This essay is part of our collection on Islam and immigration. See the full collection here.
It is in my nature to love my country—not idolatrously, but as befitting my human identity and dignity. I was created and born into a family, a household, a religion, a culture, and a state. Rejecting these bonds is a rejection of self, which assimilation, at times, partially necessitates. That is part of what makes immigration complex and disruptive to a human soul. As an embodied spirit, I live, move, and inhabit the space allotted to me. Like it or not, I am connected to these communal spheres, and my quality of life depends upon how well I keep these bonds and attachments.
Immigration interrupts these shared spheres. It severed, to one degree or another, the cords that bound me to my family, household, religion, culture, and state. Love for one’s city and state can be fierce, which is why exile is so traumatic. Even an elementary reading of history shows us how communities used exile as a punishment—deserved or not—for citizens. Dante suffered much after his exile from Florence, but without that twist of fate, he might not have given us The Divine Comedy. In one sense, his suffering has brought comfort to many who came after him.
Assimilation: More Than Adapting to New Ways
I have found assimilation to be more of a revolution than an adaptation. In some sense I had to “revolt” against who I was before, in order to enter into a new social order. I say this because, as I experienced immigration and assimilation and observed others in my Middle Eastern culture experience them too, the changes have been more than simple modifications of behavior (or thought) to a new culture. It’s not only that I had to change how I behave or what I think. Rather, the “changes” required for true internal assimilation go beyond experiences; they touch the essence of who I am—that is, they change how I think about what I think, and how I think about my behavior.
This inner revolution is why it often takes at least a generation or two to completely assimilate, depending on the strength of attachment to family, religion, and tradition. The weaker and more inconstant the attachment, the quicker and fuller the assimilation; the stronger and more prolonged the attachment, the longer and less-developed the assimilation.
Naturally, immigrants who gather in cultural pockets across America may take longer to assimilate than immigrants who are fully immersed into a natural-born American environment. This is not to disparage immigrant communities: I don’t believe it should be an “either/or,” as that is too dehumanizing and disruptive to the human person. I believe there can exist a “both/and” path for assimilation, which allows immigrants to keep part of their identity while still becoming good and loyal citizens of this country. This “both/and” approach is especially facilitated if immigrants are exposed to American founding principles.
For true internal assimilation, an epistemological change must happen within the individual immigrant. The extent of the epistemological change is the degree to which assimilation takes place. To use an example from popular culture, in the movie The Godfather, Michael was born in America and married an American yet continued to be trapped in the cycle of revenge killings that began long ago in Sicily. That epistemological change never took place, at least not to the degree required to think about his life and live it differently.
When my family left Iraq, we went to Greece under the guise of going on “vacation.” In Greece my father sought help through the World Council of Churches. We lived in Greece for a year and a half while we were trying to find a country willing to take us in. With help from a friend of a friend, a generous and kind Armenian family living in Los Angeles sponsored us, and the American consulate in Greece accepted us. Our time in Greece, though unstable, was easy for me. The Greek culture was Mediterranean, close in ethos to that of the Middle East, so living there was more of an adaptation than the internal revolution I experienced upon entering America—which, by contrast, was a total civilizational change.
The Uniqueness of Western Civilization
Built on the triad of Jerusalem, Greece, and Rome, Western civilization became greater than the sum. This synthesis of civilizations was particularly fertile in harmonizing faith and reason, a mentality that is unique to Western Civilization. The marriage of faith and reason became the union out of which ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty grew in noncompetitive harmony.
Something altogether different, however, happened in the Arab world. As Islam conquered the Middle East, it flourished as a civilization for a time. I remember always hearing in Iraqi government schools, “You know it was us, the Arabs, who discovered algebra.” By “us, the Arabs,” they implied some solidarity of the whole Arab-speaking world, but strictly speaking, the Arabs are the Muslims who came up from the Arabian Peninsula and conquered all the various Christian, Jewish, and pagan ethnicities and cultures who were living in the Middle East and North Africa. The fact that we—my family—were not Arabs and could not lay claim to inventing algebra didn’t seem to make a dent in my parents’ own Assyrian and Chaldean civilizational pride.
But this thriving Arabian civilization—commerce, art, language, the preservation and translation of Greek philosophy—did not last. Eventually the competition between faith and reason within it reached a critical point. In his book Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, George Weigel gives an excellent explanation of what happened to Islam’s intellectual life—and, by extension, to the intellectual life of the entire Middle East. Although Christians and Jews continued to live in the Middle East, they were always minorities, hemmed in by the boundaries of their subculture. As Weigel recounts the history of “the suspension of intellectual inquiry,” and “loss of intellectual vitality,” he writes:
Then something happened, and during the middle centuries of the second millennium the spirit of inquiry seemed to dry up in the House of Islam. . . . Islamic religious authorities eventually became nervous about such philosophical speculations [as philosopher Averroes’s subordination of theology to philosophy,] and that nervousness combined with Islam’s traditional sense of self-sufficiency (as well as its disdain for the achievements of the infidel world), created a cultural situation that eventually led to a deterioration of intellectual vitality.
And so, while the Mongols were burning and pillaging Baghdad in 1258, there arose a particular Islamic leader, Ahmad ibn ’Abd al-Halim ibn Taymiyya, who “broadened the targets of jihad to include ‘not only heretics, apostates, hypocrites, sinners, and unbelievers (including Christians and Jews) . . . but also any Muslim who tried to avoid participating in jihad.’” This change, along with calling for political power to save and defend Islam, remained in place with the support of other Islamic leaders and eventually gave us the supra-nationalistic “Islam-versus-the-West” mentality of today.
The Role of Religion in Assimilation
Given that assimilation is not just a change in what I think or what I do but a change in how I think about what I think and do, it makes perfect sense that a person’s religion shapes how and to what extent that individual assimilates. One of the many things religion does is give us an epistemology. In the Middle East, the primary religions are Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Each carries with it a particular way of thinking about God and man, and a way of knowing about God and man.
Of course, Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule were affected by the intellectual stagnation—through subversion of reason to faith—of the surrounding Islamic culture. In fact, they suffocated under it. Although they shared many cultural things in common with the “Arabs,” the Christian and Jewish communities balanced these with their own religions and subcultures. When much of the Middle East was colonized by Britain and other European powers after World War I, a space was created for intellectual and technological development, and many Christians and Jews flourished—and we know Muslims flourished too. Growing up before pan-Arab nationalism had fully taken root, I heard many stories of Christian families sending not only sons but also daughters to the West for education.
The key to understanding immigrant assimilation is to ask about the role that reason plays in their religion. We see a clear distinction in the assimilation of these groups as they emigrated to the West. While there are exceptions, most people whose religion does not subvert reason to faith but rather unites the two are better equipped to assimilate. Weigel explains:
The Bible . . . calls faithful Jews and Christians to use their reason in understanding the meaning and import of its moral teaching. . . . Islam’s holy book, by contrast, is described by an influential Egyptian Islamic activist in these terms: “The Qur’an for mankind is like a manual for a machine.”
For Jews and Christians, the Holy Scriptures call us to seek wisdom, seek knowledge, seek understanding, search out a matter, love the Lord our God with all our minds, wrestle with understanding, and ask. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said, “From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the ‘Logos,’ as the religion according to reason.” Likewise we read in Proverbs 25:2, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings to search things out.”
Man is made to reason and to be known—and it is this belief that makes the difference in assimilation as an immigrant. I submit that there are some religions and sociological backgrounds more compatible with American founding principles, and that therefore make a person better able to assimilate into this country. This may seem like a controversial statement, but in reality, it is simply an observation of human nature that experience makes difficult to deny. Cardinal Ratzinger makes a similar point. He explains, “Not all societies have the sociological assumptions for a democracy based on parties, as occurs in the West; therefore, the total religious neutrality of the state, in the majority of historical contexts, has to be considered an illusion.”
Unfortunately, we no longer have a culture that believes in and lives according to American founding principles. Instead these principles have been replaced with the illusory goal of “total religious neutrality.” We have a libertine culture, one that pushes God out of the public square. A defining feature in the eyes of the immigrant is that we have an anti-family culture; the cost of assimilation into this culture seems too high.
For the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have not subverted reason to faith, their reason united with faith shows them that contemporary Western culture is anti-reason as well as anti-faith. They believe they cannot assimilate without compromising both to some degree. I have experienced and watched as the Middle Eastern Christian values and traditions of my fellow immigrants have been eroded over the last thirty years. For the Muslims who come here and continue to live and think as they did back in the Arab countries, the result will be either radicalization or holding out in like-minded pockets until Islam rules the world.
We have an assimilation problem in our country; many immigrants are grateful for refuge here, yet reject assimilating fully into a culture they perceive as libertine. The answer to this crisis lies partly in renewing a healthy patriotism, recalling the principles of faith and reason upon which this country was founded. It is this reunification of faith and reason that would help Middle Eastern immigrants to gladly embrace our culture.