Friday, October 22, 2010

Muslims and the Eternal Fear of Strangers

This week it's Juan Williams getting fired from NPR for voicing the most visceral human fear there is: the fear of the stranger. Earlier in the week it was Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that multiculturalism had failed in Germany with regard to its 3.5 million Muslim immigrants.

In the US, of course, we've been worried about immigrants since before the founding. Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, was an immigrant and was mistrusted by the anti-federalists for that reason.

Since then the US has never had an era in which it wasn't scared of immigrants. By the mid 1800s it was the Catholic Irish. Then it was Jews and Italians. There has always been a fear of the Negro. Now we are afraid of Hispanics and Muslims.

There is, of course, a rational concern behind the visceral fear. Every new immigrant wave is an invasion of the city by peasants with pitchforks. That is, the immigrants come to the city unprepared for city life. They are socialized for the country life, so people worry whether they will ever "get" how to make it in the city without tearing it down? In the US, scientists say, it takes about a century for an immigrant family to go from immigrant manual workers to doctors and lawyers.

In The New Americans Michael Barone compares the troublesome immigrants of 1900, the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians with their replacements today: blacks, east Asians, and Hispanics. Irish and blacks come from severe oppression; Jews and east Asians from highly literate traditions; Italians and Hispanics from strong family cultures. Today, Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Italian-Americans are almost un-hypenated Americans, but not quite.

Is there anything particularly different today? Well, there is. Today we have the political and cultural elite, our liberal friends, actively encouraging today's immigrant groups in separatism. That will probably slow their assimilation and cause hardship for the groups in question.

But the bigger view that we must never forget is the immense power of our capitalist democratic culture that is working on every immigrant mind every instant. There seems to be safety in the immigrant's cultural ghetto, yet there seems to be opportunity in assimilation. What is a young person to do? The answer is relentless, and you can hear it in the accents of the children of immigrants. They speak idiomatic American and they grow up to live and work in the majority culture they find around them. Many of them "marry out."

What about Muslims?

In recognizing our fears about Islam, as Juan Williams so honestly did, we should not forget the huge fears that Muslims must feel for the survival of their own culture. After all, it is Judeo-Christian democratic capitalism that has swept the world in the last five centuries. And now it looks like China and India, the big holdouts, have decided to join 'em rather than fight 'em. What hope has Islam if the Confucians and the Hindus have given up the fight?

Here's the Big One. In China, the Christians, now over 100 million and expanding at seven percent a year, feel that it is their job to bring Christianity "home to Jerusalem," i.e., Christianize the Muslims. Think of that.

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