The Myth of the Muslim Tide

In the months since I wrote critically about New Atheism for Jacobin Magazine, I have been on the receiving end of dozens of emails and thousands of tweets from the angry acolytes of my targets: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.

Among these, the most vitriolic and voluminous have been from Sam Harris fans – an intellectual hodgepodge of the secular right and the ideologically confused left. Interestingly, the majority of these self-described “atheists” have shown little concern for the final section of my piece (which attacked the interpretative logic of New Atheism). Instead, the vast number of them have reacted most angrily to my criticisms of Harris for his rhetoric about Muslims (I’m now even on a list of “Islamic apologists” presumably maintained by some lunatic or other…).

I won’t restate the arguments I made (a link to the actual piece is above), but suffice it to say that Harris and co. made things devilishly easy by being so explicit and unequivocal in their deeply sinister politics; a politics that depends heavily on the demonization and othering of Muslims both inside and outside of the West and identifies them as an alien bloc living in our midsts that poses a demographic threat to civilization in good ole’ “Christian” Europe and North America.

There are a number of fairly intuitive responses to this narrative. We might point out, for example, the fact that Muslims have been living in Europe for a very, very long time. Or that the Muslim populations of Europe and North America have many countries and cultures of origin and can hardly be treated as some kind of monolithic bloc harbouring a unified political or cultural agenda. Or that the kind of rhetoric bandied about by Sam Harris and his compatriots on the right has some extremely sinister parallels in history.

The most effective response, however, may well be just a statistical one.

In an effort to better understand my angriest interlocutors, I have devoted some time over the last few months to a more detailed investigation of the claims made by Harris and others around Muslims and Muslim immigration to Western countries. An incredible find has been Doug Saunders’ book The Myth of the Muslim Tide, which deals systematically with a now popular and somewhat culturally acceptable narrative about Muslims and the West.

The story of the “Muslim Tide”, as you all probably know, runs something like this: Muslims, who are immigrating to Europe and North America in increasingly larger numbers and have higher birth rates, overwhelmingly hold values that are hostile to all that is secular and “Western”: pluralism, toleration, gender and sexual equality; hostile to liberalism itself. These populations are often ghettoized by choice and many within them hope to transform the surrounding societies institutionally, morally, and politically.

This narrative usually sets itself in opposition to what it takes to be a weak-kneed liberal position that is at best naive and, at worst, in active collaboration with the barbarian hordes. In doing so, it manages a superficially seductive kind of ideological triangulation attractive to both conservative nationalists and some who regard themselves left wing “internationalists”. Something resembling Carl Schmitt’s Friend/Enemy distinction becomes the primary ontology for both international relations and domestic “cultural policy”, polarizing every political choice and legitimizing the use of manifestly illiberal means in the defence of “Western Civilization”.

This narrative, or elements of it, is found throughout the writings of New Atheists like Harris and Hitchens and enjoys a sizeable constituency on the neoconservative right thanks to figures like Mark Steyn. In more self-consciously liberal circles it finds articulation in the work of authors like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, whose books are likely prominently displayed at your local Chapters/Indigo.

Saunders shows remarkable dispassion in engaging with the Muslim Tide thesis. Indeed, many among us (*raises hand*) would probably not be able to exercise such restraint. As such, the book reads like a collection of factoids with each component claim systematically rebutted in turn. Even for a bonafide “Muslim Tide”-skeptic such as myself, some of Saunders’ findings were surprising.

Here are just a few statistics and factoids drawn from the book, arranged in no particular order:

  • No reputable studies in existence suggest that Muslims will become a majority population in Europe during the 21st century. Statistics from the Pew Research Centre suggest that, by 2030, Muslims will comprise about 7% of Europe’s total population (up from 4.5% in 2010). Moreover, countries like Russia, Albania, and Bosnia – which historically have large Muslim populations – greatly increase this total. Incorporation of Russian statistics alone nearly doubles the continental total. As such, the notion of a “demographic threat” posed by Muslims is manifestly absurd.
  • Muslim populations in Europe have high rates of identification with their countries of residence. According to a 2009 Gallup study, for example, 77% of British Muslims identified “very strongly” or “extremely strongly” with their country and its democratic institutions. The figure for Britons in general was 50%.
  • A study conducted by the behaviour unit at Britain’s MI5 of “several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or closely associated with, violent extremist activity” (that is, would-be Jihadis or suicide bombers) drew several conclusions which directly contradict one of the key elements of the “Muslim Tide” thesis. Significantly, even the most radical Islamic clerics play little to know role in the indoctrination or recruitment of Jihadis. “Far from being Islamist fundamentalists”, the report concludes, “most [Jihadists] are religious novices” and very few have been raised in religious households…There is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization“. Many recruits are involved in drugs and have visited brothels – as such, they are hardly the puritanical religious conservatives often depicted.
  • Saunders writes: “Religious devotion simply does not correlate with violent radicalism”. Another Gallup study examined the 7% of Muslims worldwide who condoned the 9/11 attacks and view the USA unfavourably and found that they were “no more religious than the general population of Muslims”.

One particularly insightful passage from the final leg of the book is worth quoting at length:

The image of the self-ghettoized Muslim living in a parallel society dissolves once you encounter the actual terrorists. When Edwin Bakkar at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism scrutinized the data on hundreds of Muslim Europeans convicted of terrorism, he found that almost all were the European-born children or grandchildren of immigrants and 213 out of the 305 suspects he identified were legal residents of a European country. Only eight had ever lived in a country outside Europe. Less than a fifth were raised in religious Muslim households; almost half had largely secular upbringings; and more than a third were converts to Islam, mainly from Christian backgrounds.

A number of major studies of the demographics and psychology of terrorist recruits have shown that adversity, including poverty and violence, is rarely a significant factor in radicalization or terrorist recruitment. If anything, it is  the opposite, as middle class, well-educated Muslims are drawn to Jihad. These individuals are more likely to *perceive* [emphasis author’s] a sense of shame or humiliation, and to have hope and aspirations that they come to believe have been thwarted by the same Western forces they believe are invading the lands of Islam – as well as a desire for self-glorification that can be accomplished through martyrdom.

[Quoting various sources] Clearly, absolute material conditions do not account for terrorism…people suffering *actual* deprivation do not have the time or inclination for terrorist organizing. Many of the most famous Jihadists including Mohamed Atta and Osama bin Laden, were university-educated technicians and engineers.

All of them, Olivier Roy says of the Western terrorists, are integrated, Westernized, and educated…The source of radicalization is the West and not Jihad or the conflicts in the Middle East. None became a radical after attending religious studies completed in a Muslim-majority country. Finally, for almost each one of them, the time between their return to religion and their transit to political radicalization has been very short, which shows they are as much, if not more so, interested in politics as in religion.”

Suffice it to say, the reality bears virtually no relation to the story offered to us by Harris and co. From this I can only draw, or perhaps repeat, the same conclusion I made a few months ago: just as “Islamic terrorism” has very little to do with religion, so too does New Atheism.

Rather than being a dispassionate or “scientific” critique of religion, its motives and objectives are primarily political – and also extremely dangerous.

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