By the time the refugee crisis of 2015 came to dominate the European press, the unfolding catastrophe and its historical echoes could not be dissociated from two interrelated concerns felt across the Continent, to speak of which had long been tendentious: immigration and Islam. What might ordinarily have been an opportunity for Europe to reaffirm its liberal values and humanitarian instincts proved instead a stark indication that the facts had changed—and many minds had changed, too.
Whereas German Chancellor Angela Merkel had expected Europe to stand by her, ready with open arms to accept quotas and allocate resources and aid to the desperate, borders were hastily erected in the borderless zone of the European Union. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic refused to accept the official EU immigration quotas. What made the situation all the more difficult was that many of those rescued from the seas were not refugees from the Syrian conflict fleeing for their lives but economic migrants from Africa and the Indian subcontinent seeking a better standard of living.
This crisis, which is continuing in Europe today, was the starting point for Douglas Murray’s new book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, which considers the social and political factors that led to Merkel’s grand gesture, its widespread refusal, and its repercussions.
Murray is a British journalist, political commentator, and prolific public debater. For more than a decade he has researched and reported on emerging security threats, issues around social cohesion, and the shifting cultural attitudes attendant upon the high levels of immigration into Europe of the past several decades. His writing most frequently appears in The Spectator of London. Most often, his columns have focused on the rise of radical Islamism throughout Europe and the public and governmental responses to the high number of terrorist attacks in recent years. Murray’s voice stands out, not least for his unswerving confrontations with those intent on silencing criticism of Islam, but also as a serious and articulate conservative stance that cuts against prevailing liberal orthodoxies.
The Strange Death of Europe is about Western European publics still haunted by the devastations of the 20th century, buffeted by economic forces, and fed a diet of consumer pleasures. “We sometimes behave as though we had the certainties of our ancestors, yet we have none of them, and none of their consolations,” writes Murray. If Europe in general and Britain in particular are to have any hope of surviving the ongoing historical phase with public institutions and liberal values firmly intact, they cannot continue to evade reckoning with the negative effects of government policies and social changes resulting from mass immigration and multiculturalism.
It might seem hyperbolic to write, as he does, that “Europe is committing suicide.” This prognosis would seem to confirm those of several other writers of the last 60 years, including James Burnham and Jean-Francois Revel, who have described the West as they see it in its death throes. It is, however, based on extensive research and travels on the Continent, where the author has met migrants, engaged with officials and policymakers, and traced developing patterns of social instability and the impact of recent events.
As he points out, it was only after several decades of ethnic communities’ living often parallel lives that Merkel remarked, in 2010, that multiculturalism had “utterly failed.” But this recognition by her and the other European leaders was nonetheless followed by increased levels of immigration, based on policies of blind hope.
Britain is central to Murray’s analysis not only by virtue of it being his home country. Its relatively small size and large-scale immigration make it a litmus test for what is sustainable economically and in terms of the tolerance of various cultural practises in a prosperous, secular liberal democracy today. The risk, as many see it, is of liberal democracies killing themselves with kindness. Murray draws upon Aristotle’s concept of “competing virtues”; in the case of the migrant crisis and response to it, the competition is between mercy and justice.
Reviewing postwar immigration into the UK and politicians’ reluctance to respond to legitimate public concerns since the 1950s, Murray underlines the consistent failure of British governments, whether of the Left or the Right, to address this conflict of virtues. Despite repeated assurances that the country was well placed to welcome ever-increasing numbers of newcomers—whether refugees or economic migrants, from anywhere in the world and for an indefinite time—Britons were skeptical “long before their political leaders told them that it was acceptable to have concerns about immigration.”
Recent rising support for political parties that put anti-immigration at the forefront of their campaigns has proved one clear indicator of a discord between the policies of elected governments and the EU on the one hand, and the views of a large proportion of electorates on the other. In the UK, much of this dissent arose after 1997, following the Labor governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which oversaw mass immigration on a scale that Britain had never before experienced.
Indeed frustrations have been manifested, at times, in the ugliest manner. Meritorious complaints have sometimes been amplified by the odious protests of unapologetic racists. This has had disastrous effects, most obviously the unceasing tendency in public discussion to conflate racial prejudice and xenophobia with reasonable worries about unwished-for changes to local demographics and pressures on services in economically poor cities and provincial towns. Murray, though, sees in the British people a common decency to go along with their common sense—a decency that tells them that “the answers [do] not lie with extremists, who they had seen off before.”
He backs his argument with a range of statistical data on the economic and social effects of mass immigration. Dire economic circumstances in Europe—particularly after the financial crash of late 2007 to 2009—have for many years been the primary justification for continued immigration – as well as Europe’s ageing population.
Here, however, Murray passes over the opportunity for a considered view of the benefits that immigration has brought to European countries. This makes his picture all the more discouraging; for when he seeks to support his pessimistic position, there is plenty of evidence that demands consideration. As he says, “while the positives can be stressed and exaggerated from the outset, any negatives take years to admit, if they are admitted at all.”
It’s well known that, in this debate, the interlocutors wield contradictory survey findings—which means that sharper arguments regarding underlying principles are necessary. Throughout The Strange Death of Europe, Murray provides so many compelling rebuttals to commonplaces that it becomes ever clearer how atrophied is Europeans’ capacity to think seriously about what they want for their societies and from their governments.
Why, Murray asks, are shortages of low-skilled workers assuaged all too eagerly within the EU by recent non-EU migrants rather than, say, the large percentage of unemployed Spaniards, Italians, and Greeks? It is said that the movements of large numbers of people due to globalization is unavoidable but, asks Murray, in that case why are countries such as Japan immune to them? Is mass immigration into Europe set now to continue at current rates, he asks, or at increased rates? For how long and with what resources and political mandate? Is the amount of cultural enrichment proportional to levels of immigration? For Murray, such questions ought to have been the subject of deep consideration and policymaking long before now.
Much of the public unease about immigration throughout Europe has been intertwined with the perceived influence of Islam in recent years—understandable, given the increasing number of terrorist incidents since the 2001 attack on New York and Washington. While problems of integration are by no means characteristic of all Muslims, nor are they confined to Muslim communities, there are without doubt causes for grave concern. With the rise of radicalization among second- and third-generation European Muslims, the picture becomes even more complex. The book sums up Murray’s previously published thoughts on how the threat to security and social cohesion brought about by the spread of fundamentalist teachings remains pressing.
Also against the widespread hopes for the integration of immigrant communities, he considers other recent incidents of brutal criminality. The cultural attitudes of some Muslims and of some newly arrived migrants from Africa are referred to via the most lurid examples: rape statistics, including the notorious incidents of New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, Germany; as well as the case of grooming gangs comprising mostly Pakistani men abusing young white girls in Rotherham and other English towns, the revelation of which in 2011 and 2012 signalled profound failings in the polices forces and social services throughout the UK.
Murray might also have considered the orthodox Haredi Jewish community in London, among others, as the basis for a discussion about the values of integration as against religious freedoms. But one must weigh up the urgency of wider social impacts. Put simply: Islam, rather than Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism has been cited as the inspiration for an increasing number of terrorist atrocities in Europe since 2001. And the threat of further attacks has not abated.
Several policy suggestions are ventured here, at least in outline: a concerted effort to slow down immigration levels; the more effective processing of asylum claims and deportation; the assistance of European and other world governments to place migrants safely but more closely to the countries from which they are fleeing in cases of conflict; and, last but not least, a more forthright statement by Europeans of what Europe represents and will not tolerate. Even as he offers them, the author grants that these are difficult to make work, and are unlikely to be given the required efforts and resources.
In considering the rising Muslim population in Europe – and in particular the influence of extremist interpretations of Islamic texts – alongside the question of European self-definition and Western attitudes towards history, this book makes a good companion piece to Pierre Manent’s Beyond Radical Secularism (reviewed for Law and Liberty by Paul Seaton, when it first came out in English in 2016). Its grim catalogue of critics of Islam who have been assassinated, violently attacked, or assailed with death threats across Europe, and of discouraging statistics on attitudes towards homosexuality and anti-Semitism within Muslim communities, also make the book a follow-on, of a kind, to Bruce Bawer’s 2006 While Europe Slept.
In the book’s most philosophical chapter, entitled “Tiredness,” Murray draws on the French philosopher Chantal Delsol’s image of post-1989 Western Europe as a high-soaring Icarus who has survived his fall to earth and is now uncertain how to live on without the orientation of such impossible ideals as were provided by all-encompassing ideologies and religions. From Pascal Bruckner, Murray takes the idea of the “tyranny of guilt,” a distorting lens of Western history – reinforced by both radical Islamists and fervent advocates of identity politics and post-colonial studies – that has led many Europeans to think of themselves as the inheritors of a uniquely murderous legacy resulting in a diminished sense of Europe’s right to exist, while almost overlooking the crimes both past and present of other nations – or indeed the incredible achievements of Western civilisation. And in line with the controversial author Michel Houellebecq, Murray considers the consequences of cultural apathy, hedonism and existential despair.
The issue of how Europe might best understand itself as distinct—especially in the face of rapid and continued demographic change – is dependent, for Murray, upon the degree to which it is willing to acknowledge its Christian inheritance, even while wishing to remain based on principles of secularism. Murray follows Manent, Jürgen Habermas, and Roger Scruton in accepting the inheritance of Christianity in these modern European societies that do more and more to disavow that past influence.
Such disavowal can be seen in some of the responses of church leaders to the refugee crisis, economic migration, and the changing nature of European societies. The self-abnegating example offered here is that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who supported the introduction of sharia courts for the adjudication of Muslim marriages. This apparent divergence among those wishing to sustain nations “downstream of Christianity” (a phrase Murray borrows from Scruton) deserves to be given further consideration.
Between the historical review and the reflection on European identity Murray intersperses interviews with migrants conducted at the points of arrival into Europe, including Lampedusa, Italy and Lesbos, Greece. The importance of first-hand conversations with those at the center of this book is obvious, and the conversations are respectful and sympathetic. However, it must be said that Murray’s pessimism seems to make more sustained, empathetic encounters all the harder. Often the conversations are only briefly related, with Murray reserving much of his focus for the long-term impact of what he is reporting on.
As a summation of journalistic investigations that have for years preoccupied Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe provides a much-needed opportunity for European readers to reconsider the road travelled and the possible ways forward. The book’s blend of reportage, history and philosophical reflection is a commendable attempt to provoke the reading public to deeper thinking on serious matters. Its pessimistic view of what is ahead, though, demands only readers willing to look the fast-changing facts squarely in the face.