the forms of protest, politics and institutionalized representation from previous waves of immigration, at least in countries which have experienced previous waves of immigration.

Conflict and violence is not new in Europe, where the legitimacy of many democratic regimes has only recently been established. Although the violent incidents described in this book are true enough, most of the worst violence in Europe during the last 50 years has had little to do with either Muslims or immigration. In Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain, the violence of the IRA, the Red Army Brigades, ETA, and other home–grown groups was violently revolutionary, and had international links and implications. Jihadist violence during the past decade may be deplorable, but I doubt that even Caldwell believes that it even remotely challenges existing regimes in Europe.

The challenge for Caldwell is mostly cultural: that you cannot have the same Europe with different people. The heart of his complaint looks quite similar to the arguments that were made against Southern and Eastern European immigration into the United States a century ago. These immigrants, too, were deemed unassimilable, partly because many of them were Catholic (or Jewish). Throughout the 19th century, there was a deep hostility to Catholicism that was both cultural and political. Indeed, some scholars now refer to Muslims as the 21st century Catholics. Although Caldwell does not phrase his argument in terms of eugenics, the cultural argument he presents is so strong that it draws a hard and fast line that is similar.

In fact, Catholics were far more religiously, culturally, and politically assertive in the United States than Muslim immigrants are in Europe today. They established their own parallel school system, dominated local politics in key localities, and had no problem using politics as an instrument “for the disempowerment and expropriation of the Massachusetts establishment.” (p. 249) For Caldwell, this is a cautionary tale, one that Europeans would do well to heed. However, Muslims in Europe are indeed Europeans, just as Catholics were and are Americans. As citizens, in a democracy, they have a right to use collective power to negotiate identity and change. Despite the stories told in this book, they have had only modest success — far less success than the Boston Irish, or for that matter the Italian and Polish immigrants who came to France before the Second World War, and gained a piece of local political power through the Communist Party.

Caldwell is right in the sense that Europe is changing, but change has been constant. The most important changes, for example those in class relations, occurred long before the arrival of a large number of Muslim immigrants. You probably cannot have the same Europe with different people, and there is nothing wrong with that — unless you believe in an overriding right to cultural stability (whatever that means), which Caldwell evidently does.


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