Europe, America, and Muslim Assimilation

Conor Friedersdorf

In my earlier response to Ross Douthat, I neglected a question he posed at the end of his post:

I’m curious what Friedersdorf and others think about the argument that Christopher Caldwell makes in “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” in the course of tackling the question of why Muslim immigrants have assimilated so slowly in much of the European West. Basically, Caldwell suggests that European elites have been so guilt-ridden about their past crimes, and so intent on avoiding anything that even resembled chauvinism or bigotry, that for decades they failed to put any sustained pressure on their steadily-growing immigrant populations to eschew religious extremism or phase out illiberal cultural practices. And worse, their efforts to marginalize what they considered (and still consider) the bigoted attitudes of their countrymen didn’t actually do away with anti-immigration anxieties: They just denied them a place in the political mainstream, which meant that they’ve manifested themselves instead in extreme and counterproductive outbursts (minaret bans, the political careers of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Geert Wilders, etc.).

In my reading and my travels, I've come away with the impression that many European countries conceive of citizenship largely in ethnic terms, or at least that they do so far more than is the case in the United States, where a constitutional view of citizenship based on shared civic values is much more common. This has been true as a matter of law in some European countries, and as a stubborn cultural prejudice in other countries.

It is notable that Europe's integration problem is worst not in first generation immigrants, but in their European born children, and I think one reason they are less successfully assimilated than their counterparts in the United States is the lack of a constitutional creed that successfully inculcates the idea that they're just as French or German or Spanish as anyone else. It's also true that American culture, disseminated largely through media, is many times more powerful than what a tiny country like Denmark can marshal to informally assimilate its immigrant population, and that the heterogeneity of our country means that no single minority group feels isolated in a land that a homogeneous majority dominates. Obviously this is a rough sketch of a diverse continent that inevitably glosses over nuances, but insofar as it holds true, it helps to explain my vexation with Mr. Douthat's reluctance to declare the constitutional understanding of American citizenship superior to the cultural understanding, even if there is some wisdom to be taken from the latter (and there is).

Based even on brief travels around Europe and stints living in Paris, Seville, and Munich, I can report that it's fantasy to imagine European societies succeeded in avoiding anything even resembling bigotry or chauvinism toward their immigrants (or their American visitors, for that matter!). And I also think that European guilt is rational given some of its behavior over the last century. The manifestations of that guilt are sometimes unfortunate or even counterproductive. But surely the backlash against nationalism and racism is also part of what's made another war among Western European nations unthinkable, helped to successfully assimilate many immigrants, enabled a lot of deserving asylum seekers to find refuge, and markedly improved British cuisine, among other benefits. Perhaps it even helped to keep Jean-Marie Le Pen marginalized. (I don't think it's at all obvious that Le Pen and his ilk are consequences of an elite that stifles defense since extremists of his sort were part of European politics long before current EU culture and institutions developed.)

All that said, I do wish European countries would've done much more, and much earlier, to combat anti-gay hate crimes in Amsterdam, honor killings in Berlin, civil unrest on the outskirts of Paris, and British imams with ties to terrorism, among other things. Opposing those scourges seems perfectly compatible with avoiding chauvinism and bigotry, even if some European elites find themselves unable to strike the appropriate balance. Doing so ought to at least be the ideal we're striving toward, which necessitates both challenging extremism among immigrants and calling out bigotry directed at them.

Alluding to Mr. Caldwell's account of European assimilation, Mr. Douthat writes:

This seems like a story worth keeping in mind during the current Cordoba Initiative controversy. Would Friedersdorf and others really like to live in a world where the two-thirds of Americans who oppose the project just had their sentiments ignored, because of the bigotry woven into the anti-mosque cause? That approach seems to have been tried and found wanting in Europe, with unfortunate consequences for the elites, and the masses, and the Muslim immigrants themselves.

It isn't accurate to say that two-thirds of Americans are having their views on this subject ignored. For goodness sake, how Americans feel about the mosque project, their arguments, whether their opposition is justified, and related conversations have dominated American media for days on end, and there aren't any shortage of prominent media outlets and politicians on the anti-mosque side. Nor do I personally want anti-mosque opponents ignored: that is why I've been directly engaging their arguments for days on end in multiple forums.

The invocation of the European experience seems inapt to me. Its elite passed hate speech laws in some cases to constrain public discourse. The vast majority of writers on my side of the mosque debate would strenuously object to such a move in the United States (and some of us were similarly focused on core freedoms when it was Danish cartoonists being targeted by people whose strongest argument was "you're offending against our sense of the sacred"). Also, unlike the objectionable practices ignored by European elites, the Cordoba Initiative controversy, however it plays out, doesn't threaten the rights of women, or gays, or the safety of lower Manhattan, or any of the other threats against civil society that justified concern in the European case. As Radley Balko has pointed out (Mr. Douthat linked this too), the United States has thus far been quite good at assimilating Muslims, and the reason isn't that antagonistic populist movements have been hounding them to be more sensitive in their mosque placement, or even that elites have been studiously asking legitimate questions about how moderate imams engage radicals.

Irresponsible parties on the anti-mosque side -- the ones producing incendiary ads, misleading their audiences about the intentions of the Cordoba Initiative, and suggesting that Muslims cannot be loyal Americans by citing Koranic verse -- are shaping at least some of the popular opposition to the project with their lies, and creating an American atmosphere that mimics some the European pathologies that we want to avoid. It is the mosque's opponents (not all of them) far more than mosque defenders who are repeating Europe's mistakes, and jeopardizing the assimilative success we've long enjoyed.