Washington DC – While scholarly work has debunked the idea of incompatibility of Islam with Western values, it has not really changed this dominant perception pervading political discourse and policy making. This notion of incompatibility between Islam and the West has actually intensified in the last 15 years, as the perception of Islam as the external enemy has combined with the fear of Islam within liberal Western democracies. The consequence is that Muslims are now seen by many as an internal and external enemy both in Europe and in the United States.
The persistence of the Islam versus West dichotomy has nothing to do with the quality of academic work, but rather the fact that this work is seldom utilised by political and cultural actors, not to mention media.
Yet hope may lie in better understanding the social and cultural reality of Muslims that starkly contradicts the perceived divide – namely that Muslims in the West are supportive of Western values and civic integration. In this regard, efforts could be made to familiarise citizens with this reality through different educational and cultural means.
My book “Why the West Fears Islam: Exploration of Islam in Western Liberal Democracies” (June 2013 by Palgrave McMillan) indicates a persistent predisposition in the West to link Islam to un-civic behaviour and to see assertive Muslims as internal enemies threatening national values and identities as well as external enemies at war with Western civilisation.
Intriguingly, there is no empirical evidence based on behaviours of Muslims in European countries or the United States that supports this fear. Actually, Muslim political practices are not different from their average fellow citizens. My investigation shows that in Europe and in the United States, Muslims express a greater trust in national institutions and democracy than their fellow citizens and that mosque attendance actually facilitates social and political integration.
Still, the construction of Muslims as the enemy within liberal democracies takes place in a preexisting environment influenced by history, adding the dimension of an internal enemy to the enduring feature of the external enemy.
Muslims have been seen as “others” to the West since medieval times. More specifically, Western self-definition based on the concepts of progress, nation, rational individual and secularisation was built in opposition to Muslim empires. Europe’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire gradually established the East-West binary that had a decisive impact on world politics since the 19th Century.
In the United States, during the 20th and 21st Centuries, the perception of Islam as the external enemy traces back to the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979 to 1981) and became more acute after 9/11 when Muslims came to be seen as internal enemies due to the fear of home grown terrorism.
Many Muslims in post-WWII Europe have an immigrant background, and are currently estimated to constitute approximately five per cent of the European Union’s 425 million inhabitants. As immigrants, generations came with very low labour skills, unlike most Muslims in the United States who generally possess a high level of education and marketable skills.
Low levels of education and few job opportunities explain poor economic performance of Muslims in Europe. Muslim immigrant populations across Europe are often concentrated in segregated, urban areas, which are plagued by delinquency, crime and deteriorated living conditions.
There is a need across the Atlantic to rebuild national narratives to include Muslims and Islam as part of the memory and culture of the national communities they belong to.
This can likely be done if Islam is disconnected from partisan interests and becomes a national cause for political, social and religious actors across the ideological spectrum.
The educational and political efforts of the last five decades to include African Americans into the US national narrative are a good illustration of such a collective effort. In the case of Islam, it will require a coalition among religious actors from all faiths who can play a decisive role in promoting similarities between Islam and other monotheistic religions.
This is a noble political task for the decades to come.
Dr Jocelyne Cesari is Director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. This article, the fourth in a series on contemporary Muslim-Western relations, was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).