Our world is changing, and we are afraid.
That in itself is not a bad thing: fear is an important part of living, good judgment, and rational planning – so long as the things that we are afraid of are real and properly understood.
For the last twenty years, it seems that most of the world’s conflicts have been centred in the Middle East, and branched out to the West from there in the form of interventionist wars and terrorist attacks. The people of the Middle East are predominantly Muslim, and the terrorist groups and militias seemingly all claim agendas of Islamization. It would seem that, for most Western nations, our enemies are all Muslims – or perhaps Islam itself.
For the past few decades there has been large-scale emigration from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, bringing large numbers of Muslims to the West. Right now we are in the midst of a massive migration of refugees from Syria to the West, with 10,700 refugees arriving in Canada over the past few months and another 15,000 to arrive in the next six weeks. Such large numbers have many of us concerned about security, and given our recent context and understanding of Muslims from that part of the world, this is understandable. But it’s not necessary.
In his bestseller The Myth of the Muslim Tide Doug Saunders peels back the rhetoric that feeds our fears and exposes the realities of Islam and immigration. Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for the Globe and Mail, and a non-religious journalist with no stake in supporting Islam (indeed, he is explicitly pro-secular), and his major sources on the beliefs and attitudes of Muslims come primarily from Gallup and Pew Research polls and interviews. His claims are excellently documented and well-referenced, and his analysis of the numbers come from the survey authors, and often in direct quotes from Muslims themselves.
The impeccability of his references is critically important, because our beliefs and concerns on this issue are based primarily on what we don’t know rather than what we do. Concerns about the cultural integration of others usually betray a lack of understanding about those cultures, and misinformation runs rampant – not just about the other cultures or religions, but also about our own response to them. Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook claiming that refugees receive more government support than pensioners, and this erroneous claim was shared more than 37,000 times; such misinformation fuels political backlash, such as the action of MP Kelly Block to reduce refugee access to healthcare in 2012. If we want to respond appropriately to our fears, we need to ensure that we are acting on good information, lest we invade Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist.
This is the point of the first section of Saunders’ book: showing how the popular fiction about immigrants leads to undeserved and irrational backlash, in this case with reference to the 2011 terrorist acts of Anders Breivik in Norway. Breivik, who was heavily influenced by many popular writers who claim that Muslim immigrants are turning Europe into “Eurabia”, gunned down children and teenagers at a Norwegian liberal political camp. He claimed that they were the next generation of politicians who championed multiculturalism, and were therefore traitors who deserved execution. While Breivik is obviously an extreme case, the point is that his own 1500-page manifesto regularly referenced popular works that set the foundation of his rage and xenophobia. While I’m not familiar with most of the works referenced, the phrases quoted sound like they’d fit right in on Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media, a popular Canadian source of misinformation and fury.
Saunders goes on in part two to counter the claims of the “Eurabia” writers. We fear a demographic takeover, but while Muslim immigrants may have a higher birth rate initially, their birth rates tend to drop to the local level within a generation, and Muslims still make up less than 5% of Europe and only about 1% in North America, while immigration rates are expected to decline; contrast that to popular claims that there will be a Muslim majority, or a large enough minority to dominate policy and culture. We fear that immigrant groups will not integrate culturally, but research polls show that most European Muslims identify more closely with their nationality than with their religion. We fear that they want to impose Sharia law, but most Muslims – in the West and even in their countries of origin, though less so – do not want to live in a state dominated by Sharia, or at least not with a literalist interpretation of Sharia. We fear that Muslims are inherently violent, but research indicates that while many terrorist groups are inherently religious, their aims and motivations are all political. This goes along with a Freakonomics podcast from last year (that I highly recommend) that notes that the number one cause of suicide bombings is not religion but occupation – i.e., they’re blowing themselves up to try to get our troops out of their country. This should be obvious to us: after all, the Parliament Hill shooter recorded a message before his rampage, stating that he was doing it because Canada was bombing people in the Middle East.
Saunders then enlightens us about our own past: that the current “Muslim Tide” arguments are almost exactly the same as the arguments used against Catholic and Jewish immigrants a century ago. Yet today we find that Catholic and Jewish citizens are well-integrated and largely liberal, though when they first arrived they were religiously conservative and seen as violent fundamentalists who refused to integrate and wanted to impose their own religious vision on the people around them. He doesn’t downplay the differences between Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, or in the current political situation, but the sociological factors involved are nearly identical and the anti-immigrant voices of today are eerie echoes from the past.
He ends his book with a number of good points about the difficulties that immigrants face when they arrive in a new country, the reasons for a Muslim identity replacing the former emphasis on national identities, and the failure of multiculturalism. “We ought to abandon the word multiculturalism, as well as the word assimilation: both terms imply the existence of a monolithic, predefined culture that one either embodies or rejects. In real life, as we experience it in our homes, streets, workplaces and schools, there is no fixed or immutable thing known as culture, but rather a varied and shifting set of practices built around a roughly agreed on common set of values and a collection of respected institutions” (162).
If we are really concerned about ensuring that immigrants integrate into our society, we can begin by removing the many stigmas and roadblocks they face by virtue of being seen as outsiders among us. By welcoming outsiders, we can break down the division between East and West that feeds the ongoing conflict with groups like ISIS. In order to remove any legitimate fears, we must first overcome the illegitimate fears.
Though this book was released in 2012, and therefore does not comment specifically on the Syrian refugee crisis, it remains timely and highly recommended. A+