What If Muslim Immigrants Don't Want to Be "Like Us"?
When they discuss immigration policy, especially when it applies to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Muslims to the West, pundits don’t necessarily exhibit a liberal bias, or for that matter, a left-leaning view of the world. How would John Locke, Adam Smith or Karl Marx respond to the current debate? My guess is as good as yours.
In fact, when they welcome immigrants, legal and illegal, from the Middle East and elsewhere, and blast the immigration restrictionists as bigots and racists, most Western policy intellectuals display what would commonly be described as the Whig interpretation of history.
According to Whig history, our societies have been moving in an almost linear fashion towards more advanced forms of enlightenment and liberty. Values like secularism, religious freedom, individual rights, women’s rights and free markets, representing the progressive future, were bound to overcome the reactionary forces of the past, represented by religious oppression, absolute monarchism, coercive government and backward-looking tradition, with liberal democracy being the culmination of this forward-looking process.
This view of the world derived in part from the ideas of the Reformation, which was seen as a central progressive force challenging the reactionary Catholic Church. So it was perhaps not surprising that while some of the leaders of the much-derided anti-immigration movement in nineteenth-century America known as the “Know-Nothings” were actually opposed to slavery, and supported extending more rights to women, they were also opposed to the immigration of Catholics into the country, believing that the followers of the pope and his illiberal traditions could end up halting the march towards progress.
The notion of a progressive or a liberal calling for restricting immigration would today sound mind-bending, if not a contradiction in terms. After all, notwithstanding the warnings from the Know-Nothings, the history of Catholic and, for that matter, Jewish immigration into the United States followed the Whig interpretation.
In fact, as political scientist Samuel Huntington put it, members of both religious groups as well as those of other non-Protestant branches followed the route of “Anglicizing” their religious practices and traditions and integrating themselves into the more secular and liberal environment of the country. They embraced what Huntington called the “American Creed,” which he regarded as the unique creation of a dissenting Protestant culture, with its commitment to individualism, equality and the rights to freedom of religion and opinion.
So from that perspective, the assimilation of these immigrants into American society could be integrated into a narrative of progress. They may have not been “like us” in terms of their view of the world when they had arrived into this country, which was why the Know-Nothings campaigned against them.
But then history proved that those who were opposed to the immigration of Catholics and Jews were wrong, playing the role of reactionaries in our forward-looking narrative. Today’s leading liberal pundits assign the role of villains to opponents of Muslim immigration, who are depicted as the modern-day Know-Nothings.
This Whig interpretation of history would recall how the children and grandchildren of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy or Poland, and those of eastern European Jews, abandoned their parents’ and grandparents’ archaic religious traditions and sense of religious particularism and ethnic tribalism. They have, indeed, become very much “like us,” and in some cases, more committed to the progressive American creed than members of old Protestant families from New England.
So why should we assume that Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia wouldn’t play the same role in the sequel to that movie? Presumably the same economic, social and cultural pressures that eventually helped Anglicize the Catholics and the Jews in this country would do magic for today’s Muslim immigrants. And those who don’t share that expectations are part of the reactionary past: angry old white men who cannot come to terms with the changing demographics of the country.
But these upbeat expectations assume that many things that may be wrong, including scientific and economic progress, and other forces of modernization like industrialization and urbanization, are so powerful that they force one to leave the traditions of the past behind to embrace liberal and secular forms of identity.
We are told to remember that the granddaughters of the families who emigrated from highly stratified, patriarchal and religiously oppressive Italy’s south now wear a bikini when they go to the beach. As do the granddaughters of the ultra-Orthodox Jews who immigrated to America from the shtetl in eastern Europe. Why shouldn’t that happen to the granddaughters of the Muslim immigrants from Egypt?
But wait a minute. Why do things seem to be happening in reverse in the case of many young Muslim immigrants in Europe and the United States? Their grandmothers, growing up in the 1950s in, say, Alexandria, actually looked “like us,” wearing the latest European fashion and a spiffy swimsuit on the beach. It’s their granddaughters who are now wearing veils, the hijab and the burkini to make sure that they don’t look “like us.”