Afghans in America: A Potentially Severe Culture Clash

By Jason Richwine on August 27, 2021

As the Biden administration contemplates bringing tens of thousands (or maybe even hundreds of thousands) of Afghan migrants into the U.S., the president should remember that our capacity to assimilate newcomers is limited. Look no further than Somalis in Minneapolis or Hmong in Wausau for examples of immigrant groups who have not blended into the social fabric, even with decades of time to do so.

Refugees from developing countries are especially likely to present assimilation challenges. Unlike immigrants who arrive through selective channels, such as skill-based visas, refugees can have personal values and outlooks more typical of their compatriots back home. This would be especially true of refugees from Afghanistan if, as expected, the Biden administration resettles not only battlefield interpreters, but also Afghans with weaker claims of American loyalties, such as local drivers hired by media companies. (Some Afghan migrants are arriving with non-refugee visas, but for simplicity I describe them here collectively as refugees.)

To the extent that Afghan refugees hold views similar to Afghans in general, we can get a sense of their values from the World Values Survey (WVS). The WVS did not conduct interviews in Afghanistan. However, it did interview surrounding countries with ethnic groups that overlap with those in Afghanistan. By taking the responses of Pashtuns in Pakistan, Tajiks in Tajikistan, and Uzbeks in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then weighting them to reflect the ethnic distribution in Afghanistan, we can obtain a reasonable approximation of what the average Afghan believes. We can also compare those beliefs to American values as measured by the WVS.

Source: World Values Survey, Wave 7.

"Afghanistan" is a weighted average of Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks in surrounding countries.

The United States is limited to native-born respondents.

The statements listed above were selected to reflect views on women and gender roles, since those topics are often the focus of Western human rights groups. Clearly, the gaps between the U.S. and Afghanistan are quite large. Even one of the smaller gaps is jarring — proportionally four times as many Afghans as Americans believe that wife-beating is sometimes justifiable.

The WVS questions are limited in that they are designed to be asked of societies across the globe. To examine issues specific to Muslim countries in the developing world, we can turn to the Pew Research Center’s global survey of Muslims, which was conducted between 2008 and 2012 and included Afghanistan. Table 1 summarizes the percentage of Afghans who agree with various statements, along with Afghanistan’s rank among the countries surveyed by Pew. A rank of 1 indicates the highest percentage of agreement with each statement. (The survey covered Muslims in 39 countries overall, but individual questions usually had fewer than 39 responding countries.)

Table 1. Afghan Views Regarding Islam

Statement Pct. of Afghans
Who Agree
Country Rank1
Make Sharia the law of the land 99% 1
...should include stoning as punishment for adultery 85% 2
...should include death penalty for leaving Islam 79% 3
...should also apply to non-Muslims 61% 3
Prefer a strong leader over democracy 51% 4
Islamic political parties better than other parties 54% 3
Suicide bombing sometimes justified 39% 2
Honor killings2 sometimes justified 60% 2
Wife must always obey husband 94% 2

Source: "The World's Muslims", Pew Research Center.

1 Among countries surveyed by Pew, a rank of 1 indicates the highest percentage
agreement with the given statement.

2 In this case, murdering a female family member for having sex outside of marriage.

Responses given by Afghans were among the most extreme in Pew’s survey. For example, on the question of making Sharia the law of the land, Afghanistan at 99 percent outpaced second-place Iraq by eight percentage points. In addition, only Pakistan (89 percent) was more amenable to stoning adulterers than Afghanistan (85 percent). And although Afghanistan’s support for suicide bombings may seem relatively low at 39 percent, it was second only to the Palestinian territories at 40 percent.

Needless to say, Afghans generally have very different cultural preferences than Americans, and conflict is likely if refugees were to arrive here in large numbers. Culture clashes can manifest in many ways, such as residential segregation, persistent socioeconomic disparities, proliferation of foreign languages, and a whole series of smaller alterations to the daily life of a community. The most severe manifestation, however, would be disproportionate crime committed by the incoming group.

On that point, Cheryl Benard’s 2017 article in the National Interest is informative. Dr. Benard is a leading scholar of political Islam who has worked on refugee resettlement issues in Europe. (She is also married to Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.) In the article, Benard laments the rash of sexual assaults committed by Afghan men in Europe:

A few weeks ago, the Austrian city of Tulln declared a full stop to any further refugee admissions. As the mayor made clear, that decision was aimed at Afghans, but for legal and administrative reasons it could only be promulgated in a global way.

That had not been the city’s intention — to the contrary, it had just completed the construction of an expensive, brand-new facility for incoming asylum seekers, which would now, the mayor declared, be given over to another purpose. His exact words: “We’ve had it.”

The tipping point, after a series of disturbing incidents all emanating from Afghans, was the brutal gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl, snatched from the street on her way home, dragged away and serially abused by Afghan refugees. And that was just one in a string of outrage-inducing occurrences, all of them going to the account of Afghans.

We lack systematic data on crime rates by nationality in Europe, but there are indications that Benard’s anecdotes do reflect reality. If we combine an Austrian crime report from 2018 with Austrian census data, it appears that Afghans’ overall crime rate is seven times higher than the rate of Austrians, and Afghans commit rape at an astonishing 22 times the Austrian rate.1

Table 2. Crime in Austria

  Afghans Austrians Ratio
Population 45,928 7,421,380 0.006
Suspects (overall crime) 7,337 173,156 0.042
Rate per 1,000 159.8 23.3 6.8
Suspects (violent crime) 2,492 44,260 0.056
Rate per 1,000 54.3 6.0 9.1
Suspects (rape) 51 373 0.137
Rate per 1,000 1.11 0.05 22.1
Suspects (robbery) 127 575 0.221
Rate per 1,000 2.77 0.08 35.7
Suspects (violence against police) 73 1,166 0.063
Rate per 1,000 1.59 0.16 10.1

Source: Die Polizeiliche Kriminalstatistik, 2018; Labour Market Statistics, 2019.

Estimates from other countries also show higher Afghan crime rates, although the gaps are smaller. For example, a Danish government report showed that Afghans had an overall crime rate 73 percent greater than the national average in 2019 after controlling for age and sex differences. (Many Afghan refugees in Europe are young men.) A study using German data found Afghan crime rates to be 4.5 times higher than the German rate before an adjustment for age and sex, and twice as high after the adjustment.

In her article for the National Interest, Benard considered several theories as to why crime is so high among certain young Afghan men. She finds one theory most compelling, and it is ominous. Put simply, a significant subset of Afghans reject Western culture entirely. She calls this rejection “a deep and abiding contempt for Western civilization” that leads Afghans to deliberately target “women who are happy, confident and feeling safe in public spaces” as a form of terrorism.

Whether something this extreme will ever happen in the U.S. is an open question. So far we have experienced nothing like the violence Benard described from our relatively small population of Afghans. Nevertheless, the initial flows from developing countries tend to be more highly selected, and there is some indication that the education level of new Afghan immigrants had already been declining before the current crisis.2 Large-scale settlement of Afghan refugees — perhaps even doubling their existing population in the U.S. — means culture clashes at some level are inevitable, and the risk of major conflict is real.

That risk is not one that we need to take. As CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian has explained, settling Afghans in the U.S. vs. leaving them to be persecuted by the Taliban is a false choice. A third option is resettling Afghans with their ethnic brethren in countries such as Pakistan and Tajikistan. Not only would this approach minimize the cultural conflict, it could also be a more efficient use of resources, as the same funds supporting one refugee in a First World society such as the U.S. could potentially support many more in countries neighboring Afghanistan. For all of these reasons, the Biden administration should weigh its options carefully before moving large numbers of Afghan refugees into the U.S.

End Notes

1 The Austrian report is unclear as to how “Afghans” are defined. They could be Afghan citizens living in Austria, or they could be anyone born in Afghanistan regardless of citizenship. The rates shown in Table 2 are calculated with citizens in the denominator. Using the foreign-born instead of citizens does not significantly change the results.

2 Steven Camarota, director of research at CIS, has an upcoming report on this topic.