Who Can Americanize Muslims?

Ross Douthat has a smart column this week on how Islam is treated by red and blue America. The tensions were exposed by the nationwide scandal over the building of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, the supposed “Ground Zero Mosque.”

As Douthat explains it:

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

Douthat holds up these two approaches to new immigrants in dialectical tension, showing that in our history one side has made room for new arrivals, while the other has helped the new arrivals Americanize.

That’s all fine as far as it goes. But I think Douthat’s analysis misses something. During the Great Wave of Immigration, and until the 1965 Immigration Act, that second “cultural America” had plenty of elite representation and practical political power.

President Teddy Roosevelt denounced the habits of “hyphenated Americans”. The business community largely supported efforts of organized “Americanization.” And school boards resorted to techniques that would be laughed out of court today. They taught Catholic public school students from Protestant Bibles, for instance.

Today the engines of assimilation are pop-culture and public schools – but only in the form of peer-pressure. Islam has plenty of tools for resistance to these if Muslims wish to deploy them. All the assimilators have accomplished so far is creating media frenzy about the “Ground Zero Mosque”, one that increasingly makes them look paranoid. There are already mosques within a short distance of the Twin Towers site. The overwhelmingly Christian and conservative denizens who fear Muslim immigration and growth have few options for exerting strong influence over Muslims without inadvertently creating the legal and social tools that can be used to exert pressure on churches on issues like gay marriage and abortion. Muslim groups are often scrutinized for their funding and investments. But how many Christian Zionists would like their co-religionists audited if the tables were turned?

There was a time, just before September 11, 2001, that conservative Christian intellectuals viewed Muslims as potential allies in an “Ecumenical Jihad” against secularism. Those days are long gone now. I just don’t think that red America is able to play the historical role that Douthat believes is assigned to them. In fact, conservative Christians may be the least well-situated cohort to Americanize Muslims immigrants. They have little cultural power beyond getting guests on Fox News, they have even less influence in the schools. Any legal means they might use are either repugnant to them or to judges. Should we even bring up foreign policy?

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