The expansion of Muslim communities in Europe and the United States dates from the 1960s, but the origins and dynamics of this expansion have differed from country to country. In Europe, the Muslim population began to grow with the labor immigration in the 1960s and is closely linked with the history of empire in the major European countries. Labor immigration was encouraged and facilitated by employers and sanctioned by bilateral agreements during the 30 years of rapid economic expansion after 1948.
Because of this imperial history, many of the first–generation Muslim families, who are now often thought of as immigrants, originally came to Europe as citizens of the countries in which they now reside. Immigration of North Africans to France and Pakistanis to Britain was vital to postwar economic recovery. In some countries that did not have a well–established imperial connection, recruitment was based either on a deep historical relationship (Germany and Turkey) or on business networks (Switzerland). By contrast, while there were small numbers of Muslims in the United States in the 19th century (and earlier, if we include the importation of slaves), the postwar growth of Muslim communities in the United States dates directly from the new immigration system that was created by the Hart–Cellar Act of 1965 and had little to do with labor migration.21
As the need for labor diminished in the late 1960s, European countries either suspended legal immigration through administrative fiat, as in France and Germany, or passed legislation that would exclude immigrants who had been arriving in large numbers, as in Britain.22 By 1975, no country in Europe permitted easy immigration from countries outside of the European community. However, mostly because family unification could not be terminated under law, Muslim communities continued to grow and to evolve. Communities of workers became communities of families; migrant workers, who tended to move back and forth before labor immigration was terminated, became settled families. With some variation by country, immigrant families gradually became citizens, and immigrant communities became ethnic groups. In countries where the rule of jus soli applied (those born on national soil have a right to citizenship), such as the United States, Britain, and France, the evolution toward citizenship was much more rapid than in countries with a jus sanguinis tradition (nationality is determined by that of a child’s parents), such as Germany and all of Scandinavia. During the past 15 years in Europe, however, there has been a movement toward convergence, as some jus sanguinis countries have adopted elements of jus soli, while jus soli countries have moved toward a more conditional right to automatic citizenship.23
While immigration is certainly not a long–term solution, Europe has a short–term need for immigrants to manage the demographic challenge posed by pressures on the welfare state. 24 Reports by the United Nations and the European Commission have emphasized that European needs for immigrant labor will increase over the next 25 years.25 Several European countries have been developing policies that favor at least the short–term immigration of high–skilled immigrants 26 but there is also a demand for those with lower skills, and they continue to arrive, increasingly from parts of sub–Saharan Africa.27
While European countries were attempting to limit immigration from Muslim countries, the United States was doing the opposite. The Immigration Act of 1924 (known as the Johnson–Reed Act) virtually excluded immigrants from most countries with substantial Muslim populations, but even before 1924, fewer than 5 percent of immigrants from these countries were actually Muslim.28 The 1965 Hart–Cellar Act reopened the door to immigration based on family unification and skills, resulting in far more Muslim immigrants than ever before. Recent data show that, among countries with large Muslim populations, the most immigrants have come from Iran, followed by Pakistan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Egypt. In contrast to Europe, the rate of immigration to the United States from majority Muslim countries grew, at least until 2000.29
Estimating the number of Muslims in Western countries is problematic for several reasons, the most fundamental of which is that all estimates depend primarily on what we mean by “Muslim.” One way of counting is to determine the number of people who come from majority Muslim countries or people who are born into families that are ethnically Muslim. A second is to count only people who identify as Muslims. Yet a third is to count people (and perhaps their families) who are affiliated with mosques. Each of these methods yields radically different numbers, and each is also fraught with methodological difficulties.
Estimates based on country of origin include people who may not be of the Muslim faith, may no longer identify as Muslim, or may have intermarried. Estimates based on identity, while they generally tend to focus on ethnic identity and religious commitment, sometimes include those who do not come from Muslim countries or even Muslim families (such as African American converts to Islam). Identity estimates, moreover, often change rapidly, depending on the political and social climate. In a survey in France in 2001, twice as many people declared themselves to be Muslim compared with the same survey in 1998. 31 Clearly, this cannot be understood as a vast increase of the ethnic Muslim population, but it should not be understood as a reaffirmation of religious identity either. 32
In a highly charged political climate, there are also problems of sources, which vary from more scholarly estimates based on census and survey data to estimates by government agencies, political parties, and interested associations, often based on noncited sources. These numbers tell us very little about either religious practice or the bonds of religious identity.
Even more reliable sources have serious limitations. The last British census in 2001 did include questions about religious affiliation; however, this information cannot be asked in the census of many other countries including the United States and France, where estimates are based on surveys or are extrapolated from national origin. In countries such as the United States, where the proportion of Muslims is small, the results of surveys are necessarily unreliable because of the small subsamples. 33 Even in countries where there are large Muslim populations—France, for example—surveys yield variable results, in part because of the reluctance of Muslims to declare themselves. 34 In the case of Germany, religious affiliation can be checked off on tax forms, but since Islam is not an official religion, it is not an option on the forms. Consequently, the number of Muslims in Germany is estimated from the number of Turks.
The current estimate is that there are about 15 million people of Muslim heritage in the original countries of the European Union, and that they account for about 3.2 percent of the total population in those 15 countries. 35 However, this percentage varies considerably from country to country and, in general, it is increasing. “Six countries stand out in particular for the high number of Muslims who call them home: France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Greece. In each of these countries, anywhere from 4 to 7 percent of the current population is Muslim.” 36 Other European countries have proportionately far fewer Muslims—Britain, for example. But Italy and Spain, which also have relatively few, are the countries in which the Muslim population is growing the most rapidly. 37
In absolute terms, the largest Muslim ethnic group in Europe is North African (Moroccan, above all). Within most European countries, the Muslim population has tended to come predominantly from one area, even one country. Most (though certainly not all) Muslims in France are from North Africa, while most in Britain are from Pakistan, in Germany from Turkey, and in The Netherlands from Turkey and Morocco. There are also large Turkish populations in Austria, Switzerland, and the Nordic countries.38
|Table 1: The Muslim Population in Various Countries (in thousands)|
|Country||Number of People
Countries or Estimated as Muslim
|Sources: American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), 2001, Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), 2001; Cˇsari, When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States (New York: Palgrave, 2004), pp. 9–11, p. 221, pp. 181–182; U.K. Muslim population—Office for National Statistics, 2001 figures; German Federal Statistical Office, 2004 figures; Muslim population—Federal Ministry of the Interior estimate; Muslim population—Statistics Netherlands, 2004 figures; BBC News,|
Muslims in the United States, by comparison, are proportionately fewer and much more diverse—they have come from more than a dozen countries and settled nationwide. Estimates of this Muslim population vary considerably between those based on ethnicity and those based on identity. In the United States, there is often a conflation of Arabs and Muslims. The most recent U.S. census of 2000 indicates a population of Arab ancestry of over a million people, 39 but the Arab American Institute has estimated that only 24 percent of this population is Muslim, while 35 percent are Catholic (Roman, Maronite, and Melkite). 40
The total number of Muslims in the United States has been estimated as anywhere between 1.1 million (in a 2001 survey based on identity conducted by the City University of New York) to as many as 7.5 million (sources imprecise). 41 Arabs comprise only a small minority of American Muslims (12.45 percent) and are far outnumbered by groups from the Indian subcontinent (24.4 percent). 42 A 2004 survey conducted for the Muslims in the American Public Square project estimated that 20 percent of the Muslims in the United States are converts, most of whom are African American. 43
Finally, the proportion of youth among Muslim populations in Europe is generally far higher than the proportion among the population as a whole. 44 Their levels of unemployment tend to increase the unemployment rate among Muslim populations in general, in part because youth unemployment is always higher than the mean. Indeed, what is sometimes referred to as the “youth bulge” has been understood in both positive and negative ways. Second– and third–generation Muslim youth help to alleviate the demographic deficit now endemic in Europe, bolster programs of the welfare state that are increasingly dependent on the contributions of youth to support an aging population, and contribute to sectors of the labor market for which there are new demands. But they also place new demands on education and other state services and suffer disproportionately from patterns of discrimination. They have also contributed to a rising sense of insecurity among European populations. 45
By the 1980s, labor migration of Muslims had become far less important than family unification in accounting for immigration in all Western countries. Then, as all Western countries began to tighten their entry requirements after 1989, illegal immigration began to increase. This new surge not only served to increase the number of immigrants in the West, since many who arrived without papers were able to establish residency through successive amnesties, but it also altered the structure of resident immigrant communities. In the United States illegal immigration did not contribute much to the increase in the Muslim population, but in Western Europe it did, notably from Muslim countries south of the Sahara. 46
To reiterate, the core source of Islamic immigration into France has always been from the former French colonies and protectorates in Africa and the Middle East: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and to a lesser extent, West Africa, Syria, and Lebanon. During the years immediately following the Second World War, Muslims in Algeria were granted French citizenship and began to move to the metropolis in larger numbers. By 1954, there were over 200,000 Algerians residing in France, and this number increased after the Algerian war for independence began that year.
As economic growth spread in the 1950s, France and other European countries became increasingly dependent on immigrant labor, first from labor–exporting countries within Europe, such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal, then from countries within their former empires or countries with which they had had quasi–colonial relationships. Ultimately, colonial migration became a foreign migration as decolonization progressed; and “the free movement of peoples” within Western Europe became linked to the process of European unification and therefore internal migration within the European Union.
In France, immigration from North Africa continued to grow relative to that from within Europe. At first Italians were replaced by Spanish, then Spanish by Portuguese, and finally Portuguese by North Africans. By the time the French government ended large–scale immigration from North Africa in 1974, the foreign population from Muslim countries had increased to a bit less than 40 percent of the total foreign population, about 1.5 million, three–quarters of whom were men.
The suspension of immigration in France in 1974 was in some ways a logical consequence of the economic crisis, the oil crisis, and the decline of smokestack industry. 47 Yet the government’s efforts to limit immigration were hindered by a decision by the French administrative high court (Conseil d’Etat) in 1978 that consecrated the right to family unification for immigrants legally residing in France. This decision, which would be echoed by courts throughout Europe, encouraged continued immigration through settlement rather than labor migration. Within a decade the proportion of women doubled, and the number of settled families with children also increased. 48
The pattern of Muslim immigration into Germany was similar, but the unintended consequences were even more profound. Unlike France, Germany was never a country of immigration. Nevertheless, during the 40 years after birth of the German Federal Republic in 1949, net immigration amounted to more than 12 million and accounted for more than 80 percent of the population growth. 49 Workers arrived in Germany from Muslim countries on the basis of bilateral agreements signed with Turkey in 1961 and Tunisia and Morocco in 1965. These “guest workers” were meant to replace the flow of Germans from the East, who were blocked by the wall, as well as Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese, who were also recruited on the basis of bilateral agreements and whose numbers diminished as the economies in their home countries grew. The German Federal Employment Office set up field offices in Istanbul, Casablanca, and Tunis, where they recruited workers who were supplied with permits as well as transportation. 50
Unlike France, in which there were no formal arrangements for the return of workers from Muslim countries, in Germany it was universally assumed that these workers would return home. Indeed, until immigration recruitment was ended in 1973, the system worked more or less as planned, but by the end of the decade, an activist German judiciary had made it difficult, if not impossible, to deport guest workers, and required that the state provide material support for family unification. By 1981, the Turkish community of 1.4 million had become the largest minority in the Federal Republic of Germany and had grown by 30 percent in three years, primarily due to family unification. The transformation of guest workers into permanent residents began with the passage of the Foreigner Law of 1990 and was continued by legislation over the next decade. 51
The British case is quite different, although Britain, like Germany, has not been a traditional country of immigration; in fact, the United Kingdom was a country of emigration until well after the Second World War. Between 1871 and 1931, there was a net outflow of more than three million people, mostly to the colonies. Nevertheless successive waves of migrants have come to Britain, even as others were leaving.
While until the 1960s, the overwhelming proportion of immigrants into France and the United States was from foreign countries (generally European), in Britain, two–thirds of those born abroad came from former colonies. Since the 1960s, the mix of immigrants from former colonies has changed significantly. The proportion of entries from Ireland (and the Old Commonwealth—Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) has declined, while those from the New Commonwealth (NCW—primarily India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) has increased. Even after 1962, when citizenship rules were changed to make it more difficult for citizens of NCW countries to enter the United Kingdom, the proportion of immigrants from these countries continued to increase. 52 In marked contrast to German and French recruitment of labor from Islamic countries, the British did not actively recruit in the NCW countries after the Second World War. 53 But men from Pakistan and Bangladesh often immigrated without their families to find work. British courts and the European Court of Justice constrained their subsequent attempts to send for family members, but over time this Muslim community of men evolved into a community of families. 54
The Muslim population of Britain is smaller in absolute and relative terms than that of either France or Germany, but its political weight is greater because immigrants can vote even before they are naturalized as citizens. So despite the change in the open–entry policy for NCW citizens and the fact that they remained citizens of their own countries, those who did gain entry to the United Kingdom were eligible to vote in all British elections, including those for deputies to the European Parliament. Consequently, both Britain and France have almost the same number of Muslim voters, although the Muslim population of the former is far smaller than that of the latter.
Unlike in Europe, the expansion of populations from Muslim countries in the United States was a by–product of new access established by legislation in 1965. Before 1965 most immigrants who came to the United States from Islamic countries in the Middle East and South Asia were Christian rather than Muslim. It has been estimated that in 1970 only 15 percent of immigrants from the region were Muslim; the majority were Christians from Lebanon or Christian ethnic minorities such as Armenians. By 2000, almost three–quarters of Middle Eastern/South Asian immigrants in the United States were Muslim.55
Most Muslim immigrants have come to the United States for the same reasons as the non–Muslims who came before them, namely, to escape ethnic conflict and war. The ongoing Arab–Israeli conflict has led to a large exodus of Palestinians, not all of them Muslim, and some with Israeli citizenship. Expulsion of South Asians from Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya led to the arrival of about 6,000 Muslims in North America in the 1960s and 1970s. Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds resulted in mass exoduses in 1989, 1991, and 1996. Other Muslims sought refuge in the United States after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and still others fled civil wars in Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, the United States comes closest to representing the broad range of Islam in the world.
What is most striking about the Muslim immigrant population from the Middle East and South Asia is that, as a group, they are far better educated than the immigrant population in the United States as a whole, and better educated than the overall American population as well. One analysis concludes as follows:
At the higher end of the education distribution, almost 49 percent of Middle Eastern immigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree compared to only 28 percent of natives; and at the highest end, 21 percent have a graduate or professional degree, more than twice the percentage of natives. Overall, the figure shows that immigrants from the Middle East are better educated than other immigrants and natives. 56
While the above analysis applies to immigrants from the Middle East, it can be extended to the Muslim population as a whole. According to a recent study of Muslim voters, two–thirds have obtained a B.A. degree or higher, and half are professionals—far higher than the general voter population. It therefore follows that their incomes are higher than average and their poverty rates much lower. 57
In short, the Muslim population of the United States is very different from comparable populations in Europe as well as from other immigrant groups in the United States. American Muslims are, the evidence suggests, much more integrated, successful, and prosperous than their coreligionists in Europe, as was recently asserted by Daniel Sutherland, officer for civil rights and civil liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. 58 They are far more diverse in terms of national origin than Muslim populations in Europe; they are far better educated, too, and—on the whole—have enjoyed socioeconomic success.
Muslim immigrants are also widely distributed throughout the United States. About a third of the Muslim population has settled in California and New York, with the other two–thirds spread across the country, including a large concentration in the Detroit area. 59 The largest growth of Muslims during the past decade has been in Virginia. 60
Although it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics on the number of Muslims in Europe and the United States, it seems clear that this number is growing.Back to the top.