Identity, Integration & Introspection!

A few days ago I posted a few lines on the concept of Immigration, Integration and Identity, the subject of a conference on Capitol Hill that I took part in. The few lines I posted, which represented my initial take on the matter, generated quite an interesting debate, I thought. So much so I promised to return to the topic again after the end of the conference. For I seldom read prepared statements in conferences as I prefer to extemporize, this allows me the flexibility to study my audience a little, not to mention, in some cases, the other participants as well, before I embark on my “mission.”

So, here is what came to mind on that glorious day:

I think the issue of integrating Muslim immigrants into western society is only one manifestation of the issue, which to me is the integration of traditional faith-systems and traditional cultures into the fabric of modern civilization whose values are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other related conventions. As such, fundamentalists from all faiths, and certain “modern” trends, such racism, white supremacism and such, all pose a problem for integration, because they represent a “natural” reaction of traditional faiths and cultures to the challenges posed by modern living and modern values.

Another useful context to have is that of globalization, which is imposing a certain sense of unity on us all at this stage. Indeed, we are a unity now, but one that is not yet aware of itself, not are its various members aware of the significance and implications of the newfound unity of theirs.

We are not even debating the issues at this stage in any real manner. Rather, we tend to engage in various apologetics or preach at each other and declare our already formed conclusions in each other’s faces, rather than attempt to come around and pose the necessary questions together and see if we can work out some common answers, and this some will have to suffice when it comes as the product of a joint venture.

But for now, and in the absence of any debate on the issues, frustration and anger end up filling the void, encouraging various radical stands on all sides of the equation. Hence the strange marriage of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Ghogh (although, I, too, tend to believe in the necessity of shocking the system sometimes), of Arab liberals and American neo-cons (and here some would like to look at me as an example I guess), and of fundamentalists of all faiths in their opposition to many modern values, especially with regard to sexuality and gender issues, among many other things.

In order to break out of this mold, much introspection and real dialogue is needed. But, while some such processes seem to be taken place among western intellectuals and policymakers, Muslims communities everywhere still lack behind, albeit the last couple of year might have witnessed some debate among second generation Muslim immigrants in the western countries.

But even when this debate does take place among these immigrants, the charged atmosphere in which it is taking place creates much room for many to fall back upon radical positions in response to some atavistic longings, hence the murder of van Ghogh on the hands of a second generation and reportedly well-integrated Moroccan immigrant.

The reasons for this seeming high resistance or inertia might include:

  1. The fact that modernity did not emerge in Muslim countries as part of the exiting social, political and economic dynamism and was rather exported to them from the West.
  2. The fact the exportation process assumed the form of invasion and colonialism.
  3. The “fixing” or “ghettoization” of communal identities, using various mechanism and devices, under Ottoman rule, Safavid rule, Mughal rule and the various sultanates in Central and Southeast Asia.
  4. The fact that modernity was introduced into the Muslim neighborhood as a very complex and dynamic package, much of which principles had already been worked out, while others continue to be worked out.

These four elements of exogeneity, imposition, xenophobia (resulting from the strong sense of belonging to a particular community) and complex dynamism gave rise to the important and always relevant these days Question of Authenticity. Modernity in western societies does not suffer from this handicap.

Moreover, the enduring legacy of colonialism, including the haphazard nature of the states and borders that emerged as part of the drive for independence, the complications emanating from the ensuing various border conflicts and inter-community relations, the onset of the Arab-Israeli Conflict with all of its own quirks and complications, ad the growing social pressures for change have combined to create sense of weakness and victimhood within the souls of most Muslims (and many non-Muslims as well of course), laying them open and susceptible to all sorts of conspiratorial thinking.

All this creates a very averse climate for serious introspection, and tends to influence the outcome of any public debate in a very negative manner.

Muslim immigrants bring these attitudes with them to their Europe, the US and their other destination countries. In a sense, first generation immigrants usually come with the intention of getting ghettoized if they can help it. Now, this is not a unique phenomenon by any means, all immigrants bring such an attitude along with them.

Integration really begins with the second generation, that is, with the people who had an ample opportunity to absorb more of the “local” values, which might conflict with some of what they learned at home. It is indeed the identity crisis associated with the coming of age experiences in a society that, in some case, still ill at east with its growing diversity that creates some room for introspection.

The difficulties emanating from the integration of Muslims, therefore, and while having certain peculiarities of their own, do fit, nonetheless, with the already established patters affiliated with other communities. Meanwhile, most of the particularities affiliated with the integration of Muslim immigrants relate more to the whole issue of conflict with modernity. But even in this case, Muslim particularities might have certain parallels with other religious communities as well. Still, it is also here that the uniqueness of the Islamic experience in the modern world can be found.

The process of Muslim integration into the modern world is, naturally, a very complex one and is bound to be time-consuming. Indeed, there are no magical solutions to speed up this process. It’s going to take a long as it needs to take. But we can help facilitate the process through a variety of ways:

  1. Battle existing stereotypes about Muslims prevalent in western societies.
  2. Encourage a more open debate on the issues of identity that continue to be raised in cooperation with Muslim figures from all stripes.
  3. Support the emerging new class of Muslim intellectuals, academics and professionals wherever they happen to be, but especially in western societies, as their influence might prove overarching in time and could influence developments in the wider world of Islam.
I recently came across this summary of my intervention provided by an assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Here it is:
Mr. Ammar Abdulhamid, Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution and Syrian author, first noted the problems inherent in integrating any fundamentalist group into modern society, no matter the religion. For Muslims, however, modernity is tinged with a colonial aftertaste, as it did not arise organically in those societies. He supported Hellyer’s call for Muslims to engage in the public conversation, battle stereotypes, and support Muslim initiatives, especially (echoing Münz) for the second generation of immigrants, who face a cultural identity crisis, but for whom there is “hope for new reflection and interpretation of faith.”