This publication has consistently stood for human rights throughout the world – the claim that people from all backgrounds and belief systems are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of their being people. Two people may disagree on what that list of human rights includes, but most would agree on the basics. We are all entitled to equality before the law, for example, meaning that regardless of our skin colour or background, we should be treated consistently based upon our actions. Another basic human right is the right to be able to think for ourselves and determine our own religious and political beliefs.
The idea of human rights has been around for a long time, but the modern conception came into being following the Second World War. Faced with unspeakable evil and the shocking manner in which others placed zero value on the lives of others, a movement coalesced to recognize these rights in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. No respectable person would disagree with the fact that all human beings are entitled to a certain amount of dignity and freedom as they go about living their lives.
Hannah Arendt was one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. She also had a front-row seat for some of the vilest acts ever committed as well as firsthand knowledge of what it is like to live like a refugee. Born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, Arendt was Jewish and so left Germany in 1933 once the Nazi government came to power. The place she escaped to – Paris – was only a temporary haven. When Germany defeated France in 1940 she found herself in a concentration camp. She escaped the following year and was already famous enough as a philosopher to gain passage on a ship from Lisbon to the United States.
Arendt was well aware of a central irony in the movement to enshrine human rights. ‘Human rights’ are an international concept – granted to people on a basis beyond the conception of anyone nation-state – and yet, they must be guaranteed and enforced by nation-states themselves if they are to have any meaning beyond words on paper. She wrote, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human,” meaning that the state in which the world today exists requires certain clothing in order to obtain an identity. That clothing might include our profession or it might include our religious beliefs and would definitely include our national citizenship.
During the life of Hannah Arendt, untold numbers of Germans, Russians, Armenians, and Hungarians found themselves deprived of social clothing and without formal community. We may philosophically believe that everyone has certain “inalienable rights” regardless of their social clothing, but it remains largely true today as it did in Arendt’s time that states themselves must enforce those same rights, turning the whole modern concept of human rights on its head.
This review is meant to be about Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe. Why the discussion of Hannah Arendt? Because important echoes of Arendt’s thinking flow throughout Murray’s book and those echoes will be returned later in this review. For now, it is important to consider Murray’s actual argument.
The core of that argument is that Europe means something. Saying that you are “European” is the kind of social clothing that Arendt would have recognized. It is a community. That does not mean that there is no diversity of background and thought within Europe, but that are general propositions for which a majority of people agree. Pluralism is among those propositions: the idea that many strands contribute to society and that the only means of maintaining that pluralism is for all of the strands to accept the existence of the other ones.
Europe has accepted, in more recent years, a large number of migrants from Muslim-majority countries that may or may not have identities that overlap with those of Europeans. During the year 2015, more than a million migrants sought refuge in Europe. According to the BBC, about 350,000 of those were from Syria; 175,000 were from Afghanistan; 125,000 were from Iraq. Many of those refugees settled in Germany and Sweden, which had to absorb about 2% of its population in a single year.
The people travelling to make a new way of life in Europe did so at great cost to themselves. Before that, they had seen their homes and ways of life destroyed by terrorism and civil war. Douglas Murray’s basic argument is that if migration occurred at a more gradual rate, Europe could better absorb those coming, but that the sheer volume of arrivals makes that feat that much harder. The end result is the strange death of what it means to be European rather than the strange evolution of the concept.
Some people’s hearts go out so willingly to these migrants that they immediately reject Murray’s argument. Others have rightly seen the horrors produced by racism that they wrongly label Murray as racist and are equally shut down to the argument itself, which does have merit. How should a tolerant, multi-cultural society handle intolerant viewpoints? How should Germany, just as an example, view a belief system that denigrates women and homosexuals? Of course, as some of you are saying at the moment, Islam does not require misogyny or homophobia, but it does make the odds rise that those views are present in an individual.
The answers to these questions are not simple and it is OK to ask them. Clearly, there is some upper limit to the number of migrants that societies can absorb in short periods of time without losing their identity, even if that number cannot be precisely quantified. In addition to placing some reasonable limit on migration, it is also eminently reasonable to find pragmatic ways to assimilate newcomers. It is not contradictory, for example, that someone is both European and Islamic. But, that same person has to recognize the rights of other Europeans to have other beliefs and that within the broader secular world, Islamic values are not the standard-bearer – but the secular law.
While finding reasonableness among some of Murray’s core arguments, others are perplexing. He seems to be sentimental about the lack of enthusiasm for Christianity in modern Europe. Yet, Christianity was partially responsible for two world wars and primarily responsible for virulent anti-Semitism, nearly causing another kind of death for Europe. Murray also seems far too ready to defend political figures like Marine Le Pen, who swim in political sewage and whose indefensibility goes far beyond any disagreement with others on immigration. She had made statements that many, including the government of Israel, deem anti-semitic and argued that the law should give preference to the native French.
What Murray, more philosophically, though, is arguing is that Europe as an idea is something special, but that its leaders are too tired to defend it any longer. He writes: “Those in power seem persuaded that it would not matter if the people and culture of Europe were lost to the world.”
That returns us to Hannah Arendt. For the practical reasons listed at the outset of this review – primarily concerning the tension between international human rights and the nation-state – she dismissed the value of a laundry list of rights we should have and instead insisted that the only right which mattered was the right of a community. That community both establishes what the word “rights” means and defends those same rights. The Islamic community and the European community surely do not agree on what “rights” are, and the existence of both in their respective parts of the world allow those definitions to live.
For a transitory period, all refugees are stateless. As human beings, they should be entitled to all the human rights all others are entitled to, but their lack of community is what makes those rights nothing more than a failed promise. Those refugees have to choose at some point whether they want to continue to live as if they were part of the communities in which they were from or join the European Community, and there is a distinction, despite the fact that there is no inherent contradiction in being both Muslim and European.
Hannah Arendt’s most famous commentary was probably on the “banality of evil,” after witnessing the trial of Adolph Eichmann. After studying evil for some time, she became persuaded that evil occurs when men and women stop thinking and turn off their critical faculties, allowing themselves to swept along with lazy thinking. In The Life of the Mind, she wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
The world today is complicated (when was it simple?) and deserves more than just lazy thinking. It is easy to see a paradigm in everything and label all criticism of Islam as “Islamophobia.” It is also easy to blame nuanced problems on simple causes like immigration. I do not believe these thoughts necessarily lead down to the paths of Nazism, but lazy thinking does always lead to poor outcomes and raises the potentiality of evil.
I don’t agree with all of Douglas Murray’s solutions. But, he asks questions that should be asked and his book is one that is worth reading.
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