The Magazine

Islamic Europe?

From the October 4, 2004 issue: When Bernard Lewis speaks . . .

Oct 4, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 04 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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SELDOM HAS THE COURSE of European history been changed by a non-politician's throwaway remark in a German-language newspaper on a Wednesday in the dead of the summer doldrums. But on July 28, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis told the conservative Hamburg-based daily Die Welt that Europe would be Islamic by the end of this century "at the very latest," and continental politics has not been the same since.

Days before the third anniversary of 9/11, Frits Bolkestein of the Netherlands, the outgoing European Union competition commissioner, caused an uproar when he mentioned Lewis's remark in the course of an address at the opening of courses at the University of Leiden. Bolkestein warned that the E.U. will "implode" if it expands too quickly. It was a timely topic.

A few days from now, the E.U. commissioner for expansion, Günter Verheugen of Germany, will issue a report on whether to open negotiations with Turkey on E.U. membership. It is expected to be positive. The full commission must vote on the report in December, after which a decade of talks is envisioned. But since the Verheugen report is likely to be positive, and since the commission is expected to rubber-stamp the report's recommendations, and since no candidate state that has begun E.U. accession negotiations has ever been rejected, the process has the look of a fait accompli. Thanks to . . . what? . . . Günter Verheugen's mood, the peoples of Europe are about to see their fate yoked irrevocably to that of the Islamic world. Indeed, the need to forge a solemn bond with Islamic secularism of the sort that Turkey enjoyed after Kemal Atatürk came to power is the reason most often given for the indispensability of Turkish accession.

Bolkestein was thus addressing a continent-wide discomfiture. His speech was long. It was no rant. Alluding to the E.U.'s aspiration to become a multinational state, he drew listeners' attention to the fate of the most recent European power with that aspiration, the Austro-Hungarian empire just over a century ago. Austrians were culturally confident (Liszt, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Mahler, and Wagner were working in Vienna). They were prosperous and proud. The problem was that there were only 8 million of them, and expanding their country's frontiers brought them face to face with an energetic pan-Slavic movement. Once the Empire absorbed 20 million Slavs, it faced difficult compromises between allowing the new subjects to rule themselves and preserving its own culture. Rather like the E.U., the Empire was past the point of no return before it realized it was going anywhere in particular.

Bolkestein asked what lessons Europeans ought to draw from this history, as they consider welcoming Turkey. He then addressed two specific problems. First, that there was no logical end in sight to European expansion--once the E.U. accepts Turkey, it will have no principled reason to reject the considerably more European countries of Ukraine and Belarus. Europe is thus adding instability that it has neither the financial means nor the cultural solidarity to master. The second problem, Bolkestein warned, is that immigration is turning the E.U. into "an Austro-Hungarian empire on a grand scale." He alluded to certain great cities that will soon be minority-European--two of the most important of which, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, are in his own country--and warned that the (projected) addition of 83 million Muslim Turks would further the Islamization of Europe. It was this part of his speech--in which he referred to Lewis's projections--that made headlines around the world: "Current trends allow only one conclusion," Bolkestein said. "The USA will remain the only superpower. China is becoming an economic giant. Europe is being Islamicized."

A kind of chain reaction ensued. Two days after Bolkestein spoke, the Financial Times printed a letter that Franz Fischler of Austria, the outgoing E.U. commissioner for agriculture, had sent privately to his fellow commissioners. Fischler complained that Turkey was "far more oriental than European" and, worse, that "there remain doubts as to Turkey's long-term secular and democratic credentials. There could . . . be a fundamentalist backlash."