July 07, 2008

America the Immigrant

This is a quick thought. Rereading Olivier Roy's classic on Islamic fundamentalism, Roy has a really interesting point that I don't think we think about enough. He suggests something about the nature of fundamentalism- the return to the 'fundamentals' of faith- which is incredibly interesting and makes a lot of sense. Roy argues that religion normally combines a belief with the workings of a society- religion is ultimately social, woven into the fabric of a country. Much of what we think of as traditional Christianity- the mitre of a bishop or the structure of a cathedral- is actually historically embedded within near Eastern and European culture for example. Roy argues though that the way that religious people identify with their faith changes with their conditions. Imagine for instance that you are thrust outside your local world, made to change your ideas about the way that people dress etc, you then go off and search for the fundamentals of your belief- and can be propelled in a variety of directions- amongst which fundamentalism is one attractive prospect, another is liberalism, a third is mysticism.

Lets leave aside the complexities of the situation for a moment; I think there is something interesting and basically true about Roy's observation and the way that he applies it to thinking about contemporary politics and the way that social change intersects with religious instability. But it is also an interesting thesis in another context. The difference between European and American societies at their base is quite a simple one- one that can be quickly caricatured. Europe is the land of the sedentary- life here has been the same for the last two thousand years and basically most of the people are the same as those who lived here thousands of years ago. America is the land of movement- the icons of American culture are the cowboys moving across the plains, the immigrants in their ships coming across the sea, the colonial architecture of the south and the buffalo praires of the north. Now that is a caricature which contains a lot of falsehood- but there is a certain truth to it. Americans start with a narrative of immigration- the Pilgrim Fathers for example- Europeans with a narrative of ancient history- Rome. One lives, to reverse Robert Kagan's argument, beyond history: the other is imbedded within it.

So far so conventional. But there is something else here which I think is more interesting than ruminations on European 'Greekness' and American 'Romanitas' and that is the nature of religion in the United States. We often forget that the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand were born in upheaval. Whatever comforting notions we have of immigration from 19th Century novelists like Dickens, immigration was a profoundly upsetting and disturbing experience. And that is true whether that immigration was from York to New York or New York to Utah. In the days before good communications, going meant never coming back, going meant never having contact again. In a sense what Roy describes as the impulse behind some Islamic fundamentalism today, provides us with an interesting analytical method to work out another great distinction in the modern world. Perhaps one of the reasons that America is prone to religious revival and also to fundamentalist movements, is that it is a society on the move. Few people in America live in their traditional communities and furthermore fewer even are not challenged by wider society. The process by which immigration and social disturbance forces you back upon 'pure' religion is an interesting one- and there is no reason to believe that it is more true of boys from Pakistan than of those from Peckham. American susceptibility to religious fervour might therefore in part derive from America's status as a nation of immigrants.

Of course I am going to hedge that- and I don't want anyone to believe that I mean any of these things absolutely- Americans and Europeans come in all shapes and sizes. But the two vague facts- that America is an immigrant community and that it is more religious than Europe- I don't think are unrelated. We should connect them more when we try and understand the two continents and when the two continents try and understand each other.


Vino S said...

I can see your pt. Religion does seem to give some people certainty in an uncertain world and so I can see why a country like the US, which is a nation of immigrants, might be quite keen on religion.