Sunday, September 14, 2014

Muslim Communities: U.S. vs. Europe

Islamic State militants are waging a war of terror in an effort to create a state stretching from northern Syria into Iraq.  According to the latest CIA estimate there could now be more than 31,000 of them.  A growing number of foreign fighters from Europe, the United States and elsewhere are joining IS ranks. 

The Soufan group, an international security consulting firm, estimates that about 700 are from France, 800 from Russia, almost 300 from Britain and about 100 from the United States.  According to these figures, the number of American Muslims answering the call to jihad seems relatively small.  Some analysts say this is because American Muslims are generally more integrated in local society than their counterparts in Europe.

Two recent studies, one funded by the German government, found that the majority of Muslims believe that Islamic Sharia law should take precedence over the secular constitutions and laws of their European host countries.

“There is a new wall rising in the city of Berlin,” wrote German author and sociologist Peter Schneider a few years ago in reaction to the murder of a young Turkish girl by her own brother. The girl had "shamed" her family by leaving a husband they forced her to marry. Schneider said that the majority of Berliners have not crossed the invisible barrier separating the affluent central and northern districts of the city from the suburbs housing some 300-thousand Muslims.

Germany has more than three-and-a-half million Muslims, 70 percent of whom are Turks and Kurds. They started arriving in the 1950s and helped fuel the country’s post-war economic boom. They were called “Gastarbeiter”, or guest workers, because they were expected to eventually return to their home countries. But most of them stayed and were joined by their families. Their children and often grandchildren were born in Germany. France, Italy and Scandinavian countries also have growing Muslim populations. 

James Zogby
James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, says Germany and many other European societies still consider generations of immigrants as temporary laborers.

“They may have come as guest workers, but today they are stake holders, " said Zogby. "They are fundamentally tied to the countries they are in. There is no way that they are not going to be there. The host countries need them. They have sunk roots deep into the country, but they have been alienated.”

Since World War II, Muslims have settled in many parts of Western Europe -- some in search of a better living, others to flee the post-colonial disorder or ethnic violence in their home countries. Although circumstances vary from country to country, European societies for years have been reluctant to embrace newcomers from different cultures.

According to Zogby, it is much easier for Muslims to become Americans.

“The process of naturalization is much more accessible to immigrants, but also the process of becoming American means more than just getting citizenship. It means that you also get a new identity. You also get an attachment to a new culture. You also get a new sense of who you are and, in the process, the idea of being American changes because all of us become different. We are today a different America than we were a hundred years ago.”

An American today can be portrayed as Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American, or a woman wearing a head scarf. "This was not a case a century ago," noted Zogby. "But images of French, German or Italian citizens have changed little to reflect growing immigrant populations."

Leena El-Ali, program director for the non-profit conflict resolution group Search for Common Ground, said many Muslim immigrants have come to the United States in search of higher education. And many of them came independently, she said.

“In other words, a son would come and soon afterwards perhaps a sister would follow, then a father, than a mother, etc. But the point of entry, to a large extent, was education. [They came] in a search of higher education, a better education. And then they would stay. In Europe, perhaps because it’s a lot closer to the Middle East in particular, they [i.e., the Muslims] tend to be entire families who emigrated. So you find in France that you have entire North African families. You have in the UK entire families, Middle Eastern, but particularly Indian subcontinent Asians: Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. In Germany you find entire Turkish families, and so on.”

Observers note that most American Muslims, especially those born in the United States, are successful businessmen, scholars, professionals or highly skilled workers. And most are integrated into mainstream society. In contrast, few Turks in Germany, Moroccans in France or Pakistanis in Britain, for example, have progressed beyond low-skilled jobs. When unemployment rises, it does so at a higher rate for immigrants and their children who often live in, what many observers call, immigrant ghettos.

Young Muslims without prospects for the future are easy pray to radicals offering a religious explanation for their misery and jihad as a way out of it.  Some of them end up performing atrocities for Islamic State. 

Islam is the third largest religion in the United States. The exact number of adherents is a matter of debate because the U.S. Census does not include a question about religious affiliation.  Estimated figures range between about 4 million and 8 million.  About half a million of these Muslims are of foreign origin.  

Sulayman Nyang, Professor of Islam and African studies at Howard University in Washington, warns that new waves of poor and uneducated Muslim refugees in some U.S. cities are beginning to live in similar circumstances as their counterparts in Europe. 

 “One thing that is happening to the American-Muslim community is that the gradual increase in the number of refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia and other places, is beginning to dilute the solidity of the Muslim economic presence in America,” said Nyang.

Sociologists warn that poor education, poverty, unemployment and a sense of alienation could turn some Muslims in the United States away from mainstream society, and efforts must be made to prevent that from happening. 

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Further reading:

Peter Morici: Terrorism is inspired and financed by the failings of the global economy

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