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Ethics of citizenship tests

by Jan-werner Mueller

PRINCETON, N.J. — Can citizenship really be tested? An increasing number of countries — especially, but not only, in Europe — seem to think so.

Over the last decade, tests and exams for immigrants have proliferated — but so have controversies about what they may legitimately ask. Recently, the revelation that the “Life in the U.K.” test tries to instill respect for the practice of queuing — standing in line, that is — caused as much ridicule as indignation.

The British minister responsible for the test justified the idea by claiming that “the simple act of taking one’s turn is one of the things that holds our country together. It is very important that newcomers take their place in queues whether it is for a bus or a cup of tea.”

While this might sound like an excerpt from a Monty Python sketch, it raises an important issue: Should there be limits as to what prospective citizens are tested for? Can testing become counterproductive?

Critics of the spreading practice of citizenship testing certainly think so; in fact, they go so far as to lament the rise of a new “repressive liberalism” — Western states’ efforts to achieve democratic and liberal ends with increasingly illiberal means. Making “integration courses” and language instruction compulsory, prohibiting head scarves in schools, as in France, or restricting the rights of immigrants to marry foreigners, as in Denmark, are just some instances of coercive measures adopted in the name of supposedly universal liberal values.

Such measures have the appearance of a (seemingly self-contradictory) program to force men and women to be free. Citizenship tests are an integral part of this program; and, in the eyes of critics, they resemble “loyalty oaths” and other intolerant measures traditionally associated with the anticommunist witch hunts of McCarthyism in 1950s America.

But do countries somehow automatically turn illiberal just because they make certain measures mandatory? If that were true, “progressive legislation” would inevitably be a contradiction in terms. The real question is whether states purposefully target or even exclude certain groups — while ostensibly applying universal standards.

Think, for example, of a German (oral) test that was to apply only to immigrants from states belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (the test in question was later withdrawn), and which asked, among other things, the applicant’s opinion about the fact that in Germany homosexuals hold high public office.

Similar tendencies appeared in the Netherlands, which was once committed to multiculturalism, but more recently has sought to confront would-be citizens with images of men kissing and of bare-breasted women emerging from the North Sea — presumably all to get across the point that a true Dutch citizen had better be tolerant.

It is clearly helpful for immigrants to get hints about how to navigate daily life practically — such as norms about standing in line. But this kind of local knowledge should not be subject to testing. Most people acquire survival skills — if not more sophisticated forms of savoir-faire — informally, as a quick glance at the immigration experience in the United States demonstrates. They will also come to get the point of more informal social norms — against homophobia, for instance.

The lesson is that national governments should not test the attitudes of immigrants to moral and cultural questions that remain controversial even among established members of the host country. It would be hypocritical, for example, to pretend that everyone in Western liberal democracies is enthusiastic about gay people or nudists — what matters is that their rights be respected, not that everyone like them. Tests should communicate lessons about rights and democracy, that is, politics — not about lifestyles or the supposed core content of a “national culture” (on which established members of a host country themselves would probably be hard pressed to reach consensus).

Of course, it is true that birthright citizens live their lives — and retain their citizenship — without ever being tested on the basics of their political systems. But it is a reasonable expectation — often legitimately reinforced through civic education for all children — that citizens know how to participate in public affairs, and especially that they know what their and others’ rights are.

So, citizenship tests — rather than being repressive — can actually be empowering, if they make immigrants aware of rights and possibilities for participation. They are akin to language requirements — except that the language here is a civic, not a national one, which in the best case allows new citizens to voice their concerns with perfect political grammar. Tests might also make the passage to citizenship meaningful, a ritual similar to the solemn swearing of an oath of allegiance, which can be integrated as a major event into the story of one’s life (some will always dismiss such ceremonies as political kitsch).

What these kinds of exams cannot do — and should not attempt to do — is test people’s political convictions. For one thing, such convictions can always be faked by those determined to dissimulate. At the same time, most would-be citizens will probably feel alienated from a state that suspects political danger emanating from newcomers and consistently sends a message of distrust.

In the end, citizenship exams, rather than really being “tests” in any meaningful sense at all, are tools for communication. And every country should think very carefully about what it wishes to communicate about itself.

Jan-Werner Mueller teaches in the Politics Department at Princeton University. His most recent book is “Constitutional Patriotism.” © 2010 Project Syndicate