DUBLIN, IRELAND—As the man who hopes to become prime minister of the United Kingdom spoke recently about the American model of immigrant assimilation, you could almost feel the sneer.
“We don’t do flags on lawns,” said David Cameron, head of Britain’s Conservative Party.
The Tory leader’s remark was just the latest manifestation of a common European conceit—that America’s hopelessly crude and gauche ways are no match for the sophistication and nuance that characterize civic life on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
But as the problem of immigrant—especially Muslim—alienation continues to roil both the U.K. and its continental neighbors, Mr. Cameron and his ilk would be well advised to look at America with less-jaundiced eyes.
Europeans have traditionally been rather too pleased with themselves when it comes to immigration.
Back in 1966, the then British Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, laid out in lofty terms the principle that would guide his nation’s policy. In a not-so-subtle jab at the idea of the American melting pot, Jenkins said that rather than a “flattening process of assimilation,” the U.K. would seek a model of “equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.”
Just last week, as Washington debated a massive new immigration bill, the head of the Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism and Intolerance hailed the continent’s supposed history of openness and magnanimity, even as she worried that this was being eroded.
“Europe is built on values like taking a humanitarian approach, tolerance,” said Eva Smith-Asmussen. “To accept other people and other values is an old, old European virtue.”
Is it? The past century saw the continent torn apart by ethnic turmoils on scales vast (the Holocaust), large (the wars in the former Yugoslavia) and small (Northern Ireland).
Even focusing solely on immigration, the European body politic has always had its share of well-supported nativists.
France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen was famously voted into a two-man run-off for his nation’s presidency in 2002. In the U.K., the far-right British National Party has increasingly become a force in local government, capitalizing on the same fears that Enoch Powell—then a shadow cabinet minister—tapped into almost 40 years ago in what became known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.
(Mr. Powell, an ardent opponent of large-scale immigration, a former classics professor and a man rarely found wanting when it came to vividness of language, said in 1968 that when he contemplated the idea of a multicultural Britain, “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”)
The largely immigrant-led riots that convulsed France in 2005 and the British-raised Islamists whose bombs killed 52 people in London the same year belatedly shook some in Europe out of their complacency.
A Pew Research Center report released last week provided compelling evidence of the superiority of the American model of integration. “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream” was billed as the most exhaustive research yet undertaken of the Muslim-American community.
“The news overall is overwhelmingly positive,” said Farid Senzai, an advisor to the survey. “The Muslim community here is less ghettoized than in Europe.”