A review of Doug Saunders’ The Myth of the Muslim Tide
A version of this review was initially published in Guernica Magazine. Cross-posted with permission.
by Nora Connor
In late 2009, plans for the development of an Islamic community center at 51 Park Place in lower Manhattan were reported in the New York Times for the first time. The planning process had proceeded for years with little fanfare until mid-2010, when the project became a top news story with the tag “the Ground Zero Mosque.”
American blogger and self-made Islam expert Pamela Geller was a catalyst for the public fracas, the latest iteration of a post-9/11 fear that America will be overrun by Muslims, or by “Islam” itself. The thesis goes something like this: the threat to America comes not just from terrorist plots, but more insidiously, from an imminent avalanche of Muslim immigrants bent on taking over the country from within who, with their totalizing, un-American religion, and with their large families and high birthrates will soon outnumber real Americans and institute shari’a law. Furthermore, Muslims are so in thrall to their religion that they can’t possibly contribute as citizens in a pluralist democracy. They can’t possibly be Americans. Geller and her cohort coined phrases like “stealth jihad” and “the Islamization of America.” Their ideas won considerable traction in right-leaning mass media and influenced the nature of the conversation in more mainstream, centrist or liberal outlets as well.
The European version of the “stealth jihad” agenda parades under the banner “Eurabia.” (Russia has its own version, less explicitly anti-Muslim, sold with an assist from American religious conservatives, and the term of art there seems to be “demographic winter,” meaning that real Russians aren’t reproducing enough and will soon be outnumbered by the aliens in their midst.) Last summer, the worst possibilities of the Eurabia fantasy/phobia were borne out in the actions of Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway. The victims weren’t immigrants or Muslims, for the most part. Breivik went after his fellow native-born Norwegians. He targeted them for what he asserted was morally justified political assassination, because they were, in his words, “Liberals… Marxists,” committed to “an ideology that facilitates Islamism and Islamic demographic warfare” and were on the wrong side of a coming “ethnic war [in which] blood will flow through the streets.” Breivik also, a bit confusingly, compared his teenaged victims on Utoya to participants in a Hitler Youth camp (he meant that they were being indoctrinated to “multiculturalism” in a manner comparable to that of Hitler Youth). Essentially, and again in his own words, he murdered them for their politics—or maybe more precisely, for his perception of their politics, which defined his own.
In The Myth of the Muslim Tide, prize-winning Canadian journalist Doug Saunders sets out to evaluate the central claims of the Eurabia/Stealth Jihad/Muslim Tide movements as applied in Europe and North America. Spoiler: he finds the myths wanting in terms of demographic and historical reality. Saunders performs a clinical, well-researched and well-historicized critique. One crucial point Saunders makes is that in macro-terms, migration both within and across national borders is driven by economic, political or environmental danger, and not by a forward-looking program centered on the place of arrival. By definition, that wouldn’t be migration—it would be that which Breivik, Geller, et al. claim: a type of war. A lot of Saunders’ book addresses misconceptions—pun intended. There’s a long section demonstrating that immigrant fertility rates tend, within a generation, to closely track or even fall below those of their new nations and cities.
As for claims that “Muslims have mixed loyalties/won’t assimilate,” Saunders illustrates that this same anxiety has surrounded wave after wave of “religiously different” immigrants in Europe and North America, and in all cases the anxiety has, over time, subsided. Assimilation, he argues, involves not only or even primarily adjustments to a new country’s prevailing religious and civil norms, but struggles to adjust to radically new economic, labor market and social routines. The worldwide shift from rural to urban population density, for example, means that both inter- and intra-national migrants are entering a truly new world. These abstract forces, Saunders points out, forcefully shape immigrants’ and first-generations’ decisions (and—I would emphasize—native-born and locals’ decisions as well). The costs of living, of education, and of raising children influence the family decisions of newcomers and native-born residents of any locale—and those factors vary according to the specific time and place.
Anxiety and Change
Saunders is blunt and honest about his motivations for writing The Myth of the Muslim Tide, and that’s a profoundly respectable aspect of the book. Presumably by professionally-related chance, Saunders was living in the US on 9/11/01, in London in July 2005 when the Underground bombings happened, and in southern France in March 2012, during Mohamed Merah’s jihadist shooting spree. Saunders writes (highly abridged, from the introduction):
We noticed it first among the crowds on our rough-and-tumble shopping street, Holloway Road, where there were suddenly a lot more women with covered heads…these women tended to have a lot of children with them…The new immigrants from East Africa, Turkey, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent became our friends, shopkeepers, classmates and doctors. But it was hard, in those tense years that began this century, to avoid associating their religion with violence and extremism…the sense of insecurity and tension continued, especially after a neighbor lost both her legs in the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London transit system, which were committed mainly by British-born Muslims from Leeds who didn’t seem all that different from some of our neighbours.
Saunders takes the ideas of the demographic warfare/stealth jihad camp seriously—as he’s told his readers, he has felt the same anxieties and fears at times, and he makes a real effort to question himself. Saunders agrees with the Muslim Tide-ers that the stakes are high and that there is legitimate cause for concern about religiously-justified violence (who could argue with that? Not me). He’s not interested in caricaturing the Muslim Tide advocates as mouth-breathers or knuckle-draggers, and he’s not out to make them look stupid. Ultimately, though, he concludes that they are mistaken on the facts. His essential argument is that the best way for societies to address immigration and its discontents is to create paths to basic economic security and participation in civic life, through “the economic and political development of immigrant communities, as [society has done] with earlier conservative religious minorities.” He’s reminding the reader that in a practical sense, assimilation is a process involving everybody—not just the immigrants.
That seems so common-sensical, and it’s a position that I share. We’ve been through this before, Saunders tells us, and the world hasn’t ended. All we need to do, now that he has so reasonably demonstrated his case, is to create paths for new immigrants and their children and children’s children to fully participate in their host countries’ civic and economic bustle. It’s a clear thesis and a calming one. But the ease with which Saunders dispenses his prescription tells me he hasn’t fully understood the basic historical patterns he relies on to reassure his readers.
Integration and progress in political standing of newcomers has always been negotiated or fought for (at times with terrible costs). And in the past weeks, a California-produced yet internationally-aimed video, which had the backing of American anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant “stealth jihadist” activists, became the flashpoint for violence and destruction in several Muslim-majority countries. What’s so striking—and so dangerous—is how quickly specific fears surrounding “Muslims” and Muslim immigrants can become incendiary within so many contexts.
Saunders’ ideas are seductively simple: create paths to full civic and economic participation for immigrants. But achieving that is in no way simple, even for native-born citizens. Across Europe and North America there are plenty of native-born people of all genders, ethnicities and creeds who do not enjoy economic security and equal standing in public life. Disputes over whether and how to remedy this are vicious and unfinished. In one sense, I appreciate Saunders’ gambit: “We need to put aside the theology and ask a set of concrete questions…Theology is not the issue here, but rather public and political behavior.” I agree with him that inter- and intra-religious debates aren’t ultimately the most productive grounds for civic decision-making, because they tend to exclude religious dissenters and nonreligious citizens. But I can’t help feeling that Saunders is missing the human forest for the logical trees. Religious people and religious ideas about civic decisions are part of our conversations everywhere in the world today. Therefore, their theologies are in public space as well, and at times are unavoidably part of “the issue.”
Terms of Art
Terminology is a huge challenge in journalistic, non-specialist writing, and Saunders confronts a severe landscape. A journalist needs to be able to write with basic confidence that words like Culture, religion, Islam, The West, liberalism, conservatism, extremism, moderation, citizenship, secularism and even Europe and America will be legible to readers. Often, these words are serviceable for the purpose of conversation. But they aren’t just words. They’re ideas and political weapons, some of the most loaded ones out there, and there’s no broad consensus as to what they mean. These contested meanings are often at the center of our political disputes: What do “we” mean when we talk about “who we are”?
Those words are unavoidable, necessary shorthand in public communication, but an excess of such terminology obscures active disagreements about their meanings and symbolism. To his credit, Saunders wrestles with many of these terms. He points out, for example, that talk about Muslims and the Muslim World has crested in the wake of the Cold War, replacing previous broad classifications like Communist, anti-Communist, Socialist, Democratic, etc. Now as always, such rhetoric obscures relevant details about actual people, actual communities, and their varied loyalties, aims and circumstances. Saunders knows that and does a decent forensic job of illustrating it. Where he falls short is in his approach to religion and its shadow twin, secularism. He writes (again, heavily abridged, from the intro):
At times I did fear that [Muslim immigrants in England] would become a majority, and that the illiberal beliefs of the more devout among them would become dominant, turning our taste for tolerance, sexual equality and secularism into a historical footnote…If I was capable of feeling this way, as a writer with years of experience in Muslim countries, there must be millions of people with similar suspicions…This book is not a defence of Islam… I am not an admirer of Islam, nor a religious person of any sort. I am deeply alarmed by any prospect of a greater religious role in the public sphere. I am in agreement with secular Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, Mona Eltahawy and Fadela Amara when they argue that the instructions of the Koran and the cultural practices of many Muslim countries are enormously harmful to those who are subject to them, especially women… I do not feel that the War on Terror was ill-conceived.
Oh, dear. Illiberal, devout, tolerance, sexual equality, secularism, secular Muslims, Islam, religion, public sphere. How to make sense of all this? What is Saunders’ particular allegiance to those terms? It’s not made clear anywhere in The Myth of the Muslim Tide. I for one am surprised to learn that there’s an “us” out there and that “our taste” for tolerance, secularism and sexual equality is threatened. I would like to meet us and get to know us better—sounds like we’d really get along. Is this transnational us? Dutch us? “Secular”us, in alliance with our “secular/moderate Muslim” friends? (And how does one get a membership card to the Moderate Muslim Club)? Is Saunders referring to an American us? The recent American political conventions made it clear that we Americans do not have consensus regarding our taste for or definitions of tolerance, religious freedom, or sexual equality. And both American political parties have religious adherents and took care to showcase their members’ immigrant backgrounds, so this can’t be just about “religion,” or even about “immigration.”
The single most provocative and important phrase in The Myth of the Muslim Tide comes along on page 19, and it’s one that Saunders didn’t write. He quotes the Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell:
Can you have the same Europe with different people?
That is exactly the question inherent in conflicts about immigration, culture and religion. And it begs the question of what “the same Europe” is, or ever was. Can you have the same America with different people? The same France? The same Lewiston, Maine? The same municipal or county or rural school board? Saunders responds to Caldwell, “those nine words…are a succinct summary of the anxiety driving the Muslim-tide movement, as well as a key demonstration of the essential illogic of its arguments.” In other words, Saunders recognizes the anxiety, but hangs his cure for it on logic.
I could not disagree more with the latter half of Saunders’ diagnosis. Caldwell’s question is logical and very, very important. It’s the only question at all when it comes to immigration or to any community’s experience of change—and it can mean many things. If “the same Europe,” is a Europe without mosques and curry and North African music (or, if “the same Main Street” is a Main Street without a Wal-Mart or without immigrants), then the answer to Caldwell’s question is no, you can’t have that. If “the same America” means an America with an interstate highway system and an Establishment clause and a democratically elected Congress, then yes, you can have that America with different people. What Saunders seems not to understand is that subscribers to the Muslim Tide ideas are indeed concerned with the former proposition, and that their anxiety is neither illogical nor completely unwarranted.
Myth, or Fantasy?
Saunders’ historical-sociological style of analyzing the myth of the Muslim Tide is infused with a supposedly secular determination to stay above the fray of evaluating any specific philosophical claims and implications of “religion,” whether the religion is that of Americans, Europeans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, immigrants from rural areas, immigrants from urban areas, right-wingers, left-wingers, the co-religionists of same or their different-religion critics—though he acknowledges that all these affinities are influential. He’s taken care to tell us he doesn’t “admire” Islam, and is alarmed by the prospect of a greater role for religion in the public sphere. That’s significant, isn’t it? His sociology is methodical, clear and convincing, but he’s bringing a slide-rule and a pocket protector to a gunfight. Religion is in the public sphere, and in our civic and political lives, and people who find that insurmountably “disturbing” will be hindered by their squeamishness. The myth of the Muslim Tide is not just a myth. It’s a fantasy, in the deepest sense of the word: a story that has enormous power to titillate, terrify, and inspire those who tell and hear it. It is one whose centrifugal force pulls in an incredible range of competing histories, politics and actors. Some of those actors deploy or manufacture guns, bombs, IEDs, drones, tanks and helicopters. Others might decide to vandalize mosques or to surveil college students.
As Saunders himself recognizes, the fantasy (he’d say “myth,” and that’s where I differ a bit) matters—it demands engagement. All the clear-eyed research in the world isn’t going to change the minds of those who viscerally subscribe to the Stealth Jihad/Eurabia/Muslim Tide worldview, nor solve the dilemma of politicians who must respond to their influence. And I’m not sure that progressives and liberals who oppose those views need Saunders’ book. They already know they don’t like the right-wingers, and that’s enough for them to go on.
In The Myth of the Muslim Tide, then, Saunders comes across as a man without a country, in search of theoretical publics of reasonable “apolitical” or “non-ideological” moderates like himself (moderate secular humanists, moderate religious believers, moderate voters, moderate journalists, moderate legislators) who only need a good presentation of the evidence and facts in order to make reasoned, compassionate, self-interested, civically magnanimous decisions.
I don’t know, empirically, how many of the people Saunders seems to be addressing exist, but I suspect the number is small. Moderation has never been a ruling ethos in human politics, electoral or otherwise and despite frequent protestations to the contrary. Moderation seems to me to happen a side-effect over time—and again, one person’s moderation is another’s fanatacism. I don’t mean to suggest that “reason and religion are opposed,” but rather that reason can become a fantasy, a smokescreen, and a religion unto itself. In the mid-aughts I witnessed Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom Saunders aligns himself with and who’s no small figure in Euro-American debates about Islam, describe herself in a public forum as “an Enlightenment fundamentalist,”as if “the Enlightenment” were one settled, easily recognizable set of simple truths. For Hirsi Ali, it appeared, “Enlightenment” mainly meant “not Islamic.” Her self-characterization generated a round of applause from the New York audience, gathered for a public forum on Muslim immigration and citizenship in the Netherlands. Yet a “fundamentalism,” Enlightenment or otherwise, that purports to “oppose fundamentalism” doesn’t seem to offer much chance to escape from fundamentalism and it doesn’t sound very “secular” to me. Even worse, such talk is so vague as to be totally useless in civic and social conflicts and decision-making.
I don’t want to denigrate the good work that Saunders has done—I hope that legislators and journalists—and media execs, especially—will read The Myth of the Muslim Tide for its sheer sensibleness and its accessible analytical work. Logical arguments do work with some people. You can only tell one story at a time, and Saunders has made a valuable contribution to untying the knots at the base of Muslim Tide polemics and their real-world consequences. It will be up to others to confront and report on not just the myths, but the fundamental (yes, that word) fantasies in play, which are among the most powerful engines of our politics and of our lives.
Nora Connor is a multimedia journalist with a background in labor and human rights organizing. She studied religion and anthropology at Columbia and journalism at NYU. She is the 2011 Luce Fellow in International Digital Religion at The Center for Religion and Media/The Revealer.