- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Two young Berlin friends of mine, a Jewish woman and her German husband, a nominal Christian, are expecting twins. They were delighted to learn the other day that both twins will be girls. That eliminates any argument over circumcision.

There’s a legitimate medical debate over whether circumcision is good or bad, but the matter takes on a darker dimension in Germany, where circumcision was not so long ago the mark of the damned. Because it was a Jewish ritual, it was evidence that could cost a Jewish man his life. This would be a private matter of no consequence today but for a growing fear over religious identity in Europe. It’s not a far-fetched fear for Jews.

We suffer no such dark fears in America, but we invite psychological conflicts nevertheless with our distorting obsession with multiculturalism. When cultural and religious differences are emphasized, the differences inevitably encourage divisive and fearful attitudes.

A distorted emphasis on separate identities diminishes the spirit of community that holds disparate groups — and an immigrant nation — together. The positive values of assimilation, which for generations were held up as one of our defining ideals, are foolishly perceived now as condescending and prejudicial.

Immigrant groups in the past usually assimilated in three generations, or less, with newcomers identifying with the values propounded by the Founding Fathers. The educated European Jews who came to this country in the middle of the 19th century, for example, were often not so keen to see their Eastern European cousins arrive, but once they were here they organized to get them assimilated. They encouraged them to nurture Old Country traditions in the home and in the synagogue, and pushed them to learn the new language, the new traditions, to adopt the history, the habits and the culture of the new land as their own.

Immigrants today from Latin America often get no such help. Many Americans who oppose increased immigration from south of the border complain that these Latinos are more inclined to hold on to the culture they left behind than to adopt and adapt to the one they find here. Despite good intentions, bilingual programs usually retard mastery of English.

Muslim minorities similarly threaten swift assimilation in Europe. “While the French government is publicly supportive of Arab causes, it and other European governments are privately worried about future trends,” writes Francis Fukuyama in the Wall Street Journal. “September 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.”

England is rattled, too. The BBC, the state television network, fired a popular talk show host not long ago because he criticized Arabs for tolerating sympathy for “suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors.” The BBC easily tolerates anti-Israeli rhetoric, some of it particularly vicious, no doubt in part because Jews, with no history of tolerating “suicide bombers, limb amputators and women repressors,” pose no physical threat.

The Muslim community in Western Europe now numbers 15 million, and the Muslim birthrate is three times that of Christians, Jews and others. This has led to heavy-handed attempts to secularize immigrants who often don’t want to be secularized, such as Jacques Chirac’s decree to ban the traditional head scarves for Muslim schoolgirls and skullcaps for orthodox Jewish schoolboys while allowing crosses of reasonable size, “reasonable” left undefined.

The debate over immigration reform in America has so far been a debate over how to assimilate Hispanic immigrants, but Muslim assimilation may be the longer running dilemma. Ahmed Al-Rahim, a Muslim born in Lebanon to an Iraqi family and raised in America, is a sharp critic of what he calls the virulent anti-Americanism thriving in Muslim communities here. He’s a founding member of the American Islamic Congress, formed after September 11 to encourage Muslims to speak out against the hate speech they encounter in their mosques.

“This hate speech against America, against Christians, against Hindus, against Jews — nasty anti-Semitism — has somehow been accommodated, not denounced,” he recently told the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank. “I think it has partly been accommodated within the program of multiculturalism, where people fear offending or stigmatizing a minority group. But what the September 11 attacks brought home was that we can no longer accept that, especially the American Muslim community.”

American Muslims must step up to speak out, he says. “Because if we fail to vigorously condemn this kind of discourse, there will be more Muslims who are willing to take chants like ‘Death to America’ to their logical conclusion.”

Assimilation has always been a problem for democracies, but we must not allow heightened and divisive awareness of cultural differences to generate fear and loathing, and insist that tolerance is a two-way street.

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