Our Muslim Citizens

Are they any different from previous waves of Catholics or Jews?

The title of Doug Saunders’s book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, captures the two arguments at its core. First, claims that Muslim immigrants constitute an overpowering tide that threatens to wash away liberal-democratic standards and otherwise imperil western civilization are demonstrably false and therefore constitute a “myth.” Second, previous “waves” of immigrants whose religions diverged from those of receiving societies were, over the course of time, successfully integrated and today no longer provoke such fears. Hindsight demonstrates that the threat to the West posed by Catholics and Jews was wrong. Saunders maintains that in time we will see that the same will be true of today’s Muslim immigrants: “once newcomers become part of our economy and politics, the cultural part takes care of itself.”

Saunders’s first argument is ably defended. The second neglects important differences in the integration experiences of Jewish and Catholic immigrants. It also overlooks the political-cultural dimensions of their respective success stories. The end result is a hasty rejection of multiculturalism, which Saunders casts as antithetical to the pursuit of reforms in educational and labour market institutions. A more nuanced consideration of Catholics’ and Jews’ experiences suggests that political struggles against discrimination and in favour of accommodation play a role in advancing the integration of religious minorities, complementing the role of schools and labour markets. The “culture part” does not take care of itself; it too is the subject of political struggle.

There is much to admire in Saunders’s book. It is a crisp, well-written and entertaining response to the often hysterical claims advanced by proponents of what he labels the “Muslim tide” thesis. The cast of characters falling under this rubric includes Mark Steyn, Bruce Bawer, Christopher Caldwell, Thilo Sarrazin, “the mother of Eurabia” Gisèle Littman (aka Bat Ye’or), Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Geert Wilders and the Harvard-based historian Niall Ferguson. The arguments advanced by proponents of the Muslim tide thesis forewarn of the terrible costs that western societies will inevitably pay for not taking the threat of Muslim immigration seriously. The threat is multiple: Muslims will overrun western countries by force of numbers, driven by unremitting immigration and high rates of natural increase. Muslim immigrants will continue to congregate in closed “parallel societies,” where they will stew angrily, aggressively rejecting prevailing western norms, subjecting their wives, sisters and daughters to violence spawned by barbaric codes of patriarchal honour, and plotting their revolt, which may come in the form of violent jihadi violence, a slower “march through the institutions” (abetted by the parties of tolerance and accommodation) or, most likely, some combination of the two strategies. After gaining sufficient influence, Muslims will establish a system of sharia law that will subject liberals, homosexuals, multiculturalists and apostates of all stripes to the harshest of punishments.

Saunders notes that these claims have found a large and receptive audience. This is not entirely surprising: change is never easy to accept and it has been rendered even more difficult as regards Muslim immigrants by a series of profoundly disturbing events, including the 9/11 attacks and other instances of terrorism targeting western publics. Ideas, such as the “clash of civilizations” thesis popularized by the late Samuel Huntington, have also played a role, providing a rough and ready means of making sense of what for many seem to be the nonsensical actions of lunatics. And, as always, money has played its part too. Saunders notes that funding from “mainstream conservative foundations” allowed Muslim tide advocates in the United States to spend “almost $17 million to send 28 million swing-state voters copies of the DVD Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”

Saunders is at his best when he plucks the wings off the claims of the Muslim tide school by drawing on research-based evidence. Arguments that Muslim immigration and “breeding,” in combination with shrinking non-Muslim “host” populations, will render Europe “unrecognizable” by 2050 (if not sooner) do not stand up to scrutiny. Rates of immigration from Muslim countries are far lower than presumed and important majority-Muslim sending countries, such as Turkey, are undergoing their own demographic revolution with rates of natural increase falling precipitously to below the proportion needed to maintain present levels of their own populations. Indeed, there is no evidence to support the claim that “Islamic belief leads to higher birth rates.” On the contrary, high birth rates are linked to economic underdevelopment and vice versa. Whereas Iran, for example, had a fertility rate of seven children per family in the mid 1980s, “by 2010, Iranian average family sizes had fallen to 1.7 children—a lower rate than in Britain or France.”

The same holds for Muslims in Europe. Saunders points out that Turks in Germany went from having an average of 4.4 children each in 1970 to 2.2 today. By 2030 “Muslim and non-Muslim birth rates will be statistically identical in Germany, Greece, Spain, and Denmark, and within half a child of one another in Belgium, France, Italy and Sweden … The continent’s Muslims and non-Muslims should have nearly identical fertility rates by 2050.”

What of integration? Are Muslim immigrants hiving themselves off in parallel societies ruled by strict religious codes? Are they simply incapable of integrating? Integration outcomes for Muslim immigrants in Canada and the United States, as measured by variables such as educational attainment, home ownership and naturalization, would suggest otherwise. As Saunders points out, some 40 percent of adult Muslims in the United States “have earned a college degree or a more advanced degree, making them the second most educated religious group after Jews (61%), and far ahead of average Americans (29%).” Conversely, Muslims in European countries do experience integration shortfalls in the areas of educational attainment, employment and naturalization. The principal reasons for this variation have little, if anything, to do with religion, however. Rather, they reflect differences in the nature of immigration systems and major institutions in North America and continental Europe. Muslim immigrants to the United States and Canada tend to be highly skilled workers with middle class aspirations. Muslim immigrants in Europe were granted admission either to staff low-skilled jobs or as a consequence of colonial ties and, later, rights-based family reunification programs.

Furthermore, the institutional contexts Muslim immigrants enter into differ significantly between Western Europe and North America. Saunders rightly pours scorn on educational systems like Germany’s, which “stream” students into different tracks from a very young age. The overall effect is to limit social mobility: “In Germany, children of Turkish descent are more than twice as likely as Germans to be directed to a Hauptschule, the lowest of the secondary education tracks; barely more than 10% of them … attend a Gymnasium. As a result, Turkish students are more than twice as likely as Germans to leave school without a diploma.” In the absence of social mobility, poor immigrant neighbourhoods that served as useful points of contact for first-generation immigrants become prisons for their children. The key to breaking this vicious circle lies in reforming educational, labour market and social welfare systems that are unsuited to countries of immigration.

What of values? Drawing on a raft of public opinion surveys, Saunders notes that over time Muslims’ positions on issues such as homosexuality tend to converge with prevailing views in the host society. Chris Cochrane, my colleague at the University of Toronto, has observed that in Canada this is especially true where Muslims complete the post-secondary education in Canadian colleges and universities. Thus, while Muslim immigrants’ “values still lag behind those of their non-immigrant neighbours … immigrants of Muslim origin are very clearly progressing toward integration at a rapid pace.”

The exception to this trend is Britain, where Muslims tend to hold views significantly more conservative than those of non–Muslims. Yet British Muslims express very strong attachments to Britain, with 77 percent stating that they identify “extremely strongly” or “very strongly” with their country, as against 50 percent of Britons in general. This civic attachment was reflected in the conduct of some Muslims during the August 2011 riots that rocked several English cities: “In that eruption of violence, Pakistani- and Bangladeshi-origin Britons overwhelmingly served as defenders of property; three of the five deaths were Birmingham Muslims killed while protecting buildings against rioters.” Muslims in France share a similarly robust attachment to the Republic and tend to share their non-Muslim compatriots’ views on religious attendance (they tend not to go to mosque) and inter-religious marriage (most believe it is fine). Saunders notes that support for sharia law among Muslims in western countries is low, although not insignificant. Yet he also points out that there is virtually no support among western Muslims for practices such as honour killing that are often lumped under the banner of sharia law. In sum, the Muslim tide school’s claims regarding the massive and unbridgeable differences in the value orientations and patriotic attachments of Muslims and non-Muslims in western countries is, at best, exaggerated.

Saunders concludes his point-by-point rebuttal of the Muslim tide advocates’ claims with a discussion of the relation between Islam and terrorism. Based on an admirable review of the literature, he concludes that terrorists are driven by political belief rather than religious faith. Indeed, devout or fundamentalist Muslims generally do not become terrorists and have cooperated with intelligence and security forces to oppose terrorist infiltration of their mosques and communities. Furthermore, terrorists are typically not recruited from poor neighbourhoods. On the contrary, “if anything, it is the opposite, as middle-class, well-educated Muslims are drawn to jihad.” Jihadi terrorists, it seems, resemble the educated, middle class “revolutionaries” who made up the RAF in West Germany, the FLQ in Quebec and the Weathermen Underground in the United States.

The second aim undertaken in Saunders’s book is to remind us that “we have been here before” and that social and economic integration over decades regularly turns despised outsiders into accepted citizens. Saunders is right to remind us that Roman Catholics from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe and Eastern European Jews were subject to severe discrimination, driven by their large numbers, relative poverty and conspicuous otherness. However, he overlooks important differences in their experiences. Saunders’s all too brief excursus fails to mention how Catholic immigrants in the United States became cornerstones of the Democratic Party in the 19th and 20th centuries. Alfred E. (“Al”) Smith, who went to parochial school and had strong connections to Tammany Hall, was elected the governor of New York four times and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1928. Given this history, Saunders’s claim that Americans’ suspicions of Catholics in the “decades before the Second World War” were on par with their dread concerning al Qaeda–sponsored terrorism today is problematic. While Al Smith could run for the highest office in the land, Barack Obama cannot use his middle name and must continually remind his critics that he is a Christian.

The “tides” of poor and visibly different East European Jews who entered countries in Western Europe and North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provoked a reaction that was rather more sinister than that which greeted Catholics. As Saunders mentions but does not adequately consider, turn-of-the-century anti-Semitism drew heavily on the scientific racism of the day, such that Jews were rendered not only problematic because of their religious and phenotypical differences but, more importantly, because of their alleged biological essence. As a result, Jews were deemed inassimilable whether or not they integrated. Indeed, in turn-of-the-century Germany, anti-Semites argued that successful assimilation (as reflected in upward social mobility and mastery of the German language) and even religious conversion was evidence of the lengths to which Jews would go to infiltrate and weaken the “German people.”

Saunders suggests that the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 Immigration Act in the United States were premised on a similar racialization of Catholicism, pointing out that the quotas were targeted primarily at Italians and other Southern European immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. Yet the quota act was not particularly hard on Irish Catholics—the Free State of Ireland had a yearly quota that rivalled that of Great Britain and greatly exceeded those of Poland and other Eastern European states. Italians, Greeks and other Southern Europeans were targeted because they were deemed to be racially unfit for United States citizenship; like the Jews, their religion was of secondary importance.

Saunders’s stylized interpretation of the experiences of Catholics and Jews help make sense of his policy recommendations. He rejects multiculturalism and the activism of identity politics, opting instead for an optimistic view of the power of economically driven social mobility. Jews and Catholics succeeded in shaking off the stigma attached to them, he avers, when they mastered their new countries’ languages, took advantage of the educational opportunities offered them, and went from being unskilled labourers to doctors, lawyers and dentists. This downplays the importance of political action on the part of Catholics and Jews both before and especially after the Second World War. As noted, Catholics had long pressed their interests qua Catholics at the ballot box. In the wake of the war, Jews pressed their claims for equal treatment by demanding the rejection of discriminatory immigration, housing and other laws and, more positively, calling for the recognition and accommodation of their religious identities, beliefs and practices, often drawing on emerging human rights norms in the process. Post-war identity politics, properly understood, was not about preserving cultures; it was about rooting out racial discrimination in the private sphere and reshaping public institutions so that they better captured the reality of an ethnic-religious landscape transformed by immigration.

While there is no gainsaying Saunders’s plea for the reform of inept educational systems and discriminatory hiring practices, social mobility in and of itself will not meet the needs of today’s Muslim immigrants—not when Muslim tide authors see Muslims as an eternal other incapable of “truly” integrating. Group-based discrimination calls for group-based political organizing and action. Hence, like Catholics before them, Muslims are using their numbers and votes to make a difference at the ballot box. And like Jews after the Second World War, they are turning to the courts and human rights tribunals to overturn discriminatory laws and otherwise press their claims as citizens and Muslims. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these strategies; indeed, they make perfect sense given the circumstances that Muslims find themselves in.

Saunders is wrong to reject multiculturalism and the politics of identity. These have long been and will continue to be indispensable tools in struggles for equality, working alongside and not against the social mobility engendered by good schools and well-paying jobs. Saunders’s failure to make this connection mars what is an otherwise fine and important book that deserves a wide audience.