I remember being struck by a Wall Street Journal editorial in 2005, authored by Bret Stephens and Joseph Rago. Their piece proffered the information that amongst American Muslims registering their professional employment, one in three have an annual income of $75,000 or more. The success of my American co-religionists was thought-provoking enough, but what imprinted this on my memory was the characterisation of these American Muslims as ‘role models both as Americans and as Muslims’. As a European Muslim of French citizenship, this was a not a sentiment that I expected to hear in my corner of the world.
Whilst the Muslim community, as a group of believers and worshippers, is unique, it is not united. In fact, it contains a significant variety. Until recently, the various settler communities in the EU and the US were known primarily by other designations, such as Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Iranians, Pakistanis, or Maghrebis. Nowadays, they are usually lumped together as ‘the Muslim community’. But the complex formation of communities and their self-identification is a process shaped by history and politics that, in itself, helps us understand both the heterogeneous or homogenous aspects of this religious grouping.
In analyzing European and American Muslim communities, their differences in origins are hugely relevant. Even within the EU they are heterogeneous. France, Britain and Germany are the western European countries with the largest Muslim minorities: around 5 million Muslims live in France (mainly of North-African origin), 3 million in Germany (mainly of Turkish origin) and 1.5 million in Britain (mainly of Southern Asian origin). These figures comprise rather unimpressive percentages of the population, reaching a maximum of 10% in France. More notable, however, is the geographical concentration of Muslims, since this makes them a very relevant minority in some areas and cities – even more so, given that their relative demographic weight is expected to increase because of immigration and their higher than average birth rates. The American Muslim community with approximately 2.5 million believers is also ethnically heterogeneous, with those of South Asian (33%), African-American (30%), and Arab origin (25%) being the principal groups. Likewise, it is concentrated in certain areas, noticeably in the Washington-Boston corridor, Houston, and southern California. Despite their ethnic dissimilarities, these communities have very similar concerns and aspirations, especially when it comes to day to day life.
Muslim communities must overcome numerous obstacles to be structurally incorporated into their host societies. Today, Muslims in France, Britain, and Germany remain poorly integrated into the respective labor markets and educational systems. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain as well as Algerians in France have higher unemployment rates, lower rates of female labor market participation, lower occupational attainment, and lower earnings than ‘Caucasian’ or any other ethnic minority. Discrimination against Muslims is a current concern shared by the EU countries and the American authorities. Although American Muslims often experience the same problems as their European counterparts, research suggests that they are generally more assimilated and prosperous, as shown in the results of a survey made by the polling organization, Zogby.
Two factors, I believe, go some distance towards explaining these discrepancies in the way that Muslims have fared in EU countries and in the USA. First, each country has a distinct tradition of church-state relations, which determines the institutional context within which the representatives of Muslim interests and decision-makers interact. Second, each country has a different ideological framework for the interaction between Muslim interests and decision-makers. The dominant public discourses about the incorporation of immigrants into the host society and polity – discourses deeply rooted in the definition of identity that each nation espouses – are crucially important here. In Britain, both the tradition of an established church and the multicultural philosophy of immigrant incorporation into a nation defined in relatively flexible and pragmatic terms, facilitated the recognition of religious differences in public policy. By contrast, the French republican tradition, both in its separation of church and state and its assimilation of peripheral or immigrant populations into mainstream society and culture, has spurned even the recognition of religious differences. Germany stands midway between the British and French cases. On the one hand, the tradition of close state-church collaboration acts in favor of the recognition of Muslim interests. On the other hand, the long-dominant, although now questioned, public discourse that accepted immigrants on condition that they remained separated from native residents, has hindered efforts to accommodate their religious claims and practices. In this respect, the USA resembles Britain more closely than other EU countries. Although the separation of the church and state is identified with the First Amendment, the US state actively recognizes religions and protects their practice. Alongside the positive discourses on immigration inherited from American history, this seems to have gone some way towards allowing Muslims as individuals to have greater opportunities than their European counterparts.
To generalize, Muslim communities have pressed two main demands on decision makers and communities in Europe and the US: first, permission and funding to build mosques; and, second, the chance to educate children according to Muslim beliefs, values, and ways of life. On these two issues, an active state role is required, since they are a matter of regulation and financial support. Again, the most striking differences are not so much between the EU and the US as among EU countries. The UK offers the greatest recognition amongst the countries under consideration. It finances both mosques as providers of social and cultural services and Islamic teaching in both public and private schools. France provides the least support. It rarely and only covertly finances the social and cultural activities of mosques and does not fund the teaching of Islam in either public or private schools. The USA does the same, though local authorities tend to be more flexible on the building of mosques. Again, Germany stands midway. Whilst it rarely funds the social assistance provided by Muslim organizations, it is beginning to provide Islamic teaching in some federal state schools and it subsidizes private Islamic schools. It should also be noted that unlike many Muslims in Europe, American Muslims do not tend to feel marginalized or isolated from political participation.
Heterogeneous in both their ethnic origins and the ways in which they are treated, Muslim communities are, however, remarkably homogenous in their aims and beliefs. Decades of careful negotiation with American and European societies and increased acceptance by non-Muslims, are nowadays injured by the rising ‘Islamophobia’ of global politics since 9/11. As in their hopes, Muslim communities are homogenous in their fears.