FIELDS: A melting pot gone cold

Failure of immigrants to assimilate results in a nation at odds with itself

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Our British and European cousins are wrestling with a problem we don’t have - yet. How far can the state go to require religious beliefs to conform to basic law? You don’t have to be a civil libertarian to feel a chill down your back in even putting the dilemma in such blunt terms.

France has become the second European country, after Belgium, to ban the niqab, the Muslim sack that Shariah law requires women to wear to hide everything but their eyes from the sight of (horrors) men. Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands are expected to follow. The larger question, for which no one has an answer, is how to assimilate an alien culture in the absence of the melting pot.

The First Amendment, our glorious fundamental guarantee of life, liberty and happiness, says the right to follow any religion you choose cannot be abridged. Not even the current fad of aggressive atheism can prevail against it. But nothing is absolute. Utah had to prohibit plural marriage, despite prevailing Mormon doctrine, before it could become a state. The courts have restricted the use of certain weeds in religious ceremonies. Common sense decrees that human sacrifice would be punished by the laws against murder, and honor killings of women (honor killings of men seem never to be required) aren’t allowed, no matter how devout the honor killer might be.

Eighteen states have enacted laws restricting the right to wear masks covering the face in public, laws originally aimed at the Ku Klux Klan. The authorities have argued that such bans are necessary to prevent Klan intimidation and will help police keep public order. But in several cases, the federal courts have upheld the right to associate and communicate anonymously without fear of reprisal.

No one in the lands across the seas, not even the British from whom we have inherited so many of the traditions of the rule of law, are protected by anything like our First Amendment. The governments of Europe can move pretty much at will to enforce a ban of the burqa, which covers milady’s eyes with a fine screen, or the niqab, which leaves the eyes uncovered. The French police, armed with the law enacted at the behest of President Nicolas Sarkozy, cracked down the other day, breaking up a women’s demonstration at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, arresting 59 Muslim women, 19 of them veiled.

The police insist they will enforce the burqa ban “extremely cautiously” lest they provoke Islamic violence. “The law will be difficult to enforce in [housing projects],” said a leader of the policemen’s union. “I can’t see police going to book dozens of veiled women doing their shopping in Venissieus or in Trappes,” he said, naming two suburbs where riots are regularly set off by accusations of discrimination against Muslims. “It will be the same when a police officer is about to arrest a veiled Saudi woman who is about to go into Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysses. In all cases, the forces of order will have to be measured and cautious in their behavior.”

This puts the French in a bit of a pickle (if not necessarily a kosher pickle). The government has imposed a law that it is reluctant to enforce, essentially leaving it to the Muslim radicals, always eager to provoke confrontation and even violence, to determine whether and how the law will be enforced.

Here at home, as in Europe, it’s the resistance to assimilation that threatens the sense of community that has bound together the unlikely American nation of immigrants. Without some sort of melting pot, an edible stew is impossible. We should welcome immigrants who obey the law, but we should require them to learn and honor the history and traditions of their new home. Charles Moore, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, was selected to speak to the annual dinner of the Honorable Artillery Company, Britain’s oldest army regiment, and offer the traditional toast to “England.” When he left the dinner, his driver, an amiable Muslim of Bangladeshi descent born 40 years ago in London - “Londonistan” in the argot of the time - asked for his destination. “I said ‘Sussex,’ ” Mr. Moore replied. “He had never heard of it. What, I asked myself, was his ‘England’? Would he have picked up any joke or reference that I made [in my speech]? Would names like the Duke of Wellington, Tennyson or William Blake have rung even the faintest bell?

“These thoughts made me brood. Part of the pleasure of the England I was trying to talk about is that it is shared. But England is not the special possession of those like me, and I wouldn’t want it to be. The point about a country is that it belongs to all its settled inhabitants.”

And so it is, in America as in “the sceptr’d isle,” which is why it troubles the “settled inhabitants” that some of their new neighbors want to hide behind gunny sacks, averting their eyes from friendly contact, the women often terrified that their husbands are forever looking for imagined slights to be punished by scoldings, beatings and even death to satisfy imported codes of “honor.” This is an issue now for the Europeans to confront, and no doubt for us soon enough. We do both ourselves and immigrants no favor by encouraging them to remain unassimilated.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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