So this past weekend, I had the chance to attend the annual conference of the American Academy of Religions. The AAR is probably the largest American academic association for the study of religion and theology, and at least according to one person I spoke to, the annual conference was attended by ten thousand people. As my first AAR, it was . . . a bit overwhelming.
I mostly attended the study of Islam panels (not surprisingly), and one of the themes that arose over and over again was the issue of combating Islamophobia, and what role ‘we’ as academics should play in that fight. The general consensus was that there has been an active attempt to villainize Islam and Muslims, an attempt that originates in conservative thinktanks and is disseminated through anti-Islam blogs and websites. There’s a pretty scary account of this process, produced by the Center for American Progress, entitled not-at-all-controversially ‘Fear, Inc‘.
The question of how academics should respond to this misinformation figured large in many discussions last weekend. In one such discussion, I also learned that puppies can serve as an effective draw for garnering people’s interest. So I say to you now, if you read to the end of this post, there will be puppies. Adorable puppies.
Apparently the growing concern among proponents of this system of misinformation is ‘culturism‘ (which is, evidently, now a word). ’Culturism’ is understood by its defenders as the opposite of ‘multi-culturalism’ (I suppose they couldn’t use ‘culturalism‘ because that’s already a kind of methodological criticism). The argument is that Islam represents a unique threat to America because Muslim culture is inherently in conflict with American culture, and it’s for this reason that it needs to be regulated and controlled in the United States. Sadly, this argument has already started to be internalized by the Muslim-American community – I also heard several discussions coming from Muslims that only fully acculturated Muslims should be allowed to speak for the community, and not fresh-off-the-boat immigrants or even members of the large, semi-acculturated ‘ethnic towns’ around the country.
I’m sorry if the supporters of ‘culturism’ think they’ve come up with an original idea, but in fact, these claims are nearly as old as the United States. They just used to be called ‘nativism‘. The first nativist movements developed in the mid-nineteenth century, and made the same basic claims, that although America’s population relied on immigration, it should only draw immigrants from particular countries, because some communities were simply too foreign to ever become American.
The problem is that the nativists were wrong, and so are the culturists. The basic theory of acculturation is that, when a dominate and a subordinated culture meet, the subordinated culture must either rebel or be subsumed by the dominate culture. However, in reality, that almost never happens. The reality is almost always a blending of the two cultures.
Want proof? The best proof comes, believe it or not, from food. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the United States who didn’t know what the following are: corned beef, pizza, sauerkraut, pastrami, tacos, sushi and chow mein. All of these foods come from cultures that were deemed ‘too foreign’ to be American – the Irish, Italians and most Eastern Europeans because they were Catholic, the Jews, the Germans, particularly after World War I, and pretty much everyone from Asia and Central and South America.
Not only did those communities become American, but they didn’t have to give up everything of their ‘old world’ cutlure to do it – America adopted elements of their culture, as well. What’s more, there are also examples of distinct mixings of both cultures – chop suey, Margaritas, hot dogs, these are distinctly American foods, invented in America using ‘old world’ ingredients.
The beauty of our nation is that we can accept everyone – there’s no one so foreign that they can’t become part of America, and there’s no culture so foreign that we don’t want some element of it for our own. The culturists have it wrong – multi-culturalism isn’t something that was forced on us, an artificial system that might burst at any moment. It’s the fundamental nature of our country, it defines every aspect of our life. Falafel and hummus are as American as spaghetti, brautwurst, rye bread and tart tatin.
And, as promised, adorable puppies: