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Irshad Manji: US shared values includes Muslims

Once again, America beats Europe on assimilation

 AGAINST the backdrop of civil war, Abraham Lincoln stirred Americans by appealing to their "better angels". Now some of those angels appear in an unprecedented study about Muslims in the US, and they may show us how to prevent civil war in Europe.

Muslim Americans, released by the Pew Research Centre, contains moments of bad news. For example, one in four respondents under the age of 30 accepts suicide bombing. As a reformed-minded Muslim, I say that honouring any religion of peace through violence is like preserving virginity through pre-marital sex. Think about it.

But the Pew report offers a lot more good news. Political Islam has not caught on in the US as it has in Europe because most Muslims in the US are - dare it be said - treated with dignity. The vast majority of those surveyed like their communities and describe their lives as "pretty happy" or "very happy". Which means lobbyists do not speak for Muslim Americans when they cry that the US hates Islam.

In Berlin recently, an audience buzzed nervously when I suggested Europe can learn from America about integrating Muslims. Afterwards, several people confided to me that they know the US is getting something right. What is that something?

As I engage with young Muslims on both sides of the Atlantic, I see three factors: economics, diversity and faith. For plenty of Muslims in the US, ambition and initiative pay off. The Pew survey reinforces this lesson, telling us that 71 per cent of Muslim Americans believe most people in the US "can make it if they are willing to work hard".

Meanwhile, in Europe, young Muslims face blatant discrimination in employment, educational and social opportunities, even when they are citizens. Many subsist on welfare, which only gives them time to stew and surf the web for preachers who spew a rigid identity.

This is the path that led Mohammed Bouyeri to murder Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

In much of the US, diversity is a reason to intermingle. The Pew study reveals that most Muslims are close friends with non-Muslims.

In much of Europe, diversity has become an excuse to self-segregate. Many of Europe's mosques, and the Muslims who attend them, refuse to communicate in the language of their new surroundings. As a result, young Muslim men drift away from moderate religious authorities and fall for online opportunists. That is how Mohammad Sidique Khan, mastermind of the London Underground bombings, fell under the sway of "Sheik Google", the collective nickname for Islamist websites.

To Americans, it is not the fact of having faith that invites scrutiny, but what one is perceived to be doing with that faith. Western Europeans, still steeped in a backlash against the Catholic Church, often show suspicion or outright contempt to people of faith. Such secular fundamentalism leads some Muslims to believe they will never be accepted by their adopted countries. So why integrate?

Small wonder that young Muslims in Western Europe whisper to me: "I wish I lived in the US." The honesty doesn't end there. Muslim men in their 20s have complained to me that in an effort to appear sensitive, Europeans downplay shared values. This confuses many Muslim young people and creates a vacuum that radical clerics can exploit.

Translation: a common aspiration such as the American dream is crucial to giving Muslims a sense of belonging to something larger and more dynamic than cultural enclaves.

But what about the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay? The answer always comes back that these are unfortunate and unjust exceptions. In the US, they say, you can be more than a Muslim. You are a member of the wider public.

Naive? Not according to the Pew study. More than half of Muslims in the US identify themselves as Americans first, easily eclipsing patriotism among Muslims in Germany, Spain or Britain.

Clearly, the US has retained its genius as a nation of immigrants.

To be sure, there is a long way to go in giving non-immigrant Muslims, especially African-Americans, a sense of belonging. Most are not among the better educated, wealthier and politically influential Americans that so many South Asian, Iranian and Arab Muslims are.

However, that gap is the product of America's persistent racial battle. It has almost nothing to do with a fear of Islam.

For the all the slogans, accusations and fulminations of the Islam industry's lobbyists, fear is not what mainstream Americans feel about Muslims. Just ask the 73 per cent of Muslims who told Pew that they have never been discriminated against in the US.

Europe, take notes. America, take a break from self-flagellation. Reformist Muslims, take your cue. In the US, you have the possibility of a voice. Islam's better angels depend on it.

Irshad Manji is author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith (St Martin's, 2005). This originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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