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Claire Wasserman on Europe’s Islamic Immigrants
Posted on Nov 20, 2009
Caldwell is correct. Youths of immigrant families in Europe “dis-assimilate,” a phenomenon largely unknown among America’s second- and third-generation immigrants. That is because Islamic immigrants have little in common with, say, Latin American Catholic immigrants arriving on the United States’ southwestern borders. Caldwell usefully compares Europe’s immigrant problem with America’s race problem. The dis-assimilation he speaks of actually resembles the way in which African-Americans have constructed their identity both around, and in opposition to, the “white” mainstream culture. The African-American identity and experience, though they may have been constructed as an adversary culture, have been marketed and exported worldwide. A huge profit is made from the “coolness” that black culture represents. While rock music sales dwindle, rap artists continue to sell. Basketball players become household names, and Lebron James’ face can sell a pair of shoes. “Flavor of Love,” P. Diddy’s Twitter account: These are all things that draw huge global audiences and make or help make a handsome profit. Muslim youths get this. As seen in footage of the 2005 riots in France, many Muslim youths emulated and empathized with African-American culture; many Europeans, in turn, viewed the young, mostly Arab immigrants as, according to Caldwell, “enviable in an existential way. They were cooler. They were aristocrats of identity.”
Preferring to err on the side of pessimism, Caldwell doesn’t discuss the ways in which immigrant youths have been successfully integrated into and embraced by popular European culture. Though their slang and sideways caps may stand as affronts to those who appreciate Baudelaire and classic French literature, their “enviable” cool is just that: enviable. And mainstream European youths accept their immigrant counterparts with an ease and grace that eludes almost every government official. By the measures of music heard, clothing worn and everyday language and dialect spoken, there seems to be a growing reconciling of European habits and immigrant challenges. Reality suggests a more culturally porous and pliant Europe. The most obvious example is verlan, an updated 19th century French pig-Latin in which Maghreb youths invert syllables to create a new language. While verlan may represent a private form of communication with which immigrants can distinguish and separate themselves, the language of alienation has paradoxically become a means of integration. Words such as meuf (from femme, woman or wife) and chelou (formerly louche, shady or dubious) have now made their way into mainstream French vernacular and are heard throughout France, especially among the young.
Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
By Christopher Caldwell
Doubleday, 432 pages
Verlan remains, to a certain extent, the language of “outsiders”: youths, lower-income people, immigrants. The creation of verlan as a separate language of alienation fits the “dis-assimilation” thesis at the heart of Caldwell’s argument. The acceptance of verlan, however, into the pop culture lexicon acts as a counterpoint. Verlan’s status as a language of outsiders is the reason it is ultimately integrated into the larger society; to speak verlan is to be cool. Middle-class white French youths adopt the slang as a way of showing their solidarity with “the streets.” Caldwell is keen to compare the Muslim immigrants with African-Americans but oddly doesn’t bother to explore how a subculture can be regarded as simultaneously beyond the pale (dis-assimilation) and coveted (seen as cool). But perhaps that would have been another book.
Caldwell makes bold predictions about the future of Europe. Even though Britain has arguably integrated its immigrants relatively well, it remains the country with the most serious incidents of violence and political extremism. Caldwell is cynical about the segregation in Sweden, and he sees Spain as being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of immigrants flooding over its borders. He is slightly more upbeat about Germany’s Turkish immigrants, but it is, perhaps surprisingly, France that Caldwell looks to as offering Europe’s best chance at successfully assimilating its immigrants. It is not France’s social programs or public policies that Caldwell commends, but rather precisely France’s “republican traditions,” which he sees as the best way for later generations of immigrants to fully assimilate. France, he writes, “is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely.”
Unlike in America, however, where assimilation is regarded as a sign of the successful embrace of patriotic citizenship, assimilating into French society (or, for that mater, into other European countries) is difficult. All over 21st century Europe the question is asked: What does it mean to be French, Swedish, Spanish, German? For Muslim immigrants who live in two worlds, the requirement to embrace Voltaire is much more than recommended reading. It is expected that immigrants must forge new identities once they arrive in their adopted country. What is less obvious but equally important is that the host country must reconstruct its identity just as the immigrant must rebuild his. This vexing predicament is what Caldwell’s book is about. Caldwell foresees an almost inexorable merging of European and Muslim cultures. Whether, in the end, this is a good thing or a bad thing, he leaves largely for the reader to decide. But it is clear that, for Caldwell, there will be enormous consequences for the Enlightenment values that are at the heart of the modern European project. The surprise is that it may be Europe that must become more accommodating to its Islamic immigrants, and not the other way around.
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