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Do Muslim Immigrants Threaten The West?

The stakes here are high. The Muslim-tide beliefs have already become the founding myth behind several alarming political movements and the cause of one notable act of terrorism. Promoting these myths about Muslim immigrants has become a significant mainstream theme in global electoral politics with scarcely any proper fact checking of the underlying claims. It is vitally important to separate the real problems with Muslim immigration from those that are manufactured out of fear and bad information.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Doug Saunders' new book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, just published by Vintage.

About 15 years ago, my London neighbourhood 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: some wore a colourful hijab, others the white veil popular among East Africans, still others the heavy black chador, and occasionally by the bus shelter a pair of eyes would peer from a narrow slit in the all-concealing black sack of a Saudi-style abaya and niqab. Whatever their headdress, these women tended to have a lot of children with them.

Then the street itself changed: its procession of pubs and corner stores was joined by a great many Turkish eateries, some of them excellent, along with several grotty Internet cafés and money- transfer shops with opaque Arabic signs. Within a few years, it felt as if Islam was closing in. Our after-school babysitter, a French girl who grew up in an Alpine village and was partial to all-night raves, abruptly converted to the faith of her new Algerian friends and took to covering her head and praying five times a day. It made her more punctual and orderly and no less attentive to our kids, but also more sombre and less willing to eat our food.

The new immigrants from East Africa, Turkey, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent became our friends, shopkeepers, class-mates and doctors. But it was hard, in those tense years that began this century, to avoid associating their religion with violence and extremism. Our nearest Muslim house of worship, the Finsbury Park mosque, was often visited by police; in 1997 it had been taken over by an Egyptian-born former Afghan mujahedeen fighter who called himself Abu Hamza. This hook-handed, half-blind cleric, known in tabloid headlines as "hooky mullah," delivered astringent sermons calling for the murder of non-Muslims in Islamic lands and made headlines by praising the September 11 hijackers; he was arrested and imprisoned in 2004 on terrorism and race-hatred charges.

After that, the extremists were banished from the mosque and deported, its new imam was moderate, and fewer intense, bearded men hung out on the streets around it. But the sense of insecurity and tension continued, especially after a neighbour lost both her legs in the July 7, 2005, suicide-bombing 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 wouldn't worry? Even as my children befriended the Usamas and Leilas around them, I couldn't avoid glancing distrustfully at some of my new neighbours. I have lived most of my life among immigrants, and of course I am one myself, but in those dark years after the terror attacks, it was hard to avoid the sense that Muslims were different: less likely to fit in, more prone to extremism, more likely to follow the teachings of their religion than the laws and social codes of the land around them. They had big families, it seemed, and we had small ones. At times I did fear that they 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 cultures, there must be millions of people with similar suspicions.

We've been here before. If I had lived at this same London address a dozen decades earlier, I would have watched with alarm as the pavements of Holloway Road filled with poor, oddly dressed men and with women wearing identity-concealing headscarves. Their families segregated themselves from the native-born population, adhered to religious and political beliefs that were at odds with the dominant culture, kept customs and traditions that seemed centuries behind the times, and expanded their numbers at an astonishing rate. At that point they were using the neighbourhood as a base to plot a wave of terrorist attacks that, by the end of the 1880s, had killed more people and caused more political alarm than the jihadist attacks that began the twenty-first century would. Government reports and bestselling books of the time announced that this group was impossible to integrate into the population and would be a growing threat.

Yet in fewer than two generations, these same Irish Catholic immigrants had become fully woven into the cultural life of my neighbourhood, their distinct qualities visible in their churches and pubs but now regarded as an enhancement rather than a threat. We have forgotten how alarming the waves of Roman Catholic and Jewish immigrants from the fringes of Europe appeared to North Americans and Western Europeans only a few decades ago. Their home countries seemed less democratic, less economically free, more prone to religious law and political extremism. Right up through the early 1950s, it was commonplace for thinkers across the political spectrum to argue that Catholic immigrants were driven by the dictates of their faith to promote fascism, violence and religious extremism (for this was the condition of most of their home countries and the apparent fate of many of their diasporas) and therefore could not be assimilated into non-Catholic cultures.

Until the Second World War, it had been considered reasonable in many circles to hold similar views, involving communism and crime, about Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. By the end of the 20th century, though, most people had forgotten about their earlier fears of religious minorities. We lived through a period of comparative tolerance when the religious fears of the mass-immigration era were replaced with the ideological fears of the Cold War. The children of Catholic and Jewish immigrants were no longer associated in the mainstream public imagination with violence and cultural usurpation, and had become our friends, neighbours, colleagues and sometimes political leaders.

And then, in the decade after the September 11 attacks, a seemingly new argument began to appear, first in the far reaches of the Internet and the mutterings of the political right, then in increasingly mainstream and mass-market venues. It began by bolstering our suspicions of those new headscarf-wearing neighbours with a few alarming anecdotes, then fanned them into smouldering distrust with some demographic and statistical claims and a bit of theology, and finally drew them to an explosive conclusion about the fate of Western societies. This argument became the subject of dozens of bestselling books, opinion pieces, blog postings, YouTube videos, political party platforms and campaign speeches, and by now has become an almost common-sense assumption for many people.

It goes like this. These Muslim immigrants, and their children and grandchildren, are not like earlier groups. They are reproducing at an unusually rapid pace, with fertility rates far higher than those of exhausted Western populations, and at some point soon -- perhaps by mid-century -- Muslims will become a majority in European countries and North American cities. This is a danger because, unlike other immigrants, they are loyal to Islam, not to their host society. They do not regard their religion as a private source of inspiration, but as a political ideology they intend to act upon. A line of shared belief connects the moderate Muslim believer to the radical Islamist and makes the majority of Muslims impossible to assimilate. They will permanently alter the West and promote a political agenda that will destroy our traditions and freedoms. In short, we are about to be swept away by a "Muslim tide."

The purpose of my newly published book, The Muslim Tide, is to show that all of those claims are demonstrably untrue, and are based on the same mixture of honest misunderstandings and darker fallacies that greeted earlier waves of poor immigrants from different religious cultures. I have drawn on the most comprehensive demographic, statistical, scholarly and survey data available to provide a detailed, honest, point-by-point examination of the facts about Muslim immigrants in the West: their population growth rates; their loyalties; their religious, political and cultural behaviours and beliefs; their propensity to religious fundamentalism, to political extremism and to violence; their successes and, sometimes, their failings in becoming integrated into the economies and cultures of the West.

The stakes here are high. The Muslim-tide beliefs have already become the founding myth behind several alarming political movements and the cause of one notable act of terrorism. Promoting these myths about Muslim immigrants has become a significant mainstream theme in the electoral politics of the United States, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, with scarcely any proper fact checking of the underlying claims. Once again, a fever is infecting the minds of many Westerners. We must not allow history to repeat itself.

My book is not a defence of Islam, and does not contain a dissection of the teachings of the Koran. I am not an admirer of Islam, or 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. My view, however, is that the solution lies in the economic and political development of immigrant communities, as it has with earlier conservative religious minorities. I do not dismiss the Muslim-tide arguments out of hand. If there were evidence that their larger claims were true, I would be genuinely worried.

Theology is not the issue here, but rather public and political behaviour. The arguments for and against the Muslim-tide hypothesis are too often built on the more alarming scriptural passages of the Koran and its later, severe interpretations, or on the menacing words of certain imams and mullahs. The truth about Muslim communities is found not in scripture but in action. The holy books of every Abrahamic religion contain plenty of fodder for extremist sectarianism and for holy violence; the question is whether these words are being followed by immigrants in the West and their descendants.

We need to put aside the theology and ask a set of concrete questions: To what extent are these immigrants religiously observant or literalist believers? What role do they believe religion should play in politics? To what extent do their children and grandchildren carry the beliefs, and degrees of observance, of their parents? Where do these communities' loyalties lie? Where are their sources of self-identity?

My book is also not intended to play down the significance of the dangerous political, militant and terrorist movements that have exploded within some Muslim communities in recent decades. Rather, I hope to show that these movements are distinct and troubling products of particular political circumstances -- not inevitable, organic outgrowths of conventional Islamic culture, any more than terrorist and religious extremist movements in Western cultures have been extensions of everyday thought. My work and my life have brought me too close to this violence to dismiss it. I was living in the United States during the September 11, 2001, attacks and in London during the July 7, 2005, attacks, and I was in southern France during the killing spree committed by Mohamed Merah in Toulouse in March 2012. I have reported in depth on Islamic extremism -- and moderation -- from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India, and from the capitals of Europe and North America, and as a result I do not believe that the war on terror was ill-founded or misconceived. All is not well in Muslim communities.

By demonstrating that recent Muslim immigrants are no more threatening than earlier waves of poor newcomers, I hope to show them as fellow citizens whose children face specific threats that deserve attention and help. It is vitally important to separate the real problems with Muslim immigration from those that are manufactured out of fear and bad information. The idea of a stealth take-over by Islamic believers is a delusion. So is the more moderate idea of a permanently alien and impossible-to-integrate "civilization" in our midst. Real problems, as worrying to the majority of Muslims as they are to the rest of us, include the rise of anti-Semitism among the children of immigrants who identify with a mythic and faraway Middle East; a set of backward-looking subcultures that treat women as lesser beings, even possessions, to be guarded, hidden or abused; and the defensive retreat of the embittered few into all-consuming religious faith in an otherwise fast-secularizing diaspora.

These reactions, along with the remaining instances of violent Islamic extremism, are best understood as intense responses by insecure people to the modernizing trends of individualism and globalization -- the very same trends that produced the Muslim-tide theories and political movements in the West. These are clashes within civilizations, not between them, and to a large extent they are products of the false belief, held by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that the world is divided into fixed and irreconcilable civilizations. The larger threat comes not from these immigrants themselves, but from our response to them.

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