Tony Gutierrez / AP

Why should American Muslims have to assimilate?

Some cultures in the US have been allowed to remain distinct, so why the double standard?

January 28, 2015 2:00AM ET

European no-go zones that non-Muslims may not enter have made headlines recently, despite the inconvenient fact that they don’t exist. Because of an overwhelming and unexpected reaction from France and England in particular, Fox News issued an apology for letting anchors and guests repeatedly discuss such zones. Yet there are those who refuse to back down. Case in point: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential Republican presidential candidate.

In an interview with CNN, he reiterated a point that others on the right have recently made (and that some on the left, such as Bill Maher, appear to agree with):

The huge issue with nonassimilation is the fact that people want to come to our country but not adopt our values — in some cases, not adopt our language, in some cases, want to set apart their own enclaves and continue to hold on to their own values. I think it is dangerous in America and it’s dangerous in Europe.

The comments came on the heels of a speech he gave in London in which he said that nonassimilationist Muslims “carry out as much of Sharia law as they can without regard for the laws of the democratic countries which provided them a new home.”

Such arguments are grossly misleading. Enclaves tend to form because immigrants of lower socioeconomic status don’t have the tools to adapt to a new culture and seek the comfort of the familiar, not because they want to consciously threaten mainstream culture. History shows that with time, enclaves often collapse. Just as important, religion-based nonassimilation has been allowed to flourish in pockets in the United States, sometimes buttressed by the First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion. So why the double standard?

After all, according to an article by Rachel Aviv in The New Yorker, Hasidic Jews in New York City have long been given much leeway. “In exchange for the community’s loyalty, politicians have given Brooklyn’s Hasidim wide latitude to police themselves,” she wrote. “They have their own emergency medical corps, a security patrol and a rabbinic court system, which often handles criminal allegations.”

A New York Times article published in November noted the extent to which Hasidic children’s learning deviated from what is taught in public schools: “Boys in elementary and middle school study religious subjects from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. followed by approximately 90 minutes of English and math. At 13, when boys formally enter yeshiva, most stop receiving any English instruction.”

The subject of the article, Naftuli Moster, an activist trying to bring systemic change to education in Hasidic communities, said that in his yeshiva, English, math and science were considered profane. It is not surprising that many come out of school with a limited grasp of English.

New York state law requires that all schools have curriculums that are equivalent to public schools’, yet schools in the Hasidic community are allowed to get away with completely divergent teaching. 

The haranguing attitudes of Gov. Bobby Jindal and his ilk are alienating the very populations they accuse of not integrating.

The Hasidic community is not alone. A 1972 Supreme Court ruling exempts Amish children from mandatory schooling after the eighth grade, on the grounds that schooling infringed on their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs and, as then–Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote, exposed “Amish children to worldly influences in terms of attitudes, goals and values contrary to beliefs.”

The Affordable Care Act exempts certain Amish and Mennonite religious orders from having to purchase health insurance, which is tied to the fact that they are also exempted from having to pay Social Security tax.

In 48 states, children can be exempted from vaccinations on the basis of their parents’ religious beliefs. This despite the fact that, according to one study, unvaccinated kids are 35 times more likely to contract measles and are at higher risk for getting whooping cough.

Given these exceptions, far from adopting a blanket critical view toward nonassimilation, would-be critics should first analyze its outcomes. The Amish take care of their old and sick, and so the health insurance and Social Security exemptions they receive may be reasonable. There is arguably less justification for depriving kids of a solid education simply because of their parents’ beliefs — particularly in a country that promises no child will be left behind.

The truth is that Muslims in the U.S. are fairly well assimilated. In a recent article, “Islamic, yet integrated,” The Economist cited a 2011 Pew Research Center report that found that Muslims in the U.S. came from at least 77 countries. “Mixing breeds tolerance,” the article stated. “Most American Muslims think that their faith is open to multiple interpretations.”

Overall, household income for Muslims is comparable with other Americans’, and some Muslim communities, such as the Bangladeshi diaspora, are better educated and earn more than the general U.S. population.

This is not to say that each and every Muslim in the U.S. is a fully assimilated part of American culture. There is a small percentage of American Muslims who sympathize with extremists. But the question Americans should ask is, “While safeguards have been put in place to guard against Islamic extremists, how must the vast majority of Muslims be regarded?”

Last year a boy who had just arrived from Baghdad and couldn’t speak English enrolled in my son’s school. The class teacher requested two kids to come forward and help him navigate the cafeteria and playground. She found a website that translated words from English to Arabic so she could communicate with him at a basic level. Meanwhile, he enrolled in English classes for speakers of other languages. Within a matter of weeks, he was able to understand others, and within months, he had adapted to school life.

When it comes to facilitating assimilation, I would wager this sort of supportive approach is preferable to the haranguing attitude and double standards of Jindal and his ilk, who are possibly alienating the very populations they accuse of not integrating. 

Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based writer whose work has also appeared in The GuardianThe New York TimesThe Washingtonian, Reuters, Vice and The Baltimore Sun.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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