The increasingly acrimonious debate over the construction of the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Manhattan, about two blocks away from the World Trade Center towers that were destroyed by Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001, echoes similar debates in Europe and could, if the rhetoric becomes commonplace, have broad and negative ramifications for the integration of America's growing Muslim population.
Though some opponents of the Muslim community center say they are simply worried about the feelings of 9/11 relatives, since the men who carried out the attacks were Muslims, others see the attempt to build the center in a former Burlington Coat Factory outlet as an offensive in what they view as a cultural war.
The United State's experience with its Muslim citizens, and vice versa, has been a profoundly different and more positive one than that found in most of Europe, where countries with largely homogeneous ethnic and religious identities first started to grapple with large influxes of Muslim immigrants after World War II. In Europe, Muslims are more likely to report feeling alienated from society, and tend to have fewer economic opportunities -- all of which has, on the margins, led to a greater relative number of young European Muslim men being attracted to the violent ideology espoused by Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers.
The US, by contrast, has always been an immigrant nation, and one in which newcomers have been able to find their feet and their own "American-ness" far more quickly than immigrants in other parts of the world. While in parts of the Netherlands, Britain, and France, there are largely homogeneous Muslim communities from Pakistan or Algeria that seem to live apart from broader society, the source populations of US Muslims have been more ethnically and linguistically diverse, and they've been more geographically integrated into the nation at large.
Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, says that the United States has been fortunate in that its earlier Muslim immigrants were better educated and more prosperous than their counterparts in Europe, and that the presence of the African-American Muslim community already provided a template for an "American" Islam when they arrived, however small. But he also says integration was built into the fabric of America itself.
"It is the philosophy that religion is accepted, and people no matter what their background and religion are to be excepted as full citizens... a positive understanding that America is open," says Dr. Bagby. "Muslims regularly fall back on that to not only justify their activities in the public square and to bolster them when they’re under attack, similar to African-Americans who used that wedge for 300 years to say 'hey, America is supposed to be founded on freedom and equality for all citizens.' To me, that's the greatness of America, that the underlying principles are tools for those who want to carve out their freedom and find their place. European Muslims can’t lean on that narrative of why they belong there."
A two-year study released this month by Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina found that despite fears over the potential "radicalization" of Muslim-Americans after 9/11, "the record over the past eight years contains relatively few examples of Muslim-Americans that have radicalized and turned toward violent extremism."
Why? Largely because of Muslim-American engagement with the political system, self-policing to identify at-risk youths, and robust Muslim-American communities centered around mosque and meeting complexes like the proposed Cordoba House in lower Manhattan.
The "research reinforces the generally accepted observation that Muslim-Americans with a strong, traditional religious training are far less likely to radicalize than those without such training," the authors write. "One possible reason for the small number of radicalized, violent Muslim-Americans involves the demographics of the Muslim-American population in the United States. Unlike Muslim minorities in many countries of Western Europe, Muslim-Americans have attained higher education and middle-class incomes at roughly the same rate as society as a whole. Their lives are less segregated than in Western Europe, and their political views on most issues are similar to other Americans."