Scott McConnell on Christopher Caldwell’s ‘Reflections’

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Somewhat against my expectations, I found  Christopher Caldwell’s “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe extremely impressive —  complex, multifaceted, nuanced. One of its virtues is its sense of openness and uncertainty about questions which are genuinely difficult. How many Baby Boomers, raised in an era when campus bookstores were stuffed with titles about Marxism, would have anticipated that discernment of the trends and qualities within Islam would have become one of the more necessary sociological skills of our time?  And yet it is so—in an era when multicultural questions are difficult, those regarding Islam tend to be the hardest of all.  There have been glimpses of this on mondoweiss: Phil Weiss’s candid post about his unease at the advance of the headscarf in Gaza and the correlated limitations on women’s liberty—and the thoughtful responses his post generated.  

The revolution to which Caldwell is referring is not indigenous to Europe, but likely as significant as 1789 in France (the subject of Edmund Burke’s “Reflections” from which Caldwell ambitiously derives his title). But it is taking place on European territory. It is driven by the rise of Islam within Europe through immigration, a subject until recently as sedulously avoided by European elites as the discussion of the Israel Lobby has been within the United States.   But after fatwas against famous novelists (and their editors and translators), murders and riots over cartoons, riots of a more mundane nature, shocking assassinations of a provocateur film-maker and the murder of a leading anti-immigration politician, it is avoided no longer. 

Had I to weigh the extent to which the Islamic  world is more victim or victimizer of America and the West, the scales would tilt decisively towards America as the more guilty party. The Iraq war, whose rationale was constructed on a web of lies and propaganda generated by a small group of neoconservatives, has killed hundreds of thousands and made refugees of millions of Iraqis, without (not that it should matter) any real benefit to the United States.  Add to the crime of Iraq Washington’s  multibillion dollar annual subsidy of Israel’s conquest and settlement of the Arab sections of Jerusalem and the West Bank—a policy patently illegal under international law that has proceeded without interruption for two generations–  and it easy to see how any Muslim–  Palestinian, Iraqi or otherwise, could feel justified in opposing America and the West. 

But long before I read Caldwell’s book, I would have placed Muslim immigration into Europe on the other side of the ledger.  Granted that much of this immigration has been  legal –even if it takes advantages of loopholes (for marriage and “family unification”) never intended by those who drafted Europe’s laws. Much of Islamist political activity within Europe is legal too—not of course the bombings of train stations, or the “honor killings” of Muslim women who seek access to same menu or sexual and romantic choices that Western women have. But yes, completely lawful has been exploitation of Europe’s welfare system and the protections of  its “hate-speech” laws, which—with an assist from Europe’s own multiculti inhibitions– have long rendered Europe political establishment mute on an issue with the potential to transform completely its civilization.  

There is no great need to rehearse the demographic data underlying this transformation, which are, easily accessible.  Europe’s Muslim population is now relatively small over all, considerably larger in major cities, larger still in the elementary school systems.  If trends continue at anything near their current rate, Christianity won’t be Europes’ first religion by the end of this century. 

But what is one to make of this transformation?  Here  Caldwell’s digressions are the most thought provoking. For instance, he contrasts the attitudes of the late Pope John Paul II and the current Pope Benedict on Islam.  John Paul II was (besides being a Polish patriot and key figure in the peaceful unraveling of the Communism)  an opponent of unbridled global capitalism and secularism in general. In many realms he saw Islam as an ally.  Devout Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, he believed, have more in common with one another than with atheists.  He apologized for the Crusades, promoted dialogue with other faiths.  

Benedict apparently doesn’t agree. That is the backstory to the speech he made in Regensburg in 2006—one he had to spend a lot of time “explaining” or apologizing for afterwards.  He believes that secular Westerners have a lot in common with their religious peers, that it is no accident that democratic socialism and human rights have flourished primarily in the Christian West. They are the offshoots of Christian culture.  Secular intellectuals therefore should sympathize with the Church, even if they are not believers or church-goers. While trying to convince the secular to join the flock he is “trying to convince them that they are, in a way, in it already.” Unlike his predecessor he has made more effort to dialogue with atheist intellectuals like Jurgen Habermas than with Muslim clerics. 

Who is right? As a staffer for Pat Buchanan’s regrettably ignored 2000 presidential campaign I was privileged to witness a variant of the John Paul II strategy: PJB was the luncheon speaker at a large conference of American Muslims, and his memorable lines were jokey ones which went something like “American Muslims are sometimes described as Patriarchal—Authoritarian, believers in large families. It sounds to me very much like my own father.”  This  went over very well.  

The European civilization threatened by Islamic immigration is not traditional (i.e. somewhat Buchananite) Europe, but post modern liberal Europe—a regime which has existed for a generation or two and may well have been slated to die out from demographic causes alone, with no assist needed from Pakistani or Turkish immigrants. Caldwell’s discussion of Muslim values is more dispassionate, not hostile or polemical. Some newly alarmed European liberals have charged that Islamism opposes core European principles “that developed from Galileo to gay marriages.”  Wait a second, says Caldwell, observing that while gay marriage may become a  core European principle sometime, right now it is an innovation, “sheltered from parliamentary accountability by human rights laws.”  Further: “What secular Europeans call “Islam” is a set of values that Dante and Erasmus would recognize as theirs; the collection of three-year-old rights they call “core European principles” is a set of values that would leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered.”  

So Europe may now have a moderately big problem with Islam, with a larger one in store.  The question Caldwell raises indirectly without answering is whether a people which have more or less chosen to have, on average, scarcely more than one child per family, have effectively forfeited their right to care about their collective future.  

Caldwell is an editor at the Weekly Standard, and nothing in his book challenges that magazine’s lack of wisdom about the Iraq war or the Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians.  Occasionally he seems to treat those topics as kind of made up excuses, more fodder for a radical Muslim grievance industry than real issues.  He is obviously quite wrong about this, but this  shouldn’t overshadow his book’s strengths. I came away persuaded that the rise of Islam within Europe will eventually become as large an issue of contention in the American relationship with the Muslim world as Iraq and Palestine are now. 

What is also clear is that I would mourn the loss of Europe’s social liberalism, in spite its excesses. (Which is more troublesome, Amsterdam’s window displays of naked prostitutes, or the burka?)  Much of what any sane conservative should want to conserve is the Enlightenment’s legacy of free inquiry and speech. Yet this is the accomplishment whose survival is put into question by this ongoing revolution in Europe.

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