Reflections on the Revolution in Europe

In recent years, conservative writers have published a number of books and even more articles warning about the demographic decline of Europe and the seemingly dangerous march of Islam on the Continent. These analyses, often delivered with smug Schadenfreude, hold that godless, decadent Europeans have given up having children, leaving a fifth column of faithful, fertile Muslims to swamp their societies. In his bestselling America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, Mark Steyn predicted “the demise of European races too self-absorbed to breed.” The National Review mockingly advertised a “Farewell to Europe Tour,” including a visit to the “Islamic Republic of the Netherlands:” “For this special two-day event, females traveling with our party will be allowed to disembark the plane without a veil!”

These analyses seem primarily interested in scoring points in the American culture wars by arguing that secularism and feminism leave societies soft and vulnerable to more patriarchal peoples. For those who don’t share their values, they’re easy to dismiss. That’s not true of Christopher Caldwell’s new book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West. Thoughtful, erudite, and provocative, it’s a conservative book that liberals should take seriously, no matter how uncomfortable the issues it raises are.

Much of Caldwell’s volume is dedicated to unfolding a persuasive argument that mass immigration, and particularly mass Muslim immigration, presents some existential challenges to Europe. Moreover, he points out that European political taboos make it difficult to address these challenges without being accused of racism or fascism. Yet these issues need grappling with. Europe is not nearly as good at the United States in assimilating its immigrants, and many live in ghettos alienated from and even hostile to European culture. At times, the resulting tensions have led to spectacular outbreaks of violence: the 2004 murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, the 2005 terrorist attacks in England, the banlieue riots that shook France later that year, the violent global response to the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which was stoked by Danish imams. These incidents raise urgent questions for people who value both multiculturalism and secular liberalism. How much tolerance is owed a radical political ideology that comes wrapped in religion? And how can the state challenge intolerance without undermining the freedom of expression that liberals value?

Caldwell’s exploration of these conundrums is penetrating. One of the key differences between his book and others of its ilk is that he mostly avoids the easy contempt for Europe that’s so common on the American Right. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is not meant to demonstrate the superiority of the United States to perfidious France. Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, eschews the anti-cosmopolitan cultural populism that currently dominates the Republican Party. His is an urbane, philosophical, Tory-style conservatism. Many of the things he wants to save are worth saving.

For example, when Caldwell discusses the tensions between multiculturalism and the welfare state, it is not to score points against welfare. Mass immigration, he argues, is a problem in part because it undermines European social democracy. He cites research showing that people are less willing to support welfare in more heterogeneous societies, where they trust their neighbors less. “Two-thirds of French imams are on welfare,” writes Caldwell. “Most French and British citizens do not think of welfare checks as a do-it-yourself state subsidy for religion, nor would they support them through taxes if they did. If welfare recipients do not share the broader society’s values, then the broader society will turn against welfare.” He doesn’t seem particularly gleeful about this prospect.

That said, his outsize animus toward immigration on the whole can lead him to make dishonestly hyperbolic statements — for example, suggesting there’s no fundamental difference between colonialism and labor migration, as if an empire were sending its subjects to conquer Europe. Meanwhile, his envy of Islam’s religious vitality, and sympathy with some of its critiques of the West, runs just beneath the book’s surface. Parts of Caldwell’s declinist view only makes sense in light of his low opinion of modern Europe’s sexual liberation and “spiritual tawdriness,” as he puts it.

Still, he makes a convincing if disturbing case when he argues that immigration is exacting “a steep price in freedom. The multiculturalism that has been Europe’s main way of managing mass immigration requires the sacrifice of liberties that natives had come to think of as rights.” This is in some ways an overly broad generalization, but it deserves more than a knee-jerk response. It is certainly unsettling, for example, to learn that the British Department for Work and Pensions is now giving benefits and recognition to the additional spouses in polygamous marriages. And there is no question that the fear of offending Muslim pieties has impeded freedom of speech in many European countries.

“The management of the Deutsche Oper considered it not worth the risk to stage a performance of Idomeneo that included a scene in which the decapitated heads of Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha appeared,” Caldwell writes. “Presumably it was not Jesus’s head that made them lose their nerve.” In one of the book’s sharpest observations, he points out that the tiptoeing “respect” with which Islam is treated militates against the Islamic Enlightenment so many Europeans long for. “A main weapon in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s attacks on Christianity was ridicule,” he points out. “But while hoping that Muslims will learn the lessons of Voltaire, Europeans have gone to great lengths to insulate Islam from Voltaire’s methods.”

Incisive as this observation is, there’s a bit of bad faith here, because Caldwell is himself no anticlericalist. His conservatism, usually so wry and low-key, becomes a bit strident when he’s discussing the decline of Christianity among native Europeans. He dismisses the idea that “brand-new gender and sexual arrangements” like gay marriage constitute “core European principles.” Yet it’s on just such principles that the Continent’s most robust opponents of conservative Islam, such as the slain Dutch political leader Pim Fortuyn, have staked their case. Caldwell sometimes mistakes his own dislike of certain European convictions for the absence of any conviction at all. Still, while he’s no liberal, his book is a compelling warning about a religious challenge to liberalism. It should be as fascinating to those who adore modern Europe as to those who abhor it.