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The violent protests that erupted in North Africa and the Middle East over a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad were in part a reflection of conflicting values — Islamic strictures on images of the prophet versus the Western principle of respect for free speech.
But journalist Doug Saunders says that the video itself reflects a troubling current in Western political discourse — an irrational fear of Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.
"The guy who made it was a bit obscure, but the people who've promoted it and circulated it are part of a very well-organized and very, very well-funded network of activists who've received funding from mainstream conservative foundations," Saunders tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
In his new book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, Saunders says an increasingly influential group of writers and activists believes immigration and high birth rates will make Muslims a majority in Europe in coming decades — and that their hostility to Western values makes them a threat to Western culture, democracy and security.
Saunders argues that these fears are based on inaccurate assertions of fact, and he says the fear of Muslim immigration in the U.S. is similar to past chapters in American history about other immigrant groups.
Saunders is the London-based European bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. He's also the author of Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World.
On the Muslim tide in the United States
"During the years after George W. Bush ceased to be president, there [was] a power vacuum in the Republican Party. He was careful to keep anti-Muslim out of his party, probably because while waging a war in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, the more sane minds in the Republican Party realized it made sense not to be demonizing American Muslims.
"But then, in the years after 2008, a group of people stepped in to many corners of Congress, and Republican leadership who were adherents to these ideas about Muslims had become almost single-issue believers. ...
"And by the time the Republican leadership race took place in 2011, early 2012, four or five leading candidates including people like Newt Gingrich were willing to say things like, 'There is a stealth sharia, there's a stealth plot among Muslim immigrants and their offspring in the United States to impose religious law upon the country.' This suddenly had become something that you could say in polite society, in political circles and so on, in Congress in the United States. And I should say that Mitt Romney has never apparently subscribed to or spoken of these ideas, so luckily, perhaps because he's himself from a religious minority, free from that."
On whether Muslims regard Islam as a spiritual matter or as an ideology
"We can measure this both by looking at what they say and looking at what they do. Because if members of a religious minority were really believing this ... believing that religion is a guiding ideology that should control their actions, then they would be doing things — they would be ignoring the laws, they would be going to the mosque very often. ...
"What we find is the level of religiosity, of religious observance among Muslims when they come to the West, tends to fall fairly quickly to approximately the level of religious observance of the people around them. So when Muslims come to France from the Arab countries of North Africa, they tend to become not very religiously observant. About a fifth of them become outright atheist, which is similar to the rate of French Christians, and only about maybe 5 percent of them attend a mosque regularly. When they move to the United States, they become about as religious as American Christians are, which is fairly religious.
"So, yeah, about 47 percent of American Muslims will say, 'I think of myself as Muslim first and American second,' but that's almost exactly the same rate that non-Muslim Americans say, that American Christians say. Just shy of half of American Christians will say, 'I think of myself as Christian first, and American second.' So they tend to be loyal to their faith at about the same rate as Christians do in whatever country they arrive in."
On Muslim immigrants and integration
"In Europe, where they're coming from very poor rural areas — like the Rif mountains of Morocco or the Anatolian plain of Turkey or more remote parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh — you have a phenomenon where the parents strive in their sort of blue-collar industries that brought them in. And the daughters are often successful, but there's a propensity for the sons to drop out of secondary school at age 16 and so on, and fall into troubled circles. Not necessarily into terrorism or anything like that — that tends to be a middle-class thing that's isolated from mainstream immigrant communities — but they become economically unsuccessful and ghettoized because they drop out of school. ...
"And that's partly because nobody's paid any attention to it, partly because continental European education systems are very poor at mixtures of classes containing immigrants and nonimmigrants, and partly because there are citizenship laws and various other laws that make it difficult — or sometimes impossible — for their parents to buy a house or put their kids in university, that discourages people from becoming a part of the community. And one thing I've become very convinced of in working on this book is that culture is something that follows economic and educational integration. People become culturally integrated when they're a part of the economy and a part of the education system, and with every group of religious minority immigrants, this has been the case."