Wednesday, February 08, 2006

It's the hair, stupid


West Beginning to See Islamic Protests as Sign of Deep Gulf - New York Times

For decades European nations have wrestled with an influx of immigrants who came for economic and political reasons, primarily from lands where Islam is the dominant faith — from Bosnia and Turkey, from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, from North Africa and Somalia. But many feel they have never been fully welcome. The catalog of Islamic terrorism — from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, to the March 2004 bombings in Madrid and the July 2005 attacks in London — has challenged governments and societies to distinguish between moderates and extremists, like the four British-born Muslims who killed themselves and 52 other people in London.

Ostensibly, said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford professor of European history, the clash has pitted two sets of values — freedom of expression and multiculturalism — against each other. Muslim immigrants, initially seen in the 1960's as temporary laborers, have formed permanent and expanding communities. But beyond that, there is a seething resentment among some Muslims that they are treated as second-class citizens and potential terrorists in lands that deny the importance of their faith, even though the number of Muslims in Europe totals 20 million, and possibly many more.

"If you have black hair, it is really difficult to find a job," said Muhammad Elzjahim


Some Europeans claim to worry that Muslim immigrants are out to proselytize and impose their way of life on others. "In America, few people fear that they will have to live according to the norms of Islam," an editorial in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad read. "In European countries, with a large or growing Muslim minority, there is a real fear that behind the demand for respect hides another agenda: the threat that everyone must adjust to the rules of Islam."

This doesn't seem plausible. I've read quite an enormous number of interviews with disgruntled Muslims now for the book that I seem to be writing (it just crept up on me--but I do seem to be writing a book on multiculturalism) and none of them seem to have any interest in converting anyone to Islam or making all women wear headscarves--most don't even seem particularly interested in having their own daughters wear headscarves. The major theme seems to be that they're treated as outsiders and face substantial discrimination. And a minor theme is intergenerational conflict, between the immigrant generation and their assimilated children, particularly daughters who they believe are being corrupted by the permissive sexual mores of European societies.

Europeans I suspect just don't get it because they aren't accustomed to dealing with mass immigration or the presence of visible minorities. To Americans though all this is old hat. Parents want to protect, and control, their children--particularly daughters and when that's exacerbated by a cultural divide between immigrant parents from traditional societies and children who don't want to put up with traditional rules there's trouble. Here is a charming article from The Guardian describing the activities of a team of pistol-packing diplomats that rescue British-Asian girls forced into arranged marriages:

Almost free, Yasmin Rehman darts breathlessly through the sleepy Punjabi village. Running down a sandy lane, the 21-year-old from Bradford heads for the main road, her green shalwar kameez streaming in her wake. Behind her, clutching a hastily packed suitcase, is a British diplomat and, by his side, a Pakistani bodyguard, a pistol concealed under his clothes. A Land Rover is waiting at the end of the path. Rehman leaps in and the jeep roars off, weaving around donkeys, tractors and a gaggle of curious kids. ... "I'm so embarrassed, I'm really scared, I've never done anything like this before. But I had no choice," she babbles nervously in a strong northern accent...Caught between cultures and pressured by their families, hundreds of young British-Pakistani women are trapped in forced marriages in Pakistan every year.

Americans get this because it's a classic American story--it's My Big Fat Greek Wedding Usually things don't get this far out of hand either, with girls spirited away to Pakistan and beaten up. Usually fathers run around shouting and mothers fall on the floor threatening to have heart attacks. The encouraging thing about the story, even though it was about cases where family feuds went seriously bad, was that it was played as the rescue of our good British girls--girls from Luton, girls from Bradford babbling in northern accents, girls "pining for burgers, chips and jeans." Americans in any case know this story--and know that however crazy and dangerous these immigrant parents are, they have no interest in holy war, proselytizing or imposing Shari'a law on European countries.

Americans also know that immigrants aren't a Fifth Column and that the majority don't have any ideological interests. Interestingly, even in interviews with the most disgruntled Muslims they complain that the US is out to destroy "the Muslim people"--not that it's waging a war on Islam. And this is the take I think: it's tribal warfare, not a "clash of civilizations" as they see it. Certainly Mohammed is a cultural ikon but I have the sense that they see attacks on Islam as symbols and symptoms of a program to humiliate them, enslave them or wipe them out.

We're used to thinking of war and cultural conflict as ideologically motivated, or at least principled--or at least to pretend that it is. We claim to fight for freedom, democracy and human rights just as we once claimed that we were in the business of colonizing in order to Christianize and civilize the natives. But until very recently in human history no one even made that pretense: wars were simply tribal without even the excuse of principle or ideology. Everybody takes care of their own because they're their own and occasionally goes out and beats up on other tribes just because they're other tribes. That's the way it worked amongst the working class "white ethnics" where I grew up, and that, I suspect, is the way in which those Muslims who are seriously angry see it. No amount of happy talk about the virtues of Islam will fix that because the issue isn't religion, ideology or culture--it's people with black hair who are marked as an alien tribe and who imagine that tribal warfare is in the offing.

Americans get that because we know all about visible minorities and the pervasiveness of racism. We know, "it's not the bus, it's us." We may not know how to fix it but at least we know what it is, and know that it's not holy war or the clash of civilizations but poverty, discrimination and exclusion. It's the hair.

1 comment:

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