European Politics With an Islamic Face?

LONDON – Donald Trump’s call to bar Muslims from the United States provoked the following exchange with two young friends of mine: “If the choice was between Muslim immigration and preserving liberal moral values,” I asked, “which would you choose?” They both denied the question’s premise. The immigrants themselves, they suggested, might have reactionary moral codes, but their children, growing up in today’s Britain, America, or Continental Europe, would be quite different. But is that true?

My question focused not on Islamist terrorism – the ostensible ground of Trump’s outburst – but on the threat posed by large-scale Muslim immigration to the code of morals that my young friends, like most educated Europeans, now accept without question. Terrorism aside, wouldn’t they worry if Islam came to have a growing influence on British law and politics?

This is not just a hypothetical possibility. The Muslim population in Europe was 44.1 million in 2010, or 6% of the total. There were 2.7 million Muslims in the United Kingdom in 2011 (4.8% of the population), up from 1.6 million in 2001. Given recent immigration trends and, more important, Muslims’ above-average fertility rate (three children per family versus the British average of 1.8), the Muslim share of the UK population is bound to grow for decades to come.

Much of Europe is on the same demographic trajectory. Of course, demographics is not an exact science: Much depends on assumptions about age profiles, standards of living, inequality, and so on, and sooner or later the Muslim fertility rate will converge with the national average. But by then the Muslim population will have expanded rapidly – to 10-20% of the total in the UK. The interesting question concerns the consequences of this.

Liberals have not worried about ethnic demographics, because they assume that individuals eventually identify with the host society’s norms. The standard argument is that immigrants enrich the host, while leaving any incompatible characteristics at home. In particular, their political behavior will fall into line with that of the general population.

If this is right, the sociopolitical impact of a change in the ethnic composition of a population is neutral, or even beneficial. Immigrants from Algeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Turkey will, in the course of a generation or two, become European in outlook and politics. Their religion will become for them a private matter, as it now is for most Europeans, and they will become integrated in all important respects.

But that historical pattern, in my view, depended crucially on the small size of the immigrant population and its cultural closeness to the home population. (Even so, the process of assimilation was far from frictionless.) Historical experience offers little guide to the social and political consequences of the much greater numbers and more pronounced cultural differences at stake in the postwar migrations to Europe, especially from the Muslim world. The incompatibilities are much greater.

The nub of the problem is that contemporary European civilization is secular, whereas Muslim civilization is religious. In Europe, religion has lost its authority over law, legislation, education, morals, and business life. The Islamic world has undergone no comparable process. There is no systematic separation of faith and state; the family, not the individual, remains the basic social unit. The essential elements of modern European political life – individual rights and duties, and the accountability of government to the governed – are lacking, particularly in the Arab Middle East.

Despite efforts at secularization, the gap between Muslim and Western outlooks has, if anything, grown in recent years, as religion has regained ascendancy in most Muslim countries. Sharia religious law – extreme versions of which hold that conduct decriminalized in the West, such as adultery and homosexuality, is punishable by death – influences their legal codes. Moreover, in many countries, large majorities of Muslims say Sharia should be the official law.

In Europe, Islam is the fastest-growing religion, and Sharia has penetrated European legal systems. In the UK, a hundred Sharia courts adjudicate on divorce and other family cases, prompting Home Secretary Theresa May to promise a review of Sharia courts “to determine whether they are consistent with British values.”

Secularization is not inevitable. As the political philosopher Larry Siedentop has argued, “secularization is Christianity’s gift to the world.” According to Siedentop, features specific to Christianity led to liberal individualism, and they are absent from the other great world religions.

The great gift of secularism, in turn, has been tolerance. Despite horrific twentieth-century backsliding in Europe, secularism has served to blunt the edge of bigotry, because secular reasoning, unlike divine revelation, is never conclusive.

Economists regard migration as a movement of individuals in search of a better life and call for more immigration to offset population aging, or to provide workers to do the “dirty jobs.” But such evocations of “economic man” miss a key dimension of migration: People carry their culture with them across political frontiers. We should not assume that economic success automatically leads to cultural convergence.

This brings us back to Trump. Whatever happens in the US, Muslim immigration into Europe will continue and even expand in the next few years. The Syrian catastrophe alone ensures this. Everything that dialogue and education can do to close the gap between immigrant and host communities should be done. But it may not be possible to prevent a return to religious politics – and the conflict which religious bigotry brings. If we are to avoid sleepwalking into a highly troublesome future, we must recognize that failed integration, not terrorism, is the main danger we face.