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March 06, 2007

The Failure to Integrate: It’s a Religious Problem Too
Posted by Shadi Hamid

This is one of most amusing pictures I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s even funnier if you let your mind wander a bit (click on it).2006bestshot

On a more serious note, I think this image captures quite well the manifold complexities of a religious culture confronting modernity. Everywhere in the Muslim world, the religious and non-religious find themselves in an uneasy embrace. And it provokes a very fundamental question that people are grappling with from Egypt to England. To what extent can a traditional culture truly become part of a commercial, “hypersexual” society that holds little as sacred? In asking such a question, sex, politics, culture, religion, and economics become inextricably intertwined. It is at once frightening and fascinating.

Two weeks ago, I went to a talk by BBC correspondent and author of Only Half of Me, Rageh Omaar. He downplayed the problems of Muslim integration in Britain and argued that the vast majority of Muslims are mainstream and moderate, while a fringe minority gives them a bad name. He himself is a perfect example of the well-integrated British Muslim who has found a richness and comfort in a “dual identity.” But, as he himself noted, he is a “non-observant” Muslim. That’s important, and it lends credence to something I’ve been thinking about for some time. I would posit that the less observant you are, the easier it is for you to integrate into Western culture. And the more observant you are, the harder it is. Because Western Muslims on average tend to be more observant (or, if you like, “scripturally-aware") than their non-Muslim counterparts, this may help explain why they will find it harder to integrate in Western society than their Irish, Jewish, and African counterparts before them: if you don’t go to pubs, if you don’t date, if you are not at ease with members of the opposite sex, if you can’t sing along to the chorus of “Hey Jude” or “Wonderwall”; if you can’t appreciate just how darn good The Arctic Monkeys are (i.e. because you consider the use of string instruments a violation of Islamic law); well, then, you simply cannot and will not be able to integrate into British culture. In many ways then, the failure to integrate is not simply a structural problem that can be explained away through socioeconomics or politics. Rather, what we're talking about is, at least in some respects, a clash of cultures. I don’t think there should be a clash. I don’t think there has to be. But there is one.

I think, however, it’s less of a problem in America, because the very decision to part ways from the cultural consensus is itself an affirmation of one’s Americanness. Evangelical Christians, for instance, also eschew the cultural consensus and this doesn’t make them any less American (in some ways, at least from their own standpoint, it might make them more American).

So returning to the European context: when we speak of a “Muslim problem,” what are we talking about exactly? Do we want Muslims to peacefully coexist with their non-Muslim neighbors in mutual respect and dignity? Or do we want them to accept the cultural imperatives of the society at large even if those imperatives contradict their own perceptions of what constitutes fundamental religious observance? If the goal is the former, then the “problem” can be solved. If the goal is the latter, it may be nearly impossible, particularly in the secular, post-religious societies of Europe.


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I think there's an additional element that it so obvious it's easy to overlook: in America, being an observant fill-in-the-blank is part of mainstream culture. In Europe, it no longer is. I don't want to overstate acceptance of Islam in the States, because it's far from complete; but the elusive "average American" understands a life that includes some time spent in group religious devotion. (Although try telling our fellow political progressives that you prefer, as I do, attending church to watching the Sunday talk shows.) That fact in and of itself is not threatening here; in Europe, increasingly it seems to be.

A couple years back, a Canadian Muslim woman wrote a book about her ideas of the way forward for young Muslims in the West. She toured with it and got a lot of attention in Europe and North America; then she wrote an op-ed for the Times describing her experiences, including the complete lack of comprehension in Europe for why she insisted on believing in God. If anyone can help me remember her name, I'll find the piece and link to it, because it seems rather relevant. (I'd also like to put her on a podium with Hirsi Ali and see what they had to say to each other.)

Is it possible to work differences between first generation and second generation immigrants into that framework? The issue may be too orthogonal to orthodoxy, although from what I've heard it often seems as if orthodoxy often reverses itself between generations (both in the secular->orthodox and orthodox->secular direction). I'm guessing the inter-generational patterns may also be rather different in America and Europe.

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