Reflections on Christopher Caldwell: Xenophobic, Racist and Creedist

Christopher Caldwell’s book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, argues that “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter” (350).  Caldwell’s book suggests that present European culture can be understood as “the former,” and “the latter” as Islam, arguing that Islam is destabilizing European culture imposing its stronger, more institutionalized beliefs upon European society. 

First, he argues that immigration in general is a problematic phenomenon that challenges normative societal foundations and destabilizes societies by forcing assimilation or integration.  Second, he argues that Islam is an example of the culture that is “anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines,” and that these common doctrines make its effect on Europe predictable. Finally, he argues that structural and society conditions in the West itself are not conducive to an integration of Islam that maintains European culture while including Muslims.  Rather, he asserts, the tolerance and religious ambiguity that pervade Europe leave its society and culture vulnerable to irreversible changes as Islam becomes an increasingly powerful and imposing force on the Continent. 

Caldwell’s argument, though spirited and broad in scope, cannot stand up to academic review; he self-admittedly abandons any pretense of correct political science terminology or definition, making it impossible to critique on an academic level.

Furthermore, in the overwhelming majority of cases, Caldwell’s argument ignores facts, and the evidence he chooses to present is either fundamentally flawed or embarrassingly one-sided. Caldwell calls upon antiquated political writings of little consequence. Overall, it is clear that Caldwell’s work is no more than a pinnacle of nativism, intolerance, racism, creedism, and misunderstanding. The only point which he successfully defends is that which states that Europeans are not, in general, truly in favor of diversity—and even this he only succesfully proves by standing as a shining example of all that is wrong and intolerant about the West.

The first section of Caldwell’s verifiable defense of intolerance concerns itself with the “facts” of immigration to Europe.  He argues that, “In theory, any profoundly different culture could prove difficult to assimilate into European life.  In practice, it is Islam that is posing the most acute problems.”  The latter assertion is ironic in that he frames it as fact when it couldn’t be farther from it.  He fails to ever offer adequate evidence to back up the superlative claim that Islam poses the “most acute problems” to Europe (11). 

He then goes on to list a small number of inconsequential accommodations that Europeans have offered Muslim immigrants at little cost to themselves. Caldwell fails to offer the reader any actual evidence to support his creedist, racist assertions, but this should come as no surprise, as he explicitly abandons all pretense of decent academic practice in his introduction.

Caldwell moves quickly away from his first set of undefended assertions in order to argue that there is a cultural cost to Europe as the Islamic migration damages the European identity.  This argument is entirely circumstantial as Europe’s identity, if it did exist, could only be the product of thousands of years of such cultural shifts, transitions, and displacements.  That is, if the Romans had not fallen to the Visigoths, if Charlemagne’s empire still stood, if the Byzantines had not fallen in 1453, if Napoleon had not spent too long in the Russian winter, if Hitler had not been turned back, if the Moors had not come to Spain, if Luther had not published his 95 Theses, if the Pope had never had a twin in Avignon, and so on, Europe would not have the identity that it has today. 

If despicably intolerant and close-minded quasi-academics like Christopher Caldwell had managed to prevent any change from coming to Europe, the continent would not be steeped in such a rich, if fragmented, sense of a regional identity.  Instead, it would be a group of countries not bound together by a common history.  Even if Islam truly affects Europe as profoundly as Caldwell claims, would this not simply be the next common step on the path Europe has walked for more than five thousand years? 

Though obviously flawed to the critical reader, Caldwell’s argument disproves itself without need for external criticism when he discusses multiculturalism: “If you walk across the piazza della Republicca in Turin, you see, mutatis mutandis, what the Romans saw.  To the east, two well-preserved Roman towers…Today, in a space of about sixty seconds on foot, you pass from chic shops and wine bars through a lively multiethnic market into one of Europe’s more menacing North African slums…It was from the city’s once-thriving Jewish community that the great chronicler of Auschwitz, Primo Levi, came.  The city was also a stronghold of the ascetic proto-Protestant Waldensians, who flourished there for centuries until 1655” (34).  The idea that an influx of Muslims to a city will disrupt its vibrant multiculturalism is ridiculous; the identity Caldwell describes is the product of centuries of cultural melding and integration—his description proves that if there is a European identity, it is the product of many transitions similar to the “Revolution” to which he refers, antithetically to his point. 

Caldwell’s basis in economics is similarly flawed. He dismisses  the positive effects on a nation’s long-term growth potential that economists associate with immigration as nothing more than a “quasi-official account” that Europeans no longer accept (36).  Caldwell, however, does not have the requisite training in economics to pass judgement on such analysis, unlike his European counterparts.

Conveniently, any evidence—including statistics reflecting the benefits of immigration—that suggests Caldwell may be mistaken in his argument is dismissed as inconsequential. He claims that “the modern economy has not abolished the laws of economics” before citing high-school level, oversimplified, incorrect economic theories as laws, and then offering “translated” versions that are even less accurate: “immigration makes the economy more efficient because it drives down the wages of certain natives” (39). However, condemning immigration as damaging to the economy is not only inaccurate, but also as outdated a level of economic analysis as mercantilism. 

Caldwell’s book continues by failing to set up a dialectic cultural opposition between Islam and Europe, incorrectly characterizing cultural synthesis as a zero-sum game in which only one culture can prevail.  He accuses Islam of being inherently violent, pointing to honor killings and violence towards women as proof, while in reality these are uncommon, isolated phenomenon not consequential in Europe.  Islam is the cause and foundation of terrorism to Caldwell; he continuously states that violent extremism is a product of prevailing Islamic doctrinal characteristics, and that Muslims experience a “partial embrace of the national identity of the new country…followed by a withdrawal to the religious identity of the old” and possibly to extremism (156).  Islam, as an alternate provider of basic public goods to the disadvantaged, is guilty, Caldwell asserts, of undermining European society by creating a parallel culture which will ultimately come to dominate the West—characterized as self-hating and quasi-tolerant, vulnerable to outside influence. 

Finally, Caldwell asserts that terrorism is a “facet of Muslim self assertion,” that, “not just of a religion, but of a people” (274).  These sweeping condemnations of Islam and the West are not only painfully inaccurate generalizations, but also they are not even partially supported with factual evidence by Caldwell, who calls upon barely more than the ramblings of Renan, who wrote in 1883 about Islam as a culture with “habits so strong that all differences of race and nationality disappear before the face of conversion to Islam” (158).  1883 was nearly one hundred and fifty years ago and Caldwell, in formulating his argument, was forced to reach this far back in history in order to find someone intellectually competent enough to produce a book yet ignorant enough to produce a work Caldwell could draw on to partially support his points.  Caldwell’s second and third sections, together intended to cast Europe and Islam as opposing factions in a zero-sum game, fail to even partially prove Caldwell’s point, and doom the argument entirely. 

Caldwell’s book miscasts Islam as an evil and violent institutional force, miscasts Europe as vulnerable and in need of protection against cultural invasion and subversion, misrepresents the economic reality of immigration and illegitimately condemns all Muslims as possible terrorists.  Caldwell does not offer evidence to support his points, makes ignorant and worthless assertions into a ramshackle argument and embarrasses himself in the process.  This book should be read only as an exercise in what not to believe in a globalized world, yet the implications of such works being widely consumed should not be understated—provocative assertions may have the power to create bestsellers, but when they come at the cost of driving the public to false conclusions about their neighbors, they have terrible power indeed.

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