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Terrorism Is Not The Only Reason To Be Skeptical Of Muslim Immigration


When we debate Muslim immigration—as we are again, as President Trump prepares to re-instate a revised travel ban—we mostly think about terrorism. This is a mistake, in part because it can border on fearmongering. Very few Muslims are terrorists, and the proposed restrictions are not well-tailored to stopping terrorists.

But fundamentally, it is a mistake because of what it ignores. Focusing only on terrorism—rather than on the beliefs, habits, and mores of potential immigrants—creates a false dichotomy, in which the opposite of “terrorist” is “moderate.”

This is a fuzzy category. “Moderate” in relation to what? We apply the term to vast numbers of people who have no commitment to political liberalism, the bedrock of Western democracy. As we move beyond a short-term debate about travel bans and refugees, and begin to think about the long-term effects of mass immigration, we must confront its most salient challenge: namely, how to form people into citizens.

Chasms Between the Muslim World and West

Both right and left acknowledge that terrorism cannot be ignored. They also acknowledge that very few Muslim immigrants will be jihadists. What remains is a feverish debate about just how small that small number is, and what sacrifices we should make to get it to zero.

But “not a terrorist” cannot be our standard for potential immigrants. That one has refrained from donning a suicide vest is a paltry indicator of character. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists, but we know from survey data that many do sympathize with Jihadists. More importantly, an even larger number hold beliefs that many Americans, on both right and left, would consider incompatible with a free society.

A more serious immigration debate would consider some sobering findings from public opinion surveys in the Muslim world. For example, in 2013, Pew released a comprehensive report entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society.” Though the report has its bright spots—for example, wide majorities of Muslims express support for democracy—it also reveals chasms between the Muslim world and the West.

Muslim Views On Homosexuality and Honor Killings

Take, for example, Muslim opinion on whether homosexuality is morally acceptable. Remember, this is not a question about gay marriage. Here, Uganda emerges as a relative bastion of progressivism, with 12 percent saying “yes.” In the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the highest figure is 2 percent.

Maybe this isn’t a big a deal. After all, there was a time in the not so distant past when most Americans disapproved of homosexuality. More important than beliefs on sexual morality is whether, and how, they will be acted upon. That is why the responses to another question—whether honor killings are ever justified as punishment for pre- or extra-marital sex—are disconcerting.

Central Asian and Eastern European Islam tends to be more moderate—in large part because of the secularist legacy of the USSR—but even in those regions, between 15 percent and 50 percent of Muslims believe it is sometimes acceptable to execute girls for sexual impropriety. In all but two countries in the Middle East and South Asia, a majority believe honor killings are sometimes or often acceptable.

How Mass Muslim Migration Affects Gender Relations

We might also ask what mass Muslim immigration might portend for gender relations in the West. The chart below shows the number of people—both men and women—who agreed that a wife must always
obey her husband.

The concerns these numbers raise about the prospect for seamless integration into Western society are heightened by the widespread opposition to intermarriage across the Muslim world. The number who would approve of their daughter marrying a Christian range from just 21 percent in Lebanon down to 0 percent in Egypt and Jordan.

As we move from moral beliefs to political beliefs, the picture does not get much brighter. In most countries outside of the old Communist bloc, overwhelming majorities support making Sharia law—that is, Islamic religious law—the law of the state.

We Must Be Aware Of the Threat Sharia Poses

“Creeping sharia”—the fear that Sharia law is already powerful in the U.S.—has become a leitmotif for paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists. But, in the context of immigration policy, there is nothing paranoid or conspiratorial about paying attention to support for political sharia. As our political idol du jour, Alexander Hamilton, noted in 1802, “foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners. They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived.” This does not mean that we must never admit any foreigners from countries unlike our own. But we cannot be stubbornly naïve about their politics.

But what, exactly, is sharia? Is it fear-mongering to even talk about it? That seems to be the view of many pundits, such as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who rebuked Newt Gingrich for even raising the issue. Goldberg explains that “sharia, in many ways, is analogous to Jewish law, or ‘halacha.’ (Both words mean, more or less, ‘the way,’ or ‘the pathway.’)” True enough, and the etymology lesson is a nice touch, but not many Jews want to replace the US Criminal Code with the 613 Mitzvot. He continues, “There are several schools of sharia thought, that range from fundamentalist to liberal in approach. The conservative, Hanbali, interpretation . . . is very harsh by Western standards.”

Ah, diversity! Presumably we are to be heartened by this, despite having no idea how many people subscribe to which school. And what exactly does “harsh by Western standards” mean? Do only half of the kids on the soccer team receive a trophy?

Sharia Law Supports Executions And Stoning

Where pundits equivocate, the data provide clarity about what sharia means to the people who believe it should be the supreme civil law. As the charts below show, for very large numbers of sharia-supporting Muslims, including 86 percent in Egypt, it means executing apostates (those who renounce Islam). As punishment for adultery, execution—actually, not just execution, but stoning—is even more popular.

Consider, moreover, how these questions tend to warp our notion of the word “moderate.” In Indonesia, only 48 percent support stoning adulterers. Does this mean the slim majority opposed are “moderates”? Maybe, but we have no indication how many instead favor the Qua’ranically mandated punishment of 100 lashes.

What to make of all this vis-a-vis immigration? First of all, we must make something of it. We cannot accept the lazy assumption, asserted without any evidence, that selection effects will render all of this null, because only people drawn to Western culture will come to the West. Some immigrants will be dissenters, like the brilliant Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Others will come only for economic reasons. And still others will be like Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb, whose repulsion to lasciviousness in Greeley, Colorado (of all places) spurred his radicalism.

Mass Immigration Will Shape Our Culture

Rather, we must take seriously the possibility that, over the long term, mass immigration will have serious effects on our politics and culture. The birth rate for Muslim immigrants—typically far above the rate for Westerners—makes this possibility even more likely. And even if Muslims remain a small minority, social change will be unavoidable.

Even those who oppose mass immigration tend to shy away from discussing the facts above. Many probably fear being tarred as Islamophobic if they suggest that we should be concerned with Muslims’ inclination toward theocracy. But fear of giving offense means relinquishing the only argument that reveals the paradoxes at the heart of our current immigration politics. Progressive causes will not fare very well if mass immigration has political ramifications, given nearly-uniform views in the Muslim world about sexuality, gay rights, abortion, and the subjugation of women to their husbands. For this reason, it’s not surprising that gays in France are increasingly drawn to Marine Le Pen.

A serious reckoning with public opinion does not mean painting the Muslim world as a monolithically bad. It means precisely the opposite. Opinions vary widely by region and even by country. Clearly, some places have done a better job than other at cultivating a moderate form of Islam. We need to pay attention to this when designing our immigration policy.

We Must Focus On Mores, Beliefs, and Practices

Most significantly, a focus on mores, beliefs, and practices would transform our immigration debate by placing assimilation—once considered essential for successful immigration—back at the fore. The data above does not imply that Muslim immigration should be banned, or even reduced. But it must force us to reevaluate two increasingly common—yet potentially contradictory—attitudes towards assimilation. First, that assimilation is oppressive; and, second, that assimilation—or at least acceptance of tolerance and diversity—will happen inevitably.

The first, opposition to assimilation, presumes either that Western societies are fundamentally flawed in some way—indelibly marked by racism, sexism, colonialism, etc.—or at least that they are no better than any other society. But the second—faith in inevitable assimilation—presumes that Western ways of life are so self-evidently good that any person in the right circumstances would prefer them. At once, Western society is understood as so flawed that it would be wrong to impose our culture, but simultaneously as so good that it doesn’t need to be imposed.

What Does A Healthy Immigration Standard Look Like?

These contradictions help to explain why the progressive position on immigration is weak. Progressives are always eager to identify our shortcomings, the ways in which we fail to live up to our proclaimed values. At its best, this eagerness manifests in a reforming spirit. But at its worst, it leads progressives to take liberal society itself for granted. By contrast, conservatives have always been suspicious about the liberal foundations of modern society. At its worst, this suspicion manifests in outright hostility toward, or rejection of, the liberal order. But at its best, this suspicion has given rise to a deep prescience about the fragility of the liberal order.

Our immigration debate stands to benefit from more of that skepticism, and hopefully more of that prescience. Terrorism essentially presents us with a technical question: how do we keep our citizens safe? That’s important, but ultimately subordinate to deeper political questions about what it means to be a citizen in the first place, and about the capacity of our society to fully integrate immigrants. Unless we move beyond the specter of terrorism, we will not be able to ask, or answer, those questions.