Demographic winter and the religious right
By Dennis Gruending Recently I received an email message urging me to read and then pass it along if I want to save Western civilization. The subject line said: Joys of A Muslim Woman: A MUST READ. Actually, it was not about joy at all but was an alarmist rant against Muslims. It was also an example of a recent fetish about â€œdemographic winterâ€, which has become a favourite preoccupation with the religious right in the United States and to some extent in Canada. The message that I received provides material drawn from an author named Nonie Darwish.Â She is of Egyptian heritage and her father was a senior officer in the Egyptian army until the Israelis killed him in 1956. Nonie moved to the U.S. in 1978 and became an evangelical Christian. She has written several books and has become prominent on the right wing lecture circuit and media. She is also founder of a group called Arabs For Israel and director of another called Former Muslims United.
One of Darwishâ€™s books is called Cruel and Unusual Punishment:The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law. Her American publisher describes it as â€œa wake up call to the Western world.â€ The book blurb continues as follows: â€œNonie Darwish presents an insider’s look at sharia and examines how radical Muslim laws are destroying the Western world from within . . . Heed this warning: sharia law is attempting to infiltrate Western culture and destroy democracy.â€ The viral message I received contained much the same admonition.
I am not a fan of sharia law and believe, for example, that the Ontario government was wise to refuse suggestions that it be used in that province. But what Darwish is saying â€“ or at the least what is being attributed to her — is boilerplate hysteria and has no place in civilized discourse. Religious extremism is an ugly thing but it comes in all flavours — Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu. The vast majority of religious adherents are not jihadists or Christian warriors but rather people who want to live peacefully with their neighbours.
Jim Holstun, an American professor, wrote a critique of Darwishâ€™s work in 2008, after she had published a book called Now They Call Me Infidel. Holstun says that for Darwish there are no real distinctions between moderate or radical Muslims, and no significant differences within or between Arab and Muslim cultures. If that is what Darwish is saying, it would come as news to the approximately 60 people of good will â€“ Muslm and Christian — with whom I attended a 12-week course at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality in 2009 called Islam: A Deeper Look.
Muslims in Canada
The viral message that I received ends with the following invocation: â€œIn twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in CANADA to elect the PRIME MINISTER!Â I think everyone should be required to read this, but with the ACLU, there is no way this will be widely publicized, unless each of us sends it on!â€
The ACLU, of course, is the American Civil Liberties Union, indicating that this message is American in its origin and focus with a bit of Canadian content added on at the end. Interestingly, the name attached to the message is that of a Canadian academic in British Columbia. I have attempted to contact her but have been unable to do so. I want to know if she is actually distributing this message or if someone is playing a nasty trick on her because a variety of right wing websites are circulating the message over her name.
The comments about there being enough Muslims in Canada in twenty years to elect the prime minister play on the theme of demographic winter. It is an idea much in vogue with the American political and religious right and it turns a long-standing concern about world overpopulation on its head. The problem, according to the new logic, is that a falling birth rate will have what one speaker called â€œcatastrophicâ€ consequences. The narrative usually reads that Western (read white) populations are not having enough babies to replace themselves, and that we will one day (soon) be swamped by immigrants from other races who will come to dominate our societies.
American blogger Bill Berkowitz, a liberal, wrote about demographic winter recently on a blog called The Smirking Chimp. â€œFor many conservatives,â€ he says, â€œdemographic winter — or â€˜birth dearthâ€™ as it is sometimes called — is the ultimate culture war battle, rooted in the rise of feminism, legalized abortion, the acceptance of homosexuality, illegal immigration, and the growth of minority populations. All of this is supposedly the result of a multi-decade campaign by liberals to undermine â€˜natural lawâ€™ and the â€˜naturalâ€™ family.â€
One right wing website asks this rhetorical question: â€œWhy is global white population declining and not the other groups? Does this have anything to do with the legal recognition of same-sex couples world wide among predominantly white nations in modern history, besides general reluctance to have babies?â€
A vast conspiracy
The campaign around demographic winter allows the right to roll all of its straw persons into one vast conspiracy. Muslims, Arabs, immigrants, not to mention Western liberals, feminists and supporters of same sex marriage are all plotting to undermine Western civilization. The alarmists have created an intellectual frame, what one writer calls a â€œmainstream media shorthandâ€, to explain disparate events: Muslim veil debates in France (and Quebec); controversies over the construction of mosques in Switzerland (or Alberta); a reduced birthrate in affluent Western countries and a higher one in poorer countries; the closing of empty downtown churches in Europe (and Canada); debates over same sex marriage, even contraception and reproductive choice. One might ask, as a matter of Canadian interest, how the Conservative governmentâ€™s maternal health policy aimed at helping mothers in poor countries but refusing to fund legal abortion, fits into this frame.
Since 2001, movies, books articles and seminars too numerous to mention have played to the themes of demographic winter and often to an anti-Muslim sentiment. While Europe Slept by Bruce Bawler is one such book. Pat Buchananâ€™s Death of the West is another. For Canadian content, there is the novel by Patrick Grady called Royal Canadian Jihad. There is also a documentary called Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family. A seminar held in Washington in June, and sponsored by the Family Research Council dealt with the same theme. The Council is an offshoot of the organization Focus on the Family, which is also present in Canada.
These groups and individuals are also hyperactive on the web. Do a search for the term demographic winter and you will find no end of alarmist sites touting the same dire warnings. On the other hand, there is very little web material that offers a critique of dystopian and chaotic world described by the alarmists. Where are the progressives?
The introduction to the email message that I received was very direct: â€œThis is scary and you must read it carefully . . .please take your time and understand what it is telling you . . . Let us not become victims. Let us fight and keep our country or we will not have life as we know it for ourselves, our children or our grand children.â€
Scary, indeed, that people are wasting their time, and ours, spreading fear and hatred rather than understanding and tolerance.