Donald Trump’s call to bar Muslims from the United States provoked the following exchange with two young friends of mine: “If the choice was between Muslim immigration and preserving liberal moral values,” I asked, “which would you choose?” They both denied the question’s premise. The immigrants themselves, they suggested, might have reactionary moral codes, but their children, growing up in today’s Britain, America, or Continental Europe, would be quite different. But is that true?
My question focused not on Islamist terrorism – the ostensible ground of Trump’s outburst – but on the threat posed by large-scale Muslim immigration to the code of morals that my young friends, like most educated Europeans, now accept without question. Terrorism aside, wouldn’t they worry if Islam came to have a growing influence on British law and politics?
Liberals have not worried about ethnic demographics, because they assume that individuals eventually identify with the host society’s norms. The standard argument is that immigrants enrich the host, while leaving any incompatible characteristics at home. In particular, their political behavior will fall into line with that of the general population.
If this is right, the sociopolitical impact of a change in the ethnic composition of a population is neutral, or even beneficial. Immigrants from Algeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Turkey will, in the course of a generation or two, become European in outlook and politics. Their religion will become for them a private matter, as it now is for most Europeans, and they will become integrated in all important respects.
Economists regard migration as a movement of individuals in search of a better life and call for more immigration to offset population aging, or to provide workers to do the “dirty jobs.” But such evocations of “economic man” miss a key dimension of migration: People carry their culture with them across political frontiers. We should not assume that economic success automatically leads to cultural convergence.
This brings us back to Trump. Whatever happens in the US, Muslim immigration into Europe will continue and even expand in the next few years. The Syrian catastrophe alone ensures this. Everything that dialogue and education can do to close the gap between immigrant and host communities should be done. But it may not be possible to prevent a return to religious politics – and the conflict which religious bigotry brings. If we are to avoid sleepwalking into a highly troublesome future, we must recognize that failed integration, not terrorism, is the main danger we face.
Vir: Robert Skidelsky, Project Syndicate