As you know, there is a big debate going on in England right now about the veil. Those who support the veil are framing this support in terms of religious freedom. However, veils are not an integral part of the Muslim religion. Instead, they are a product of Arab culture. (Indeed, you only need to think of the number of devoutly religious Muslim countries in which the women have not traditionally worn veils. Indonesia and Bosnia immediately spring to mind.) The modern use of the veil outside of Saudi Arabia (whether a simple head covering or the full mask) is a political statement that began to rise to prominence as part of Arab nationalism during the 1930s.
The distinction between ritual (or culture) and religion is an important one in the debate about assimilation in a multiculturalist world. France and England demonstrate the dangers of taking either of those doctrines to extremes. At the time of the riots in Paris last year, mahy people commented on the French demand that immigrants assimilate completely — abandoning all ties to their place of origin — as a mandatory prerequisite to entering the French social and economic system. Immigrants unwilling to abandon all vestiges of their past are locked out of French society, and condemned forever to the netherworld of the banlieus. There is no middle ground. Clearly, this level of imposed assimilation doesn’t work.
England, of course, is rapidly going in the other direction regarding its immigrants. If the immigrants ask for it, they get it: In an officially Christian country, crosses are banned and St. George’s flag is pulled down. Muslim police officers are free to walk away from assignments they find distasteful or worrisome. Because Muslims won’t eat pork, cultural icons are threatened or removed entirely. (Personally, I’m deeply offended when I’m in grocery stores selling liver. Blech.) Students are arrested for pointing out that they can’t carry on a discussion with non-English speaking Pakistani students. (Although this seemed more like preemptive obedience by the school and the police than any response to Muslim complaints.) I could go on with examples, but I think we all have the sense that England’s slavish devotion to multiculturalism is also a model that doesn’t work.
There’s got to be a happy medium and, chauvinistically, I think the traditional American model (one that the Leftist’s are chipping away at to recreate the British model) is the one that works. This one says that (a) we will respect purely religious beliefs and (b) you can cling to ritual beliefs, but you have to recognize that they may hamper your ability to get ahead economically. I don’t think (a) needs much discussion. We are allowed to worship as we please in America and, while one can always dig out anomalous situations in which some boneheaded supervisor was disrespectful of an employee’s religion, that’s certainly not the American norm — nor has it been.
The more interesting point is America’s approach to ritual. Although we are officially a secular nation, we don’t have the militant secularism that characterizes France. People are free to wear Stars of David, crosses, and head scarves — all of which are ritual expressions associated with belief, rather than religious imperatives — as long as they don’t interfere with things. We’re all proud of our cultural backgrounds. Many people also find spiritual comfort in wearing religious icons, and that’s okay. However, because we’re a country governed more by the marketplace than by the government (at least until this November), our national position is that people who wish to engage in more extreme cultural rituals than small jewelry or little scarves have to be willing to take the economic hits. Thus, if you’re an Ultra-orthodox Jew, you’re not going to work for a Fortune 500 company that can’t accommodate the myriad religious rituals that underpin your life — and the government is not going to make that Fortune 500 company hire you (or, at least, not yet). To date, multiculturalists’ efforts notwithstanding, religion is still your own business, for better or for worse.
America is also totally willing to allow people to celebrate their cultures within their own homes and their own communities. A Jewish company won’t fire you because you have a Christmas tree in your home, nor will a Christian employee fire a Jew who lights Chanukah candles in December. Again, we celebrate these differences, but refuse to allow them to dominate the marketplace.
The unspoken American pact has always been that legal immigrants are welcome to cling to their traditions, but that they may do so at their own risk economically. The more you’re willing to assimilate, the better you’ll probably do. But if you don’t assimilate, there are still many opportunities. You make your choices. If the veil is overwhelmingly important to you, you limit your opportunities. If it’s of transcendent importance, maybe you should stay in your own country. We will not (or, rather, we should not) change for you.
And really, that last point is the most interesting. Why do people immigrate to Western countries? I think the obvious reason is that the majority come to enjoy the economic opportunities those Western countries offer. Whether they’re leaving Mexico for America, Turkey for Germany, or Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for England, the immigrants come for the work. It is ironic, then, that the more militant, having come to the West to enjoy the economic benefits it offers, immediately work upon the credulous multiculturalists among us to turn our Western economies into the same damaged backwaters they left behind.
As for me, here in America, I welcome immigrants who come here legally, willing to work, and accepting of the fact that they have to embrace the American pact regarding expressions of culture and religion. I am intractably hostile to immigrants who come here to escape their stagnant home countries, and then attempt to impose on us ritual beliefs and practices that will reduce us, a thriving pluralist society, to the same level of cultural and economic stagnation they ostensibly sought to escape.
UPDATE: Minutes after I posted the above, I opened LGF and read about the British man convicted for protesting (crudely) Muslim extremists. He was turned in by his neighbors, who feared the wrath of Muslim extremists.