Confronting fears of Eurabia - Courrier International and Newsweek

The French weekly Courrier International and the mainstream US weekly magazine Newsweek deal with growing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments in Europe fueled by statistics portending to show that countries such as Germany and France will have Muslim majority populations by the turn of the century.
Eurabia flag

BEIRUT, July 20, 2009 (MENASSAT) - In his much-heralded speech in Cairo on June 4th, which sought to improve relations with the “Muslim world,” US President Obama also criticized European hostility to Islam:

“It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit -- for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.  We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

This remark was widely seen as a reference to France’s ongoing saga in regards to the hijab. France banned women from wearing the veil in public schools in 2004. Obama’s speech was followed—two weeks later—by French President Sarkozy’s address to France’s parliament.

In a two-hour speech that ran the gamut from the economic crisis to secularism, Sarkozy also responded to Obama’s comments about Muslim women’s clothes: "The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."

Controversially, Sarkozy recommended the formation of a committee that would study the banning of the burqa --and niqab-- in public all together. And while such a move would be practically unenforceable, Sarkozy’s speech ignited a furious debate, overshadowing much of the rest of his address.

Courrier International (CI), a weekly magazine that translates and publishes excerpts from hundreds of newspapers, devoted the cover of its last issue to the burqa debate, under the Shakespearean headline,  “To Burqa or not?” CI included in its coverage, excerpts from the Arab media, including editorials that defended Sarkozy’s condemnation of the burqa:

Le Quotidien d’Oran, from Algeria wrote, “It is their [the French] right to say they do not appreciate the burqa and they don’t want it!… [W]earing the burqa is also a way of saying to France we don’t respect some of its traditions, including secularism.”

Recently suspended Emarat Al-Youm from Dubaï condemned the response to Sarkozy’s speech: “Arabs and Muslims have commented in an aggressive way on Sarkozy’s refusal of the niqab, notably on Internet.  One has to say Arabs relish in throwing themselves in lost battles and like to talk about other people’s problems in order to steer away from their own.  Some of them are now trying to be more democratic than the French and want to give lessons on women’s rights when, in their own countries, women are deprived of even the most basic rights.  We have to understand this is a purely French issue."

CI’s own editorial emphasized the perceived conflict between the values of the French revolution and the burqa:  “Either we choose, as the English do, to consider the question from a freedom perspective, and in that case nothing justifies taking away anyone’s right to dress as they see fit.

"Either, as the republican tradition urges us to, we concentrate on equality, and the burqa appears an odious discrimination of women, a hindrance to their freedom (…), maybe we should add a bit of fraternity – to this dogmatic perspective. If they [the Muslims] do not feel their identity is being threatened, they may soon abandon these traditions from another continent."

At the heart of the burqa controversy, and debates about Muslim “integration” in Europe, lie demographic fears about a burgeoning Muslim population. Anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments have been fueled by statistics that portend to show that countries such as Germany and France will have Muslim majority populations by the turn of the century.

Newsweek enters the fray

This week Newsweek International, the US’s second largest weekly news magazine, entered the debate with an article entitled “Debunking the Myth of Eurabia.”

Eurabia—a neologism that is predicated on the fear that Europe will be subsumed by the Arab world due to Muslim immigration and cowardly European governments capitulating to Islamic influences—was first coined by Bat Ye’or in her 2005 book "Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis."  As the headline suggests, the article by William Underhill contends that fears of a Muslim takeover are unfounded.

Underhill writes, “The argument has been gaining ground for some time—fed by alarmist and highly speculative projections […] that immigration and high birthrates could mean that Muslims will make up 40 percent of Europe's population by 2025. Similar and very public warnings have come from American diplomat Timothy Savage, who claimed that forecasts of a Muslim majority in Western Europe by midcentury ‘may not be far off the mark’ if present trends continue, which would heighten the risk of conflict."

"The British historian Niall Ferguson has written that 'a youthful Muslim society to the south and east of the Mediterranean is poised to colonize—the term is not too strong—a sene-scent Europe.' And the American journalist Christopher Caldwell forecasts that an ‘anchored’ and ‘confident’ Islam looks likely to impose its will on an ‘insecure’ and ‘relativistic’ European culture. The gloomiest commentators, including Steyn and the conservative American writer Tony Blankley, talk of an emerging ‘Eurabia’ hostile to American interests and in thrall to Islam.”

Newsweek contends that “For the number of Muslims to outnumber non-Muslims by midcentury, it would require either breeding on a scale rarely seen in history or for immigration to continue at a pace that's now politically unacceptable. More likely, new controls will slow Muslim immigration. The birthrate for Muslim immigrants is also likely to continue to decline, as it has tended to do, with greater affluence and better health care.”

While Newsweek might seek to negate prophesies of “Eurabia” by pointing out that Muslim immigrants will in fact not outnumber white Europeans in the near future, they risk playing into a narrative of “otherness,” where fears of frenetic “breeding” can be controlled and immigration can thankfully be thwarted.

Fear of a Muslim majority unwarranted

Newsweek does however confront the stereotype of a monolithic Muslim population:

“Moreover, the myth of Eurabia implies the existence of a united Islam, a bloc capable of collective and potentially dangerous action. The truth is that there are no powerful Muslim political movements in Europe, either continent-wide or at the national level, and the divisions that separate Muslims worldwide, most obviously between Sunnis and Shiites, are apparent in Europe as well.”

Again, Muslims in great numbers are depicted as “potentially dangerous.” 

But Newsweek also cites figures that show that Muslims in Europe have different views on a number of issues-- French Muslims and German Muslims differ on sex before marriage or homosexuality, with a substantial percentage of Muslims also viewing themselves as having no religion.

Criticism of Eurabia has come from European commentators, and the theory of Eurabia has been compared to anti-Semitic writings. British journalist Johann Hari compared Eurabia fearmongering to  anti-Semitism and says that "there are intellectuals on the British right who are propagating a conspiracy theory about Muslims that teeters very close to being a 21st century Protocols of the Elders of Mecca."

Regardless of the Newsweek’s article’s shortcomings, it is worth noting that a conservative US magazine would take the initiative and confront Europe’s alarmist approach to its Muslim inhabitants.

One reason perhaps why a relatively conservative US media outlet might seem less hysterical than its European counterparts, is because the US does not have a significant Muslim population. In fact if we compare demographic anxieties about other migrants in the US—notably Mexicans and other Latin Americans—we might see similar concerns and thinly veiled bigotry about a Hispanic-majority voiced by many a talking head on TV.

Newsweek may also now be echoing the new U.S. commander-in-chief who has said that seeks improved relations with the Muslim world, even with the continued occupation of two countries in the region.