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Doug Saunders on His New Book, George Bush and Multiculturalism

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Journalist Doug Sanders, whose latest book The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten The West? (Random House Canada) tackles (and pretty much straightens out) the laundry-list of misconceptions and falsehoods that has made its way from the fringe to the forefront of the public domain about Muslim immigration and the West. During this in-depth conversation, Saunders shares with me surprising stats, the international scope of the Muslim Tide rhetoric and how George W. Bush was key in stifling the growing anti-Muslim & anti-immigration rhetoric within his own party.

The beginning of The Muslim Tide:

Doug Saunders: As the bureau chief for The Globe and Mail from 2004 onwards, I was thrown into the centre of a very heated situation involving immigrant neighbourhoods populated with Turks and Moroccans in Europe. [These communities] had become the centre of many controversies after September 11.

My first book Arrival City was an analysis at how integration either worked or failed based on functioning of neighbourhoods. I noticed what was happening and what was being said as these neighbourhoods were being turned into examples for a whole host of best-selling books in Germany and in The Netherlands, U.K., U.S. and Canada.

Neighbourhoods in Belgium, The Netherlands, in Norway and in Berlin were described as threats to our civilization, to our values of tolerance and equality and so on. And you can find people in those neighbourhoods who held values that were contradictory to what I call "Universal Western Values."

That became a bit of an investigation to see what was happening. The first thing I started looking at was population trends as one of the more alarming things that were being said was that Muslims, unlike other religious minorities, were reproducing at a greater rate and were poised to become a majority in some European country or some European city.

That was one of the easier things to find the truth on because there has been a great understanding in population growth rates in recent years.

The Concept of 'The Muslim':

DS: I redefine the concept "The Muslim," in this book. I say 'lets put aside the fact that we are talking about 20 different cultures and 50 different languages and several different races and also a dozen different practices and traditions of Islam' which are quite varied in practices and interpretations as Christians and Judaism are.

Around last summer around the time of Anders Breivik's massacre [in Norway] I realized that in those columns I've written, some of these facts needed bolstering. Breivik had killed 77 people based on a set of ideas that were floating out there in the popular imagination that were the subject of all sorts of things in the media and books and so on.

I knew that several of those ideas were demonstrably false, beside the point or needed to be seen in the context of religious minorities coming into the west. I approached the publisher saying that there should be a book listing all the facts but also telling the tale of what happens when religious minorities from different cultures who are often seen as different civilizations immigrate to the west.

Fear of Islam vs. Fear of 'The Muslim':

DS: It was a book I wanted to write in less than a year, between August and February. And I also wanted to have it be very solid and irrefutable. It was very important to me not to make it a debunking book in the usual sense. I wanted to include information that contradicts the main hypothesis of the book. I did not want to pretend and say that Muslims are integrating with beautiful efficiency. I did not want to claim that Islam is a religion of peace. I didn't use the word Islamophobia anywhere in this book. I don't have a problem with someone being afraid of Islam or of any other religion. If you believe in it, it's peaceful, if you don't believe in it, it's a threat. I know too many secular Muslims from Iran, who regard Islam as a threat.

The fear of Muslims is a whole different matter. That is where we need to separate that. A lot of literature, which is supposed to be about Islamic extremism, segue very quickly into suggesting that your every day Muslim is party to these things. You get authors such as Mark Steyn and Bruce Bawer who say there is no such thing as a moderate or secular Muslim, that even a moderate [Muslim} is part of a chain of belief that is connected to extremism.

There are two ways you can go about examining that claim. One way is theologically by looking at the Quran, [noting] what the Imams are saying and examining what the teachings are. I don't think that's a useful way of doing it. Religion's manifestation in the world is not by a set of scriptures or teachings but by a set of actions in the world. If you take Catholic doctrines literally as a description of what Catholics are they would all have nine children as birth control is illegal and they would be a very conservative group. If you look at the average at what Catholics do, they have the lowest birth rates in the world if you take a look at the numbers in Poland, Italy and other Catholic countries, and they pick and choose various beliefs. "Catholic" is more a badge of identity, and of pride and mutual connection to a common home of beliefs.

Deja Vu: Catholic Tide of the 50s:

DS: Phrases [to describe Catholic immigrants] were used like "this is not so much a religious faith but an ideology of conquest." It was denounced by The New York Times and by congressional leaders. As much as it's said about Muslims [today], there is a solid block of people who could say it and not really get questioned too much.

One thing people always throw back is that Muslims are coming from a different civilization. Catholic and Eastern European Jews are coming from Europe and Muslims are coming from the "East." And if you look at the history behind this, you'll find that Ashkenazi Jews from Poland or the Catholics from Italy were coming from a much more alien civilization than somebody from Tehran or Karachi or Cairo is today. Because at that time what I call the values of enlightenment and values of secularism and equality hadn't really penetrated the fringes of Europe. They were living life and were very conservative and guided by a total religious faith. When things happened, God did them.

Most Muslims from those countries have much more in common with North America and Europe now than the fringes of Europe did a hundred years ago. Generally speaking, your average person from Iran or Pakistan is going to subscribe to the notion of the state being somewhat a separate entity from religious life. One of the speed bumps is an acceptance in those values for sure.

Multiculturalism vs. 'The Muslim':

DS: I started off this book without questioning the concept of multiculturalism. I, frankly, as a native born Canadian, didn't find it problematic at all. It was more about different food being available on the street. But that's not multiculturalism that's pluralism.

Multiculturalism is a concept that we have not questioned properly.

When I started talking to people from immigrant families, a surprising number of people whose parents are from the Indian subcontinent or from the Middle East didn't like the idea of multiculturalism. I noticed in England that there is an ethnic anti-multiculturalism [movement] from the Left. There are people from immigrant backgrounds who aren't conservative who think multiculturalism is a bad idea because that often meant that their community was organized by the government giving money to the Mosque to organize their neighbourhood. Therefore their community got defined by that Mosque. I think there are well-intentioned -- although not well thought out multiculturalism policies in the west that help promote this idea of "The Muslim."

A lot of second-generation young people embraced "The Muslim" because it was a badge of identity that worked for them. I was going to York University in the late '80s and early '90s and my friends were daughters of liberal people who came from places like Lebanon and Pakistan and their mothers would not have worn a hijab. But they did. It became the thing to do. Oddly a lot of them at the same time were embracing feminism and these two things didn't seem contradictory. In England, Bangladeshi Muslim women in London, were more independent and educated and embraced feminism and adopted the hijab. So it's a lot more complicated than just a group of people grasping for an identity.

I don't think we can say that a rise in people calling themselves Muslim than calling themselves "Pakistani-Canadians" means that religious extremism is taking over. I don't think that people praying five times a day are necessary a threat.

Devotion vs. Extremism:

DS: I was surprised to find how little connection there was between religious devotion and extremism. I'll confess that it confronted some of my own prejudices. I used to think that very religious people as being extreme. I'm not religious and I know that very religious people tend to be conservative. It seemed natural that therefore people committing violence in the name of religion were religious.

I was doing a story on the Finsbury Park Mosque, which was near my house in London and one of the ways they got the Al Qaeda supporters -- Abu Hamza and the gang -- out of the Mosque was by the police working with the Salafists in the neighbourhood. The Salafists were the most aggressive in getting the Al Qaeda supporters out. They didn't like the association. It was controversial. Even though it succeeded, Prime Minister David Cameron shut down that police operation because it involved having Salafists and Islamists work for the police force. But whatever the merits of that operation was, it made me realize that there is a disconnect there. There is a huge body of police work that kept coming to the same conclusion that the most religious people aren't extremists and extremists are often very unreligious.

I've been to various trials of sleeper cells even before September 11. I was at the trial in Los Angeles for the Y2K bomber from Montreal, Ahmed Rassam who is not a religious guy at all. Every terrorist cell trial I've been to, it was these are guys that liked prostitutes and booze. Not at all religious.

It's their personal/political beliefs, their alienation in society, their desire to be a big man or a belief that western troops in the Land of Islam was an insult to them. They would adopt the religious ideas after that. It was never people who were from a tight knit community either; it was always the loners who lived on the outside.

U.S. Conservative Lobby vs. George W. Bush:

DS: The average Muslim in the United States is completely different than the group of Muslims in Europe. Muslims in Europe are Moroccans from the Reef regions of the North, which is very poor and isolated. Or they are Turks from the Anatolian plains or South East Turkey, or Pakistanis from Mirapur or the very remote parts of Pakistan/Kashmir. In Europe it's the very poor and rural Muslims that are coming to Europe and a lot of the tensions have to do with their rural to urban transition.

Muslims coming to the U.S. and to lesser extent, to Canada, are highly educated secular elites. So it's a bit absurd that there is this hysterical notion with Newt Gingrich going on about this "stealth Sharia Law." It's partly because it's the way conservative lobbyism works. That a handful of really extreme bloggers like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer who always were on the extreme fringe for about 15 years with their support of the Serbian side of the Bosnian war etc, suddenly get this huge wack of money from Conservative organizations. Part of it is due to the real power vacuum in the Republican Party that happened when George W. Bush left office.

As absurd as it sounds now, George W. Bush was a moderate particularly on matters of immigration. We forget that he ran his 2000 campaign on the platform of giving amnesty and citizenship to Central American and Mexican immigrants.

He made many unwise decisions to put it mildly in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but one of his wiser decisions was not to implicate Muslims in the west in any of this stuff. There were obvious orders going throughout the party because everyone shut up. The Republicans in Congress didn't go on about it. Maybe because [George W. Bush] was religious or maybe he knew that it would cause a lot of problems, but whatever the case, it was taboo.

Then all of a sudden all the Bush people were gone and [Muslim Tide rhetoric] became acceptable. Not with everyone but with a surprising number of people. The first thing was the controversy over what they called The Ground Zero Mosque. It was apparent the noise was coming not from a broad base but from a few people who were getting a lot funding all of a sudden. That controversy lasted as long as the funding lasted. Nobody talks about that anymore. But the [Muslim Tide] view spread into the Republican leadership campaign to a surprising degree. Mitt Romney, to his credit, never embraced this idea perhaps because he comes from a somewhat persecuted religious minority himself. Even his Vice Presidential candidate [Paul Ryan] doesn't embrace this idea as far as I can tell.

But at least four to five leading Republican candidates were making speeches in which they were saying that there was a secret threat to impose Sharia Law on the American people. The implication in that statement was that the average Muslim in the U.S. was supporting the imposition of religious law and were also disloyal to the values of the U.S.

It's a very serious accusation with historical resonances. It went on without questioning. It became a common set of assumptions. Usually it's a single survey or a set of anecdotes that would be mentioned over and over again. Everybody always say that there's this survey with something like 7 per cent of Muslims in the U.S. supports the idea of violence again civilians if the cause is right, which is true but it's also true that 12 times as many non-Muslim Americans support this idea. The question shouldn't be why are Muslim Americans supporting the idea of violence against civilians for a just cause but it should be why are so many fewer Muslim Americans than regular Americans supporting this idea. The answer is probably because Muslim American families tend to be the main victims of this violence.

Timing of Muslim Tide:

The book is published in the U.S., Canada and soon in Germany. I wanted this to be a pamphlet type of book people buy to give to their uncle who keeps railing on about Muslim immigration (laughs). Everyone has an uncle like that. Part of the reason why [now] it's because of the elections coming up in the U.S. and in Germany where these things are in the air.

You can never completely clear the air with a book, but I wanted something out there to calm people down a bit.

Final Thoughts:

DS: The main message is to pay attention to change. If you are looking at the people in your midst don't look at them as fixed entities or points in time. Look at them as people going through a process just like most immigrant Canadians did before them. Some of us entered the country as somewhat poor and somewhat religious and somewhat as an outsider.

If we see people who are very different we should realize they are adjusting and changing. That does not necessarily mean that it's all going right. We shouldn't turn a blind eye to excesses, pretend that violent extremism, religious politics or honour killings are normal.

Broadly speaking, immigrants themselves very much embrace what I would call the "Core Values of Western Society" which is to say, respect for secular institutions of law and government, acceptance of broadly speaking social equality and tolerance for your neighbour's different beliefs.

The divergence from those core values among Muslims is similar among other religious minorities in Canada and is quickly converging. It's taking a lot of families two to three generations, what my family took 10 generations to do.

Not to regard western society as being such a fragile weak thing that it can be toppled by a fairly small group of struggling immigrants. I mean that's absurd. If it's that weak then why bother with it?