The July 7 London bombings were followed by the failed bombings of July 21, and who knows what other surprises between the time these words go to press and the time they appear in print. A poll for the Daily Telegraph found that, while 88 percent of British Muslims condemned the bombings, 6 percent found them justified. As the Telegraph pointed out, “Six percent may seem a small proportion but in absolute numbers it amounts to about 100,000 individuals.”
The pollsters also asked Muslims what they thought about Western society. Fifty-six percent were reasonably content with it: “Western society may not be perfect but Muslims should live with it and not seek to bring it to an end.” But 32 percent said: “Western society is decadent and immoral and … Muslims should seek to bring it to an end.”
What explains these numbers? What do the Muslims who live in the West get from it—not just in Britain but here?
In a famous unpatriotic essay (“On Being an American”), H.L. Mencken said that some people live here “because it pays better wages than Bulgaria.” That is an ancient and honorable reason for being an American. Millions of Europeans came fleeing poverty or famine, or thinking (wrongly at first, maybe correctly in the long run) that the streets were paved with gold. Muslim cabbies and deli owners repeat the process today.
Mencken also said that another class of immigrant comes here because there is a warrant out for them somewhere else. The first American Brookhiser arrived about 1850. I know almost nothing of this ancestor beyond his name, and the odds are that he jumped continents for some mundane reason. But suppose he had been implicated in the failed German revolution of 1848? Similarly, if you had been living in Saddam’s Iraq, wouldn’t you have preferred to live in Dearborn if you could? All such newcomers appreciate an American result—prosperity, liberty—though they do not necessarily understand or honor the processes that produced it. Their bodies have come here, but their hearts and minds have yet to clear customs.
Another thing immigrants find here is a test: the daily shock of the new, of manners and mores different from the old country’s. Things may be better here, but they’re better because they’re different. We may not have the landlord or the Cossack, but we also don’t have the all-embracing village or shtetl. Some neighbors worship strange gods; some worship none. Everybody has sex with the same equipment, but the preliminaries and the consequences are different.
Immigrants respond in various ways. Some wrap themselves in cultural cocoons: Amish buggies, Hasidic hats, the Little Italy social clubs satirized by Marlon Brando’s character in The Freshman (he disarmingly explained that the poster of Mussolini hanging on the wall was just for old times’ sake). Some vanish into the blender of assimilation. Most, at some point in their family’s history, create a hybrid identity, similar to their old selves, but also new. Sometimes the most obvious sign of the hybrid identity’s newness is the self-consciousness of its oldness. When your T-shirt says “Kiss Me I’m Irish,” you no longer really are. If it says “Kiss My Royal Irish Arse,” it’s closer to the spirit of the old country, but putting it on a T-shirt is an innovation. Alternatively, the most obvious sign of the hybrid identity’s oldness may be the self-consciousness of its newness. Think of all the second-generation Jewish Communists who embraced folk music in the middle of the last century. Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra were at the top of their games; who wanted to listen to Leadbelly? The Communists did, because they wanted to reach out to the heart of America—in the proper dialectical fashion.
Sometimes the hybrid identity is an attack on the host body: an assault on the environment that has, in part, shaped it. Radical politics, to the extent it was an ethnic enterprise, was one such attack-hybrid; so are ethnic criminal gangs. In Britain—and, one hopes, to a lesser extent here—we are facing the jihadists of the Muslim diaspora. Money and inspiration come from the old country (though some of the jihadist ideologues, from the Egyptian Sayid Qutb to Osama bin Laden, had experience of the West). Recruiters seek foot soldiers in the Muslim communities, transient or immigrant, of Hamburg or London or New York.
America welcomes assimilation; it has always dealt successfully with hybrids and cocoon-dwellers. Attack-hybrids must be crushed. The fundamental law—before the Constitution, before the Declaration of Independence—is the old Roman law: Salus populi suprema est lex. The welfare of the people is the supreme law.
But who, an immigrant might ask, are the American people? Most of them are white Christian English-speakers, but they are not defined by race, religion or language. We became a country when we declared independence. Why? To defend our liberties. To do what? To pursue happiness. Where? Here the discussion fans out, losing its bumper-sticker punch. We are, it seems, the provisional people: the people not yet made, but making themselves every generation, every day.
What is there for a Muslim in that? To a certain kind of religious mind, the American experience seems like chaos and old night, tohu bohu. Isaac Singer wrote a story describing some Orthodox refugee wandering in Times Square, surrounded by nauseating food and naked women. This was in the 1940’s. What would that man think now, even after Giuliani and Disney?
But this kind of religious mind is not mindful of the history of religions that have seen a little wear and tear. The destruction of the Temple and the fall of Rome taught that God’s kingdom is not of this world, or cannot return except by divine act. The internecine feuds of the caliphs suggest a similar lesson. God’s kingdom is in a different place—in each believer. There is God’s throne; the pursuit of happiness is the antechamber. Poor God: He lost all that real estate. But He seems content with the exchange.