Tuesday, July 08, 2014


I have just read Doug Saunders short book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide. It is a beautifully clear dissection of modern mythologies about Muslims. Saunders demolishes the writing of those like Mark Steyn, Bruce Bawer, Melanie Phillips and their ilk and goes further by taking on the batty conspiracy theories of Gisèle Littman that animate the new far right.

You see, something strange has happened. As the far left has adopted anti-Zionism with zeal and supped at the trough of anti-Semitism, the new far right have adopted Israel as one of their own because, as they see it, it is sticking it to the Muslims. The old Jewish world conspiracy has morphed into a Muslim world conspiracy, Eurabia. According to Saunders, Littman fingered a committee based in Brussels called the Euro-Arab Dialogue. This was founded in 1973 and she saw it as a body where the European elite was conspiring to Islamise the West. The committee met four times and was wound up in 1979, but then reality and conspiracy are usually strangers.

Faced with this lunacy, Saunders calmly debunks it, together with the more mainstream myths, using evidence and historical detail. All the demographic and cultural assumptions made by the 'Muslim tide' authors are just plain, empirically and verifiably, wrong. Not only that, but identical arguments were made about Catholic and Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Assimilation took time, we often underestimate how long, and, he says, the same will happen with Muslims. We are in the early part of a familiar, and very human, cycle of migration and change.

This doesn't mean that he lets either jihadi terrorism or Salafist politics off the hook. The violence is by no means over and many more will die at its hands, but the point he makes is that it is not an inevitable and integral part of Islam. Instead it is a self-contained political movement that has sprung from two sources. Firstly, there is the 'privatisation of religion', a process of secularisation where Islam has become decoupled from cultural certainties, become a matter of private belief and has entered the modern market place of ideas. Secondly, radical Islam springs from the identity politics that was a twin reaction to social exclusion and to a particular form of multiculturalism, as opposed to religious and cultural pluralism, creating "the prison house of culture." It is not the product of a changeless tradition, but is a totalitarian utopianism springing from the uncertainties of change at a time of radical modernisation. It is nasty stuff and likely to persist for some time to come. As he says,
While these Islamist parties … reflect a transient political moment, they are neither benign nor to be celebrated. They represent reactionary, repressive, intolerant and anti-Semitic forces at a moment when the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are badly in need of the opposite. We should not wish such parties upon anyone. But they are not evidence of a conquering Islam … or that American immigrants could not be trusted.
What Saunders does is to bring sanity and historical perspective to bear on contemporary anxieties. He does this by looking at the facts and undertaking the simple task of differentiating between migrants and their descendants, who just happen to be Muslims, with political movements that prey on them and abhorrent cultural practices that still persist amongst a minority. This is a judgement that neither the new far right, together with their fellow travellers – the 'Muslim tide' authors – nor the far left, with their embrace of Islamism as an expression of an undifferentiated Muslim anti-imperialism, have attempted. I sometimes wonder what both Israelis and Palestinians have done to deserve such unsavoury champions.

Yet there is always hope. Once again, when real people emerge from the demonology of ideological hysteria, they appear to be not so different from everyone else and often rather nice.

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