Culture & Conversation

Debunking Myths

A century ago, my grandparents left their East European homelands to settle in Montreal. Like the many thousands of other Jewish immigrants arriving at that time, they faced not only the severe economic and cultural challenges common to most immigrants but also deep suspicion and abiding mistrust linked to their non-British and non-French origins. Jews, it was muttered darkly, were an alien race with a propensity for the teachings of Bolshevism and thus a threat to the surrounding society. Or else they were grasping capitalists, part of a conspiracy to take over the world. Or maybe both at the same time. At the local level, discrimination in jobs and education was rife, augmented by petty insults and outright ruffianism.

Time marches on, but certain attitudes survive. Nowadays, the main targets of anti-immigrant bigotry have tended often to be Muslims in all their variegated splendour (lumped together as a single group despite gaping differences between nationalities, and with Arab Christians sometimes thrown in for good measure). Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders has come out not a moment too soon with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?

It seems unfortunate that such a book is even necessary, but populist writers and politicians in various countries, usually but not exclusively on the political right, have steadily been adding to a body of “Muslim tide” literature depicting the mere existence of Muslim immigrants as a looming threat. Exponential growth in numbers, it is argued, will enable them to impose alien cultures that are hostile to western values. Hateful acts of terror, committed by fringe elements with which most immigrants have almost nothing in common, form the inevitable backdrop to this malicious screed. Canadians have largely been spared its full brunt, although columnist Mark Steyn, familiar to National Post and Maclean’s readers and syndicated across the English-speaking world, is one of its more notable perpetrators.

Saunders begins by describing the changes he has seen in his former London neighbourhood as the mix of shops and restaurants along the local high street has shifted to reflect the arrival of different immigrant groups. Some see this as the onslaught of the mythical “Eurabia” and the no less mythical Islamization of Europe. Armed with an array of population projections and survey data, Saunders debunks a series of popular misconceptions, one by one. There is a point in the middle of the book where the sheer volume of statistics becomes tedious, and several of the numbers seem to add little to his arguments.

But let’s look at some of the key statistics. One widespread notion is that the Muslim population in the West is growing fast and will soon become a majority in Europe. To refute this, Saunders cites a detailed study from the Washington-based Pew Research Center showing that, in the 17 Western European countries with the largest populations and highest Muslim immigration rates, the Muslim population in 2010 was 18.2 million, or 4.5% of the total. “The study finds that if current immigration levels and birth rate trends are extrapolated, Europe’s Muslim population will expand to 29.8 million, or 7.1% of the population, by 2030.” This is not exactly a majority. Even in France, with Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, the number will reach only 10.3% in 2030, again not quite a majority.

And what about succeeding generations? Don’t Muslims have sky-high fertility rates? In a word, no. Most Muslim-majority countries have seen dramatic declines in birth rates in recent decades. In Iran, for example, the average family size is 1.7 children, lower than in France or Britain. A parallel trend has been observed among Muslims living in the West.

Saunders cites sociological surveys showing that discrepancies between Muslims in the West and their non-Muslim neighbours regarding attitudes toward religion and religious extremism are far narrower than much of the “Muslim tide” literature suggests. He also notes that, in earlier times, waves of Catholic and Jewish immigration provoked similar doubts about the capacity of host societies to absorb and integrate large numbers of people from different origins.

He mentions only briefly the differences between European and North American immigration policies. In earlier decades, Western Europe faced serious labour shortages and admitted large numbers of unskilled workers, often from rural areas – Moroccans and Algerians in France, Pakistanis in Britain, Turks in Germany, and so on. In both Canada and the United States, by way of contrast, immigration policy has shown a preference for better educated people from urban areas. This would suggest, though Saunders barely touches on it, that North America should see easier integration and less friction, assuming that sensible attitudes prevail – not always a safe bet.

In the last several years, I have had the distinct displeasure of talking with several young people, some of them Jews, who say Canada would be a better place without Arabs or Muslims generally. This raises a question: are these people utterly lacking in historical perspective? Sadly, to ask the question is to answer it.

Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator who has little tolerance for intolerance.

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