Reinventing Integration: Muslims in the West

Article excerpt

As the sixth year of the US-led war on terror rages on, it would appear that few constructs are more self-evident than the one dividing Islam and the West. Muslim minorities in the West are often scrutinized through this paradoxical prism. On which side of the divide do they fall? For pessimists, the signs do not look good.

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The results of several recent polls have set off alarm bells in a tense Europe, still shaken by the July 7, 2005 bombings in London. For example, the Pew poll found that given a choice of identifying as first Muslim or Christian or as first a citizen of their country, the majority of British, French, and German Muslims choose faith, while the majority of British, French, and German Christians choose country. Some have taken these results as witness to the danger of over-accommodating religious differences. They have advocated that European Muslims be persuaded or forced to forsake their Islamic identity for a Western one. However, new findings from a Gallup study of Muslims in London, Paris, and Berlin, and the general public in each corresponding country, challenge the very legitimacy of such a trade-off and offer another way to reconcile citizenship and creed. In many such instances, the divide between European Muslims and the general public is inexistent or not as large as originally seemed.

In light of these results, people of all backgrounds should forsake popular assumptions and alarmist rhetoric for an evidence-based understanding of European Muslims, consequently creating a new narrative for their societies. This fresh perspective indicates that national and religious identities are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching, and that integration is not defined by citizen conformity, but by citizen cooperation.

Islam, Identity, and Integration

One of the most pervasive assumptions in discourse on European Muslim integration is that Muslim religiosity threatens Europe. Those who believe in the irreconcilability of Western and Muslim identity generally argue that Muslim piety, expressed in religious symbols and moral conservatism, contrasts against the backdrop of an increasingly secular and sexually liberal Europe: a recipe for increasingly insular Muslim communities and profound alienation from European national identity. These isolated communities, the argument continues, represent illiberal islands corrupting Western society's liberal values; they are "cesspools" for radicalization. Integration, or conformity with majority culture, is therefore seen as vital defense against citizens with dual loyalties.

However, a new study paints a very different picture. While Muslims in three European capitals are indeed highly religious, this piety does not lead to sympathy for terrorism, desires to isolate, or lack of national loyalty. Not surprisingly, the study found that Muslims in London, Berlin, and Paris are much more likely than the general public in their corresponding countries to say religion is an important part of their daily lives, and to identify strongly with their faith. Predictably, the Muslims surveyed are also much more likely to express traditional moral values. In comparison to the public at large, Muslims overwhelmingly see homosexual acts, sex before marriage, and abortion as "morally wrong."

However, religious and national identities are not mutually exclusive. Not only do urban Muslims identify strongly with their religion, but they are at least as likely as the general public to identify strongly with their countries of residence. As a British Muslim MP recently commented, "My nationality is first British and my religion is first Muslim."

Also defying conventional wisdom, high levels of Muslim religiosity and corresponding conservative moral outlooks did not translate into a sense of threat from the "sinful West" and into a desire to isolate. Instead, urban Muslims were slightly less likely to feel people with different religious practices than their own were a threat to their way of life, and slightly more likely than the general public to say they would prefer living in a mixed neighborhood. …