Reflections on the Revolution in Europe
by Christopher Caldwell
Doubleday, 432 pages, $30
The title of Christopher Caldwell’s recent book may raise a polite eyebrow in Europe. A revolution, really? No matter the obvious reference to Edmund Burke, 2009 Europe is not 1790 France. Certainly immigrants in general and Muslims in particular are more and more numerous and visible across the Old World, and Islamic customs and rules are increasingly clashing with Europe’s predominant, hedonistic, secularized way of life. Does this mean, however, that the continent is bound to be controlled by a bunch of dogmatic ayatollahs—with the help of gangs of immigrants’ children, turned into “guardians of the revolution,” Iranian style?
The prospect appears unlikely. Indeed, should anything like such a radical takeover take place, it would have to be at the end of a slow process in which Muslims living in Europe would progressively grow into a much bigger, more influential, more coherent minority, capable of imposing its will on an uncertain, divided, spineless, demoralized, decadent majority.
Even with some violence peppering the final stages, this would be the mere outcome of a long evolution—not a revolution on the 1789 or 1917 model. The predicted change derives from the projection of recent trends that may worry a handful of pessimistic pundits and assorted academic doomsayers. But there is no guarantee of a linear, predictable course of events infallibly leading to the collapse of Western civilization in Europe. Rather, history has taught that the future cannot be inferred from the fragile understanding of the present. In the 1980s, who—apart from Ronald Reagan, whom most European intellectuals depicted as a trigger-happy moron—openly believed that the Cold War could be won without a nuclear apocalypse?
Christopher Caldwell may well then be suspected of yielding to the journalistic temptation of sensationalism. His thesis is not even terribly original: The notion of Europe becoming one of the provinces of the spreading Muslim empire was presented by Bat Ye’or in her 2005 book Eurabia.
And yet, these new reflections deserve to be taken seriously. As a thoughtful outsider, Caldwell has an impressive command of the facts and theoretical tools of the current debates. Unlike Bat Ye’or, he does not argue that today’s Europeans (and especially the French) are eager to please the Arabs and ready to submit to their diktats. He shows convincingly that European thoughtlessness (after the Second World War) encouraged Muslims to come to work in factories (where they were not actually needed in such large numbers) and to bring their families—and then proved unable to offer these immigrants ideals they could share or national identities they could adhere to. Neither multiculturalism nor integration is solving the problem, as Islamism becomes more assertive and Christianity appears incapable of remedying Europe’s current “spiritual disarmament.”
Apart from a few minor details, Caldwell’s diagnosis of European weaknesses, complacency, and contradictions can hardly be challenged. But does this require us to conclude that “Islam is the only value system waiting in the wings” and that the irreversible revolution has already happened?
This is the opinion of such diametrically opposed figures as Tariq Ramadan, the West’s favorite Muslim triumphalist, and the late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who argued that immigrants take unfair advantage of Western tolerance and liberalism to impose their own bigotry. But such agreement does not constitute proof. The question is whether Islam is as irresistible as claimed. If the British antireligious artist Grayson Perry refrains from attacking Muslim beliefs because of his “real fear that someone will slit” his throat, as Caldwell reports, does it mean that Islamists have already won?
What ought to be grasped (but remains obscured by the apprehensiveness fuelled by nearly all experts on the subject) is that European Islam finds itself in an unprecedented and rather uncomfortable situation. It cannot reasonably hope to conquer by the sword, or expect the miraculous overnight conversion of native infidels, or count on demographic growth to establish Shari’a law. Muslims can refer to their centuries-old tradition of uncompromising domination, or to the more recent colonial and postcolonial experience of being a tiny or culturally marginal minority. What is disturbingly new to them in Europe is the intermediate position of making up a sizable minority too large to resign itself to the modesty imposed by the majority’s incomprehension and superiority complex and at the same time not powerful enough to force its own customs on the rest of the population.
Current Islamic aggressiveness can be at least in part accounted for by this difficulty in adjusting to circumstances. Believers tend to cling all the more ferociously to their faith when they have the means not to suffer in silence and when they feel their faith is not properly acknowledged. Muslims are used only to dominating or being dominated. They don’t know how to deal with anything in between, so they keep on wavering between discretion (99 percent of the time, though it rarely makes the news) and provocation (quite exceptionally, but this is sure to get worldwide media coverage).
To make things even more disconcerting, European Muslims are not confronted by enemies but by persecutors of an unknown kind: pluralism and relativism. They are granted rights. They are even invited to organize themselves and to elect representatives—in other words, to play by the rules of a world where all are theoretically equal, a world that is thoroughly foreign to their cultural radicalism that suggests that dialogue is not a satisfactory principle of social life.
Most specialists somberly argue that intransigence is inherent to Islam, so that it is vain to seek to appease fundamentalists or to promote moderates. This may well be true. But, here again, the question is whether European Muslims can stick to hardline Islamism when confronted by those who claim religion does not make much difference. The point is not that Western lifestyles can undermine religious observance. It is, rather, that non-Arabic languages (and the social and business relations that go along with them) may be creating a new, European Islam—especially now that young Muslims no longer get only factory jobs but are integrating into the service economy, where they assimilate its culture.
Something similar has already happened in Indonesia, for example, where Muslims do not have much in common with their Middle Eastern coreligionists. On the whole, it is a safe bet that the Middle Eastern model will not take control of Europe—all the more as the world slowly becomes less and less dependent on Arab oil and money. The problem is that European Islam still has to invent itself.
In short, it is not so easy to be a Muslim in Europe these days. This is what my students taught me, when they dutifully kept on attending classes during the November 2005 riots in the suburbs, while my American and British journalist friends were forbidden to leave their luxury hotels in the center of Paris (lest they be targeted as the minions of Anglo-Saxon capitalism) and ordered to wait until the angry immigrant mobs swarmed and looted the city’s historic and institutional heart—which, of course, never happened.
At the beginning of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Caldwell mentions an interesting 1973 novel by Jean Raspail, The Camp of the Saints, which, as Caldwell notes, concerns “a collection of philanthropists and activists” who “incite a million underfed Indians to board a flotilla of rusty ships for Europe, with dire consequences, including the trampling to death of the well-wishers who rush to welcome the disembarking hordes.” These starving huddled masses are not Muslims, and Raspail’s aim was not to warn against any Islamist threat but to expose the possibly suicidal implications of well-meaning leftist policies in Europe. Those who are not immediately convinced by Caldwell’s alarmism should read the book he cites—where they will see that Europe’s major problem is not Islam but its lack of faith in its own spiritual heritage.
Jean Duchesne teaches English at Condorcet College in Paris and has served as advisor to the archbishops of Paris since 1984.