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Nora Connor: The Myth of the Muslim Tide and the Search for the Moderate

September 18, 2012

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Image from Flickr via Jeremy Vandel

Doug Saunders's new book fights fears about “the Islamization of America” with historical and sociological fact, but slippery terminology gets in the way.

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, and who, with their totalizing, un-American religion, 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,”and 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 is called “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.”) 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. 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.

What’s so striking—and so dangerous—is how quickly specific fears surrounding Muslims and Muslim immigrants can become incendiary to so many local and global conflicts.

In his recent book, 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. 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 within and across national borders is driven by economic, environmental or political 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.

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, are the ones that most forcefully shape immigrants’ and first-generations’ decisions (and—I would emphasize—native-born and locals’ decisions as well). The cost of living, of education, and of raising children influence the family decisions of newcomers and native-born residents of any locale alike—and those factors vary according to the specific time and place.

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 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. In his introduction, Saunders describes the ways his London neighborhood began to change:

“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.”

Who, I wonder, gets to pass out the membership cards to the Moderate Muslim Club?

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.”

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.

Can you have the same Europe with different people?… That question applies to every place whose demographics change with time, which is to say: everywhere.

Integration, assimilation, and progress in political standing of newcomers has always been negotiated or fought for (at times with terrible costs). And in the past week, 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, 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 to so many local and global conflicts.

Saunders’ ideas are seductively simple: create paths to full civic and economic participation for immigrants. But that’s 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 are not the most productive grounds for civic decision-making. 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, and I’d argue it’s best to admit them as full participants, with the aim of debating and deciding what goals we are reaching for.

Terminology is a huge challenge in journalistic, non-specialist writing, and Saunders confronts a severe landscape. Culture, religion, Islam, The West, liberalism, conservatism, extremism, moderation, citizenship, secularism and even Europe and America 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 this terminology drops readers—at least the many who have not already committed to a particular understanding of them—into a baffling hall of mirrors. 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 (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.”

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.

Here it is. 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 a transnational us? A “secular” us, in alliance with our “secular/moderate Muslim” friends? (And who, I wonder, gets to pass out the membership cards 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, so this can’t be just about “religion.”

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 makes one ask what “the same Europe” is, or ever was. That question applies to every place whose demographics change with time, which is to say: everywhere. Can you have the same America? 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.

Saunders’s sociology is methodical, clear and convincing, but he’s bringing a slide-rule and a pocket protector to a gunfight.

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. In fact if pressed, I’d say that in general the answer is no, you can’t have “the same” America or the same England or the same city council or the same Main Street you think you used to have. What you can have, right now, if you’re a lucky resident of one of the states Saunders refers to, is the right to engage with the slippery ideas and concrete political decisions in front of you—though you may still have to struggle to assert that right.

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.

I don’t mean to suggest that reason and religion are opposed, but rather that reason can become a fantasy, a religion unto itself.

As Saunders himself recognizes, the fantasy (he’d say “myth,” and that’s where I disagree with him) 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 these adherents. 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 rather small. Moderation has never been a ruling ethos in human politics, electoral or otherwise and despite frequent protestations to the contrary. I don’t mean to suggest that “reason and religion are opposed,” but rather that reason can become a fantasy, 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.” This generated a round of applause from the mostly liberal audience, gathered for a public forum on Muslim immigration and citizenship in the Netherlands. I’m still not sure I’ve gotten my head around her term, but it would seem that Hirsi Ali wants to promote her own vision of reason and individualism in an all-encompassing way, to the exclusion of other modes of thought or other understandings of “reason.” How can a “fundamentalism,” Enlightenment otherwise, be the right way to “oppose fundamentalism”? It doesn’t sound very “secular” to me.

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. 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 holds a BA from Columbia University (religion, anthropology) and an MA from NYU (journalism). Nora is currently the Luce Foundation Fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media where she is engaged in research on international religion, human rights and digital media. She is also the international assignment editor for the Center’s web journal, The Revealer, which strives to be a home for both informed religion journalism and academic writing that seeks a broader audience.

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2 comments for Nora Connor: The Myth of the Muslim Tide and the Search for the Moderate

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on September 19, 2012 at 2:52 am

    I find it absolutely incredible that “a multimedia journalist with a background in labor and human rights organizing,” who, I am assuming, does not speak a word of Arabic, nor has ever lived in an Arab or Muslim country or an Arab or Muslim community, presumes to discuss whether this or that perception of the Arab world is correct. If I am wrong about your writer’s background, I sincerely apologize.

    America has gotten into an awful lot of trouble in recent years precisely because of the ignorance of its policymakers vis-a-vis the culture, religion, history and politics of the Arab world. It is a notorious fact that among 35,000 State Department employees, fewer than ten are fluent in Arabic. It is also a fact that events and even trends in the Arab world are being “reported” and then “analyzed” by journalists who are equally ignorant about the Arab world, that is, do not speak the language and therefore also do not understand its culture, religion, history and politics, such being the standards of journalism, and thereby contribute to to the total darkness that surrounds all discussions of this world. It is really time to wake up, otherwise America, like Europe, is going to be in for some unpleasant surprises.

  2. Comment by Ibraheem Aruna on September 30, 2012 at 6:49 am

    I must admit that Nora`s analysis was indeed food for thought. I shall make the following observation. It is inaccurate for MuslimTiders to assume that muslim immigrants support the homegrown violence of a tiny minority of muslims.Muslim immigrants are not violent at least no study has established that, instead it is the children of muslim immigrants who were concieved and born here in the West who assert their “rights”,freedom of speech, who cannot be corrected as their parents were corrected at that age who are the culprits. Authorities excercise their official rights against immigrants whom they deem unfit adequately when situations warrant.
    Can you have the same Europe with different people? I would say, YES. Secular Europe where your religion is your private business and every person his adequately encouraged to contribute through the creation of opportunities. The taste of the pudding they say around here is in the eating, not the colour of the pudding or who baked it. Muslim Tiders should disabuse their thinking, afterall not all muslim immigrants could live under strict sharia otherwise they would not have left their homelands.

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