“The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam” – Douglas Murray (Bloomsbury: London, £18.99).
One of the publishing successes of 2017 has been Douglas Murray’s examination of the changes we see occurring all around us. There are two reasons for this – Murray is a considered, thoughtful writer with a much greater degree of empathy than he is given credit for. The second is the terrible events at the Manchester Arena on the 22 May. Murray’s explanation of how we reached the stage where our children are being blown up at pop concerts, was surprisingly commissioned by and shown on the BBC. That eloquence, and dismay at the mistakes the political class has made, characterises this book.
It has several overlapping themes. Central is Europe’s contemporary lack of confidence in itself, its history, its beliefs and practice. This has conjoined with an era of large scale immigration, often of people with little or no intention of becoming anything like the citizens of the nations they have moved to. Murray roots his work in a sound statistical basis, and the position that historically governments have tended to both lie to their populations about immigration, usually by underestimating demographic change, and then subsequently to do little to address concerns. Instead curious games are played out. Examples vary from the serious – that so few illegal migrants are ever deported - to the surreal. Consider the Office for National Statistics listing Mohammed and Muhammad separately in their annual lists of children’s names until “this was immaterial because the name in all its variants had indeed become the most popular boy’s name in England and Wales. At which point the official line changed to ‘And so what?” (p.313)
Murray explains how academic sleight of hand has been necessary to provide an evidence base that immigration is inherently an economic good, despite the awkward reality that an insurance based welfare system open to all, is unlikely to prosper if significant numbers of people can take out who are yet to pay in. The chameleon like nature of political leaders emerges repeatedly – in one decade it is racist to expect migrants to speak the language of their host country, in another it becomes essential. Sometimes assimilation is promoted, at other times the retention of migrant cultures, with concessions to practices, like sharia law, which appear incompatible with existing structures and rights. Confused? Everybody is.
That immigration may undermine, not strengthen liberal values was something Britain had warning of first, via the Rushdie affair in 1989, an event Murray considers “a crash course in the rules of Islam” (p.131). If so, the response of successive British governments has become distinctly un-British – to play down freedom of speech and the rights of the individual, and to increasingly assert the group rights of multi-culturalism. Those worst affected by this are often minority communities themselves “ordinary Muslims suddenly had a branch of religious representation inserted between them and their political representatives” (p.132) often via groups like the Muslim Council of Britain, dominated by the British end of Pakistan’s main clerical party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. As Murray concludes “No one had prepared for the possibility that those arriving might only not become integrated but might bring many social and religious views with them” (p.152).
If this book were simply a critique of blunders made, it would risk polemic. Murray avoids this, in part through his considered style, in part through interviews with those coming to places like Lampedusa, a transit island between north Africa and Sicily, and Lesbos, one of the Greek Islands closest to Turkey. Most want to go to Germany, although Sweden and the UK are also popular destinations. In 2015 “around 400,000 migrants moved through Hungary’s territory alone. Fewer than twenty of them stopped to claim asylum in Hungary” (p. 81). Whilst empathetic about the conditions many are fleeing, Murray is never naïve. He reminds us that the father of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose dead body washed up on the Turkish coast, dominating newspaper headlines in September 2015, took the regrettable decision to leave behind a paid job in a safe country, Turkey, to try to sail for a new life in Europe. Whilst his death provoked emotional political outpourings in Europe and North America, in Muslim majority countries there was little or no interest. Western guilt, absorbed from the top down in our societies, be it about colonialism, race or the holocaust, ensured entirely different responses.
What to do about all this? Even if we wanted to solve the problems of Eritrea, to take just one source of mass migration, where would we begin? The response of the EU was to give six billion Euros to Turkey to prevent its use as a transit point for migrants, thus ensuring Europe’s taxpayers (you and me) pay for the crisis. A chapter on terrorism, violence and sexual assaults by migrants is entitled ‘Learning to Live With It’, the view of terrorism forever associated with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. A theme Murray returns to time after time is the deceit, we might at times say self-deceit, of our ruling elites. Mrs Merkel for example, was able to declare multi-culturalism a failure in Germany in 2010, then to decide it could work in 2015. Perhaps we need to hold these leaders to account a little more?
A deeper, philosophical question, is the issue of what replaces Christianity in our post-Christian societies? What provides us with a foundation and the moorings needed in times of stormy weather? Here Murray suggests the countries of eastern Europe may have a better basis from which to survive, than those in the west. They at least, seem set to avoid the wave of jihadist attacks that has so shaken France, Belgium, Germany and Britain. As for here, even our architecture seems to be in decline “In London the great building to commemorate the turn of the millennium wasn’t even a structure built to last, but a vast empty tent” (p.263).
There are omissions. Margaret Thatcher, who believed Islam could be used as a bulwark against Communism and was consequently indulgent of some of its most extreme manifestations, is not mentioned once. Murray’s own flirtation with a secular god that failed, neo-Conservatism, is similarly overlooked. In discussing the greatest living French novelist, Michel Houellebecq and his work Submission, Murray misses perhaps the obvious comparison – just as Solzhenitsyn chronicled the disasters of the Soviet era, so Houellebecq’s fiction chronicles the disasters of an increasingly Islamised France. There are few better than Murray though in placing these events in their political, historical and philosophical contexts. If this is a book that ends pessimistically, it is because we have much to be worried about.