The Corner

Re: The Troubling Math of Muslim Migration

I have strong misgivings about proposals, such as those that my esteemed colleague Ian Tuttle presents today, to restrict the number of Muslim immigrants and refugees in the United States. My root objection is that excluding people on the specific basis of their religion is illiberal and inconsistent with the spirit of the founding principles of this country. (Some readers will object that the Founders thought of themselves as establishing a Christian nation. This is a vexed question the plausible answer to which varies with the identity of the Founder. What I find dispositive is that the founding documents themselves eschew any endorsement of or preference toward a particular religion or creed. And apart from this textual matter, I do not think the political principles enshrined in those documents require justification in specifically Judeo-Christian terms.)

A few further points:

1. It is much better to apply extra scrutiny on the basis of political contingency as it relates specifically to the United States than it is to discriminate on the basis of religion or culture. Ian writes, for example, that “enhanced scrutiny can be applied to visa applicants from countries recognized [by the U.S.] as state sponsors of terrorism, or where terrorists are known to operate.” This is unobjectionable. Nor is there anything illiberal about scrutinizing would-be immigrants from nations engaged in hostilities with the United States. I am less willing to discriminate on the basis of a country’s fixed political procedure — for example, “shift[ing] immigration priorities toward . . . liberal democracies” — because I think that, given a suitably assimilationist political culture (see No. 2), a commitment to liberal democracy naturally arises among immigrants, and I am mindful that a great many good people have come to this country specifically to escape illiberal regimes. And “shift[ing] immigration priorities toward fellow English-speaking nations” strikes me as both illiberal on its face and premised on the false assumption that liberal democracy is an intrinsically Anglophone project. (Which is not to deny that, as a historical matter, liberal democracy has important roots in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment. Conveniently enough, the true and the good are intellectually transferrable.)

2. While it is objectionable to exclude people on the specific basis of their culture or religion, cultural cohesion, and therefore assimilation, is important. Cultural cohesion is here to be understood as a shared commitment to the political procedures and founding principles of our country, and assimilation as the acceptance of such a commitment. Assimilation accordingly need not (and it should not) entail the elimination of cultural diversity. We should, however, wish to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves consisting of populations who do not feel themselves to be part of our body politic. To the extent that new immigrant populations are not being assimilated, there is a good case for restricting immigration across the board, without respect to religion or culture (another of the proposals Ian considers). In addition, there may be, as my esteemed colleague Reihan Salam has argued, good reason to restrict low-skilled immigration irrespective of religion or culture, in part to promote the welfare of the low-skilled immigrants already here.

3. We should apply “finer tools,” as Ian puts it, before cruder ones; we should try to bandage the wound before we amputate the limb. The type of enhanced scrutiny mentioned in No. 1 is an example of one such finer tool. Another would be to apply special vigilance against organizations that promote Islamist violence, for example through zealous enforcement of laws against incitement and those against providing material support to terrorist organizations. One suspects that this would be particularly important in preventing the “ferment” of “radicalism” among “first-generation Westerners” that Ian mentions.

4. Any draconian restrictions should be supported by robust and unambiguous empirical evidence rather than intuition and anecdote. It is a truism that, if some percentage of Population X supports terrorist activity, then the number of people who support terrorist activity increases as Population X does. But I do not think Ian has successfully established that this is what is happening in the United States today. He tracks the increase in Muslim immigration, and in the Muslim population, back to 1992, but every incident of terrorism he mentions happened after September 11, 2001. Now it may be that his causal assumption is sound, and that there was simply a lag between the beginning of the Muslim-population increase and the manifestation of a consequent radicalism. But we should also consider the possibility that the number of terrorist incidents began to rise because the United States found itself in direct confrontation with the Taliban and al-Qaeda (and now with the Islamic so-called State), and because spectacular attacks and charismatic jihadists inspire imitation. (In saying this, I am not implying that we should decline to confront such groups; I see no realistic alternative to doing so.) It would still be true that the larger the population of potential jihadists, the more are the potential imitators. But it is a question of the first importance to what extent the terrorist activity Ian notes can be attributed specifically to our immigration and refugee policies. It is also relevant how much more likely an average Muslim is to commit a violent act than an average member of the non-Muslim population. The burden to answer these questions should fall on the proponent of the (illiberal) policy change, and that burden has not been met.

5. There will be a weighing of values here that empirical reasoning, no matter how robust, cannot settle. If the risk unambiguously posed by a certain immigrant population passed a certain well-defined threshold, most people, I suspect, would favor restricting that population’s increase. Most, I hope, would do so with deep regret, in acknowledgment that the world can be evil and leave one with no good choices. But our thresholds would differ, because some of us would be willing to bear a greater risk than others in order to live in a generous and inclusive society — or, to put a human face on it, in order to avoid telling a refugee of the Syrian civil war, or an impoverished, well-intentioned person of any nation who wishes to immigrate legally, “I’m sorry, but you are not welcome here because you are not an Anglophone Christian.”

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