The Best Place in the World to be a Muslim: America or Europe?

flickr/raul lieberwroth

The Best Place in the World to be a Muslim: America or Europe?

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

Amb. Akbar Ahmed

Amb. Akbar Ahmed

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

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

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

flickr/Kashfi Halford

flickr/Kashfi Halford

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

Ethnic composition

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Social class and population concentration

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

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

The Impact of 9/11 and Islamophobia

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

flickr/raul lieberwroth

flickr/raul lieberwroth

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

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

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

flickr/Tim Simpson

flickr/Tim Simpson

Historical background

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

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

Religious leadership

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

The homegrown terrorist

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

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

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

Who is doing better?

To return to our initial question, which community, the American or the European Muslims, is doing better? In the U.S., we can give examples of two Muslim congressmen, many Muslim mayors, councilors, prominent comedians such as Dave Chappelle and Aasif Mandvi, musicians and Hollywood actors. Europe can boast a similar number of prominent figures, such as members of parliament in countries such as Germany, major television presenters, and famous soccer stars. In the U.K., there are a dozen Muslim members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. The captains of the national cricket team of the U.K. as well as the national soccer team of France have been Muslim.

In terms of identity, the U.S. has an advantage. American identity is rooted in the vision of its Founding Fathers. This ideal is of a genuinely pluralist society rooted in human rights, civil liberties and democracy. European societies, in contrast, are often based in an ethnic vision. Germany is a country for Germans as defined by its very name and they speak the German language, while Denmark is the land of the Danes and England the land of the English. This is why a Pakistani or someone from Trinidad in the U.K. will say they are British — a broad identity based on citizenship similar to American identity — but rarely will they claim to be English, nor will they be defined as such by the English themselves. A third-generation Muslim immigrant may say “I am English, I do everything English people do. So why am I still considered a foreigner?” The U.S., in contrast, is not the land of the white people or brown people or any other kind of people alone.

However, 9/11 spoiled things for Muslims in the U.S. and Europe. But Islam is also challenging American and European identity in profoundly political and philosophic ways. For Americans, the unfair treatment of the Muslim community challenges notions of being a liberal democracy in the vision of the Founding Fathers. Europeans also commonly define themselves as a civilization of the enlightenment promoting democracy, human rights and liberal values. Yet there cannot be a situation, in either the U.S. or Europe, in which everyone is equal except for one particular community, which is targeted for discrimination on the basis of religion.

The way forward

We have to ask ourselves, as people of good faith, what should we be doing to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and promote genuine pluralism in society? It is precisely to answer this question that I embarked on a series of projects, along with a research team, to examine the relationship between the Islamic world and the West after 9/11 and how those relations might be improved. The studies are: Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007), which involved me traveling across the Muslim world and examining what Muslims thought of the West; Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), for which I traveled to 75 U.S. cities and 100 mosques to examine how Americans perceived Islam and Muslims and the relationship between Islam and the American identity; The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), a study of Muslim tribal societies on the periphery of nations where so much of the violence associated with the “war on terrorism” is taking place; and my forthcoming study, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire, which has involved travel to 30 European cities and 40 mosques to study the Muslim experience in Europe.

On the basis of these studies, I have concluded that Muslim leaders have to play a greater role in fostering unity and cohesion in the Muslim community. The Muslim community is divided — there are sectarian differences such as Shias and Sunnis and Deobandis and Barelvis, then there are ethnic divisions between Arabs, Iranians, Bangladeshis and so on. The communities often lead separate lives and are sometimes even antagonistic toward each other. They must instead come together and be able to create platforms where they can speak to each other and form a united front. They need leaders who can represent them. Americans and Europeans often ask me who represents the Muslim community. I find it difficult to answer.

The Muslim community also must build alliances that stretch across religious and political boundaries. They must reach out to Jews, Christians, atheists and others. They have to learn from other minorities. There are so many rabbis, for example, who are eager to work with Muslims and help build bridges. Muslims should be asking them for advice and strategies that religious minorities can utilize to improve their situation.


Young Muslims also have to be more involved in the Muslim community as well as the wider society. Many important Muslim organizations in the U.S. and Europe are still headed by people who were born in Muslim countries, whose experience is different from their children and grandchildren growing up in the West. Muslim parents often want their children to be professionals, like doctors and lawyers, to secure their income, but the young also need to be part of the larger debate about Islam in the media. They need to be involved in politics. They need to be on television, to improve the visibility of the community in society and put forth their point of view. They must be seen and heard to be considered American or European. Muslims must also write books and studies and ask hard questions about themselves. I have seen very few self-analytic books from the Muslim community.

Muslims also need to participate in local cultural events. In the U.S., for example, I have heard debates about the 4th of July celebrations in the Muslim community. I tell them that the 4th of July is an important event in American cultural life. Some Muslims simply do not understand its significance and have told me that, as it does not have anything to do with Islam, they would not participate. But the Muslim leadership should tell people that they are part of this culture and society and cannot be isolated and thus inadvertently cause offense to the majority population. Non-Muslim Americans would not tell Muslims to violate their religious principles and drink alcohol, so it is possible to participate in cultural events without compromising their religion and identity. All countries have these cultural events. Right now it is hit or miss whether members of the Muslim community will participate in these events. I return to my point about immigrant imams in the U.S. who may have no idea what the 4th of July means.

The reality is that Muslims have to be involved in the local culture and these are ways they can participate. If they do not, and if Islamophobia worsens, the results can be dangerous. History has established that a minority that is living under a shadow, that is isolated, afraid and unsure of its place, and is the target of violent attacks will have a bleak future.

akbar ahmadWhile the targeting of a minority is currently focused on Muslims in the West, there is a larger social point to be made. To attack a minority is to travel on a slippery slope. Muslims may be the target today, but in the future, it could be another minority and then another. Either equality and rights for all citizens are upheld or the notion of equality and rights are compromised. This is why Muslims must join other groups in society to work for equal rights for all citizens. If they can do this, the U.S. and Europe will truly emerge as ideal places where Muslims can thrive and contribute so much to their nations. Muslims, and indeed all U.S. and European citizens, must work to make that a reality, not just for the sake of Muslims, but for the health and prosperity of the countries in which they live. It is at that point that the ideals of Islam and those of Western civilization meet.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. He is currently working on the forthcoming book and documentary film project Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire.


The following was published in the Fall/Winter 2014/5 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.  Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 10.38.44 AM

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