A few summers ago, I travelled to the central Swedish uplands for a conference. On the face of it, the subject “What Is the West?” seemed promising. What, indeed, was the West in the age of intensified globalisation and mass immigration?
“Multiculturalism,” variously defined, had been under attack by centrist politicians trying to outflank extreme-right- wing parties across Western Europe. But was complete assimilation to European ways feasible, or even desirable, for immigrants of various ethnic and religious backgrounds?
Certainly, assimilation had made little difference to the fate of many in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Theodore Herzl wasn’t the only one to feel that “the Jew who tries to adapt himself to his environment, to speak its languages, to think its thoughts” was still identified as a potentially treacherous “alien” by fellow Europeans.
For me the question was not so much what “is” the West, but what could it be - whether, for instance, the increasingly multiethnic nation-states of Europe could create a dynamic and pluralistic identity for themselves, learning from the experience of the US as well as multinational empires in the past.
Yet when I arrived at the conference, which included a number of prominent English and American academics and journalists, I was startled as one speaker after another stood up to angrily denounce Islam and Muslims as a serious menace to Western civilisation.
Puzzlingly, few of these close readers of the Hadith and new experts on jihad seemed to know any European Muslims, or know that most of the targets of their anti-immigrant fury were nonobservant Muslims, grateful to be in Europe, indifferent to sharia law and mostly concerned, like everyone else, with making better lives for themselves and their children.
Although supported by arcane scholarship, these denunciations were not much more sophisticated than those I grew up listening to in my upper-caste Hindu circles in India. In this self-flattering vision, Muslims were everything the rest of us were not: socially backward, economically parasitic, politically retrograde, prone to group-think and violence, in addition to being canny breeders and demographic terrorists.
The lone representative of the Muslim world among us, a Turkish scholar, protested that he couldn’t recognise this portrait of Muslims. He was ignored. In any case, the West’s real enemy for some speakers wasn’t Muslims but the feckless Western liberal believers in coexistence, who dangerously underestimated the threat to European values from Islam.
For these speakers, multiculturalists “might have been invented by Osama Bin Laden himself,” as the writer Bruce Bawer, who lives in Oslo, put it in his 2009 book “Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom.”
The Western economies were then booming. The setting of the conference itself - a grand mansion with extensive grounds - spoke of a long and serene possession of power and wealth. And yet here were some extremely privileged men working themselves up into high degrees of rage and self-pity.