We Americans used to be more than a little smug about the integration of Muslims into U.S. society in contrast to the way Europeans get along — or don’t get along — with Muslims living in Europe. Unlike Western Europe, America did not import large numbers of Muslims from Asia and North Africa to fill labor shortages after World War II.
America never faced the “guest worker” problem with guests who not only never went home, but summoned their relatives to join them as Europe did in the mill towns of England, the banlieues of Paris, and the industrial cities of Germany. Latin America was the source of our immigration problem.
It was said that the immigrants Europe imported were often from such poor and remote regions of their respective countries that they would have had trouble adjusting to Istanbul, Casablanca and Lahore, never mind, Bradford, Clichy-sous-Bois or Kruezberg.
Our Muslims were better educated, better adjusted, and were willing to integrate into American society rather than holing up in ghettos around industrial towns, some refusing to learn the languages of the countries in which they resided, and sending away for their imams and brides. Rather than making up the poorest level of society, American Muslims were mostly middle class.
The multiculturalism of Britain seemed to have failed, with too many Muslims never really accepting, or being accepted, into British life. After the London subway bombings at the hands of homegrown Muslims, a British columnist wrote that in America there is no “loyalty vacuum where national identity should be.” America “fills the void with American-ness. Loyalty is instilled constantly, not only in one-off ceremonies whether it be saluting the flag at school or singing the national anthem at a ball game.” Could Britain learn something from America? The quandary, as the Tory leader David Cameron put it, was that the British “don’t do flags on the front lawn.”
France, in the tradition of “égalité,” treated everyone as a Frenchmen first and anything else — religion, ethnic background — as unimportant and secondary, at least in theory.
But in practice it never seemed to work out that way. Immigrants are not really accepted in France, with shockingly few of them represented in government, in the National Assembly, or the life of the nation itself. And today, France wrestles with questions about national identity.
In Germany, haunted by its National Socialist past, there was a reluctance to impose German culture on immigrants. “We Germans in particular had no right to force our highly questionable customs onto other cultures, ” wrote the writer Peter Schneider.
Europeans, it seemed, could not adjust to the fact that they had become nations of immigrants, instead of emigrants as they once had been. America had always been open to immigration. Citizenship, the flag, and our institutions define what an American is, not how people dress. Thus the constant controversies over headscarves that cut to the core of European sensibilities seemed strange to American ears. A national referendum to ban minarets would be inconceivable in the United States.
So we thought our very American-ness had inoculated us against the radicalization of Muslim youth. The British–born plotters of the London subway explosions, the 9/11 Hamburg cells, or the British educated Nigerian bent on bringing down an airliner were not going to be replicated here. Our Muslims were immune, we thought.
But now, with young Somali-Americans going off to jihad in East Africa, with Pakistani-Americans doing the same in Pakistan, a former New York coffee vendor named Najibullah Zazi arrested in a bomb plot, and with Major Nidal Hasan’s mass murder of his fellow soldiers, we have come to realize that the siren call of jihad does not fall upon deaf ears on these shores. A decade of invading Muslim countries is having its radicalizing effects here at home. We can no longer afford to be smug.
The F.B.I. tries to infiltrate extremist cells, and so they should. But there are reports that American Muslim organizations that have in the past cooperated with law enforcement are feeling alienated by increasing pressure, and reconsidering their cooperation.
The worst we could do as a society is to overreact, to make American Muslims feel they are a not one with the rest of us; in effect, to take the American flags off their front lawns.