Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow Motion Suicide, by Bruce S. Thornton (Encounter Books, 300 pp., $21.95)

It used to be said that when it came to worldviews, Americans were from Mars and Europeans were from Venus. But a new school of thought posits a different role for our continental counterparts. Europe, in this schema, is more like a dying star: a once-brilliant civilization whose best days lie behind it, that has lost the internal strength to endure, and that is headed toward oblivion. Bruce Thornton, a classics professor at California State University, is the latest to take up this thesis. In Decline and Fall, he makes the case that a number of factors—including unsustainable welfare states, dwindling birthrates, undiscriminating immigration laws, a society disconnected from the transcendent truths of Christianity, and a failure to confront the gathering threat of Islamic jihadism aggressively—are leading Europe to commit “slow-motion suicide.”

Government largesse may seem an unlikely source of civilizational decline, but Thornton shows that it is indeed cause for concern. Europeans have long favored generous welfare entitlements as a corrective to allegedly ruthless, American-style capitalism, but they can no longer afford them. And solutions aren’t forthcoming. A massive influx of immigrants from the Middle East, unassimilated into European society, contributes little to economic growth. Meanwhile, tax receipts, required to sustain social-welfare benefits, may dry up as Europe ages. As The Economist recently reported, the projected median age in Europe in 2050 will be 53, meaning that a large population of young workers will be necessary to support the older generation’s exit from the economy.

Unfortunately, there may not be enough workers. Thornton identifies another sign of Europe’s fall from prominence: its ongoing baby bust. Despite policies like paid leave for new parents, benefit checks for children until the age of 18, and subsidies for child care, European births remain below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. Combine this population decline with a boom in Muslim immigration from the Middle East, and you have the makings of what scholar Bat Ye’or has called “Eurabia.”

Thornton is right to underscore the defects of Europe’s immigration policies, but his analysis might have been more compelling had he grappled with contrary evidence. In his 2004 book The Empty Cradle, for instance, demographer Phillip Longman presented data that birthrates were also falling in the Middle East. Indeed, according to some projections, by 2025 the Middle East as a whole may have fertility rates of only about 2.08. Algerian president Houari Boumedienne famously promised the Islamic world a victory that would emerge “from the wombs of our women,” but the wombs, it seems, are not cooperating.

Thornton’s assertion that religion, notably Christianity, is a receding force in European life stands on firmer statistical ground. Europe’s historic cathedrals overflow with tourists, not parishioners, he rightly observes. Filling the space vacated by traditional religion are “pseudo-religions” like environmentalism, a movement that comes complete with its own apocalyptic prophecies (global warming), its own promises of salvation (through government regulation and other intrusions into the free market), and its own clerisy (Europe’s electorally marginal yet influential Green parties). Related to the decline of faith is the rise of multiculturalism. In equal measure admiring of Third World cultures and disdainful of the West, it renders Europeans “incapable of defending their civilization against those who would destroy it.”

Thornton leaves no doubt as to the identity of these enemies. The European Union, he writes, is now home to between 15 and 20 million Muslims, many of whom are not only unassimilated to the broader culture but also openly and sometimes violently hostile to it. Some of the blame, he acknowledges, must fall on European countries. Freeing up their economies might have given immigrants a chance to prosper, but they opted instead to throw money at the immigration problem in the form of welfare programs. Rage-filled ethnic ghettos like France’s mainly Muslim banlieues are the unintended result.

But the fault lies, too, with the immigrants themselves. Unafraid of controversy, Thornton contends that a leading cause of violence among Muslim immigrants is their faith. Not distortions of Islam, but “core Islamic beliefs” about unbelievers and the obligations of jihad, are what drive Islamic extremists to abhor and, on occasion, attack their adoptive countries. In support of this view, which will not endear him to the Council on American-Islamic Relations and its European equivalents, Thornton marshals a bevy of well-known yet determinedly ignored statistics. For example, 40 percent of British Muslims approve of introducing sharia in the country. Nearly as many consider British culture to be a threat to the Muslim way of life. Anticipating the familiar objection that a “small minority of extremists” has hijacked the peaceful Muslim faith, Thornton calls attention to the troubling fact that 13 percent of British Muslims—some 200,000 people—say that they support violence against those who have offended them or their faith. Between one-third and one-fourth of French, Spanish, and British Muslims have “sometimes” supported suicide bombers. The usual tactic of those challenged with these details is to level charges of “Islamophobia” against their critics. Thornton justifiably dismisses such reactions as “smear terms used to demonize the unexceptional and empirically verifiable notion that in many respects Western culture is superior to others.”

Less convincing is Thornton’s suggestion that only a return to religious roots can empower Europe to confront Islamic extremism. If it is true that secularists are the main obstacle to a robust defense of the West, how does one explain such voices as Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Wafa Sultan? Outspoken atheists, they also happen to be some of the most forceful champions of the liberal West against its jihadist enemies. Christian leaders and churches, furthermore, have sometimes been unreliable allies in this cause. Thornton hints as much when he notes that the archbishop of Canterbury, during a 2005 visit to Cairo, offered a groveling apology for the introduction of Christian hymns and prayers into remote parts of the world, lamenting that foreign peoples had been made “cultural captives” of the West. (This as opposed to the actual captives whom Islamic militants are so fond of beheading.)

A skeptic also might question Thornton’s pessimism. France, the onetime refuge of Ayatollah Khomeini, has much to answer for when it comes to appeasing Islamic extremism, true, but its internal security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, is one of the most effective counterterrorism forces in the world. Its broad powers of surveillance, including preventive detention of terrorist suspects without charge, far exceed those of intelligence agencies in the United States.

Or consider Britain. Thornton provides some astonishing examples of willful ignorance—for example, London police commissioner Sir Ian Blair’s sanguine assurance that “there is nothing wrong with being an Islamic fundamentalist.” Yet it is mistaken to assume that this approach governs all police actions. Police procedures issued by the British Home Office stress that “some international terrorist groups are associated with particular identities,” and the focus of surveillance efforts on men of “South Asian” origin leaves little doubt about which identities they have in mind. Italian counterterrorism investigators, similarly, recently cracked down on an Islamic terrorist network by focusing their efforts on Italy’s North African immigrants. Notwithstanding the idiocies that public officials feel compelled to utter, for much of Europe’s counterterrorism establishment there is something very wrong indeed with being an Islamic fundamentalist.

Thornton does note in passing that European countries have “started to change course” by deporting radical preachers, placing extremist mosques under surveillance, and strengthening assimilation policies. But in a book that sets out to chart Europe’s possible demise, these efforts at self-preservation would seem to deserve more than the single paragraph that Thornton accords them.

Such shortcomings are the exception, however, in an otherwise provocative and illuminating book. Thornton’s is not an entirely novel argument—writers like Bat Ye’or, Bruce Bawer, Claire Berlinski, and Melanie Phillips have covered similar territory, and Thornton acknowledges a debt to their work—but his spirited rhetoric and refreshing disdain for political correctness make Decline and Fall a pleasure to read. And if it turns out that rumors of Europe’s imminent extinction are slightly exaggerated, then Thornton, an avowed admirer of its “magnificent civilization,” won’t be disappointed.


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