The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray, Bloomsbury Continuum, 352 pages
I recently attended a Brussels event on migration alongside young American and European researchers and activists. The musings of the guardians of human decency there would send average European voters fleeing towards the populist right. The argument was made that generous migration levels should stem not from compassion but be an indefinite manifestation of reparations for the crimes of Western civilization. Integration courses for new male migrants on sexual assault “stereotyped” their cultures, and the voluntary wearing of the Islamic niqab functioned as a form of female empowerment.
The admirable bluntness of the young Brussels idealists would make for political suicide anywhere in Europe. But their worldview is not without a policy legacy. Douglas Murray, a columnist for The Spectator, shows otherwise in The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Islam, Identity. Guilt, naivety, and a refusal to forcefully defend one’s values have defined the response of the postwar European political class to migration and integration for a half-century. Their failure, writes Murray, leaves a continent “committing suicide.” By the end of the century, “Europe will not be Europe and the peoples of Europe will have lost the only place we call home.”
Whether one welcomes or fears sharp demographic change, The Strange Death of Europe amply documents its reality. Vienna researchers predict more than half of Austria’s adolescent youth will be Muslim by mid-century. In Sweden, non-European immigrants compose up to 14 percent of the population, with ethnic Swedes projected to become a minority in all major cities within a few decades. Can Europe safely accommodate these changes while remaining faithful to herself? Or will the unprecedented scale of migration, coupled by European cultural malaise, be “the death sentence that the cradle and Parthenon of Western civilization had passed upon itself”?
Murray clearly expects that darker fate, often perplexing the reader. Are there truly no real accounts of successful Muslim integration into their new countries to consider? Alongside accounts of Parisian banlieue students cheering the Charlie Hebdo attackers, there are also the reported 46 percent of French Muslims who, according to Institut Montaigne, are “either completely secularized or finishing up their integration into the contemporary French value system.” Or consider the case of Lassana Bathily, a Mali Muslim who saved Jewish shoppers in an Islamist attack on a Parisian kosher market in January 2015.
In any case, Murray presents enough probing evidence to make the most optimistic multiculturalist unnerved. In 2016, “70 per cent of European Jews said they would avoid attending synagogue” for security reasons. Leaked British defense ministry reports predicted the county’s changing composition would constrain the United Kingdom’s freedom of military action. Representative organizations like the Muslim Council of Britain and the Conseil Français de Culte Musulman empower “the loud, the extreme, [and] the offended”, with little interest in forming a “European Islam” reconciled to modernity.
The gap between European Union decision making and voters is often lamented as a “democracy deficit,” but the phrase equally captures the migration question, where European leaders, Murray writes, pursued policies “wholly at variance with public opinion.” Despite polls since the 1960s showing overwhelming opposition to higher immigration, European leaders failed to take any meaningful action. Family reunification, poorly designed asylum systems, and weak external and internal enforcement ensured ever rising numbers.
In the face of public unease, European leadership offered strategies of evasion. The first substituted tough rhetoric for substantive action. In 2010, German leader Angela Merkel said multiculturalism had “failed, utterly failed.” But as Murray points out, “just five years later, Merkel allowed . . . up to 1.5 million people into Germany in the space of one year alone.” What happened in such a brief interval to convince German leaders that their country would not repeat past mistakes with a large cohort of mostly young, male arrivals whose genuine refugee status was frequently questionable?
As voters discovered, societies changed without their input, with intellectuals and politicians pulling out every conceivable argument to win acquiescence: Only young, foreign labor could revitalize sluggish economies or save generous welfare states. Tighter borders would never stop people from trying to come. Refugees, particularly from Syria, are the modern equivalent of European Jews fleeing Nazism. A sharp essayist, Murray quickly unmasks the shallowness of these arguments, reminding us how little consensus was built when allowing for potentially explosive social changes requiring strong public commitment to succeed.
The remaining unconvinced—if loud enough—suffer condemnation. Some deservedly so, like French novelist Jean Raspail, whose The Camp of the Saints functions today as a foundational alt-right text. But what of the British headmaster Ray Honeyford, whose account of multiculturalism in schools provoked national outrage and the end of his career? Murray explores the “prophets without honor” who endured similar character assassinations: the well-known Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the maligned French writer Michelle Houellebecq, or the intellectually eccentric (and ultimately murdered) gay Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. His journalistic courage is particularly displayed here, where he partially defends controversial movements such the English Defense League, Pegida (Germany), and the Sweden Democrats from media charges that they are reincarnations of Europe’s fascist demons.
Unlike smug hot-takes offered by distant American observers, Murray powerfully grasps the ultimate origin of failed integration, isolated “parallel societies” alongside the rise of Islamism. It is not obvious they are are the culprits: There is also European chauvinism, stagnant economies, or immutable faults within migrants themselves. But in the end, Murray points to the loss of Europe’s attempt to find, or even desire, a story of itself: “While the movement of millions of people from other cultures into a strong and assertive culture might have worked, the movement of millions of people into a guilty, jaded, and dying culture cannot.”
Historical guilt is a new “moral intoxicant in Western Europe.” A memory of past evil deformed into a “self-laceration” leaving “only the nations of Europe and their descendants [allowing] themselves to be judged by their lowest moments,” and planting crippling self-doubt. Until the 19th century, “the Christian myth was the continent’s foundational story,” but the secular ethos unleashed by Darwinism and biblical criticism left nothing to replace lost faith and its accompanying cultural imagination.
Surveying contemporary art and architecture, Murray wonders if Europeans are now “a people who have lost the desire to inspire because we have nothing to inspire anyone with.” Alongside plummeting birthrates, perhaps the greatest evidence for Murray’s claim of “existential nihilism” are the accounts of European converts to Islam. Does the continent’s heritage have nothing to offer her restless youth? Without any narrative beyond market prosperity or individual rights, Europe cannot discover the courage to police its borders and define itself clearly to new immigrants.
What hope can Murray leave anxious readers? He concludes with several policies he now believes lie beyond the capacity of European leaders and publics. But at their root is the recovery by both secular and religious Europeans of a shared civilizational home—and a “tragic sense of life” to know its fragility. Only a Europe “with some deep sense of purpose” will have the ability to extend compassion to the stranger and apply appropriate limits. It will have the courage to face threats both blatant and subtle, be it Salafism or a leveling multiculturalism. It will not denounce the human need to preserve the continuity of a specific society—the Burkean “deep bond between the dead, the living, and the yet to be born”—as bigotry or, at best, “cultural anxiety.”
Let us hope Murray’s profound meditation has not arrived too late. For if there is still time, he may yet be Europe’s Jonah, not Jeremiah. The Strange Death of Europe can be a warning inspiring statesmanship, not—as the author himself expects—a eulogy for the old continent.
David Jimenez, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College, teaches English and American Studies in Romania and is a contributor to the national political weekly Revista 22.