The Muslim Presence in France and the United States: Its Consequences for Secularism
Cesari, Jocelyne, French Politics, Culture and Society
All too often, the question of Muslim minorities in Europe and America is discussed solely in socioeconomic terms or with a simplistic focus on the Islamic religion and its purported incompatibility with democracy. This article focuses instead on the secularism of Western host societies as a major factor in the integration of Muslim minorities. It compares French and American secularism and argues that while French-style secularism has contributed to present tensions between French Muslims and the French state, American secularism has facilitated the integration of Muslims in the United States--even after 9/11.
Keywords: integration, Muslims, secularism, France, United States
The presence of Muslims in France is a direct though unforeseen result of the migrations of the early 1950s, which originated largely within the old colonial empire in North Africa. In contrast, the Muslim population of the United States is primarily comprised of migrants from Asia and the Middle East and from African-American converts to Islam. As Muslim populations in the West grew during the 1970s, and with them the need for mosques, halal butchers, Koranic schools, and Muslim cemeteries, the rate of interaction between Muslim immigrants and host societies rose correspondingly--as did the significance of religious and cultural factors in these interactions. Today, six years after the attacks of 9/11, Islam remains the fastest-growing religion in the United States. The US census does hot include questions about religious affiliation; nonetheless, the most current estimates put the number of Muslims in the United States at approximately 4 to 6 million. (1) Islam's growth in America is chiefly due to the rapid influx of immigrants and the relatively high birthrate among them, but the number of converts is also increasing. Indeed, what is unique about the American Muslim community is that almost half its members are converts.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, major international incidents such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the civil war in Lebanon, and the first Gulf War focused Western attention on Islam. Such events raised fears of political connections between the Islamic fundamentalist movements gaining traction in the Muslim world and unfamiliar migrant Muslim groups in France and America. The American trial and conviction of the Muslim cleric who organized the 1993 World Trade Center bombing further strengthened images of a violent Islam. Such images still trigger fears of Muslims as threats to Western order and inspire Western definitions of Islam fraught with notions of conflict and disturbance, such as those seen during the Rushdie affair in Britain and the headscarf controversy in France.
The increased visibility of Islam has brought with it a host of questions, doubts, and sometimes even violent confrontations, all related to the integration of newcomers within existing national communities. As adherents of a single stable religion, these newcomers increasingly express the wish to be recognized as Muslims. And even as their new communities become increasingly active on the political front, Muslim activism is reinforced by newer generations born and educated in Western contexts, who bring issues of cultural and religious observance into cultural and political arenas.
Consequently, the Muslim presence in France and the United States is forcing a reconsideration of the delicate existing balance between religion on the one hand and secular principles of social and political life on the other. Questions of citizenship, civic duty, the social contract, and "church and state" are being debated anew; arrangements and policies for the religious integration of Muslim communities are being discussed and refined. In the process, politicians and laymen run the risk of misunderstanding the nature of both Muslim identity and Islam. Especially in France, correlation is often confused with causality. (2)
Laboring under this misconception, the French have generally resorted to one of two mutually exclusive approaches to explain the disadvantaged status of Muslims in the West: they blame either the system or the victim. In the first case, Muslim socioeconomic stagnation is attributed to external obstacles. These include Western rules for political participation, political culture (referring especially to general relations between state and society), and naturalization laws, as well as negative stereotyping and discrimination. In the second case, the underprivileged status of Muslims is attributed to barriers inherent in certain Muslim communities. These include ethnic and religious separatism, insufficient educational or technical qualifications, inadequate financial means, status as temporary residents, and influences from their countries of origin.
Rather than blaming either system or victim, I suggest that any correct understanding of Islam in the West must consider the definitive features of both Muslim groups and Western societies. A double set of variables must be taken into account: the cultural and political framework of each host country and the major features of its diverse Muslim groups. (3) Such a comprehensive understanding has the potential to show Islam in a new and positive light, that is, as a force that is actually guiding the social integration of Muslim newcomers to the West. This article will consider the major features of French and American society that account for differences in the status of Muslim groups. In particular, the role of religion in civil life will be considered as it relates to the general level of Muslim integration into civil society.
Religions in Civil Society: European versus American Secularism
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Publication information: Article title: The Muslim Presence in France and the United States: Its Consequences for Secularism. Contributors: Cesari, Jocelyne - Author. Journal title: French Politics, Culture and Society. Volume: 25. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2007. Page number: 34+. © 2001 Berghahn Books, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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