Demographic winter and the religious right

By Dennis Gruending nonie_darwish_250.jpgRecently 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 “demographic winter”, 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.  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 Darwish’s books is called Cruel and Unusual Punishment:The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law. Her American publisher describes it as “a wake up call to the Western world.” The book blurb continues as follows: “Nonie 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.” The viral message I received contained much the same admonition.

Darwish critique

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 – 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 Darwish’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 – 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: “In twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in CANADA to elect the PRIME MINISTER!  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!”

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.

Demographic winter

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 “catastrophic” 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. “For many conservatives,” he says, “demographic winter — or ‘birth dearth’ 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 ‘natural law’ and the ‘natural’ family.”

One right wing website asks this rhetorical question: “Why 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?”

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 “mainstream media shorthand”, 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 government’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 Buchanan’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?

Scary indeed

The introduction to the email message that I received was very direct: “This 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.”

Scary, indeed, that people are wasting their time, and ours, spreading fear and hatred rather than understanding and tolerance.


6 thoughts on “Demographic winter and the religious right

  1. Oh, dear! “Demographic winter” is yet another thing I am told to fear…as a response, will my church soon propose more sex and with multiple (white only) partners? I doubt it! (Thank God!)

    For anyone worried about the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether of the Christian, pagan, or Jewish persuasions, do plan to see the film Agora (featured at Cannes this year.) I saw it on Friday evening, and it really makes us all think!


  2. Alongside the “loons” are prominent people [& serious money] — scholars like Martin Gilbert, Niall Ferguson have lent their names, along with active promoters like Bernard Lewis. And it takes some cash & organization to distribute 20-odd million free CD newspaper inserts of the hate film Obsession [just before the US election]. But progressives are taking note — e.g. Matt Carr’s survey of an early rash of books. His link is: 

    I have a good selection of these, and can now add Jim Holstun, Bill Berkowitz & you to my references.
    Dennis replies: Thanks for your note. I am pleased to learn about Matt Carr and would be pleased to hear from other readers with knowledge of writers and thinkers who have taken this topic on.


  3. I wouldn’t want to sound smug by pointing this out to you (just kidding, of course I do!), but the exact same e-mail chain has circulated with a few differences, just south of the border. Politifact has tackled it (even though it didn’t need to).

    Dennis replies: Thanks. I see that you have had someone do the math on the claim made in the email message circulating in the U.S. — ie: that there will be enough Muslims there in 20 years to elect the president. You quote an expert in population studies as saying this claim is “absurd” from a demographic and mathematical point of view. That’s very interesting. Perhaps some clever person can do the math for me regarding a similar claim being made about electing the Canadian prime minister.


  4. What I find interesting about this latest hysteria is not so much the made-up statistics as the mythologies that these people invoke. The idea that “we” will be swamped by “them” is as old as the “yellow peril” myths of the 19th century. It was a staple of white supremacy discourse during the heyday of the KKK in the 1920s in the US and a major feature of Nazi rhetoric in the 1930s. As best as I can find out, this demographic winter hysteria came out of the neo-fascist right in Europe a few years ago, and now has gone viral among the North American right.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for these observations. My father used to tell me that his mother, a devout woman who he loved dearly, warned that the “yellow race” would take over the world. And, many years later, as a political candidate knocking on doors in Saskatchewan, I had people tell me on numerous occasions that the province would be taken over by Aboriginals because they have a higher birth rate than Caucasians. It appears that many people have need of “the other” in order to reassure themselves of the worthiness of their own racial and social group.


  5. Why do we NEED more white babies? It’s not as if whites aren’t already disproportionately responsible for pollution, ecocide, etc. Of course the Religious Reich never bothers to go into things like THAT–too busy scaring us with the Big Brown Muslim Menace and other phantom boogymen. Polygamy is illegal here, so it’s unlikely we’ll be outbred. (Speaking of which, shouldn’t the authorities go after those FLDS freaks in BC? Or is it not polygamy when white men do it?)


  6. I totally agree with Bina & in fact that is one of the points that I made when I received this ridiculous “chain email” from a rabid Rightie relative some months ago. I also mentioned that the Muslims that I’ve known have generally been much kinder & gentler people that most of the “evangelical” Christians that are in my family & community. They are all so frightened. All the time. Of so many things. Silly people. I would also like to thank Monsieur de Pompadour for his valuable link in his comment!


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