The growing immigrant population in Europe could lead to one of two extreme outcomes — the collapse of European societies or a widespread rejection of radical Islam, political commentator Michel Gurfinkiel said Tuesday at a Davenport College Master’s Tea.

Gurfinkiel, the executive chairman of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute and the editor in chief of Valeurs Actuelles, a conservative French newsweekly, discussed the European perspective on current Middle East tensions and European immigration issues with a group of about 45 people at the tea. Students said they enjoyed hearing how cultural traditions shaped European thought, though some said they disagreed with Gurfinkiel’s analysis of immigrant assimilation.

Gurfinkiel drew a distinction between Western countries and autocratic nations in the Middle East.

“Autocracy is probably the driving force behind the many problems we are encountering now in the Middle East,” Gurfinkiel said. “When this is combined with Messianic expectations and competition for leadership through violence, you have most of the ingredients that make up the present problem of radical Islam.”

Gurfinkiel identified three factors contributing to the way Europeans look at the current situation in the Middle East: Europe’s history, a fear of being attacked, and tensions stemming from an influx of immigrants into Europe.

“Europe used to be the classic colonial power,” he said, mentioning that France once ruled over countries in North Africa, West Africa and Indochina, among other areas. “In many ways there is a legacy of guilt; in many ways, there is a nostalgia at not being an imperial power any more.”

Terrorist attacks on European cities over the past few decades have caused an uneasiness among Europeans that is exacerbated by European countries’ military limitations, Gurfinkiel said. In contrast, the United States has a greater military capability, and therefore its feelings of vulnerability are less intense, he said.

“America has also been shocked and scared by 9/11, but America is a very powerful nation and it … has counterattacked,” he said. “You are much more concerned by fear when you are weak.”

The growing immigrant population in Europe has put pressure on the cohesiveness of European societies, Gurfinkiel said.

“Immigration can be an asset and it can be a liability — it all depends on the way a society is able to absorb the immigrants and the way immigrants adjust to their society,” Gurfinkiel said. “The problem is that immigrants come from societies that are autocratic.”

Danny Erdman MUS ’08, who is from Israel, said he thinks Gurfinkiel’s talk presented a fresh perspective on the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

“It was interesting to see the view of the European side,” he said. “We didn’t hear a lot about it during the war [this summer] — we were focused on our own problems.”

But several students objected to Gurfinkiel’s discussion of immigrants who assimilated, whom he characterized as “nice, decent people who are willing to adapt as much as they can to being free men.”

“I was very disturbed by the either-or choice Gurfinkiel posed toward the Muslim community in France,” Sam Kahn ’08 said. “Immigration and assimilation are complex processes and deeply a part of France’s cultural heritage, and are in no way reducible to a polarity between the collapse of French society and the rejection of immigrants.”

Asia Mernissi ’10 said she appreciated Gurfinkiel’s insight on Middle Eastern issues but that she felt he oversimplified the situation.

“I think he highlighted some of the crucial problems in France and Europe regarding the Muslim communities that Americans aren’t aware of,” said Mernissi. “But he kept talking about good versus bad. It’s not quite that simple.”

Gurfinkiel is a member of the editorial board of Commentaire, a French political quarterly, and of Outre-Terre, a French review on geopolitics. He has written several books, including one on the legacy of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.