Francis Fukuyama has a thoughtful piece in today’s WSJ contrasting the recent controversial action by France to ban head scarves and other religious symbols with our own heritage:

Europeans differ among themselves in the way that they approach assimilation. The Germans for many years never tried; until their citizenship law was changed in 2000, a third-generation Turk who grew up in Germany and spoke no Turkish often had a harder time getting citizenship than an ethnic German from Russia who spoke no German. The German state, moreover, recognizes the communal rights of religious groups, collecting taxes on behalf of the Protestant and Catholic churches. The issue there, as in the Netherlands, is whether to add an Islamic pillar to the existing Christian ones, one that would have control over education and other issues. Such a policy would tend, of course, to enshrine rather than diffuse cultural differences over time.

The French by contrast have always accepted the principle of assimilation. French citizenship, like ours, is not based on ethnicity but is universal. The republican tradition recognizes only the rights of individuals, not groups, and its commitment to laicite or secularism remains strong. French schoolteachers in particular are heirs to an anticlerical tradition stemming from the French Revolution, and have looked askance at expressions of religiosity in public schools.

The new French policy on headscarves should thus be seen as a type of forced assimilation. Previously it had been up to individual schools and teachers whether to ban headscarves or not; the new policy takes this burden off their shoulders by making it a national policy. Whether the ban will work is a delicate tactical issue. It may create a counterproductive backlash, driving observant Muslims out of the public school system and into their own Islamic schools. Yet the ultimate goal of the policy is not to crush religious freedom but to promote assimilation, one that American opponents of multiculturalism should appreciate.

Europeans have only recently begun to confront the problem of assimilation, and continue to suffer from a stifling political correctness in talking honestly about the issue of immigration. In 2001 the German Christian Democrats gingerly floated the concept of Leitkultur, or “leading culture,” the idea that immigrants would be accepted as Germans but only if they in turn accepted certain German cultural values. The idea was immediately batted down as racist, and never raised again.

A complicated problem to be sure, especially for states with a distinct ethnic identity such as France, Germany, Japan, and Israel.

The ultimate success of assimilation depends not just on policy, but on the cultural characteristics of the immigrant group being assimilated as well. Europeans are right to say that they face a bigger problem with their Muslim immigrant populations than Americans do with their Hispanic immigrants.

The speed with which an immigrant group assimilates in the second and third generations after arrival has very much to do with that group’s rate of out-marriage, which in turn is a byproduct of the degree to which immigrant families can control their daughters’ sexuality. In the U.S., rates of out-marriage correlate strongly with both assimilation and upward socioeconomic mobility on the part of different racial and ethnic groups. In many Middle Eastern countries, there is a strong emphasis on cousin marriage, in which daughters are urged to marry not just within their ethnic group, but within their own extended family.

Individualism within the family–i.e., the right to marry whomever you want–is the mother of all individualisms, and it is the denial of this right that allows traditional social structure and culture to be transmitted across the generations. Traditionalist Muslims are thus more astute than they are given credit for when they insist on marking their daughters with headscarves that signal their sexual unavailability to outsiders. The girls themselves who want to wear the headscarf as a symbol of their identity do not understand the long-term threat to their individual freedom it represents.


It is in this context that we should evaluate President Bush’s recent proposal to grant illegal aliens work permits. Many Americans dislike the policy because it rewards breaking the law. This is all true; we should indeed use our newly invigorated controls over foreign nationals to channel future immigrants into strictly legal channels. But since we are not about to expel the nearly seven million people potentially eligible for this program, we need to consider what policies would lead to their most rapid integration into mainstream American society. For the vast majority of illegal aliens, the law they broke on entering the country is likely to be the only important one they will ever violate, and the sooner they can normalize their status, the faster their children are likely to participate fully in American life.

It is no exaggeration to say that the assimilation of culturally distinct immigrants will be the greatest social challenge faced by developed democracies over the coming decades. Given the subreplacement fertility rates of native-born populations, high levels of immigration have become necessary to fund not just current standards of living but future social security benefits. Divergent immigration patterns will unfortunately deepen the wedge that has emerged between America and Europe in foreign policy. We cannot do much to affect European policy, but we can take steps to see that their problems do not become our own.

Quite right.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.