In 1969, my father escaped Libya in the back of a Red Cross ambulance just after Moammar Qaddafi overthrew King Idris I. Just six years old, my father, along with my aunts and grandparents, fled directly from Tripoli to Baltimore, where he lived for a year before relocating to the Chicago suburbs. My geddo (grandfather) was an Egyptian physician and public health expert whose work with the W.H.O and the U.N. took my family throughout the Middle East — Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and, of course, Libya — before my family made a home in America and naturalized. My father attended a Lutheran grade school and a Dutch Reformed high school, listened to Simon & Garfunkel records on the weekends, and eventually married my mother, whose family traces its roots to 17th-Century New England. In the span of half a generation, my Egyptian family became American.
My family history is hardly unique. Indeed, countless immigrant families like mine have successfully assimilated into American life. But this fact has taken on renewed significance as Americans begin a new battle in the culture wars, this time focused on whether to accept Afghan refugees into the United States. Several prominent figures on the right have voiced concerns about accepting such refugees.
To the degree that the claims from the nationalist right about Afghan refugees are based in arguments rather than animus — that is to say, to the degree that the nationalist right is offering arguments at all — their concerns constellate around two issues. First, they worry that the number of Afghan refugees welcomed by the United States would substantially change the makeup of the U.S. population. Charlie Kirk has claimed that our elite class intentionally allowed Afghanistan to fall, for the purpose of welcoming “hundreds of thousands” of refugees into the country; Tucker Carlson recently asserted the number of “invaders” could reach the “millions” in a decade’s time.
Not to be outdone, the American right’s latest flavor of the week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, emphatically committed to welcoming very few Afghan refugees. A second set of concerns is related to the first. Kirk is worried that the United States will welcome large numbers of not any kind of refugee, but large numbers of liberal refugees: “hundreds of thousands of Ilhan Omars,” as he so inelegantly puts it. Both of these concerns are misguided.
Let me say first, however, that many of the worries voiced by the right with respect to America’s foreign and immigration policies should be taken seriously. The United States routinely destabilizes foreign nations, destroying homes and homelands, and then welcomes victims of its devastation to live in the United States and Europe as consolation. Like many Egyptian Christians, my own family left Egypt after Nasser staged his coup and began arguing for pan-Arabism, a political movement that jeopardized the safety of minority populations throughout the Middle East and which inspired none other than Moammar Qaddafi. Nasser was assisted by the C.I.A. This pattern is perverse. It is a deviant moral compass which insists upon repeatedly welcoming strangers into one’s home after destroying theirs.
American conservatives are also not wrong in principle to be concerned about welcoming too many foreign nationals into the country at a given time. The particular character of a nation — its culture, its history, and its common way of life — is a good worth preserving, not merely because national character is a constitutive element of any nation, but also because a true national character is the very good into which immigrants assimilate. A nation with no unitary character ceases to be a nation at all, becoming instead merely an agglomeration of individuals with no common life. To the degree that the United States still manages to constitute a single nation, this kind of concern must be reckoned with.
But neither of the concerns voiced by the nationalist right is relevant here, first because the refugee crisis in Afghanistan has been precipitated by the very foreign policy for which the right routinely advocated under President Trump — “getting out” of our regime-change wars — and second because the fears about the number and character of refugees dramatically misunderstands the significance of the proposed resettlement and the political values of recent immigrants.
To put the matter bluntly: the number of refugees welcomed into a given nation is immaterial; what matters is the percentage of the population the refugees will constitute. One hundred thousand refugees resettling in, say, Hungary, a nation of ten million, means something quite different than that same number resettling in the United States, a nation thirty three times as large. To put the particular question of immigration from the Middle East in perspective, there are already three million Arab Americans here, and together they constitute less than one percent of the population; the United States, it bears noting, is currently planning to accept 30,000 Afghan refugees. This is a particularly small number when compared to the more than 300,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia accepted in the aftermath of the failed war in Vietnam. The notion that, as Senate hopeful J.D. Vance recently put it, allowing Afghan refugees to come to the United States would somehow “destroy our own sovereignty” is sheer fantasy, to say nothing of his insinuation that Afghans who helped the United States may well want to “blow themselves up in a mall because someone looked at their wife the wrong way.”
Whether or not the conservative political class grants in the abstract that tens of thousands Middle Easterners resettling in the United States have not precipitated a national crisis, they grant it in practice. When was the last time Tucker Carlson did a television segment on the threat posed by Iraqi or Egyptian immigrants already living in the United States? These two populations constitute the largest and second-largest groups of foreign-born Middle Eastern immigrants, respectively, the former numbering over 200,000 people and the latter numbering in the high 100,000s. But they are hardly noticed. Why?
In part, because even these apparently large numbers are miniscule as percentages of the American population, and in part because America assimilates first- and second-generation immigrants remarkably well, culturally and ethnically. Data on this are hard to come by, but the population of Arab Americans who identified as possessing non-Arab ancestry numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the year 2000 and has no doubt increased since. Of my own family members, my father, all of my aunts, and all of their cousins have married non-Egyptian Americans.
But conservatives like Kirk are also entirely mistaken in their second worry: Middle Eastern immigrants do not all vote like liberals. In fact, the majority of Iraqis and Egyptians living in the United States are Christians, and like so many devout Christians, they vote conservative. To give one stark example of this, in one of the biggest upsets of the 2016 election, Trump won the state of Michigan by roughly 10,000 votes. Iraqi Chaldean Christians constitute about 80,000 of Michigan’s votes, and Trump won the vast majority of them. Iraqis won Michigan for Trump. (Of course, in a wicked irony, Trump then began deporting Iraqi Christians in unprecedented numbers until he belatedly realized that this was bad politics).
But lest I be misunderstood as suggesting that the right should be friendly to refugees because the right will benefit electorally, my concerns run much deeper. Sean Davis, the co-founder of The Federalist — a publication which, I am told, some people read — recently claimed that the United States should not resettle Afghan refugees who helped us during the war here; instead, we should move them to “countries that are aligned with their cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions,” because letting in unvetted Middle Easterners led to 9/11.
Put aside the utter stupidity of the statement — as though the United States could convince Afghan Pashtuns to risk their lives by promising them free tickets to northwest Pakistan — and ignore the non-sequitur. Focus upon the implicit logic: culture, religious values, and linguistic traditions are gulfs which cannot be bridged, not even by those who risked their lives to serve the United States. Assimilation is impossible. If this is right, what are we to make of Middle Easterners who are here already? In short, the anti-Afghan rhetoric coming from the American right, like the anti-Syrian rhetoric before it, implicitly separates Middle Eastern and North African populations which are already here from mainstream American society.
No doubt, this rhetoric will further inflame ethnic divisions while simultaneously creating the cultural, religious, and linguistic gulfs it posits already exist. If immigrants are given the choice of forfeiting their culture and language —inherited from their ancestors — and getting to become second-class Americans, or keeping their culture and language and getting to become second-class Americans, they will choose the latter. Making assimilation an attractive proposition requires holding out the possibility of true belonging. Thus, to the degree that conservative rhetoric implicitly or explicitly forecloses the possibility that immigrants might one day fully belong, to the degree that conservatives reify ethnic and cultural and linguistic differences, they are making assimilation, and thus national cohesion, less appealing to immigrants already here.
My father has never made much of the fact that he is Egyptian. He is American through and through, with American tastes, an American childhood, and American political sensibilities. He wrote for his high school newspaper, rode dirt bikes and shot BB guns, and was a hobbyist photographer for a time; he didn’t even think it important that his children learn Arabic. My sister and I had a remarkably different experience. After 9/11, we were regularly subjected to jokes and bullying on account of our heritage, reinforcing our ethnic difference; after 9/11, members of my extended family, who had previously seen no conflict between their Egyptian heritage and patriotic American citizenship, ceased speaking Arabic in public.
What is the net effect of such small but deeply felt changes in the social standing of Middle Easterners? What is the net effect of an American right which engages in regular fearmongering about people from the region my family comes from? Of course, I can speak only for myself: by reinforcing my difference, the American right is becoming an agent of my alienation. As a patriotic American, my father has always viewed his assimilation as both successful and a great good. I am no longer so sure. Is that what conservatives want?
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- Hugh Wilford, America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, 1st edition (Basic Books, 2017), 135-139 ↑