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Views of Islam Differ in Europe and US

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Europe’s experience of anti–Islam legislation and sentiment grows out of a different social and cultural environment than is found in the United States, according to a political scientist who is following the issue.

Islam–related public debate in this country is different than it is in Europe in part because Americans are much more likely to be religiously active, said Jocelyne Cesari, a French academic specializing in Islam and world politics at the National Defense University in Washington, at an Aug. 2 forum where data on Muslims in America was released by Gallup’s Abu Dhabi center.

She explained that the high level of religious participation among all Americans helps create a less hostile environment for religiously active Muslims, despite the public uproar arising in the United States in the last year over assorted Islam–related topics.

From New York to Tennessee, controversy erupted over plans such as a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center in New York and to build mosques in various U.S. cities; over a Florida pastor’s public burning of a copy of the Quran; and over efforts in some communities to ban consideration of Islamic law, or sharia, in civic law.

Government regulation of Islamic practices has gone much further in some parts of Europe, however. France this spring put into effect a law that bans wearing burqas or other garments that fully cover the face in public. Another French law has banned since 2004 the wearing of hijabs, the Muslim head scarf, at public schools, universities and government buildings.

After anti–Muslim motives were attributed to a Norwegian man who killed 77 people in July in bombings of government buildings and a shooting spree at a youth camp, some analysts pointed to such laws and the rhetoric that accompanied their passage as fomenting the environment that led Anders Behring Breivik on his self– imposed mission to oust Islam from Europe.

The leader of Norway’s Conservative Party compared anti–Muslim rhetoric in Europe recently to the anti–Jewish fascism of the 1930s.

“The way European extremist anti–Islam groups today denigrate Muslims and Islam is very similar to the way Fascist and right–wing parties denigrated Jews in the 1930s,” Erna Solberg said after the July 22 shootings and bombings.

Cesari explained at the conference and in a later phone interview with Catholic News Service that throughout Europe — even in countries that remain strongly Catholic such as Italy and Spain — the idea that expressions of faith don’t belong in public has become part of everyday life.

Muslims polled in the United States and Europe say faith is important in their lives and majorities attend religious services at least somewhat regularly.

The Gallup survey found that in the United States, 64 percent of Muslims, 65 percent of Protestants and 61 percent of Catholics attend religious services at least once a month.

Cesari said that’s not the case in Europe. “In America, the level of Muslims and other religious groups who have attended services regularly is about the same. In Europe, Muslims who go to services are disproportionate to other faith groups.”

She said another difference is that Europeans in general have developed a more secularist attitude about the place of religious expression in public. But a high percentage of Europe’s Muslims are relatively recent immigrants, whose ideas and practices are more like those of their homelands, where public expressions of Islam are part of everyday life.

“It took half a generation for religious groups in Europe to absorb the secularist approach, that religion’s place is at home,” Cesari said.

The shift in attitudes has played out for Christians in Europe as well, notably in Italy’s debate over whether public school classrooms may display crucifixes. After a years–long legal battle, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in March that such displays are an allowable recognition of Christianity’s contribution to culture.

The different attitudes about religiosity mean that in the United States, opposition to mosques or religious attire or Islamic law plays out as social or gender equality battles, not as much about politics and secularism as it does in Europe, Cesari said.

“In Europe, it’s clear that Muslims are seen as a threat, though mostly for social reasons,” she said.

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