The New Challenge of Middle Eastern Muslim Immigrants: A First Step Toward a Solution
by Elena Greco
Typical reading time: 6 minutes
August 17, 2016
It seems that solutions to the difficulties facing our country in dealing with the influx of Middle Eastern Muslim immigrants into our country are not being discussed much. There are highly charged opposing views on whether these immigrants should be allowed into our country, but very little discussion on what can or should be done if or after they immigrate to ensure a smooth transition for both the immigrants and Americans. I believe that this reluctance is due to the fact that Americans (and by “Americans,” in this particular article I am referring to US citizens rather than to the Americas as a whole) are uncomfortable speaking about religious differences, as we pride ourselves on being inclusive and do not want to be seen as politically incorrect. However, the only way to resolve this problem is to speak about it.
In discussing the issue of Middle Eastern immigrants today, there are mostly two prevailing views. One is that these immigrants bring crime and unpleasantness and should not be allowed into our country. The other is that Americans are compassionate and inclusive, and we should welcome any and all immigrants who wish to enter our country with open arms. Both views miss an important point. Rather than either judging immigrants as to whether they meet our standards OR proposing to welcome them into our country simply because they are in need, I believe the important issue is HOW these immigrants can be allowed entry and HOW we can be compassionate to people who might be fleeing their home due to war, hunger, destruction of their home and atrocities without negatively affecting our own country for years to come.
It’s true that we don’t discriminate against people in this country because of their religion. However, I think something that most people are missing is that in the case of the Middle Eastern Muslims, their religion is their law. That is something Americans need to understand. We are so accustomed to separation of church and state in our government that it might not occur to some Americans that there are people who consider their religion to be the law of the land. Their belief in their religion is such that they will not follow US laws if US laws are different from the law of their religion. (And please note that I am not speaking of Muslims in general, or of the Muslims who are long established in our country, but of the Middle Eastern Muslims who wish to immigrate at present.)
This is particularly important with regard to Middle Eastern Muslim immigrants, because these particular immigrants bring with them a culture that is vastly different from our own, a culture that is rooted in the Middle Ages in its thinking, a culture which by its very nature violates not only our American laws, but our guiding principles of liberty and justice for all, for religious freedom and tolerance of differences. This culture brings with it a gross objectification and violent treatment of women that is archaic. It diminishes and subjugates women in direct opposition to the freedom and rights that women in our country have fought hard for and won in the last century. It brings with it an intolerance of anyone or any behavior that is different from a set of medieval cultural rules that is, from an American standpoint, undemocratic, anti-inclusive, barbaric and cruel. In short, these issues can result in behavior that is a complete violation of American law and principle unless we can come to an understanding.
One example of this difference is the practice of “honor killing” of women for perceived “immoral” behavior or of other ways in which this culture subjugates and abuses women. Other examples of anachronistic thinking and adherence to religious laws which violate our own civil and criminal laws include the forced veiling of women, refusal to let women drive or appear in public without a man, denial of women to fulfill professional obligations without the permission of a man in their family, and the stoning to death of women who are raped, while allowing the rapist to go unpunished.
These women have virtually no recourse if violence is perpetrated on them. The men are accustomed to a culture and religious law that allow them to perpetrate violence against women with no repercussions, something that is a criminal offense in our country. Not addressing this issue leaves our citizens vulnerable to crimes and the inability to travel freely through life without fear. While certainly not every Middle Eastern Muslim will behave in this way after immigrating, we need to be concerned about those who will, and come up with a solution.
We must not assume that those who come to our country will automatically adapt to our laws and our way of thinking. We must not assume the contrary, either, of course. However, I think we do have to look hard at this as a culture that is ruled by religious law, not by secular law. I believe this makes it much more difficult for this particular culture to adapt and assimilate in the way that other immigrant cultures have adapted when they made a new home in the United States in the past.
If we ignore these things, we are also guilty of thumbing our nose at our country’s laws. Tolerating enslavement, oppression, abuse and violence is not tolerance; it’s collusion. And, yes, I do believe we need to concern ourselves with their religion because it is also their law, and that is what causes the conflict with our law and our culture.
These things obviously present major challenges to assimilation of these Muslims into American culture. And therein lies the real problem: assimilation. It is not that most Americans do not want to help refugees; we do. It is not that we are not tolerant of different cultures; obviously, given the thousands of immigrants we have welcomed into this country in the last two centuries, we are. And I am not taking the position that we should not help these immigrants, but rather that we make certain that we do so in a manner that benefits everyone and hurts no one.
I absolutely condemn and abhor discrimination, and I do not condone harassment or bullying of immigrants—or anyone else—in any way. I welcome diversity and difference as a contribution to our culture. I believe that these new immigrants should be treated with the same respect and compassion with which every other immigrant to our country is treated. I do not believe we should ever turn our backs on those who are in need. However, it must be a two-way street.
The United States is a land of immigrants. I live in New York City, a true cultural melting pot where it is believed that up to 800 different languages are represented, and probably the same number of cultures. In the past the US had waves of German, Irish and Italian immigrants, for example, who fled their home countries in difficult times. It is apparent that the US does not turn its back on immigrants, and that we are not a xenophobic country, but rather one that welcomes immigrants.
The difficulty many countries are having with this new wave of Middle Eastern Muslim immigrants—and I continue to distinguish them by their religion, because their religious code lies at the heart of the problem—is that they do not assimilate. There seems to be a lack of ability on the part of some of these immigrants to make an effort to fit into the society which is welcoming them and giving them respite from the horrible circumstances from which they flee and to show respect for their new home and its citizens. As an example, witness the many horrible crimes in Germany perpetrated by recent Middle Eastern Muslims. Also, in some countries, such as England, Middle Eastern Muslim immigrants have in essence set up their own country within their new country, continuing to follow their own extreme religious law in violation of the law of their new country, and continuing their discriminatory and abusive behavior toward women and others, which also violates the law of their new country. We cannot allow this to happen in the United States. Violence and discrimination of this sort cannot be tolerated, or our society will deteriorate, and so will our country.
The immigrants of the past assimilated. They wanted to fit in to their new country, and they were careful not to violate our laws or customs publicly. When you stay at someone’s home, for example, you are a guest. As a guest, you take care to fit in, to be courteous, to follow the customs of your host, and to do your best to be respectful to them in return for the courtesy and kindness they have shown you. You do not go to someone else’s home as a guest and behave badly or expect them to fit themselves around your customs or behavior; you would likely be told that you have outstayed your welcome and be asked to leave. If a new country has been gracious enough to offer immigrants shelter from the storm, they really must be respectful enough to not break that country’s laws or abuse its citizens.
When the Italians came to this country, as an example, they kept their wonderful culture—their language, their food, their music, their cultural behavior—in their homes and personal lives, but when they went out into the workplace or the American community in which they lived, they did their best to be “American,” to fit into their new country. They dressed and behaved as Americans did. They followed our laws. They did not expect America to give them a place to live, and to then tolerate behavior that flouted our laws and ignored the welfare of the rest of our citizens. They did not try to establish a new Italian country within the US. They became one with our country, contributing to it and enjoying what it had to offer, while maintaining their cultural identity. We have benefited as a nation from their contribution.
Most importantly, the Italians and other immigrants of the past learned their new country’s language. How can you succeed or even navigate in a new country, a new culture, if you do not speak the language? If you cannot communicate, you cannot assimilate and adapt or be productive, contributing citizens in the new country. You cannot be part of your community. You cannot find employment that pays well or allows you to improve your circumstances. You make others uncomfortable by excluding them in your communication. You make it difficult for those in service professions, such as police officers, teachers and social workers, to do their job. Most of all, you can never truly fit in and have a beautiful, free, prosperous life in your new country. You will always be an outsider.
I believe that we can continue to be compassionate Americans who welcome those in need and, at the same time, require that immigrants entering this country who hope to establish a home here show a willingness to adapt to their new country. To that end, I propose that the first requirement of new immigrants should be to learn the English language. Our government could offer a free course in basic English that would be required for new immigrants, and in order to get a green card, which grants lawful permanent residence, the applicant would have to demonstrate a very basic proficiency in English. If they did not, they would not be given a green card and they would not be allowed to stay in the US. That should provide sufficient incentive to learn the language. Currently, a green card is available to refugees after living in this country for one year, and that would be a reasonable amount of time to acquire basic English proficiency.
That requirement would be extended to both sexes. This is very important. In requiring that women, as well as men, learn the English language, we would be giving Middle Eastern Muslim women a chance to have more choices in their lives. Because they are often denied the right to study the language due to a cultural tradition of suppressing and objectifying women, and because they are dominated by men who might prefer to keep them from speaking the new language so that they are totally dependent on them, they have no possibility for a brighter future. Learning to speak English would give them choices, as well as give them the opportunity to contribute to our country. It would give them a good chance at having a good life.
Imagine that you are taken to a foreign country, one in which you do not speak the native language. You cannot communicate with anyone, and you have no hope of learning the language, given that your husband or father, on whom you are totally dependent, forbids it. Say, your husband beats you. You would like to leave the dangerous or abusive situation, but you have no way of communicating outside of the culture which condones the behavior, so you have no way to get help. You have no skills with which to get a job to support yourself so that you can get a home, and you cannot acquire those skills, because you do not speak the language. You have no hope and no possibilities. Do we want to offer these women a better life if they choose to pursue it? I would hope that we do, and that we would make sure that they have options, options which are only available if they speak English. Learning the language would give each woman the freedom to manage her own destiny.
Learning English would also create dialogue and promote understanding between the new Muslim immigrants and Americans. It is difficult or even impossible to find common ground and understand one another when you do not speak a common language.
In short, communication is essential in assimilation and in promoting freedom and safety for everyone. New immigrants must be offered help and motivation in learning English so that they can make a good life in this country, and so that our country can thrive. It will benefit all of us.
See Elena’s bios for more information about the author.