Sunday, July 31, 2011

Islam is Losing the European War on Multiculturalism

By Pankaj Mishra

A few summers ago, I traveled to the central Swedish uplands for a conference. On the face of it, the subject “What Is the West?” seemed promising. What, indeed, was the West in the age of intensified globalization and mass immigration?

“Multiculturalism,” variously defined, had been under attack by centrist politicians trying to outflank extreme-right-wing parties across Western Europe. But was complete assimilation to European ways feasible, or even desirable, for immigrants of various ethnic and religious backgrounds?

Certainly, assimilation had made little difference to the fate of many in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Theodore Herzl wasn’t the only one to feel that “the Jew who tries to adapt himself to his environment, to speak its languages, to think its thoughts” was still identified as a potentially treacherous “alien” by fellow Europeans.

For me the question was not so much what “is” the West, but what could it be — whether, for instance, the increasingly multiethnic nation-states of Europe could create a dynamic and pluralistic identity for themselves, learning from the experience of the United States as well as multinational empires in the past.

Yet when I arrived at the conference, which included a number of prominent English and American academics and journalists, I was startled as one speaker after another stood up to angrily denounce Islam and Muslims as a serious menace to Western civilization.

Puzzlingly, few of these close readers of the Hadith and new experts on jihad seemed to know any European Muslims, or know that most of the targets of their anti-immigrant fury were nonobservant Muslims, grateful to be in Europe, indifferent to Shariah law and mostly concerned, like everyone else, with making better lives for themselves and their children.

Although supported by arcane scholarship, these denunciations were not much more sophisticated than those I grew up listening to in my upper-caste Hindu circles in India. In this self-flattering vision, Muslims were everything the rest of us were not: socially backward, economically parasitic, politically retrograde, prone to group-think and violence, in addition to being canny breeders and demographic terrorists.

The lone representative of the Muslim world among us, a Turkish scholar, protested that he couldn’t recognize this portrait of Muslims. He was ignored. In any case, the West’s real enemy for some speakers wasn’t Muslims but the feckless Western liberal believers in coexistence, who dangerously underestimated the threat to European values from Islam.

For these speakers, multiculturalists “might have been invented by Osama bin Laden himself,” as the writer Bruce Bawer, who lives in Oslo, put it in his 2009 book, “Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom.”

The Western economies were then booming. The setting of the conference itself — a grand mansion with extensive grounds — spoke of a long and serene possession of power and wealth. And yet here were some extremely privileged men working themselves up into high degrees of rage and self-pity.

Trying to explain this bizarre spectacle, a well-known Swedish journalist told me that terrorist attacks and Muslim immigration in Europe had provoked great anxiety in Sweden and that the organizers of the conference — a Swedish business family with strong political connections — were trying to “come to grips with Islam.”

I now find that two of the most stridently anti-Muslim “thinkers” at the conference were major influences on Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian accused of killing more than 70 people in Oslo last week. In his capacious manifesto, Breivik also exulted at the possibility of Hindu nationalists in India opening up another front against Muslims and “cultural Marxists.”

It is unreasonable to pin guilt by intellectual association on the authors of Breivik’s selective quotations. After all, this dedicated foe of weak-kneed liberals also drew upon John Stuart Mill. Yet the mass murder by an apparently lone and crazed man in Norway should also not deflect attention from the insidiousness with which crude prejudices about Islam and Muslims have become respectable in Europe in recent years.

Early this year, Sayeeda Warsi, a co-chairman of the British Conservative Party and a Muslim, was roundly attacked for claiming that prejudice toward Muslims had “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable. But this simple truth is verified not only by Rupert Murdoch’s traditionally xenophobic tabloids but also by glancing at the so-called quality broadsheets and books produced by prominent trade publishers.

For example, Christopher Caldwell, a weekly columnist for the Financial Times, claimed in his 2009 book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” that Muslims were already “conquering Europe’s cities, street by street.” It didn’t matter that Muslims constitute about 4 percent of the EU’s total population. According to Caldwell, “Muslim culture is unusually full of messages laying out the practical advantages of procreation.”

More such screeds have shaped European establishment and popular opinion since I wondered “What Is the West?” in Sweden. Let there be no doubt: All this helped bring us to the strange place where, when a madman kills more than 70 people because he thinks the West is being too soft on Muslims, the first impulse of many is to blame the horrific violence on — Muslims.

And, as once-strong economies weaken, more people go out of work, and fear and insecurity haunt ordinary lives, the influence of such propagandists rises. “Minorities,” the Indian-American social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has rightly warned, “are the major site for displacing the anxieties of many states about their own minority or marginality [real or imagined] in a world of a few mega-states, of unruly economic flows and compromised sovereignties.”

At the best of times, there were no easy answers to the question of how the ethnically homogenous nation-states of Europe should accommodate Muslim populations. Now the “minority problem” lies hostage to the deteriorating health of European societies.

Europe has been here before. And we should hope that the murderous spree in Norway last week was the work of a certifiably mad loner. But, as extreme-right-wing parties flourish across Western Europe and bigotry goes mainstream, we would also do well to remember the novelist Joseph Roth’s words at a dark time — 1937 — in Europe: “Centuries of civilization are no guarantee that a European people, by some ghastly curse of fate, will not revert to barbarism.”


Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist based in India.

Reposted from


colson said...

A Worrying analysis indeed. And yes, the word "multiculturalism" is almost a political swearword these days. North African immigrants and their European children and grandchildren are often targeted as scapegoats indeed. Moreover Breivik's targets confirm the observation that the cultural-Marxist 'traitors' ( social-democrats c.a.) are even worse than the "enemy" in the eyes of right-wing extremists, xenophobes and Islam-bashers. And, yes, unfortunately all over the political spectrum there has been a serious shift to the right.

So I agree with the article. But only with some notes in the margin. If only because I think we should keep our cool.

First of all Anti Islam parties have been disgustingly successful off late, but still 80% to 90% of the voters choose decent parties at elections.

Secondly Islam-PR has been pretty lousy over the last 10 tot 15 years. To Europe 9/11 and Bali may still have been faraway. London ( July 7 05) and Madrid( March 11 04) were very near though. It definitely -and in my opinion not quite mysteriously- helped boost political parties thriving on xenophobia and Islamphobia in Europe. I guess/think/hope the impact -which was huge - will gradually pass naturally.

Also I think the perception of Perkaj Mishra might be slightly biased by the almost unanimous presence of people suffering from islamophobia at this particular conference. In meetings and conferences dedicated to "Islam" the same ( limited) gang of politicians, journalists and academics who have
got publicity by bashing Islam, kept/keep popping up. Some of them reached the status of celebrity (Ayaan Hirsi Ali). But I don't think that's a representative sample of those professions. In other words: the situation may be dark, but not pitch-dark.

All in all, okay "“Centuries of civilization are no guarantee that a European people, by some ghastly curse of fate, will not revert to barbarism”. Yet I think it would be a huge mistake to think Germany '37 resembles Europe '11.

Inaya Rakhmani said...

I agree with the highlights that you've made - particularly in the argument that vocal politicians and Islam-bashers are not representative of the sample. They are, however, much, much more vocal. My guess is that the more extreme an ideological position, the less people adopt it, but the more vocal they are.

Having said that, I lived in Amsterdam from 2005 to 2007 when Hirshi Ali came into prominence. Although the debate, like many of their kinds, occurred relatively within the education elite - I can feel the lived-in stereotypes. There is a stark division between Moroccan and Turkish (although the latter less so) diasporic communities in the Netherlands. So much so that it influences meso-economy; immigrants have their own meat shops, second-hand electronic stores, and Saturday markets. I can see the looks 'Dutch locals' give to a hijab-wearing middle aged mother carrying 4 of her children on the tram.

And that look goes both ways. I think there is something much deeper than national or international politics. I think it's crystalised in the culture; which would take much longer to 'gradually pass naturally'.

I. in the mean time, as an Indonesian who was raised as a Muslim (although to many conservatives, I am not one and they would sooner kick me out to join the agnostics club) who received both 'Eastern' and 'Western' education - am nowhere in that spectrum.

colson said...

"I think it's crystalised in the culture"...

It may even be worse.

Last night I watched Dick Swaab (renowned neurobiology professor) on TV. He told xenophobia is an evolutionary acquired trait from times when our forefathers/mothers had to defend territory against any invading group competing for food. It took root in our brains. No escape. At best we can try to oppress it or reason it away.

(Btw: do you speak Dutch??)

Inaya Rakhmani said...

I'm curious, was Swaab speaking in the context of multiculturalism? I speak (very elementary) Dutch but I read fairly well.

colson said...

@ Inaya: Hartstikke spijtig dat ik de kans om je afgelopen maand in Jakarta te ontmoeten, heb laten glippen..

As for Swaab, no it was just one of the many items while he was interviewed (lasting three hours) on TV in last Sunday's "Zomergasten" (VPRO).

Inaya Rakhmani said...

@ Colson: Jammer, misschien als Ik ga naar Nederland? Hopefully sometime next year, I've been looking for ways to visit friends there.

colson said...

@ Inaya: Als je komt zou ik het erg op prijs stellen als ik je zou kunnen uitnodigen - thuis of voor een etentje plus drankje in 'de stad'. Geef me tegen die tijd een signaaltje. Mijn mail is