The last anti-immigration polemic I reviewed for Current Affairs was Ann Coulter’s vicious and deranged Adios America! Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, a U.K. bestseller, has is a similar thesis, but makes for an interesting contrast, tonally speaking. Ann Coulter is your cunning, slightly intoxicated aunt at the family cookout, who purposely tries to rile you up into a screaming match. Douglas Murray, by contrast, is the plummy Oxbridge academic who assures you that he very much cares about the plight of marginalized people, but don’t you think this has all gone too far? How much migration can we possibly take? What about liberal values? What about national identity? What about the future of Western civilization?
Himself an atheist (albeit one with a vaguely-delineated cultural fondness for “Christianity”), Murray believes that mass immigration to Europe, and in particular the large numbers of Muslim immigrants admitted to the EU after 2015, will destroy European civilization. For Murray, immigration seems to be generally bad, for reasons that are not clearly specified (he cites initial waves of immigration to Britain from the Caribbean and south Asia as the beginning of the problem), but as the subtitle suggests, most of his book focuses specifically on immigration from Muslim countries. Liberals’ priorities, he argues, are all topsy-turvy: Because they are myopically focused on suppressing right-wing fringe organizations, they’ve missed the reality that the real fascists in our midst are Muslim immigrants. Muslims are people who oppress women, hate Jews and gay people, believe in censorship by violence, and want to acquire territory through invasion and conquest. Europe is unhealthily ashamed of its own heritage, and this, together with its loss of religious faith, makes the European peoples anemic in the face of takeover by religious zealots with a proud consciousness of their own cultural roots. This tragic defeat, according to Murray, is inevitable, because Europe is afflicted with a profound ennui. Europeans, you see, are sometimes sad and unsure of where their lives are going. This uncertainty, apparently, is not merely what some of us would describe as “the fucking human condition,” but is in fact a sixth sense that only Europeans possess, due to The Crushing Weight of History. It is “an exhaustion caused by a loss of meaning, an awareness that civilisation was no longer accumulating but living off a dwindling cultural capital.” “If enough people in a society are suffering from a form of exhaustion,” Murray tells us, with the air of someone who has just cornered you next to the wine bar at a graduate student party, as you nod politely and glance around frantically for an exit, “might it not be that the society they are living in has become exhausted?” Murray believes that no proper public conversation can be had about any of this, because anybody who even tries to bring it up is immediately branded a racist.
Now, before I go about addressing his arguments, I do just want to just take a few minutes to dispel the notion that Murray’s more measured tone and occasional performative hand-wringing means that he is less bigoted than the likes of, say, Ann Coulter. He approvingly cites everyone from Viktor Orban (the opportunistic formerly-leftist-turned-fascist president of Hungary) who regularly refers to refugees as “Muslim invaders,” to the far-right English Defence League, substantively endorsing their views while issuing vague disclaimers about their “tone” or “approach.” He lavishes lengthy praise on the late journalist Oriana Fallaci, whom he calls “Europe’s Cassandra,” due to her supposedly prophetic fury about the presence of immigrants in Italy. Stressing that she was “the daughter of anti-fascists,” he implies that her opposition to immigration was firmly-rooted in her intrinsic love of liberty. He then goes on to tell us that Fallaci was so infuriated by the sight of Somali immigrants living in tents around the cathedral in Florence that “she had contacted every public official in Florence and then in Italy demanding to know why they could not clear away this site in the centre of the city, only to be greeted on each occasion with professions of incapability. She relates that eventually she phoned a local policeman and told him that if he didn’t clear the tents away she would burn them down herself and he would then have to arrest her and incarcerate her in her own city.” Murray then coyly acknowledges that Fallaci’s “fiery style”—which included lengthy, obsessive complaints about the way Muslim men urinated, and the fact that Muslims “bred like rats”–occasionally veered into “something else,” without saying explicitly what this “something else” was. Evidently, the “something else” did nothing to tarnish Murray’s regard for Fallaci’s opinions: He writes that although “a noisy wing of the Italian left” objected to her playful characterization of immigrants as piss-soaked vermin in need of extermination, “millions of others listened to her and revered her.” In fact, Fallaci’s writings were so nakedly racist that even Christopher Hitchens—who was not exactly known for his nuance or compassion when it came to writing about Muslims—described Fallaci’s screed as “a sort of primer in how not to write about Islam,” noting that “her horror is for the shabby, swarthy stranger who uses the street as a bathroom (she can’t stay off this subject) and eyes passing girls in a lascivious manner. I’ve read it all before, in histories of migration.”
Indeed, most of what Murray has to say about Muslim immigration is conventional anti-immigrant pabulum. Across time and space, there really is only one enduring anti-immigration narrative: Immigrants are coming to take your jobs, soil your streets, assault your women and children, and out-breed your natives. The thesis of Murray’s book is that Muslim immigrants are uniquely unsuited to assimilate into “Western” society, and pose an ideological threat to European identity. And yet—with the possible exception of his sections on terrorism—most of what he has to say about Muslim immigrants is interchangeable with the accusations that anti-immigration commentators in the U.S. are currently leveling against, say, Mexican and Central American immigrants: They’re rapists, they bring crime, they make the neighborhoods where they settle dangerous and unlivable. Latino immigrants to the U.S., of course, largely hail from majority-Christian countries with legacies of European colonization, whose revolutionary traditions share the exact same philosophical underpinnings as our own. Isn’t it interesting that non-Muslim immigrants in the Americas are apparently prone to exact same evils that Murray, in the European context, believes are fundamentally attributable to religious differences? It’s almost enough to make you think that “something else” is underlying most of Murray’s criticisms of Muslims. (All this clash-of-civilizations stuff, of course, is also deeply unoriginal: It’s just warmed-over Samuel Huntington. Murray also, incidentally, shares Huntington’s belief that poor people shouldn’t be educated beyond their station. We wouldn’t need immigrants to do low-paying work if young people would just learn to hold their nose! “Where it is true [that native-born people won’t do certain jobs], it is a consequence of welfare provisions that in some situations have made it better to avoid work than to take low-paid work,” Murray writes. “But it is also the result of young people being educated to a level at which they look down at apparently mundane or unglamorous labour.” It’s not labor conditions, you see, but too much welfare and education, that makes young people reluctant to take shit jobs!)
So much for Murray’s tone: What about his analysis of the social problems caused by immigration? Arguing about public policy with someone whose anti-immigration is always uniquely frustrating, because your opponent has a trump card they wouldn’t otherwise be able to use in any normal debate; which is to say, “What if a whole gigantic population of people I don’t like simply vanished, taking their problems with them?” Take, for example, the issue of mass school shootings in the U.S. This is a complicated problem, and I might posit a variety of contributing factors that need to be examined: easy availability of firearms, lack of access to mental health support, toxic masculinity, the stultifying atmosphere of U.S. schools, and the attendant sense of powerlessness this creates in young people, etc. Now, imagine my opponent simply says to me, “This has gone too far. The problem is teenage boys. No more teenage boys. Get rid of them.” I might reply that there are a lot of teenage boys in the U.S., and most of them are not shooting anybody! And maybe the ones who are disposed to shoot people could be prevented from doing so if we reached them early enough! “No,” my opponent says, “that’s an unacceptable risk. There will be no more teenage shooters if we get rid of the teenagers. They have no right to be here. Their parents were foolish to have had them in the first place.” And of course, this is strictly correct; so what can I say?
This is approximately how it feels to argue about immigration. I can agree with Murray that somebody murdering a journalist over a Muhammad cartoon is bad, or that someone plowing a truck into a crowd in the name of Allah is bad, or that the mass groping of women at a rock concert is bad. I can point out that these awful events have complex causes, and that attempting to prevent future incidents of the same kind will require a lot of thoughtful community work. Murray will simply say that all of the people who committed the above-cited crimes are immigrants or descendants of immigrants; therefore, the problem is immigration, and the solution is to restrict immigration. If there are no immigrants, there will be no murders or sexual assaults by immigrants. Problem solved.
If this line of thinking sounds reasonable to you, I am not sure I will get far persuading you otherwise. Extremist attacks, like school shootings, are an infrequent but terrifying phenomenon with a variety of social causes, and treating millions of Muslims (or immigrants generally) as somehow guilty of terrorism by proxy is not a proposition that any morally serious person could entertain. Extremism aside, I don’t much like to get into fights about whether immigrants commit more or fewer crimes than native-born people: I’ve written previously about how difficult it is to collect reliable data on this topic, and how much I dislike the underlying assumption that it is ever wise to treat demography as a proxy for criminality. Murray does bring up some clearly bogus figures: for example, that Sweden’s rape rate (thanks, he implies, to predatory migrants) is higher than Somalia’s. As countless weary commentators have repeatedly explained, Sweden’s reported rape rate is high because Sweden counts more forms of sexual assault as “rapes” than most countries, and because every separate instance of assault by a single perpetrator is counted as an individual case; to say nothing of the fact that there are comparatively fewer cultural barriers to reporting sexual assault in Sweden, relative to other countries internationally. The fact that Murray cited this figure without caveat is clear evidence of his bad faith.
That said, I myself make no assumptions about whether there are any crimes that immigrants or certain subsets of the immigrant population commit at higher rates than the native population. If it turned out to be true, or not true, I would be equally unsurprised. On the one hand, you might posit that immigrants are likely to commit fewer crimes because they don’t want to risk deportation. On the other hand, you might posit that many immigrants come from conflict zones or areas of extreme deprivation, and are now living apart from their family units and familiar community structures, and that this makes it more likely that they would commit crimes. (Data out of Germany show that the crime rate is quite low by international standards, but that non-Germans are questioned as suspects at a rate higher than their representation in the population… which is an inherently difficult figure to unpack. It could mean that immigrants are more likely to be suspected of crimes, or it could mean that immigrants are committing more crimes, or both.) Murray, like most anti-immigration commentators, can sow a lot of uncertainty about the scale of immigrant-perpetrated sexual assault by recounting anecdotes about women who were reluctant to reveal that their attackers were migrants, or government officials who were initially reluctant to believe stories of sex trafficking rings run by immigrants, thus implying that there may be mountains of unreported assaults looming in the background. I do think that because sexual assault is routinely underreported (and, even when reported, often not taken seriously) it is extremely hard to develop a clear picture of what’s actually going on in any country. I don’t think our intuitions are very reliable guides here, and for me, differential crimes rates across immigrant populations, even if they existed, would not be a reason for an otherwise stable and prosperous country to refuse to admit immigrants, any more than I think the fact that men commit exponentially more rapes and murders than women is a reason to precautionarily exile all men to a Martian penal colony.
Murray also argues that Muslim immigrants are more likely to be bigoted towards certain other marginalized groups, and thus fail to “share Western values.” The prospect of Muslim immigration jeopardizing civil rights for LGBT people, for example, has become a convenient talking-point for the right, which suddenly became much more willing to pretend condescending tolerance toward gay people once they realized it gave them a better stick to beat Muslims with. Although the right has no doubt taken up this cause disingenuously, I still don’t think this is an issue the left can afford to be hand-wavey about: One of the hardest parts of building fair and functional diverse societies is that minority groups are not homogeneous, and, inconveniently, do not always want the same things at the same time. We should obviously take seriously any possibility that immigration-driven changes in voting demographics could strip gay people of recently-acquired legal protections. At the same time, it’s unhelpful to panic too early. Murray points to a frequently-cited study from 2016 showing that 52 percent of British Muslims believe that homosexuality should be illegal, as evidence that Muslims are virulently and uniquely homophobic. This number, out of context, does indeed sound rather shocking. But the reality is that it took a couple decades of prolonged exposure and positive media portrayals of gay people before the so-called “West” started to come around on gay rights. In 1989, for example, 80 percent of British Anglicans believed that homosexuality was wrong or almost always wrong; by 2013, that number was down to about 30 percent. (Securing legal protections for LGBT people certainly would have been a quicker process if there had been some mechanism for kicking all the Anglicans out of Britain in 1989—well, and all the Catholics and non-Christian Britons, too, who also opposed homosexuality in significant majorities at that time).
But just because 52 percent is perhaps roughly the number we would expect from immigrants hailing from countries with negative attitudes towards homosexuality, who are now settling and raising children in a country where gay people have far more social visibility, doesn’t mean that it’s a great number. We can perhaps take heart from the fact that, in the U.S., polling on Muslim attitudes toward gay people shows large gains in acceptance over the past few decades, such that Muslims now poll as about as tolerant of gay people as Protestants, and significantly more tolerant than evangelical Christians. That doesn’t mean that this is a social issue we can ignore: In the same way that time and money has been spent trying to bring native-born populations round on LGBT issues, we must continue to develop strategies to communicate with newer immigrant populations. The same can be said for anti-Semitism: Immigrants hailing from countries where open anti-Semitism is common may likewise import negative attitudes towards Jews. Figuring out how to safeguard the well-being of minority groups against forms of discrimination that may be more prevalent in countries from which significant numbers of immigrants hail is not easy. The pro-immigration left’s response should always be to demonstrate through action that they are willing to put in the work necessary to confront these problems and arrive at solutions; the right, for all their opportunistic pandering, is certainly not going to take the project of protecting religious and sexual minorities seriously in the long term, and they mustn’t get away with pretending to do so.
Lest you run away with the idea that Murray’s entire book is just a prolonged inveighing against immigrants, Murray is anxious to stress that he does feel sympathy for migrants. He spends a chapter profiling refugees at camps in Mytilene, Greece, interviewing them about the horrific dangers and crushing poverty they’re fleeing. “Hearing such things, at such times, from people in such places, the instinct that Chancellor Merkel and her ministers displayed in 2015 [to admit refugees] can seem eminently justified,” he writes. “She and her colleagues landed on a portion of the answer by recognising that our continent is probably doing the only thing that a civilised people can do in rescuing such people, welcoming them and trying to give them safety.” Having made this admission, however, the rest of the book then seems to be a conscious effort to keep the refugee issue at arm’s length. Of course we must take refugees under international law, Murray says – but surely there must be some limit? In its abundance of compassion, hasn’t Europe already done too much? He expresses anger at the hypocrisy of Muslim-majority Gulf states for failing to take in refugees, and suggests that Europeans feel an obligation to help refugees due to a kind of perverse self-hatred. Europe, he thinks, is actually addicted to guilt, in a manner that’s wildly out of proportion to its actual responsibility for the world’s problems; and isn’t it, in its way, a little unfair to the refugees themselves to incentivize them to make the dangerous journey to Europe by offering them refuge? By the end of the book, Murray suggests that Australia’s preferred solution of throwing refugees into offshore island prisons while it decides what to do with them is the one that Europe ought to pursue, and that the West’s approach generally should focus on pouring money into building camps for people, somewhere far away, until they can be resettled, preferably in some other country.
There’s a lot going on here. First, Murray’s discussion of the West’s irrational “guilt” is extremely facile. After all, he writes, weren’t the Ottomans and the Mongols also imperial civilizations? Didn’t African tribes participate in slave trade? Why is it only white people who believe that they are tainted by the sins of their ancestors? For one thing, this framing of the issue ignores the extent to which, for example, the U.K.’s support of the Iraq invasion contributed to regional instability and mass migration. This event was not some distant historical sin perpetrated by long-dead ancestors, but very recent military intervention. Even more importantly (for me at least), it’s a state’s present ability to help in a crisis, not any assignment of historic blame, that generates moral obligations. Studying history is valuable because it helps us understand how present-day inequalities came about, the often-subtle mechanisms by which injustices are perpetuated, and the intergenerational effects of past traumas. But even if Europe’s superior wealth and stability wasn’t attributable to colonialism, even if Europe had simply been blessed with an overabundance of resources that the rest of the world lacked, they would still be obligated to take in refugees, simply because they have the ability to do so. Murray’s ranting about the pathologies of national guilt is simply a distraction from the real moral underpinnings of the issue. (Additionally, when he takes a brief detour into the U.S. racial context, the shallowness of his analysis quickly becomes apparent: His argument is literally “the U.S. elected a black president, so why are people still complaining about racial injustice?”)
Secondly, and perhaps even more damningly, Murray clearly has no understanding of where displaced people are actually living. He complains at length that the Ottoman Empire had a history of conquest and exploitation, just like the Europeans, so why isn’t Turkey wracked by guilt? “If mass migration is an atonement for historical wrongs such as imperialism,” he writes, “why do we not treat Turkey in such a way? … Where should we encourage the waves of immigration to come from?” Reading this actually made me laugh out loud, because of course, Turkey has taken far more refugees than any European country. And Turkey’s not the only one. In 2017, the UN reported: “Of all countries, Turkey sheltered the greatest number of refugees, hosting 2.8 million by mid-2016. It was followed by Pakistan (1.6 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran (978,000), Ethiopia (742,700), Jordan (691,800), Kenya (523,500), Uganda (512,600), Germany (478,600) and Chad (386,100).” The reality is that, at the present moment, the overwhelming majority of refugees are being hosted in poor and middle-income countries in the Middle East and Africa, with a much smaller trickle reaching wealthy Western countries (and with Germany being the only Western country taking refugees in any truly significant numbers). Murray’s idea, I suppose, is to simply concentrate more refugees in countries that are already shouldering a disproportionate share of this global responsibility, maybe while finger-wagging for good measure at intransigent Gulf states like Saudia Arabia and the UAE (which, given their well-documented record of abuses against guest workers, are certainly not safe destinations for refugees). Murray’s proposal is so obviously a non-solution that no one would bother proposing it if they actually cared about helping refugees.
So what’s next for Europe, given this ticking time-bomb? As you might expect from someone who devotes literally chapters to tedious disquisitions on European existential angst, Murray’s outlook is fairly fatalistic: He is skeptical that mass migration can be stopped, or that immigrant populations already in place can be removed. But for all the time he spent convincing the reader that Muslim immigrants are fascists, hell-bent on slaughtering apostates and outlawing gay sex, Murray finally gives us this description of what he imagines Europe’s future will be like:
By the middle of this century… Western Europe will at best resemble a large scale version of the United Nations. Many people will welcome this, and it will have its pleasures of course. Certainly not everything about it will be a catastrophe. Many people will enjoy living in such a Europe. They will continue to enjoy cheap services, at least for a time, as incomers compete with those already here to do more and more work for less and less money. There will be an endless influx of new neighbors and staff, and there will be many interesting conversations to be had. … A pattern that is already underway will mean that there will be some rural areas where immigrant communities choose not to live and towards which non-immigrants retreat.
Having been primed to expect some doomsday dystopia of women forced into burqas and cartoonists driven into the sea, I was a little surprised that this vision, apparently, is the Death Of Europe Murray has spent so many pages trying to warn us against. Sure, I don’t like the sound of cheap labor, because I hope that there will be better labor protections by the middle of this century. But cities filled with new neighbors and interesting conversations… is that supposed to be bad? Am I supposed to be devastated that those who don’t like living around non-white people will relocate to the countryside? I suppose there’s always something sad about familiar places altering their appearance, regardless of the reasons why; and with changing tastes, waves of relocation, and the passing of generations, such changes are always bound to occur. But I’ll take the organic changes that spring from the formation of new friendships, families, and communities any day over the soulless changes that are currently being wrought by real estate developers. If Murray is truly worried about the future of English pubs and Gothic cathedrals, as he frequently professes to be, he ought to be praying they don’t all get turned into luxury boutiques or private gyms, or bulldozed to make room for a block of ghastly luxury flats. Capitalism is a much more efficient destroyer of familiar scenes than immigration, so if Murray is primarily worried about Europe’s architectural heritage, he’s picked the wrong enemy. After all, it’s wealthy developers, not poor immigrants, who raze buildings and raise rents; profit-seeking has done far more to alter buildings and force involuntary displacement (as opposed to self-induced “white flight”) of long-term residents of cities throughout Europe and the U.S. than immigration has. Beyond a simple dislike of the sight of brown faces, I can’t figure out what precious “Europeanness” Murray anticipates will be lost in this world of immigrant-heavy cities. Surely people will enjoy their food, go for walks, read interesting books, pursue their favorite hobbies? Surely they’ll share these pleasures with their families and friends, as they’ve always done?
Perhaps, for Murray, a life of interesting conversations simply isn’t enough. In several sections of his book, he talks a great deal about the emptiness of European life, and its failed attempt to fill the void left behind by its loss of religious faith with the unsatisfying pleasures of consumerism. He writes about Europeans he has known who have converted to Islam, and at times seems to positively envy devout Muslims for their sense of spiritual purpose. He expresses nostalgia for Christianity and regrets that there is no system of thought that can take the Church’s place at the core of European identity, and rescue Europeans from the “unbearable” feeling that they are “mere cogs in an economic wheel.” For all that I mocked Murray earlier for the near-parodic extent of his European disaffection, reading these parts of his book made me think he might be a very sad person, who doesn’t feel fulfilled by his life’s work, and is maybe looking for some explanation for his despair. I can’t know this for certain, of course; he might laugh to hear a stranger trying to diagnose his emotional state from afar. All I can say is that the central insight of Christianity–the religion Murray claims to believe is the wellspring of European culture–is that contact with the divine occurs only though direct communion with those who suffer. And so, to the extent that Europe gives succor to the suffering people of the world, and to the extent that individual Europeans participate in this work with their own hands, they are certainly living out the only part of Christianity that offers any spiritual benefit for humans: all the rest is window-dressing. Cathedrals are very beautiful, but they have little to do with Christianity; Christianity has more to do with the poor migrant squatting in a shantytown on the cathedral steps. If, instead, the avatar of Europe’s chosen identity is the wealthy journalist screaming on the phone to the police, threatening to burn down a poor man’s unsightly tent, then maybe the death of Europe would be no great loss to the world.
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