Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Even More on Europe and Islam

Via Crooked Timber (who picked it up from Scott Martens at A Fistful of Euros), comes this excellent, long article by Randy McDonald on Muslim immigration and birthrate trends in France and other European countries, and what they suggest for the cultural future of Europe. There's a tremendous amount of intriguing material in his post, especially for someone like myself who is interested in the "interesting questions" of culture, language, identity, and civilization. He gives insight into varieties of Muslim immigration (from Algeria, Turkey, etc.), levels of Muslim religious devotion in comparison to Christian religiosity, sets up comparisons with French Catholic assimilation into mainstream Canadian culture, and much more. His overall conclusion:

"France's problem with its nominally Muslim minority in the early 21st century isn't a civilizational clash, any more than the United States' problem with its nominally Catholic minority in the early 20th century was. The French problem isn't whether or not it will be a Western country, or a democratic country, in a half-century. The French problem is how a large immigrant population, already fairly highly assimilated in the cultural sense but concentrated in certain immigrant ghettos where assimilation in the socioeconomic sense is more problematic, will be integrated into itself. There's no particular reason to think it will fail, given France?s own past immigration successes; there's also no reason for complacency, given France?s problems with youth and immigrant employment, and with social exclusion. It's a touchy situation, but like graduate school it's far more difficult to fail than it is to muddle through and succeed. There's certainly no reason for ridiculous fantasies. Now, on to issues worth real debate, like how to best integrate French Muslims into wider French society."

Point taken. Still, I wonder how well Randy believes the "issues worth real debate" can be addressed unless one thinks conceptually and culturally about integration. How will the "societal culture," to use Will Kymlicka's term, evolve as the preferences of its participants change, and to what extent will those preferences result in the collapse of former civic values and institutions in favor of others, and how would one internalize those costs? By the same token, given that civic values and institutions are premised upon and are embedded within linguistic, religious, and historical frameworks, how will changes in preferred language use, religious observance, and historical perspectives by the population at large (or various influential minority groupings within it) actually open up public possibilities that were inconceivable in the midst of the prior societal matrix? Perhaps most importantly, how will the political compromises and reactions to this process interfere with either the preservation of the old or the continuation on to the new? (These are by no means hysterical or irrelevant questions; as I've written before in connection with the debate over headscarves in France, the current controversy and overreaction of French authorities is a revealing guide to understanding the way in which the existing French commitment to "secularism" does not, in fact, serve their own identity well.) In short, not all of those who think provocatively about Islam and Europe are indulging in paranoid fantasies about civilizational clashes; some of them are quite willing to imagine a variety of possible outcomes, ranging from a "creeping Islamicization of a decadent Christendom" to a "backlash against immigration by the economically Neanderthal right" to a "happy fusion between rapidly secularized second-generation Muslims and their post-Christian neighbors," and want to think hard about the long-term requirements and consequences of each.

It is also worth injecting questions about modernity into the mix. Randy observes that, when confronted with immigration, assimilation, and resistance, in the long wrong culture will not hold: "people will defect entirely; people will disagree with your goals; people will choose to fold in on themselves....human beings show an unerring tendency to leave restrictive cultures for more pluralistic ones." This may very well be true; certainly Randy supports his contention with a great deal of data, drawn from a variety of contexts. Still, it brings one to think about Benjamin Barber's old (and yet continually being refined and demonstrated) "Jihad vs. McWorld" thesis--is the assimilation which takes place when people enter a more "pluralistic" context really an embrace of (and, of course, an adaptation to and of) the culture of pluralism, or is simply an appropriation of the technologies of modernity (both material and social) by way of maintaining, even empowering, one's alienation from the same? That is, is modern pluralism, and its association with democratic government and egalitarian respect, a cultural and historical achievement that those who enter into it from their own social spaces can internalize and be enriched by, or is it simply a neutral process, a scheme of markets and rights, that we can only hope will work out in more or less democratic and egalitarian directions? If the former (and Barber and many other serious thinker will tell you that it is), then wondering about how one best ushers in a 21st-century Europe with a significant Muslim population cannot simply be a matter of trusting inner logic of demographics and economic choice; there has to be affirmative, culturally informed acts of both inclusion and maintenance. (Which, again, is why the headscarf debate is about a lot more than simply educational policy in France. The receptivity of an unfortunate number of Muslims in Spain to such fundamentalist thinking is also relevant.) Which is not to say that Randy's claims aren't valid; they are. It is merely to say that his data helps us get a better and more accurate grasp on the "interesting questions," not that such questions are entirely laid to rest.