Misrecognising the problem: Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe
“Europe is committing suicide” is the dramatic opening line of The Strange Death of Europe, and within the next 320 pages Douglas Murray, the British journalist and commentator, puts together an array of political soundbites, incidents gathered from mainstream news, his own interviews with various migrants encountered on trips within Europe and a series of meditations on culture, identity and religion to push a single argument: that Europe as we know it is doomed to self-destruction, and that Islam will have a central part to play in this auto-annihilation.
As my review of this book is going to be largely negative, I will try – in the spirit of the European-Enlightenment-objectivity Murray so admires – to begin with three positive things the book does, and does very well. The first is that reading the book does flag an important set of questions: how does a culture die? How important are demographic changes in this death? When one part of the planet attracts more humans to it than another, are there physical practical limits to this process? At what point is it ethically legitimate to call for this process to stop? Regardless of whether the reader is on the right or left, reading the book does intiate a series of such philosophical questions, and as an intellectual exercise this is a virtue of the book.
Another function the book performs is as an important challenge to political correctness. There are all kinds of reasons – reactionary as well as radical – to be frustrated with PC-culture and identity politics, but in its best moments, Murray’s book draws attention to a liberal desire for justice which can, at times, seem purely semantic. There is, for instance, the (admittedly ridiculous) example he gives of the American apologisers who travelled to Yasser Arafat in the 1990s to say ‘sorry’ for the Crusades (Arafat privately found it hilarious).
Murray also points out the eagerness with which European countries are vilified for not taking in enough Syrian refugees, while the Gulf countries which have played such a major role in stoking the conflict (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait) have been largely forgiven for taking in zero migrants. This has been contested by the Gulf countries themselves, citing the purported hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have already been accepted into Saudi Arabia/Qatar/Kuwait under work visas – though without any hope of citizenship.
In fact, Murray’s whole book takes aim at the way we are speaking about a problem he feels is not only imminent but systematically misrepresented – while we may not agree with his conclusions, The Strange Death of Europe does at least have the merit of making us reflect on some of the ways we avoid talking about crimes by Muslims or the violent history of some Muslim states.
Thirdly, the book does an excellent job of depicting a (mostly centrist) European political class almost completely in disarray. No doubt Murray’s own background as a journalist – he is associate editor of The Spectator – has enabled some of the intimacy with which he can report on a set of figures (Cameron/Merkel/Hollande) who come out of this at best clueless, at worst hopelessly cynical, as they maneuver from one media-event to another. The subtext of this representation is, in Murray’s own words, the complete “breakdown in trust between the electorate and their political representatives” (27), and the book ruthlessly depicts a governing elite utterly divorced from the people who have elected them. It is a depressing landscape – this world of posturing, and doublespeak, and image-obsession – and Murray paints it well, drawing on an insider’s knowledge of press-conferences and statements to produce a powerful attack on an entire political establishment.
And that, I’m afraid, is where my praise for the book comes to an end.
One-sided flow of information
The book has multiple flaws – flaws in structure, methodology, background preparation, choice of premise – which make it difficult to know where to begin with a critique. Perhaps the most obvious weakness is the staggeringly one-sided flow of statistics and examples, reflecting a clear decision to make the book a rhetorical, not an argumentative text: the reader is met head-on with an endless stream of Somali rapists, British Asian sex-traffickers, Pakistani terrorists, murderous Nigerians, homophobic Dutch imams, as example piles upon example in an Ann Coulter-like cascade of Islamic horror, clearly intended to culminate in the perfect synonymy of “Muslim” and “Evil”.
Murray has clearly considered his options, and seems to have settled for a strategy of semantic bombardment, rather than any engagment with counter-arguments and opposing narratives
The only ‘good’ Muslims that ever emerge are the victims of ‘bad’ Muslims (Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Glaswegian Ahmadi murdered by a Bradford Sunni fanatic). Every terrorist incident or attack invoked in the book is exclusively Islamic – especially curious, given the amount of attention Murray devotes to Sweden and Norway, is the absence of any reference to Anders Breivik, the neo-Nazi who single-handedly murdered 77 people in Oslo in 2011. Breivik, like Murray, nurtured the idea of a Europe under threat, besieged by Islam and irreversibly engaged in “cultural suicide”. The author of The Strange Death of Europe has clearly considered his options, and seems to have settled for a strategy of semantic bombardment, rather than any engagment with counter-arguments and opposing narratives.
Murray’s point concerning the exaggerated sensitivity among liberal commentators on all matters Islamic is noted – but is the right response really this intensive, relentless over-compensation? No one should fail to feel disgust at the Islamist terror attacks in Manchester, the sex-attacks in Berlin and Koln, the child prostitution-rings in Bradford and Sheffield…but is the best answer really to mock and belittle “the much-vaunted horror of ‘Islamophobia’ trailed by ‘anti-racists’ and others in Britain”?
Here Murray’s book loses credibility – in the year ending March 2017, the London Met has reported nearly 1,300 attacks on Muslims in the UK. Not just verbal abuse and headscarves ripped off (victims are predominantly women), but also injuries with broken bottles, stabbings, and most recently acid thrown over two Muslim cousins in a car while waiting at a traffic-light. Putting ‘Islamophobia’ in ironic scare-quotes lost me as a reader – and I don’t think I’m the only one.
Slack grasp of history
A second drawback to the book is its shallow, unproblematised and unresearched historical background. For well over 70 years now, scholars (Abulafia, Aydin, Brann, Bullitt, Catlos, Crews – I’ll stop at ‘C’) have been overturning the notion of a watertight Christian Europe and a Muslim non-Europe, partly by re-describing the Mediterranean as a sea around whose shores Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together for nearly a millenium, sharing cities, languages, cultures and food.
Very early on in the book, Murray cuts himself free of this burdensome history – “Europe was never a continent of Islam” he declares. Somebody should inform the author that Spain, Sicily and parts of Southern Italy were Muslim for centuries before they were ever Catholic. The book mocks the well-documented “tolerance and multicultural co-existence” of Muslim Spain as an extension of political correctness – liberals “conjur[ing]…a careful new version of history”.
There is nothing “new” or “conjured” about this history. The remains of churches, synagogues and mosques nestled close to one another can be visited in Toledo today. One of the largest influxes of Jews into the Ottoman Empire took place in 1492, after Christianity re-conquered the last kingdom of Muslim Spain and expelled Jewish populations from Spain, Portugal and South Italy. Sultan Beyazid II welcomed these Jews into Ottoman territories. In its single-minded desire to present a certain Christian landscape, Murray’s book is continually undermined by this slack, unprofessional grasp of history.
I stress these historical points because The Strange Death of Europe is a book which does not sit comfortably with history – or at least, with any history that does not fit its own parameters. Murray has a very clear idea of “Europe” in mind, and has little time for anyone who tries to “insist that there [is] in essence no such thing as European culture”. This is unfortunate, as the word ‘Europe’ is a relatively new word – we have only really had it in its present sense for about four hundred years.
Before that, “Europe” was an occasionally-used poetic trope, much like “Albion” for Britain. The first time the Ottomans march on Vienna, under the banner of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1529, Luther hardly mentions the word “Europe” in his tract “On War Against the Turk”; a hundred and fifty years later, the second time an Ottoman army marches on Europe, the word is all over Leibniz’s two essays on the subject.
No one is asking Murray to trendily deconstruct and historicise the word – but if he wants to reach out to the contrarian reader, some acknowledgement of the constructedness of the term his book is built around wouldn’t come amiss.
A penintent voice among many?
What we might term Murray’s ‘history issues’ spill over into other parts of the book too. The author is enraged that Europeans are filled with not only “Holocaust guilt” but a “whole gamut of preceding [colonial] guilts”. This is a familiar refrain, one which relies on seeing Western imperialism as just the latest imperialism in a whole string of previous ones.
By 1914, European and European-settler cultures owned 85 percent of the planet. The stunning, appalling success of European colonialism has redrawn, in London and Lisbon, the time and space of the planet in a way no other imperialism ever has.
Few people would deny that Empire is an ambivalent beast, bringing murder and modernity, exploitation and innovation to other cultures on an unprecedented scale. European colonialism has produced more than its fair share of genocides (the Belgian Congo, the “New World”, the Latin American campaigns against the indigenous, the French massacres in the Saharan interior) and has instituted its modernity in practically every clime, which is why Westerners need to be a little bit more thoughtful in their dealings with history than non-Westerners.
Murray is quite right to insist that a historical planetary conscience has to be a truly global one (particularly countries like Turkey, Argentina and Indonesia, who have yet to own up to their own atrocities) – but the idea that Europeans are just one penitent voice amongst many, and that Arabs and Indians and Africans all share an equal guilt with us, does underestimate the scale and lasting-impact of European and European-settler violence.
The elephant in Murray's room
Then there is the question of religion. Exactly where Christianity fits into The Strange Death of Europe remains uncertain. Perhaps one of the many elephants wandering around the refined European decor of Douglas Murray’s living room is the non-European provenance of the faith supposedly central to the continent the author wants to save.
Christianity may have grown up in a good European home, but it is a Middle Eastern refugee which swam over to our shores to escape Roman persecution
Christianity may have grown up in a good European home, but it is a Middle Eastern refugee which swam over to our shores to escape Roman persecution. Jesus was a first-century Palestinian who spoke a language (Aramaic) halfway between Hebrew and Arabic. The founding father of Western Christianity, St Augustine, was a North African, the Bishop of Hippo.
Islam, Christianity and Judaism are three Semitic, revelation-based, monotheistic, Middle-Eastern faiths (perhaps one of the laziest sentences in the book is the claim that “the culture of human rights…owes more to the creed preached by Jesus of Nazareth than it does to that of Mohammed” ). The book sets up a clash-of-civilisations-like abyss between Christianity (or sometimes “Judeo-Christianity”) and Islam, and yet philologically and theologically this is far from convincing, even taking into account the different historical trajectories of both faiths.
We see this tension emerge in perhaps one of the best-written chapters of the book, where Murray deals with the demise of Christianity in 20th-century Europe. As a Christian, it was one of the parts of the book I found I could briefly empathise with. It certainly has one of the book’s most memorable lines - in response to Richard Dawkins’ claim that science has solved all of our mysteries, Murray eloquently writes: “We do not live our lives and experience our existence as solved beings”.
The book embarks upon a curious disavowal of nihilism, and appears to lay responsibility for the malaise of present-day European Christianity on a combination of decadent Austro-German romanticism (which “destroyed itself by reaching a pitch of ripeness”) and the moral dissolution of modern art, manifest in Marcel Duchamp’s urinal/fountain.
The impression that emerges is that Murray wants secularism, but not too much of it – a secularism aware of its religious origins, the fact that it is “downstream from Christianity”, but one still committed to an independent investigation of truth. He invokes (somewhere) Matthew Arnold’s famous poem without naming him – the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar of faith’s ocean as it pulls away from the shore – and perhaps Murray is a kind of Arnoldesque figure here, standing on Dover Beach (where else?), trying to push away the tide of immigrants, but not believing in anything anymore.
The chapter is refreshing to read partly because it is one of the few moments in the book that Murray briefly stops talking about Muslims and immigrants and actually begins to address other possible reasons for what he perceives to be the looming implosion of Europe. This critical stance on the secularisation of Christianity does set up a tension with other parts of the book, however – particularly the moments where Murray laments how a similar secularisation “has not yet occurred to the same degree with the roots of Islam”.
If, as Murray seems to suggest, the gradual processes of the secular in Europe have resulted in an “existential nihilism” and a sense of life as “thin and shallow”, why would Muslim societies want to initiate the same process? This may not be a contradiction – Murray would simply argue that there are good and bad ways of removing religious fundamentals from one’s culture – but it does leave the reader wondering exactly where he stands in relation to Christianity itself.
The missing links
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with The Strange Death of Europe, more than any selective history or one-sidedness, has to do with the way it almost completely avoids any mention of a wider economic context. If a book is going to address something as vast as the death of a continent, then some sense of the economic changes that have been sweeping through that continent over the past thirty years seems called for. Apart from a brief, neutral reference to the “economic astringency” enforced by Germany upon Greece, this dimension of the book is absent.
Part of the reason for this is the narrative style – long stretches of the book follow a pattern which moves from a politician’s statement, to a public incident, to a media response, and then a political (usually failed) solution. Murray’s vocation as a journalist is central to this, and although this rolling-news-style narrative gives the book pace, the price it pays for this rhythym is context.
Our attention is drawn to what is visible and distinct – terrorist attacks, rapes, immigrant issues, threats to society – but the blurred, overlooked background is often where the real information lies
Our attention is drawn to what is visible and distinct – terrorist attacks, rapes, immigrant issues, threats to society – but the blurred, overlooked background is often where the real information lies. If Murray is going to write a book about the cultural suicide of Europe, then surely some mention should be made of neoliberalism, the reduced role of the state and the unprecedented influence of finance and business on our society today.
For example, Murray worries about the future of “the church buildings and other great cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst” – a worry I profoundly share. But it is neither Islam, nor immigration which is threatening to blight the skyline of Liverpool’s classic waterfront with a string of skyscrapers, removing its UNESCO world heritage status; no Muslims or immigrants are behind the destruction of large areas of Victorian and Edwardian housing in London, to make way for the Crossrail 2 development.
And as far as I know, Islam was not behind the estimated 100,000 historical buildings (including many churches) which were destroyed in Germany between 1997 and 2007. Unregulated real estate developers, property financiers and complicit politicians, not jihadis and salafis, form one of the most central threats to our European heritage.
This systemic misrecognition of the problem continues when Murray goes on to talk about hospital crises and school-shortages – and how people knew something was wrong before the government did: "…before the politicians admitted it, the public were struggling to get their children into over-subscribed local schools. It was the public who were told that health-tourism was not a problem, even as they queued for appointments in waiting rooms filled with people from other countries".
An uncharitable critic might ask how an author educated at Eton and Oxford is able to speak on behalf of the recipients of a state-school system he never experienced himself. Murray does this quite a lot, endorsing his own negative views of Islam with statistics from a survey here, a poll there, although one does wonder how many ordinary people he actually knows.
I grew up in the North-West of England, in a working-class family, and went to a comprehensive school with 50 percent Asian pupils. I have no illusions about how angry working people can feel towards ‘foreign’ cultures – but I have also witnessed strong friendships between white working-class people and immigrants, especially when everyone has to suffer the same boss or awful teacher. When Murray tries to tag school-shortages or hospital-beds to immigration, this goes beyond ‘misrecognition’ – there is something wilful, and essentially dishonest, about a gaze which would rather focus on immigrants, rather than the chronic underfunding of a public service.
An old trick lies behind this diverted gaze, one we know ad nauseam from the pages of the Sun and the Daily Mail – a desire to talk endlessly about Islam and asylum-seekers, instead of how many MPs sit on the boards of directors of banks, hedge funds and healthcare companies. It is difficult not to see The Strange Death of Europe as incorporating some of this desire. A book which asks painful, difficult questions of us will always be a valuable book – but the pain and difficulty of those questions has to travel in more than one direction. Douglas Murray has not written that book.
- Ian Almond is Professor of World Literatures, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University in Qatar
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Image: Around 30 Muslim leaders from across Europe rally against terror at the Breitscheidplatz square, where a Tunisian who had failed in his attempt to seek asylum ploughed a hijacked lorry through crowds at a Christmas market, an attack that killed 12 people, in Berlin on July 9, 2017. (AFP)