The growing number of Western recruits joining the Sunni jihadist group known as ISIS has set off alarm bells around the world. Some countries in particular have good reasons to be anxious. Recent estimates show that around 3,000 foreign fighters fighting in Syria and Iraq originated from Western countries. At least 1,100 of those recruited hold either a French or British passport.
European countries have struggled with Muslim integration for decades. According to a Pew Research Centre study from 2007, 65 per cent of European Muslims felt that they are Muslim instead of European as opposed to 45 per cent of American Muslims who believe they are Muslim but not American. About a third of French schoolchildren of Muslim origin see their faith rather than their passport as their main identity, and young British Muslims are inclined to see Islam as their true home instead of Great Britain. Muslims residing in the United States are also more likely to be concerned about Islamic extremism than their European counterparts, and are less likely to believe that suicide bombings of civilians can be justified. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that American Muslims are much more likely than Muslims in other countries to have non-Muslim friends, and to believe that many religions (not just Islam) can lead to eternal life in heaven.
Muslims in the United States do not only feel more at home in the US than European Muslims feel in Europe, but are also less likely to adhere to extremist religious beliefs. So why do American Muslims feel more integrated in the United States than Muslims in Europe?
To begin with, Muslims in the United States comprise around 1 per cent of the population, compared with 4.5 per cent of the Muslim population in Britain. Furthermore, America’s Muslim communities do not belong to a single ethnicity, while most Western countries have one or two dominant groups. France’s Algerian community have never forgotten their Algerian identity, or France’s colonial history. The lack of one dominant Muslim ethnicity in the United States can do much to impede the collision of two separate identities, which often happens in France.
Poverty and ignorance are also more widespread amongst the Muslim community in Europe. While American Muslims are almost as likely as any other American to report a household income of $100,000 or more, the Muslim community in France faces financial hardships and unemployment, while British Muslims also remain at the bottom of the economic pile. These differences in income can be a powerful reason behind the dissatisfaction that many Muslims feel in European countries.
The importance of religion should also be taken into account. The United States is a deeply religious country, with very diverse religious affiliations. The country’s major religious tradition (Protestantism) encompasses hundreds of different denominations and it is characterized by significant internal diversity. This religious heterogeneity can alleviate the sense of alienation many Muslims feel in European countries, as the Muslim faith in the United States is just another major religious tradition in a highly pluralistic religious society.
The United States’ religious culture can also explain why Muslims find it easier to adjust to American values and feel more at home there than Muslim communities living in Europe. In a series of interviews carried out by the Guardian on what it is like to be Muslim in Britain today, PhD student Hira Amin talks about what she believes is one of the worst aspects of being a Muslim in Britain: ‘The condescending remarks I receive for following a religion. I have actually had people say to me: “I don’t believe in religion, I believe in science”. As if I believe in Mickey Mouse! Just because I believe in God it does not make me a less rational human being’. According to Amin, this is a specifically European issue. France’s secular culture can also disaffect the Muslim community, as they may feel they cannot respect or follow France’s cultural values.
Religion, poverty and ethnicity are some of the factors that may explain why Muslim integration and assimilation has been more widespread in the United States than in Europe. As ISIS recruitment grows, the reasons leading young Muslim men and women to join this radical group need to be further explored. European countries should make clear that they welcome and appreciate their Muslim communities, as many British Muslims believe they are not welcome in Britain or even considered truly British by the average citizen. Sarah Ager, a young woman who recently became a Muslim, complained in an interview for the Guardian how her ‘Britishness’ was never questioned prior to her conversion, ‘but the habits I had as a Christian are now seen as somehow foreign and mutually exclusive to being a British citizen.’ Alienation and dissatisfaction are powerful incentives to join extreme affiliations, as Europe knows only too well. The battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim community has begun. Europe should prepare for it.
Julia Tena de la Nuez