The Return of Blasphemy Laws

Political writer Christopher Caldwell on immigration, Islam, and the future of free speech in Europe.

Christopher Caldwell is a political writer whose work has appeared in, among other publications, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The American Spectator. He writes a weekly column for the Financial Times and serves as a senior editor for The Weekly Standard.

CWR interviewed Caldwell in May about his first book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (Doubleday). A correspondent for the New York Times called Reflections “a dense and important book about whether Europe’s identity…can absorb or survive a fast growing Muslim population.”

CWR: How long did it take you to write this book?

Christopher Caldwell: I started writing about immigration and these ideas in the early 90s. I got interested in [immigration in] Europe in the late 90s. I feel very lucky that I was working on it for a few years before September 11, which gave me a reference point, because I think that changed an awful lot about the way Europe dealt with immigrants.

CWR: You’re interested in immigration in the US, but what was it about immigration in Europe that was attractive to you?

Caldwell: I love the drama of the immigration story, the multidimensionality of it. All the stories I like tend to be about society rather than politics, but the parts of society that have political overtones or implications. Immigration has a lot of those wherever it happens. It’s cultural forces clashing, it’s the economy, and family life, and things happening at the level of a neighborhood, and that interested me. My Spanish is not that hot and I don’t know as much about Mexico as I know about France or Germany, and it occurred to me that the problems of immigration that interested me in California and around here were more dramatic in Europe, and it was, in that way, a more interesting story.

CWR: How much travel did you do to research this book?

Caldwell: At the height of working on this book, I was going to Europe at least once a month, or about 15 times a year. Sometimes I had other business there, but on every trip I would do something immigrant-related. In fact, on every single trip I would go to immigrant neighborhoods in whatever country I happened to be in, and I would usually talk to politicians who were involved in it, sociologists, other academics. There was a lot of travel. When I sat down to write the book, I sort of stopped the traveling and called up all the research and then did all the writing.

CWR: Why the nod to Edmund Burke in the title?

Caldwell: It wasn’t my idea; it was my agent’s idea. My idea for the title of the book, which is now the subtitle, was “Immigration, Islam, and Europe.” I like titles that tell you what’s in the book. Nobody else liked that; neither my editor nor my agent. So we came up with Reflections on the Revolution in Europe as a provisional title.

There are two things I like about it. I like the allusion to Burke a lot. What I take out of Burke is that tradition can be a positive, generative force, that it’s not just an obstacle to smart people and their ideas. Another thing that was really valuable about it when I was working on the book was that it didn’t commit me to a polemical thesis, and I could just gather stuff. It was useful in that way, so I was happy with it even though it’s not mine.

CWR: How does immigration in Europe differ from immigration in America?

Caldwell: There are a few big dimensions. One is Europe has more asylum immigrants than we have. That is, we have proportionally more labor immigrants. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is the law, one is the welfare system. If you come to the United States and you don’t find work, you’re toast and you go home. It’s not that way in Europe. There’s much more a safety net for newcomers. I haven’t been able to look at Europe-wide statistics for this, but in certain areas of Amsterdam, for instance, you have a situation where a majority of the first-generation immigrants are not in the labor market, which is a really amazing, amazing thing. 

That has all sorts of consequences. I think it’s the labor market that really socializes immigrants most. It’s work, but also it takes away immigrants’ idle time, leisure time, which is where they consolidate their old-world culture in the new world. But also you hear things about immigrants in Europe in man-on-the-street conversation that you don’t hear about immigrants in the United States, complaints about their work ethic and that sort of thing. So I’d say the main policy difference is that we have more labor immigrants.

Also—I don’t know if you’d call it an ethical or a spiritual difference, and this is something that is really at the heart of the book and what I talk about when I talk about the revolution in Europe—we are a country of immigrants. That sounds like such a stupid, empty cliche sort of slogan, but it has a deeper meaning, which is one of the great things and one of the terrible things about the United States: we are willing to be changed by whoever comes in the door.

To say we are a country of immigrants is to say that we understand that 50 years from now we’re not going to be quite the same country we are now. Some people are unhappy about that, but it’s part of our history. We understand that there’s at least a strong possibility that we’ll be a different kind of country 50 years from now. Europeans are not really comfortable with that yet, and that’s the sort of revolution I’m talking about. That’s going to happen whether they get comfortable with it or not.

CWR: A crucial difference that you bring out in the book is also that a large percentage of the immigrants in Europe are Muslims. You have historical forces colliding.

Caldwell: That’s right, and I think I mention that the Latin American immigration, while it may have looked extremely foreign when it first began, has proven, as we’ve been assimilating Latin American immigrants, to be not that foreign. The Mexican working class culture is Catholic. They have more stable marriages than Americans, they have closer attitudes toward family than the American one, but their work ethic is recognizable to us. The Muslim ethic—although it should go without saying that not everyone from a Muslim background will live fully the life of the Muslim faith—and that cultural sphere have very different attitudes, particularly toward family formation.

In the United States we tend to look at how Muslims differ from Europeans in terms of foreign policy—all these people from the French suburbs who are out marching against the Iraq War, and things like that. That’s interesting and that’s important, but I would say that in most countries in Europe (Britain may be an exception), it’s gender relations. It’s the incompatibility of these traditional Islamic family roles and sex roles with feminism which is the big clash in most of these countries. I don’t know if you can say that Europe is more feminist than the United States. I mean, if you look at something like abortion laws, our abortion laws are certainly much more liberal than theirs…

CWR: If you look at attitudes, though, Europeans are much more accepting of abortion than Americans.

Caldwell: Yes. I think you can say that it’s not just that they’re more accepting of feminism, it’s that they’re less accepting of pre-feminist ways of living for women. There are very, very few Sarah Palins in European politics. You very often hear government statements, and I quote a few of them in my book, that “our goal is that everyone be in the workplace.” There’s not even any lip service to traditional family models, so I think that anyone from a traditional culture is going to clash with that.

CWR: How does the Catholic Church factor into the immigration debate in Europe?

Caldwell: I don’t follow internal Catholic Church politics too much, but one thing that comes up a lot in conservative Catholic talk in Europe is the issue of reciprocity. There are a lot of complaints, particularly in Italy: there you have a situation where the Saudis are allowed to build the largest mosque in the world in Rome, but a Christian can’t practice his faith in Saudi Arabia. You hear that in conservative Catholic circles.

I would say that, for the most part, organized Catholicism and individual Catholics have tended to focus on the Christian ethics of this encounter with immigrants, not on the cultural clash of it. I would say that there’s a great deal of Church charity toward immigrants. They’re very supportive of these communities where they feel beleaguered.

I do think there’s a difference between Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II. I think the present Pope does look at Europe and at Christendom as being a cultural sphere. Again, I don’t want to pose as a theologian, but in some of his writings he’s constantly stressing, I don’t know if you’d call it a hidden Christianity, but a Christian undercurrent in all sorts of Western modes of thinking that don’t think of themselves as Christian. You know, like secular humanism and socialism and that sort of thing. I gather that he is skeptical that you can recreate those using different religious wellsprings.

CWR: You point out that the Pope said Turkey should not be admitted to the Europen Union.

Caldwell: That has to do with Turkey’s Muslim roots—at least, that was the explanation he gave. He’s been a little more diplomatic since then on that subject. He made a trip to Turkey in December 2006, right around the time the European Commission had to decide on whether to allow Turkey to move forward in its negotiations to move into the EU. I don’t think conciliatory is the right word, but he said a lot of smart, admiring things about the achievements of Turkish culture. But I didn’t notice any drawing back from anything he had said. This, by the way, was two or three months after the Regensburg speech. 

CWR: Who is Tariq Ramadan?

Caldwell: There have been many books devoted to that subject, some of them by Tariq Ramadan himself. He is a Swiss citizen. He is the grandson, on his mother’s side, of Hassan al-Banna, who was the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which is a strain of Salafi radicalism. When it was founded, it was a very anti-colonial movement, but it is a Muslim fundamentalist political organization that still exists and is generally thought of as extremist. Ramadan is the son of Sayyid Ramadan, who is another Muslim political figure. Tariq Ramadan grew up in Switzerland. He became a teacher of some sort. He’s not really a university professor but he’s a very uplifting inspirational speaker. I see him as being very much in the tradition of American revivalist preachers. But he has been accused of using double-language, of saying things that are interpreted one way by his radical followers and another way by his Western fans.

CWR: Code words…

Caldwell: It’s not like the Yasser Arafat thing, where he’d say one thing in Arabic and another thing in French, or send out two different press releases. It’s just that he uses certain words that are open to interpretation. The one that I mention in the book is “resistance.” He calls on everyone to offer “resistance” to global capitalism, and if you read his books you find that he uses the word “resistance” in a very similar way to the way he uses the word “jihad.” One of the puzzles to me is why it’s so important to supposedly moderate Muslim thinkers to keep the word “jihad” in common circulation. Generally, if you notice you’re using a word that really offends people and you don’t agree what the word means, then you stop using it. I find that a bit odd about the way the word “jihad” is used.

CWR: How is he using it?

Caldwell: The particular usage I’m talking about is that he uses the word “resistance” and “jihad” to mean primarily a struggle inside the individual Muslim’s conscience, inside the individual’s head, and only secondarily does it mean doing things like firing guns and throwing bombs. But I think that there is something disingenuous about that, because not only do Westerners understand this word in its more contentious sense but, I think, most Muslims around the world who hear the word understand it that way, too.

CWR: He was denied entrance into the US, correct?

Caldwell: Yes.

CWR: He was going to teach at a university.

Caldwell: Notre Dame. 

CWR: How far apart are immigrant Muslim and native European birth rates?

Caldwell: It depends on the community you look at and how long they’ve been there. I don’t know the exact numbers. In the 1990s, there was a lot of very careful research done of North Africans in France, and it found that when they arrived the birth rates were something like seven children per woman, and that they’ve come back down but are still nowhere near the average for French women, which is about two. Certain immigrant groups have converged absolutely on the European birthrate, like the so-called African Indians who came to Europe from Uganda and Kenya in the late 60s and early 70s. They have the same birthrates as other English people. The Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who’ve been there for much longer don’t, and part of that has to do with the importing of spouses. Families have one foot in the West and one foot in the other culture.

CWR: So that gap tends to narrow over time, but are you saying that…

Caldwell: It’s not certain that it will permanently close.

CWR: One of the things that Philip Jenkins argues in his book God’s Continent is that Muslim immigration to Europe is causing many native Europeans to think of themselves as Christians in some sense, at least culturally. Have you seen evidence of this?

Caldwell: Yes. I’ve never heard anybody talk about it. I guess people think of themselves more as “Franco-French,” they’ll say that. There’s an excellent political scientist at Birkbeck College at the University of London whose name is Eric Kaufmann, and he has used studies of declared religiosity across Britain, and perhaps across Europe as well. He has found that in areas of high immigrant concentration people of Christian background are more likely to call themselves Christians, and that’s true even if you control for other things like socio-economic status.

So, yes, if you have a bunch of Muslims moving into your neighborhood, you tend to say “I am a Christian” more, but this is an interesting, hard-to-measure factor, because religions are not all structured the same way. There’s not a perfect symmetry between religions. This may be a function of our own prejudice, but we tend to think of the son of a couple of Muslims as a Muslim whether he embraces the tenets of the faith or not. Christianity has to do with profession of the faith. You’re a Christian if you believe Christ is your savior. It’s a perfectly normal thing to hear someone say, “My parents were Baptists, but I’m not a Christian.” That makes more sense in Christianity than it does in Islam, at least as we understand it.

CWR: One other thing you talk about in the book is European attempts to criminalize any dissent.

Caldwell: I think that a very important moment was the criminalization of Holocaust denial, which I think turned out to be a mistake. Now, denying the Holocaust adds no interesting perspective to our historical understanding of anything. It is a worthless point of view, but to get the government involved in policing opinions has been a very slippery slope. What has happened, and this has been particularly the case in France, is that organized lobbies for other people have begun trying to get their own tragedies recognized as beyond criticism. You see that with the Turkish massacres of the Armenians, you see it with the slave trade. There was an effort to prosecute Bernard Lewis, who is probably the leading scholar of 20th century Turkey who will ever live, for declining to use the word genocide in the context of the Turkish massacres. 

That’s one angle in which speech is narrowing. But another one is simply intimidation. I mean, people are really scared—and this is more specific to Islam—scared to talk about a lot of this stuff. I mention in the book the British artist Grayson Perry, who does a lot of pornographic imagery of the Virgin Mary and things like that—in perfect safety. Someone asked him why he wouldn’t do the same thing about any Islamic religious icons, and he said, if you want the truth, it’s because I’m afraid someone will cut my head off. So there is a chilling effect with that. The Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoonist—these things lead to a sort of self-censorship.

The third angle comes out of the idea that if you don’t make Muslims mad they will not press their agenda. And so you have calls for the restoration of blasphemy laws, not to protect the state religion, but to protect Islam from being insulted. You’ve seen that in the Netherlands. In Britain you have a law against incitement to religious hatred, which came into effect about two years ago. It was supposed to have been defanged, but I think that it still leaves people wondering what they’re allowed to say and what they’re not.

CWR: When the EU expanded, that opened up the route of travel for several former Eastern Bloc countries. What effect has the movement of Poles and others had on the rates of religious participation?

Caldwell: It’s been amazing. There’s a place I often stay when I’m in Paris, it’s on the Rue Saint-Honoré, and there’s a church on that street called Notre Dame de L’Assomption. I have been reading and writing about the empty churches in Europe for a long time, and I was there on a Sunday and I noticed the church was filled to overflowing. There must have been 200 people outside. I figured there must be some sort of state funeral in there or something. There wasn’t—there was just a Sunday Mass, and I walked up and I noticed that there were people outside the church speaking Polish and there was a statue of the late pope, John Paul II, outside the door. It was just an ordinary Sunday Mass.

People in other places where Poles have come, Ireland for instance, remark that churches that hadn’t been full in years were now very lively. That immigration seems to have been badly hit by the economic downturn, because the Poles think that if they’re going to be unemployed, they’d rather be unemployed at home. So whether that’s going to leave a permanent footprint I don’t know, but it’s been a major change.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.