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You Will Be Assimilated?: Cultural Adaptation and Islam

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.


What Can You Do For Your Country

In 2010, I went traveling through France with my cousin, Roland. Roland had already visited the country several times. He spoke fluent French and had new friends in Paris who we stayed with. We started out in Paris, of course, and while there we had dinner with a bunch of Roland's college buddies. Over the course of the night, one of them was asking me about the differences between America and France. I mentioned something along the lines of diversity. The Frenchman responded with a laugh and said proudly that, “In France, France comes first. Everything else second.

That comment is one of the most memorable things for me about the trip, and spoke volumes about dealing with the idea of cultural assimilation when I came back to my work with ethnic and religious communities. The ability and inability for religious groups to adapt to new surroundings is one of the most controversial issues today, especially when it comes to Muslims.

As a byproduct of migration troubles from the Middle East, besides the rise of conflicts and terrorism, many have raised the question on the ability of Muslims to adapt to the rules and culture of the country they choose to take refuge in or move to. And though the scenario is different between Europe's experience and the United States and most Muslims do just fine, more shade is being thrown than a positive spin from all sides.

Me Vs. We

I had encountered a situation when I was interning for a Jewish-Muslim commission in Rochester. The goal of the two communities was to increase interaction and dialogue between them and to address mutual concerns rather than differences. One of those shared anxieties was the passing on of their traditions to the next generation, something made exceedingly difficult when the opposing value sets are so much more open. American secular values are more liberal and allow for much more flexibility for many of its morals. While the Jewish and Muslim communities are also flexible, some of the values are considered too essential to be changed, not only going back centuries but also considered fundamental to their cultural identity. American society is more individual-eccentric than community-eccentric.

Though all religions and its subsets are different, the one trait they share is the sense of identity. It is what has kept many of these communities going through hard times and in some cases near extinction. It is not an easy thing to just put aside, even when being forced into alien lands and culture. The obstacles of those lands are different.

European Assimilation

Unlike their experience with Christianity, European experience with Muslim assimilation has been more openly difficult. Many reasons for this are given. The go-to reason is the history of bad blood between Islamic and European culture that has existed since the Dark Ages. From 711 CE to 1917, there was a literal physical definition of what was Europe and what was Islamic. Those divides being in Spanish Iberian peninsula from 711 CE to 1492 CE, and in Turkey where east of Constantinople (now Istanbul, like the song) was considered Muslim territory until 1918 with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after Wold War One. These geographical lines made it easy for the two cultures to exist separately and battle each other as clearly defined enemies.

Even though Europe as a whole has adopted a more secularist policy, it is believed some lingering prejudice is passed down through the generations. There are many documented accounts like in, of 'Muslim-only' areas in major cities like 'Londonistan,' where unemployment is high and the atmosphere is heavy with lack of hope for being anything more than a migrant worker. Traditional Muslim values hold sway here where many of the host's values are not welcomed, to which the natives of course take offense. Many European countries still judge themselves by their communities, even when balancing that out with individual freedoms. While Christianity doesn't rule anymore, it was at least part of the history and therefore allowed, if controlled.

America and Assimilation

In America, the experience has some similar tones, yet is also very different. With the exception of Blacks' and Indians' experience with European descendants, there almost none of the geographical, long standing animosity. Indeed, the very foundation of the country was of a constant influx of migrants and refugees. The first colonists were religious refugees when they felt their countries' values weren't conservative enough or had sold out. Slaves were brought over by force since the Spanish rediscovered North America (the Vikings came first, sorry).

The next wave of migrants during the 19th century were political refugees and people, like today's North African refugees, looking for better opportunities because their native lands offered little to none of those chances. And then again in the 20th century as well.

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So migrants is both a defining characteristic and also a source of conflict for us. Because many of us aliens have eventually become successful, there is a sense of hope that is passed down. Even among downtrodden groups, that hope has existed, though it took generations to achieve at times and in many forms, from corporations to organized crime and drug dealing. All versions of success.

In the article Why Do American Muslims Fare Better Than Their French Counterparts?, this intangible factor is seen as the one of the primary differences between assimilation experiences in both continents. Satirist John Oliver has also commented as such.

Even with the fears that the Jewish-Muslim Commission I interned with had about their traditions, the one thing they didn't need to worry about was the prospect that their children could not be more than just workers if they wanted to be. Even with the prejudice against Muslims in our country.

Because of this diverse and immensely conflicted background, keeping your cultural identity is allowed and not outlawed, at least now. This gives room for Muslims who want to do both, where as in many places in Europe, it is much more constrained, like what the Frenchman said to me in Paris.

This doesn't mean that the American method is perfect by far though.

Birth Pains

Our experience has proven that, while different from Europe, having new groups adapt to surrounding foreign culture can be just as painful. The tragic thing about this on both continents is that much of the contention comes from a few people. Those who choose to react violently to their new surroundings, whether out of frustration or over foreign policies and perceived slights against their people by the host country they indeed sought out. And those natives who push these 'outsiders' to the wayside because they are considered suspicious.

There are some values that are just in fact incompatible. Honor killings, though prolific in some cultures, would never be tolerated here or in Europe. Law dictated by scriptural verse, prophet, pope, imam, or priest would never be allowed because not everyone subscribes to a particular interpretation.


Resistance is Futile?

With any migrant situation, assimilation is as Star Trek's the Borg would say, 'inevitable.' It is forced not by humans but by time itself, and takes generations, if done right. The difficulty will be with each proceeding generation watching their inheritors change and redefine what they knew as their religion, community, and values. Some may even turn away from it outright, such as Mia Khalifa, a Lebanese pornstar who was rejected by her family back home for her lifestyle choice when she came to the U.S., and how she in turn rejected her native culture because of constraint she saw it as.

A balance needs to be struck where everyone is respected and grievances can be aired peacefully and considered. Because without that, assimilation and migration will be what it has mostly been through human history: very bloody.


Peng Hong on May 26, 2016:


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