Why Muslims fare better in America than inEurope

THE State Department estimates that up to 100
American jihadists are fighting in Iraq and
Syria. A video appearing to show a second
American journalist being beheaded by the
Islamic State is circulating. You might think this
would be a difficult time to hold the annual
conference of America’s largest Muslim
Yet the Islamic Society of North America’s
gathering, which took place in Detroit over the
Labour Day weekend, served as a reminder of
how well America is assimilating a religious
minority that has often struggled to feel at
home in Europe. The conference hall was filled
with Muslims of different races wearing clothes
that identified them with different traditions.
The Islamic Boy Scouts had a stand, as did a
Muslim liberal-arts college from California.
People discussed how to erect mosques
without infringing America’s arcane building
regulations, or swapped business cards in the
food court. The star turn was a Southern
Baptist, Jimmy Carter (whose grandson is in
the news, too: see page 42). The only overt
hostility to Israel came from two Hasidic Jews
in fur shtreimel hats, who had come from
Brooklyn to announce their solidarity with the
people of Gaza. America’s Muslims differ from Europe’s in both
quantity and origin. The census does not ask
about faith, but estimates put the number of
Muslims in the country at around 1% of the
population, compared with 4.5% in Britain and
5% in Germany. Moreover, American Islam is
not dominated by a single sect or ethnicity.
When the Pew Research Centre last tried to
count, in 2011, it found Muslims from 77
countries in America. Most western European
countries, by contrast, have one or two
dominant groups—Algerians in France,
Moroccans and Turks in Holland. This matters
because the jumble of groups in America makes
it harder for Muslim immigrants and their
descendants to lead a life apart. Different
traditions get squashed together. When building
mosques, says Chris McCoy, a Kentucky native
who is a prolific architect of Islamic buildings,
“the question is usually not whether we should
have an Indian- or a Saudi-style dome but, can
we afford a dome?” Mixing breeds tolerance:
Pew found that most American Muslims think
that their faith is open to multiple
interpretations, making them the Episcopalians
of the Islamic world.
America’s Muslims are better off than their
European co-religionists. They are almost as
likely as other Americans to report a household
income of $100,000 or more. The same cannot
be said of the Pakistanis who came to work in
the now-defunct textile mills of northern
England or the Turks who became guest workers
in West Germany. Many American Muslims
arrived in the 1970s to complete their higher
education and ended up staying. Muzammil
Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North
America, which issues fatwas, or religious
opinions, to guide the behaviour of the
country’s Muslims, is typical: he was born in
India and holds a Harvard PhD in comparative
There is a stark contrast between this group and
some of the more recent immigrants from
Somalia, who have fewer qualifications and
lower wages (as do African-American Muslims,
who make up about an eighth of the total). This
divide, if anything, makes America’s Muslims
look more like the nation as a whole.
On various measures of integration, Muslims
score fairly well (see chart). A Pew study from
2011 found that 15% of Muslims who are
married or living with someone have a spouse of
a different faith. This may sound low, but it is
higher than the intermarriage rate for American
Jews at a comparable moment in their history,
and above that of modern Mormons. According
to the Pentagon, there were 3,600 Muslims on
active duty in the armed forces in January 2012,
the most recent date for which numbers are
available. This reflects a plan to recruit Muslims
to fight in Islamic countries where an ability to
speak Arabic or Pashto is helpful.
Alas, one or two American Muslims fight for the
other side. In 2009 Nidal Hasan, a US army
psychiatrist, shot and killed 13 people on a
military base in Texas. He was encouraged by
Anwar al-Awlaki, an American propagandist for
al-Qaeda, who was himself killed in a drone
strike in Yemen in 2011. The State Department
says that the government has increased the
scrutiny of travel plans made by people who
have expressed sympathy with foreign Islamists,
and will monitor Muslims returning from Iraq
and Syria.
But this is hard. Douglas McCain, a 33-year-old
African-American who converted to Islam in
2004 and was killed in August while fighting in
Syria, travelled to the war zone via Turkey—an
unremarkable place to go on holiday. Moner
Abusalha, who drove a truck bomb into a
restaurant in Syria in May, went to Jordan,
returned to Florida and then set off on his
suicide mission. In both cases relatives and
friends were baffled by what the two men did.
Nor is it clear that there were grounds for
preventing either from travelling abroad.
A few bad apples
For the past dozen years the FBI and other
agencies have been watching mosques in the
hope of spotting would-be terrorists early. This
has yielded little, although the FBI did reveal
one alarming conspiracy in 2009, when four men
were convicted of planning to shoot down
planes with missiles and burn synagogues in
New York. Not many American Muslims want to
become terrorists. And as the deaths of Mr
McCain and Mr Abusalha suggest, there is no
map for the journey from basketball-loving teen
to violent extremist.
If the September 11th attacks permanently
altered America’s view of Islam, they also
changed Islam in America. Peter Skerry of
Boston College says that a few decades ago it
was common for religious leaders to agonise
over whether it was possible to be a good
Muslim and live in America. That argument
disappeared almost overnight, as did the
question of whether it was appropriate for
American Muslims to vote. At the conference in
Detroit, speakers made frequent approving
references to the protection afforded to the free
exercise of religion by the constitution. Mr
McCoy, the architect, regretted that his elderly
clients often wanted to stick a minaret on their
mosques to make them look like something
from back home. He longed, he said, for
American Islam to create distinctive architectural
forms of its own. In this, style lags substance.
When it comes to their faith, America’s Muslims
have already made something new.
The Economist.

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