Guest blogger Gustav Niebuhr is an associate professor at Syracuse University and an On Faith panelist.
Islam continues to be a highly marketable subject for book publishers, who have had plenty of public curiosity (and fear) to feed over the past eight years. First, and most spectacularly, the events of 9/11, then the Allied intervention in Afghanistan, followed by the invasion of Iraq have together created a sizable audience for books on Islam as a religion, Muslims as people and Muslim-majority nations as distinct societies. Not surprisingly, the tenor of these publications has run a very wide gamut, from the scholarly to the popular, from the nuanced to the alarmist. And so, on page after page, Islam and Muslims have been colored by a tremendous diversity of research and many opinions.
If this is worth noting now, it’s because of a new contribution to the literary debate (you might also call it a jihad, or struggle) in the form of an essay that appeared last Thursday in a highly public venue, The New York Times. It contained a positive review of a new book by a British journalist, which argues (according to the reviewer) that immigrant Muslims may actually be “supplanting” traditional European cultures.
The essay, citing the book, titled Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, states that immigrant Muslims are “swamping Europe demographically” because they have big families; they are not assimilating culturally or politically into their host nations; and that non-Muslims are afraid to criticize them. (One might modestly note that that’s power for a minority estimated at possibly 17 million people on a continent whose total population was calculated at more than 730 million in 2005 by the United Nations.)
The book may say a great deal more, but it’s the review that most people will read. And in that case, one can’t help but wonder whether some of the points raised seem… well, familiar? Haven’t similar charges been leveled against other immigrant groups?
To take an historical example, didn’t Protestants–terrified that American democracy itself might be under threat–say similar things about Roman Catholics when the latter immigrated by the millions to the United States in the 19th century? At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics counted for about 1 percent of the entire American population; a little over a century later, the proportion had risen to 15 percent (on the way to 23 percent today). Those fears seem quaint, even embarrassing today. But back then, some people took them very seriously.
When people fret about being “swamped,” their underlying fear tends to be that they will lose their culture, rather than find it in some way added to. And even without that swamping actually taking place, many fear that the “other” (whomever that may be) will become very dangerous–en masse.
But when it comes to Europe, it may be worth remembering how close the continent seemed to being swamped for nearly half a century, ending only recently. Half of it was occupied militarily by the Soviet Union; a great many people living west of the Iron Curtain knew it would not take much time for those armed forces to drive to the Rhine, or Paris.
In the meantime, residents of cities in West Germany and Italy, especially, lived in the shadow of brutal and often spectacular acts of terror, as politicians, police and ordinary civilians fell victim to the bombs and bullets of the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigades.
If there was a revolution in Europe, I’d say it occurred in November 1989, when demonstrators in the German Democratic Republic breached the Berlin Wall. And as revolutions go, it was pretty magnificent.