Does America Do It Better? Religion, Immigration, and Pluralism in the US and Europe

Does America Do It Better?

Religion, Immigration, and Pluralism in the US and Europe—

A special focus on Islam

 By Marcia Pally

 Internationale Politik, German Council on Foreign Relations, September, 2007

The May, 2007 Pew Report on Muslims in the US revealed a relatively sanguine picture, notably in contrast to the more fractious situation in Europe.[1] Does that mean America has gotten something right? The report’s usefulness lies not in sparking competitive tension about who is pursuing the better policies regarding Muslim immigrants. Rather, it is in bringing to the fore questions about society, politics, economics, and religion which many countries face today—those in Europe, North America, the Mideast, and Central Asia.

In current discussions, countries run by religious law are usually distinguished from those run by secular law, but there is a fundamental level of questioning that confronts us all. How shall institutions be designed and policies implemented given religious plurality and the modern concept of the “secular.” Where and how should that Johnny-come-lately concept be instituted? Even countries run by religious law, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, are faced with the option of the secular; given modern communication technologies, it is there to be dealt with. In these remarks, I’ll first review the Pew findings and then explore two concept-pairs that I believe are useful in deciding how one’s country should work. They are secular/pluralist and assimilation/participation.

Pew estimates that 2.35 million Muslims live in the US. 65% of the adults were born abroad: 34% in Arab countries, 8% in Pakistan, another 8% in Iran, and 10% in other South Asian countries. 35% are native-born Americans (20% African-Americans, 15% other Americans). Comparing their responses to those of their European counterparts, Pew found Europe’s Muslims to be “ghettoized” and “markedly less well off than the general population, frustrated with economic opportunities and socially isolated.” Two percent of Muslim-Americans are low-income, compared to 18% in Germany and France, 22% in Britain and 23% in Spain. 47% of Muslim-Americans consider themselves “Muslim first” while 66% of Germany’s Muslims do, 81% in Britain, 69% in Spain and 46% in France.

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. Most feel Muslims should adopt American customs once in the US and 63% report no conflict between religious devotion and living in a modern society. Muslims who report dissatisfaction with life in the US are largely African-Americans, who have experienced economic and social discrimination as “blacks” in the US.

For Muslims as a whole, however, both income and college graduation levels match national norms. In party identification, 63% of Muslim-Americans lean towards the Democrats compared to 51% of the general public; 11% describe themselves as Republican-leaning compared with 36% of the general public. On social issues, Muslim-Americans are similar to religious Protestants and Catholics, with 61% saying, for instance, that homosexuality should be discouraged.

Though 53% reported that it being Muslim in the US became more difficult after 9/11, most found this to be the fault of the government, which “singles out” Muslims for increased surveillance, not the fault of their neighbors. Moreover, a full 40% said life had not changed after 9/11; 73% said they had never experienced discrimination while living in America. 63% had a “very unfavorable” view of al Qaeda; 85% said suicide bombing is rarely or never justified; only 1% said violence to defend Islam was “often” permissible. Significantly higher percentages of Europe’s Muslims believe suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are “often” or “sometimes” justified. The area in which Muslim-Americans most 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 Arab Muslims were the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks; the more religious one is, the more disbelieving.

In sum, regarding quality of life in the US, Muslim-Americans are as content as the general population and on par economically and educationally. “What emerges” said Amaney Jamal, an adviser to the Pew study, “is the great success of the Muslim American population in its socio-economic assimilation.” Jamal’s remark is understandable, but “assimilation” is not what is successful. “Assimilation” means dissolving into the mainstream, but Muslim-Americans do not dissolve. They remain devoutly Muslim in a country where 85% of the population is of Christian heritage. 40% of Muslim-Americans say they attend religious services once a week; 61% say they pray every day; 72% say “religion is very important” in their lives.

What Muslims do in the US is not assimilate but participate in the economic, political, educational and social life of America, as evinced by income and education levels and by the high numbers who say many of their friends are non-Muslims. One frequent claim outside the US is that participation works well in America because of a self-selection process: only the most educated Muslims immigrate to America as the poor social services allow only the best-prepared to survive. This is a piece of the puzzle, but fails to answer two questions: first, middle-class Muslims in Britain—America’s cultural parent–become alienated, join Islamist groups, and commit acts of terror. Why is this so much less of an issue in the US?

Second, the educated-immigrant-in-America argument does not explain why poor Muslims in the US–of which there are many if, even fewer than in Europe–don’t express dissatisfaction, alienation, and sympathy with Al Qaeda. About this less-well-off group it’s been argued that only those poor who are especially adventurous—ready for the harsh but relatively open possibilities of American life–immigrate to the US. They arrive with energy, ambition and capacity for delayed gratification–the Protestant Ethic, so to speak–and are satisfied with America because it rewards those characteristics. Europe’s immigrants, on this theory, migrate for the dole and don’t care about participating in Europe’s economic and political life. Yet this doesn’t explain why poorer immigrants to America remain religious; in fact, 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 while remaining devout and “distinctive-looking,” even after 9/11. Said another way, why can Muslim-Americans participate without assimilating?  Two factors appear critical: a pluralistic public sphere and relatively porous economic, political and educational arenas that allows for immigrant participation. That is, in spite of the discrimination and poverty that immigrants have suffered, barriers to economic participation have been relatively low. Were they not, the motive for immigration, with its dislocation and loss, would have vanished. And it has not vanished: the US over the last few years has experienced levels of immigration exceeding the peak levels of 1910. This immigrant narrative is not one of quick success but of grinding work and success usually over two generations. It is surely an American myth, yet one grounded in long term economic patterns. The second factor in Muslim-American participation, the pluralistic public sphere, demands more discussion, especially in distinction from secular public spheres.

The “pluralistic public sphere” describes an arena not with no religion but with many–religions which are not privatized but are visible and active in civil society. Religious faith and practice are thus the bases for institutions, associations, publications, and symbols that function in public, and which influence people’s values and conduct.  American identity does not require sectarian conformity. While “sameness” might be a requirement of smaller subgroups (tacit or otherwise), it is not required for entry into national, city, or school life. “Secular” by contrast is an Enlightenment concept about authority. It proposes institutions and practices where the authority to explain phenomena, develop and interpret ideas, and act on them, does not emanate from the divine, His representative, or sacred text. It is the Weberian “disenchanted.” (Just to clear up the record, “secular” also differs from the “profane,” “mundane” and “worldly.” “Profane” is the opposite of “sacred”; it is a term within the religious context denoting the unholy and impure. “Mundane” and “worldly” are not the opposite of “sacred”; they denote things and discourses without reference to the religious or sacred. Within a theocracy, one may still discusses the price of tomatoes or develop treatises on war without referring to church, God, or even to religious discourses on war, as Jamal al-Din Ibn Nubatah did in the Syria of the 14th century. In a medieval theocracy or pre-modern animist society, one can speak of religion, of the sacred, profane, mundane and worldly, but it is anachronistic to speak of the secular, a concept of the modern.)

The US  is not a secular society; neither is Europe. 45% of American Christians say they attend religious services at least once a week; 70% say they pray every day; 60% say religion is “very important” in their lives. America is a religiously pluralistic society in which specific institutions–in government, the judciary– are secular.  From the colonial period on, religious groups created many of the dominant institutions, publications, and symbols in civil society. Many of the “associations” that Tocqueville praised were religious. They interacted with each other and with secular institutions. This interaction was often rife with prejudice but nonetheless was a far cry from ethnic violence or wars of religion. Critically over time, the fracas did not wipe out minority religions but rather broadened the public sphere to include more religions as immigrants arrived with them.  Within this social and cultural milieu, the US, like Europe, has political, legal, economic and educational institutions whose scope and authority are secular, not emanating from a divine. These include the Constitution, bicameral legislature, judiciary, system of public education, etc. In practice, this changes the locus of power. When US judges rule, they cite the Constitution or case law not Leviticus, and that makes the difference in what laws govern. When certain religious groups in the US claim that the nation’s “secular” institutions should in fact be religious, they do not seek to make America into a religious society; it is already that. They seek to alter the foundational authority of targeted institutions–legal, political, educational. That’s what the fight is about.

The establishment of secular institutions in the US had many aims, but none of them was the creation of a religion-free nation or country of privatized religions. Religious groups, as we’ve seen, are in the public sphere and advocate for their views. Moreover, in 2006, 54% of American Christians said houses of worship should express their political and social views. Indeed, one function of secular institutions was to allow people of many creeds to work in them without sectarian barriers to admission—that is, the multi-faithed workplace. Another function was to create the pluralistic public sphere which, while rich in Christian symbols and institutions, was open to other religions. The most relevant institution, the Constitutional separation of church and state, explicitly had this aim. By prohibiting the establishment of a state religion, it kept the public sphere open to all confessions. (It also did a few other things to help religion: by keeping religion out of government, it protected religion from the stains of political hypocrisy and corruption, thus retaining religion’s good reputation and transcendent power over parties and administrations. By keeping government out of religion, it shielded religions from state interference and control.)

In sum, America’s pluralistic deal is as follows: immigrants have to participate in the secular, economic and political fracas of the nation, as they relatively little social-service “net,” but they can keep not only their private faith but their community practice in civil society.

In this deal, our two concept-pairs and the two conditions of immigrant life come together: America has relatively porous and secular economic, political and educational arenas demanding immigrant participation (not assimilation), and it has a pluralistic (not secular) public sphere allowing diverse religious practice in civil society. Tolerance for other people’s religious practices is the price paid for tolerance of one’s own. Moreover, prejudice has tended to fall as participation increased. It has been in no one’s interest for very long to disturb this pragmatic, live-and-let-live mess.

One result of the deal is America’s paradoxical-sounding “familiarity with difference.” As Americans are used to many different sorts of people in the socio-economic, educational, and political arenas, they’ve gotten used to distinguishing those differences that might damage the country from those—most—which will not. At least they tend not to panic. Even after 9/11, there were but a few anti-Muslim incidents. But it’s more than not panicking. It’s confidence in the immigrant-deal. The belief is strong in America that, once immigrants are participating economically and politically , they don’t feel the need to make a belligerent, rebellious point of their differences. If they’re participating, who would they be rebelling against? In a positive feedback cycle, the relatively porous economic and political arenas boost familiarity with difference, which reduces fear of newcomers, and thus lowers the barriers to their participation in economic and political arenas.

Looking at the “assimilation/“participation” and “secularism/pluralism” distinctions, one finds that Europe and the US fall on either side of the divide. Thus, the pressures placed on Europe’s immigrants are the inverse of those placed on America’s. While in the US, the pressure is to participate, pressure to assimilate is lower; religious and ethnic differences are often evaded on a “live and let live” basis. In Europe, if we believe the Pew reports and Europe’s own press, there is considerable demand for assimilation yet a less porous economy and politics, yielding less participation. With less participation comes less familiarity with difference on the part of the host country. Among immigrants, there is more resentment against the host, which may lead to a pugnacious withdrawal from the economy and politics, a defensive rejection of the host society, violence, and angry, rebellious 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. It speaks to none of the economic, educational or political barriers to participation or to immigrant responses to them. But it demands symbolic assimilation.

The US model may be sanguine; it is America’s way of organizing religion (pluralistically) and economics, education and politics (participatorily, in secular institutions). But it may be unworkable in places with different histories and worldviews. Nonetheless, it is the organization of these same factors that all nations must determine. The laic  model (in France, for instance) posits control of religion by the secular government; that is, the government determines what the private religious sphere can do. But laicité rejects pluralism in the public sphere and says little about the host’s country’s obligation to make its economy, education and politics porous to immigrant participation. While civil society in France is rich with the Muslim and Arabic cultures of France’s former colonies, the French paradigm for a well-functioning democracy admits only private religion and encourages assimilation. The German model integrates official churches into the otherwise secular government and education system, and so cannot relegate religion to only the private sphere.  But it is uncomfortable with public Muslim practice and again says little about the host’s country’s obligation to make its economy, education and politics porous.

Interestingly, between these western systems and out-and-out theocracies are models being worked out in Turkey and Indonesia, for instance. Important in these models is the authority given to traditional religious thought and practice, which has long had its own mechanisms for change in religious practice and for evolving the interpretation of sacred texts. It is this authority which secularism, assimilation, and fundamentalism seek to obliterate—fundamentalism by obliterating traditional mechanisms of change in favor of a usually-idealized fixed past, secularism and assimilation by obliterating traditional mechanisms of change in favor of a modern western outcome.

It is also these traditional mechanisms of change that are not seen in the polarization between the “religious and secular.” But they might be seen in a pluralistic framework. This “traditional-change” is a paradox, like “familiarity with difference,” but might be useful in considering what relgio-political systems to pursue: Assimilationist or participatory? Pluralistic, secular or theocratic?  Allowing traditional-change to have time and space requires a certain pluralism and real, pragmatic access by immigrants to the economics, education and politics of their new countries. Absent that access, there is nothing for tradition to consider, no changing conditions to reckon with. For one thing, this is bizarre, for cultures have always had contact with each other and so changed. For another, it is neither assimilation nor participation but ghettoization.

[1] see, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2007 ( for the US; 2006 for Muslims in Britain, France, and Spain