Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Myth of the Muslim Tide


Doug Saunders – who until recently was the European Bureau Chief of the Globe and Mail – is blessed with a level head. He is determined not to accept the deafening wolf cries that the end of Western civilization is near and that the world will soon be an unrecognizable Islamic caliphate. Whereas the post-9/11 decade has seen a deluge of hyperbolic, inflammatory messaging warning free peoples of the brewing “Muslim tide,” there is a dire shortage of material for those who, like Saunders, prefer fact to fabulations.


That is partly why The Myth of the Muslim Tide is less a revelatory read than a concise, somewhat snarky, rebuttal against “Muslim tide” fear-mongering. Indeed, Saunders analyzes dozens of polls to argue that while Muslim immigration cannot be denied, it is demonstrably false that most Muslims arriving in the West aim to carry out jihad, overthrow democratic institutions, install a Sharia system, or deploy their presumed fertility advantage to fundamentally alter the demographics of the Western world. Far from it.


The piles of polls from Gallup, Pew, and other leading groups – as well as prominent academic research from domains like social psychology – portray Muslim immigrants as searching for little more than self-empowerment, success and fulfillment for themselves and their families. On the whole, they vastly prefer integration to ghettoization, and – according to the data – profess loyalty to, and participate in, their new lands and democratic institutions, often to a greater degree than non-Muslim citizens. Yet Western society – Europe, worst of all – has mandated segregation rather than integration through its education and vocational systems, causing a disenfranchisement that could yield dangerous and deadly consequences.


Saunders’ introduction to the Muslim tide phenomenon includes an account of Anders Breivik, the man who carried out a mass shooting against youth members of the Norweigan Labour Party in 2011. He viewed these innocent children as future enablers of the Muslim tide because of their leftist platform. Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto consisted largely of snippets from Steyn, Ye’or, and their peers. We then meet Geert Wilders, the Dutch firebrand politician who openly compares the Koran with Mein Kampf. Saunders debunks three sets of claims regarding the Muslim tide; the first, concerning population growth and the so-called Muslim ‘fertility gene’; the second, concerning the integration of Muslim immigrants into Western society, and; the third, the notion that the majority of Muslims harbour extremist views and intentions. Within each category is a succession of claims, wisely disentangled. For example, the claim that Muslims want to establish Sharia tribunals is addressed separately from the claim that Muslims want to impose Sharia law on all people in the West a method that allows for an unusual degree of clarity and specificity in the field .


What follows is an overview of the “Jewish tide” and “Catholic tide,” reminding readers that similar suspicions were commonplace concerning these two massive 20th century immigrant groups. Still, comparing the Yiddish flavours of the Lower East Side to the Muslim suburbs of France – less than a year after the Toulouse murders – is unsettling and problematic.


Saunders also raises the flipside of the Muslim tide hysteria – the notion that Western civilization has become “insecure, malleable, and relativistic” and cannot withstand the “anchored, confident,” and ideologically unified Muslim world.  Yet Saunders suggests that while the West has much to worry about, the mass disappearance of democratic values is unlikely. There are still challenges that must be confronted, and platitudes about the failure of multiculturalism (though Saunders recommends the word be abolished) are unlikely to help. As such, the book concludes with a plea for rational minds to address the systemic factors of inequality and segregation that underly anger and disenfranchisement and lead to radicalism and terrorism.


This final section is where Saunders’ distaste for religion as anything beyond a “personal identifier” reveals itself most clearly.  Indeed, his overt secularism casts a shadow on otherwise highly objective writing. Saunders is eager to point out that the majority of Muslim immigrants do not define themselves by their religion, as if this is a categorically bad thing. Religious identification can be a motivating force for good. 


Saunders’ greatest strength is his fair-minded approach to unquestionably the most divisive issue of the post-9/11 era: the realities of Islamist terrorism. He does not defend nor deny the presence of “reactionary, repressive, intolerant and anti-Semitic forces” – indeed his own neighbour lost two legs in the London Underground bombings of 2005 – but he uses the best available research to put to rest fears that the average Muslim shopkeeper, his niqab-adorned wife, and his son, Mohammed, identify with this radical criminality any more than you or I. However, Saunders does lose focus when he drifts beyond the Islamized neighbourhoods of Europe and North America with which he is familiar and offers sweeping generalizations about purported modernization and “enlightenment” in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, predicting that a “de-Islamized Muslim world” is imminent.


Furthermore, a reliance on public opinion polls presents numerous challenges, particularly when the variables are hardly quantifiable. This leads to the creation of false dichotomies between “extreme” and “moderate,” between “integrated“ and “not integrated,” among others. Indeed, the experience of migration can be expressed as having one foot in the past, and the other foot in the present – never quite leaving the ‘old country’ while accepting a new way of life. Saunders, meanwhile, tends to view integration through a series of convenient, discrete markers – education level, income bracket, occupation status, number of children – but research he himself cites in the book demonstrates that these markers cannot account for who becomes a threat to Western society and who does not.  He also draws some tenuous correlations. It is a stretch to claim that by deciding to have fewer children, Muslim women in the West are showing that their “education levels and social values are falling into line with those of their new country.” Statisticians may also quibble with the book’s conclusions due to a problem known as low base rates. To illustrate this with an example, one could say “no Muslim immigrants commit acts of violence or terrorism” and be statistically correct, with a high confidence interval. The extreme nature of terrorism means that – thankfully – it is an infrequent occurrence. Yet this creates problems when making inferences from data.


The book too often treats Muslim migrants and the citizens of their native countries as one and the same. Beyond simply being wealthier, those Muslims who decide to come to the West differ in some important ways from those who stay put. Where Saunders finds that Muslim migrants are generally as ‘progressive’ as non-Muslims in the West – on issues like homosexuality and female genital mutilation – the preexistence of these attitudes may be a confounding variable. Simply put, those Muslims who most support ‘liberal democracy’ are the ones most likely to move to the West in the first place.  


As Saunders writes, “history never repeats itself.” In spite of the fact that the Muslim tide is, like everything else, unpredictable, it is still possible to identify and avoid repeating the mistakes of past eras. Meaningful integration – beyond mere rhetoric – is an imperative, or the West will continue towards a “culture of grievance” and a path of ghettoization disenfranchisement of Muslim immigrants – an outcome from which no one benefits but the jihadists. At the same time, a policy direction towards integration and self-empowerment is hard to imagine while much of the Western world is captivated by an obsession with the Muslim ‘invasion.’ Saunders’ book is thus a welcome toolkit for those seeking a return to facts and an end to extremism in all corners.