Immigrant Religion in the U.S. and Western Europe: Bridge or Barrier to Inclusion?



This article analyzes why immigrant religion is viewed as a problematic area in Western Europe in contrast to the United States, where it is seen as facilitating the adaptation process. The difference, it is argued, is anchored in whether or not religion can play a major role for immigrants and the second generation as a bridge to inclusion in the new society. Three factors are critical: the religious backgrounds of immigrants in Western Europe and the United States; the religiosity of the native population; and historically rooted relations and arrangements between the state and religious groups.

In the wake of the massive immigration of the past few decades, a growing social science literature has emerged to chart the experiences and impact of America's latest wave of newcomers and – across the Atlantic – of those in Europe as well. In the United States, the study of religion among the latest newcomers has generally taken a backseat to other topics in the immigration field. Issues pertaining to economic and labor market incorporation, residential patterns, education, social mobility and the trajectories of the second generation, race and ethnicity, transnational ties, and citizenship and political incorporation have received much more attention than religion.

This is, perhaps, not surprising. Many social science researchers rely on US Census data and other surveys conducted by government agencies, which are not allowed to ask questions on religion. But it is more than this. Religion has often been overlooked because it is not seen as a problematic area for immigrants in the contemporary United States. Indeed, those studies that do focus on religion among today's immigrants overwhelmingly emphasize its positive role in smoothing and facilitating the adaptation process.

The contrast with studies of immigrants in Western Europe could not be more striking. There, religion is at the top of the scholarly agenda, with the extensive literature overwhelmingly concerned with the Islamic presence. Indeed, one estimate has it that there are “possibly a few thousand publications or more” on Islam and Muslims in Western Europe (Buijs and Rath, 2006:3). Moreover, unlike the US literature, social science studies of religion and immigrants in Western Europe, much like popular discourse on the subject, tend to stress the problems and conflict engendered by immigrants’ religion and the difficulties that Islam poses for integration. In contrast to the view in the United States, religion is seen in Europe as the marker of a fundamental social divide.

In this article, we ask why the views of immigrant religion are so different on the two sides of the Atlantic and how they correspond with on-the-ground social realities. We argue that the difference is anchored in whether or not religion as belief system, institution, and community can play a major role for immigrants and the second generation as a bridge to inclusion in the new society. This question has a different answer in the two settings for three critical reasons. The religious backgrounds of immigrants in Western Europe and the United States are different, mostly Christian in the United States as compared to Western Europe, where a large proportion are Muslim. Western European populations, moreover, have much more trouble recognizing claims based on religion because they are more secular than the religiously involved United States. Furthermore, historically rooted relations and arrangements between the state and religious groups in Europe have led to greater difficulties in incorporating and accepting new religions than is the case in the United States.

What follows develops these ideas, first laying out the different views of immigrant religion in social science studies on the two sides of the Atlantic and then seeking to account for them. If the bulk of the article shows a far more favorable environment for immigrant religion in the United States than Western Europe, the concluding remarks consider, on the one hand, the threats in the United States to the generally positive picture and, on the other hand, government efforts at accommodating Islam in Western Europe. Much of what we say applies to Western European countries generally, but we mainly focus on four major receiving countries that represent different institutional approaches to religion: France, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands.


What stands out in the American social science literature is the positive gloss on religion's role among today's newcomers, with studies often emphasizing how religion promotes the incorporation of newcomers into their new society and helps them, in a variety of ways, to cope and adapt. Participation in almost any sort of religion is depicted as a pathway into the mainstream, which, at least in comparison to other economically advanced societies, is itself characterized by an unusually high level of religious belief and behavior (the overall consistency of Americans’ religious involvement and level of belief over the course of the twentieth century is described by Fischer and Hout, 2006: ch. 8). In addition, the literature stresses the functionality of religion in meeting the social needs of immigrants; to borrow Charles Hirschman's formula, these are first and foremost the three R's: refuge, respectability, and resources (2004:1228).

Refuge, Respectability, and Resources

For immigrants who are separated from their homeland and from many relatives, religious membership offers a refuge in the sense that it creates a sense of belonging and participation in the face of loss and the strains of adjustment (Hirschman, 2004:1228). Because religious organizations provide an all-encompassing system of belief, as well as a community where immigrants gather and form networks of mutual support with co-ethnics, they provide a psychological ballast helping to ameliorate the traumas of early settlement and frequent encounter with discrimination. Churches and temples offer opportunities for fellowship and friendship, often in a familiar cultural environment, and are a source of solace and shelter from the stresses, setbacks, and difficulties of coming to terms with life in a new country (Ebaugh and Chafetz, 2000:74; Min, 2001; Portes and Rumbaut, 2006:301, 329).

It is frequently noted that religious groups provide an alternative source of respectability for newcomers, something that is particularly important for those who feel they are denied social recognition in the United States or have even suffered downward occupational mobility as a result of migration. Being a good Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist brings respect within the religious (and often wider ethnic) community. Within religious groups, there are typically opportunities for leadership and service that bring prestige.

Sociologists put particular emphasis on the resources that come with religious affiliation and membership. As Hirschman notes, almost all studies of contemporary immigrant churches and temples in the United States describe the multiple services they provide to newcomers, from information about jobs, housing, and business opportunities to classes in English and seminars on various practical topics. Thus, the financial manager of a Buddhist temple catering to the Lao community in Louisiana, who is also a foreman at a firm, refers temple members for jobs; another member of the temple community provides assistance for housing through her position as a loan officer in a local bank (Hirschman, 2004:1225). Pyong Gap Min refers to Korean Christian churches as the most important social service agencies in the New York Korean community. Among the services they offer are immigration orientation, job referral, business information, Korean language and after-school programs for children, educational counseling, “filial” trips for elders, and even marriage counseling (2001:186; see also Foley and Hoge, 2007 on immigrant religious communities in the Washington, DC area and Zhou and Bankston, 1998 on Buddhist temples and Catholic churches among Vietnamese in New Orleans).

Constructing Identity

Many studies also stress that religious congregations reinforce and at times reshape immigrants’ ethnic identity – and this is treated as a positive development. Religion has been analyzed as a socially acceptable form through which U.S. immigrants can articulate, reformulate, and transmit their ethnic culture and identities. Indeed, a common argument since Herberg's famous synthesis in the mid-1950s is that because immigrants learn that Americans are more accepting of religious than ethnic diversity, they use religion as a socially tolerated means to construct their own culture and identity (Herberg, 1960; Karpathakis, 2001:390).

Much has been written about the way immigrants use religious institutions to reproduce and reassert important aspects of their home-country cultures – for example, incorporating ethnic practices in religious ceremonies. In their churches and temples, immigrants “can worship in their own languages, enjoy the rituals, music, and festivals of their native lands, share stories from their homeland, and pass on their religious and cultural heritage to the next generation” (Ebaugh and Chafetz, 2000:141). To be sure, there are many “reinventions of tradition” in the American setting as religious practices and beliefs inevitably undergo changes. Yet as immigrants worship with co-ethnics in settings with many tangible reminders and expressions of home-country cultures, so a sense of ethnic identity is nurtured and strengthened.

The intertwining of religion and ethnic identity often assists incorporation into American society. According to a recent study of immigrant religious communities in the Washington, DC area, those that emphasized ethnic identity – sponsoring events to celebrate their own ethnic or national heritage, for example, or holding classes in the home language – were more likely to participate in local affairs and social service or community development projects in the United States (Foley and Hoge, 2007:188–189). The authors argue that religious leaders’ appeals to ethnic identity to promote action on behalf of the larger ethnic community – on behalf of homeland causes or in defense of immigrant rights in the US –“paradoxically . . . integrate immigrants more deeply into American civic and political culture even as they preserve and reinforce their sense of difference” (Foley and Hoge, 2007:214).

This intertwining is also valuable to immigrants because it can provide an ethnic socialization for their children, the second generation, who celebrate home-country holidays in religious congregations, for example, and develop networks of ethnic peers there. Ethnic language classes in many churches – in the New York area more than a hundred Korean-language schools are run by Korean churches that teach Korean language, history, and culture (Min, 2001:187) – may also play a role.

Upward Mobility and Civic Skills

There are two additional positive aspects of religion for immigrants and their children that appear in the US social science literature. For one thing, religious organizations can facilitate the upward mobility of the second generation. Partly this is a matter of formal educational training that takes place in immigrant churches, such as English-language or SAT classes found in some congregations. Many congregations also sponsor classes that inculcate homeland cultural traditions and language skills. From a mobility perspective, as David Lopez (forthcoming) has argued, they encourage and reinforce habits of study. Moreover, they do so in a setting that is controlled within the ethnic community – rather than provided by benevolent outsiders – thereby reinforcing a sense of identity and cultural pride and perhaps also adding to their effectiveness.

Min Zhou and Carl Bankston (1998) stress that involvement in ethnic religious congregations helps young people move ahead in another way. In their study of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans, they argue that church attendance and participation in church-sponsored activities protected young people from neighborhood gangs and “immoral” influences of American culture; it strengthened their integration into the ethnic community and reinforced parental aspirations for educational achievement.

And then there is the role of immigrant religious groups as a training ground for entry into the wider society: building civic skills and encouraging active civic involvement. Indeed, according to Diana Eck, religion provides many immigrants with “one of their first training grounds in participatory democracy” as they become involved in boards of directors, elections, membership lists, and accountability in temple associations and Islamic societies, ranging from the American Buddhist Congress, to the American Muslim Council, to the Federation of Zoroastrians in North America. Religious communities, she maintains, are

precisely the places where new immigrants gain their feet and practice the arts of internal democracy. Long before they stand for election to the school board, they will stand for election in the governing body of the Hindu temple. Long before they enter the fray of local and state politics, they argue fiercely about their internal Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim politics. (Eck, 2001:336)

Foley and Hoge (2007) elaborate on the civic-skill-building aspects in their Washington, DC study which, tellingly, they subtitle “How Faith Communities Form Our Newest Citizens.” Among the ways that the immigrant churches, mosques, and temples in their study provided training and motivation for civic engagement were through opportunities to develop and hone skills in public speaking, plan events, organize and conduct meetings, and engage in coalition-building. The religious groups often sponsored citizenship classes and programs to register people to vote and organized efforts to lobby elected officials. And many mosques and churches encouraged volunteer services to the larger community, beyond their own religious group, from volunteering at senior citizen centers to serving food in soup kitchens.

Becoming American through Religion

A bottom-line conclusion in the social science literature is that religion helps to turn immigrants into Americans and gives them and their children a sense of belonging or membership in the United States. Many scholars stress that religion provides a way for immigrants to become accepted in the United States – or, to put it another way, religious institutions are places where immigrants can formulate claims for inclusion in American society (Portes and Rumbaut, 2006:300; Alba, Roboteau and DeWind, forthcoming). This argument dates back to what are now regarded as classic historical studies of immigrant religious life, primary among them Will Herberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew. Herberg asserted that it was “largely in and through . . . religion that he [the immigrant], or rather his children and grandchildren, found an identifiable place in American life” (1960:27–28).

Herberg was writing about the assimilation into the American mainstream of Jews and Catholics from eastern and southern Europe in the years after World War II; this was a period when Catholicism and Judaism were becoming American religions and, at the same time, America was becoming a “Judeo-Christian” nation (Casanova and Zolberg, 2002). Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the midst of a massive immigration which is bringing new diversity to America's religious landscape, Herberg's themes are still seen as having relevance. For example, in Charles Hirschman's reflections on religion's role among contemporary immigrants, he explicitly draws on Herberg's thesis, arguing that a significant share of today's immigrants “become American” through participating in religious and community activities of churches and temples (2004:1207; see also Portes and Rumbaut, 2006).

To be sure, one way this Americanization happens is by conversion to Christianity because of its charter status in American society. For instance, the proportion of Christians among Asian immigrants to the United States is generally much higher than is the case in their countries of origin. To some extent, this may be the result of selective immigration by those who were already Christian in the homeland. But there can be little doubt that, for other immigrants, the move to America involves conversion to Christianity. This phenomenon in exemplified by the Taiwanese. Whereas in Taiwan some 2 percent of the population is Christian, this is true for a quarter to a third of the Taiwanese population in the United States. Carolyn Chen (2006) argues that among the evangelical Christians she studied in California, Christianity mediated their acculturation to American society by repackaging some Taiwanese values in Christian trappings; at the same time, it facilitated and reinforced assimilation to middle-class American family practices such as recognizing children's autonomy and more “democratic” parent-child relationships.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that many immigrants retain their non-Christian religious attachments, and consequently that the religious diversity of the United States is growing rapidly as a result of immigration. Yet as far as anyone can tell, the immigrant religions that are relatively new to the United States, such as Buddhism and Sikhism, have many of the same integrative effects as the Christian denominations do. In their case, asserting a religious identity is seen as an acceptable way to be different and American at the same time (Levitt, 2007). The main title of Prema Kurien's much-cited article “Becoming American by Becoming Hindu,” captures this “Americanizing” impact of immigrants’ engagement in religion. Kurien argues that emphasizing Hinduism, albeit a recast and reformulated Hinduism, has helped Indian immigrants fit into American society and claim “a position for themselves at the American multicultural table” (1998:37).

A related theme in the literature is the “Americanization” of religious institutions and practices that immigrants bring with them to the United States. Frequently mentioned is the trend toward developing congregational forms, that is, local religious communities comprised of people who come together voluntarily along the lines of a reformed Protestant congregation and in which, among other things, governance is in the hands of the local body and religious leaders are selected by the local organization (Warner and Wittner, 1998; Ebaugh and Chafetz, 2000; Fischer and Hout, 2006; for a critique of the “congregational” argument see Foley and Hoge, 2007). In line with a change to congregationalism, to give one example, a Buddhist monk may assume a more specialized and professional role closer to that of a minister. In addition, many studies point to the way immigrant religious groups adopt American forms and practices – for instance, using the English language, holding weekly services, or having a sermon as the focal point of the service (Hirschman, 2004:1215–1216; see also George, 1998; Hepner, 1998). Partly this may happen because immigrants (or their religious leaders) are consciously attempting to become more “American.” Also the sheer exigencies and constraints of everyday life, including immigrants’ work schedules and the availability of buildings for meetings, are frequently at work.

Whether the integrative role of religion for contemporary immigrant groups represents a long-standing American pattern or is the fruit of the resolution of religious conflicts during preceding eras of immigration is a legitimate question. Certainly, the mainstream of American society had a decidedly Christian, even Protestant, character for much of the country's history. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism are threaded through the fabric of that history, and Catholics felt forced to establish their own school system in the middle of the nineteenth century in order to protect their children from the overtly Protestant teaching in the state-supported, or public, school system. The full acceptance of Catholicism and Judaism as American religions was not accomplished until the middle of the twentieth century – around the time that Herberg wrote his famous synthesis. Yet, what was not in doubt was the ability of these previously minority religions to form their own institutions, without much interference from the outside society. That Catholics could erect a separate school system, and eventually a panoply of organizations to channel their social and professional lives within a religiously circumscribed subsociety, was not in question. Nor was Catholicism in this respect at a disadvantage compared to Protestant churches, for, aside from temporary holdovers from the established churches of the thirteen colonies, no denomination enjoyed state support. In this sense, we will argue below, there is a distinctively US pattern implicated in the contemporary bridging role of immigrant religion. At the same time, the newer immigrant religions do benefit from an acceptance that is the result of the much more difficult integration of Catholicism and Judaism into the mainstream, which resolved uncertainties over the place of non-post-Reformation Christian religions in the society.


In Western Europe, religion is generally viewed as the problem, not the solution, for immigrant minorities. The focus of scholarly commentaries on immigrant religion is almost exclusively on Islam. Far from being seen as integrating immigrants and facilitating successful adaptation to European society, Islam is analyzed as a barrier or a challenge to integration and a source of conflict with mainstream institutions and practices. An article entitled “Becoming French (or German, Dutch, or British) by Being Muslim” would be unthinkable. So would a mass-marketed book by an academic, like Diana Eck's A New Religious America (2001), that heralds immigrant religion as a public training ground for democracy.

Scholarly writings play out against a backdrop in which the image of Islam in “the dominant European imaginary,” as David Theo Goldberg has recently written, is “one of fanaticism, fundamentalism, female suppression, subjugation, and repression” (2006:345–346). Or as Leo Lucassen puts it in his aptly titled book The Immigrant Threat (2005:4), discussions about Muslims’ alleged failure to integrate have dominated the public debate in Western Europe since the 1990s, and a prevalent view is that the culture of Islam and that of the West are irreconcilable.

Popular attitudes toward Islam have helped to shape the social science literature. Many social scientists have documented actual practices and beliefs among Muslim immigrants and their children, often as a way to counter negative stereotypes and prejudices about these practices and beliefs; others have attempted to explain the animosities and conflicts that have developed; and still others have offered, on the bases of their analyses, policy recommendations for improving relations and reducing strains or, in some cases, preserving what are felt to be basic universal, European, or national values that are seen to be in danger (e.g., Kaltenbach and Tribalat, 2002). Even analyses of the Europeanization of Islam and of positive signs of Muslim integration and accommodation are often placed in the context of prevailing popular views that deny, ignore, or downplay these developments (e.g., Klausen, 2005; Lucassen, 2005; Laurence and Vaisse, 2006). In summing up the state of research on the institutionalization of Islam in Europe, Buijs and Rath (2006:28) note that “Muslims are often associated with premodern attitudes and practices and this has, to some extent, influenced the research agenda. A lot of attention is dedicated to such themes as gender relations (including headscarves), freedom of speech (including the Rushdie affair, Muslim radicalism and so forth) and the compatibility of Islam and modernity.” The titles of just a few recent scholarly books or special journal issues on Islam in Europe give a flavor of the emphasis: The Islamic Challenge, Mosque Conflicts in European Cities, When Islam and Democracy Meet, and Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space.

A Threat to Values and Integration

At one end of the spectrum are social scientists – a minority, to be sure – who suggest or explicitly argue that Islam is impeding the integration of immigrant minorities and threatening the liberal values of European states (e.g., Kaltenbach and Tribalat, 2002). Their writings are part of a larger public, and politicized, debate on how much tolerance should be allowed in modern European societies for many Muslim practices and beliefs. In the Netherlands, sociologist and journalist Paul Scheffer has argued, in the context of his critique of multiculturalism, that Dutch democracy should not tolerate Muslims’ lack of acceptance of the separation of church and state or their denial of the right of the Dutch to criticize religion, including Islam (Scheffer, 2000). Much of the criticism of Muslim practices focuses on those involving the subordination of women that are associated with Muslim immigrants (even if the practices are not always directly related to Islamic law). In Germany, sociologist Necla Kelek documents and condemns the practice of Turkish-Muslim men importing young Turkish girls to Germany as brides. In The Foreign Bride (Die fremde Braut, 2005), she describes domestic violence and “honor killings” carried out by brothers against women who have besmirched the family's honor; she has campaigned for legislation to raise the age at which brides can be brought to Germany and for tougher sentences for “honor killings.” Norwegian anthropologist Unni Wikan's (2002) book-length study A Generous Betrayal: Politics of Culture in a New Europe argues that state agencies should uphold universal rights for children and women in the face of oppressive practices found in Muslim communities such as “forced marriages.”

In France, where the controversy over the headscarf has assumed enormous symbolic and political importance, several social scientists, Alain Touraine among them, were members of the Stasi Commission that, in 2004, proposed legislation prohibiting visible religious symbols and dress in public schools. In a subsequent publication, Touraine argued that the new law was necessary to confront the rise of religious (that is, Islamic) extremism and violence (Renaut and Touraine, 2005).1 Political scientist Patrick Weil, also a member of the Commission, explained his support as based on the need to protect Muslim girls who do not wish to wear the headscarf from social pressures from those who feel it is a moral obligation, thereby appealing to the broader French principle of secularization, or laïcité, which “rests on its guarantees of state protection against pressure from any religious group” (Weil, 2004).2

Discrimination and Prejudice

Another – and more common – theme in the social science literature is the discrimination and restrictions facing Muslims in Western Europe. Indeed, anti-Muslim sentiment has sometimes been characterized as “cultural racism,” in which culture or religion are essentialized to the point that they become the functional equivalent of biological racism and groups are seen as inherently inferior on the basis of their culture or religion (see Foner, 2005:217–218). Scholars have written that “Muslimophobia is at the heart of contemporary British and European cultural racism” (Modood, 2005:37); of “European Muslimania” as a “third major artery in the historical articulation of racial eurology” (Goldberg, 2006:362); and of racialized perceptions of Islam and the racial dimensions of Islam (Cesari, 2004:32, 24).3

Quite apart from notions of cultural racism, many accounts discuss negative stereotypes of Islam, institutionalized discrimination, and the difficulties of practicing Islam in publicly visible ways. There are analyses of the bans on wearing the Islamic headscarf, for example, policies curtailing ritual slaughter, administrative barriers to building new mosques and enlarging old ones, and the reluctance of European governments to fund Islamic schools while, at the same time, supporting large numbers of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish schools.

There is also considerable evidence of socioeconomic disadvantage and even of discrimination endured by Muslims, including those of the second generation who have grown up in European societies. To be sure, the immigrants themselves, coming chiefly from Africa, the Near East, and South Asia, typically brought low levels of human capital and entered European labor markets on their lowest rungs. Simply on the grounds of social-class origins, the second generation could be expected to face significant disadvantage in European societies, and some studies of educational attainment indicate that second-generation disadvantage is little more than this (e.g., the studies in Vallet and Caille, 1995; Heath, forthcoming). However, there are reasonable doubts whether a statistical calibration that uses the education or occupations of immigrant parents to locate similarly situated European native families for comparison is a meaningful way of controlling for social-class origins: the immigrant parents usually attained at least the average human capital in their countries of origin, where the educational distributions are much lower than in advanced economies; comparing their children to the children of native European families with the lowest levels of human capital in European societies thus sets the bar rather low for second-generation achievements, especially since the worst-off European native families usually suffer a variety of social and personal problems. In any event, other studies find patterns of inequality that indicate ways that European educational systems steer the children of immigrants toward less-valued educational outcomes, as indicated by the concentrations of the 1.5 and 2nd generation in the lowest track of the German system, the Hauptschulen (Alba et al., 1994; Kristen, 2002).

There is even more direct evidence of discrimination with respect to the labor market. In France, Silberman et al. (2007) have found that the children of immigrants from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Turkey, the groups in which Muslims are prevalent, are more likely to be unemployed than are their native French peers. The differences are only partly explained by different educational attainments. Moreover, when they are employed, these children of immigrants are more likely to be in positions below their level of educational training. They are far more likely than native French to believe they have been the victims of discrimination by employers, and frequently they perceive this discrimination to be commonplace rather than exceptional, i.e., happening to them multiple times. (For an analysis of Belgium and Spain that reaches similar conclusions, see Kalter and Kogan, 2006; on Germany, see Seibert and Solga, 2005 but cf. Kalter, 2006).


If discussions of conflicts between immigrant religions and mainstream American institutions rarely appear in the American social science literature, this is very different in Western Europe. There the struggle of Muslims to practice their religion and build up their institutions has triggered conflicts with long-established residents and institutions. The conflicts, usually over fitting Muslim practices into legal frameworks and various public arenas, are, as Jytte Klausen (2005:108) notes, repeated across Western Europe, with slight variation in themes and emphasis in particular countries despite significant differences in national legal and religious contexts. The conflicts have become major issues in public debates and political campaigns. In this context, it is not surprising that they have come in for study and analysis by social scientists.

Controversies over whether it is permissible to wear Muslim dress, from the headscarf (the prevailing symbol of Islam to Europeans, in David Theo Goldberg's [2006:346] view) to the more severe jilbab (a floor-length coat-like dress which is worn with a headscarf that covers the forehead and neck), have spawned numerous articles and commentaries and, most recently, an entire book (Bowen, 2006). There have also been discussions of the conflicts over burial in municipal cemeteries, ritual slaughter, coeducation, arranged marriages, the provision of prayer rooms at work and in educational institutions, and efforts to educate imams in Europe (see citations in Buijs and Rath, 2006).

Conflicts around the building of mosques have come in for attention, including a special issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on the topic (2005). Throughout Europe, the editor of the issue argues, resistance to mosques is linked to a meta-narrative about Islam, and requests for permits to construct new mosques come up against various arguments to justify refusal, including problems of noise and traffic nuisance (often over the azan, the electronically amplified call for prayer), incompatibility with existing zoning rules and urban planning, and nonconformity with security norms (see Kepel, 1991; Cesari, 2005:1019; Fetzer and Soper, 2005, Koopmans et al., 2005; Buijs and Rath, 2006:26). Tensions over the establishment of state-funded Muslim schools and teaching Islam in the curricula of state schools have also been the subject for analysis. There have also been discussions of what Buijs and Rath (2006:27) call the “delicate question” of state-sponsored schools to train imams (also Klausen, 2005) as well as the theme of tolerance and the right of the long-established native-born to be critical of Islam.

A concern that stands out in the literature on these issues is how nation-state policies and institutional structures in different European countries have shaped the sources, form, and resolution of dilemmas and clashes that have arisen as a result of the growing Muslim presence (e.g., Rath et al., 2001; Fetzer and Soper, 2005; Buijs and Rath, 2006:23). Among the questions explored are why conflicts over the headscarf have led to bans in public places in some countries and not others and why debates over funding and building mosques have taken different turns in various national settings.

Islam as an Oppositional Identity

In contrast to upbeat analyses of religion and ethnic identity in the United States, which highlight the positive aspects of religious identity for integration into the dominant society, in Europe studies on this topic put more stress on how Muslim identities reflect discrimination and may also further reinforce marginalization and separation (Cesari, 2004:24–25). A Muslim identity, and a turn to Islam, are seen as providing a way to claim dignity in the face of the bitterness of exclusion, particularly for the second, European-born generation (e.g., Khosrokhavar, 2005). As an in-between group – not accepted as French, Dutch, or German or as Algerians, Moroccans, or Turks – many members of the second generation come to see themselves as Muslims and identify with “things Muslim” in a search for a sense of belonging (Kramer, 2004).

The process of increased religious consciousness among members of the younger generation, often to a globalized Islam rather than the “family Islam” of their parents, has been termed “re-Islamization” (Laurence and Vaisse, 2006:90). While some scholars argue that an allegiance to Islam has had positive effects, such as helping young people stay away from crime and delinquency (e.g., Didier Lapeyronnie cited in Laurence and Vaisse, 2006:93), there are also concerns about Islam's role in the second generation's “cultural isolationism” and, even more, the possibility that involvement in orthodox or fundamentalist Islam may lead to acts of violence and terrorism. In general, the study of the causes of Islamic radicalism, and its appeal to a segment of the European-born second generation, is, according to Buijs and Rath's survey, still in its infancy “though some important first steps have been made” (see Buijs and Rath, 2006:22).

In this sense, it appears that Islam has become an oppositional identity for some second-generation youth in European societies, a way of marking their rejection of the European mainstream, which they perceive as condemning them to positions of inferiority. In contrast to oppositional minority identities in the United States (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986; Portes and Zhou, 1993), one could say that an oppositional identity founded on Islam does not necessarily involve young people in patently self-destructive behaviors, such as disdain for academic success, drug use, and criminal activity (though it may in those rare cases where violent attacks on European citizens and institutions are planned or undertaken). Nevertheless, it also may bring about considerable frustration because of the mainstream rejection of claims based on religious identities, as exemplified by the French law against headscarves, and because of the prejudice and discrimination to which individuals who overtly embrace a Muslim identity may be exposed.


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.


Our argument has been that a combination of factors – religious similarity between natives and immigrants, historically rooted institutional structures, and the religiosity of the native population – explain why the United States is more welcoming to immigrant religion than is Western Europe and, as a consequence, why the social science literature on religion among immigrants in the United States emphasizes its integrative role while in Europe conflict and exclusion come to the fore.

Yet to leave matters there would be to overlook some of the complexities and emerging trends on both sides of the Atlantic that ought to be taken into account. If studies of U.S. immigrants view religion as turning them into Americans and helping them to adjust to their new home, we also need to bear in mind that there are profound inequalities that create nonreligious barriers to inclusion – inequalities that have been documented and analyzed by a voluminous social science literature. Europe may be marked by an anti-Muslim cultural racism, but the United States is plagued by deeply rooted biological racism, which stigmatizes and disadvantages recent immigrants, who are overwhelmingly Asian, Latino, and Black and thus outside the pale of whiteness (Foner and Fredrickson, 2004; Foner, 2005). Unauthorized immigration status is the basis for another significant inequality that marginalizes and creates great difficulties for the growing number of undocumented immigrants, an estimated 11–12 million in 2006 (Passel, 2006; see also Massey et al., 2003; Ngai, 2004).

Moreover, when it comes to religion, there are some disquieting signs that its integrative role among U.S. immigrants may be at some risk given increasing challenges to the long-standing separation between church and state. In the last decade or so, religious organizations in the United States have become eligible for an increasing stream of federal grants and contracts; the courts have started to permit tax-free financing at unabashedly religious universities and high schools (as long as the money is used for secular projects like dormitories and dining halls); and a broader tapestry of regulatory and tax exemptions has become available to religious groups for activities ranging from day-care centers and funeral homes to broadcasting networks that they sponsor (Henriques, 2006). Although the exemptions from federal, state, and local laws and taxes have applied not only to churches and synagogues but also to mosques and Hindu temples, Christian churches have been the greatest beneficiaries given the dominance of Christianity in the United States. Problems could emerge down the line if the growing inroads into church-state separation lead to favoring the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish trinity and discriminating against other religious groups.

As for the situation in Western Europe, it is also well to bear in mind developments that temper, at least somewhat, the gloomy picture we have described for the integration of Islam there. European governments realize that they must find ways to fund and support the development of an independent Islam and offer some accommodations for Muslim religious practices (Kastoryano, 1996; Fetzer and Soper, 2005:2; Klausen, 2005:2). Britain is particularly liberal on this score. To be sure, Britain has an established Anglican church; the state has not extended all the antidiscrimination protections that exist for gender, race, and ethnicity to religion (although in 2003 it banned religious discrimination in employment); and the government has refused to extend the blasphemy laws, used in the past to protect Christian values against offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred, to all religious communities (Fetzer and Soper, 2005:37, 59; Modood, 2005:162–164). Still, on the whole, as Vertovec (1998) argues, the accommodation to many specific tenets and practices of religious minorities, including Islam, has been considerable and progressive in Britain. As early as the 1980s, Muslims’ claims for the toleration of religious symbols and autonomous organizational spheres, including building and registering mosques, establishing sections of cemeteries for Muslims, permission for ritual slaughter, and exemption from religious instruction and school worship, were granted in Britain (Koenig, 2005:227). Whereas mosque building has been the subject of bitter controversy elsewhere in Europe, in Britain, as Fetzer and Soper (2005:48) note, for the most part getting permission to build a mosque or Islamic center “is no more difficult than securing permission for any other similar building.”16

The Netherlands has also accommodated many Muslim religious demands despite a growing, and vocal, discontent with the pace of integration among many natives and the Dutch government's shift to a tougher “integration policy” for Muslim minorities. The slaying of the maverick filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a second-generation radical Muslim of Moroccan origin, among other developments, has been accompanied by a “fierce criticism of Islam and, what many people believe to be, the Muslim way of life” (Rath, 2005:31; see also Buruma, 2006). Moreover, Muslims had the bad fortune to arrive as the system of pillarization was on the decline, so there was no question of a Muslim pillar, comparable to the Protestant and Catholic pillars of the past, in terms of institutional arrangements. Yet the legacy of the pillarized system, it has been argued, has led to the accommodation of, and receptivity to, Muslim group claims. (This accommodation, Rath [2005:32] argues, has not always occurred without a struggle. Muslims, he contends, have “in the long run achieved most of what they wanted,” but obstacles have usually been put in the way of various Muslim institutional claims “from one quarter or other,” and “in most cases recognition has only been achieved after long pleading.”) A recent study ranked the Netherlands in 2002 with a perfect score of 1 in allowances for Islamic ritual practices outside of public institutions, the three indicators being allowance of ritual slaughter of animals according to Islamic rite, allowance of Islamic call to prayer in public, and provisions for Muslim burials (Koopmans et al., 2005:55–58).17

Major changes are also under way in France. Perhaps the most important step has been the establishment in 2003 of a French Council of the Muslim Religion (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) as a liaison between the French government and the Muslim communities. The establishment of this council, which exists on both national and regional levels, finally puts Islam on the same plane as other religions in relationship to the French state, for each of the major religions is represented by a similar body; in the case of Jews, for instance, the Jewish Consistoire Central dates to the emancipation of Jews in the Napoleonic era. The French Council of the Muslim Religion has a mandate to negotiate with the French state over issues affecting Islamic religious practice, such as the training of imams and the regulation of ritual slaughter; and as Laurence and Vaisse (2006) observe, it represents an attempt by the French state to establish an Islam of France rather than simply tolerate Islam in France.

A final issue, relevant throughout Europe, concerns trends among Muslims themselves, particularly the local-born second and third generations. On one hand, the aggrieved sense of exclusion felt by many Muslims who have grown up in Europe has created a pool of potential recruits for fundamentalist doctrines and radical Islamist groups, a development that could reinforce and indeed increase tensions with long-established Europeans. On the other hand, some predict that as the second generation takes over in religious associations and institutions, they will generally strive for a more liberal version of Islam than their parents practiced, one that is focused on integration into Western European society and viewed more positively by the wider population (Lucassen, 2005:157–158, 207). Just how these two trends will, in fact, unfold – and interact – is, as yet, an open question.

In the end, though, and despite these caveats, we are back to where we started. Changes may be afoot in both Western Europe and the United States, but it is likely that, for some time to come, Islam will continue to be problematic in Western Europe, engendering tensions and conflict, just as immigrant religions in the United States will continue to offer an acceptable and easily accessible way for newcomers and their children to fit into American society. And, because the social science literature inevitably reflects the concerns and realities in the societies under study, we can also expect social science work on immigrant religion to continue to be characterized by the patterns we have described here, with an emphasis on its positive role in immigrant adjustment and assimilation in the United States and its links to the difficulties of incorporating Muslim immigrants and their children into Western European societies.


  • 1

    Renaut, it should be noted, argues that the law sets a dangerous precedent.

  • 2

    Laurence and Vaisse (2006:169) call Weil's reasoning – that the law is intended “to defend individual schoolgirls’ religious freedom by allowing them the freedom not to believe”– a “logical somersault.”

  • 3

    A recent report by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia discusses the many manifestations of what it terms Islamophobia in Europe (EUMC, 2006).

  • 4

    This estimate is from Casanova and Zolberg (2002). We do not have exact figures on the religion of immigrants in the United States because the U.S. Census is not allowed to gather statistics on religion. According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2008), 74 percent of immigrant adults in the United States – and 79 percent of U.S.-born adults – are Christian.

  • 5

    In Britain, the census included a question on religious affiliation for the first time in 2001, but the figures on France, Germany, and the Netherlands are estimates since religious affiliation is not a question on population censuses there and only place of birth and country of origin give any hint of religious allegiance (Cesari, 2004:9). The Eumap executive summary figures are based on longer background research reports on Muslims in France (Sonia Tebbakh), Germany (Nina Muhe), and the Netherlands (Froukje Demant, Marcel Maussen, and Jan Rath).

  • 6

    This figure is based on the estimate that about two-thirds of the approximately 3 million Muslims in the United States are immigrants or descendants of immigrants (Wuthnow, 2005:57). In 2000, some 56 million U.S. residents were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

  • 7

    These figures are from the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (Kosmin and Keysar, 2006).

  • 8

    The total Muslim population in the United States is small, representing an estimated 1 percent of the U.S. population or about three million people (Kosmin and Keysar, 2006:262). A little under a quarter of U.S. Muslims are South Asian; Arabs constitute about 12 percent; Africans, 6 percent; Iranians, 4 percent; and Turks, 2 percent (Cesari, 2004:11).

  • 9

    According to a recent European Values Study that tracks attitudes in 32 European countries, just 21 percent of Europeans said that religion is “very important” to them; a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that three times as many Americans, 59 percent, called their faith “very important” (Ford, 2005a). In the World Values Survey of the late 1990s, 53 percent of Americans considered religion very important in their lives compared with 16 percent in Britain, 14 percent in France, and 13 percent in Germany (Ford, 2005b). Interestingly, a recent poll conducted in 2006–2007 among Muslim populations in London, Paris, and Berlin showed that strong majorities of Muslims (68 percent in Paris, 85 percent in Berlin, and 88 percent in London) said that religion is an important part of their daily lives (Gallup Organization, 2007).

  • 10

    Twenty-three percent of the British and West Germans, 26 percent of the Dutch, and 20 percent of the French said that they know that God really exists and have no doubts about it. Also according to the ISSP data, in the late 1990s 51 percent of Americans reported definitely believing in religious miracles in contrast to 23 percent of West Germans, 15 percent of the French and Dutch, and 14 percent of the British (International Social Survey Programme, 2001).

  • 11

    Robert Wuthnow (2005) also argues that the development of what he calls spiritual shopping – experimentation among some younger middle- and upper-middle-class Americans with religious teachings and practices outside the Christian tradition, including Zen Buddhism, Hare Krishna, and Transcendental Meditation – has led to a “path to a new understanding” of immigrants arriving with new religions.

  • 12

    This is an example of a more general historical dynamic seen in the United States in which migrant inflows in an earlier period affect the social, political, economic, and cultural context that greets immigrants in the next wave, thereby shaping the experiences of the newer immigrants in a variety of ways (Foner, 2006).

  • 13

    A national sample of 2,910 adults were surveyed, selected to be representative of the adult population of the United States and interviewed by telephone about a year after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Forty-two percent said they would not welcome Muslims’ becoming a stronger presence in the United States, as did 33 percent for Hindus, and 32 percent for Buddhists (Wuthnow, 2005:220).

  • 14

    According to Laurence and Vaisse (2006:83), two-thirds of Muslim prayer spaces in France are of this kind. At the time they wrote, there were just twenty mosques in France that could accommodate more than 1,000 people; fifty-four were big enough to hold between 500 and 1,000. A few French cities recently have found a way to provide some financial assistance by helping to fund cultural centers or facilities associated with mosques (Moore, 2007).

  • 15

    Under the Dutch system of pillarization, established in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Catholics and Protestants had their own organizations in all spheres of public life, including hospitals, schools, and even sports clubs. Laws and regulations were developed in which state funds and resources were distributed among the different pillars (Vermeulen and Penninx, 2000:28). The system of pillarization began to break down in the 1960s in response to increasing social and geographical mobility and increasing secularization in Dutch society.

  • 16

    One exception is the recent controversy over proposals for a megamosque for 12,000 worshippers in London's East End near the main park for the 2012 Olympic Games (Moore, 2007).

  • 17

    Britain was in second place, with a summary score of 0.33 for religious rights outside of public institutions, while France and Germany each had only a score of 0 (Koopmans et al., 2005:58).