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Doug Saunders: The groundless fear of Muslim immigration Add to ...

The “Muslim tide” was a dominant trope in the U.S. Republican Party’s leadership race, with at least four major candidates parroting Newt Gingrich’s line about a secret plot among ordinary Muslims to impose “stealth sharia” on America. This summer, a circle of Congressmen made claims, on no credible evidence, that the most prominent Muslim officials in the U.S. government are somehow tied to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Perhaps not coincidentally, violent attacks on mosques have increased sharply. And this week, a guilty verdict was handed down to Anders Behring Breivik, who produced the Muslim-tide ideology’s first terrorist atrocity. When he killed 77 people in a truck bombing and shooting spree in Oslo last summer, he left behind a 1,518-page manifesto that explained his act: Most of it was a pastiche of passages by activists such as Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Gisele Littman and Canadian Mark Steyn – none of whom has ever explicitly advocated violence, but whose visions of a civilizational invasion became his justification for mass killing.

His manifesto also included the words used in his legal defence: “The individuals I have been accused of illegally executing are all … supporters of the anti-European hate ideology known as multiculturalism, an ideology that facilitates Islamisation and Islamic demographic warfare … I must be must be allowed to prove that I executed these traitors in order to prevent them from continuing to contribute to the ongoing process of cultural and demographical genocide and extermination.”

The millions of otherwise moderate and reasonable people who have bought, and sometimes enjoyed, books by the same authors who inspired Mr. Breivik probably don’t believe their more ornate notions of a Muslim-immigrant plot to take over the West. Rather, they are seeking a narrative to explain the simultaneous appearance of Muslim immigrants and Islamic political violence in the headlines.


The Catholic scare

The unease I felt on the sidewalks and buses of our London neighbourhood was not a novel sensation.

If I had lived there a dozen decades earlier, I would have watched the streets fill with suspicious-looking men and women wearing identity-concealing head scarves. Their families were widely believed to belong to an alien civilization. They segregated themselves from the native-born population, were guided by a deeply conservative religion that seemed at odds with modern values, and had the world’s highest reproduction rate. And they were using my neighbourhood to plot a wave of terrorist attacks that killed more Londoners and caused more political alarm than the jihadist attacks of the new millennium.

Today, the Irish Catholics I’m describing are simply part of the neighbourhood’s mix, their pubs and churches an integral part of London’s culture. But for seven decades, Roman Catholics and East European Jews were widely regarded as disloyal, impossible-to-integrate members of an outside civilization. And not just in Britain: If you lived in Canada or the United States in 1950, you would have been aware of a certain type of immigrant seemingly determined to impose their values on their new home – guided by a religion that was not so much a faith as an ideology of conquest.

One of the bestselling books of the period, American Freedom and Catholic Power by Paul Blanshard, argued that Catholic culture is “a survival of mediaeval authoritarianism that has no rightful place in the democratic American environment.” The book was endorsed by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, and had great influence in Congress and academia.

In Canada, Italians, along with most other southern European Catholics, were classed as “non-preferred.” One government memo of the time said of the Italian Catholic worker: “even his civilization seems so different that I doubt if he could even become an asset to our country.” Outside of Quebec, it was quite normal to describe Catholic immigrants as an unwelcome and dangerous addition – and their “civilization” probably appeared (and in some ways was) more alien to Anglo-Americans than that of most urban Muslims today.

These statements sound like grotesque religious prejudice today, but to many they seemed well-justified at the time. After all, most Catholic countries had fallen to fascism or religious extremism; Catholic immigrant neighbourhoods were crime-ridden, violent and impoverished; and the worst acts of North American terrorism to that point had been committed by people from Catholic backgrounds. Who wouldn’t look askance at their Catholic neighbours?

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