Nearly fifteen years ago, I was a residential assistant at a freshman dorm of a small liberal arts college in Maine. My freshman cohort was well-educated, motivated, and, I presumed, liberal. As part of orientation, I had to explain the protective effects of condoms and pass a few around. A young woman, bright and pixie-like, proclaimed to my little group that she had definitive proof: condoms did not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. The membrane had microscopic holes, she insisted, large enough for HIV to pass through. She darted out of the common room to bring us a copy of a letter sent from an executive at an American rubber company to her bishop. The letter was scientific, listing average pore diameters of latex quantified in micrometers and contrasted these with HIV size estimates referenced from the CDC. The young woman stood above us, secure in her victory while my other charges looked at me, confused and anxious.
Such is the power of letters from authorities that are sprinkled with numbers and statistical data. Statistics can provide rigor and stringent evaluation, but few readers understand the value and limitations of statistical data presented to them. Fewer writers still know how to provide such data accurately. We are drowning in a sea of data in news, sports, meteorology, politics, and personal life. 1 in 10 children are gay by some estimates; 4 in 100 people in Britain subscribe to Jedi as a religion; more dentists recommend every brand of toothpaste over every other. Numbers are thrown out so often as a way of proving a point that they risk becoming meaningless figures. And yet to the uninitiated, numbers can become a source of authority. To many, numbers don’t lie.
Since 9-11, several prominent right-wing conservatives including the Canadian columnist Mark Steyn, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, the British-American academic Bernard Lewis, and the German central banker Thilo Sarrazin have argued that Europe is becoming Eurabia – an Islamic land where Sharia courts will hold sway and liberal western values will be drowned by the prolific childbearing prowess of Muslim loins. In his new book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, Doug Saunders uses numbers and surveys to show that such right-wing ideas are not based from census data.
Saunders responds to the claims of impending Muslim hegemony in a section called “The Facts,” where he debunks each claim using statistics. For those readers who are looking for reference sources to argue against conservatives and Islam-baiters, Saunders has provided a go-to source of data and reasoning. In trying to be comprehensive in his rejoinder, however, Saunders has possibly overpopulated this section with numbers and surveys and runs the risk of losing a lay reader, who is not interested in the polemical discussion. The data Saunders provides suggests that the Muslim growth rate (which is the demographic key to a Muslim takeover) is in fact slowing in the West. In addition, he provides evidence that many (if not most) immigrants from Muslim countries integrate western liberal ideas and morality into their daily lives.
For example, Saunders presents convincing evidence from CIA and MI-5 studies to show that extremists rarely originate in religious families or from high-density Muslim enclaves. This contradicts the Eurabist idea that large populations of Muslims will give rise to increased threats to the Western way of life. Saunders poses instead that terrorists are likely to be found in lone Muslim families in mixed neighborhoods, or among students at universities who are more likely to read, come into contact with radicals, or find propagandist inspiration on the internet.
To pause for a moment and return to my college orientation, I still do not know if the letter presented to us that day was factual or incorrect. But it didn’t matter. I tore open the aluminum pouch and unrolled the latex condom. I held it under the kitchen tap and let the rubber distend from the weight of the water. Having tied the end, I passed this makeshift balloon around. Water is a molecule made of three atoms, much smaller than HIV. Everyone can make this comparative leap. The latex surface holding water within it was a stronger retort than any data I could present to my believer student.
Saunders uses a similar, viable strategy in the third section of the book and compares Muslim migration in the late 20th and early 21st century with earlier waves of Catholic and Jewish migration in Europe and America. The historical examples of prejudice against Irish and Italians in America in the 1950s, when these communities were viewed as insular, overtly religious, with uncontrolled birth rates and dubious allegiance to the nation are powerful reminders that the current anti-Muslim sentiment is an old xenophobia recast for our times. The bigotry faced by Muslims in Europe today ought to remind one of the sufferings of the minority Jewish population in the past. A boy writing a scathing indictment of the Dreyfus case [Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, was not exonerated despite evidence of his innocence] for his class today may beget a grandson, who could write a similar essay on the Guantanamo tribunals. The narrative of cyclical histories and parallel patterns is far more powerful an argument and will bring this book’s message to more readers than the repeated regurgitation of Gallup Poll numbers and census data.
With this book, Doug Saunders will not convert an Islamophobe into a cookie-baker, ready-to-welcome hijab-wearing neighbor next door. But then, neither did my little demonstration at college turn an evangelical into an atheist. In that sense, The Myth of the Muslim Tide is not an invaluable book, but it continues an important conversation. The dialogue about the threat of Muslim-immigration will not end, rather will find a new target when a new wave of immigrants arrives in the West. Perhaps the Polish plumbers’ invasion of Germany or the Russian oligarchs’ conquest of London can stir the next round of fear mongering. As Saunders reminds us at the close of his book, a flood of migrants up close is merely the ebb and flow of the tide of human life from a distance.