Arabs in Foreign Lands
By Moisés Naím
Page 1 of 1
What the success of Arab Americans tells us about Europe,
the Middle East, and the power of culture.
People of Arab descent living in the United States
are doing far better than the average American. That is the surprising
conclusion drawn from data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000 and
released last March. The census found that U.S. residents who report having
Arab ancestors are better educated and wealthier than average Americans.
Whereas 24 percent of Americans hold college degrees, 41
percent of Arab Americans are college graduates. The median income for an Arab
family living in the United
States is $52,300—4.6 percent higher than
other American families—and more than half of all Arab Americans own their
home. Forty-two percent of people of Arab descent in the United States work as managers or professionals,
while the same is true for only 34 percent of the general U.S.
population. For many, this success has come on quickly: Although about 50
percent of Arab Americans were born in the United States, nearly half of those
born abroad did not arrive until the 1990s.
That immigrants do better than their compatriots back home
is of course no surprise. What is far less common is for immigrants to perform
that much better than the average population of their adopted home. This fact
should prompt important debates that transcend how Arab immigrants are faring
in the United States.
Consider, for example, the popular notion that cultural
factors loom large behind the Middle East’s
appalling poverty. Cultural explanations for why some succeed when others fail
have a long history. In 1904, German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that
the “Protestant ethic” was more compatible with capitalism than religions such
as Confucianism and Taoism. Of course, the Asian economic miracle forced a
revision of these assumptions. The same thing happened to “Asian values,” the
idea that cultural factors explained the region’s phenomenal rates of economic
growth. The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s gave that cultural theory
an even shorter shelf life.
The Middle East’s poor
economic and social performance today has also prompted explanations of some
malignancy in the prevailing culture. The respected Harvard University
historian David S. Landes wrote in his 1998 book, The
Wealth and Poverty of Nations, that the ill that plagues these countries
“lies with the culture, which (1) does not generate an informed and capable
work force; (2) continues to mistrust or reject new techniques and ideas that
come from the enemy West (Christendom) and (3) does not respect such knowledge
as members do manage to achieve.”
Such views are common, given the inexcusably poor
performance of Arab nations. In the last two decades, no region besides
sub-Saharan Africa has seen income per person grow as slowly as in the Middle East. At the current rate, it will take the
average Arab 140 years to double his or her income. Asians, Europeans, and
North Americans are expected to double their incomes in the next 10 years. The
total economic output—including oil—of all Arab countries is less than that of Spain, the Middle East’s
unemployment rates are the highest in the developing world, and its literacy
rates rank near the bottom.
But if cultural impediments are behind the Arab world’s
disappointing performance, what explains Arab Americans’ incredible success?
The answer, of course, is opportunities and institutions. Arabs in the United States
have access to ample opportunities to prosper and can rely on powerful
institutions to protect their civil, political, and economic rights to do so.
Indeed, the census data show that Arab ancestry mixed with markets and
meritocracy creates a potent fuel for success.
Of course, many will explain the success of Arab Americans
by pointing out that people who emigrate tend to be younger, more motivated,
ambitious, and entrepreneurial. The Arab immigrants who are doing so well in
the United States,
according to this view, would have made it anywhere.
Sadly, that isn’t true, either. Otherwise, how does one
explain why Arab immigrants in Europe are worse off than those in the United States?
Why are leaders of Arab communities in France warning that social and
racial tensions are in danger of creating a “social and political atom bomb”?
Sure, France may be an
extreme case, but the situation of Arabs in the rest of Europe
is hardly better. In general, Muslims living in Europe—of which Arabs
constitute a significant proportion—are poorer, less educated, and in worse
health than the rest of the population. In the Netherlands, the unemployment rate
for ethnic Moroccans is 22 percent, roughly four times the rate for the country
as a whole. In Britain,
the Muslim population has the highest unemployment rate of all religious
groups. The failure of Arabs in Europe is particularly worrisome given that 10
of the states or entities along Europe’s
eastern and southern borders are home to nearly 250 million Muslims—most of
them Arabs—with a birthrate more than double that of Europeans.
This census data should prompt soul-searching in many
quarters. Cultural determinists may want to revise their theories of Arab
backwardness. Arab leaders should be ashamed when they see their emigrants
prospering in the United
States while their own people are miserable.
And Europe should wake up to the possibility
that it may have less of an “Arab problem” than a “European problem.” Then again,
maybe the cultural determinists have an explanation for why Europeans are so
predisposed against Arab success.
Moisés Naím is
editor in chief of FOREIGN POLICY.
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