shall the religious inherit the earth?

bergens tidende, 9 april 2010

Europe, 2020. A dark veil is being drawn across the continent. Britain, France, Holland and Denmark have fallen to the Islamists. No English pub can sell alcohol. Every French woman is veiled from head to foot. And Holland’s gay clubs have been relocated to San Francisco though to where gays themselves have been relocated, we do not know.

Welcome to Eurabia, Canadian author Mark Steyn’s racist fantasy of what Europe will look like in a decade. According to Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone, the Madrid and London bombings were just the ‘opening shots of a European civil war’ that will eventually lead to ‘societal collapse’, ‘fascist revivalism’ and a never-to-return journey into ‘the long Eurabian night’, leaving America alone to defend the values of Christian civilization.

The term ‘Eurabia’ was first coined in 2005 by the Egyptian-born British scholar Bat Ye'or. Since then it has become popularized by writers and politicians such as Oriana Fallaci, Bruce Bawer, Melanie Phillips and Geert Wilders to express their fear that a combination of high immigration and high birth rate will within decades lead to a Muslim Europe. Muslims, according to Steyn, are breeding like ‘mosquitoes’. The ‘European races’, on the other hand, are ‘too self absorbed to breed’. Their failures in the bedroom are allowing the ‘recolonization of Europe by Islam’.

Steyn stands on the wilder shores of anti-Muslim rhetoric. But the idea that Muslims are breeding their way to power is becoming increasingly popular among mainstream thinkers. Last year Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the Financial Times, warned in his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, that within a century there would be Muslim majority in Europe. Muslim immigration, he claimed, is akin to colonisation. Islam ‘is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it.’ Caldwell’s book garnered high praise not simply from right-wing critics but from many liberals too.

Now the liberal academic Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist based at Birkbeck College, London, has entered the fray with a new book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?   Based on data from demographic studies in Europe, America and Israel, Kaufmann adds a new twist to the Eurabia thesis, and one that is causing considerable stir.

Kaufmann accepts that in Western societies Muslims are predominantly young, have a higher fertility rate, are relatively more devout than other groups and rarely marry out. Yet he is skeptical of the idea that Europe will soon become a Muslim continent. Why? Because Muslim fertility rates may be relatively high now but they are plummeting. In Britian, for instance, the fertility rates of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have fallen from almost ten to under three in the space of forty years. The drop is partly the result of fertility rates falling in immigrant source countries. And partly it is the result of assimilation to host society norms. By 2030, the fertility rates of European Muslims are expected to resemble that of the majority population. ‘Muslims will not take over Europe’, Kaufmann argues, though, by the beginning of the next century, he expects around a fifth of Europeans to be Muslim.

There is, however, a kicker in Kaufmann’s argument. The real problem, he suggests, is not a fantasy Eurabia but an ‘emerging “culture war” between fundamentalists of all faiths and those who back the secular status quo.’ In this culture war, ‘Muslim origin seculars will make common cause with white seculars against Islamists and other fundamentalists’. It is a war ‘that fundamentalists are poised to win because fertility differences based on theology do not fade like those based on ethnicity’. In Britain and America, Ultra-Orthodox Jews are three times more likely to have children than other Jews. The most devout Muslim women in Europe are 40 per cent more likely than other Muslims to bear three or more children.

For Kaufmann, then, the Europe as we know it is doomed, not because the Muslims are coming but because fundamentalists of all stripes go forth multiply far more than do their more liberal cousins, while secularists are failing even to replace their current numbers. Is this argument any more plausible than those of the Eurabists?

The real problem with the Eurabia thesis is not so much the invalid demographic projections as the belief that demography is destiny. ‘Can Europe be the same with different people in it?’ Caldwell asks at the start of his book. The very question is misguided for it confuses the diversity of peoples and the diversity of values. People of North African or South Asian parentage, Caldwell seems to believe, will inevitably cleave to a different set of values than those of European ancestry. Why? Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia?

Kaufmann recognizes this distinction between peoples and values. His Europe will be convulsed not by a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam but by a war of values between secularists and fundamentalists, a war that cuts across ethnic lines. Yet, Kaufmann still makes his argument on the terrain of demography. And in so doing he repeats the errors of the Eurabists.

Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA. They are not born so. Secularist ideas and religious beliefs are like any values: people absorb them, accept them, reject them. A generation ago there were strong secular movements within Muslim communities and fundamentalism was a marginal force. Today secularism is much weaker, and Islamism much stronger. This shift has been propelled not by demographic trends but by political developments. And political developments can also help reverse the shift.

Kaufmann doesn’t deny any of this. But, he insists, nothing can stop the inevitable demographic triumph of the fundamentalists. Why? Because ‘we inhabit a period of ideological exhaustion’. The ‘great secular religions have lost their allure.’ In their place we have ‘relativism and managerialism’, outlooks that ‘cannot inspire a commitment to generations past and sacrifices for those yet to come.’

This gets us to the heart of the problem. For the real issue at stake is not demography but politics. I do not accept the secular ideologies amount to ‘religions’. But Kaufmann is right to suggest that in our post-ideological age, secularists find it much more difficult to inspire a sense of purpose and collective direction.

The debate about demography is itself an expression of this predicament. Lacking an adequate political vocabulary through which to understand what Kaufmann calls ‘the titanic struggle between secularism and fundamentalism’, he reduces it to a debate about numbers. Lacking the conviction that it is possible to win peoples of different backgrounds to a common set of secular, humanist, Enlightened values he, like Caldwell, Steyn and others, declares that demography is destiny.

Not just the obsession with demography but the very fear of Islam expresses the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project. The spectre of ‘Eurabia’ is really an admission that the critics of Islam lack the wherewithal to challenge the fundamentalists. Or, as Kaufmann puts it, ‘Dry atheism… can never compete with the rich emotions evoked by religion.'

The irony is that, for all their poisonous hostility towards Islam, the Eurabists express considerable admiration for Islamist arguments. Melanie Phillips is militantly opposed to what she sees as the ‘Islamic takeover of the West’ and ‘the drift towards social suicide’ that supposedly comes with accepting Muslim immigration. Yet she is deeply sympathetic to the Islamist rejection of secular humanism, which she thinks has created ‘a debauched and disorderly culture of instant gratification, with disintegrating families, feral children and violence, squalor and vulgarity on the streets.’ Muslims ‘have concluded that the society that expects them to identify with it is a moral cesspit’, Phillips argues. ‘Is it any wonder, therefore, that they reject it?’

Caldwell, too, thinks that while the West’s current encounter with Islam may be ‘painful and violent’, it has also been, ‘an infusion of oxygen into the drab, nitpicking, materialist intellectual life of the West’, for which we need to express our ‘gratitude’. The very values against which radical Islamists rail – the values of secular humanism – are also the very values that so disgust many of Islam’s greatest critics. Little wonder the critics both create fantasies about radical Islam's onward march - and feel unable to challenge it.

Whether or not the religious will triumph over the next century, no one can say. What is certain is that if they do, it will not be because secularists have been out-bred, but because they have been out-thought. The real challenge that secularists face is not in bed but in the public square. And it's a challenge that comes as much from Eurabists as from Islamists.