No Default Setting

Yesterday on NPR’s “All Things Considered” there was the first part in a continuing series, “Understanding the Veil in Islam, Western Societies.” The report used as its jumping-off point a Detroit Muslim woman whose small-claims case a judge refused to hear when the woman would not remove her veil in his presence; similar controversies have occurred recently in France and in the United Kingdom.

As the NPR piece points out, there are many factors at work here, not least of which is the recent increase in hostile feelings and actions between the Muslim and Western worlds. But at base, this is a very basic outgrowth of the Four or Five Americas (or Britains; or Frances). In the past, (e.g., late-19th- and early-20th-C.) there was a relatively strong national consensus not only on the idea that immigrants to the United States ought to assimilate – to “become American” – but also and most importantly on the idea that American was a single thing which they could become [yes, many minority groups were excluded from this consensus – blacks and Asians especially – but it was a strong and overwhelming consensus nonetheless]. The establishment of universal public schooling in the United States was largely an exercise in reinforcing this idea of Americanness.

For immigrants and outsiders, it was easy to point to what it meant to be an American, and there was substantial social pressure – both from non-immigrant Americans and also within immigrant communities – to conform to these standards.

Now, there is no single American identity but rather many, which operate in isolation and combination; which exclude and overlap; which are interchangeable and infinitely re-define-able.  And that’s great.

But it’s also not so much a problem as problematic for contemporary immigrant communities. There are pressures for conformity with their new nation, but no clear single identity with which to conform, and in fact competing and contradictory signals on this count; and at the same time, the immigrants themselves are more able than ever to maintain contact with their home countries and cultures.

There’s no satisfying “what to do” answer here, only more questions, but questions worth asking. The NPR series I mentioned at the outset will be continuing all week on “All Things Considered,” and I recommend checking it out, as it’s a rare instance of a major media outlet actually asking these questions.

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