Opinion

America's Wild West

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When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that Washington should "close the borders," he wasn't just choosing the wrong word (he says he meant "secure" the borders against illegal immigrants). Schwarzenegger was also choosing the wrong side of the Atlantic to inform his views on immigration.

What he said is more the attitude of Western Europe than of the American West. On many matters, from healthcare to women's rights, the United States can learn from Europe. But on immigration, it's the other way around.

Today, countries such as France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are scrambling to catch up with the changes wrought by migrants. Particularly Muslim migrants from North Africa and Turkey. As they flood in seeking jobs and education, the old social contract — our home is your home as long as you consider it your home too — looks downright naive.

"They want to immigrate," say non-Muslims about the newcomers, "but they don't want to integrate."

In other words, too many Muslim immigrants insist on having their own language, their own family law, their own schools, their own neighborhoods — and their own ways of dealing with those who defy Islam.

Non-Muslim Europeans wonder: When filmmaker Theo van Gogh can be killed in the streets of Amsterdam, targeted because he criticized Islam, and when a Muslim woman who has abandoned her arranged marriage can be shot dead by her brothers in Berlin, what's next? And who's next?

If they don't wish to be among us, goes the common complaint, why come here at all?

To which the immigrants respond: We want to integrate, but not assimilate. And the way to integrate is to secure jobs, pay our taxes, finance unemployment insurance, hospital beds, pensions — all the things you Europeans desperately need because of your own low birthrates, aging populations and expectation of material comforts. In short, our contract with you is to keep the welfare state intact without losing our sense of self. If you recognized all that we can contribute, then we wouldn't need to express rage at a society that demonizes us. Now give us work instead of flak.

With identities threatened on both sides, the most frantic voices have gained traction. Some politicians in the Netherlands want a moratorium on immigration, proclaiming their country "full up." It's a small piece of land (unlike California), so I can see why so many Dutch feel saturated and frustrated by people who put the fear of God into their otherwise happily humanist souls.

Meanwhile, Muslim leaders cry racism and plead to journalists like me, "Do you see why we feel driven into the arms of fundamentalists?"

It doesn't take long before I hear something else from European Muslims: This wouldn't happen in America. We would belong in the United States.

As incredible as that sounds in the era of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay, dozens of Muslims in Western Europe have told me that the U.S. has a genius for inclusion because of how it treats social status. To the question, "Can you earn status rather than be born into it?" America still answers "yes."

Given their hunger to achieve, Americans are disposed to jostling with the "other," and they expect the "other" to jostle right back. What makes someone a real American is not so much his color or faith as his willingness to compete. Just ask the South Asian and Chinese immigrants who made up one-third of Silicon Valley's scientists and engineers during the dot-com craze.

In Western Europe, by contrast, heredity, hierarchy and entitlement trump achievement.

One's past remains far more important than one's future. No wonder countless Muslim laborers who have been living in Europe for two or three generations continue to be referred to as immigrants, even when they're bona fide citizens. This difference between the United States and Europe feeds into the perception that immigrant communities have about whether they can ever be good enough for their host societies. That, in turn, can only influence how hard (or not) they try to integrate in each place.

Thus, the Islamic Center of Beverly Hills sends out e-bulletins declaring "God bless America." A recent one requested that everyone pray for President Bush, whether they agree or disagree with his policies. I've never heard such patriotism trumpeted by a mosque in Western Europe. Nor have Muslims there confided to me that they appreciate their precious freedoms. In the U.S., I get this assurance regularly — unprompted.

Which brings me back to Schwarzenegger. When he calls for a clamping of the borders, he's giving up the ghost of the frontier mentality — the one that screams: "We too can do, and we'll show you!" He's hinting that California no longer has the entrepreneurial spirit to figure out how to invest in immigrants, including the illegal ones. He's implying that the nation is bankrupt of its most precious resource: imagination.

If he's right, all the more reason to welcome immigrants. Because history shows that diversity breeds pluralism of ideas, and ideas will be needed to reinvent the American dream in a century when technology, money and people are moving faster.

On this score, both the United States and Western Europe can take pointers from the old Islamic empire. Between the 8th and 14th centuries, Muslim civilization led the world in innovation precisely because it let all manner of outsiders in — despite the threats they posed to order. The result? Several hundred years of creativity in agriculture, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, commerce, math, even fashion. It's when the empire became insular to "protect" itself that the motivation to remain robust, and the talent to do so, disappeared.Memo to Gov. Schwarzenegger: If you're going to flirt with the fortress mentality, please avoid the mistakes of your European siblings and my Muslim forefathers.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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