Wed, Nov 28, 2007 - Page 9 News List

On the trans-Atlantic Muslim divide

Perhaps against expectations, it is Europe and not the US where local Muslims are most dissatisfied with their lot. The biggest reason may be Europe's vaunting of assimilation

By Marcia Pally

Compared with the tension that exists in Muslim communities across Europe, Muslims in the US are a more contented lot.

A recent Pew Forum study found that Europe's Muslims were"markedly less well off than the general population, frustrated with economic opportunities and socially isolated," while most US Muslims say that "their communities are excellent or good places" to live; 71 percent say they can succeed in the US if they work. Both income and college graduation levels match the national norms, and 63 percent of US Muslims report no conflict between religious devotion and living in modern society.

Although 53 percent of US Muslims think that life is more difficult since the terrorist attacks of 2001, most think that this is the fault of the government, not their neighbors. Indeed, 73 percent said they had never experienced discrimination while living in the US.

Moreover, 85 percent said suicide bombing is rarely or never justified, and only 1 percent said violence to defend Islam was "often" permissible. In Europe, significantly higher percentages of Muslims believe that suicide bombings are "often" or "sometimes" justified.

"What emerges," according to Amaney Jamal, an adviser to Pew, "is the great success of the Muslim American population in its socioeconomic assimilation." Yet "assimilation" is not what succeeds. "Assimilation" means dissolving into the mainstream, but Muslim-Americans do not do this, remaining devoutly Muslim in a country that is overwhelmingly Christian.

Muslims in the US do not so much assimilate as participate in economic, political, educational and social life. This might reflect a self-selection process: Only the most educated Muslims immigrate to the US, as poor social services allow only the best-prepared to survive. Yet even middle-class Muslims in Britain become alienated, and unlike the Muslim poor in Europe, poor Muslims in the US don't express alienation or sympathy with al-Qaeda.

It can be argued that only those poor who are eager for the harsh but open possibilities of life in the US emigrate there. Yet this doesn't explain why these poorer immigrants remain religious; wanting to succeed US-style, they should want to be quick to "assimilate."

Why do US Muslims do well while remaining devout and distinctive-looking? Why can they participate without assimilating?

Two factors seem significant: first, relatively porous economic, political and educational arenas that allow immigrants entry to these key areas of life in the US. Despite the discrimination and poverty that immigrants often suffer initially, barriers to economic and political participation are relatively low.

The second factor is a pluralistic public sphere, an arena not without religion but with many religions, which are visible and active in civil life as the basis for institutions, publications and symbols that influence values and conduct. The US is not a secular society; it is a religiously pluralistic one with secular legal and political structures.

Indeed, the secular institutions of the US were designed to support pluralism. They allow people of many creeds to work in them -- a workplace of multiple faiths. The prohibition against a state religion together with freedom of conscience preserves the plurality of religion in civil life.

This design was crafted not only from enlightened principle but from necessity: the US needed to persuade people to cross the ocean and endure the hardships of the frontier and, later, industrialization. Freedom to practice one's religion was an advertisement for America.

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