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.