Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The barbarians at (and within) the gates

"Barbarian" is such a pejorative term. It conjures images of savage thugs, destroying for the sake of destruction. For most of us, when we think of "barbarians," we think of the Germanic tribesmen that sacked Rome. All subsequent "barbarians" are compared to these.

But these Goths and Visigoths and so forth weren't really savages. They had no great cities, but they had a sophisticated culture and extensive trading networks. Living adjacent to the Roman Empire for centuries, they provided increasing numbers of troops for Rome (barbarians had provided cavalry for Roman armies at least since Julius Caesar's time) as time went by. Many of their chiefs and kings were raised among the Romans; Alaric, the Visigoth king who sacked Rome in A.D. 410, at one time commanded "barbarian" troops in the service of Rome.

Since the Dark Ages it has been known that the "barbarians" invaded Rome's borders because of incursions into their own lands by the Huns. Remember, Attila the Hun was himself at the gates of Rome by 452, only to be turned back by Pope Leo the Great. Alaric and the other "barbarian" leaders did not want to destroy Rome. They wanted Roman protection against their own invaders.

The "barbarians" did not hate everything Roman. Alaric was probably even a Christian, although, if he was, he was most likely an adherent of the Arian heresy. Certainly many of the so-called barbarians were Christians before taking over the territory of the old Western Roman Empire.

The problem with the barbarians of old was that, though they liked and respected and sometimes even venerated Roman civilization, they did not know how to keep it going. They weren't going to give up their own ways and live in cities; they had no interest in understanding the engineering principles that kept the aqueducts flowing, the farms growing, and the roads in repair. The Roman Empire perished in fragmentation and famine, not in flames.

Today we have barbarians, too. Like the barbarians of late Roman times, these barbarians are not uncivilized. They are merely different. Many of them like, respect, even venerate parts of Western culture.

But only parts.

Thus, Palestinian native Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan could come to America and set up a successful, Muslim-themed cable-TV station in Buffalo, New York -- but when his wife, Aasiya Hassan, had the temerity to try and divorce him, Hassan decided to behead her. Her head and body were found, separated, in the studios of the TV station they'd built together. I wrote about the story in 2009, soon after it happened. Hassan is coming to trial soon. An insanity defense is apparently planned. An effort to suppress Hassan's confession failed recently, according to an article by Patrick Lakamp first published on June 29, 2010 on the Buffalo News website. From the article:
When Muzzammil S. "Mo" Hassan turned himself in to Orchard Park police about an hour after his wife was slain Feb. 12, 2009, he shook a police lieutenant's hand and appeared "calm, cool and collected" during their one-minute exchange.

"I want to tell you I just killed my wife, and I'm here to turn myself in," the 44-year-old Hassan told Lt. Joseph A. Buccilli in the police lobby.

The two sat on a bench, and Buccilli asked where she was.

Hassan replied she was in the office of the Muslim-oriented Bridges cable television station they co-founded.

When Buccilli asked whether he was sure she was dead, Hassan used a downward hand gesture and said, "She's gone; there's no doubt about it."

At the time, Hassan's children were outside the police building in a van.
An actress from the Harry Potter films, Afshan Azad, has been in the news of late because her Muslim family allegedly tried to kill her. According to the allegations, Azad's father and older brother beat the stuffing out of her because she'd been dating a Hindu boy and did not seem eager to break off the relationship.

Younger Daughter attended an all-girls Catholic high school. There aren't a lot of Muslim high schools -- yet -- in this country, so many observant Muslim parents will send their daughters to a girls' Catholic school to limit their exposure to boys. And, of course, Catholic girls' schools require uniforms which are, at least in theory, more modest than the attire favored by girls down the street at the public school. Some girls' schools will even let their Muslim students wear headscarves.

The subject came up in the Curmudgeon home recently when Younger Daughter remarked how one of her high school classmates, who is now attending the same college as Younger Daughter, presently comes to classes veiled from head to toe. "She didn't wear that in high school," she said. "I think she does it for shock value."

"Possibly," I said. "And also because there are males present at college."

Well, yes, Younger Daughter acknowledged; that might also be part of it. Then she recalled the story of another high school classmate, from a Sunni family, who dated a Shia boy. Her family never found out that she'd "dated" -- but her father beat her when he found out that she had an unsupervised conversation with this young man.

The barbarians who sacked Rome did not mean to destroy Roman civilization. They thought they could pick and choose what they liked about it and disregard the rest and all would remain as it was -- only better. That didn't work out too well, though, did it?

We have a tremendous advantage in America over the Romans: The Romans never really understood how to assimilate new peoples. In some circles, even as he climbed the highest ranks of the cursus honorum, Cicero was regarded as a country-bumpkin and little better than a barbarian himself. (He was not of pure Roman extraction.) You can generalize too much, but one interpretation that fits the death of Julius Caesar is that he was killed by the Boni for trying to expand Roman citizenship too far.

In America, we have not always welcomed foreigners -- not in practice. Before the current illegal alien crisis there was the Know Nothing Party of the 19th Century, whose sole guiding principle was intolerance of immigrants. But we have always intended to welcome foreigners. Thus Theodore Roosevelt could write, in 1919:
In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn't doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.
(I mention the year of Roosevelt's statement so you understand the reference to the "red flag.")

Anyway, we've gotten away from assimilation in this country. While our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents wanted their children to be more American than the snootiest Boston Brahmin, too many among us today are willing to accept a "polyglot boarding-house" instead. We are losing national consensus on who is an American and what an American believes. We are not asking our neighbors to assimilate. There are kids wearing "burkinis" in our neighborhood pool today.

America is flexible enough to assimilate Muslims -- if Islam is flexible enough to accept accommodation with America. I believe that this is still a possible future. But if we fail to insist on this, our civilization too will be brought down, just as Rome was, by barbarians who desired only to share their civilization, but who did not understand it.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

The last paragraph is telling. Just how flexible is islam? Hardly.

Dave said...

Don't know that I agree with you.

I spent the weekend in Detroit, a population center for Middle Eastern peoples in the U.S.

My observation, based on prior experience and the weekend, time heals differences. I met and talked to people from Greece and Lebanon that I know of, others whom I'm not sure of, but certainly from the Mediteranian.

Those that were older, were less assimilated, the younger, more assimilation.

Lots more head to toe covered women than I see down here - all of them accompanied by men dressed like you and me and little kids who look no different than a kid from Snellville (a local suburb).

Among themselves, the spoke a language I didn't understand. If I was involved, the spoke prefect or pretty good English.

I don't think there is anything we have to insist on. I think assimilation is inevitable, with little and big bumps along the way.

Look at your kids. They think differently than you and I think. That will keep happening. Or so I hope.

Dave said...

I forgot to spell check. Sorry.

The Curmudgeon said...

Dave -- English Only may be too much to ask for -- and maybe even counterproductive in a global economy. I know many people my age or older who have spoken candidly of their regrets at not learning their parents' or grandparents' native language -- but it was their elders' means of 'pushing' them to become fully American. But, these days, in too many cases, it seems the immigrants aren't pushing assimilation.

Maybe we can agree on this: How about English First?

I'm troubled by the head to toe stuff you saw in Dearborn. I see that here every day (there's a Kaplan school in my building). According to what I've read (and I've read some), chadors or burqas simply aren't necessary to satisfy the religious obligation for Muslim women to dress modestly. Headscarves aren't even necessary. The continued use of these garments suggests a retention of tribal values at odds with real assimilation. Yes, Lady Gaga dresses immodestly. But do all American fashions ape Lady Gaga? If dad lets mom wears blue jeans when they go to the Wal-Mart, maybe their daughter can converse with a boy at the mall without fear of being beaten.

(And can mom ever go by herself? I've seen women escorted into and out of the school here by -- I'm assuming -- husbands, though it might be brothers. My daughter has seen similar things. The male is not necessarily attending classes also, you understand. Even if he's wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt, is this assimilation?)

As you may know, married Orthodox Jewish women are supposed to conceal their hair from everyone but their husband. Wigs take care of this requirement -- and clueless guys like me usually don't notice until someone points it out. Assimilation -- and retention of cultural essentials both. Don't you think there's a difference?

Gosh I hope you subscribed to comments on this post....