Open the Gates of Vienna!

Reports of Europe’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

In a world mercifully distant from Cambridge, an obsession with demography has taken hold: Religious conservatives are hysterically decrying the “creeping Islamization of Europe.” In right-wing magazines like the National Review, theological conservatives (theocons) foretell the end of European civilization due to the continentals’ obstinate refusal to breed. “Demography is destiny,” they chant, and dwindling Christian Europe is about to be engulfed by Mohammedans.

At Harvard, our resident would-be Cassandra, Mark A. Adomanis ’07, tirelessly propounds this argument in articles such as “Sunset in the West,” “Twilight of the West,” and “The Coming Fall” (see a pattern?). The “demography is destiny” thesis combines two related arguments: Firstly, Europeans (meaning, inevitably, Christians) are committing collective suicide by not reproducing fast enough; secondly, Muslims are replacing these sterile sons of Europe. This argument isn’t solely the domain of the religious right—Oriana Fallaci, a vitriolic Italian atheist, made similar arguments—but theocons are undoubtedly the most vocal doomsday prophets.

Still traumatized by the fall of Constantinople, these theocons deserve our sympathy, but not our ears, for their prophecies are factually flawed and intellectually incoherent. Europe is not going to “leave from history” anytime soon, pace Pope Benedict XVI’s warning, nor is it about to become part of dar al-Islam. At best, these apocalyptic visions reflect Burkean conservatism—unwarranted fear of change qua change—and, more often, they are motivated by simple xenophobia.

The theocons’ basic premise is wrong: Demography isn’t destiny. In fact, the phrase is nothing but a meaningless platitude, an intellectual dilettante’s bon mot. The weight of population didn’t enable Russia to dominate Europe—instead the Tsar’s kingdom was long dominated by puny Sweden—and didn’t prevent Britain from defeating China or conquering India.

And even if demography were destiny, Sharia-law Europe, simply put, is not going to happen. Although many Muslims are migrating to Europe, they amount to just four percent of the population, and there’s no reason to believe that most European Muslims would support anything resembling Sharia law. In the most dramatic projections, the number of Muslims in Europe will only rise to roughly 20 percent by 2050, which hardly amounts to a takeover.

More fundamentally, this black-and-white religious categorization flattens the complexity of individuals’ identities and juxtaposes imaginary Christian unity with a similarly invented monolithic Islamic world. In reality, Europe’s Muslims, like its Christians, are incredibly diverse. Besides their faith, Senegalese, Moroccans, and Iranians have little in common, and even their shared religious beliefs manifest themselves in wildly different practices, from Sufism to Wahhabism.

But arguing over the nature and scale of Islamic immigration actually gives the doomsayers too much credit, because they never establish why a demographic shift, were it to occur, would be a problem. Adomanis tells us that “the Europe we know today will soon be gone,” but why should we care? The Europe our great-grandparents knew—the era of Prussian junkers and Manchester’s dark satanic mills—is likewise gone. The real question is: Are the projected demographic changes bad? Here our prophets fall silent, largely assuming that any change is for the worse, or that the harms of a darker-skinned and more Islamic Europe are self-evident.

Implicitly or explicitly, the demographic “problem” depends on a link between contemporary Europe’s virtues and its Christian demography. The very idea of pan-European values is questionable, but assuming that they exist—perhaps as embodied by a commitment to political, social and economic freedom achieved through liberal democracy and capitalism—it’s unclear how such “European values” will be endangered by an Islamic minority. In a mostly non-religious Europe, the only link between the continent’s values and Christianity is its history, and this Judeo-Christian heritage won’t disappear just because of Muslim immigration. In fact, the progressive Westernization of the world—an admittedly gradual process with fits and starts, and different local variations—suggests the opposite: For better or for worse, Islamic immigrants will adopt European values, if they haven’t done so already.

Of course, theocons allege that it will be impossible to assimilate Europe’s fast-growing Muslim population. But there’s no reason to believe that Islam is inherently incompatible with Western society. Large, modern, and moderate Muslim populations live peacefully in the United States, and, indeed, in most of Europe. Integration is a socioeconomic issue, not a religious one.People don’t choose to live on the marginalized fringes of society; rather. they are pushed there by economic isolation and social alienation. Europe’s problem is its sclerotic social welfare state—especially its high levels of unemployment—not immigrants’ religious beliefs.

Last year’s French riots, continually cited by theocons as a warning sign of the coming religious wars, actually highlight how class is the main cause of European social strife. The rioters were not exclusively Muslim; they were, however, (almost) exclusively poor and mostly unemployed. The riots weren’t sparked by a religious issue, but by resentment of discrimination and endemic unemploymente—the rioters wore blue jeans, not Wahhabi robes.

Nonetheless, the riots proved to be a perfect peg for demographic jeremiads because they seemed to support theocons’ pessimism and fear. Although they love to decry the softness of modern Europe—accusing it of lacking “civilizational confidence”—theocons deny the vitality of Western culture by assuming that Muslims are impervious to the European values (temptations?). Such self-doubt is unjustified: European values (decadent capitalism and post-Enlightenment liberalism) are likely to persist, no matter how demographic changes alter Europeans’ creed or color.

Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.