Bryan Caplan  

Western Civilization is a Hardy Weed: The Case of Islam

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The brilliant Nathan Smith has a brilliant new essay, "The Islamophobic Case for Open Borders."  Here are choice selections.

A familiar truism well-expressed:
If we're still driving cars despite thousands of automobile accident deaths per year, we don't really set the value of human life so high that attacks in Paris (130 victims) and San Bernardino (22 victims) objectively warrant the massive media attention, revolutions in foreign policy, and proposals to shut the borders completely to Muslims that they evoke. Such events get such attention because of statistical illiteracy.
Sensitive candor:
Since I believe Islam to be false, I would be a poor lover of my fellow men if I did not wish for it to disappear, that is, if I desired that millions of people remain forever imprisoned in a web of errors. But inasmuch as the word "Islamophobe" implies irrational, uncritical feelings of hatred and disgust towards Muslims as an opaque Other, I do not feel that way at all. I have traveled in Muslim countries like Turkey, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, have been on warmly friendly terms with many Muslims (some nominal, but some devout)... In foretelling a steep decline of Islam under open borders, I am anticipating developments of which my head and my conscience approve, but towards which my heart and imagination are ambivalent.
Immigration usually doesn't lead Muslims to apostasy, but still sharply increases their rate of apostasy:
In America, 77% of those raised Muslim, are still Muslim, according to Pew. That's a fairly high retention rate, but Islam in the West still loses about one-fourth of each Muslim-born generation. At that rate of member loss, less than half of the descendants of Muslims would still be Muslim after three generations. Germany's assimilation of Turkish migrants seems to illustrate how this process plays out. Less than 2% of the German population self-identifies as Muslim. Almost twice as many people in Germany are of Turkish descent, and there are also substantial numbers of Arabs. Since Turkey's population is almost exclusively Muslim, it seems that Islam must have lost roughly half of the natural increase of its emigrants in Germany to apostasy. Germany is a relevant case study because its great Turkish immigration mostly occurred around half a century ago, so it's had time for assimilation to play out across a couple of generations.
This is asymmetric:

What about conversion the other way? In America, there are probably a few hundred thousand converts to Islam in America, mostly in the black nationalist Nation of Islam, most famously exemplified by Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam is an interesting instance of the special political purposes that a Muslim religious identity can serve, and might foreshadow future uses of Islam as a vehicle of radical politics in an open borders world. But it doesn't seem indicative of an ability of Islam to make many converts, in general. There may be 100,000 converts to Islam in Britain.

Historically, Islam has never made major advances by migration, or by conversion from below, as Christianity has often done. Stagnation or decline has been its fate where it was politically subordinate. Islam spread by conquest, not missionary work. It is still strongest in the historic heartland where it was established by Arab conquerors in the 7th and 8th centuries. That's not to say that the Middle East and North Africa became Muslim through forced conversions. Forced conversions to Islam were not the norm. Rather, first Arab, and later Turkish, conquerors, became the power elite, permitting Christianity, Judaism, and sometimes other religions, such as Hinduism in India, to persist among the subject populations. But non-Muslims enjoyed various disadvantages, such as paying a special tax called the jizya, could not proselytize, sometimes suffered political violence, sometimes had their children kidnapped to become janissaries, and in general, enjoyed few or no rights and comprehensively inferior treatment. In the very long run, this made it hard for Christian and other minority communities to flourish...

There are, as far as I know, no historical examples of substantial Christian populations converting to Islam except under Muslim rule.
While this is a great piece, Nathan grossly overstates the incompatibility between Christian doctrine and religious violence:
The Old Testament, to be sure, contains some hair-raising passages that seem very much opposed to religious freedom, but that's part of the Mosaic law, which St. Paul's epistles clearly and insistently establish is not comprehensively binding on Christians, but has been superseded, fulfilled, replaced by the higher ethical teachings of Jesus. The early Church never used violence.
Yes, St. Paul did "clearly and insistently establish" that the Mosaic law "is not comprehensively binding on Christians."  But he focuses almost entirely on dietary requirements, circumcision, and the like.  If Paul (or Jesus) meant to spearhead a culturally novel rejection of religious violence, he would have explicitly said so.  And to make "The early Church never used violence" true, you would have to torturously gerrymander both who counts as "the Church" and when counts as "early."

To be fair, this reservation only makes Nathan's case stronger, as he himself realizes:
If people think Christianity authorizes the murder of apostates, that might make people more relaxed about Muslim immigrants. After all, Christians obviously get along fine as citizens of liberal societies, so if they can do that in spite of being theoretically required by their religion to kill apostates, might we not expect the same happy result from assimilating Muslims into liberal societies?

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Joseph Porter writes:


Thanks for the post—found Nathan's article very insightful, honest, and thought-provoking.

My initial inclination is to disagree with you with respect to "the incompatibility between Christian doctrine and religious violence," so I am curious to hear more about why you disagree with Nathan on this point. A couple questions (and yes, I have my opinions on the right answers to these questions, but I'm open to having my mind changed!):

1. Yes, Jesus and Paul never explicitly say something like, "Violence in the Old Testament should be repudiated." But they do say things like "Love your enemies," "Bless those who persecute you," "Turn the other cheek," "Do not repay anyone evil for evil," "Be at peace with all men," and so on. Those are brief snippets wrenched out of context, but I'd still say both Jesus and Paul were pretty clear advocates of non-violence and non-retaliation. Would you disagree? If yes, why? If not, would you be willing to concede that they did in fact perhaps "spearhead a culturally novel rejection of religious violence"?

2. You write,

And to make 'The early Church never used violence' true, you would have to torturously gerrymander both who counts as 'the Church' and when counts as 'early.'
But I am not aware of any violence perpetrated by any Christian—Orthodox or not—between the time of Jesus' death (AD 30/33) and the rise of Constantine almost 300 years later. (The earliest Christians, in fact, certainly sound quite opposed to violence.) And I'd say "any self-identified Christian" and "almost 300 years" aren't tortuous construals of "the Church" and "early." Of course, my knowledge of the early Church is not encyclopedic—do you have some particular act (or acts) of violence in mind committed by "the early Church"?

Faré writes:

A few points:

* Islam was very much on the decline until the 1970s, when the oil "crisis" started a renaissance of oil-fueled radical islam of the most murderous kind, all over the world. People who had only a loose relationship to religion are now very much into it, all over the world, from the Middle East to North Africa to Europe to Asia.

* Islam is not much of an ideology, but it's got enough in it to survive and replace socialism in countries that have been bankrupted by the latter. Demographics makes that unlikely to happen in the US any time soon, but it might well happen in some european countries in the next few decades.

* Christianity started as a loser's religion, doesn't explicitly recommend violence, has always had pacific streaks, and has been neutered for centuries. Islam started as a winner's religion, explicitly recommends violence, all the major religious traditions are explicitly violent, and whatever neutering was started during colonialism has been undone with oil-fueled radicalism.

* Open Borders goes both ways: it's also the right for white people to go colonize these countries, and shoot the criminals there who wouldn't let them do it (especially uniformed armed criminals).

I staunchly support open borders — and the freedom to bear arms with which to welcome (or go meet) criminals.

Libertarian Open Borders Policy: "All peaceful people are free to come and live here (or anywhere). All violent criminals are free to come and die here (or wherever they are)."

Daniel Klein writes:

Interesting post.

I just want to call attention to the two occurrences of "liberal societies" in the final Nathan Smith block quotation. When we look at the bigger picture, or the longer sweep of the modern era (since Grotius, say), we still tend to use liberal in its original political sense.

Pedro Albuquerque writes:

If you visit the awesome Roman Theater in Orange, France, you quickly realize with your own eyes how severe and violent was the fall of religious and moral freedoms in the Roman Empire after Christianity took over. Regions of Christian majority only became more tolerant and reacquired religious freedom as a result of the Enlightenment, with a few exceptions having happened before due to special circumstances, such as in England as described by Voltaire in his Philosophical Letters.

Shreyas Bharadwaj writes:

As an Indian, I think Nathan Smith needs to take a re-look at Islamic history. Migration by Arab traders to North Kerala in India made it possible later for the Mapilla riots despite Muslims not being in power. Similar migrations by arab merchants to SE- Asia helped establish forces powerful enough to root of Hinduism and Buddhism in the matter of a few centuries.

The recent incidents in Malda, West Bengal state of India show the damage they van cause in seemingly democratic political systems by exploiting their numerical prowess.

Floccina writes:

Not my belief as I am a christian but an atheist devils advocate might say:
"Islam works well in Saudi Arabia to keep a very aggressive population in line. Islam was selected for in the Arab world because the population is so aggressive and prone to drug abuse that a strong religion was selected for.
"You see in Europe what happens to such an aggressive population without a very strong religion pushing in the other direction. You get Arab areas with high violence and low achievement."

Floccina writes:

Joseph Porter wrote:

1. Yes, Jesus and Paul never explicitly say something like, "Violence in the Old Testament should be repudiated." But they do say things like "Love your enemies," "Bless those who persecute you," "Turn the other cheek," "Do not repay anyone evil for evil," "Be at peace with all men," and so on. Those are brief snippets wrenched out of context, but I'd still say both Jesus and Paul were pretty clear advocates of non-violence and non-retaliation. Would you disagree? If yes, why? If not, would you be willing to concede that they did in fact perhaps "spearhead a culturally novel rejection of religious violence"?

I think a stronger case be made by looking at the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritans were considered others, foreigners and members of a false religion. they would be despised by most religious and righteous Jews.

JayT writes:

I wonder if the Turkish people in Germany really tell us anything or not. I know that Turkey once had a much larger Christian population than it does today, perhaps the Turks that immigrated were Christians moving away from Muslims?

David Friedman writes:

"[non-Muslims] in general, enjoyed few or no rights"

That is not true. Under fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the non-Muslim Peoples of the Book had legal rights, just not the same rights as Muslims. In the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, the non-Muslim communities were largely self-ruling, subject to the greater authority of the Sultan. In medieval Muslim communities, Christians and Jews normally had their own courts to enforce their rights under their law.

Elias writes:

^^^ sounds like some sort of expert studying legal systems very different from our own.

Kurt Schuler writes:

Here are some other quotes from Smith's post:
"With people like the Ontario Human Rights Commission in positions of power within the West, I think there’s a significant, though small, chance that Muslim immigration could lead to a sweeping loss of freedom in the West."
"But I’m pretty confident the guards would wake up in time. It would be an easy matter for a resolute West to admit hundreds of millions of Muslim immigrants while keeping its own traditions of freedom intact."
It is hard to square such confidence with the violence aimed at Jews all over Europe; with the mass sexual assaults suffered by girls and young women in Rotherham, Cologne, and elsewhere; with the existence of immigrant neighborhoods that policemen and firemen are afraid to enter; etc.

Michael Crouch writes:

In addition to the comments by Joseph Porter and Floccina, I'll point to Jesus specifically saying that, "You have heard that it was said to those of old..." taking on the ideas of the OT when it came to violence and treatment of "others" in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, much of the Restoration movement has focused on removing the Christian faith from the violent arm of the state. The Christian faith has been at its worst when tied to the state.

razib writes:

i think the retention rate is heterogeneous by ethnicity. i've had black american muslim/ex-muslim friends who claim there is HUGE church in this group, which is 20-35% of the american muslim population (depending on which statistics you cite).

NN writes:

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