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Second Thoughts on Immigration

Christopher Caldwell on immigration, Islam, and a continent's demographic transformation.

By From the October 2009 issue

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Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
By Christopher Caldwell
(Doubleday, 422 pages, $30)

Reviewing Patrick Buchanan's The Death of the West in the New York Times, Christopher Caldwell was skeptical of the "demographic alarum" Buchanan raised for the United States and Europe. "Western leaders," Caldwell wrote, "in fact, are self-confident as never before -- and the central pillar of that self-confidence is their belief that, to some extent, all cultures are becoming Western ones."

In his own book about "immigration, Islam, and the West" seven years later, Caldwell seems less sure that this is the case. Its title adapted from Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is instead deeply skeptical of that continent's demographic transformation. Caldwell argues that "Western Europe became a multiethnic society in a fit of absence of mind." He asks "whether you can have the same Europe with different people" and determines "the answer is no." He even questions whether anything can be done about it: "When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter."

Caldwell's book is actually stronger because of his apparent change of mind. A writer for the Financial Times, Weekly Standard, and New York Times Magazine (and former TAS staffer), he is immigrant-friendly and a cultural optimist by temperament. When he concludes early in the book that former British Conservative leader Enoch Powell was factually right about immigration's consequences for his country "beyond any shadow of a doubt," Caldwell clearly wishes it were otherwise. And even while defending the substance of Powell's remarks, Caldwell nevertheless contends "his speech can be defended against charges of bigotry only by splitting hairs." He is left to conclude: "Morally, Powell was not right."

This tension is what makes a responsible immigration debate so difficult: the issue lends itself well to demagoguery and ethnic rabble-rousing, while even judicious and nuanced criticisms of mass immigration from Third World countries can easily sound like bigotry to sensitive ears. "To confess misgivings about immigration was to confess racist inclinations," Caldwell writes of the elite consensus view. So most fair-minded people just shut up, leaving "extremist parties that sow hatred" to tap into popular concerns.

What are those concerns? After World War II, the major Western European countries attempted to pad their stagnant labor forces by opening the door to an unprecedented number of foreign workers, most of them Muslims. Their families and villages followed until the Muslim population swelled from tiny numbers in 1950 to as many as 17 million by 2000. There are now at least 5 million Muslims in France, 4 million in Germany, and 2 million in Great Britain. By the middle of this century, the foreign-born population could reach one-third in most European countries.

Almost every official prediction about this new wave of Muslim immigrants proved false. Caldwell lays them out in detail:

Immigrants would be few in number. Since they were coming to fill short-term gaps in the labor force, most would stay in Europe only temporarily. Some might stay longer. No one assumed they would ever be eligible for welfare. That they would retain the habits and cultures of southern villages, clans, market-places and mosques was a thought too bizarre to entertain.

Yet the bizarre happened. To illustrate that this is immigration is not solely a product of the European labor shortage, Caldwell points out that the total number of immigrants living in Germany more than doubled from 3 million to 7.5 million between 1971 and 2000 while the number of immigrants in the work-force held steady at 2 million. Two-thirds of French imams are receiving some kind of welfare. Europe now takes in 1.7 million immigrants a year, more than the United States, and they are overwhelmingly Muslim.

This was too much too fast for countries whose governments had no idea how to try to integrate the newcomers into their societies. The new immigrants didn't seem especially eager to assimilate and their guilt-addled hosts didn't give them much of anything to assimilate to. The workers improved their living standards compared to home -- so Europe remained a draw but remained poor compared to the native population, a source of social friction. Moreover, the values of Western Europe -- feminism, egalitarianism, secularism, and tolerance for homosexuals -- are generally not the values of the Muslim immigrants, to put it mildly.

Negative consequences have included crime, riots, increased ethnic hostility, and social un-rest. The experiment has also tested the contradictions of multiculturalism, as tolerance for one minority group has made life more difficult for others. According to Caldwell, 62 percent of hate crimes in France are perpetrated against Jews. Pim Fortuyn, a leading critic of Muslim immigration in the Netherlands before he was assassinated, was a gay man motivated at least in part by his desire to preserve his country's loose sexual attitudes.

Predictably, none of this is very popular with the native-born. Caldwell reports that 57 percent of voters in the European Union oppose further immigration. That figure is even higher in individual European countries. "If Europe is getting more immigrants than its voters want," Caldwell contends, "this is a good indication its democracy is malfunctioning."

Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is not a generic anti-immigration polemic, however. Caldwell's criticisms are confined to the immigration dimensions of the Samuel Huntington-style "clash of civilizations" between the historic peoples of Europe and the Muslim newcomers. In fact, he explicitly disavows any restrictionist implications of his argument for the United States. The distinction is far from arbitrary -- the United States is much better at absorbing immigrants than Europe and Hispanic immigrants are much more like the native-born population than are West Africans in Paris -- but it won't reassure anyone familiar with the ominous similarities between how the U.S. and Europe stumbled into their current immigration policies.

But if Caldwell still takes strong exception to Buchanan's cultural pessimism for the United States, he doesn't sound very hopeful as he raises the "demographic alarum" for Europe. Few of the political parties willing to confront Muslim immigration or require newcomers to assimilate are seriously capable of governing. Some of them have fascistic roots. Those who can put together national governing majorities are too often paralyzed by political correctness. "Europeans," he writes, "are confused about whether they are citizens of the world or citizens of their own nations."

"Mass immigration into Europe and the consolidation of Islam there are changing European life permanently," Caldwell concludes. A bit later, he writes, "It is far less certain that Islam will prove assimilable." He muses uneasily about "the ambiguity of a Europe rueful about the legacy of immigration and disinclined (or too weak) to make a fuss about it." That's a long way from possessing the self-confidence that comes with knowing "all cultures are becoming Western ones."

In fact, the essence of the problem is that two populations are living uncomfortably side by side, with one confident in its identity and the other timid. It is the Westerners who don't know who they are, an attitudinal disadvantage as high non-Western immigration and birth rates change the continent's demographic picture. Caldwell, who appears to believe coping half-measures are destined to fail, doesn't provide much in the way of workable solutions. But his well-reported, carefully argued book does help readers understand the problems facing Old Europe.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.