A Glimpse Inside ‘The Immigrant Mind’

Luma Simms | April 5, 2017

Our country accepts a diverse immigrant population. Expats come to America from a variety of religious and sociological backgrounds. And they come already conditioned by the political philosophy of their homeland. Some immigrants grew up in the same type of civilization as ours – a Western society that to one degree or another (albeit imperfectly) has espoused the democratic project.

Other immigrants – like myself – who have crossed a civilizational boundary as well as a national border come from nations that may at best be ambivalent toward democracy, and at worse antagonistic to it. We cannot assume that what drives immigration is merely a revulsion to antidemocratic climates and philosophies, or a thirst for liberty as our founders conceived it. Immigrants do not fully abandon their previous lives on our shore, and part of what they bring is a set of presuppositions about political, religious and state power. One thing is evident from our current cultural and political discussions: Unlike the immigrants of yesteryear, today’s expats as a whole are not seen to be assimilating and integrating into a unified American society.

Many will agree that America has an immigration and assimilation problem. The dual topics of Mexican and Muslim Middle-Eastern immigration were among the top issues in the 2016 election season, and as President Donald Trump assumes his duties, they are proving to be lightning rods. But for all the talk – on the refugee crisis, stronger border control and a tighter vetting process – the religion of incoming immigrants, we are told by so many, is not a matter for discussion. It is irrelevant, declare those who desire no boundaries. There can be no religious litmus test, cry those who believe that there is some inherent right to come to America. It is off limits, the media says.

The prospect that a religion like Islam, adhered to by one quarter of the world, could be a marker warranting extra scrutiny is anathema to sophisticated modern Westerners. Few are willing to admit that religion may play a crucial role in successful immigration and assimilation into American culture and civic life, and pundits who do assert such a role tend to undermine the success of their argument through their coarse demagoguery.

Immigration and assimilation are complex human experiences. For too long journalists and scholars have looked to statistics and policy. And those have their place in this discussion. What is needed is an examination of this phenomenon from the internal perspective of persons who have lived it: immigrants.

We must understand the immigrant mind for the sake of the people who live through this experience and for the future safety and stability of our country. We need to understand immigration and assimilation from the philosophical and anthropological experience of immigrants – not only as a subject of statistical inquiry with charts and numbers, as valuable as those are.

This is the first column of a long exploration of these issues on the immigrant mind. During the coming months, we will delve into such questions as: how an immigrant’s civilizational background affects his or her assimilation into American civic life and culture; how immigrants who bring with them a reliance on, and material expectation from, the government are shaping our society and political system; the role of religion in assimilation into a secular American society; and America’s duty and responsibility to demand a certain level of assimilation.

Although some faithful readers know my story well by now, I would like to give a quick autobiographical summary to the new readers, especially as I begin The Immigrant Mind column here at The Philos Project.

I was born in Baghdad, Iraq, but my ancestors were Christians from Mosul. I was brought to America as a child by my parents – refugees seeking asylum – in 1978. We fled the ascendant Ba’ath party shortly before Saddam Hussein took full power. With the Iran hostage crisis erupting mere months after we arrived in America, my father found that one of his most frequent exercises of the English language was making skeptical Americans whom we met aware of the distinction between Iraq and Iran. We weren’t enemies of America; we weren’t hostile to America; we were Americans.

The changes an immigrant must make are more than modifications of thought and behavior. True internal assimilation to a foreign culture is epistemological; it requires me to change how I think about what I think, and how I think about my behavior. Deeply held cultural ideas fare differently in these circumstances. Some are easily abandoned. Some continue to be held with varying degrees of comfort and malleability, and some remain in rigid tension with the surrounding environment.

It is from the realm of religion that these ideas tend to originate, and therefore the religion of the immigrant is crucial in that it shapes how and to what extent that individual assimilates. This may sound odd to the ears of people living in a secular, pluralistic country in which religion is relegated to private exercise, but it is not so for many people who come from traditional backgrounds and countries where religion has to do with every aspect of life.

In the weeks and months ahead we will come at the topic of immigration from many angles. We will ask and attempt to answer such questions as: How and what an immigrant thinks about the American Proposition, the role of government, free enterprise, and politics. How and what an immigrant thinks about marriage and family and their deterioration in our society. How Arab immigrants and those in the Arab world understand the nation-state, secularization and Westernization. How an immigrant sees his self identity and how he or she relates to the national identity.

We don’t need to think of immigration and immigrants as a problem best left in the domain of public policy wonks and politicians. I am an immigrant, and even if you the reader are not, you likely know immigrants as neighbors, at work, or your places of worship. I invite you to come and become acquainted with the immigrant mind.