Muslims, Assimilation, and Racism

Melting Pot Jim Henley and Mark Steyn, two of my favorite political columnists, have a set-to that, with an assist from Little Green Footballs, has clogged the former’s comment section with a swarm of repetitive and mostly inane comments.

The short version: Henley terms the arguments advanced by Steyn about the dangers of unassimilated Muslims into European and Canadian society “racist.” Steyn and his adherents take advantage of the serial nature of blogging and an unfortunate mistake on Henley’s part to retort that it is Henley who is racist.

While I haven’t read the book and thus do not endorse it in all its particulars, I’ve seen enough of Steyn’s columns on the matter to have a general sense of its argument and am sympathetic. At the same time, the rebuttal thus far offered to Henley is silly.

Henley mistakenly attributed a quote in Steyn’s book to Steyn and cited it as a chief example of Steyn’s bigotry. It turns out that the quote was actually from a Muslim cleric. Henley is embarrassed by his mistake but has no reason to be ashamed of it.

For one thing, Steyn was using the quote in question to advance his argument. While he doesn’t speak the words, they precisely reflect his thoughts on the matter in question. If the thoughts are “racist” (and I think they’re not) Henley’s error changes nothing. Moreover, the words in question are cited as “merely the most spectacular example” of a trend. Their misattribution may be embarrassing but that’s hardly disposative.

Henley is writing a blog, not a syndicated column. The nature of the enterprises are different. The rules of the former require an encapsulation of one’s argument in 800 words or so. The latter, by contrast, is an ongoing conversation with a reader; the blogger is not expected to rehash every though he has on the matter in a single post. For those who enter in medias res, there are archives. Often, as they are here, said archives are searchable. Since Steyn is a rather uncommon name, the extensive results for that term in Henley’s blog likely include few false positives.

In the most recent of those posts making a substantive argument, Henley observes,

Steyn alleges that the institutions of social democracy transformed the white, historically Christian, fecund peoples of Europe. But he doesn’t anticipate any change to the dusky, historically Muslim ones under the same institutions. Their birthrates will remain high; their alleged devotion to jihad undimmed. The European Muslim of 2007 will be the European Muslim of 2057 was the European Muslim of 927. “Institutions matter!” except for those people.

That, not some stupid quote, is the essence of Henley’s claim.

Now, it happens that I don’t find those ideas, even if they precisely reflect Steyn’s view (and I’m not sure they do) to be “racist.” For one thing, Islam is not a race but a diverse, multi-racial religion. For another, Steyn’s argument is about culture, not religion. That’s not simply my interpretation; he says so himself:

As one is always obliged to explain when tiptoeing around this territory, I’m not a racist, only a culturist. I believe Western culture — rule of law, universal suffrage, etc. — is preferable to Arab culture: that’s why there are millions of Muslims in Scandinavia, and four Scandinavians in Syria. Follow the traffic. I support immigration, but with assimilation.

Mathematical sleight-of-hand notwithstanding (there are a hell of a lot more Muslims than Scandinavians) Steyn has a point. Islamic culture, as it exists in much of the world, has been remarkably resistant to modernization. It’s not unreasonable — or certainly racist — to argue that, because its teachings are anti-modern and exclusionary, that it might be uniquely resistant to change when exported.

There’s enough evidence, I should think, that the rapid influx of unassimilated Muslims has been harmful to Europe to see it as a serious public policy issue. The answer, though, is assimilation rather than exclusion.

Whether the European Muslim of 2007 will be the European Muslim of 2057 depends entirely on whether the modifier “European” refers to geography or culture. If Europe’s Muslims continue to remain largely outside European society, living in separate enclaves under the tutelage of Islamic clerics propagandizing them against Westernization and under governments that make it essentially impossible for them or even their children to become citizens, there’s no reason to expect that the passage of fifty years will substantially change anything.

Western society has managed to assimilate people from all races, cultures, religions, and creeds; there’s no reason the Muslims need to be an exception. It won’t happen automatically, however. Acculturation is a deliberate process. One can simultaneously welcome new people and be receptive to their ideas while demanding that they learn the language and adapt to the basic norms of society.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John Burgess says:

    Assimilation won’t happen as long as governments continue to promote social policies that lead to separation, division, and the Balkanization of cultural groups within the greater culture.

    The more-or-less clean social breaks with the former culture that were brought about by historical contingency don’t exist anymore. In the 19th and early 20th C., leaving your home country meant probably never returning, except possibly late in life as a tourist or retiree. Staying in touch with ‘home’ meant ship-born mail. Modern communications and cheap travel make it far easier to maintain links.

    In some cases, e.g. Pakistanis in the UK, it’s perhaps too easy and leads to unanticipated and mostly unwanted (by society) consequences, as when UK-born or UK-raised kids are sent home to find marriage partners or to be ‘properly’ schooled.

    I think Steyn comes close to the edge of bigotry in his writings–cultural, religious, ethnic, whatever. He definitely goes over the top at times. But he’s also mostly right.

  2. jainphx says:

    How does a journalist mistake ” ” for a statement by the author. Your stretching credibility here. Steyn is above all this, head and shoulders.

  3. mannning says:

    One might observe that acculturation between Jews and Muslims has been tested for a rather long time without substantial benefits on either side. We most likely do not have the 50 to 100 years of trial assimilations before there will be serious tests of will to dominate the West between Judeo-Christians and Islamics. Steyn is on the right track.

  4. Tano says:

    My perception is that Steyn is easily characterized as a racist because he views the failure-to-assimilate problem as one based on the relutance of the immigrant rather than the inflexibility of the host society. Its “their fault” – and this attitude leads him to become a rallying figure for all manner of unsavory nativist sentiments.

    The different experience of the US and Europe is telling in this regard. Muslims, for instance, seem to have little problem assimilating in America. There may be some small scale problems, with some extra edginess to them as a result of the 9/11 fears, but for the most part the path is smoother than that experienced by many of the 19th century immigrant groups. Europe, on the other hand, does not have a long history of self-identifying as an immigrant culture – to the contrary – distinct nationality, and a pride in ethnic identity has been a common theme.

    As a result, immigrants to Europe, needed for the economic growth and vitality, are less welcomed by society. The societies seem to have a difficult time coming to grips with these population dynamics, and in the interim, lots of immigrants are left to fester in ghettos, with little promise of full assimilation. In that condition, they naturally are attracted to ideas that fill them with pride in their own distinctiveness. Of course this is not helpful, but it seems to be more of a reaction to the nativist tendencies of the host society, than to some core attitude of the immigrants themselves.

    As we see in America – a place where people of these same groups have an easier acceptance, and an easier path to assimilation. Given such paths, they take them.

    But we are hardly perfect in this regard. Our economy, like any healthy robust and growing economy, has need for low-skilled workers, in far greater numbers than we need highly educated scientists and engineers. But for some reason, we have fallen into the trap of imagining that we could sustain our economy only by harvesting the cream of the world’s intellectual crop – the highly educated. When the need arises for people to fill the far more numerous lower-level jobs, we simply ignore the problem. And so the jobs are filled by people who come outside the legal framework. Somehow we have lost the insight that our immigration policies should serve the needs of our economy, and it seems that the popular thing to do, especially on the right, is to blame the very people who are mitigating our short-sightedness by filling these needs nonetheless.

    I dont know if racism is too strong a term, or perhaps not exactly the right term, but the attitude of a Steyn, and much of the nativist right in Europe and America is certainly misguided, willfully ignoring of the real problem, and instinctivly aimed at demonizing the immigrant rather than searching for the rational solution to the problems.

    The overwhelming majority, if not all, of the muslim immigrants to Europe, and the mexican immigrants to the US (just to focus on the groups seen as most problematical) would eagerly accept assimilation if the host society were prepared to offer it. Some parts of those host societies are open to that, but others are not. And the hostility of those latter groups elicits defensive reactions amongst the immigrants.

    We know from experience that assimilation is not an instantaneous thing. It plays out over a few generations, as the groups come to grips with the loss of their old identity and struggle to find a new identity in their new society. It is probably a lot easier in America than in places where immigration has been less common. People like Steyn seem hell-bent on making the transition as difficult as possible by raising the fear quotient of the host societies, and presenting a hostile front to the immigrant groups.

  5. John Burgess says:

    Manning: History actually doesn’t support your thesis. Take a look at Sea of Faith, by Michael O’Shea. There’s a long history of cooperation and living side-by-side. The trouble is that political acts outside the communities can unbalance the equations.

    Tano: Assimilation doesn’t happen automatically. It takes an effort on both the receiving society and the migrant to work. These days, both sides aren’t willing to do much work. In the US, I do put the primary responsibility on immigrants, however. For Europe, there are more than enough structural barriers to dissuade immigrants from trying very hard.

  6. mannning says:

    JB, there is also a very, very long history of outright conflict, dating back to early times. One might read the Koran to see some of the “documented”
    conflicts and the intentions of the Islamics that haven’t changed to this day.

  7. mannning says:

    It is obvious to me that the first obligation of an immigrant is to conform to the culture and the laws they are immigrating into, not maintaining their own culture or laws (or lack thereof) from their previous dwelling place, and not trying to foster their culture (or religion) onto ours, either. It is their obligation to assimilate as rapidly as possible.

    If they have immigrated legally, they can expect assistance from the native population, since they have made the pledge, learned the Constitution, Laws, English, and history of the nation, and should have a chance to assimilate well.

    However, if they have immigrated illegally, they cannot expect the native population to welcome them with open arms, except for those who exploit their cheap labor illegally.

  8. Phil Smith says:

    “Institutions matter!” except for those people.

    If that really is the crux of Henley’s argument and excuse for his ad hominems, he’s go it exactly wrong. Steyn argues that various Islamic institutions are stronger than the current institutions of Europe, and that assimilation isn’t going to occur for those reasons. Both the strength of the Islamic institutions and the self-effacement of the European institutions are necessary conditions for the trends he foresees. Institutions matter a lot for “those people”.

    Islamic culture, as it exists in much of the world, has been remarkably resistant to modernization. It’s not unreasonable — or certainly racist — to argue that, because its teachings are anti-modern and exclusionary, that it might be uniquely resistant to change when exported.

    And here’s the biscuit. For Henley, the accident that many of those immigrants are “dusky” is proof enough of racist intent on Steyn’s part — and on your part for iterating the same point. It’s a complete red herring on Henley’s part, and one that shames his pretensions of intellect. Unfortunately, it’s a commonly accepted red herring, and I’m quite sure that I’ll be painted with the same brush.

  9. Tano says:

    “In the US, I do put the primary responsibility on immigrants, however. ”

    Why is that? I frankly do not see any problems whatsoever, in terms of assimilation, amongst legal immigrants.

    To the extent that there are problems amongst the illegals, then it seems hard to argue that responsibility should rest primarily on them, given that the fundamental reality of their situation is that our society needs them, employs them, but refuses to recognize them in law. And thus places a profound barrier in their way to assimilation.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that the problems of assimilation of immigrant populations into European countries and assimilation of immigrant populations in the U. S. are different in significant ways. When John Burgess says

    Assimilation won’t happen as long as governments continue to promote social policies that lead to separation, division, and the Balkanization of cultural groups within the greater culture.

    he’s right. Until extremely recently European societies have defined themselves ethnically and, while they may no longer do so from a legal standpoint, the attitude has not diffused into cultural attitudes. This is a topic I’ve returned to fairly frequently at my place, for example here.

    John and I differ on the value of birthright citizenship in assimilating immigrants. Howsoever that may be, European countries would do well to consider the American experience. We’ve had a higher rate of immigration and a higher proportion of immigrants in our population for all of our history. Both of these are higher here than in, say, France or the Netherlands, and yet we’re hearing a lot of squawking from those quarters on the crisis at hand. We’ve got experience in this area.

    Perhaps a better comparison than with assimilating immigrant populations might be the issue with integrating African Americans into the greater American society. That’s a process that only began in earnest here about 60 years ago and we’re still struggling with today.

    I don’t care much about the food fight between Jim Henley and Mark Steyn. But I think that how and whether European countries deal with the challenges that confront them will be critical in continuing the peace and prosperity of the Continent. Consequently, it’s an important subject and worth discussing in a reasonable way.

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  15. Grewgills says:

    Now, it happens that I don’t find those ideas, even if they precisely reflect Steyn’s view (and I’m not sure they do) to be “racist.” For one thing, Islam is not a race but a diverse, multi-racial religion. For another, Steyn’s argument is about culture, not religion.

    While misuse of vocab is annoying I think we can generally take as read that when people say racist, what they generally mean is bigot. Henley appears to use the terms interchangeably.
    I’m not sure I would call Steyn a bigot, but he is at least dancing near the line.

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  19. mannning says:

    Try living as a Christian or Jew in Islamic nations. You would enjoy dhimmitude I am sure.

  20. mannning says:

    Western society has managed to assimilate people from all races, cultures, religions, and creeds; there’s no reason the Muslims need to be an exception.

    Oh, but there is a reason, and that is fundamentalist Islam, which is totally in opposition to Christianity and American democracy, and is dedicated to the supremacy of Islam in the world. They are simply not going to assimilate in truth.

    The problem is, and has been, that you cannot tell the mild Muslims from the fanatics, if there is a difference in the end, until the fanatics strike.
    Have we forgotten 9/11 so soon?

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  24. John Burgess says:

    Manning: I’ve spent more than half my life in ‘Islamic countries’. Some of it as a Christian, some of it as a ‘la-dinni’, i.e., atheist–even more egregiously wrong in the eyes of Muslims. I’ve yet to be beheaded.

    I’ve worked with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus in Saudi Arabia. None of them bore extra tax burdens. None of them had to give up their firstborns to their Muslim overlords.

    While we should never forget 9/11, it will serve our security purposes better to not assume that the average Mo Muslim is a fundamentalist. Even the fundamentalists aren’t all terrorists. It takes a very special kind of Islamic fundamentalism–one not shared by 99% of Muslims–to look for a return of the Caliphate.

  25. dutchmarbel says:

    We’ve had a higher rate of immigration and a higher proportion of immigrants in our population for all of our history. Both of these are higher here than in, say, France or the Netherlands, and yet we’re hearing a lot of squawking from those quarters on the crisis at hand.

    If you look at the actual figures the differences are a lot lower than you seem to think. The OECD collects figures and publishes them. The pdf summary of the 2007 immigration outlook gives more info. A few quotes:

    Table II.1 shown below compares the incidence of the foreign and foreign-born populations for almost all OECD countries. As is evident, it is in the settlement countries (i.e. Australia, Canada and New Zealand), as well as in Luxembourg and Switzerland, that the percentage of the foreign-born is highest, close to or exceeding 20% in all of these. In addition, certain European countries (e.g. Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden) have a percentage of immigrants at least as high as that recorded in the United States (approximately 12%). Likewise the percentage of the foreign-born population exceeds 10% of the total population in Belgium, France, Greece and Ireland.

    These figures are appreciably higher than those enerally presented for the immigrant population, measured on the basis of foreign nationality and which never exceed 10%, except for Luxembourg and Switzerland. It is clear that many European countries have managed to admit and absorb immigrants in considerable numbers over the past decades, significantly more than is evident from looking at statistics of the resident foreign population.

    Caution, however, needs to be exercised in interpreting the data for some countries. In France, but also in Portugal, for example, the foreign-born population includes a significant proportion of persons born abroad as citizens and repatriated from former colonies. Thus, about 1.6 million people born with French nationality outside of France (mainly in Algeria) are counted in the population census of 1999. A similar situation occurs for other countries and in particular the United States, because of persons born overseas of American parents (for instance, children born to military personnel stationed abroad).

    And in addition, a bit further in the report:

    In addition, in a number of countries, foreign-born persons with a doctoral degree account for a high proportion of all persons holding such degrees in the host country.

    In the United States, even if a significant part of the immigrants are not highly qualified, more than 440 000 foreign-born persons hold a PhD. This accounts for approximately 25% of the total stock of PhDs in the country. The proportion of foreign-born doctorates in Sweden is comparable and in Australia and Canada it stands even higher, at 45% and 54%, respectively.

    The situation in Austria, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain or Turkey, differs significantly. In these countries, at least 50% of the foreign-born have less than upper-secondary education.

    I can’t talk for all of Europe, but in the Netherlands the percentage of muslims is higher than in the US (6% vs 1.4% according to nationmaster) and the “problem groups” are usually those who come from less-educated backgrounds. The group of immigrants that follow our “Dutch” patterns best (in number of kids, education, age of marriage, age of first kid) is Iranian, but those come mostly from well-educated backgrounds. A lot of the Moroccan muslims (to name a group with a bad rep) come from backgrounds where the parents come from very rural background with hardly any schooling. Other immigrant groups that come up high in the ‘stats about problems’ are more often from similar backgrounds than from similar religions.

    The last immigrant group that didn’t assimilate and fell back on terrorism to try to achieve political goals were the Moluccans and were very Christian.

    Unfortunately preferring your gut-feeling above facts seems to become the National sport here too.

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  29. Bithead says:

    James… before I get into it, here, let me preface these remakrs by saying Steyn makes pretty much the point I made almost exactly a year gone, now, in a post caled Enlightening Islam. I made the point, then that Islam was still waiting for it’s Martin Luther. However, I wondered then if structurally speaking, Islam can be reformed.

    (You’ll have to read the link… the ideas don’t edit well, and so I won’t post large parts of it here.)

    The difference being, I’m still hopeful Islam will spawn a Luther. Steyn, perhaps correctly, implicitly wonders if many Islamic Luthers have not been beheaded, already.

    Obviously, I don’t think Steyn’s comments racist, or even unwarranted.

    That said, it stikes me that Hensley’s error as you noted, doesn’t defeat the arguments he makes of themselves… but they do tend to leave one wondering if he’s lashing out without really having thought the matter through… or is perhaps writing toward a pre-determined mindset… Steyn is arguably conservative and therefore must be denounced as a racist, etc. We’ve seen this kind of thing too often to ignore the possibility.

    That said, I’ll read the remaining comments now, and pile into them one at a time once I get home.

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  32. mannning says:

    JB: I suppose your special kind of Muslim is what we have been fighting for 5 years in Afghanistan, Iraq,
    and in bombed places around the world. I am so glad that they are merely 1% of the Muslim population, because that means out of the 6 million Muslims already in the US, only 60,000 are a danger to us.
    What a relief!

  33. Bithead says:

    Assimilation won’t happen as long as governments continue to promote social policies that lead to separation, division, and the Balkanization of cultural groups within the greater culture.

    Correct.

    If that really is the crux of Henley’s argument and excuse for his ad hominems, he’s go it exactly wrong. Steyn argues that various Islamic institutions are stronger than the current institutions of Europe, and that assimilation isn’t going to occur for those reasons.

    Very true. Put another way, you would have to give immigrants something to assimilate to, and give them a reason for doing it. IN the name of ‘diversity’, we’ve failed in both areas.

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  35. mannning says:

    “Diversity” is upon us, whether we like it or not.

    However, one might wonder why some people think we should seek ever more diversity and further Balkanization of the nation both culturally and religiously. This is even more puzzling when the Muslim is trying to immigrate to the US, and to bring his faith with him, together with the Islamic penchant for dominance sooner or later, while at the same time we are fighting and killing their kin, and they us, in dusty places.

    Perhaps JB, who has lived with them (most likely under special mandate from the ruling party to protect the foreigner, the unbeliever, that is helping to build their nation. I recall that the majority of labor in SA is done by foreigners.), can tell us how to identify the bad guys that want to immigrate or have immigrated, as opposed to the good guys he knows.

    Then too, perhaps, JB, you can explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and why it is that three major wars have begun with invasion of Israel by Muslim nations, and not the reverse. And, why it is that suicide bombers have targeted Israeli civilians for over 50 years. Finally, if this carnage is characteristically embedded in the Muslim psyche, explain why we should invite such bloodthirsty people into the US.