Can the US teach Europe a lesson on immigration?
Europe clearly has a problem with anti-semitsm, Islamophobia, and intolerance towards new immigrants. In an effort to examine this worrisome set of concerns, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (on which I sit) recently convened a discussion with European Muslims and Jews.
At the time I noted that while the American experience could provide a helpful model, I did not see the exchange as a finger-pointing exercise, since anti-semitsm and Islamophobia are not alien to the US. FBI statistics establish that 58 per cent of all religion-based hate crimes were directed against Jews and 17 per cent against Muslims. And according to a 2015 report issued by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, there are 34 anti-Muslim hate groups operating in the US, 10 Holocaust denial groups and 19 anti-semitic “Christian identity” organisations. Most of these anti-semitic groups operate on the fringes of society. Nevertheless, their effect is still felt in the hate crimes they foment.
This has not been the case with anti-Muslim behaviour. While many of the Islamophobic groups also spew their hate in dark corners, anti-Muslim rhetoric has found its way into the mainstream. In 2010, for example, there was a campaign to block efforts to build a Muslim community centre in southern Manhattan. And in this year’s presidential contest, some candidates have called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants. The same campaign made its way down to the state level. Since 2010, 36 state legislatures have either passed or are considering legislation designed to block the application of Sharia.
The effect of this incitement has been disastrous on public opinion. In 2010, polls showed that the American public still had a net favourable attitude towards American Muslims: 48 per cent favourable to 33 per cent unfavourable. By 2015, those numbers had shifted to 33 per cent favourable to 37 per cent unfavourable.
Not only has this campaign had an effect on attitudes towards Muslims, it has influenced the public’s attitudes towards welcoming new immigrants from Muslim countries.
In a recent poll conducted by Zogby Research Services in six European countries and the US, we found that while in almost every country (except the UK) a majority would welcome European immigrants into their communities, in every country a majority would oppose Muslim immigrants.
So we have a shared problem. Nevertheless, there are still lessons that can be learnt from the American experience that can be helpful for Europeans. Despite the current negative climate, America has taken the road to intolerance before and has always found a way to right itself.
Immigrants from all over the world have come to the US and become “American”. In the mid-19th century, Irish Catholic churches were burnt to the ground. Italians were lynched in the South in the early part of the 20th century or persecuted as potential anarchist saboteurs, and Jewish Americans were tormented as socialists or communists. German, Italian and Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated during the Second World War.
But that was never the end of the story, because despite the rantings of bigots, no ethnicity defines being American. Becoming American is like alchemy. And as successive waves of immigrants have become American, the idea of America, itself, has changed. Who can even begin to describe “American” culture, fashion, music, or cuisine, without seeing the effect of Irish, Polish, German, Italian, African, Hispanic, Jewish and Arab?
This matter of an ever-expanding American identity defines the difference between the US and European experiences. And it is important – because it provides a light at the end of the tunnel.
I have experienced it in my own life and I know that despite the current rantings of the likes of Trump and company, change will come. The problem is that this process of inclusion and transformation doesn’t yet apply in Europe. After three generations of Pakistanis in the UK, North Africans in France, or Kurds in Germany, they are still seen as foreigners.
This came through in a recent painful and poignant piece in The New York Times written by Zia Haider Rahman. He writes of his frustration at still being referred to as a Bangladeshi despite the fact that he holds a British passport and not a Bangladeshi one, doesn’t even speak Bengali, was educated in Britain and works in Britain.
He concludes: “It is Britain’s inherent cultural problem with otherness that makes it so difficult for the native to call me British.”
And so, this is the lesson America can teach. It may take some time but immigrants and their children do become American and, in the process, change the very meaning of being American. Ask Barack Hussein Obama Bernie Sanders, Leon Panetta, or Norm Mineta. Or, you can ask me – the son of a Syrian-Lebanese illegal immigrant, who became an American.
Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa
Updated: April 23, 2016 04:00 AM