Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West by Christopher Caldwell, Doubleday, 422 pages, $30.00
What will be the consequences for Europe of decades of immigration, much of it from the Muslim world? In the eyes of Christopher Caldwell, a culturally conservative columnist at the Financial Times and an editor at the Weekly Standard, Europe is being remade, or rather unmade, from the ground up. As a result of the growing "nation of Islam" in Europe -- including 5 million Muslims in France, 4 million in Germany, and 2 million in Great Britain -- societies that used to be homogeneous and therefore coherent have become multicultural and internally divided.
But multiculturalism may be merely a halfway house. Echoing Edmund Burke in his title, Caldwell suggests that Europe is undergoing a "revolution" vaguely analogous to what happened in France in 1789. In his first letters on those events, Burke claimed to see a human society being dissolved and replaced by a world of monsters. This isn't far from how Caldwell portrays Europe today. The monstrosities he parades before us include honor killings, "menacing North African slums," anti-Semitic outrages, European police who "are petrified of Muslim men," vandals rampaging through the banlieues, and young zealots marching through European streets with signs reading "Death to anyone who insults Islam!"
You may doubt that a socially marginalized, economically impoverished, politically disorganized, and territorially dispersed minority could pull off a revolution, seizing the commanding heights from native Europeans who dominate their countries' institutions and own virtually all of Europe's wealth. After all, the groups in question are trapped in pockets of violent weakness where smoldering anger does not translate into significant power. But Caldwell mocks such doubts: "There were probably fewer Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 than there are Islamists in Europe today."
Once the book gets under way, however, the concept of "revolution" plays virtually no role in the analysis. Instead, Caldwell wants us to see Muslim immigration into Europe as a kind of reverse colonization that may lead, you guessed it, to the Islamification of Europe. Because Europe's population is imploding and its territory is being reoccupied by non-Europeans, the homeland of Western civilization may be destined to vanish into the mists of time, in the manner of the Byzantine Empire.
If Caldwell and his fellow doomsayers are to be believed, Muslims have now done what they failed to do at the gates of Vienna in 1683. They have breached Europe's defenses and created "beachheads" behind enemy lines, "patiently conquering Europe's cities, street by street." We shouldn't view Muslim immigrants merely as seeking better lives for themselves and their families, Caldwell says. They should be seen instead as the avant-garde forces of a long campaign of cultural replacement.
Some may object that this way of seeing Europe's immigration problem is inflammatory, but the more serious problem is that it makes no sense. Given the huge numbers of non-Muslims mixed into Europe's immigrant population, Caldwell can only sustain his thesis by the gratuitous assertion that Romanian, Chinese, Dominican, and other immigrant groups will rally behind the banner of Islam in a campaign to blot out traditional European civilization.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept this fringe-conservative way of framing the issue, it leaves us wondering: Why are the Europeans, with so many material resources, losing this war? Caldwell's answer is that theirs "is a civilization in decline." Unlike Americans who often seem to love themselves uncritically, Europeans are mired in "self-loathing" and "hand-wringing self-detestation." He explains, "Whether or not [Europe] can defend itself, it has lost sight of why it should."
A "guilt-based moral order" took root in Europe, according to Caldwell, when shame and remorse about both the Holocaust and colonialism threw Europeans into spasms of "moral self-flagellation." Ashamed of their past persecution and oppression of non-Christian peoples, European elites began to espouse an "ideology of tolerance." You might suppose that an "ideology of tolerance" would be ethical and principled, but in Caldwell's telling, it is actually an expression of unprincipled self-disgust.
Supposedly, it is this self-loathing that has led Europeans to see the admission of Muslim immigrants as "a moral duty." In other passages, Caldwell argues more reasonably that Europe opened its doors to immigration in a fit of absentmindedness, when its own work force had been decimated by war and the reconstruction of a devastated continent required laborers from abroad. So why, after arguing persuasively that Europe opened its doors to mass immigration without thinking through the consequences, does he go on to argue, inconsistently and implausibly, that Europe invited mass immigration because of its guilt-stricken conscience?
The second idea is important to him, it turns out, because it helps him unmask humanitarian universalism. He wants to reveal to the world the ugly reality hidden behind the pretty ideology of universal human rights. His thinking, to the extent that I can reconstruct it, goes something like this: When rich nations subscribe to universal human rights, they lose all moral grounds for keeping out poor immigrants. After World War II, Europeans abandoned their traditional intolerance of non-Christian peoples in the name of universalism. Their inability to turn away immigrants who "present themselves in suffering humanity's name" may look like a moral choice, but it is actually a refusal to defend their own values and traditions.
And the cultural malady that allowed the Muslim invasion, as Caldwell sees it, goes back even further than postwar guilt. The true source is "Europe's spiritual void," the product of "ideological secularism, which aims to break every link between religion and public life, shepherding people out of religion altogether." As Europeans lost their Christian faith, they also lost their "anchor" (one of his favorite words). Skepticism eroded the moral justification for cultural self-preservation because "all European cultures depend for their stability on certain ethical survivals of Christianity, and would have a difficult time defending their 'values' without them."
Readers may be forgiven for feeling lost at this point. Isn't Christianity one of the cultural sources of humanitarian universalism? After all, Christ allegedly died for all mankind. That is obviously what a secular philosopher such as Jürgen Habermas has in mind when he writes, in a passage cited by Caldwell, that "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization." So how can Caldwell apotheosize Christianity for its contribution to European culture and then go on to unmask the moral decay and self-loathing that motivates the universalism that is said, in his own book, to be Christianity's most inspiring legacy?
The simplest answer, again, is that his book contains some strange contradictions. But we can untangle the yarn a bit by pointing out that Caldwell's Christianity has less to do with universalism than with dignity and a certain kind of spiritual vigor.
Once they had lost their Christian faith, Europeans were bound to become what Caldwell sees them as today -- promiscuous consumerists without souls. Such an unqualified generalization may seem cartoonish; and, indeed, Caldwell has a jolly time defending it. The principal characteristics of today's Europe are "its atomization, its consumerism, its sexual wantonness." What is the chance that the European civilization we discover in "the shopping mall, the pierced navel, online gambling, a 50 percent divorce rate, and high rate of anomie and self-loathing" could defend itself against the Muslim advance? Very little: "The spiritual tawdriness Islamic immigrants perceive in the modern West is not imaginary. It may be Europe's biggest liability in preserving its culture."
This is why Caldwell refers to poverty-stricken Muslim enclaves as "the strongest communities in Europe" -- strong, that is, in the context of a pitifully weak post-religious and post-nationalist Europe. "Islam is not the second religion of Europe but the first," he says, because it has maintained its "vital energy," while there is nothing left to European Christianity but a superficial "lifestyle." He even ends up agreeing with Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, that Europe's "materialist civilization" is "on the verge of collapse." Caldwell feels more at home with Muslim values than with the values of contemporary Europe -- as, he says, would Dante. And Caldwell also values women's chastity more than women's autonomy because chastity (not to mention virginity) "can further dignity, responsibility, and self-respect." You may think that burqas and niquabs demean women, he ironizes, but what about "jeans that cinch halfway down the bum crack"?
And that is not all. "The closer one gets to European culture, the farther one gets from family and its raison d'être, children." While Muslim women living in Europe have an average of 2.34 children, nonreligious European women have an average of less than one (only 0.86), thereby doing everything in their power to insure that the descendants of native Europeans will be radically outnumbered by the offspring of immigrants. This is apparently how cultural self-loathing is put into practice.
Caldwell's unexpected embrace of Islamist criticisms of the West comes to an even less expected culmination. Europe's "most recent encounter with Islam" has been "painful and violent," he says. But it has also been "an infusion of oxygen into the drab, nitpicking, materialistic intellectual life of the West. It is a liberation to be able to talk about God once more, even in someone else's language."
Having inhaled this blast of oxygen, Caldwell is ready to turn to that old neoconservative hobbyhorse, the unbridgeable gulf between Europe and the United States. One difficulty with this analysis is that Caldwell himself asserts that Europe's national cultures have been eroded by "a homogenized, one-size-fits-all mass consumer culture" originating in America. "Europe is being taken over culturally," he suggests, not only by Islam but simultaneously "by a (market) liberalism that accords no particular value to Europe's most cherished traditions."
Unlike Europe, however, America will not be flushed down history's drain. At least not yet. For one thing, America "has not yet had any mass immigration of Muslims" and "scale matters." In addition, America has retained the moral fiber that Europe has lost. It is more Christian and more convinced that Christianity is morally superior to Islam. It is also less squeamish about using force to defend itself abroad (Iraq, Afghanistan) or at home. When Caldwell remarks that "a quarter of the prison inmates in the world are held in the United States," he means this not as criticism but as praise. Reflecting on U.S. "policies that are distasteful to most Europeans," such as the death penalty, he observes that such toughness means that "American cities and suburbs are extremely inhospitable places for immigrants who are criminally inclined." This is one of the principal ways in which America, unlike Europe, "exerts Procrustean pressure on its immigrants to conform." Most important, the United States believes in itself, while "Europeans are confused about whether they are citizens of the world or citizens of their own nations." No wonder they can neither defend their borders nor distinguish clearly between members and nonmembers of their community.
Near the beginning of his book, attempting to explain why Europeans have lost faith in their traditions, Caldwell quotes a remarkable passage from the French sociologist Raymond Aron: "Europeans would like to exit from history, from la grande histoire, from the history that is written in letters of blood." This brings us to the heart of the matter. Unlike the post-nationalist Europeans, Americans remain willing to write history in the letters of blood. Not Christ-like concern for the weak and the marginalized but readiness for organized violence is presumably why America's culture strikes the editors of the Weekly Standard as less drab than Europe's. America shares nationalist bellicosity with some parts of the Muslim world, and this is a good thing. European Muslims, he informs us, have "kept alive dreams of cultural, national, and even racial glory that were beyond the reach of Europeans' universalism because they were beyond the reach of Europeans' understanding." But thanks to America, equivalent dreams of patriotic (even "racial"?) glory have not entirely vanished from the West. Despite its sometimes-tawdry consumerism, America is pumped for war and is therefore well-positioned to take on the Islamic threat.
Yet it turns out that Caldwell has not entirely abandoned hope for Europe. While Europe's elites despise their own culture, the average, love-it-or-leave-it, tabloid-reading man in the street believes correctly that "Islam itself" is "dangerous" and understands simple truths, such as: Muslims living in Europe make life crummier. The "smoldering rage among working-class voters," moreover, suggests that at least these Europeans have not yet been drained of moral vitality.
But what can they do "to stem the implantation of Muslim culture" in Europe? Caldwell holds out three possibilities. One is deportation, an option that he broaches when he asks about rioters in the French banlieues who shout "Fuck France!": "Ought these people, assuming they are noncitizens, be put on the next plane out of the country?" A second possibility is conversion: "It no longer seems unreasonable to demand that immigrants who want to stay in Europe give up the ways of their parents." About the third possibility, Caldwell does not speak so directly, but he raises it in a parable about the fate awaiting guests who overstay their welcome: "The most spectacular illustration history offers of the kinship of hospitality and mistrust is that of Captain Cook, who was feted, flattered, and worshipped for a month by the Hawaiian islanders in Kealakekua Bay in 1779. When he and his crew returned on an emergency visit to repair a broken mast, they were massacred."
I do not suppose Caldwell is seriously encouraging Europeans to return to their venerable tradition of mass murder. But readers may be forgiven for wondering what he really thinks about writing history in letters of blood.
To be fair, I need to add that Caldwell weaves into his work a number of more reasonable claims that, while not especially original, remain instructive. Although his general argument is that "Islam itself" is responsible both for the failure of Muslims to integrate successfully in Europe and for the rise of jihadist violence, he also dwells more usefully on the role of modern communication technology, bad city planning, and the trauma of displacement -- none of which has anything to do with "Islam itself." By discussing the hostile reaction of 19th-century Boston Protestants to the arrival of "the violent and crime-prone Irish," and the mutual misunderstandings between American whites and blacks caused by lack of social contact, he manages to de-exoticize the European experience. And when he describes "Islam itself" not as a cause of political violence but rather as "an idiom useful for rallying the disgruntled," he is speaking common sense. I have omitted these and other thoughts from my discussion of his book not because they are uninteresting but because they are random flashes of sobriety at odds with, and unintegrated into, the main argument.
I have tried to dive beneath the jibes and anecdotes and to restate, as clearly as possible, Caldwell's central thesis. Spelling it out, I believe, is a sufficient refutation. Few of his audacious generalizations can survive serious scrutiny. European elites are not uniformly "self-loathing." (His own examples of their complacency and snobbery suffice to refute this claim.) Europe is not a "spiritual void." "Islam itself" is not a unified actor capable of formulating aims and carrying out strategies. Islamist criticisms of the market economy are, at best, half-truths. Non-Muslim immigrants in Europe will not rally behind the Islamist flag. "Racial glory" is not a worthy aim. Societies were not healthier when the norm of female chastity was enforced (while male philandering was allowed). Life does not become colorless and petty when metaphysical questions are no longer in the air.
And, above all, immigrant communities in Europe are not "beachheads" for a likely Islamic takeover. Caldwell's suggestions to the contrary are sophomoric fantasies, contributing little to the understanding and nothing to the resolution of the very real problems surrounding immigrant communities in Europe today. About his half-veiled thoughts on how a post-post-nationalist European public should confront its immigrant communities, the less said the better. If you like this sort of exercise, you may read it for the author's wit. For wisdom, look elsewhere.