Douglas Murray is an author whose articles enjoy a devoted following in The Spectator, and whose work on hot and dangerous topics such as immigration and Islamic terrorism has seen him become a well-known public intellectual with a flair for vigorous debate.
We were keen to catch up with him to discuss his new book, The Strange Death of Europe, which concerns the history of immigration and the decline of European identity. We found the scourge of the politically correct to be polite and intellectually curious, with a wicked sense of humour.
Our fascinating conversation covered why Douglas is driven to tackle uncomfortable subjects, what his aspirations are for the book, and why Original Sin may be a great idea…
Douglas, why did you write The Strange Death of Europe? Why is the subject matter of immigration of interest to you?
We all travel a lot these days. I for work as well as pleasure, and over recent years I’ve spent a lot of time travelling across the world. I was already writing about the migration issues occasionally. During the height of the migration crisis in 2015 I was reporting on bits of it and I got frustrated about not being able to explain the whole story because the facts and the emotions they provoke are fantastically complex. None of it is simple or easy. And I suppose like a lot of us who write, you get frustrated trying to do it in one or two thousand words in an article.
I was a long way from home in the Far East. And I had this realization I had to write a book about the whole thing as I saw it. I find it the most fascinating subject of our time as well as the most troubling. And also being an inveterate walker into places where more sensible people fear to tread, all the difficult bits seemed to me to be the things that need to be thought about and written about and discussed. And I wanted to be able to do that at length.
How did you go about researching the book?
I travelled whilst reporting for the Spectator and other publications, but a lot more once I had decided to write the book. The points of entry are where the whole thing is clearest. So that’s why I went to Greece, to Italy and to the islands where migrants land. That was really galvanizing. As I think I say in the book, when you’re in those places where thousands of people have just arrived, you can simultaneously have a moment of calm, where you can foresee visions of how you could disperse people in such a way that it would work; but in my case I also had the premonition that it simply wasn’t going to, and that this was at least midway through a very serious catastrophe.
Why did you get that sense of foreboding?
Partly because the dreamers never follow up what happens. That’s why I wanted to keep following the story through the continent, going to all the places that people end up, from the suburbs of Swedish cities to the outskirts of German towns. I wanted to do that because you could dream in Lampedusa of how well this was going to end. But… my experience across all of the countries in the continent has been that this is a fallacious dream. That’s maybe why people don’t want to talk about it. It’s so much easier to do the first bit. I think maybe people realized that after the so-called saving of people (which increasingly is not saving but helping the smugglers or doing their job for them) that it’s not a happy ending. And maybe that’s why people don’t care about it after that. They’d rather not focus on it.
There’s a harrowing account of a young man in Moira who had been raped by the Taliban. How did you deal with that?
I’ve done quite a lot of meeting migrants around the world, often in the countries that people have come from. I’ve been to a lot of war zones and countries that have been destabilized. For me it’s the most interesting as well as harrowing part because it stops the whole thing being about numbers. There’s a thread in the book I didn’t want to make too much of, about a minor French official who late last year mentioned in passing to me that he refers to all migrants as ‘rapefugees’. And I wanted that to linger because there is a type of person who can think that, but they could only think it if they didn’t know any of the individual stories. And equally there are people who would think of all of the arrivals as saints, without caring to know about the individual stories. That’s the bit I knew from the beginning that I had to do, because I wanted the book to be about humans.
Do you think it’s a genuinely difficult for people to wrap their heads around, as you put it, importing the world’s people imports the world’s problems, but this doesn’t simultaneously suggest a lack of compassion?
I definitely think the problem is that everything to do with this area is about ‘them’ and also about ‘us’, as it were. And throughout these crises we’ve been focussing on the ‘us’ in every way. And it’s easy to see how people who, for instance, focus on migration numbers, are concerned about ‘us’; but it’s also the case with the most fanatical open borders people that it’s about ‘us’ and about how they think the world should see them. But the whole thing is not thought about more because it’s very uncomfortable. In a sense we all feel conflicted on it.
Do you think your readership for the book will attract those who are uncomfortable about the subject matter?
Well, I hope so. I have a growing fear that, as in America in recent decades, we’re going to become bifurcated in our political debate. I hope not. That seems to be a risk. People think along the lines of, “These are the books I need to buy in order to be a member of this tribe. These are papers and journals I read, and the websites I go to if I’m this sort of political person.” I think that is a great shame because you can often tell that people don’t read you, very swiftly.
Funnily enough, I have a quote here which is, “They don’t review my work any more. They review me.” Orson Welles.
Yes! That’s such a good observation. I’m not there (laughs). He says modestly. But I think for a lot of writers that’s a problem. I do read people I disagree with. I think it’s the best way to keep your arguments sharp. And also sometimes you’re wrong and you need to be corrected.
Social media is part of the problem too.
I don’t do Facebook, and I never engage with people on Twitter. But why do people have so many fallings out with friends through exchanges on Facebook when they wouldn’t socially? Why is that? Is it just that it emboldens people? The number of people who say to me, “I’ve fallen out with this friend,” and I think, “I’m fairly sure if you just been at dinner – that wouldn’t have happened.” So maybe this is why I don’t do any of it because I’d end up with no friends!
You’re very wise!
I think that this is a very common experience. Slightly off the topic, but I find that I’m far more tolerant of opinions now than I’ve ever been; the older I get the more I find other views interesting and want to know why people hold them. There’s no threat to your own views, which change a bit, and sometimes a lot, over time. But there’s not that feeling of being assaulted at your core. But I think when you’re young and trying to find your way in the world and what you think about the world, all things that speak against your person are things that you can’t accept.
I was interested in the historical guilt section in the book. Where does it come from, and is there a connection to our Christian heritage?
It must have something to do with it. I think by the way, for believers and non-believers, the concept of Original Sin is a very brilliant one. It puts its finger on something central: the sense of being fallen. Being born as a fallen species is a brilliant shortcut to something one would end up having to discover anyway!
Saves the disappointment later on.
Exactly. And these are such deep things within us. Even if you’re not religious you imbibe them from literature and culture. The thing of historical guilt is fascinating because it’s a version of Original Sin. But it’s one for which it seems to me that no redemption is possible. And that’s what that’s what worries me, in Germany in particular these days. I worry that, because of their very recent sin and guilt that anything could happen to them and they would not see themselves as being worth defending. That is such a terrible situation for a society and a culture to be in. It’s normal to want to defend yourself. It’s less normal to seek reasons to blame yourself. In this country a lot of people are guilt collectors. They will look at any situation in the world and say, “How can I find us to have been at fault?” which is a strange thing. It should be seen as being quite as awful as the flip-side, which is to look around the world and see why we’re responsible for all the great things. But the guilt thing is so strong because if you feel as a society you’re guilt-laden, it’s very easy to think you’re not worth defending. And an aspect of the book is that I think we have a lot that is worth defending. If you don’t like the results of the modern, liberal, democratic, broadly secular nation states of countries like this one then – you’re going to love what comes next!
Speaking of recent German guilt, is there research into where the European Jewish populations are going?
Yes there is. There’s quite a lot of movement from France to Israel. You can tell that if you go to places like Herzliya, where you now hear French spoken everywhere. That wasn’t the case even ten years ago. I couldn’t get into it in the book at length, but in Sweden the movement of Jews appears to be an internal migration. They are clustering together as groups under threat always do. The Malmo Jewish population was thriving, but now it’s down to 700 or so. As I mention in the book, every day in 2015, from the moment the crisis really began, up to 10,000 people per day were heading into Malmo. So every day there are ten times more people arriving in Malmo than the Jews of Malmo. Societies are resilient but also fragile. We are fragile ecosystems and you can’t just do anything to us and expect the results to always come out the same.
There’s a lot of denial that there’s a problem, that I suspect runs deeper than mere disinterest in the fate of Europe’s Jewry. I recall a TV appearance you made where you spoke to a young lady from the Swedish government who was adamant there was no problem in her society.
Well that’s very normal. They rehearse arguments beforehand. They rehearse the lie they can satisfactorily tell that would explain the disaster away for another day. We’ve all had experiences of that in our societies and it’s a very understandable human instinct, to not want to wash your national dirty linen in public. But surely it’s much better to do it now than ten years down the line. But they don’t get more play simply because they are very uncomfortable and disturbing debates.
You seem willing to have those debates. Do you consider yourself a thick-skinned person?
That’s a difficult question! I suppose you grow a certain thickness of skin. Funnily enough you can end up having admiration for people who have totally different views but who also argue them well. Unlike some of my contemporaries, I don’t seek out criticism. I have a friend who’s a writer who constantly reads what people say about him on social media. I always say this is akin to self-harm. Why would you do that? I don’t enjoy controversy: what I enjoy is getting to the facts. And yes. Sometimes that means having to wade through thickets of controversy.
I enjoy the clarity of your writing, but also your ability to debate, which is a dying art. It’s thrilling for spectators like me to watch, and you put me in mind of the late Christopher Hitchens. Do you mind that comparison?
Well, we were friends, and I adored Christopher. There were a few people when I was starting off in this trade who were very encouraging and friendly. Christopher was one of them. It got to the point where I would always see him when I was in Washington DC, and when he was in the UK we would meet. And he and I disagreed on lots of things, but when somebody is able to make an argument with some style, it’s to be appreciated, and he had such style. He reviewed my first book, my biography of Alfred Douglas, in around 2000. I was at Oxford at the time as a student. I remember a friend running out of the lodgings at the college with a copy of a New York Review of Books waving it in the air and saying, “Christopher Hitchens has been nice about you!” I was an undergraduate so I didn’t do any reading. I remember saying I’d look into it, and he shook me and said, “No, Douglas, you don’t understand: Christopher Hitchens has been nice about you. He never nice about anybody!” (Laughs). Then Christopher and I met a few years later when I was more interested in the political side of things.
It’s very refreshing to hear you when the standard of debate is so low. But do you lose patience?
In public debate we are lacking people with clear and thought-through opinions, as well as courtesy. The presumption that the other person may disagree with you but is not necessarily Satan would be a good place to start. But in terms of public debate and conversation it can only improved by trying to improve it, by being a part of it and trying to widen it.
What is your ambition for the book?
My ambition would be that people read it and think about the big arguments behind it and the overriding questions. Even if they don’t agree with some minute parts of cultural analysis or explanations of the situation, I’d hope that they would recognize that the underlying points are serious and are true and need to be thought about. Maybe people will come to different conclusions than me. And I’m sure people will. But that these are very significant things that need to be thought about are what I would hope anyone would take away. Maybe it’s a character flaw, but if people say don’t go here, my inclination is to get my boots on and jump right in. (Laughs)
The best way to do that is to talk about Islam. The book is about migration but it touches on Islam.
I didn’t want to write a book just on Islam, though I could have done. I wanted to write about this but it’s a much wider subject, of which Islam is a part.
Just as I suppose you could have written an entire book on what you describe as “attacking the secondary symptoms”, but I imagine that would have been quite long…
I’m hoping people take notice of that. I mentioned it the first time about eighteen months ago at the Danish Parliament on the tenth anniversary of the cartoon of Mohammed. I was asked to speak to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the event and the tsunami that came after it. I was very pleased at the number of people in Denmark who agreed that we seem to be so good at leaping on secondary problems. We’re good at that in the UK, too. I mention at the end of the book about Calais, and we never have the big debate behind it. We avoid it all the time. But people are waiting for somebody like Katie Hopkins to write a stupid column and then expend all of their energy attacking that. Why not focus on the actual problem rather than the response to it, however ugly or beautiful you think the response is?
It seems to be a societal malaise.
Yes, it’s a very bad sign.
One of the last chapters – the feeling that the story has run out – is really beautifully written. It reads like the end product of a long period of thinking. How hard or easy was it to write? I get the impression it just flowed out, but am I right?
I’m so pleased you picked up on that. The thinking about it was hard. The writing flowed. But you’re right, it’s the distillation of a lot of thinking and reading I’ve been doing in recent years. I find with writing that there are often things you don’t write about because you don’t yet have the armoury of knowledge to do so. Though I say that, but plenty of people seem to make careers that suggest it’s not necessary! (Laughs) But I had been thinking about cultural exhaustion for a long time and I’ve tried to distill what I think the aspects of it are. It’s about trying to recognise where we are now rather than where one might wish us to be.
Do you see any hope at all from the political elites?
It’s hard to be too hopeful at the moment. I have several instincts. One is that maybe the mainstream of the likes of Merkel, Macron and May, will grab a bit of the territory that they’ve left so open. And if they do I think they could tackle the problem. I mentioned once in the book about what Merkel could have said when the Pegida thing started that would have been mending for Germany rather than divisive yet again. There is a knitting together job that could be done, but only from the political mainstream, and only by them accepting that this thing they have lost control of has a point. Otherwise they can only dig down and keep telling the people that the people are racist and awful. So maybe that will happen. But these things can change very fast. I mean, after November 22nd 2015 in Paris, there was a big change in the air in France.
People who are interested or obsessive about politics like to think that ideas are the only things that matter; in reality, it’s events that matter. Ideas matter enormously in getting the response right. But really it’s about political events and events to which politics reacts. You’re never more of one really big attack away from the whole thing changing. That’s why I think it’s right to get the thinking done now in order that the response, when that happens next, is good.
Is it possible in a generation’s time you’d return to the subject in a follow-up book?
Yes. I wouldn’t have thought it’s a subject I’ll bang on and on about book after book. You can’t keep saying the same thing… though again, thinking about that, entire careers have been made doing precisely that (laughs). But it’s not what I want to do. I’ve said most of what I have to say for the time being in this book about these issues. There are related issues I’m very interested in which I love to write about and think about in the future. Part of the point of book writing is to put to bed all of what you know and have thought about a subject.
How do you feel about it now that it’s being published and will be out in the open arena?
When you do a book, you are enormously protective of it when it’s a child. And then you have to accept that like a child it just has to run out into the world and fall out of trees and there’s nothing you can do. Once it’s finished you have no real control over what happens. And you accept or anticipate that it will be reviewed in a particular way. My assumption is that again the critics who don’t read me won’t read it and will be nasty.
Open-minded readers can get at the facts and follow the argument though.
One of the things that drove my interest in the subject is that it’s so maddening when people base arguments on things that are just false. I heard it all the time when I was in the reception points in Southern Europe, people would say, “We do have to give shelter to Syrians.” There is a Syrian debate. Absolutely. But on Lampedusa last summer, no Syrians were arriving. So what’s your attitude towards the people who were arriving? So I hope the book will help to inform people who are interested in the subject but under-informed on the actual facts of what is going on.
Do you have any thoughts about what you might be doing next? Will you re-release Islamophilia?
I’d like to reissue that at some point but I didn’t want it to get tied up with this book so I haven’t so far. It was the only book I’ve written that’s been an e-book. It was the best-selling book on Islam (laughs). It made me so happy…
Outselling the Qur’an, even?
Mohammed had a really big head start. I do want to reissue that at some point. I hate revisiting things, but I probably won’t change much. My second book ran out of print and some publishers asked me if I wanted to reissue it, but it’s horrible going back years after you’ve done something because you still want to tinker with it. But because Islamophilia was an e-book it’s not available at all. So I probably should try to reissue it because people enjoyed reading it and I enjoyed writing it. The one downside is that events happen. It was written in 2013, I think. And it was partly a demonstration to show that one could laugh in the face even of the religious thought police. And after Charlie Hebdo I was laughing a little less, as everyone was. And I have wondered how to, without writing a totally different book, reissue it in a way that takes account of that. But it had some cracking jokes in it. And the great thing about it being an e-book was being able to get around quite a lot of censors and get straight to the reading public. Except everyone who doesn’t have a Kindle wants you to print it out!
After discovering that we’re both bibliophiles, if not outright bibliomaniacs, I thank Douglas for a fascinating conversation and he heads off to work on a few articles before an event for the Spectator. You can see our review of Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe. It is published by Bloomsbury Continuum.