Who will win the Misunderstanding Game? (Photo by Sander de Wilde/Corbis via Getty Images)


March 6, 2021   7 mins

Occasionally, my nine-year-old son and I indulge in something we call the “Misunderstanding Game”.

Thomas: “Mom, I want another round of Among Us.”

Me: “Of course, darling, you are absolutely welcome to be among us, you know you don’t have to ask.”

Thomas, giggling and rolling his eyes, patiently explains yet again that there is a computer game called Among Us. In other words, he wants more screen time. I carry on pretending not to understand what he wants. Games, I say, what a good idea. Which one would you like to play? On and on it goes, as I keep on deliberately misunderstanding him.

I do, of course, have a hidden agenda: all this time that he is fooling around with me means less screen time. He also enjoys the maternal attention. I think of it at times as a useful activity, at times as amusing and entirely harmless.

When I listen to people discuss today’s encounters between Islam and the West, I am reminded of this game. The only problem is that these conversations are rarely useful and not in the least amusing. Quite often they lead to more harm than good.

The best illustration of this Misunderstanding Game relates to the issue of immigration from Muslim countries and how European societies should absorb Muslim immigrants.

The first deliberate misunderstanding is the pretence that unskilled immigrants with little formal education are absolutely necessary for advanced economies. With Europe’s shrinking populations and falling fertility rates, the woke and Leftist enablers say, surely no one can argue that enticing young and vibrant people to immigrate is a bad thing. Those terrible xenophobes who fixate on cost/benefit exercises — how much, in monetary terms, immigrants cost society versus how much they contribute — simply don’t get it. Those who point out the large-scale welfare dependency of those immigrants and even of their children a generation later, let alone the emergence of an underclass of ethnic and religious enclaves, are met with cheerful accounts of benefits that cannot be quantified in material terms: the cuisine, attire, sights and sounds of new exotic cultures that locals can now sample at leisure.

Related to this wilful misunderstanding is the argument of compassion. Let’s reject the economic immigrants, say some, and only allow in those who qualify for asylum. In any case, it is just a temporary measure until their countries return to normal. But this approach raises myriad questions. How on earth do we design a vetting process that can distinguish those in search of economic opportunity from those who are true victims of civil strife? When will their countries return to normal? What will they do in the meantime? And who will pay for it all?

Those adept at playing the Misunderstanding Game, however, have some very compelling distractions. Empathy is required, they say. Imagine if it were you or your family who had to endure the ravages of war and upheaval. It wasn’t that long ago that Europe was going through such turmoil. Would you have turned away Jews fleeing what would become the Holocaust?

In any case, we’re told, it is our own fault that these societies are falling apart because we colonised them in the first place. Worse, we even profited from the slave trade before and during the colonial years. Here the conclusion of the Misunderstanding Game is made clear: the moral atonement for historical wrongs is more compelling than any rational attempt to analyse the issues on the table.

A third version of the Misunderstanding Game is the assertion that immigrants are all the same. This approach is partly a response to those such as Dutch sociologist Professor Ruud Koopmans, who has questioned why is it so much harder for immigrants from Muslim societies to integrate into Western countries. Why, for instance, are Lebanese Christians Lebanese more likely to become fully assimilated in Australia than Lebanese Muslims when their circumstances of arrival and departure are practically the same? Or why do Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants struggle to integrate in the UK, while their Hindu and Sikh counterparts flourish and, in some cases, even do better than the natives?

Koopmans has compelling data to explain these trends. But who is interested in such questions, let alone such tedious things as data? The game is to misunderstand, to mix up and muddle. So Mr Koopmans, they say, let’s talk about your intent. Your work may be empirical but it is your underbelly that matters: for even though you claim to be a Social Democrat, you are in fact a racist. Busted. You can’t hide behind that pro-labour façade when you defame the true workers of the world with your anti-social science.

Finally, when played at its most mischievous, the Misunderstanding Game simply insists that we all want the same things. We all want to be free and equal; we all want to abide by the law; we all share the same basic values and we all want to respect the dignity of others. For those of us who are men and women of faith, in the end we all pray to the same God. For those of us who are secular, we are all led by our reason. Save for a subset of misfits — and every society has those — we are all just human beings.

To this kind of argument, I always have the same response: not everyone’s concept of God is identical. How else would you explain the existence of Islamist sermons of hatred? Or the harassment of women, gays, Jews and others? What would you say to the victims of the Pakistani Muslim grooming gangs or the Muslim girls who are forced into marriage? If we all pray to the “same” God, then what about the knife attacks, the beheadings and the use of trucks as weapons of murder by perpetrators screaming Allahu-Akbar? What about ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Radical views exist and we urgently need to grapple with them.

Hold it right there, the misunderstanders reply. Didn’t we already make it clear? There are misfits in every society, including ours. Sexual violence against women is universal. And look at the latest report from the UK Home Office. It concludes clearly — after an allegedly long and rigorous research process — that the whole gory business of grooming gangs had nothing to do with Pakistanis and absolutely nothing to do with Islam.

So who is playing this Misunderstanding Game? A class of undergraduates doing a workshop on Public Policy? No. It is in fact our elected political leaders, as well as senior editors from highly regarded news outlets, professors from reputable universities and think tanks, senior civil servants and, at times, EU leaders. These conversations on the thorniest issues facing Europe are taking place in parliamentary committees, debating chambers, international seminars and on national television.

Scrutinise the transcripts of these talks, replay the recordings, read the numerous reports, books and articles generated over the last three decades on immigration, Islam and integration, and the picture that emerges is the same: it is an endless version of the Misunderstanding Game.

Meanwhile, the numbers of immigrants in Europe from Muslim-majority countries has swelled to… who knows? In 2017, the Pew Research Center projected that the Muslim share of Europe’s population could rise from 4.9% to between 7.4% (if there is no more immigration) and 14% (if there is a lot) by 2050. Even if there is less blitheness today about the wonderful ways immigrants from Muslim countries will enrich Europe — especially in France — an end to immigration is not in sight. Europe’s borders continue to be porous, the reasons that compel people to leave their countries get increasingly compelling.

It is, perhaps, a disappointment to those who have always insisted that we humans are all the same to see so many Muslim groups form organisations and movements with the objective of isolating their communities from the rest of society. In some countries, like France, they have succeeded enough to alarm the president to introduce new legislation that signals he has had enough of the Misunderstanding Game. And yet President Macron can hardly be said to be leading a Europe-wide change of sentiment. In most countries, the Misunderstanding Game goes on. Why?

One theory is that there is a genuine desire within the European political elite to atone for the past; today’s leaders don’t want to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. Another possibility is that Western leaders have simply lost confidence in Western Civilisation. It has all been one long tale of horrors: slavery, oppression, colonialism, genocides, misogyny and massacres. Hence there are no values to protect from large numbers of outsiders and certainly nothing worthwhile to ask immigrants to integrate into. A third explanation is that some European leaders genuinely wish to do away with borders. For them it is a matter of principle and they couldn’t care less who pays the price for the pursuit of a borderless planet.

But I believe there is one more reason: incompetence. Quite simply, none of the leaders whose job it is to resolve the issues of Muslim immigration and integration has a clue as to how to go about it. These politicians around the table who do have the right sort of principles but lack the ability to persuade the others. Some grasp the fine details of the issue but are incapable of seeing the big picture. And as with all policy areas of this magnitude and complexity, there are also those leaders who parrot the interests of organised groups who benefit from the status quo. It is they, I assume, who enjoy the Misunderstanding Game the most.

The incompetence of each set of leaders is often masked by an eye-catching political photo-op expressing a grand gesture or a soundbite along the lines of “history will be our judge”. But, as they know all too well, history does not vote; it does not promote or appoint a politician to a senior level. So let it judge away.

In the meantime, the flow of migrants has abated somewhat in the past few years, but large numbers of people still attempt to reach Europe, even during the pandemic. Last year Europe saw more than 336,000 first-time asylum applications and, from January to November, 114,300 illegal entries.

Looking forward, it seems inevitable that as European countries emerge out of Covid lockdowns and their economies reopen, some countries in Africa will face food shortages and other economic problems arising from pandemic-induced disruption. You don’t have to be a sage to foresee masses of young men heading towards Europe. As they attempt to cross the Eastern and Southern points of entry into the EU, be ready for European politicians to speak of a sudden surge and an unforeseeable crisis.

Then watch them play the Misunderstanding Game once again.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her new book is Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.

Ayaan