Muslims Integrate into US Mainstream



Following violent riots last month by Muslims in France and other European countries, many analysts are looking at immigrant communities in the United States.  They find that, for the most part, Muslims are more integrated in American society than their counterparts are in Europe.  But many observers say Europe and America can learn valuable lessons from one another.

A Wall Between Muslims and Europeans

Earlier this year, a young Turkish woman was killed on her way to a bus stop in Berlin. One of her younger brothers confessed to the murder.  The woman's crime: she shamed her family by leaving the husband they forced her to marry in Turkey.  The murder made more headlines than similar stories because a teacher alerted the media when two of his female Turkish students condoned the murder. 

There is a new wall rising in the city of Berlin, wrote German author and sociologist Peter Schneider in reaction to the news.  He says the majority of Berliners have not crossed the invisible barrier separating the affluent central and northern districts of the city from the suburbs housing some 300-thousand Muslims.

Germany has more than 3.5 million Muslims, 70 percent of whom are Turks and Kurds.  They started arriving in the 1950s and helped fuel the country's post-war economic boom.  Germans referred to them as "Gastarbeiter," or guest workers, because they were expected to eventually return to their home countries. But most of them stayed and were joined by their families. Their children and often grandchildren were born in Germany.

Temporary Workers Become Permanent

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

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

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

Easier to Become American than European

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

Mr. Zogby notes that today an American can be portrayed as a Spanish-speaking person, an African-American, an Asian-American, or a woman wearing a head scarf. This was not a case a century ago.  But images of French, German or Italian citizens have changed little to reflect growing immigrant populations.  Analysts note other differences between Muslims communities in Europe and those in the United States. Leena El-Ali, a program director for the non-profit conflict resolution group, Search for Common Ground, says many Muslim immigrants have come to the United States in search of higher education.

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

Muslims Do Well in the US

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

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

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

Many analysts say the United States should avoid Europe's mistake by continuing to promote the integration of immigrants into mainstream society, and that Europe can learn from America's history of successful immigration.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.”  For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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