Why US presidents should visit mosques more often


It is extraordinary that it took until February, 2016 for President Obama to make his first official visit to an American mosque – right at the end of his second term in office. Islamist propaganda has always cast the War on Terror as a war by the West against the whole of Islam on a global scale. Arguably, by not visiting a mosque during most of his term, the President had unwittingly bolstered that narrative. After all, why not visit a mosque?

In the United States as of 2014, according to Pew, there were 2.75m Muslims. By 2050, they will surpass those who identify themselves as Jewish. They are mostly anti-extremist, even believing that their faith leaders have not done enough to speak out on this issue – again, according to Pew. On the other hand, there is a widespread view that post-9/11 anti-terror legislation has impacted disproportionately on Muslims.

Obama finally decided to cross the threshold of a mosque in response to comments made by Donald Trump while running as the Republican presidential candidate. He told the congregation:

If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.

Muslims themselves have moved decisively towards a reconciled identity in the US adopting increasingly liberal attitudes on homosexuality and abortion. Politically, they trend towards the Democrats and in spite of high rates of business formation and suburban lifestyles nevertheless believe in bigger not small government.

But in spite of these encouraging signs of assimilation, Republicans are noticeably cool about their Muslim fellow citizens and even Democrats are not reportedly warm. Democrat attitudes to Muslims could best be described as neutral compared to outright suspicion among Republicans.

It is wrong and dangerous to conflate American Muslims with Islamist extremists. Successive surveys have revealed a community that is happy to adhere to American values and salute the flag. Yet Obama left it very late in his presidency to reach out to Muslims. Even George Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington after 9/11 to boldly state that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam”.

If we want to drive Muslims into the hands of Islamists, there are two proven ways to achieve this:

  1. Put the whole of Islam and Islamist extremism in the same bucket and depict both as some kind of civilizational threat
  2. Encourage a sense of victimhood among Muslims slowly convincing them that it is impossible to live as a Muslim in the United States (and only caliphate governed by sharia law will offer real protection)

The antidote to the above is to make a clear distinction between the majority of law abiding, patriotic Muslims as opposed to Islamist extremists – and deal with them very differently. Avoidance of victimhood narratives is also critical, instead disseminating stories of success and aspiration.

It would also help if presidents of the United States set foot more often in Muslim community venues to evidence that they are as much a part of the fabric of the US as Catholics, evangelicals and Jews.


Are Muslims in the United States more assimilated than in Europe?

According to the Cato Institute – the answer is yes. On what basis? Because Muslims in the United States have opinions on issues like abortion and homosexuality that are more in line with the general population than in Europe.

img_3746Cato quotes stats from Pew and Gallup showing that while 58% of Britons find homosexuality morally acceptable, next to no British Muslims do. While in the US, it’s 48% of the US who are fine with gay rights and 27% of American Muslims. So the gap in attitudes between Muslims and non-Muslims in the US seems to be much narrower.

On abortion, 55% of Britons are fine with abortion while only 5% of British Muslims find it morally acceptable. Go to the US and it’s 55% of non-Muslims who think abortion is moral compared to 40% of Muslims. Again, a narrower gap.

Cato then moves on to the labour market. In the US, Muslims are more likely to be in work than non-Muslims. That is reversed in Europe where unemployment rates are alarmingly high – particularly among women. This non-participation in the labour market creates a gulf between Muslims and the rest of society, Cato argues.

Something else is going on that may explain better assimilation in the United States than in Europe. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Muslims who believe in a literal approach to scripture fell eight percentage points from 50% while the non-literalists rose by 10%. Pew has also found that at least 23% of US residents raised in Muslim households had left their religion altogether.

This contrasts with Europe where second and third generation Muslims have often parted company with their parents’ cultural Islam seeking instead a globalised Muslim identity. That can include the hyper-literalism of salafism and in some instances, an adherence to extremist Islamism. But the picture is not all grim. London has a Muslim mayor who is a role model of integration and several Muslims sit in parliament. An increasing number of Muslims are successful in business and the arts but nevertheless, a degree of alienation clearly persists.

In spite of what looks like a rosier picture in the US, this did not stop the 2016 presidential election including a call by the Republican candidate Donald Trump to impose a ban on any more Muslims entering the country. Yet Muslims appear to have been an assimilation success story – especially compared to Europe.