Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Old world/new world

Evidently there has for awhile been more going on in the Danish Muslim community than just the Mohammed cartoon controversy. The tension there does not all stem from a conflict of visions between the native Danish and the immigrant Muslims. This comes from Copenhagen, last March (via Dhimmi Watch; read the whole thing):

A group of forty women with immigrant backgrounds reported a Muslim preacher and his religious community to the police on Tuesday, for advocating threatening and discriminating treatment of Muslim women.

The preacher, imam Raed Hleihel, infuriated the nation during a Friday prayer session in February, when he insisted that Muslim girls should cover themselves from head to toe, and that women who use perfume and go to the hairdressers would go to hell.

For further background read this article by Jytte Klausen which ran in Prospect magazine in May 2004: "Is there an Imam problem? Too many Muslim clerics in Europe do not understand the lives of the young Muslims they preach to:"

In the last few months I have met leaders of Muslim organisations, imams, Muslim parliamentarians and councillors in four countries - Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Many of them expressed fears about "rogue imams" preaching holy war. There are a few rogues. But the real issue - as described by countless Muslim parents - is that Muslims in Europe desperately need imams and scholars who speak the languages and are familiar with the customs and practices of the countries in which they live.
The "Muslim community," whether in Denmark, in any other country, or worldwide as a whole, is not homogeneous. There is no "average Muslim" to feed any comforting stereotypes.

The more I learn about the problems of immigrant Muslims in western countries, the more similarities I see between their situation and the situation that existed among the communities of German immigrants here in the U.S. before the World Wars. The German immigrants too had to face the question of how far to assimilate in their new homeland, what traditions and customs and values to jettison (or to say goodbye to when circumstances stripped them away), and what to embrace (or at least tolerate with an uneasy truce). (Click here for an overview of U.S. German immigrant history.)

The German immigrants too had to deal with learning new customs and a new language. They had to cope with churches and ministers who did not replicate what they'd known in their homeland and who often times did not share their ethnic background or even their language (the Catholic church for example, in many places in the U.S. assigned Irish priests to minister to German congregations, and vice versa). They had to either adjust to or protest in various way the prevailing values of the culture they had settled in (here in the U.S. temperance and "blue laws" were the bane of Germans used to socializing, frolicking, and drinking in their beer gardens on Sunday afternoons following church.)

There were also German anarchists, socialists, Marxists, and radicals making things "hot" for the ordinary Germans in the eyes of the native U.S. citizens. Six of the eight men arrested in Chicago's Haymarket bombing in 1886 were Germans, seen as foreign terrorists and bomb-throwing anarchists.

The German immigrants between the years 1880 and the early 1900s seemed to swamp the United States in numbers and influence, much as Hispanic immigrants have left their mark across the U.S. today. At that time the majority of both the German immigrants and other Americans felt that the Germans had assimilated pretty well by becoming "'American' in politics while remaining 'German' in culture." In other words, they thought of themselves as "hypenated" Americans, German-Americans, and considered this a good thing, the best of two good worlds.

But this "successful" assimilation, while trying to keep the German Kultur intact, was doomed to fail.

Suddenly when the U.S. entered World War I, the German-American immigrants (also not a homogeneous group) and their U.S.-born children faced a terrible dilemma that forced upon each individual a stark personal decision: were they first Germans or were they first Americans?

Reinhold Neibuhr wrote about this "Failure of German-Americanism" in 1916:

...a nation needs and demands the loyalty of its citizens, not only when its existence is at stake or when its claims upon their allegiance are put with particular force by the crises of physical combat. In times of peace also it requires their loyalty—their loyalty to its ideals, and their allegiance to the principles upon which it has been founded. Of the immigrant it is entitled to expect that he will place the virtues and powers with which his particular race has endowed him in the service of the ideals that animate the people with whom he has allied himself.

German immigrants in Canada had to undergo a similar experience.

I see that immigrant Muslims in Western societies are already facing the same questions of assimilation. There are lessons to be learned from the example of the German immigrant experience, both for immigrants and for the countries that host them. The clash is not so much one of religion as it is of values: whether to cover women from head to toe or not; whether to dance on the Sabbath or not. There is no one correct monolithic Muslim interpretation or consensus, just as there was no one correct German consensus among Catholics, Protestants, or freethinkers, though both of these problems can be and have been couched in religious terms.

Certainly we do not want to go through a period of two world wars again to achieve the kind of assimilation the German immigrant population has finally achieved in the U.S. today (i.e. virtual invisibility). Nor do we want to inflict the same abuses on individuals that many naturalized German-American citizens suffered between 1914 and 1946.

But American society has changed so much since the rabid anti-German hysteria of WWI and the internment camps of U.S. Japanese, German, and Italian resident aliens, naturalized citizens, and their relatives during WWII, that even after the attacks of 9/11 there has been surprisingly little retaliatory or government-sponsored persecution of immigrant Muslims in the U.S. For this we should be proud. America today is unlike the America of the early 20th century in that our toleration and valuing of cultural differences has become a source of national pride.

We should all be trying to learn from past mistakes, as I believe many of us in the U.S. are sincerely doing. At the same time, it would behoove Muslim and other immigrants who have moved into open and free western societies to examine closely and seek to educate themselves about what it really is they want and expect, the true nature of their new world, and what they can really ask for, in having left their homelands behind. They need to acknowledge what debts and obligations they incur and owe to the harboring countries taking them in.

Not an easy process, but not a new one, either.


  • At Wednesday, February 08, 2006 1:52:00 PM, Blogger Bookworm said…

    That's an interesting analogy. The fact is that, when you leave your home turf, you should buy into the fact that you'll inevitably be leaving some of your home values too. The only way to avoid that is to do what early American immigrants (say, circa 1720 did), which is go to the wilderness and replicate the virtues of your home and, with luck, avoid what you perceived as the vices.

  • At Friday, February 10, 2006 4:57:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Not many wildernesses left to colonize these days.


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