Deconstructing Populism

John R. Bowen, anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, is fed up with the myths, misinformation and cheap populism surrounding the issue of Islam and Muslims in the West. In his book, he debunks the falsehoods that have crept into the everyday political discourse about the religion and its adherents. A review by Paul Hockenos

By Paul Hockenos

John R. Bowen correctly notes that there are votes to be won with anti-Muslim propaganda, and not just on the fringes of the right: "In most of Europe, as in the United States, a new far-right populism has been gaining ground, and skilful politicians of the more moderate right have sought to reclaim some of those votes by joining in condemnation of Islam and the elites who supposedly coddled it." Islamophobia (not a term Bowen uses) has a currency and respectability that outright racism or other illiberal hatreds don't have, which is what makes it so very dangerous.

Bowen, professor for Socio-cultural Anthropology whose current research focuses on comparative social studies of Islam across the world, thus wastes no time getting to the point, beginning with the ubiquitous claims that European governments have followed multiculturalist policies that have prevented Muslims from integrating.

Keeping the economic miracle humming along: John R. Bowen argues that western Europe's cultural and religious diversity is the product of different post-war migratory patterns, not of elitist multicultural policies

​​These policies have supposedly encouraged Muslim immigrant communities to remain separate and to nurture traditions and cultural practices, including religious extremism, in the heart of liberal, open-minded, tolerant Europe. This has breed violent extremism, the abuse of women, disrespect for sexual minorities and in general social tension between majority and minority peoples.

Deconstructing the multicultural myth

Bowen argues that this is simply not the case. The fact is that western Europe today sports a cultural and religious diversity that is the product of different post-war migratory patterns. It doesn't have much to do with the very different policies that host nations implemented when faced with the reality that these immigrant communities were there to stay for much longer than the authorities had planned, perhaps for good.

In France and Britain, for example, the state coaxed migrants workers from its former colonies to lend a hand with the post-war work load. Germany recalled its old ties to Turkey and encouraged hundreds of thousands to come to keep the economic miracle humming along. Then across western Europe in later decades, African and Asian immigrants made their way to cities as far from their homelands as Munich, Amsterdam and Milan, often – although not always – as political refugees.

As for multiculturalism itself, Bowen argues that it is a moniker that the anti-Islam factions use as a cudgel with which to beat liberal politicos. But this "state multiculturalism" is a myth. What's implied is that governments encouraged immigrant groups to stay and set up shop alongside the mainstream society, not just enabling but condoning "parallel structures" and "parallel worlds". Supposedly they favoured "living side by side" rather than "living together". These policies included the likes of recognising ethnic community structures or allowing the use of Arabic or Turkish in schools.

Denying German-Turkish realities

A slim, accessible treatise: in his book, Bowen argues that "the Islam versus the West thesis" is actually "a red herring"


In Germany, for example, there was nothing remotely multikulti or coddling about the state's relationship with the Turkish community before 2000.

Germany stubbornly resisted admitting that it was a "land of immigration" and seemed to hold out hope that these people would one day just leave. Long after it was clear that this wouldn't happen, Germany still refused citizenship to the Gastarbeiter (guest workers) and their offspring (and their offspring).

This changed in 2000 with a reformed citizenship law. Germany has also of late made efforts to have Islam recognised as an official religion in Germany, a status that would bring with it a range of rights and benefits, like Islamic religious education in schools. But the fractured nature of the Islamic community has so far prohibited this.

As Bowen underscores, this is not a special multicultural privilege for Islam but a part of Germany's principles governing religious diversity, the same that apply to other religions.

The cases of Britain and France

Britain is a different story. It has promoted a brand of multiculturalism but it is not responsible for all of the ills ascribed to it, particularly not home-grown terrorism. For the most part, what goes by the name of multiculturalism in Britain is the regulation of public education, like the religion curricula in schools, the offering of halal meals and provisions for religious dress.

The fact that there are small cities, towns and large neighbourhoods that are predominantly inhabited by people with migration backgrounds – usually from Pakistan or Bangladesh – is a result of migratory patterns. Families followed their relatives; villages and regions ended up settling near one another. In the schools, the diversity that is allowed, and supported by the conservatives, is the same granted to other religious communities during the course of English history.

And then there's France, which Bowen argues never gave "multiculturalism" a serious thought. The state has treated Muslim newcomers much as other religious communities, which in spite of the principle of laïcité includes state support for religious organisations, the upkeep of religious buildings and the hiring of teachers for private religious schools. These, notes Bowen, are centuries-old policies.

Dutch tradition of tolerance

John R. Bowen's current research focuses on comparative social studies of Islam across the world. With a few exceptions, he says, "the gap is not between Islam and the West, but between people who are more religious and less religious, whether Muslim or Christian"

​​Lastly, Bowen looks at the Netherlands, where very successful anti-Islam parties, like that of the notorious Islamophobe Geert Wilders, have until recently captured big chunks of the popular vote.

Bowen argues that it was a Dutch tradition of tolerance for others (be they Muslims, gays or pot smokers) that was responsible for the general acceptance of Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands, not any specific multicultural policies.

Finally Bowen winds up his fine little book by showing that Sharia is not the law in England – in fact English Sharia tribunals have extremely limited jurisdiction – and that the U.S. anti-Sharia campaigns (in legislatures in 20 or more US states!) are way off the mark.

These points require less explanation than the others, although Bowen's discussion of how useful Britain's institutions of Islamic dispute mediation can be, especially for women, are valuable nevertheless.

The blame-game works

Yet these facts that Bowen makes so convincingly haven't stopped Islamophobes from milking multiculturalism for every bit of political fodder it will yield. It's an easy target for cultural nationalists with which they can bash former or current political elites. "Blaming multiculturalism," he argues, "ties the package together: it discredits a foreign element – Islam – and it identifies the fifth column that let it in, those past proponents of multiculturalism. That it misreads history is beside the point." The point is it works.

The second big bugbear that Bowen takes on is the contention that Islam's values are antithetical to those of the West and its Enlightenment tradition, and that his has "shocked" and disrupted European ways of life. Islam is a threat and it is locked in a permanent struggle with the West and its culture. This line is prominent on both sides of the Atlantic and also infiltrates the mainstream discourses – even in left-wing circles, too.

It sees Europe besieged by an undifferentiated, inherently violent Islam that, because of a high Muslim birth rate, threatens to take over Europe in the upcoming decades.

Nonsensical, dubious jingoism

Countering populist jingoism: "In contrast to the claims of the us-versus-them scaremongers, most Muslim immigrants adapt to their new cultures and take on many of its values, even if some are mingled with those of the Old World," writes Paul Hockenos

​​All a lot of nonsense, says Bowen. On the cultural issues, polls and surveys usually show much less difference between religious Muslims and religious Christians than between either with their non-religious peers. With a few exceptions, "the gap is not between Islam and the West, but between people who are more religious and less religious, whether Muslim or Christian." A raft of recent German studies back this up.

Similarly, he says that the "Islam versus the West" thesis is a red herring. In contrast to the claims of the us-versus-them scaremongers, most Muslim immigrants adapt to their new cultures and take on many of its values, even if some are mingled with those of the Old World. In fact, the birth rates of second-generation Muslims are very much like those of the majority population.

There is also no evidence to connect Muslims who are more religious to violence than Muslims who are less religious. In fact, one study done on  home-grown terrorists showed that they did not have much of a grasp of Islam as such. More religious study, says Bowen, might in fact have lured them away from the path of terrorism.

So, with all of these myths debunked, where does it land us? Most of the people who read Bowen's book probably find most of this kind of jingoism dubious to begin with, even if they don't have his arguments at their fingertips. But now they do, in lucid, crystal clear prose, just what one expects from The Boston Review's fine editorial staff. Sadly, these arguments will have little impact on those who buy the tropes in the first place. That's populism for you; it's a hard nut to crack.

Paul Hockenos

© 2013

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

Blaming Islam by John R. Bowen, A Boston Review Book, MIT Press, 127 pages. 2012