Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief
This report explores the different ways in which faith and belief interact with societal cohesion. (2020)
Douglas Murray 2017. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.
There’s a trap lurking for the liberal–minded reviewer (as I would count myself) writing on this new book from Douglas Murray. The trap is to shout “racism!” (or “Islamophobia!”) and then to spend several hundred words debunking and attacking all the examples of racism or Islamophobia, implied, perceived or actually present in the book. The Guardian review, for example, did exactly that, and almost imploded under the weight of its own indignation in the process.
This is a mistake for several reasons. For one thing, such a critique buries with it everything else that the book says – and in so doing in fact confirms the very idea that Murray seems to have built much of his career on – that the liberal mainstream can’t handle criticism of Islam and would rather shout “racist!” than debate the issues.
For another there’s genuinely far more to this book than a simple polemic against Muslim immigrants. To be sure there is plenty that will stick in the throat of some readers. For example one passage that strains credulity to breaking point is a rose–tinted depiction of former EDL leader Tommy Robinson as noble man who strived to resist any turn to fascism in his organization and has been quite unfairly persecuted by the police for being working class and daring to speak out on the challenges of integration.
There is also no shortage of material for those seeking to accuse Murray as an Islamophobe (though his views are sufficiently well known from his many media articles and TV appearances that nothing ought to particularly surprise anyone here). A good half of the book blasts Muslim immigrants with charge after charge, ranging from crime figures, to anti–semitism and many others. Many of the individual claims can be disputed, some can be refuted entirely and it is fair to say that Murray doesn’t concern himself remotely with the other side of the story (the persecution and abuse of Muslims and refugees goes unmentioned).
For all that, if you can wade past those aspects without falling into the shout “racism!” trap there are three highly compelling theses to the book. The first is that the continent is seeing a radical divide forming between political elites and ordinary people, particularly on the issue of immigration. This thesis is not new, it has dominated politics across the West for at least the past 18 months, but it is a picture painted vividly by Murray who jumps between polling figures, articles, and cleverly interspersed anecdotes. For the latter there is a particularly excruciating series of reports of conversations with anonymous (mostly German) politicians which are skilfully employed to show just how far that chasm has opened.
The second thesis, also not new, is that integration is highly difficult, and too often dismissed as easy. There really are hard questions to be asked on how to match the development in Western thought over things like gender, feminism and LGBT rights and status with a large population of people who come from a background where such discussions and their underlying assumptions are not necessarily the same. Questions over free speech and blasphemy are not going away and there has been something of an effort from too many on the left (and, if we’re being honest the right too) to bury those questions and hope they resolve themselves over time. Not all of these issues are insurmountable and often the picture painted in the book is of a situation more extreme than many would recognise – but it is an important thesis and the point is made at length.
By far the most interesting thesis though, and the one which left me wishing it had been more central to the book throughout, is that Europe is tired. It has lost its value structure and no longer believes in itself. Murray self–consciously puts this thesis in a long and proud tradition of (particularly German) philosophers of Europe, Nietszche, Zweig, Heidegger, Habermas and also (though he doesn’t mention them) of a more left–wing French school that would include Valery, Gide and Derrida. It is a sense of a post–Christian, post–modern Europe that no longer believes in anything and is seeing a culture that is increasingly pointless – with no sense of where it has come from, where it is going or why. This gives the book by far its most compelling chapter as Murray explores a Europe which is defined by this condition and an empty hedonism driven by nothing more than technological progress. To bolster his point he has a fascinating reflection on the changing nature of European art, architecture and literature which, he believes, have shifted from trying to point to something profound to being more empty signifiers, often representing nothing more than irony.
This is where the book is at its strongest, and also where it is most consciously European in its own approach. It fits a whole literary tradition of European self–obsession. Murray notes, quite correctly in a number of places that Europe is the only continent wrestling with its own self in this way. This is true, but then it always has been. Perhaps because Europe is not a real continent at all (geographically speaking) it is the only continent that obsesses or even considers its own identity. It is for this reason that the real weakness of this book is not racism (if that is what it is), but in the way it wrestles with these concepts.
In fact the book suffers from three separate conceptual issues. The first is an issue of conflation. The second is that Islam cannot possibly bear the weight for carrying Murray’s three theses, but the final and most critical is that it has fundamentally mis–understood a key aspect of European identity and values.
The first issue is that the argument throughout is distorted by conflating things that should not be conflated. For one thing, the book is far too UK–centric. Parts of it are not talking about Europe at all, but only the UK. At best it is really a book about Western Europe, not Europe as a whole. It is 228 pages before Central and Eastern Europe gets any serious mention or analysis. Sporadically Murray concedes that point, noting that the approach of those countries on some of those issues is quite different. A conception of Europe without Hungary or Poland (perhaps even Russia depending on definitions) is not really a conception of Europe at all given the historic, cultural and philosophic bonds.
This also matters for Murray’s points on mass migration, refugees and Islam. Despite a number of throwaway comments along the lines of “much the same happened across Europe” this is simply untrue. The experience of those things in the UK, Germany, Holland and France (which make up the case studies) over the past 50 years is radically unlike that of Central and Eastern Europe. In fact they are radically unlike even West European nations like Portugal, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. To conflate them is at best simplistic, at worst dishonest.
Likewise the constant conflation of mass migration with refugees and Islam is itself highly problematic. Mass migration, even to Germany and the UK has only recently become a refugee issue, long after problems with integration and the tiredness of Europe were well established. Nor, even now, do refugees make up the whole, or even anywhere near the majority, of immigrants. Immigration is always unpopular, but that unpopularity is not limited to non–Europeans, or Muslims. The vast majority of UK immigration over the past 10 years has been either from within Europe (and Poles and Romanians have little reason to think they’re currently particularly popular with a large set of the UK population) or made up of students. That, of course, doesn’t fit Murray’s thesis, because if they are European then they shouldn’t undermine European culture and if they are students they remain a popular type of immigrant. Perhaps for that reason Murray ignores that issue entirely and makes the entire immigration debate across the whole of Europe a Muslim issue.
That itself ties into the second conceptual issue, which is that Islam just can’t bear the weight of Murray’s three theses (though undoubtedly it is a factor in all of them). Muslims do not make up enough of migration numbers Europe wide to explain the disconnect between elites and people on immigration. They are too recent as a set of arrivals to explain the comprehensive loss of trust in politics and unpopularity of immigrants that has been developing over decades. They certainly can’t explain Europe’s tiredness, and loss of its own sense of identity which long predates their mass arrival. Naturally it may be the case that Islam was a catalyst for some of these, but for Murray Muslims seem to be the villain in every piece, and the picture is itself to deny some of the more systematic problems across the continent.
But the most fundamental issue of all is that Murray’s conception of what European values and identity really entail. His diagnosis of the problem of Europe is that it has been caused by mass migration and the idea (which he raises on more than one occasion) that non–Europeans can really become European. So, for example, he notes “we [Europeans] cannot become Indian or Chinese. And yet we are expected to believe that anyone in the world can move to Europe and become European”.
And yet, while Murray doesn’t want to accept that, that in fact is exactly at the heart of European identity. Europe is the only continent that obsesses about its own identity, but more to the point Europe is the only continent which has consistently believed that its identity and ideas are not merely parochial but actually need to be spread to include others. Whether that is in the form Christianity – an evangelical faith that saw the Spanish and Portuguese try to convert the Americas and the French and British Africa, or political and economic ideologies (the nation state, nationalism, democracy, communism, capitalism – all have been actively exported as a matter of policy by European powers), or human rights, no one is as convinced as Europeans that their ideas are universal and need to be universally enacted.
This extends beyond geographical boundaries – such that de Tocqueville felt the USA was the culmination of European culture. Robert Schuman (of the famous Schuman Declaration that began the process of European political integration) explicitly felt Europe had a responsibility to Africa and African development and declined to put a geographical limit on those countries that could join the European Coal and Steel Community. Even the Eurovision song contest thinks that Israel and Australia are part of this European space.
Since “Europe” was invented to describe the space once called Christendom (and in some ways long before) this has been what Europe is; a cultural idea that believes it is going somewhere better and more civilized than it has been before, one that is universally applicable, and one that actively needs to be spread. It has always been the case that others could become European, the only significant difference is that so many non–Europeans are now choosing to become so within Europe’s own geographical borders. That this presents new challenges is unquestionably true, but it does not change the fact that what Murray presents as insurmountable is in fact at the very heart of the European self.
For this reason the weakest chapter in the book is one in which Murray goes on a slightly tangential rant about “the tyranny of guilt” – by which he means the fact that Europe constantly feels the need to apologize for its past and (for him) fails to accept that other places have also done bad things in the past. The whole chapter sits oddly within the narrative and comes across as mere petulance and “whataboutery”. More broadly it is symptomatic of a failure to match up Murray’s own ideas, for in fact, this ties very closely to his own thesis of tiredness and decline.
This culture of guilt exists precisely because the European sense of idealism and telos (the “where are we going”) has failed (or is exhausting itself). Christianity in Europe is declining, in some places sharply. Certainly, with sporadic exceptions (Poland springs to mind) the influence and assumption of Christian culture is collapsing across the continent. But political idealism and teleology have failed too. The three great European political visions of the 20th Century are dead or in crisis. Nationalism was discredited by the evils of Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, communism by the sins of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Liberal democracy persists, but it would take a brave defender to claim it is not struggling. Certainly a sense of liberal democracy as on the way to anywhere, beyond some bureaucratic tinkering, is hard to come by. This is what induces the European sense of guilt and tiredness – European universalism has worn itself down and grown sick of its own promises. Those promises were so powerful (utopias all – whether secular or religious) and their failure so catastrophic that Europe itself has not recovered from the blow to its own sense of moral superiority.
Murray’s weakness here is that he wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to lay claim to that tradition of post–modern criticism of Europe as a place whose values have faded and failed, but he lacks the stomach of a Nietzsche to concede the result of that. Nietzsche saw the failure of his own Europe and was disgusted by its weakness and failing, and so he eviscerated his own culture. Murray sees the failure of his Europe and is disgusted by it, and chooses to eviscerate Muslims while whining about the fact that Europe has to apologize for itself. For someone who prides themselves on speaking to truth to power and being brave, it is a curiously weak response to lay the blame for Europe’s decline at the feet of its mostly newly arrived immigrants.
For all the ways that Murray is wrong, is he still right about the big thing? Is Islam the disease that will finally kill off Europe? Of course, the cowardly intellectual answer is to say that that depends on what we mean by Europe, but that is no less a trap than the inclination to shout “racism” and bury the debate. Instead I’d like to present a counter–factual vision of Europe’s recent history. Let us say that the programme Murray lays out in his concluding chapters really had happened. Europe had shut its doors, or at least adopted a radically different policy towards asylum seekers. There were no rescue boats in the Mediterranean, and deportations of those who were here illegally were routine, and so on. Would the death of Europe look any further away?
Europe’s universalism and its religious and political teleologies would still be moribund. Nationalism would still be tainted by Nazism, and socialism by the USSR. The meandering conceit of the political elites would in all likelihood still be leaving liberal democracy on a precipice. The free movement of people within the EU would still make immigration highly unpopular. Europe would still be largely in the state that Murray paints it – value free, enjoying a sort of pointless and empty existence while we all wait for the next iphone. In this alternative Europe one significant difference would exist in that particular respect – Europeans would have a sort of sleepwalking cultural death in which all those values Murray so admires would be slowly forgotten. If the presence of Islam has done nothing else in Europe it has at least prompted a re–awakening of questions of what Europe is, where it’s going and whether religion still matters. If that had not happened would Murray have written a book on the subject, would he even have noticed the death of Europe?
Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos
Douglas Murray 2017. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.
Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).
Posted 2 June 2017
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.