On one level, the reasons for the different emphases in the social science literatures on religion among immigrants in Europe and the United States are straightforward and obvious. If studies of immigrant religion in Europe stress a series of problems and conflicts and U.S. studies present an upbeat view, this is because the studies reflect, and seek to analyze and understand, actual social dynamics. The more basic question is why religion is such a problematic area in Western Europe and why in the United States it has helped – not prevented or made more difficult – immigrant integration. One reason is that in the United States, in contrast to Western Europe, the vast majority of immigrants, like most of the native-born, are Christians. Moreover, Americans are considerably more religious than Western Europeans, and their state institutions and constitutional principles provide a foundation for greater acceptance and integration of non-Christian religions. To put it another way: in Europe, Muslim immigrants confront, on the one hand, majority populations that are mainly secular and therefore suspicious of claims based on religion and its requirements and, on the other, societal institutions and national identities that remain anchored to an important extent in Christianity and do not make equal room for Islam.
Immigrant Religions: Christians vs. Muslims
It is not surprising that immigrant religion is seen in a more positive light in the United States, where most immigrants and their children, perhaps as high as 75 percent, share a religious orientation – Christianity – with the majority of long-established Americans.4 In Western Europe, by contrast, Muslims have become the largest religious minority as a result of postwar inflows; an estimated 12 to 14 million people, nearly all of immigrant background, they constitute a growing share of the population, with the highest proportion found in France, where they represent about 8 percent of the total population, compared to around 6 percent in the Netherlands, 4 percent in Germany, and 3 percent in Britain. In France, more than half of the 4 to 5 million Muslims are of Algerian or Moroccan origin, with sizable numbers of Tunisians, Turks, and Africans; about four-fifths of Germany's 3–3.2 million Muslims have origins in Turkey; three-quarters of the Netherlands’ nearly 1 million Muslims are of Turkish and Moroccan origin; and almost three-quarters of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims are of South Asian background (Cesari, 2004:183–184; Buijs and Rath, 2006:7; Eumap, 2007).5
Equally significant is that in Western Europe Islam is associated with large immigrant groups whose successful incorporation is viewed by European natives as the most problematic. Western Europe's major Muslim groups are the most problematic immigrant minorities in terms of poverty, unemployment, and education rates – in France, these are Mahgrebins from Algeria and Morocco; in Germany, Turks; in the Netherlands, Turks and Moroccans; and in Britain, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis (Modood et al., 1997; Kalter, 2006; Silberman et al., 2007).
The contrast with the United States is remarkable. Mexicans, who are, by far, the largest immigrant group (nearly a third of all foreign-born) and the most problematic in terms of legal and socioeconomic status, are virtually all Christian, predominantly Catholic. In general, only a tiny proportion of the foreign-born and their children in the United States – no more than 5 percent – are Muslim.6 There are hardly any Muslim Latinos (under 1 percent), and only 8 percent of adult Asian Americans are Muslim (most South Asian).7 In fact, nearly three out of ten Muslims in the United States are African American (Kosmin and Keysar, 2006:265).8
Moreover, it is worth noting that unlike Europe, where Muslims are often stuck in neighborhoods with poor housing conditions and low-paying jobs and stand out for their high levels of unemployment (EUMC, 2006), Muslims in the United States have done rather well. This has not eliminated unease with, even antipathy to, them. Indeed, cases of discrimination and hate crimes against Muslims in the United States have risen since the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ever present threat of new incidents. But one factor reducing or counteracting negative attitudes to Muslims is their comparatively high socioeconomic status. Muslims in the United States graduate from college at a higher rate than the national average, with a third earning an annual household income of at least $50,000 (Kosmin and Keysar, 2006:265–266). Mosque-goers appear to do even better. According to estimates, the average mosque-goer in the United States is a married man with children who has a bachelor's degree or higher and earns about $74,000 a year (Portes and Rumbaut, 2006:338).
Religious Commitment and Secularization
Whatever immigrants’ particular religion, the fact is that religion generally is more accepted in the United States than Western Europe. In the US, to be religious is to be in synch with prevailing mainstream American norms, which put great emphasis on the value of religious observance (Fischer and Hout, 2006). This is not the case in Western Europe, where (with the exception of Ireland) those who are religious are members of a decided minority. A secular mind-set dominates in most Western European countries. Claims based on religion have much less acceptance and legitimacy there – and when the religion is Islam, these claims often lead to public unease, sometimes disdain and even anger, and, not surprisingly, tensions and conflicts (for a recent journalistic account of the reaction to Muslim demands and values in the Netherlands, see Buruma, 2006).
Figures from various surveys bring out the transatlantic contrasts in religious commitment. A 2004 Gallup poll found that 44 percent of Americans said they attended a place of worship once a week, while the average figure in Europe, according to the European Social Survey, was only 15 percent – and actually below 15 percent in France, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands (Ford, 2005a). The differences are striking with regard to reported beliefs. Americans are much more likely than Europeans to say that religion is very important to them – about six in ten Americans compared to around a fifth of Europeans.9 According to the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), 63 percent of Americans, compared to a fifth to a quarter of French, Dutch, German, and British, said they know that God really exists and have no doubts about it.10 Whereas 58 percent of Americans in a Pew Research Center survey agreed that belief in God is a prerequisite to morality, this was true for only a third of the Germans, a quarter of the British, and 13 percent of the French (Pew Research Center, 2003).
Admittedly, Americans, as many observers note, tend to exaggerate their rates of church attendance and the seriousness of their religious beliefs, and a growing number think of themselves as secular; the proportion of Americans expressing no religious preference in the General Social Survey rose to 14 percent at the beginning of the twenty-first century, up from 7 percent in the 1970s (Masci and Smith, 2006). Yet religion's place in the national collective consciousness remains strong – and much stronger than in Europe. Indeed, as José Casanova and Aristide Zolberg (2002) observe, the very tendency of Americans to exaggerate their religiousness, in contrast to the opposite tendency of Europeans to discount and undercount their own persistent religiosity, is itself part of the different and consequential definitions of the situation in both places: “Americans think they are supposed to be religious, while Europeans think they are supposed to be irreligious.”11 It is worth noting that the sharpest religious conflicts in the United States involve the claims of conservative native-born Christians who are seeking to impose their will and doctrines on others and whittle away the separation of church and state – the issue of the legality of abortion being an especially contentious issue along with support for stem-cell research, school vouchers, and state financial support for religious schools, among others.
The higher degree of secularization in Europe means that forms of social and cultural activity based on religious principles are frequently seen as illegitimate (Cesari, 2004:176). This is particularly the case when it comes to Islam. The public nature of Islam and the demands that it makes on the way its followers conduct their public lives, it has been argued, makes Islam – a religion associated with immigrants – a frequent source of group-rights claims (Koopmans et al., 2005:155, 175). In the United States, demands made on the basis of religion are a common feature of American life – put forward by a broad range of religious groups, including, most vocally and most often, fundamentalist and evangelical (mostly native-born) Christians, who represent a growing proportion of Americans. (In 2001, nonmainline Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals, made up around a third of the adult population (Kosmin and Keysar, 2006:36)). Indeed, asserting a religious identity in public, even bragging about it, can be viewed as an indication of Americanization or assimilation to American norms (Casanova and Zolberg, 2002). Thus, as the scholarly literature on immigrant religion emphasizes, becoming more religious is a way of becoming American – whereas it is often seen as a problem in Europe. In a telling quote, an Egyptian-born leader of a Muslim advocacy group in Chicago said, “Being an immigrant and organizing around faith is part of the American experience – it's part of our national identity. It's much harder to fit into a more . . . secular bloc like Europe” (Bennhold, 2006).
Institutionalized Identities and Arrangements
The way religion has been institutionalized differs profoundly in the United States and Western Europe – and has implications for whether immigrants’ religious beliefs and practices are seen to contribute or create barriers to integration and inclusion. The hand of constitutional and legal history is heavy in this respect.
In the United States, key constitutional principles were fashioned because of the religious diversity among the colonies that became states and the resulting impossibility of institutionalizing a single state church (though some of the colonies –e.g., Massachusetts and Virginia – had established churches). The resulting principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state, enshrined in the Constitution's first amendment, have provided the framework for a multireligious nation and religious pluralism, which has characterized American society from the very beginning (Eck, 2001:384). The Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a state religion, guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion, and, through the fourteenth amendment's equal protection clause (which came into effect in 1870), bans government-supported religious discrimination.
This does not mean, of course, that non-Protestant immigrant religions were welcomed with open arms. Hardly. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestant denominations were more or less “established” in that they dominated the public square, crowding out Catholicism and Judaism, both associated with disparaged southern and eastern European immigrants and seen by nativist observers as incompatible with mainstream institutions and culture (on this view of Catholicism, see McGreevey, 2003). (In this respect, one hears an echo of the contemporary European debate about Islam's place.) Even earlier in the nineteenth century, Irish Catholic immigrants were the target of deep-seated and virulent anti-Catholic nativism. As Alan Wolfe (2006:159) has argued, non-Protestant religions either separated from the dominant society to create their own institutions – Catholic schools are a major example – or, as was true for much of American Judaism, confined their religious beliefs and practices to the private realm and “thus acceded to Protestant domination in the public realm.”
What is important is that Catholics and Jews were eventually incorporated into the system of American pluralism. Without the separation of church and state, we believe, the religions imported by past immigration streams could not have achieved parity with Protestant versions of Christianity. Because the state did not officially support or sponsor Protestantism, the newer religions were able over time to achieve parity and become part of the American mainstream as the descendants of the immigrants did. By the mid-twentieth century, Americans had come to think in terms of a tripartite perspective – Protestant, Catholic, and Jew – with Judaism treated as a kind of branch or denomination within the larger Judeo-Christian framework, a religion of believers who just happened to attend churches called synagogues (Wuthnow, 2005:32). And in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, opponents of multiculturalism were referring to “our Judeo-Christian heritage” in upholding the value of Western civilization (Alba, 2005:30).
Also important is that the very transformation of America into a “Judeo-Christian” nation – and Protestant, Catholic, and Jew into the three denominations of the American civil religion (Casanova and Zolberg, 2002) – has meant that post-1965 immigrants enter a more religiously open society than their predecessors did a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago.12 To put it another way, the encounter of immigrant religions with American society today benefits from the awareness of and legal context deriving from the earlier incorporation of Jewish and Catholic immigrant groups. In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton proclaimed in a Rose Garden ceremony that “Islam is an American religion,” and George W. Bush confirmed this by making a point of visiting a mosque in the wake of the September 11 attacks (Zolberg and Woon, 1999:30; Zolberg, 2002). This does not necessarily mean that the new religions will eventually attain the charter status now occupied by Catholicism and Judaism; the outcomes of the current encounter between non-Western religions and the American mainstream are not predictable.
Nor is the contemporary United States a paradise of religious tolerance – far from it. In a recent national survey, a substantial minority (about a third) of respondents said they would not welcome a stronger presence of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in American society.13 About four in ten said they would not be happy about a mosque being built in their neighborhood (about a third would be bothered by the idea of a Hindu temple being built in their community), and almost a quarter favored making it illegal for Muslim groups to meet, and a fifth in the case of Hindus or Buddhists (Wuthnow, 2005:219–220). Yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that Islam and other non-Western religions have a presence that is widely accepted as legitimate within a pluralist society. As Cesari maintains with regard to Islam, the protection of religious minorities by law and the philosophy that religious freedom is a “cornerstone of individual dignity” has worked in Muslims’ favor: “They are able to use America's long history of judgments supporting the free expression of religion to their advantage, even when Islamic beliefs themselves are ridiculed or disparaged” (Cesari, 2004:84). Pluralism, Wuthnow (2005:73) argues, works best in the United States in protecting the civil rights of members of non-Western religions. Indeed, today, the new immigrant religions, including Islam, are enjoying the same freedoms to organize themselves and to support the beliefs and practices of their members as did the religions of earlier immigrants.
In Europe, in contrast, the ways in which Christian religions have been institutionalized make it difficult for Islam to achieve parity and are implicated in many of the problems and conflicts that have arisen. As secular as Europeans are, their societies have deeply institutionalized religious identities, which are the result of historic settlements and long-standing practices instituted after centuries of religious conflict. Continental religious traditions, as Klausen (2005:125, 129) notes, focused on resolving conflicts between state and government and powerful established churches:
They have not historically emphasized the rights of nonconformists or worried about state neutrality in matters of faith. Constitutions typically contain equality commitments and promise of freedom of thought, but no language or requirement concerning the equal treatment of religion. . . . Europeans are unused to the social demands and public ethics associated with state neutrality and self-chosen . . . religious identities.
While secular natives in Western Europe may see religion as a minor feature of their societies, Muslims cannot help but be aware of the secondary status of their religion and the special privileges accorded to majority denominations (Alba, 2005:32). In France, where laïcité, the exclusion of religion from the affairs of state, is the official ideology, the state in fact owns and maintains most Christian churches and allows them to be used for regular religious services. The same 1905 law that established state possession of religious edifices built before that year also prevents the state from contributing to the construction of new ones, thus keeping the country's 4–5 million Muslims from enjoying the same privileges as Christians. Most French mosques are, as a consequence, ad hoc structures – in converted rooms in housing projects, garages, or even basements (Laurence and Vaisse, 2006:83).14 Adding to the religious divide is that half the country's ten or so state-designated national holidays are Catholic in origin; no Muslim holiday has equivalent recognition.
In a similar way in the Netherlands, the 1983 constitutional amendment instituting separation of church and state and the breakdown of the old system of “pillarization”– in which religious differences were institutionalized in separate state structures or “pillars,” including parallel labor unions, daily and weekly newspapers, political parties, and even universities for Protestants and Catholics – have had the effect of privileging mainstream religions while leaving stumbling blocks in the way of Islam.15 Between 1961 and 1975, the Dutch government offered significant subsidies for the construction of churches, with the result that there was a church for every thirty families. Although attempts were made in 1970–1981 to create a Muslim “pillar” parallel to the Catholic and Protestant “pillars,” with public funding for Muslim TV and radio stations, for example, only one mosque was built with government money before 1983. The Dutch government privatized the clergy's salaries and pensions in a large buyout in 1981, in preparation for the 1983 constitutional changes, after which the government ceased paying for the construction of houses of worship (Klausen, 2005:145). The shift to state neutrality was, notes Jan Rath, “like drawing up the bridge in front of the newcomers” (quoted in Klausen, 2005:146).
Government support for religious schools has created other inequalities in Western Europe between established religions and Islam. In Britain and France the state provides financial support for religious schools as long as they teach the national secular curriculum. Inevitably, these arrangements, while seemingly fair to all religions, favor the most established ones. In Britain (where senior Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords by right as part of the established state church) the government funds nearly 7,000 Church of England and Catholic schools but, as of 2007, only seven Islamic schools in a nation of 1.6 million Muslims. In the Netherlands, the majority of children go to state-supported religious schools, nearly all Protestant and Catholic, while the country's nearly one million Muslims in 2005 had only about thirty-five of their own publicly funded primary schools. In France, about 20 percent of French students go to religious schools (mostly Catholic) that receive the bulk of their budgets from the government, but the first publicly subsidized Muslim school, the Lycée Averroès, was not founded until 2003 (Sciolino, 2003; Klausen, 2005:144).
In Germany, the state, according to the 1949 constitution, must be neutral in matters of religion, but this does not preclude linkages between church and state. The long-dominant Catholics and Protestants, as well as Jews, but not Islam, the third-largest faith, are entitled to federally collected church taxes and the right to run state-subsidized religious social services and hospitals (Klausen, 2005). Further, the established religions are taught in public schools by regular teachers (i.e., civil servants) during hours set aside for religious instruction. Islam, however, has so far failed to be accorded the same status (except in Berlin and Lower Saxony), and instruction in it is not universally available; when it is, it occurs usually in some nonregular form such as an experimental basis or in supplementary classes taught in Turkish by instructors provided by the Turkish consulate (Engin, 2001).
The different ways that religion has been institutionalized in the United States and Western Europe have implications for the claims of immigrant religious groups – and conflicts that may result. In the United States, immigrants with allegiance to minority religions have generally sought inclusion in the mainstream through public acceptance and recognition of their group. Although an important historical exception was the unsuccessful struggle by Catholics for public funds for parochial schools, many minority religious groups – perhaps, most notably, Jewish organizations – have fought for a strict adherence to separation of church and state and keeping religion out of the public sphere (including public schools), as a way to prevent discrimination and obtain parity with dominant religions. In Europe, equal treatment for minority religions would require a radical structural change by removing the state from institutionalized arrangements with longer-established religions or, as Muslims have sought, achieving at least some support from the state that longer-established religions already have, including state support for their own religious schools.
At least so far, the kind of interlacing of the state and Christianity that we have described in Western Europe has no parallel in the United States, although challenges there to church-state separation have the potential to threaten the integrative functions of immigrant religion – one of the points we consider below in our concluding comments.