Since President Barack Obama in his recent Cairo speech made a tut-tutting remark about countries that restricted wearing religious garb in school, the controversy over the Muslim burqa has resumed in Europe.

It’s not a problem in the United States. Not many women are on the streets of New York or Chicago wearing totally enveloping gowns with only a mesh to look through. Few immigrants to the United States are from the countries where this is worn. Arab immigrants from the Middle East are more often than not middle-class, many are Christian, and nearly all are in America by choice and ambition, eager to celebrate the Fourth of July.

The American immigration model bears little resemblance to those in Europe, being — for naturalized citizens — non-directive, non-supportive and very open and free for those who accept a powerful popular conformism and intense American nationalism.

Americans, Canadians and the British usually expect everyone to wear whatever they want. Even Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen wear turbans, if they are Sikhs — not yet the practice among New York City mounted policemen, nor the city’s bicycle-mounted deliverymen. But perhaps these are not jobs Sikhs want.

In Europe, clothing and immigration are closely connected. There was controversy in Britain last year when young black or Asian men wearing “hoodies” — hooded sweatshirts — received an inordinate amount of attention from the police. An objectively unanswerable question of political correctness was thereby posed, concerning police discrimination (or “racial profiling”).

If noisy young men traveling in groups and wearing hoodies are — or are perceived as — responsible for a disproportionate amount of small-time crime and nuisance in a given neighborhood, or at certain train or subway stations, or even if similarly garbed French youth are suspected of burning their neighbors’ cars on festive occasions, is it racial profiling for the police to stop and question them, or search them for illegal weapons?

No; it is an elementary police response to a common immigrant phenomenon of alienated underprivileged adolescents causing public disturbance, affirming an anti-social and thereby self-affirming personal stance. Police harassment is the expected and satisfying response that proves the hoodies’ status as victims. Everyone has his role to play, and race is not the determining factor. What the ritual actually does is indicate failure of integration or accommodation of immigrant communities.

A woman who wears the burqa or niqab (which covers the face but not the eyes) is either submitting, willingly or otherwise, to male domination in a particular version of (non-Quranic) Islamic practice, or is voluntarily affirming her difference, alienation or religious rejection of the society in which she lives. One logical, but impossible, answer is to suggest she go elsewhere.

In France in certain neighborhoods, the burqa or niqab can also be a fashion statement among student-age girls, a daring declaration of difference from the rest (likely eventually to be discarded), in which religion is secondary.

A number of European girls take it up when converted (usually by a Muslim boyfriend) into an ultra-observant Islamic group that resembles a sect — a legitimate subject of interest to police or social services to assure that intimidation, forms of blackmail, involuntary sequestration, or criminal or sexual abuse is not involved.

There clearly may be motives of Islamic political extremism or potential terrorism in such groups, but the police or domestic intelligence services in European countries are unlikely to consider burqa-wearing a clue to subversion. Overwhelmingly, it reflects social and personal tensions, not criminal politics.

A comparison could be made with the illegal “primitive Mormon” polygamous sects known to exist in Utah and some neighboring states.

In the United States and in Europe, sects involving sexual exploitation or pedophilia exist at all levels of society, usually involving what is claimed to be occult knowledge or secret powers, or even extraterrestrial visitations. It happens in the best of families.

It is legitimate for a government to demand from immigrants conformity to established national values and practices. This is what the Netherlands is doing now, after a series of scandals involving xenophobic political groups, murder of an anti-immigrant leader, and bitter public conflict over Islamic practices and values. This followed a period of great laxness over immigration standards.

Germany has until now left its Turkish immigration in ghettos, with the result that family and marriage connections are kept up with Turkey, wives may never learn German, and yet the family expects to stay permanently in Europe. A recent survey revealed that the Muslim population now numbers some 6 percent of the population — a surprise — culturally separate, highly religious and a poor prospect for assimilation. German policy may be expected to change.

It is equally legitimate for a government to do as Britain has done, in unconscious emulation of colonial practice in the 19th century, to apply lax standards in immigration but expect homogenous immigrant communities to form with their own leaders, institutions and practices. This perpetuates ghettos, the class system and a new version of the old “two nations.”

The French resist all discrimination or official categorization of immigrants, all of whom are considered candidates for total assimilation into French society and civilization — a high-minded principle that in practice is extremely difficult to apply and in the short run not very successful.

Europe’s dealings with the migrant problem, which steadily worsens as African migration increases, have not been a conspicuous success. On the other hand President Obama need not lose sleep over the idea, popular in some Washington circles, that Western Europe is about to become an Islamic superpower.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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