For a future bigger than our past

17 June 2008

Probably no phenomenon today is more global in reach than the mass migration of people. When I say "global", I am not measuring by simple distance. I am measuring by daily impact.

Whether individuals may cross borders safely, permanently and with dignity is affecting everything from how quickly you can find a doctor, to how hard you must work for a university place, to how much you are paying for an apartment, to how soon a fast food franchise will appear near your apartment. Migration is the human heart of ‘globalisation' - the movement of people, technology, money and, inevitably, cultural influence.

Exporting attitudes

This year, we are witnessing globalisation accelerate in a weird way. It is not just that American culture is invading European life. Rather, Europe is exporting its attitudes to America - at least when it comes to immigration.

Irshad Manji, a scholar with the European Foundation for Democracy, directs the Moral Courage Project at New York University.US presidential nominees are debating whether to keep out the very people whom the Statue of Liberty proclaims she wants: the poor and the tired. Historically, America has loved its wretched, starving newcomers. They have been the only ones desperate enough to believe in the American dream. By believing in it, many have indeed achieved it.

However, these potential millionaires pose a political problem. They may be tired, but they still have the energy to toil twenty hours a day for little pay. To America's bloated middle class, that is a threat. While the unions complain that immigrants are undercutting wages, the non-unionized charge that immigrants are stealing jobs from "real Americans". Ethnicity creeps into economics and makes for a very European fear of the future.

Still, globalisation distributes power in several directions. Which means immigrants are fighting back. Be they Mexicans in the US or Moroccans in the EU, I already hear them expressing a message of defiance:

You need us as much as we need you! When we are allowed to work legally, we can pay our taxes. We can finance social assistance, hospital beds and pensions - all the things that you first-world types need because of your own low birthrates, aging populations and expectations of material comfort.

In short, our contract with you is to keep the welfare state intact without losing our sense of self. If you recognized all that we can contribute, then we would not have to express rage at a society that demonizes us. For your own sake, give us jobs instead of grief.

I sympathize with this argument, even as I recognize that Muslim communities in Britain, France and elsewhere have internal problems to combat.

A future bigger than our past

My sympathy stems from the fact that I am a refugee to Canada. With my family, I fled Idi Amin's Uganda in 1972, settling in Vancouver. Throughout childhood, I watched my mother sweat for the next dollar and delay gratification - to the point where my sisters and I spent every Christmas vacation alone because mum, a manual labourer, earned double the wages during those "holiday" weeks. She slaved and saved so that we would have to do neither. Mum taught us the dignity of making our future bigger than our past.

This article forms part of MigrantVoice on refuge, a special project celebrating UK Refugee Week 2008.

Have your say on our multiauthored blog, bringing unheard voices to the forefront of the debate.

Also in openDemocracy: Philippe Legrain, "Open Britain"

Mamphela Ramphele, "The rainbow nation's lesson"

Hsiao-Hung Pai, "Chinese migrant workers: lives in shadow"

Brian K Murphy, "Open borders, global future"To be honest, I am not sure I would have absorbed that message had I been raised in western Europe, where family lineage often matters more than personal initiative. Where one comes from too frequently outweighs where one would like to go. No wonder successive generations of Muslim labourers who have been living in continental Europe continue to be called immigrants, despite being bona fide citizens.

In North America, the opposite is typically true. What makes somebody belong is not so much her skin colour or faith as her willingness to compete and accomplish. To be sure, many African-Americans and Aboriginal people would disagree. Yet many more Asians would agree. Just ask the Indian and Chinese newcomers who comprised one-third of Silicon Valley's scientists and engineers during the 1990s technology boom.

Fast forward ten years later. As incredible as it sounds in the era of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay, dozens of young Muslims in Britain have whispered to me that they would rather live in America because of how it treats social status. There, they say, you do not have to be born into status; you can still earn it. You are not merely a Muslim; you have the opportunity to create and re-create yourself. What I hear them articulating is the difference between being an identity protectionist and being an identity entrepreneur.

The key to dignity

Such romantic perceptions of America appear to be shared by Muslims who actually live there: a 2007 Pew research survey of Muslim Americans showed that the vast majority love their communities, have close non-Muslim friends and have not experienced anything they would call discrimination on US soil. One can only dream of such findings in the United Kingdom and across the English Channel.

If earning your keep is the key to dignity, then Europe will soon understand that egalitarianism is the wrong ideal for both immigrants and their host societies. Egalitarianism is a fancy word for equality of result. While equality of result sounds compassionate, it is only a shortcut to compassion.

On a recent visit to Copenhagen, I repeatedly heard the joke that "our borders are closed but our coffers are open". Denmark's unions have managed to stop immigrants from entering certain trades so that workers can preserve their high incomes. But in an egalitarian gesture, union leaders convinced the Danish government to give skilled, unemployed immigrants almost the same amount of money that workers are earning. That way, they assumed, discrimination would be avoided.

It turns out that egalitarianism itself is fuelling discrimination. Young, jobless Muslims tend to feel stripped of their ambition. Employers have not developed an incentive to take them seriously. In 2006, the Democratic Muslims of Denmark formed to fight radical Islam. They do more than denounce reactionary imams. Among their strategies is to organize career fairs for Muslim youth who need hope.

Perhaps the United States and western Europe should take a hint from the old Islamic empire. Between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, Muslim civilization led the world in innovation precisely because it engaged the imagination of outsiders. The harvest? Several hundred years of creativity in agriculture, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, commerce, maths, even fashion. It is when the empire became insular to ‘protect' itself that the motivation to remain robust, and the talent to do so, disappeared.

That is why my heart breaks at the growing Europeanization of the US. I gladly acknowledge that Americans have much to learn from their European cousins on issues such as women's rights and the environment. But if some US presidential aspirants are going to tell foreign arrivals that they cannot work hard and stand tall, then they should send America's most enduring immigrant, the Statue of Liberty, back to her native land. France, like much of Europe, could use some of her spirit over the coming years.

This article was published in March, 2008, in Talking Transatlantic, a series of essays on the current relationship between Europe and North America, combined with new research exploring the attitudes of young people in both continents towards the future of the transatlantic relationship. Transatlantic Network 2020 brings together young professionals from both sides of the Atlantic address tomorrow's global issues.

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