443. "Immigrants Can Belong and Be Themselves" International Herald Tribune (January 2, 2004) p. 6.


The recent fuss about headscarves that pupils may not wear (in France), and that teachers (in Germany) and court clerks (in Holland) -- after years of deliberations -- may finally wear, reminds me of a tale divorce lawyers are fond of repeating. Often, when a couple has reached an agreement after long and painful negotiations, all hell breaks loose over who will get some item of limited importance, like a tea kettle. It becomes the vessel in which all the festering resentment is invested. Similarly, headscarves are chiefly the vessel of a profound struggle over the future character of Europe, as well as similar struggles in many other societies, from Japan to Canada.

What is revealed in the conflict over the headscarves is the feeling among Europeans that the essence of their identity, moral culture and tradition is assailed by immigrants.

A group of academics, public officials and others from across Europe, in discussions where I served as chairman, formulated a new approach to this problem. We called it diversity within unity. It is best illustrated by the image of a mosaic, which has pieces of different shapes and colors but also a shared framework that may itself be reordered. There are some basics that should be viewed as sacrosanct, but other cultural and social differences should be not just tolerated but welcomed as enriching.

The nervousness of European majorities is not hard to understand. When several families from a faraway land move in next door, they give the neighbors pause. There is no sense in denying that many immigrants treat women and children, the law, and much else in ways we find troubling. Some of that conduct is not just different, but wrong.

Under the framework of diversity within unity, immigrants who wish to become members of European national communities (or the European Union, for that matter) must accept certain basics. They must be willing to respect human rights, the democratic form of government and the law; learn the prevailing languages; and accept both the glory and the burdens of existing national histories.

But assimilation in its pure form, demanding that immigrants become indistinguishable from the rest of society, is unnecessarily homogenizing. If immigrants buy into the basics, there is no reason to protest if they eat and dance differently or pray to different gods. In reality, as anybody benefiting from the much improved cuisine in London over the last generation will tell you, these differences can make for improvement.

At the same time, we supporters of diversity within unity utterly reject the multicultural notion that we should abolish societal identities to accommodate the sensibilities of the newcomers.

No society can flourish unless it has some shared values; nor is there any reason to hold that the human rights that we insist must be respected by people all over the world could be ignored in our inner cities, or that the democratic way of life could be treated as one option among many.

The diversity within unity position has these specific policy implications.

* Ideally, all children should attend public schools, to ensure that they all will be introduced to the same core of shared values and that children of different backgrounds will mingle. At the same time, children should be allowed electives -- amounting to, say, 15 percent of the curriculum -- in which they could learn more about their cultures of origin, the languages of their parents and even their religion, as long as the teachers are fully qualified and chosen by educational authorities, not by fundamentalists.

However, since in several countries there are many private schools, as well as Catholic and Jewish schools (to which Muslim schools have now been added), a second-best approach must be considered. This requires that children of such schools regularly participate in activities with children of other schools, for instance, in sporting events or community service. And, above all, the state must maintain close supervision of curricula to verify that shared values are taught and that such schools are not turned into seedbeds of hatred against society.

* Immigrants should not be given citizenship automatically, but should be expected to complete tests that determine whether they have acquired a reasonable command of the host society's language or languages, knowledge of its core culture and familiarity with its institutions.

* Immigrants should be given a limited period in which they are exempt from full adherence to certain laws, such as workplace safety rules in their small shops and businesses, child labor laws and some public health requirements. During that period, they should be aided in learning the laws of their new land and adjusting to them. At the end of, say, seven years, they should be expected to abide fully by all laws.

* There should be no official state religion. We prefer this position over one that tries to establish all religions, whereby state coffers are used to fund all religious functionaries and official functions are opened with a rainbow of prayers and rituals.

Unity in this matter is best left to informal understandings. Many states used to insist on Sunday as the day of rest but have accepted over time that a shopkeeper may close on some other day of the week, depending on religious affiliation. Nonetheless, Sunday has maintained a special informal status that allows the majority to feel that they have not lost "their" day.

One may well differ on the details, and much remains to be worked out. But the underlying approach -- reassuring the majority that immigrants will be expected to respect the basics and insisting that there is no reason under this approach to oppose the fact that immigrants will diverge on other matters -- seems to be a sound one. Indeed, it works well in the society that Europeans love to criticize but that is clearly way ahead in this matter, the United States.

Ah, I almost forgot about the headscarves. Unity within schools could be easily provided if all children wore uniforms with a small national -- or European Union -- emblem, in addition to any article of religious symbolism, if the children choose one. The notion that such token expressions would offend others will exist only as long as the underlying issues remain unresolved.


Amitai Etzioni is the author most recently of "My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message." For the full statement of the group supporting diversity within unity and the names of those who have endorsed it, see www.gwu.edu/~ccps/dwu_endorse.html.

 

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