Saturday, January 2, 2016

Quotable: Peter Skerry on Muslims in America

Friday, January 1st 2016
A generation ago, Washington, the State Department, the Voice of America, and the U.S. Information Agency could neatly segment audiences, media, and opinion as “domestic” or “foreign.”  U.S. Public Diplomacy, by law, could only engage the latter.

At least two factors have made this old division obsolete.  First, the internet has largely erased national boundaries in the spread of information and opinion.  Second, cheap international telephone calls, satellite television, and the internet have created a mutual flow of information between home and diaspora societies, with effects on both.  This is a generalized phenomenon, whether immigrants come from Korea, China, the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria, or India, for instance.  It is Muslim immigration to Europe and the U.S., however, that has brought communication between the old and new countries into the public eye, with radicalization of immigrant children as a focus.  It has reawakened debates over assimilation and multiculturalism.

Public Diplomacy officers abroad now need to be alert to this home-diaspora communications interflow.  It can have good or bad effects on views of the United States.  It can affect the study of English and applications to U.S. universities.  And it provides channels for radicalization.  This also suggests that the Foreign Service needs more understanding of immigrant communities in the United States and the generational stresses that affect immigrant families.

Peter Skerry, professor of political science at Boston College and a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, has given us a superb review of these issues among Muslim Americans.  His article, “Clash of Generations,” is in The Weekly Standard issue of December 28, 2015.  It’s not about Public Diplomacy per se, but it provides useful background on “the cultural contradictions of Islam in America.”

His article reviews demographic and income data, terrorism denial among Muslim immigrants, in- and out-marriage (religious and/or ethnic), strains of mass immigration, mosque attendance, self-identity, honor culture, Islamic schools, career aspirations, the effects of university education, the appeal of Islamism, mosque governance, the role of imams, the down side of calling Islam “a religion of peace,” and the danger of characterizing “Muslims” or “Islam” in America as a coherent group.  Here are just a few bullets from a very rich article:   

  • Our public discourse about Muslims is reduced to simplistic dualisms: assimilated/unassimilated; moderate/immoderate; tolerant/intolerant; good/bad.

  • Conservative leaders either voice their own or tolerate others' wild accusations and conspiracy theories about Islamist extremists infiltrating the government and subverting our way of life.

  • Alternatively, liberal political and media elites, only a little chastened after San Bernardino, seem unable to utter the words "Islam" and "terrorism" in the same sound bite.

  • . . . the real battleground over assimilation is often between immigrant parents and their children, born or raised in America. This is the locus of what Norman Podhoretz once called "the brutal bargain" of assimilation, and this is what most Americans . . . consistently overlook.

  • Generally speaking, immigrant parents reconcile themselves to the brutal bargain by comparing their circumstances in America with those they left behind in their homeland. . . . . the children of immigrants . . . seldom have either the option or the desire to relocate to their parents' homelands; for them, home is here, in the United States.

  • . . . a great many Muslim immigrant parents are deeply concerned about their children being swallowed up by a contemporary youth culture they disapprove of, by its music, its video games, its movies, its indulgence of alcohol and drugs, and of course its sexual mores . . .

  • . . . many Muslims report being more observant here than in their home countries. This apparent paradox is explained by the Bangladeshi engineer in Boston . . . "At home, you get a natural religious education from relatives. .  .  . Here you have to constantly answer the children's questions. .  .  . It is a good thing, this American questioning of everything; we did not grow up like that. .  .  . Because I don't have much knowledge about these [religious] things, I take them to the mosque every week for classes, and we also attend a summer camp where we pray together and talk about the Koran. I do these things for my children, not for myself. I am personally very relaxed about religious matters; I do not pray regularly or fast and I am not inclined to go to the mosque except as a social occasion. But when you are raising children in this country you have to do it."

  • . . . the children will regard a sudden preoccupation with Islam as hypocritical. Newly observant daughters donning the head-scarf may suddenly start pestering mothers, who long ago decided against wearing it in corporate America. More discerning youth may notice that, whatever the mix of piety and achievement their parents press on them, very few encourage their sons to become imams.

  • One tack pursued by disgruntled youth . . . is to criticize intrusive, controlling parents as mired in a corrupted version of Islam inflected with the ethnic culture of a home village, tribe, or nation; and to lay claim to a "pure," culture-free Islam.

  • This tack has particular appeal for Muslim college students away from home for the first time and meeting, mixing with, and marrying Muslims from other backgrounds. Indeed, the college campus is often where such youth begin seriously to identify themselves as "Muslim Americans."

  • Then, too, such a culture-free understanding of Islam resonates with Islamism, which affords young people still another way to outflank the religious demands of their parents.

  • The parents of such a youth are likely to see things in precisely the opposite way. . . . they are inevitably fearful that their offspring's turn to Islamism might be the beginning of a path to extremism, or at least might be perceived as such by anxious, ill-informed Americans.

  • . . . Islamism affords youth the opportunity to challenge what they typically view as the political timidity of their parents with regard to American policy in the Middle East and in the Muslim world generally. Finally, some version of an Islamist identity, as opposed to their parents' ethnically inflected, traditionalist Islam, allows Muslim youth to stake a positive claim to a negative characterization imputed to them by non-Muslims.

  • So what are the lessons for non-Muslims? First, we are too preoccupied with what goes on in Islamic schools and mosques. Typically, these institutions are dominated by immigrant doctors, engineers, and businessmen, who pay the bills and sit on the boards, which routinely interfere in day-to-day decision-making. The political views of such patriarchs would not gratify most of us, but more relevant is their rigid, controlling management style, which tends to alienate youth.

  • Imams do not escape this ethos. Lacking any unique sacramental or ceremonial powers, they can be relegated all too easily to the status of hired hands chosen by the board to lead prayers and perhaps give marital advice.

  • Since most imams come from overseas, where mosques are subsidized and to varying degrees controlled by the state, they are unaccustomed to the day-to-day operation and management of self-sustaining voluntary institutions. Moreover, their English and their understanding of American society may be poor. Such individuals arguably have a difficult time gaining genuine respect from a congregation's lay leaders, never mind young people predisposed to seeing Islamic schools and mosques as the bastions of adults who don't listen to them and certainly don't understand their lives in America.

  • Second, sweeping, intemperate attacks on Muslims and Islam are not only unfair, they are counterproductive . . . . The primary objective of Muslim leaders in America is to mobilize and unify a diverse and fragmented agglomeration of coreligionists from all over the world. Casting suspicion on this agglomeration as if it were a coherent whole plays into the hands of leaders who may be unsophisticated or unimaginative—but are hardly out to terrorize America.
  • Indeed, however much Muslim leaders and their organizations express genuine outrage at inaccurate and unfair characterizations of their faith, they have nevertheless grown dependent on such attacks, not only to sustain themselves and their organizations, but even more critically to pull together a disparate assortment of individuals, many of whom identify more with their countries of origin than with Islam.

  • Telling . . . young people that Islam is "a religion of peace" is likely to come across as self-serving, condescending, and manipulative. Even if the overwhelming majority of them don't feel the need personally to avenge wrongs visited on their coreligionists, they are nevertheless likely to regard their faith as worth fighting for—especially as they struggle to come to terms with their place in a proud religion that understandably sees itself as having been outperformed and overcome by the West.

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