Rabat – 2017 provided even more headlines related to immigration and attitudes on Islam. The new American president instituted a controversial travel ban that was primarily directed at Muslim-majority nations.
The US Supreme Court recently allowed the third version of President Trump’s travel ban to go into effect while several legal challenges to it continue. During her failed presidential campaign earlier this year in France, Marine Le Pen said, “A multicultural society is a multi-conflict society.” Nigel Farage, the long-time leader of Great Britain’s UKIP movement, used one simple slogan for his long campaign to remove the UK from the European Union: “I want my country back.”
Lots of headlines but a more nuanced view of life in the US and the EU for Muslims shows a complex story that often echoes the experience of other immigrant communities over the past century and a half: discrimination, hardship, self-reliance, progress, integration, prosperity, faith. The lives of millions of American and European Muslims exist beyond the front-page political issues that dominate national capitals.
About one percent of the US population identifies as Muslim. In France, about eight percent do. Germany and the United Kingdom, six percent. A Pew research study earlier this year found that seventy-five percent of Muslim American respondents said there was “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims in the U.S. But the survey also showed that ninety-two percent were “proud to be an American.”
These results show the resiliency of American democratic values and tolerance during a challenging political environment: thirty-two percent of respondents said they’d been “treated with suspicion” within the past year. Optimism and resilience are enduring qualities. When a suburban Minneapolis Islamic center was bombed (no physical injuries) this past summer, more than 1,000 people, including the state’s governor, rallied at the site to show support for the area’s Somali population.
On the economic side, a business development leader in the Minneapolis region noted the importance of the East African community for continued business growth in the region: “Our employers know this is the population they need to blend into their workforce if they’re going to continue to grow.” Fifty-eight percent of Muslim American adults are foreign born and they are as likely as Americans in general to report a household income of $100,000 or more.
But the Pew research also finds that Muslims are three times more likely as other American demographic groups to be unemployed and actively looking for work. The employment challenge facing first-generation immigrants is one that has been faced by past generations of immigrant Poles, Irish, Italians, Lebanese and others. Hambi Ulukaya, founder of the Greek yogurt company Chobani, immigrated to the US from Turkey in 1994. He has hired hundreds of refugees to work at his yogurt production facilities and advocates greater support for employment opportunities as both a means to self-sufficiency and a foundation for social integration. “The minute they get a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee,” he said in one interview.
Progress is real, too, in Europe. The German foundation, Bertelsmann, released a study this year that found real progress toward integration and acceptance for Muslims while also noting the small but enduring level of intolerance toward Muslim immigrants. The foundation surveyed Muslims in five European nations – France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Austria.
Forty-nine percent of Muslims in these five countries learned the national language during childhood as their first language; including seventy-six percent of second-generation Muslim immigrants. Germany and Switzerland provide the strongest path towards employment and economic prosperity. In both nations, a strong economy means that the employment rate for Muslims is about the same as for the general population. But equally important is community job placement initiatives and affordable housing; concrete measures that create obligations for both immigrants and local agencies.
One of the recommendations of the Bertelsmann Stiftung study is the need to promote intercultural contacts and “interreligious discussion” in a variety of civic settings, from schools to neighborhood associations to the media. Sharing the stories of how people came to live where they now live. A Budapest-based tour operator is now conducting walking tours through the city’s Muslim and Jewish quarters.
The tours have become very popular this year, and the tour company owner admitted a blunt fact during a recent interview with Reuters, “Most people have never met a Muslim in their life.” In the state of Minnesota, the public radio station, MPR, now provides international and national news coverage in the Somali language. In Michigan, the Michigan Muslim Community Council organizes the annual Ramadan Fight Against Hunger, a volunteer-driven effort to collect, package and deliver food supplies to at-risk families, many who are non-Muslim.
Spain’s experience in 2017 provides important insights into religion, identity and integration. Moroccans constitute the largest single group (746,000) of foreigners residing in Spain. The two countries share a long history, from the Reconquista to a modern relationship that includes $11 billion in two-way trade and cooperation on migration issues. Spain has always had stronger historical and cultural connections to Islam than other EU nations. Following the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in August, thousands of Spaniards marched in support of the region’s long history of tolerance and diversity – including thousands of local Muslims.
In an interview with the newspaper El Mundo, the president of the Young Muslims of Spain Association made an insightful suggestion about language and the state’s role in regulating the religious sphere. “The State is absent, we require qualification certificates,” said Mohamed Said Alilech. He advocates an activist role for the Spanish government to create pedagogical standards for religious instructors and imams working in mosques, standards that are already the norm in neighboring Morocco.
To combat online extremism and – equally important – serve Spanish-speaking young Muslims, he added, “That is why it is essential that the imams speak Spanish.” Significant government oversight in religious doctrine, practice and instruction in secular societies is rare. But perhaps it’s worth exploring to cultivate a more unprejudiced civil society. Since 1992, the Islamic Commission of Spain has served as the official board for advising the Spanish government on Islam and the Muslim community. The group has not traditionally focused on training or doctrine.
The events in Barcelona this summer highlight the need for ongoing collaboration and dialogue among state entities, public and private, and immigrant populations. And perhaps everyone needs to re-evaluate their notions of citizenship in societies that are rapidly changing. The geographic origins and religious faiths of new immigrants may seem different. Their desire for opportunity isn’t.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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