America’s Marketplace of Confessions: Evangelical Christianity’s gift to Muslims

America’s Marketplace of Confessions:

Evangelical Christianity’s Gift to Muslims

By Marcia Pally

In the thinking and reflection that I suppose inevitably comes with the tenth anniversary of the 2001 September 11th attacks, I found myself reviewing the research on the quality of Muslim life, espeically in Europe where many of the attackers had been living, and for comparison, in the US. The differences, I think, point to the importance of distinguishing between immigrant assimilation and participation, and they offer some productive ideas about how nations treat the “Other” for a more–dare I say–just future. Among the most illuminating findings was the role of evangelicalism in America’s relatively sanguine religious and immigrant history.

To begin, some comparisons. In both income and college graduation levels, Muslim-Americans match national norms. [1] Only 2% of Muslims in the US are low-income, compared to 18% of Muslims in Germany and France, 22% in Britain and 23% in Spain. In Germany, the “Turkish” unemployment rate is 25.2%, more than twice the national average.[2] In Britain, which supposedly has greater integration of its 1.6 million Muslim immigrants (3% of the population), roughly 25% are engaged in the economy, 20% own their homes, and 30% “are described as people with no qualifications.”[3] Compared to the economic and social isolation of Europe’s Muslims, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that most Muslim-Americans say “their communities are excellent or good places to live” and report that a large proportion of their closest friends are non-Muslims. 71% say people can succeed in the US if they work at it; 63% report no conflict between religious devotion and living in a modern society. According to Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “America gives people the unique opportunity to leave cultural, historical baggage behind.”[4]

Though 53% of US Muslims reported that being a Muslim in America had become more difficult since 9/11, most found this to be the fault of the Bush  government, not their neighbors. In August, 2011, approaching the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks 66% said their quality of life is better than in most Muslim-majority countries. A full 81% have become US citizens.  73% said they had never experienced discrimination in America. 85% of Muslims said suicide bombing is rarely or never justified; only 1% said violence to defend Islam was “often” permissible.Moreover, there is no correlation between support for violence and Muslim religiosity, which is nearly identical to Christian religiosity (church attendance/religious practice, etc.) Muslim Americans have the same views as the general public about the role of women and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem (see Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 08/30/2011). . Significantly higher percentages of Europe’s Muslims believe suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are “often” or “sometimes” justified. [5]

A frequent explanation forAmerica’s relatively sanguine situation is that Muslims inAmerica assimilate. But they do not; they remain visible and devout, wearing headscarves, building mosques, and establishing eateries with Halal meat. What Muslims do in America is not assimilate but participate in the economic, political, and educational life of the country, as other immigrant groups have done.

This works well in the US, it’s agued, because of immigrant self-selection: only the most educated Muslims immigrate, as poor social services allow only the best-prepared to survive. Yet this fails to explain why alienation and at times violence are features even of Britain’s educated Muslims. And poor Muslims in America fail to express alienation or sympathy with suicide bombers. A second self-selection argument is made about these poor: only those eager for the uncushioned but open possibilities of American life immigrate to the US. Yet this doesn’t explain why these poorer immigrants remain visibly religious; wanting to succeed US-style, they should be quick to “assimilate.”

What we are looking for are the conditions that explain why Muslim-Americans do well in the US while remaining devout, even after 9/11. Why can Muslim-Americans participate without assimilating? One reason can be found in the traditional deal of mutual obligation: America offers relatively porous economic, political and educational arenas that allow immigrant participation, and immigrants in turn must participate to survive and contribute to the country. A failure on either side would break the deal. That is, in spite of the discrimination and poverty that immigrants initially suffer—and these should not be minimized– barriers to economic participation have been relatively low.[6]

Additionally, America offers a pluralistic, not secular, public sphere–a civil society not with no religion but with many. Religious groups are not privatized but are community-based, visible and active as the bases for institutions, publications, and symbols. One example of this public visibility is the Muslim prayer group which has met every Friday in the Capitol Building in Washington DC for ten years, uninterrupted by 9/11.

Together, the pluralistic public sphere and relatively porous economy have allowed Muslim immigrants to get into the stream of American life while retaining their religious practice. This relatively productive state of affaris has emerged from three peculiarities in American history: the frontier and size of the US, the immigrant experience itself, and  American evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism, America’s dominant religion from the colonial era through WWI, was in the main a progrssive and often radically liberal force.[7] Advocating a personal relationship with Jesus, individual Bible reading, and anti-authoritarian church structures, evangelicals insisted on freedom for the individual conscience.[8]  Evangelicalism’s’ influence on America, along with mutli-faithed immigration, disposed the nation to multi-confessional communities—in other words, to something like what we now call pluralism. Even the most monolithic Puritan colony in Massachusetts Bay, by the late 17th century had to get used to non-Puritans in their midst. In turn, the relatively open religious and economic environment attracted immigrants, who once on the continent continued to move, leading to sparse settlement and isolated frontier living. This living-on-your-own reinforced evangelical liberalism, where the individual is the primary unit and his freedom of conscience, of prime importance. This freedom in turn attracted newer immigrants, and so the cycle continued, not without struggle, but nonetheless, continued. Finally, to guarantee this freedom for America’s many-faithed immigrants, governmental and legal institutions would have to be secular—a guarantor of rights and freedoms blind to religion–and civil society would have to be pluralistic.

It was a marriage of principle and pragmatism: the principled belief in freedom of conscience and the pragmatic need for immigration. To lure much-needed settlers, America had to persuade people to risk the ocean and endure the hardships of dislocation, the frontier and later industrialization. Freedom to practice one’s religion was an advertisement. To succeed inAmerica, immigrants did not have to give up something so intimate as their God.

Interestingly, the Constitutional separation of church and state, which established secular government, did not weaken but strengthened the nation’s churches. Owing to its extra-governmental status, religion was protected from the stains of political hypocrisy and corruption; it retained its good reputation as protector of the individual and his freedom. The result was high church membership and, absent a state church, the marketplace of confessions.

This made American ideas about church and state nearly the inverse of those in Europe. In Enlightenment Europe, established churches were suspect, as they were associated with the ancien regime and with the monarchist parties of the 19thcentury. As democratic forces grew, so did respect for and reliance on the (secualr) state, since it was seen as the protector of the nation against the irrationalities of religion and aristocratic power. By contrast the US, born in revolt against London, saw government—not church—as suspect. Liberalism was emphasized and civil society–not the state–became the heavy hitter.  Religion remained grassroots, home to the common man and individual expression, a people’s thing. Even many Bible-belt Americans don’t worry that Muslims are committed to their religion because in the US, many people are. 40% of Muslims in the US  say they attend religious services once a week, precisely the figure for Americans of other faiths.

One consequence of this history is America’s paradoxical-sounding “familiarity with difference.” As Americans have long been dealing with different sorts of people, they’ve gotten used to distinguishing those differences that might damage the country from differences which will not. At least they tend not to panic. Even after 9/11, there were but a few anti-Muslim incidents and, as seen above, 73% of Muslim-Americans said they have never experienced discrimination. The first Muslim (Keith Ellison, D-Minn) was elected to Congress after 9/11. Contrast this to Britain, where over 50% of survey respondents in a 2006 poll reported feeling that Islam itself, not a radical minority, posed a threat to the country.[9] 58% of Germans, who have suffered no terrorist attack, in 2006 expected “a coming conflict with the Muslim population.”[10]

More than not panicking, Americans have a “gut level” confidence in the traditional deal. If immigrants are participating in public life, whom should they attack and why? In a positive cycle, America’s relatively porous economic and political arenas boost familiarity with difference among the non-immigrant populaion. This lowers the demand for assimilation and lowers too the barriers to immigrant participation in the economy and politics. In Europe, by contrast, there is considerable demand for assimilation and a less porous economy and politics, yielding less participation. With less participation comes less familiarity with difference on the host country’s side. On the immigrants’ side, there is more resentment, which may lead to lassitude about contributing to the economy and politics, a rejection of the host society, violence, or insistence on maintaining symbolic differences—ironically, in a society less able to accept them precisely because of its discomfort with difference. This in short is Europe’s headscarf  kerfuffle. This high-visibility symbol speaks to none of the economic, educational or political barriers to participation nor does it address immigrant responses to these barriers. But it demands symbolic assimilation.

The history I’ve reviewed here  is America’s and cannot be pasted onto another society, even America’s cultural parents in Europe. In conclusion, I would suggest only that religion, including Islam, changes. A human institution, religion evolves as everything human does; it has its internal, traditional mechanisms for renewal. American evangelicals for instance were liberal, then conservative, and now some are leaving the Religious Right for an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist theology and dedication to the needy. Islam, in another instance, has evolved varied modes of textual interpretation and expression in its 1,500 years and practice across continents. In a third example, the prayers services now being led by Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women in the US are also examples of religious change. They are provocative but they would not have gotten off the ground had they been demanded by feminists or civil libertarians. They are possible because they emerge from the logic, traditions and women within religious orthodoxy itself.

The idea of “traditional change” is a paradox, like “familiarity with difference.” Yet both might make some contribution to debates about Muslims in Europe, where Islam—or religion overall—is sometimes seen as an unchanging, permanent threat to democracy. Islam in Europe is no more static than any other aspect of culture. A European Islam is emerging just as a modern European Protestantism and Catholicism emerged, distinct from earlier doctrine and practice. It is the process of “traditional change” which both fundamentalism and assimilation obliterate—fundamentalism by insisting on a usually-idealized fixed past, assimilation by demanding a quick-fix shift to a modern western model which can provoke a backlash or simply not be taken seriously by the confessional community to begin with.
Traditional change proceeds in a pluralistic framework where it has time and space, and where devout immigrants have pragmatic access to the economics, education and politics of their new countries. Without these, Europe demands assimilation before participation in an economy immigrants can’t get into anyway. This is a ticket to the ghetto, where self-segregation abets discrimination, where the normal developments in religion are impeded, and where host societies allow their anxieties to run national policy. Given that secular modernity aims at keeping the irrational out of government, this would be a pronounced and sad failure.


[1] see, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2007 (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=329) for theUS; 2006 for Muslims inBritain,France,Germany andSpain

[2] 2007 (March). Islam and identity in Germany, Europe Report N+181 – 14, Crisis Group on Islamism,Brussels.

[3] Khan, M. (2007, Issue 20). Understanding Muslim Radicalism in Britain. Islamica Magazine, p. 25

[4] Grossman, C. (2007, Oct.) Tensions between Sunnis, Shiites, emerging inUSA.

http://usatoday.printthis.clickability.com/pt/cpt?action=cpt&title=Tension+between+Sunnis%2C+Shiites+emerging+in+USA+-+USATODAY.com&expire=&urlID=24090451&fb=Y&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.usatoday.com%2Fnews%2Freligion%2F2007-09-24-muslim-tension_N.htm&partnerID=1660

[5] The area in which Muslim-Americans differ from the general US population is terrorism: only 26% of Muslim-Americans believe the government’s “war on terror” is a “sincere” effort to reduce terrorism, and only 40% believe Muslims committed the 9/11 attacks. In sum, regarding quality of life in the US, Muslim-Americans are as content as anyone and on par economically and educationally.

[6] Today, roughly 1/3 of second-generation Asian and Hispanic immigrants marry a non-Asian or non-Hispanic, well over half of the third generation.Children of even unskilled immigrants rise economically at about the same rate as children of unskilled native-born workers, closing half the gap between their parents and the average American, see Borjas, G. (2003, May). Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 12088, 2006; Smith, J. Assimilation across the Latino Generations, American Economic Review, Vol. 93,  pp. 315–319.

[7] Its turn to conservatism and coalition with the Republicans is a provocative story outside the limits of this article.

[8] American evangelicalism was rarely fundamentalism, which focuses on in-group purification, a dooms-day or Armageddon eschatology, and intellectual absolutism (one path for right living)
[9] Johnston, P. (2006, August). Islam poses a threat to the West, say 535 in poll. Telegraph, 25. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/08/nislam25.xml

[10] 2006 (May 17). FAZ; the methodology of this poll was disputed, see Islamische Ueitung,17 May 2006.

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