Continuing my series of old book reviews that I am publishing while I am away in South Africa, here is my review of Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, originally published in the Observer, 1 May 2010.

Review of
Eric Kaufmann,
Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?
Demography and Politics in the 21st Century

Observer, 1 May 2010

Europe, 2020. The Islamists have stormed to power right across the continent. No English pub can sell alcohol. Every French woman is forced is veiled. Holland’s gay clubs have been relocated to San Francisco.

Welcome to ‘Eurabia’, Canadian author Mark Steyn’s fantasy of what Europe will look like in a decade. Muslims, according to Steyn, are breeding like ‘mosquitoes’, whereas the ‘European races’ are ‘too self absorbed to breed’. Failures in the bedroom is allowing for the ‘recolonization of Europe by Islam’.

Steyn stands upon the more poisonous shores of anti-Muslim rhetoric. But the idea of Muslims of breeding their way to power is becoming mainstream. Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell, Harvard historian Niall Ferfuson and Catholic theologian George Weigel have all warned darkly of a Europe walking blindly into a Muslim-dominated future.

Now the liberal academic Eric Kauffmann, a political scientist based at Birkbeck College, London, has entered the fray. In his 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. Don’t worry about Muslims, he suggests. But be very afraid of fundamentalists of all stripes.

Kaufmann is skeptical of the idea that Europe will soon become a Muslim continent. He accepts that Muslims are predominantly young, have a higher fertility rate, are relatively more devout than other groups and rarely marry out. But while Muslim fertility rates may be relatively high, they are also plummeting. In Britain, 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. By the beginning of the next century, Kaufmann expects at most around a fifth of Europeans to be Muslim.

There is, however, a kicker in Kaufmann’s argument. The real problem 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, Islamists, Christian fundamentalists and orthodox Jews join forces to establish a ‘new era of religious politics’ and ‘an unprecedented European desecularization’. Since ‘fertility differences based on theology do not fade like those based on ethnicity’ fundamentalist victory is assured.

For Kaufmann, then, Europe appears doomed not because the Muslims are coming but because fundamentalists of every inclination are going forth and multiplying far more than are their more liberal cousins, while secularists are failing even to replace their current numbers. Is this argument any more plausible than those put forward by the fantasists of Eurabia?

Kaufmann has an annoying tendency to lump all fundamentalists together as if Muslim Brotherhood and the Mormons belong to a single category. He also pays little attention to the work of sociologists like Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel who have shown contemporary fundamentalism to be a novel form of religious sensibility that often has more in common with new types of secular radicalism, such as today’s anti-capitalist movements, than with old forms of faith.

There is a deeper issue too. 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?’ Christopher Caldwell asks in his recent controversial book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. It’s a question that 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. But why should they? 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. Nevertheless, Kaufmann still makes his argument on the terrain of demography. And therein lies the problem.

kaufmann religious

Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA. They are, like all values, absorbed, accepted, rejected. A generation ago there were strong secular movements in 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 changes but by political developments. And political developments can also help reverse the trend.

Kaufmann doesn’t deny any of this. But, he insists, nothing can stop the inevitable demographic triumph of the fundamentalists, because ‘we inhabit a period of ideological exhaustion’. The ‘great secular religions, with their utopian dreams, 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. The real issue at stake is not demography but politics. In our post-ideological age, secularists find it more difficult to ‘compete with the rich emotions evoked by religion’. The ‘return of religion’ in recent decades has been less about a rise in piety than a desire for identity and belongingness, purpose and collective direction, yearnings that secular politics finds increasingly tricky to satisfy.

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

Whether or not the religious will triumph, no one can say. What is certain is that if they do, it will not be just because secularists have been out-bred. The real challenge that secularists face is not in bed but in the public square.

%d bloggers like this: