Eight years ago, when I moved to London to run this newspaper’s European bureau, I found my domestic life unfolding in the epicentre of a cultural upheaval – some were already calling it a civilizational clash – that would dominate the politics of Europe, and then of North America, for years to come.
By that point, my North London neighbourhood had changed. The sidewalks of its haphazard shopping street, Holloway Road, were peppered with women in hijab (and occasionally full niqab) and men in beards and shalwar kameez. Pubs and fish-and-chips shops had been displaced by Turkish kebab houses, money-transfer joints and Internet cafes with opaque Arabic signs.
This had been an immigrant neighbourhood for 140 years, but these latest immigrants attracted more attention. It sometimes seemed as if Islam were everywhere. Our after-school babysitter, a French girl from an Alpine village who had been partial to all-night raves, abruptly converted to the faith of her Algerian friends and took to covering her head and praying five times a day. It made her no less attentive to our children, but more sombre and less willing to eat our food.
Even as my children befriended the Usamas and Leilas in their primary-school classes and the parents of those children became our doctors and shopkeepers, the neighbourhood showed a more ominous face. Our local Muslim house of worship, the Finsbury Park Mosque, was raided by hundreds of police just before my arrival. Its imam – a one-eyed, hook-handed Egyptian-born former mujahedeen fighter who called himself Abu Hamza and was known in the tabloids as “hooky mullah” – was arrested on 16 charges of incitement of murder, terrorism and race hatred after harbouring al-Qaeda activists and delivering sermons calling for the murder of non-Muslims in Islamic lands.
And then, less than a year later, suicide bombs tore through the public-transit system, blowing both legs off one of my neighbours. The attacks were committed by British-born Muslims from Leeds who didn’t appear all that different from some of the guys we saw on Holloway Road.
Given those experiences, who wouldn’t look askance at the new neighbours? The appearance of visibly different immigrants from a minority religion, who tended to be poor and prone to conservative beliefs, was enough of a shock – that their influx coincided with the rise of an extremist political movement obsessed with Western presence in the “land of Islam” and bent on violence made it seem more than just shocking.
For a while, I myself would cast a sidelong glance at the bearded guy on the bus and think, “Could he be one?” I’d look at the packs of children accompanying the covered women and wonder if our values – especially of gender and sexual equality – would someday become a minority creed. For all of us, it was hard not to quietly ask: Were these pockets of violence and radicalism an inevitable extension of these immigrants’ everyday beliefs? Were they all potential extremists, commanded by their religion to resist cooperation and integration? Was it always going to be like this?
A surging ‘Muslim tide’
It was around that time that a new “Muslim tide” argument appeared on blogs, YouTube videos, in newspaper columns and bestselling books, offering an easy “yes” to these questions.
Yes, it said, these immigrants are different from earlier groups. They are driven by their religion, not by the laws and social codes of their new homes. They are reproducing at an unusually rapid pace, with fertility rates far higher than those of exhausted Western populations, and are poised to become a majority. And, yes, that is a danger because they are loyal not to their host society but to Islam, which, as these writers and activists see it, is not so much a faith as an ideology of conquest.
These claims began with obscure blog posts and work by hardcore anti-Muslim activists, but around 2005 they spread to popular books by authors such as Bruce Bawer, Christopher Caldwell and Thilo Sarrazin. Eventually, they also erupted into national politics in a dozen countries.
They turned single-issue politicians, such as the Dutch anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders, into powerful figures. They became a motif in Quebec politics: “Muslim tide” rhetoric lay behind Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois’s push to ban Muslim garb, as it did behind Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay’s declaration that PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib was trying to “dictate how we behave” and impose her non-Christian “rules” on his province.