The recent burkini fiasco led me to reflect upon the UK, US and French approaches to integrating Muslims. Two of these countries are secular states while one has an established church. However, secularism is not the key differentiator.
United States of America
The USA prides itself on being “A Nation of Immigrants” as John F. Kennedy wrote. Apart from Native Americans, every US citizen is either an immigrant or descended from an immigrant, and most are conscious of that. The USA has a long history of welcoming immigration, interspersed with periods of almost hysterical nativism.
American Muslims fall into two groups. Recent American Muslim immigrants primarily came from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. They are, on average, better educated and economically more successful than white Americans. Conversely, African-American converts to Islam, are on average, less well educated and less successful economically than white Americans.
Linkages between the two Muslim communities have been limited. However, the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice post 9/11 and Donald Trump’s exploitation of recent terrorist attacks for political gain appear to be driving the two communities closer together. I consider both communities to be well integrated.
Integration is helped by the USA having a strong “civil religion” with markers of allegiance that are easily adopted by newcomers. Most Americans see you as one of them if you support the constitution and subscribe to “The American Dream.”
Over the objections of some anti-Muslim bigots, Islam has become a normal part of the country’s civic activities. Presidents from Bill Clinton onwards have annually hosted an iftar (the meal at the end of a day of Ramadan fasting). President Obama has taken to hosting a seder (Passover meal). Obviously US presidents have long marked various Christian festivals.
France has seen significant Muslim immigration, and is about 10% Muslim compared with the UK’s 5%.
Like the USA, constitutionally France is a secular state. It promises “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” to all of its citizens. As one would expect, it is illegal for employers to discriminate on the grounds of race or religion.
Unfortunately, as “In praise of ethnic monitoring” explained three years ago, France prohibits the gathering of ethnic monitoring data, something essential for discrimination to be identified. The predictable consequences ensue – discrimination in France is widespread. There is a large underclass of French Muslims of immigrant background whose employment outcomes are much worse than their educational qualifications would predict.
Critically, white French society sees only one way for a person to be French. They must either be an atheist or someone who suppresses their religious identity. For example, Jewish pupils are not allowed to wear a kippah in school and more recently some French mayors have taken to prohibiting their schools from providing any alternative to pork in school lunches. I am not aware of the French president ever hosting a seder or an iftar.
The outcome is what one would expect. The integration of Muslims in France is inadequate and I would say that it is currently on a downward spiral.
I consider France’s integration failure to be significantly attributable to the French concept of “Laïcité”. While the theoretical goal of laïcité is to have a secular state, many, including me, see it as embedding a form of institutionalised discrimination. For example, the French state pays for the upkeep of religious buildings dating from before 1905, which means churches and some synagogues, but no mosques.
The United Kingdom
Our country’s integration situation is actually pretty good. Notwithstanding the jeremiads from anti-Muslim bigots, in my view most British Muslims are integrating pretty well into society. Similarly, despite those who see “Islamophobia” everywhere, non-Muslim Britons are on average pretty tolerant of their Muslim fellow citizens. There are pockets of problems, particularly in some of the northern towns with very high Muslim densities but even there geographical spreading is taking place.
There are also integration difficulties caused by the continuing flow of first-generation Muslim migrants, especially as spouses. However, our government has put in place a good set of policies to make it more likely that such incoming spouses integrate.
When you look around the professions, commerce, politics and the media, every passing year shows greater Muslim participation. Every year, the Prime Minister sends out many messages welcoming religious holidays such as Passover, Diwali, Ramadan and Eid.
Relative integration performances
I would rank the UK as the best performer of the three on integration, measured by the political “mood music” and the overall tone of the media. However, the USA is close behind. I put the UK ahead because it is much more normal for Muslims to rise in UK politics than in the USA, and I see more Muslims in the media.
Sadly, France lags very badly. It has much to learn and displays a stubborn reluctance to do so.
The reason why the UK and the USA have been much more successful is that integration is actually a two-way street, requiring some adaptation on both sides.
Obviously immigrants need to adapt the most. Immigrants to the UK must master English, must absorb our country’s civic and political culture, and need to value our religious and ethnic tolerance. (Sadly many immigrants bring prejudices with them, but most manage to lose them here.)
However, some adaptation is also required of the host country. The UK has displayed this. Some simple examples are permitting Sikh motorcyclists to not wear a crash helmet and accepting hijab as part of official police uniform. Showing immigrants that they are valued, for example with the Prime Minister’s religious festival messages, is absolutely critical.
The UK and the USA have displayed the small amount of adaptability required of host countries. Neither an established church nor having an entirely secular constitution has been any impediment. Unfortunately, France refuses to accept that any adaptation whatsoever is necessary, and uses Laïcité as a shibboleth to justify its stubbornness. Sadly, the predictable integration failure has ensued.