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Immigration, Integration and Assimilation

By April 1, 2006 No Comments

In late March, the author attended a small conference in Washington on ‘Terrorisms and Diasporas’. To encourage a frank and open discussion, the conference was held under Chatham House Rules and so the sources and affiliations of the participants may not be identified.

The use of expatriate or immigrant communities abroad by insurgent groups and organized criminals is an old story. Canadians may recall the Fenian threat in the 19th Century arising out of the Irish population in the United States, and the British remember the Anarchists and assorted other revolutionaries that appeared among exiled Eastern Europeans in late 19th Century London.

It is a much more crowded world now… and the variety of terrorists, guerrillas, and gangsters follow (or anticipate) the movement of people from their own societies around the world to pursue exciting new opportunities for fundraising, recruiting, politicizing and controlling entire communities of their countrymen. How do we cope with this?

The largest and fast growing population of what used to be called Third Worlders inside the Western World comes from the Islamic World, and millions of Muslims have established themselves inside Western Europe, North America and Australia. How much of a threat do they now pose? Can we deal with them peacefully? These might be the most important questions that the West confronts today, and some of the trends just do not look good.

Immigration inside the West has been a strong tradition for almost 500 years – but usually only for the more pluralistic societies, which have greatly benefited. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Netherlands and England were the most welcoming to immigrants and this added greatly to the prosperity and vitality of Amsterdam and London alike. From the 18th Century onwards, there is the example of the United States, and then of Australia and Canada which were built on wholesale immigration from Europe and, eventually, from elsewhere. If these societies had remained nothing but large clones of England itself, they would probably not have become the wealthy and dynamic nations that we know today.

Since the 1950s, immigration into Western Europe has been steadily growing – including to nations like Italy or Germany that had previously been traditional sources of emigrants. Initially, this was driven by the need for labor to support Western Europe’s economies. More recently, this influx has been the inevitable result of liberalized Western European societies in combination with the pressures produced from the over-populated and under-developed world. Guest workers were followed by asylum seekers, illegal aliens, and a host of others who – once they had gained lodgment — quite naturally summoned their relatives to safety and relative prosperity.

However, in dealing with Diasporic communities inside the Western World, there seems to be a marked difference in the way traditional host societies like the US are dealing with them and the way traditional emigration societies like Germany and France are responding. This is particularly true with their Islamic residents, and the effects are starting to show in the current Jihadist War.

Whether a community has come in as a result of a labor shortage and the need to have ‘guest workers’, as refugees or (best of all) as proper immigrants, the host society should be looking for two bench marks that would indicate that the new-comers are making a successful transition. In the course of time, immigration should always be followed by rapid integration (both of the newcomers with their new society, and vice versa), and then in the fullness of time, by a degree of assimilation.

Integration might not be exactly quantifiable – except by an exacting resort to statistics relating to criminal activity, welfare use, and family break-up by the newcomers compared to the background average of the host society. Traditionally, an immigrant society is subjected to a lot of stress in the course of their transition from an old society to their new one, but the time must come when it is clear that the newcomers have settled in and adapted to the ways of the new society. For example, by and large, the post war immigrants from Eastern Europe readily integrated into Western society. It seems to be too soon to tell if the same is true of the post Cold War generation.

Assimilation is not necessarily a desired outcome of immigration, nor should it be a government’s goal to encourage it. Rather, assimilation has to happen naturally over the course of time: The one good benchmark test for determining if an immigrant society has assimilated might have to take a couple of generations to be examined, as it would probably be to look for that point where half of the children of an ethnic group marry outside of it. For example, Japanese North Americans might be considered as being assimilated if 50% if their children marry non-Japanese descended North Americans. With this test, assimilation is nothing more than the reflection of what happens naturally when the kids from different cultures meet each other in universities, their workplaces, etc. It would also be an indicator of a lack of tension between the involved ethnic group and the larger community.

The first wave of Muslim immigrants into the United States arrived in the late 19th Century and vanished into the American population almost entirely. However, these were Syrians and Lebanese who arrived in such few numbers that they barely had a chance to form communities of their own before being swallowed up. Some of the actions and behaviors of the current generation of Middle Eastern immigrants to the US suggest the Americans might not absorb them quite so quickly. Yet there are promising signs of a peaceful integration and in the coming decades, assimilation might not be so impossible.

The US has tended to have more immigrants than guest workers or illegal aliens from Muslim societies; and legal immigrants tend to be ready to make more of an investment of themselves into their new society. The educational standards of new Muslim arrivals into the US tend to be higher than they are for their counterparts in Europe, as more of them are professionals or self-employed. This means that many have enjoyed success in American life, and have less interest in Islamic fundamentalist agendas. Indeed, one of the major reasons why there hasn’t been another major terrorist attack in the US since 9/11 is that American Muslim immigrants have been cooperating with law enforcement to identify Jihadis in their midst – a promising sign for a successful integration.

It should also be remembered that in terms of total numbers of Muslim arrivals compared to the overall size of the population, the US, Canada and Australia appear to have lower numbers in proportion to their population than the Europeans.

Finally, Americans (like Canadians) are themselves an immigrant society, which means that quiet informal mechanisms exist throughout their society to draw new Muslim immigrants into the wider community. So long as Muslim children are in public schools and sports leagues while their parents are being wooed by service clubs and neighborhood associations, then the ‘citizen-making’ machinery will be an influence on their lives. Attempts by Muslim leaders with funding behind them from the Middle East to create segregated cultural institutions should be strongly resisted.

In Western Europe, sheer numbers have defeated the ability of traditionally immigrant-friendly countries (like the Netherlands) to absorb the influx. Other countries like German, Spain or (to a lesser degree) France simply do not have a tradition of absorbing immigrants, and so the Muslims are not integrating and will probably never assimilate. This leaves them – as we have seen – easily prone to recruitment by the agents of the Jihad.

The British have a long experience of successfully coping with immigration too – but there seem to be mixed results with the Islamic arrivals. Large numbers of Hindus and Sikhs, as well as Muslims, came to the UK from their former Imperial possessions. The Hindus and Sikhs appear to be making a successful transition to British life, but there is an ominous development among the Muslims. People who used to identify themselves as Bengali Muslims, or Pakistani Muslims or Indian Muslims are now just describing themselves as Muslims – and it appears that the religious aspect of their identity is firming up and radicalizing. Instead of having an experience like the US seems to be having, the British are facing a situation more like that of the Dutch, Germans and French.

As successful integration appears to be failing, there are probably only two ways this will end: Either the creation of Muslim colonies (separate communities with separate institutions) inside Western Europe; or else the Europeans will eventually be pushed and goaded into abandoning the careful restraints they have wrapped around themselves for the last 60 years. Tolerance is only a recent civic virtue, and Western civilization has survived many episodes of severe and violently lethal intolerance…

There is of course, a third path. Islam itself could reform and change or abandon those characteristics that might make integration (and even assimilation) so difficult. Most of the reformers who propose changes to Islam can be found inside the West – survival is just too difficult a proposition for a reformer inside a Muslim society. It is clear that many Muslim women prefer the freedoms that life inside Western Europe has over the restrictions imposed on them inside traditional Muslim societies. Again, it should come as no surprise that many of the outspoken reformers are women and they may well be the key to an acceptable outcome. We should wish the reformers well and Western governments would be well advised to consider social programs and initiatives that empower Muslim women – consider the alternatives if we don’t.