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Our Foreign Legions
Wall Street Journal
January 26, 2004

By Francis Fukuyama --Commentary

We have seen demonstrations all over Europe and the Middle East to protest the French government's proposed prohibition of Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools. This ban is part of a larger struggle taking place throughout Europe over the continent's cultural identity. France and other European countries are host to Muslim minorities that constitute upward of 10% of their populations, minorities that are becoming increasingly active politically. European Muslims are primarily responsible for the rise in anti-Semitic incidents over the past three years, and their perceptions heavily color European media reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This demographic shift has already affected foreign policy: the French government's stance against the Iraq war and U.S. foreign policy more generally seeks in part to appease Muslim opinion.

But while the French government is publicly supportive of Arab causes, it and other European governments are privately worried about future trends. Sept. 11 revealed that assimilation is working very poorly in much of Europe: terrorist ringleaders like Mohamed Atta were radicalized not in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, but in Western Europe. In a revealing incident that took place shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a crowd of mostly second- and third-generation French North Africans booed the Marseillaise during a soccer match between the French and Algerian national teams and chanted Osama bin Laden's name. Third-generation British Muslims have traveled to the West Bank to martyr themselves in suicide operations.

Europeans differ among themselves in the way that they approach assimilation. The Germans for many years never tried; until their citizenship law was changed in 2000, a third-generation Turk who grew up in Germany and spoke no Turkish often had a harder time getting citizenship than an ethnic German from Russia who spoke no German. The German state, moreover, recognizes the communal rights of religious groups, collecting taxes on behalf of the Protestant and Catholic churches. The issue there, as in the Netherlands, is whether to add an Islamic pillar to the existing Christian ones, one that would have control over education and other issues. Such a policy would tend, of course, to enshrine rather than diffuse cultural differences over time.

The French by contrast have always accepted the principle of assimilation. French citizenship, like ours, is not based on ethnicity but is universal. The republican tradition recognizes only the rights of individuals, not groups, and its commitment to laicite or secularism remains strong. French schoolteachers in particular are heirs to an anticlerical tradition stemming from the French Revolution, and have looked askance at expressions of religiosity in public schools.

The new French policy on headscarves should thus be seen as a type of forced assimilation. Previously it had been up to individual schools and teachers whether to ban headscarves or not; the new policy takes this burden off their shoulders by making it a national policy. Whether the ban will work is a delicate tactical issue: it may create a counterproductive backlash, driving observant Muslims out of the public school system and into their own Islamic schools. But the ultimate goal of the policy is not to crush religious freedom but to promote assimilation, one that American opponents of multiculturalism should appreciate. Europeans have only recently begun to confront the problem of assimilation, and continue to suffer from a stifling political correctness in talking honestly about the issue of immigration. In 2001 the German Christian Democrats gingerly floated the concept of leitkultur, or "leading culture," the idea that immigrants would be accepted as Germans but only if they in turn accepted certain German cultural values. The idea was immediately batted down as racist, and never raised again.

There is a strong correlation in Europe between immigrants and crime, just as there is between race and crime in the U.S., but mainstream politicians have been loath to acknowledge this. This explains the meteoric rise of the openly gay Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was the first to argue that Muslim immigration should be limited because Muslims did not accept traditional Dutch tolerance. Only with the national soul-searching that followed his assassination in 2002 did discussions in Holland become more open about the immigration-crime nexus. And only when Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, came in second behind Jacques Chirac in the 2002 French Presidential election, did the government begin to get serious about dealing with crime and immigration through appointing the tough interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. The headscarf policy is simply part of this new line.

The ultimate success of assimilation depends not just on policy, but on the cultural characteristics of the immigrant group being assimilated as well. Europeans are right to say that they face a bigger problem with their Muslim immigrant populations than Americans do with their Hispanic immigrants.

The speed with which an immigrant group assimilates in the second and third generations after arrival has very much to do with that group's rate of outmarriage, which in turn is a byproduct of the degree to which immigrant families can control their daughters' sexuality. In the U.S., rates of outmarriage correlate strongly with both assimilation and upward socioeconomic mobility on the part of different racial and ethnic groups. In many Middle Eastern countries, there is a strong emphasis on cousin marriage, in which daughters are urged to marry not just within their ethnic group, but within their own extended family.

Individualism within the family -- i.e., the right to marry whomever you want -- is the mother of all individualisms, and it is the denial of this right that allows traditional social structure and culture to be transmitted across the generations. Traditionalist Muslims are thus more astute than they are given credit for when they insist on marking their daughters with headscarves that signal their sexual unavailability to outsiders. The girls themselves who want to wear the headscarf as a symbol of their identity do not understand the long-term threat to their individual freedom it represents.

Americans, looking at Europe, should be glad that they have made their country an assimilation powerhouse. But as the authors of a new volume on assimilation edited by Tamar Jacoby indicate, this is not something that we can take for granted. During the big immigration wave of the late-19th/early-20th centuries, the largely Protestant native-born elites deliberately sought to use the public school system to assimilate the newcomers from southern and eastern Europe to their cultural values. The 1960s and '70s gave rise to multiculturalism, affirmative action, and bilingualism, which sought to reverse course on assimilation. The '90s saw a backlash against this kind of divisive identity politics with the passage of Proposition 227 in California that wiped out public school bilingual programs at a stroke. This was our version of the headscarf ban, one that worked well because it was supported by a great many Hispanic parents themselves who felt their children were being held back in a Spanish language ghetto.

It is in this context that we should evaluate President Bush's recent proposal to grant illegal aliens work permits. Many Americans dislike the policy because it rewards breaking the law. This is all true; we should indeed use our newly invigorated controls over foreign nationals to channel future immigrants into strictly legal channels. But since we are not about to expel the nearly seven million people potentially eligible for this program, we need to consider what policies would lead to their most rapid integration into mainstream American society. For the vast majority of illegal aliens, the law they broke on entering the country is likely to be the only important one they will ever violate, and the sooner they can normalize their status, the faster their children are likely to participate fully in American life.

It is no exaggeration to say that the assimilation of culturally distinct immigrants will be the greatest social challenge faced by developed democracies over the coming decades. Given the sub-replacement fertility rates of native-born populations, high levels of immigration have become necessary to fund not just current standards of living but future social security benefits. Divergent immigration patterns will unfortunately deepen the wedge that has emerged between America and Europe in foreign policy. We cannot do much to affect European policy, but we can take steps to see that their problems do not become our own.

Mr. Fukuyama, a professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, is the author, most recently, of "State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century," forthcoming from Cornell in March.