Muslims in the Melting Pot
Ross Douthat’s latest column posits the existence of two Americas, “one constitutional and one cultural,” both of which have responded to the recent hubbub over the proposed Cordoba House mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. The former has eloquently defended the proposal, the latter has rather crudely opposed it.
I’ve already voiced my support for the project on this blog here and here, and my friend Josh Barro has done so even more effectively here. I don’t think this issue needs to be addressed any more. I do think, however, that Douthat’s broader point about Muslim immigrants conforming to “American norms” deserves more attention, and his historical analysis needs some serious work.
First, I should mention that Douthat ignores race. At least one reason that Muslim immigrants may have had some difficulty assimilating is the fact that the majority of them are non-white. Thus even before 9/11, they encountered the problem of being visibly foreign and thus facing social difficulties that white immigrants do not. Indeed, non-white immigrants who are not Muslim (Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc) also face these problems.
Second, Muslim immigrants are actually doing very well in America, and have been for years. As Radley Balko notes, “American Muslims embrace modernity, are better educated, and earn more money than their non-Muslim fellow citizens. Despite what Marc Ambinder describes as “significant anti-Muslim prejudice” in America, Muslim immigrants have for the most part been able to live out their American dreams, both fitting in to a broader American society while also preserving their religious and cultural traditions.
This brings me to my third point that, Douthat ignores an American idea different from that of the Melting Pot and “American Norms.” He ignores the philosophy of Horace Kallen, of “cultural pluralism,” better known today as multiculturalism (though these things aren’t necessarily the same thing). These terms mean different things to different people, but at their core, cultural pluralism and multiculturalism emphasize a resistance to assimilation, an acceptance and appreciation of difference–ethnic, cultural, religious, to some degree linguistic–within a common social, legal, economic, political and moral framework.
Canada adopted multiculturalism as its official policy in the 1970s. The United States has had a more uneasy time with the concept. With the brouhaha over the Cordoba House, commentators have thrown around the term “melting pot,” without realizing the term’s origins. In Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture, Werner Sollors traces the term back to J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and the birth of the American Republic and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals in the 19th century, among other sources, before finally arriving at Israel Zangwill‘s 1908 play of the same name.
Though Zangwill, a British Jew and Zionist/Territorialist, did not advocate wholesale assimilation (though contemporary and later critics accused him of just that), Teddy Roosevelt loved The Melting Pot and embraced its Americanizing theme, believing that immigrants could bring their strengths to the mix, have their weakness rooted out and create better, stronger Americans. Famous car maker and notorious antisemite Henry Ford used the melting pot symbolism at the graduation ceremony of his English school in the hopes helping his immigrant workers shed their ethnic identities and become purer Americans.
The effort to build the Cordoba House, however, is not an example of this style of melting pot. It is instead an example of cultural pluralism, of multiculturalism, of the fact that people in America (like in Canada) can maintain their cultures while also feeling completely American (or Canadian). This story about the Dearborn, Michigan football team practicing at night so its players can observe Ramadan, or the time I heard the Spanish-language broadcast of a Florida Panthers hockey game in Miami, all these are examples of what is great about America.
Canada and the United States have had their share of problems with this issue, sometimes involving Muslims. In Canada, the term “reasonable accommodation” is used when debating how much Canadian law can bend to allow religious and ethnic minorities to preserve their traditions that may come into conflict with modern, western law. The debate over the hijab, niqab and burka still rages.
For the most part, however, both the United States and Canada are doing a pretty good job with this balancing act. Reactionary efforts that serve to alienate growing minorities, such as the move to block the building of the Cordoba House mosque, do not facilitate assimilation: on the contrary, they further the cultural (if not physical) ghettoization and isolation of an immigrant group, Muslims, of whom the overwhelming majority have embraced America.
Douthat concludes his column by writing, “the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus, it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum.” This is at best a half-truth. I believe the “unum” is in fact strengthened by diversity. It’s a platitude to say that the numerous ethnic and religious groups that live in the United States make it a more interesting place, stronger and better place, but it seems like many Americans need to be reminded of that very fact.
New York has always, in some way, been “in America but not of it.” Some on the right might say that New York is not part of “Real America.” My wife and I just moved from the wonderful neighbourhood of Sunnyside, Queens, and we were very sad to go. Rated the third best neighbourhood in NYC by New York Magazine, Sunnyside is only one gem in the marvel that is Queens, home to not only the Costanzas but so many other immigrants that it has become the most diverse county in the United States. That, to me, is the Real America, the America represented by the Cordoba House mosque, the America that embraces modernity and the bonds of community at the same time.