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Migration myths

Interview: Aygül Cizmecioglu / hwDecember 23, 2012

In his book "The Myth of the Muslim Tide," Doug Saunders puts theories from critics of immigration under the microscope. He talked to DW about extremism, xenophobia and successful integration.

Doug Saunders
Image: Randy Quan/Karl Blessing Verlag

DW: Mr. Saunders, prominent public figures such as Thilo Sarrazin in Germany and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have indicated they believe that the West is being overrun with Muslims - at least demographically. Is that true?

The visual impression that they're swamping us with children - I think the facts contradict that. I hired a research team, people who are not partisans and weren't activists, but who are good scholars, who know demographics, who know radicalism, who know the history of integration.

I've spent a lot of time in the largest Muslim countries, in Iran, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, doing various forms of journalism and research into migration and urbanization. And first of all, we know that they have the fastest falling reproduction rates in the world. Bangladesh now has a population growth rate falling very quickly toward a European level very quickly. Turkey is very similar.

In Europe and North America, Muslims are not the largest group of immigrants at all. And among immigrants, what we're seeing is the pattern that poor religious minorities always follow, which is that the very first generation that arrives tends to have a bunch of children after they arrive. And then the European-born second generation has considerably fewer children and by the third generation they pretty much have exactly the same size families as the people around them.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York, in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo
The attacks on the World Trade Center resulted in a shift in many people's attitude toward MuslimsImage: AP

Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, the image of violent Muslims with extremist tendencies is ingrained in many people's psyches…

I didn't use any data that was supported by only one organization. I'm talking about universities, government bodies, United Nations bodies, intelligence agencies, the big surveys of extremism done by the CIA and MI5 were extremely useful for this book. Those surveys found that almost all Islamic extremist and terrorists do not come from these tightly clustered immigrant neighborhoods. Extremists don't come from communities of strong belief.

First of all, the most religious groups of people do not produce extremism and terrorism. And second of all, if you survey all people who have become extremists and terrorists, religious faith is almost never a big cause. They use the language of religion as part of their extremism.

The New York police department just wasted something like six years investigating tens of thousands of ordinary Muslims in New York who had strong Islamic believes in the hope of finding some evidence of terrorism. And they had to admit that they had not found after this enormous spying program one piece of useful evidence for extremism.

But where do these fears come from?

I passed through that set of views myself. I had deep fears, certainly when extremism and terrorism hit my own neighborhood. You know, when my local mosque was taken over by one of the most extreme al Qaida supporters around, when one of my neighbors had both of her legs blown off in the July 7, 2005 London transport bombings. Of course I wondered, of course I thought, how widespread are these beliefs?

A minaret in Essen, Germany
Saunders argues that Muslims cannot be spoken of as a single homogenous groupImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What factors make it difficult for us to overcome these prejudices?

I would not say that Muslims are an average. Now, you're talking about very different people. There's no generalizing about Muslims. You're talking about extremely moderate practices like Alevi next to very ascetic, and rigid practices like Wahhabis and Salafists. And we can also show that immigrants from the same place of different religions have the same problems and difficulties. So religion is not a major causal factor.

Are areas populated mainly by Arabs or Turks, such as those in Berlin, parallel societies?

Most of the successful immigrant groups in western history who have become very well integrated into the society around them have been clustered into ethically concentrated neighborhoods. For instance, the Lower East Side of New York has seen about five different ethnic groups pass through it: eastern-European Jews, Irish, southern-European Catholics, Latin Americans, Greeks. All of whom have passed through and formed these densely clustered neighborhoods and their neighborhoods were widely seen as being criminal.

I think North Americans understand that better than Europeans do because most of us are descended from immigrants. We generally passed through these neighborhoods. Our families passed through these neighborhoods that were poor. It's just assumed that immigrant neighborhoods will produce successful middle-class outcomes and people who are respected members of society.

Ethnic minority groups in Berlin's Kreuzberg
Districts with high numbers of immigrants aren't necessarily parallel socities, Saunders saysImage: dpa

What differences are there in immigration policy between different European countries?

Some of the Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden but also Norway, have started granting citizenship earlier and in some cases did some early educational intervention and so on. And we know for example with Turks, that it's not an inevitable thing that the outcomes will be bad.

In [my 2011 book] "Arrival City," one of things I did was I looked at Turks who came from the villages in Anatolia, some of whom had moved to Germany in the late 60s and early 70s, and some of whom had moved to London. Those who went to London tended to become shopkeepers and so on, poor but stable, and their children did ok in the educational system compared to other poor immigrants.

Those who went to Germany, however, through the Gastarbeiter [guest worker] program, tended to get stuck. After generations they were seen as being a parallel society and it is because for a full 30 years they had no legal access to citizenship.

So integration comes down to education and affluence?

The way we've turned around marginal neighborhoods that are poor and so on, is through better education policies, through better urban policies, and an effort to include people in the economy. It is not a good thing to have a large number of people living around you who don't have access to citizenship, who are not part of the economy and the educational system. That form of exclusion is dangerous.

Born in 1967, Doug Saunders is a British-Canadian author and journalist. He has received the National Newspaper Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for his reportages and columns four times. His book "The Myth of the Muslim Tide" was published in 2012 by Vintage.