Wealth of Nations August 2005

Britain, Its Muslims, and the War on Terror

For years, British politics has preferred to ignore the issues posed by the unassimilated Muslim minority.

A great underlying problem is that so many British Muslims feel little sense of community and solidarity with their fellow Britons, and vice versa. Whose fault is that? No doubt, there is plenty of blame to go around. Britain's Muslim immigrants and their children, like visible minorities in many countries, have to face outright racism and milder forms of prejudice, to be sure. They are discriminated against at work, no doubt, and in other ways are often made to feel excluded rather than welcomed. All of that must go some way toward explaining why they have failed to thrive in the economy—and why many young Muslims are poor, disaffected, and unemployed.

At the same time, though, Britain's Muslim immigrants have shown little zeal to become British—certainly nothing to compare with the zeal, over the years, of America's immigrants to become American. To some degree, they have chosen not just religious separateness, but cultural and social separateness as well. And the country went some way to accommodate this preference.

The world would be a happier place, of course, if all immigrants went to their adopted country under a sense of obligation to conform to the manners and mores of their new home, and in the hope that their children would flourish as fully integrated citizens. It would also be good, one can safely say, if the people already living in those countries received the newcomers hospitably, without prejudice or resentment, ready to grant them equal opportunity. America has done pretty well on both counts. Europe has fallen very far short of that ideal. It cannot start over. Now it must live with the consequences.

Starting from here, it is hard to say what the best way forward may be. In education, for instance, France and Britain have taken markedly opposing views. France, militantly secularist, has lately gone so far as to forbid Muslim girls to wear headscarves in schools. Britain, traditionally more tolerant, takes a multiculturalist view, honoring (some say pandering to) religious diversity. But has it made any difference? Both countries have Muslim minorities with plenty of angry, disaffected youth. Will France's hardening approach in schools lessen separateness and alienation among the country's Muslim young, or only make them worse?

Depending on what else happens, it could go either way. Still, my own preference, thinking partly of the harm that church schools did in Northern Ireland, inclines to the French approach. Keep religion a private affair. In schools, "citizenship first, second, and third" seems the better answer.

Britain and France, meanwhile, have to face the present reality of their unassimilated Muslims—as well as the war that fanatical Islamists are prosecuting against the West. For Britain, the ideal bargain on immigration still seems the best guide. In that spirit, Blair's government must recognize that Muslims are sensitive to policies that look like an attack on their religion. This is one more reason why the government must be sure that its new policies really will improve security for all citizens, and explain why. If such measures are only gestures to appease majority opinion (the deportation plan smacks of that), they are wrong on the merits, and divisive as well.

And the other side of the bargain? That is simple. Britain's Muslims need to denounce the terrorists with more rage and no equivocation. To put it bluntly, this is a war, and they need to make it plain—plainer than they have so far—whose side they are on.

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