Friday, April 07, 2006

Comparing America’s and Europe’s Experiences With Immigration

It has been popular recently for opponents of President Bush’s proposed guest worker program to point with dismay at Europe, where guest workers have remained largely separate, even alienated from their host societies, and to lecture that such a policy would be a disaster for the United States. This assertion, though, overlooks the true substantive differences between conditions in Europe and North America, as well as between the people flooding into these two vastly different places. Rather than disparate policies, it is different cultures that have made our experiences with immigration so different.

There are important cultural differences between Europe and North America. The former, locked in a mindset of elder superiority and comfort with the “natural order of things,” resists change far more stubbornly than the upstart west of the Atlantic. America, despite its own fits of nativism and identity politics, nevertheless has over its entire history been a destination for those bold or wary people looking for a new beginning, and has benefited from the resulting mixture of ideas and people. What most immigrants find, despite well publicized angst, is a society that, for the most part, is curious about them, their food, their lives, and which welcomes them and their children as American citizens.

Only in the past few years have European countries begun to grant citizenship to those native-born children of immigrants, and this policy change certainly does not reflect the assumptions of the people. No matter what French law, for example, might say about what it means to be French, a Jean or a Marcel or a Monique with an equally French surname and white skin knows intuitively that a Sayeed is not truly French, and never will be. In America, where Spanish names are becoming much more familiar, once foreign sounding names from other languages are now as American as pizza or Chinese takeout. This culturally paradigmatic difference between Europeans and Americans, manifested in totally different concepts of citizenship, results in vastly different environments for the immigrants who turn up on our shores. Thus, it is little surprise that the two continents would have such different experiences with immigration.

So far, this is all pretty much conventional wisdom. Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington raised quite a storm when his 2004 analysis (“Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity”) of cultural differences between mostly white, Protestant America and mostly brown, Catholic Latin America concluded that contemporary immigration threatened to divide and undermine our national unity and strength. Making, as he did, cultural arguments to demonstrate the peril of immigration, Huntington inflamed the political correctness regulators throughout the country and, I think, overstated the case. But he was on to something. Cultural differences are often very difficult to reconcile, so different values, beliefs, and especially assumptions about daily living, do intensify centrifugal forces within society, pushing people away from one another in various ways. Logically, the greater the differences, the greater will be the pressure pulling society apart. Huntington, however, overestimated the differences between Latinos and Anglos. Despite denominational differences, both groups share belief in Jesus Christ and nearly identical Bibles. Both groups trace their cultural traditions to Europe and, despite different colonial experiences, largely see that continent in an organically paternal light. That is, North Americans and Latin Americans see their cultures and societies as being essentially linked to Europe, even descended from it.

The cultural attitudes of Europe’s immigrants, however, are exponentially more estranged from those of their hosts. The colonial experiences of those countries sending Muslim immigrants to Europe today were, for the most part, much less violent and cruel than the experiences of Latin American countries. In the Americas, Spain built the most ruthless colonial system the world has known. In Muslim lands, meanwhile, colonialism was a rather recent and mild phenomenon. Most of the Middle East, for example, was only colonized by Europeans for a brief period of 30 to 60 years following the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I. Even then, these colonies were administered by the increasingly liberal British and, to a somewhat lesser degree of liberality, the French. Yet despite a milder, largely beneficial experience with colonialism, these Muslim lands today supply Europe with an immigrant population overflowing with resentment, even rage against Europe, and everything for which it stands.

Those Muslims who talk or write about such things as colonialism do not see themselves or their ancestral societies as being essentially “of” Europe. Rather, they were only “under” Europe, and express great eagerness now to turn the tables. Where from comes such hostility? Is it not a result of failed policies, or economic inequality? Perhaps it is to some extent. Certainly there are those Muslims in Europe who have assimilated and, even while preserving their Muslim faith and affection for their heritage, have become orderly citizens due in some part to their economic success, or some useful policy. But the great mass of Muslims in Europe does not even express an interest in assimilating, integrating, or becoming Europeans. They really are spoiling for a “Clash of Civilizations,” as Huntington described in his 1996 book of that title.

Why this is so has less to do with economics or policies than the incompatibility of fundamentalist Islam with liberty, let alone liberal democracy. This is not to say Muslims can never be liberals, or that democracy cannot work in Muslim lands. For the religiously democratic like me, democracy is a salve to all wounds. But the fundamentalists who read every surah of the Koran as civil law, and pile on top the shariah, simply will not become liberals, nor even tolerate true liberty in their midst. And unfortunately for Europe, large numbers of fundamentalists have emigrated from countries where they once made Muslim tyrants nervous. Americans anxious about 11 million undocumented Latino immigrants should consider how much different our experience with immigration would be if instead there were 11 million completely legal Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, and various other Muslims flooding into the U.S. Even within our own less hostile environment, these immigrants would likely be much more difficult to integrate than Latinos.

Of course, a number of Muslims have successfully integrated into American society – a small number. Indeed, America has only a fraction of the number of Muslims that Europe has within its borders. And for the most part, they are very different from their coreligionists elsewhere. For one thing, they tend to be from the ranks of the most educated, well-to-do groups in their old countries, most comfortable moving about a globalized world with an increasingly universal culture. These are not fundamentalists with exclusionary images of distinctive self, but typically American celebratory images of distinctive self. That is, they are proud to be Muslim, but being Muslim does not place them psychically outside the rest of society. This is in stark contrast to the separatist, fundamentalist Muslims who predominate in Europe. This also offers a glimmer of hope for Europe, though. It suggests that a culture, even one poisoned with zealous hate, can moderate with exposure to others. That does seem to entail economic and political components, of course. But nowhere have we seen money or policies lead to calls for holy war. To stir that sort of passion, antagonisms are much rawer and closer to the heart. They challenge identity, shaped as it is within a cultural context that, in this case, is highly intolerant of others. Europe’s problems with its immigrants may have something to do with bad policy choices such as relying on guest workers rather than encouraging permanent citizenship and integration. But all policy issues pale beside the cultural challenges I have outlined here. Whatever immigration policy we Americans choose, we are not likely to turn into Europe, nor suffer the same turmoil associated with immigration.

In some future post: Why America Needs More Immigrants


At 4:31 AM, Blogger Len said...

Brilliant post. You are incredibly eloquent. Are you a professional writer?

Late last year racial tensions broke out between white Australians and Muslim immigrants. The incident was precipitated by a racially motivated attack on several lifeguards by Lebanese men. The response was equally unacceptable; an Aussie mob set upon ethnic beachgoers in a drunken attempt to "retake Australia." In the aftermath, the Muslim and Australian communities discussed their group’s expectations of assimilation. The general consensus was that Australia lacked a distinct or 'developed' identity.

I tend to agree with that. I have always envied the USA's determination to preserve its patriotism. I love it that people of all denominations pledge allegiance to the nation and schools mandate a comprehensive study of American history. Australia lacks these things. Australian history is relegated to the third and fourth grades and many Australians know very little about their nation's history, judiciary or legislature. The only real uniting sense of patriotism stems from sport.


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