The Takeaway

Christopher Caldwell on Europe’s Muslims

As Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell apologetically told a member of the Zócalo audience at the Hammer Museum, “I don’t do American immigration.”

That wasn’t a problem for Caldwell, author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, to be released next summer. The challenges of mass Mexican and Central American immigration in the U.S. and mass African, Arab, and South Asian immigration to Western Europe might seem similar: the percent of immigrants in each society is roughly the same, and both societies have had contentious conversations about assimilation, values and national identity.

But European immigration, Caldwell argued, has more in common with American race relations than with American immigration, meaning that it’s more heated, more violent, and more intractable an issue. And some of that, Caldwell said, has to do with Islam.

Is it Islam?

Caldwell receptionAmerican immigration, despite at least one severe instance of intolerance, has been a largely peaceful process. Even the latest mass of newcomers isn’t so foreign at all, Caldwell argued. Latin Americans have lower rates of divorce, higher rates of church attendance, higher employment rates. In other words, they’re the American working class of 40 years ago, Caldwell said. Though they speak a foreign language, it’s a European one, studied by teens around the country. And though they may cause “logistical headaches” in hospitals and schools, Caldwell said, “it requires no fundamental reform of American institutions at all, and on balance it may strengthen them.”

Muslim immigrants to Europe are something else, Caldwell said. “It is a powerful culture, different from Europe’s, and with values that are skeptical of Europe’s, at times,” he argued. And Europe isn’t reacting so happily to it – with 40 or 50 million of Europe’s 354 million people born outside the country in which they live, more than half of Europeans have said their countries have “too many foreigners.” And most of the antipathy is aimed at Muslims. The French complained, Caldwell said, of “‘too many Arabs'” long before 9/11 gave cover for their vilification. Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis predicted that by the end of this century, Europe would be “part of the Arabic west, of the Maghreb” (a comment that provoked a murmur from the Zócalo crowd). Late journalist Oriana Fallaci’s “acidic screed against Islam in Europe,” was a bestseller in Italy. And as Caldwell noted in Q&A, the construction of mosques bothers Europeans (perhaps more than a Catholic church does an American), and Europe’s immigration is further complicated by its colonial history. (As the British say, “They are here because we were there.”) And many European immigrants are unemployed because of their asylum status, unlike American immigrants who primarily enter to work.

Girls, girls girls

The reason for the ferocious backlash might be something about Islam itself, and particularly the role of women, sex and family, Caldwell suggested. (Though Caldwell acknowledged to an audience member during Q&A that his use of the word “Islam” is Caldwell and guestimprecise, and he realizes that the practice of the religion varies, and theological disagreements on those practices arise often.)

“Living with Muslim cultures requires larger adjustments, and they touch more essential parts of European culture,” Caldwell said. Some of the adjustments are simple, even cosmetic: getting rid of alcohol at certain corporate functions, allowing women-only hours at public pools, offering up rooms for prayer at places of work. (And there are issues with which America has struggled as well, like racial profiling for counter-terrorist purposes, that Caldwell wished to set aside for the night.) Other adjustments are larger, and involve “things that the native culture, if I may call it that, thinks of as its way of life, its system of rights, the essence of its culture.”

Women, unsurprisingly, are at the center of this culture war. They uphold the respective cultural norms of their societies – by remaining virgins or selling sex, by veiling or exposing, or all the variations in between – and so they are the grounds on which the battle is fought (sometimes almost literally, as in the debate over female circumcision, or genital mutilation).

50 Cent shouldn’t try to get a French education

The ways in which European countries address these serious cultural differences, Caldwell found, is with policies that are broad enough to evade allegations of unequal treatment, but that end up taking rights from citizens. (Caldwell left aside, for the moment, cultural issues best handled by criminal law enforcement, like so-called honor killings, and issues of racial profiling for counterterrosim.)

In Sweden, for example, one minister attempted to require gynecological examinations of all elementary school-aged girls, to address a problem that affected only certain girls. In Denmark, the government deemed it illegal for any Danish resident under 24, citizens included, to marry a foreigner and carry on living in Denmark. (However extreme, it worked: marriage immigration dropped drastically.) In France, schools banned all conspicuous religious displays, though again, they meant to target a particular community and a particular practice, in this case wearing the veil, which over decades had come to be seen as threatening, and allusive of a more radical sort of Islam.

The impact on French students of other religions varied. Caldwell noted that Jewish students attending a violent public school “might consider the loss of the right to wear a yarmulke a price worth paying.” He also noted that Christians weren’t really affected, since no one was quite sure what constituted a large cross. When imagining how big was too big, Caldwell, joked, he “always thought of Flava Flav’s clock.

Is it Europe?

Caldwell guests“A question that has to pop into European minds has to be, how are we so sure we’re right?” Caldwell said. Muslim immigrants “are not without strong arguments” on whose values are best. European Muslims will ask, Caldwell said, “What is so wrong about a woman’s wanting to shield herself from the gaze of the public? What is the alternative you are offering us? The racy ads of the women on the bus stops, the trashy reality TV?” The practice of women selling sex in shop windows in Amsterdam, Caldwell said, might be considered by Muslims “a more serious kind of exploitation than choosing to wear or even being made to wear a scrap of cloth.” Caldwell went on to note that Michel Houllebecq, a French writer not well known for being a friend of Islam, even suggested in a recent book that though a world where “pleasure, comfort, convenience are the main goals,” as Caldwell put it, might be a fine world, it won’t necessarily bring people closer together. It instead “extends the gap between haves and have nots,” Caldwell said.

Though immigration may cause a moment’s uncertainty about European values, Caldwell said, there’s not much evidence that any but extreme, and extremely unpopular, Europeans sympathize with religious conservatism. As he put it to a big audience laugh, “There is no Sarah Palin wing of European politics.”

From subculture to adversary

Sympathizing with – much less wholly adapting – Muslim values is of course unlikely for most Europeans. Another path to contextualizing, if not quite assimilating, Muslim immigrants is to consider them as a subculture that is becoming what Lionel Trilling has called an adversary culture, Caldwell said. In decades past Europeans might have considered the Muslim community to be simply a small subculture, “rootless, exiled, divided,” Caldwell said, on e that would soon enough “melt” into European culture. But now it seems adversarial, as African American culture once was in America. But, Caldwell said, “That adversarial side to American black culture has been possibly the most robust culture we have had in recent years.” He cited French rioters wearing sideways Yankees caps and emulating rappers’ hand gestures. “Even if no one in the Bronx dresses this way anymore,” Caldwell said, “it has become a ‘universal culture of the wretched of the earth.'”

Considering the state of American adversarial culture, that expansion and codification of Muslim antagonism toward Europe isn’t an optimistic trend. “That is why I think ultimately Europeans are taking so little joy in the Obama victory,” Caldwell said, noting that Europeans see no Obamas among their second-generation immigrants. “Europeans are reminded of our own race problem as it existed 40 years ago,” he said. “The European immigration problem is a much bigger one than people recognize, and Europeans are only at the beginning of dealing with it.”

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*Photos by Aaron Salcido.