The following is a response to Eric Kaufmann’s article ‘Europe’s Muslim Future’, which appeared the April 2010 issue of Prospect (issue 169).

The demographic threat of Europe’s growing Muslim population to its culture and identity is a dog-whistle trope in the many contemporary debates about Muslims, immigration, integration and multiculturalism: barely audible at mainstream frequencies, it nevertheless possesses a shrill power to to conjure up from the submerged depths of Europe’s collective unconscious all sorts of phantoms and fantasies about the Muslim ‘Other’. So Eric Kaufmann’s careful scrutiny and forensic demolition of the ‘Eurabian’ claims in April’s issue of Prospect was entirely welcome. Such claims invariably prey on ignorance and fear and wither when exposed to the cold light of fact and the illumination of rational analysis.

Kaufmann’s conclusions concerning the veracity of the Eurabian hypotheses rest on the claim that ‘[d]emography is the most predictable of social science, much more so than economics,’ and whilst this is perfectly adequate in assessing the Eurabianist arguments since these are made on demographic grounds, other aspects of his wider argument are problematic precisely because there are good reasons to doubt the maxim he proposes that ‘demography is destiny’.

Although demography may be perfectly capable of quantifying and projecting the size and scope of populations and groups, it is much less adequate in analysing the nature of those populations, especially when it comes to questions concerning culture, ethnicity, identity and ideology. These depend less on the numbers of people per se (the realm of demography) and more on what goes on inside their heads. It would be a crude kind of empiricism that truly advances the idea that demography can analyse and illuminate the more nebulous aspects of social life in the way psychology or the study of ideology and culture can, but that is what Kaufmann seems to suggest (the ‘demography is destiny’ epithet is clearly an allusion to Freud’s ‘biology is destiny’).

Unsurprisingly, he addresses the question of ‘integration’ primarily in demographic terms. ‘Intermarriage is arguably the best barometer of assimilation,’ he suggests and, leaving aside the many slippages in the article that conflate ‘integration’ with ‘assimilation, I am inclined to agree: it is arguable. In fact, it is highly contestable since it could be argued that intermarriage represents merely one particular form of integration and not the sum of all possible paths towards it. Of course, intermarriage is exactly the kind of integration a demographer can evaluate because it can be reduced to bare statistics. As it happens, Kaufmann himself acknowledges other – more important – forms of integration that are also demographically analysable. He notes, for example, the ‘assimilation’ of European Muslim fertility rates to ‘host society norms’ – an ‘integration’ based on the movement towards European family, work and social patterns but not on intermarriage. This is just one aspect of the Europeanization of Muslim that many studies have already noticed (including a recent Europe-wide survey of Muslim attitudes, opinions and behaviours),[1] some of which can be measured, whilst others must be observed and analysed using different methodology.

Another path to integration that Kaufmann considers is ‘secularism’. Being an ideological issue, this is clearly less comfortable terrain for a demographer, but Kaufmann tackles it anyway. ‘If Muslims are turning into secular Europeans,’ he says, ‘demography is immaterial.’ However, they are not (which is true, although of course, quite a lot are becoming more secular – as Kaufmann’s own data shows later in the article); and Kaufmann points out that Muslims under 25 are as devout as those over 55. ‘There is little evidence that time modifies this pattern,’ he observes. The trouble is, there is also little evidence that it it does not – Kaufmann’s point here is based on comparing only two generations. Even if the second generation remains as devout as the first, can we therefore conclude that future generations will follow the same pattern? If the data stretched over a longer period – say, over four or five generations – then probably we could, but given the short time that Muslims (as a significant social group) have been in Europe, the evidence is just not available yet to be able to draw such a conclusion (although the synchronic comparison with West Indians remain valid).

Beyond that, there is a deeper point to be made. Even if the numbers of devout first- and second-generation Muslims remain the same, it does not follow that the nature of their faith does too. What does being Muslim mean to first and second generation Muslims? There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that Islam is understood and practised very differently by these generations. Islam is more individualized, faith-based, and more ideological (though not necessarily in a political way) for younger Muslims than for their elders, for whom it formed part of the fabric of their social lives and community structures.

This is very important because it is central to assessing the validity of the argument presented in the second half of the article concerning the growing conflict between ‘seculars’ and religious ‘fundamentalists’. As I have argued in Prospect articles, there are emergent ways of being a devout Muslim in Britain and Europe that occupy a variety of positions in the wide middle ground between becoming ‘secular’ (whatever that might mean) and being ‘fundamentalist’ (see ‘A Muslim Middle Way?’ and ‘British Islam after Rushdie’).

Kaufmann, however, sees no such possibilities, and he prepares the ground for his wider argument by suggesting that if younger Muslims are changing, they are becoming more ‘fundamentalist’. To do this, he cites the (in)famous statistic from the flawed (but not uninteresting) Policy Exchange report on British Muslims published in 2007, which suggested that 37% of Muslims aged 16-24 wanted Sharia law compared to just 17% of those aged over 55. This sort of data, on which Kaufmann bases his wider argument, illustrates very precisely the limitations of quantitative as opposed to qualitative social and cultural analysis because it tells us almost nothing about what those 37% take the question to mean. What does ‘Sharia’ mean to them? In what sense do they ‘want to live’ under it?

In my book Young British Muslim Voices I asked my respondents (aged 16-30) to talk about their attitudes to Sharia law. Of those who did express a desire for Sharia, when pressed to explain what that might mean in practice, all hedged their responses with so many qualifications that the concept of Sharia itself became completely attenuated. It represented nothing more than a utopian desire to see some kind of correlation between their faith and the reality of living as a minority in a non-Muslim society. It is a symptom of living amongst what Ziauddin Sardar calls the ‘wreckage of [their] heritage’ – an elegaic yearning for a lost time when Islam was dominant, and also a sign that being a Muslim in Europe is still a work in progress.

The lived complexity behind such raw statistics is one of the reasons I find the argument presented in the second half of Kaufmann’s article unconvincing. Another reason is the fact that it rests on a continual conflation of three different terms that can mean very different things in relation to the kind of faith people profess, but which are lumped together as equivalents in order to suggest an ideological faultline between ‘seculars’ and ‘fundmentalists’. The entire second half of the article rests on the conflation of ‘devout’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘orthodox’ (there is, likewise, a conflation of ‘liberals’ and ‘seculars’).

‘Across all creeds, theological conservatives are expanding at the expense of seculars and liberals,’ says Kaufmann, and whilst this may be true does this mean that all ‘practising Catholics’ are ‘theologically conservative’ just because they happen to ‘attend church regularly’? In turn, are they equivalent to the ‘devout’ European Muslim women who ‘pray daily,’ and are they, in their turn, really comparable to the ‘women most in favour of Sharia law’ in ‘the large cities of the Muslim world’? Moreover, when comparing the 86% of ‘practising Catholics’ who voted for John F Kennedy in 1960 with the 74% of ‘young conservative Catholics’ who opted for George W. Bush, is Kaufmann really comparing like with like? Only if you take ‘practising’, ‘conservative’, ‘devout’, and ‘orthodox’ to be descriptors that are self-evidently equivalent. In turn, these can all only be adduced as composite evidence for a basic distinction between ‘seculars’ and ‘fundamentalists’ if all of the above are equivalent to ‘fundamentalist’. That is highly improbable and unconvincing, both as a matter of fact, and of logic.

Even more problematically, having lumped all these various shades of believers together under the rubric of ‘fundamentalism’, Kaufmann argues that there is now an interfaith fundamentalism that augurs the coming ‘culture war’ between ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘seculars’. The strategic alliances he describes are no doubt happening, but the idea that such co-operation between certain organizations somehow prefigures a battle within society at large rests on the dangerous – and totally mistaken – assumption that such groups truly represent all religious believers in their respective faiths (except the ‘liberals’ who are, of course, ‘secular’). Islamists, for example, represent a tiny fraction of Europe’s Muslims, and the same is true of other fundamentalist groups from other faiths. To suggest otherwise is to give such groups unwarranted importance and representative prestige.

In effect, these cumulative conflations have the rhetorical effect of emptying out the chaotic, unorganised, highly fluid and mutable middle ground in favour of a spurious polarisation. It is precisely this middle ground that offers the necessary room for accommodation between different ideological trends in the Pluropa that Kaufmann rightly forecasts; in erasing it, Kaufmann denies the very possibility of accommodation between different sets of beliefs.

Far from relying purely on analysis of ‘hard’ data, Kaufmann’s argument in fact rests on an interpretative metaphor, that of divergence rather than convergence. There are, of course, undeniable trends towards ideological divergence in contemporary Europe, but there are also counter-trends towards convergence. Islamisms, for instance, are declining as an ideological force amongst European Muslims at grassroots level, as other forms of Europeanized Islam emerge to challenge and confront it. These have converged towards rather than diverged from European ideological norms.

The point is, in order to penetrate the fog of complexity that surrounds social life in Europe today, demography may help but it is almost certainly insufficient. Quantitative social analysis of this kind has its place – and Kaufmann uses it well where it is appropriate – but a proper understanding of our social relations also requires painstaking qualitative analysis of what people actually think, feel and believe – and the ways in which they express them. We should beware the tyranny of numbers.

[1] Muslims in Europe: A Report on 11 EU Cities, ‘At Home in Europe Project’, London: Open Society Institute, 2009.