Europe's Supposed Islamic Crisis

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Imagine that you arrive in a part of the US that is new to you, and you are seeking information about the region. "What's the demographic breakdown?", you ask. When you are told that minorities make up around four or five percent of the population, you might be startled to find that any state is still so little affected by ethnic diversity. Why, you say, that's much whiter than North Dakota.

I mention this imaginary example because it gives a useful context for current commentary about Europe and its supposed Islamic crisis, which has attracted so much overwrought analysis in the last decade or so. If you believe the darkest visions, then Western Europe especially is being swamped by Muslim immigration, and the continent stands every chance of being Islamicized, of becoming part of "Eurabia." As historian Bernard Lewis predicted, by the end of the present century, "Europe will be part of the Arab west -- the Maghreb." That far-sighted statesman Muammar Qaddafi gloats about how Europe will soon be conquered from within by its "fifty million Muslims." Even politically moderate Europeans take seriously the prospect of Islamization. In 2009, Elena Tchoudinova's nightmare vision of an Islamicized France, The Mosque of Notre Dame, became a French bestseller. The book opens with a description of a public stoning on the Place de l'Arc de Triomphe in the year 2048.

Certainly, no one should underestimate the real dangers from subversion and terrorism on European soil, but the demographic issue is quite separate. If we look at the size of Europe's Muslim population today -- and how it is projected to grow over time -- then the Eurabian nightmares look ludicrous.

If we just look at Western Europe -- basically, the core nations of the European Union as it existed before 2000 -- then we find around 16 million Muslims, or about 4.3 percent of the whole. Surprisingly, that proportion remains fairly constant if we shift our focus to the whole continent, including Eastern Europe and the Balkans, but west of the old Soviet border: a total of some 29 million Muslims, or 4.6 percent of all Europeans. Just in terms of raw numbers, then, Muslims make up about the same share of the European population as ethnic minorities do in, say, Iowa or New Hampshire.

Actually, those Muslim numbers are on the high side, because they measure ethnic and national background as much as formal religious commitment. To give you an example, think of my two imaginary friends Tony and Tariq, both twenty-somethings living in a major European city. They are very similar in most ways, including in morality and behavior: both drink alcohol, and are sexually over-active. Both are completely secular, although Tony is from a Catholic background, and Tariq from a Muslim family. Neither attends a place of worship, or has a good idea where such an institution might be found. Tariq ignores Islamic food laws. Yet when official agencies are assessing religion, major differences between the two will apparently surface. Because of his ethnic background, indeed because of his family name, every such study will list Tariq as a Muslim. Tony, in contrast, will rarely appear as a Christian, because such a label often demands some kind of formal affiliation.

Tariq (and his equally secular sister) make up a sizable share of Europe's Muslim millions. People possess all sorts of identities, defined (for example) by nationality, region, class, race, occupation, education, gender, sexuality and demographic group, and it is foolish to assume that for every single person who happens to be born into a Muslim family, religious loyalties will automatically trump all others, that they will all be "Muslims" first and foremost.

But if Muslims, are, presently, a tiny fraction of Europe's population, will that proportion not grow over time? Indeed it will. Demographers know well that immigrants tend to be more fertile than the host populations, largely because they are younger, and that their share of population will grow sharply within the first generation or two. Those same scholars also know that, over a few decades, immigrant fertility rates converge with those of old-stock families. That change arises from the shifting expectations of the daughters of those early immigrants, whose aspirations to education and professional fulfillment make them reluctant to remain as merely child-bearers. Also, newer immigrants from North African lands are themselves coming from countries with plunging fertility. Soon, people of Algerian or Turkish stock in France or Germany will have demographic profiles quite similar to those of their old stock neighbors, and any talk of a Muslim population explosion will look distinctly dated.

By the late 21st century, people of Muslim origin could account for as much as 15 or 20 percent of Europe's people, but that will represent a plateau. That is a solid minority community, but -- unless someone has changed the laws of mathematics -- it is nowhere near a majority, still less a flood tide.

So where do the fears of Islamicization come from? Partly, Europe's experiences with minorities are very different from those of the US. The continent used to have sizable ethnic minorities, but most of them perished in the 1940s. Later generations grew up in a very homogeneous society, so any diversity at all -- any appearance of brown skins -- tends to startle.

A variety of political agendas is also at work. Conservative religious activists despair of Europe's radical secularism and excessive tolerance, and they proclaim that such liberalism is a self-limiting cycle. In this view, multi-culturalism today will lead to Islamic domination tomorrow, and the children of naively secular Dutch and French families will ultimately be subjected to shariah law. Supporters of Israel similarly excoriate Europeans for their supposed laxity on Middle Eastern issues, and they warn that those cowards will receive their comeuppance when they are fighting jihads and intifadas on the streets of London and Amsterdam. One way or another, vengeance will come.

So yes, worry about militants, investigate subversives, and ruthlessly stamp out terrorists. Think hard about appropriate laws on burqas and Islamist hate speech. But keep those policies strictly separate from demographic debates and fantasies about racial swamping.


Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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