The best place in the world to be a Muslim

Akbar S. Ahmed Is it America or Europe?

The best place in the world to be a Muslim
“I object, Dr. Ahmed,” said the large bearded man in a turban and shalwar kameez as he rose slowly from his seat. I had just shown my documentary film Journey into America in the theater at the American Embassy in London to a large audience of mainly Muslim leaders from all over the UK. The occasion was an unprecedented one in which the embassy had graciously invited this large Muslim gathering into its building in Grosvenor Square, which more than anything resembled Fort Knox in its security.

My mind was racing through a list of possible places in the film that a South Asian imam — his appearance and accent gave away his ethnic identity — could have objected to: praising Thomas Jefferson as a visionary, the risqué scenes at Mardi Gras, or the descriptions of African Americans as the best examples of Muslims in America.

“In your film, Muslims say America is the best place in the world to be a Muslim. I disagree. The UK is the best place in the world to be a Muslim.” One or two more gentlemen with beards had risen quickly after him to say the same thing, not to be outdone in publicly expressing their fealty to the establishment knowing full well there were several high-profile figures in the audience, including at least one lord and a police commissioner.

There was palpable relief in me and I suspect in other members of the audience too. The imam’s objection raised a question in my mind. While the statement expressed a wholly subjective view, its logical corollary was a question. Which Muslim community — the American or the European one — was in fact better placed, integrated, in short, better off to be where they were in relation to the majority population?

The methodological conditions to examine this question could not have been more perfect if a social scientist had set up an experiment in a laboratory. One community — the Muslim ummah in the West — split in two by an ocean and finding itself on two separate continents, the bulk of whom arrived around the same time, after the Second World War, and living in lands dominated by white Christian populations. How would the two look like over two to three generations from the time the original family members arrived? How much of the identity of their ancestors would they retain? Which Muslim community would be more felicitously integrated into the larger American or European societies? Finally, given the history of the two continents in dealing with their minorities and their current economic and political uncertainties, what are the prospects for Muslims in the future?

Ethnic composition

While there is so much discussion and controversy about Muslims in the West, the actual numbers in terms of population are tiny. The US has a Muslim population of 1% to 2%, while Europe has a higher percentage, with around 5% of the population being Muslim. There are also substantial Muslim minorities in European countries. In Bulgaria, they constitute around 10% of the population, the highest Muslim minority population in Europe.
More than 30 percent of the slaves brought to the US were Muslim

Muslims in the US and Europe can be divided into three broad categories: indigenous or native Muslims, immigrant Muslims and converts to Islam.

In the US, there are no “indigenous” Muslims, but the closest would be African Americans. Some 30% to 40% of the slaves brought to the US were Muslim — some estimates are even higher — so Islam in America goes back to the very beginning of American history. Over the years, the identity of the slaves was eliminated, but in the 20th century, African Americans began to adopt Islam in various forms and declare they were “reverting” to the religion of their ancestors. In Europe, however, there are entire nations of indigenous Europeans who are Muslim, including Bosnians and Kosovar Albanians. They believe they are European and are, by any standard. Other Muslims who could be considered indigenous are the Turks of Greece and Bulgaria.

Sultana Freeman, an American convert to Islam recently had her Florida driver's license revoked because she refused to have her picture taken without removing her veil
Sultana Freeman, an American convert to Islam recently had her Florida driver's license revoked because she refused to have her picture taken without removing her veil

After World War II, immigrant Muslims from the Middle East, South Asia and other places came to the US and Europe. In the US, large numbers of mainly Arabs and South Asians came to study and work, but there were Muslims emigrating from the entire Muslim world, from Cambodians to South Africans to Indonesians. This was made possible by the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark 1965 immigration bill, which President John F Kennedy had initiated. The intention of these immigrants was to stay and pursue the American dream, and they entered the middle and professional class.

In Europe, this process was different, with large numbers of immigrants coming to work as manual labor. World War II, in which 70 million to 80 million people were killed, devastated Europe’s economy and manpower was needed in factories. Agreements were signed with Muslim nations, commonly former colonies, to provide such manpower. So Algerians went to France, Moroccans to Spain, and Pakistanis to the UK. Exceptions included Germany, which had no Muslim colonies and drew on its historical relationship with Turkey in recruiting large numbers of Turks as “guest workers.”

The intention of the European immigrants, unlike those who went to the US, was to make money and return home. The association with the former colonies and the post-World War II labor agreements meant that, again unlike the US, the Muslim population of European countries is highly centered on one ethnic group. For example, a very high percentage of Muslims in the UK are of Pakistani descent and the same is true of Turks in Germany. This means that in terms of visibility in the UK and Germany, Muslims in politics and presenters on TV will invariably be of Pakistani and Turkish origin respectively.

The US and Europe are similar in regard to Muslim converts. In both places, members of the majority population, and in other cases minority populations such as Latinos in the US, are converting to Islam. In terms of gender, it is again the same in the US and Europe: Most of the converts are women.

Social class and population concentration

In the US, Muslim immigrants tended to be part of the professional class, with many doctors, lawyers and engineers. Women were active in their communities and adjusted fairly quickly. Had it not been for 9/11, they would have adjusted even better. The community is dispersed in terms of location and has generally followed mainstream American trends in moving to suburban areas and seeking the comforts of the American lifestyle. There are glimpses of European-style working class monoethnic enclaves, such as Dearborn with Michigan’s Lebanese community, but only a glimpse as there are so many other groups also in Dearborn.
In Europe, Muslims are predominately working class

In Europe, Muslims are predominately working class. They originally came mainly from Muslim agricultural societies. Upon coming to Europe, they formed enclaves in urban areas, often with others from the same region and even village “back home.” In Bradford, UK, for example, there are large populations not only from Pakistan, but also from a specific part of Azad Kashmir. They speak their local provincial language rather than Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. They eat the same food, they dress alike, and they marry with partners within their own ethnic community. Upon arriving from the outside in communities like Bradford, one feels like a foreigner. On the plus side, with so many people from one ethnic group, there is a high degree of group solidarity that is reflected in local politics. In Bradford, the Lord Mayor is of Pakistani descent, as have been the last few of his predecessors.

The Impact of 9/11 and Islamophobia

While there are many differences in the US and European Muslim communities, they were similarly affected by 9/11 and the subsequent development of Islamophobia. The 9/11 attacks in the US, major European terrorist strikes such as the 7/7 London bombings and the Madrid train bombings, combined with the continuing bloodshed in the Muslim world have convinced many in America and Europe that Islam is a religion of terror and violence. Many polls reflect this public perception of Islam. In the US, for example, a recent poll found that just 27% of Americans view Muslim citizens favorably, while a poll three years ago found that almost half of Americans believed that American and Islamic values were not compatible. A poll last year in Germany found that around half the population felt Islam was a “threat.”

To counter these perceptions, Muslims in the US and Europe have been active in interfaith dialogue. But this has not been very effective. With every new act of violence — such as the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in London and the subsequent speech by his blood-drenched killer clutching a meat cleaver, which was given blanket media coverage — revulsion grows. The recent beheadings by ISIS of American and British hostages crossed a red line for people in the West. These hostages were people who had gone to the Muslim world to help Muslims — some were journalists and others were aid workers. They were not soldiers and they were not spies. Alan Henning, for example, had been working with Muslims in Britain to distribute food and medical supplies. The entire Muslim community in Britain appealed to ISIS, but it made no difference. There were prayers for Henning including one at the central mosque in Manchester. Yet the shock, horror and condemnation in the Muslim community of these actions is not seen by mainstream society, leading to the perpetuation of anti-Islamic sentiment.

Proponents of Islamophobia in the US and Europe have played a very destructive role in relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and indeed are linked to each other across the ocean. Robert Spencer, an American who has made a career of attacking Muslims, for example, was cited 64 times in the manifesto of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway who he believed were responsible for Muslim immigration. Ideas of hatred induce hatred in people, which results in violence. It is the same with something like ISIS. There is a real danger that extreme hatred emanating from marginal groups, if not checked, will infect mainstream society including mainstream media.

There is great frustration in the Muslim community in the US and Europe about media coverage and depictions of Muslims and Islam. Muslims point out that every time a Muslim commits a violent act, the media will search for explanations in Islam and the Quran. However, when non-Muslims commit violent actions, such as in the United States where students and others kill innocent people, commentators instead search for psychological factors. Muslims ask why, for similar incidents of horrific violence, the explanations are so different. Muslims, they say, are being judged only on the basis of faith.

Historical background

While there is a history of Islam in the US with the African-American community, generally the US has been more or less a blank slate when it comes to dealing with Islam and Muslims. This means that things could go either well or badly. The jury is currently out. Europe, however, has over 1,000 years of dealing with Islam and Muslims, and while there may be Islamophobia on the continent, it is rarer to hear senior European officials, who generally have more awareness about Islam, declare that Islam is a religion of idol worshippers, as officials have in the US.

Much of this European interaction came through the colonial experience, with intermarriage between the communities and numerous books and studies written on Islam and Muslim societies over the years. These studies are not necessarily favorable, but over the years, they have established a relationship between the civilizations. There are also relationships formed through interactions on the battlefield in Europe, for example, between German-speaking central Europe and the Turks. The Ottoman Empire tried and failed to take Vienna twice and held vast tracts of Europe as battles raged over the centuries and terrain was lost, gained and lost again. But it was not entirely a clash of civilizations. From battlefield adversaries, Turks and Germans developed good relations. When I was in Berlin this year visiting the Turkish embassy, the Turkish ambassador showed me a spectacular view of Berlin from his office. I asked him how Turkey obtained such a prime piece of land with such a view. He said the Germans gave it to Ottoman Turks in the 19th century; in World War I, Germany and Turkey fought together as close allies.

Religious leadership

In the US and Europe, Muslim religious leaders — known variously as imams, sheiks and mullahs — tend to lead communities dominated by their ethnic groups. For example, an African American will usually lead African-American mosques in the US and the same with communities dominated by Arabs or South Asians. The problem for the US and Europe is with immigrant imams arriving from overseas, from Egypt or Bangladesh, for example, who will seldom understand the local culture. When a young person goes to the imam to ask about social issues that American and European youth commonly face, such as sex or alcohol, or economic or political concerns, he may be unable to speak to the foreign imam, whose cultural background is so different. It will be similarly difficult to speak with his parents since in traditional Muslim cultures, such subjects are rarely discussed. The young are then left on their own, a dangerous place to be.

The homegrown terrorist

Young Muslims’ inability to find guidance and leadership is partly to blame for the phenomena of the “homegrown terrorist” that is of such concern in the US and Europe. About 100 Americans have joined ISIS, along with around 4,000 Europeans. These are not such high numbers in comparison with the total population, but it only takes four or five people to commit an act of violence that will have a profound impact on society. On 9/11, 19 hijackers changed the world. This is the nature of the age in which we are living.

We must ask: Why are these young Muslims joining ISIS, given that ISIS has beheaded Americans and Europeans? Why have Muslims suspended their own lives to fight in this manner? It is important for social scientists and scholars to ask these questions and link cause and effect while avoiding simplistic or superficial conclusions.

I believe that a central cause of this discontent among young Muslims has to do with the metaphorical sense of being suspended between cultures — that of their parents and the one within which they have grown up. Young Muslims often find they are seen as different by non-Muslims simply because they belong to a different faith. A young man who is Muslim may be harassed and called a terrorist. A girl in hijab may be attacked. It may not happen too often, but it traumatizes that individual and spreads fear in the community. They feel as if they do not belong, they are being rejected by their own society. If they face social problems like lack of education and economic opportunity, the sense of frustration will be even more acute. Facing uncertainty, ignorance, fear, the young find that there are too few mentors to guide them.

To be continued...

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. He is currently working on the forthcoming book and documentary film project Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire. This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014/15 issue of The Islamic Monthly

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland