We have three upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany where immigration — and Muslim immigration in particular — will be the main issue. In America, Donald Trump has declared his hand. Anti-Islam was one of his central campaign messages. And in Britain, immigration was probably the issue that swung the Brexit vote.
Your tolerance or otherwise of mass immigration depends on many factors. Are you threatened? Do you benefit economically? Do you believe that multiculturalism is a good thing? Do you believe that we should take responsibility for the poor?
Most of us do not take extreme positions on immigration and are typically somewhere in the middle. It is common to hear people saying the success or otherwise of immigration depends whether the immigrants “fit in”.
Integration is what politicians call it, but to most of us the expression “fitting in” does just grand. Integration is Orwellian-sounding. It is the sort of term a European Commission bureaucrat would come up with.
So immigration is about fitting in; being one of us. No matter how different the parents are, most of us believe that the children of immigrants to Ireland will become Irish and will share our values. In this scenario, immigration does not lead to segregation. In other words, time heals all.
We Irish are the living embodiment of this.
In the US of the mid-19th century, mass Irish and German immigration, particularly Catholic immigration, prompted the virulently anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement.
The Know Nothings were a Nativist American movement — a kind of precursor of Mr Trump — that warned against the dilution of Protestant America by these new Catholics.
In 1855, 52pc of New York’s 622,925 citizens were foreign-born. Of these foreigners, 28pc were Irish and 16pc were German. In all, from 1847 to 1860, 1.1 million Irish immigrants docked at the Port of New York, as well as 900,000 largely Catholic Germans.
The Know Nothings claimed these Catholics, particularly the Irish, would never fit in. They were seen as foreign and un-American. The Know Nothings called for a 21-year naturalisation rule to prevent the Irish from voting. Only after this time could the immigrant be American enough to gain the right to vote.
In the end, the opposition to Catholics — and later Jews — proved to be transitory. Both groups fit in, eventually. This ability of the immigrants to fit in is crucial to the gradual acceptance of new neighbours in any society.
But if “fitting in” is a natural process, why is a massive resistance to Islamic immigration sweeping across the West? This is new. It is violent and it is dangerous. But is it understandable?
Are Muslim immigrants different?
I was thinking about this while watching coverage of the Dutch elections because the Netherlands has been traditionally a very open, tolerant country. Yet on March 15th, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, or PVV, is likely to become the biggest political party in the country. Among his proposed policies are zero new immigration and — more inflammatory — closure of all Mosques and a ban on the sale of the Koran in The Netherlands.
This to me is outrageous stuff, but indignation is not a strategy. The question is whether Mr Wilders and French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen are both tapping into something real or are they simply demagogues.
If Muslims fit in like all previous immigrants before them and if the children of Muslim immigrants become just like the locals, surely this opposition is simply racist?
In considering this question, I re-examined a paper I read a few years ago published by respected economists in Germany, based then on up-to-date evidence from the UK. This research suggests that Muslim immigrants could be an exception.
The Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn suggested, in a research paper “Are Muslim Immigrants different in terms of Cultural Integration?” (www.ideas.repec.org), that the evidence shows many Muslim migrants are exceptional.
This territory — as we all know — is a minefield, so let’s stay as close as possible to the data.
Using the UK Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities, the German researchers arrive at definitive, but explosive, conclusions. If these conclusions were incendiary 10 years ago, think about the political reality today.
In a nutshell, the data shows that in Britain, Muslims integrate less and considerably more slowly than non-Muslims. A Muslim born in the UK and having spent more than 50 years there, is likely to have a much stronger, separate identity than another non-Muslim immigrant who has just arrived. This includes Chinese, Caribbeans and non-Muslim Indians.
The first finding of the report, which is based on comprehensive survey data and interviews carried out in the UK, found that “Muslims do not seem to assimilate with the time spent in the UK, or at least they seem to do so at a much slower rate than non-Muslims”.
For example, 79pc of Muslims stated that religious identity was very important to them as opposed to 42pc of non-Muslims. Meanwhile, 70pc of Muslims said that they “would mind very much” if one of the family married a non-Muslim person as opposed to 37pc of other faiths.
The second finding blows a hole in one of the central economic arguments about financial progress and fitting in. Most economists, social scientists and political commentators say that integration is a matter of opportunity.
But this finding reveals that for British Muslims, “Education does not seem to have any effect on the attenuation of their identity; and job qualification, as well as living in neighbourhoods with a low unemployment rate, seem to accentuate rather than moderate the identity formation of Muslims”.
Bizarrely, therefore, the richer the area, the more “Muslim” the Muslim resident becomes.
The third observation, which is particularly interesting as it goes against the presumed wisdom, is that “for Muslims more than for non-Muslims, there is no evidence that segregated neighbourhoods breed intense religious and cultural identities”. This is relevant because it is normal to hear politicians warn (whether they mean this or not) against “creating ghettos”.
This report suggests that ghettos don’t matter in terms of affecting the extent of Muslim integration.
These findings indicate that “fitting in” isn’t always something that we can assume just happens. Granted it is just one paper and it singles out the UK, but it is fascinating and instructive. The lesson is that if we want to counter the anti-Muslim feeling whipped up by the likes of Mr Wilders and Ms Le Pen, we can’t simply be indignant or merely affronted. If Europe wants less anti-Muslim political movements, policies to encourage “fitting in” need to be the most pressing issue of the day. It also means that Muslim leaders have to be honest about whether they are playing their part in coaxing their own communities to fit in.
In the long-run this can only be beneficial for everyone, but right now the omens are not good.