What the Migrant Crisis Means for the Future of the West


November 4, 2015

For months, the news has been flooded with stories about waves of “migrants” descending on Europe from war-ravaged Syria and elsewhere in the Mideast. We also hear about repeated attempts by lesser numbers of people to slip into Europe by sea, usually with the aid of smugglers, from North Africa. This is against the backdrop of the longer-running large scale Islamic immigration into Europe and the illegal immigrants entering the U.S. from Latin America. The tendency by the reporting media and many in the Church has been to view this from a strictly humanitarian standpoint: people either are fleeing war or political persecution or they are crossing borders to seek a better life for themselves and their families. So, it is said that there is a moral obligation to accept and assist them and even integrate them into their new nations. This viewpoint suggests that it makes no difference about who comes into a nation and that there will be no consequences from any kind of migration at any scale. Is this true?

We certainly know about the historic reality of ethnic conflict. It was not so long ago that we witnessed it strikingly and tragically as Yugoslavia, after being held together by a strong-man Communist regime for fifty years, was torn apart. Certainly, ethnic conflicts have been among the most abundant sources of intra-nation turmoil. There are certainly others: religious, political, sectional. The latter two characterized the U.S.’s most serious internal convulsion, the Civil War. Migration seems to be distinguished from taking in refugees in that migrants (not really different from immigrants) are permanently relocating to their new country, whereas refugees are probably there just temporarily until conditions permit them to return home. The fundamental issue about the effect of migration on the receiving nations concerns what in sound social ethics is called the civic bond. Following Aristotle’s fourfold notion of causation of any organism or entity—final, formal, material, and efficient—the formal cause of any political order or state is the civic bond.

This involves a notion of a common public good, or simply a common good, which unites men into a political union. It includes a common conception of what is called civic justice, which encompasses the whole range of rights and duties of the individuals and families making up the state that must be carried out so the common good is achieved. Catholic political scientist John J. Schrems calls a nation’s common good its “unifying element,” or the “glue” that holds together a particular people in a particular territory under a particular government. Sometimes, for a period of time, a nation can be held together, like Yugoslavia was and others might be even without a repressive government forcing it, if the common good is shared only partly or if there are sharp differences in what that common good is. In the long run, though, its prospects to survive as a national political community are not good.

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The meaning of this for the current migrant situation is that when people become part of a country, they have to believe in the basic principles that unite it. These include constitutional-legal principles and fundamental political philosophy, to be sure, but also certain basic ethical norms, social mores, and religious perspectives. People don’t have to all be the same religion to peacefully and cooperatively share the same political community, but they cannot be deeply in opposition or resistant to accommodating their worldviews. We cannot dispute that ethnic commonality can be important in holding a political community together (somewhat as Yugoslavia demonstrated), but it is possible that cross-cutting attachments such as religious, cultural, social, and politico-legal orientations may overcome these or even be the deeper basis for these or can emerge as more important.

The most contentious aspect of European migration in recent years, even before the current migrant crisis, has concerned Moslems from the Mideast. Indeed, there is much question about whether the most recent wave of migrants is mostly made up of people fleeing Syria or others who, like these previous Islamic immigrants, just want to resettle in Europe because of the perceived better life and opportunities—and welfare state benefits—that it presents for them. That might be well and good, but when immigrants come the unspoken understanding is that they must accept and accommodate themselves to the country they go to and not the other way around. In the case of Moslem immigrants, particularly in this era of jihad and Islamic terrorism and in light of the serious scholarship about the repudiation of reason in the long tradition of Sunni Islamic thought as traced by writers such as Robert R. Reilly, it is a legitimate question about whether the basic considerations mentioned as necessary to maintain the civic bond or common good of countries is likely.

The pattern of Islamic immigrants resisting acculturation into their new countries, seeking the establish “their own rules” such as sharia law for their enclaves as their population grows in size, and then seeking to effect broader political, legal, and socio-cultural change as they approach a majority buttresses this concern. Reilly has convincingly argued that these deeper concerns—the age-old intellectual crisis in the predominant (Sunni) strain of Islam—have everything to do with these large socio-political questions. There are indeed “moderate” Moslems, who might more readily fit into Western political societies, but there is much reason to doubt that this more than a distinct minority.

So a Europe already reeling from large-scale Islamic immigration and the unprecedented challenges and problems—and homegrown Jihadist threats—it has brought with it has every reason to proceed cautiously, and to be reluctant, about readily accepting a new immigrant wave from the Mideast. Displaced Christians—who have suffered some of the worst oppression in the Mideast—could probably make a relatively easy transition because of their fundamentally compatible worldview (despite what secular European elites think, Europe has fundamentally been shaped by its Christian tradition). It does not appear, however, that most of these recent migrants are Christians.

The issue of the civic bond is not as acute with the immigrants coming to the U.S. from south of the border, since most are at least nominally Christian. The word “nominal” must give pause, however, since Mexico has long been a “mixed bag”—partly Catholic, but mostly secular, for over a hundred years. Perhaps the more significant problem is presented by the immigrants’—especially the millions here illegally—reluctance to embrace our underlying political philosophy, constitutional-legal norms, and certain social mores and to turn their allegiance to their new country, so they don’t think that being part of the shared vision about the ends for our political community is even relevant.

In From Cottage to Work Station, social historian Allan C. Carlson says that the Immigration Act of 1965, which favored immigrants from Third World countries, created “a new ethnic diversity and a consequent splintering of values and the sense of a shared experience, which seem to defy all efforts at rebuilding cohesion.”

Parenthetically, when one thinks of the civic bond and shared ends, a similar danger presents itself in the U.S. that has nothing to do with immigration. With our witnessing an increasingly deep and rigid internal division between fundamentally divergent worldviews about many of these same matters—e.g., what’s to be the nature and purpose of our politics, whether the constitutional principles bequeathed to us by our Founding should stand or whether they are persistently changing, basic ethical norms, even what the very dignity of man should consist of—it seems that much of our civic bond has dissipated and there is not much of a shared vision of the common good.

Political communities have torn asunder because of considerably less basic divisions. Lincoln thought that the U.S. was too strong to fall prey to a foreign adversary, but feared that it could collapse due to internal division and conflict. So, fissures can rend a political community either from a flood of newcomers with a sharply different worldview or the growth internally of philosophical and ideological division—and can ultimately tear it apart. A political community can sharply decline or collapse when substantial elements of its population are no longer united in a true civic bond.

(Photo credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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