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'Hate has no boundaries,' but U.S. history fosters acceptance of diversity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2011 - Dr. Ghazala Hayat recalls well the climate after the terrorist attacks nearly a decade ago.

"I would say for sure, all over the country since 9/11, it's gotten worse," said Hayat, who chairs the public relations committee of the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis. "There's no question."

But there's also no question, she says, about the difference between here and Europe, where Hayat, director of St. Louis University's Neuromuscular and Clinical Neurophysiology Services, said she has traveled. In her experience, she has found European society less accepting of Muslims than in the United States.

"I think I'll give credit on that to our Constitution," she said. "Our acceptance of diversity is much more in America."

Multiculturalism and diversity in Europe came to the forefront for many last week when Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian came ashore at an island retreat and reportedly launched an hour-and-a-half long shooting spree that left dozens dead, made headlines worldwide and raised questions about anti-Muslim sentiments on the continent.

The shooter's targets were members of a Norwegian left-wing political party but as authorities learn more about the suspect's motives, an interesting picture is emerging of a man driven, at least in part, by animus toward Muslims. The tragedy has focused attention on the status of Islam in Europe where a growing Muslim population has been a hot-button issue, one that bubbles up regularly.

  • Last year, a survey found that a clear majority of Germans approved of restricting Muslims in the practice of their faith.
  • In 2009, a referendum in Switzerland banned the construction of minarets on mosques.
  • Meanwhile, France and neighboring Belgium have implemented controversial legislation banning the wearing of traditional Islamic garb for women.

Violence isn't unheard of either. In Sweden, a shot was fired into a mosque in Malmo in 2010, one of a number of shootings thought to be tied to a sniper suspected of targeting immigrants.
The Malmo incident rattled nerves just months before 20 members of a far right-wing party were elected to the nation's parliament running on a platform against multiculturalism.

Different experiences in U.S., Europe

Here in the United States, anti-Muslim sentiment has made headlines, with public opposition to the construction of mosques and with measures introduced in a number of states, including Missouri, to ban the use of Sharia law.

Are American anti-Muslim movements rooted in the same ground as their European counterparts?

Not really, experts say.

"We have not had, as Europe has over the last 10 or 15 years, a huge growth of anti-Muslim political parties and movements," said Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. "That's just not been the case in the United States because our Muslim population is so tiny so it hasn't provoked that kind of backlash."

In fact, according to 2010 figures from the Pew Forum for Religion in Public Life, the nearly 2.6 million Muslims in the United States make up less than 1 percent of its people. By contrast, Europe has more than 44 million Muslims, representing 6 percent of the continental population. That number is expected to grow to 8 percent over the next two decades. France, Germany and the United Kingdom each have more Muslims than the United States, even with smaller total populations.

Those numbers are growing thanks to higher Muslim birthrates and heavy immigration. More than one-fifth of new immigrants to Finland last year were Muslim. The figure was nearly three in 10 for the United Kingdom, more than a third for Norway, and 45 percent for Sweden. More than two-thirds of all immigrants to France last year were Muslim. By 2030, that nation, along with Belgium, will be one of two Western European countries with Muslim populations breaking the 10 percent mark, Pew said.

That relates to another factor distinguishing European anti-Islamic sentiment from its cousin across the Atlantic.

"The bulk of their immigration in Europe is from Muslim countries so when you say anti-Muslim in Europe, you mean anti-immigrant at the same time," Beirich said. "That's very different from the U.S. where Muslim immigration is very small."

Beirich said American animus toward immigrants tend to be directed at Mexicans crossing the southern border. She notes that while the center did see some uptick of anti-Muslim activity after 9/11, it was not particularly pronounced until last summer when the proposed construction of an Islamic community center blocks from the World Trade Center site set off a wave of protests and activism.

Major political figures here have also opposed the demonization of all Muslims for the actions of a few. Beirich noted President George W. Bush's remarks in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.

But even among extreme factions outside the normal political spectrum such as true, hard-core hate groups, Beirich says, most ire is directed toward Latinos or other traditional targets rather than those practicing Islam.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, said she sees a similar pattern among domestic extremist organizations. She said that American racialist groups tend to abhor Muslims as a general principle but in Europe, such feelings can have a deeper political dimension. She pointed out that the Norwegian shooter chose an inherently political, rather than racial or religious target.

"The ideological approach seems to be that Islam is more of this existential threat," she said. "Here, our haters just don't like Muslims because they are different. There's not the fear of an existential threat. I don't see that in the language."

Nation of Immigrants

Hayat said that the Old World may lack some of the sociological "infrastructure" to absorb other populations; in contrast, this nation was built on immigration. To her, it's a part of U.S. history.

"This group came. That group came," Hayat said. "No matter what, people eventually would say, 'OK, we can work it out.' People started assimilating and having dialogues."

That assimilation can be more difficult to come by in Europe where immigrant populations seem remote, separated in insular bubbles that operate almost as small versions of their native lands.

"I was struck by that," she said. "You go to these areas where the Muslims are, and it's like you are back home. There's no connection and they are living their lives like they are still back home."

Hayat saw it as a stark contrast to life in the United States where people often seem able to blend their cultural heritage with their American identity more smoothly.

"I always say we are not a melting pot," she said. "We are a tossed salad. People keep their characteristics and make the whole community a beautiful place."

Hayat is not the only one to notice such differences. John Bowen, the Dunbar-Van Cleve professor in arts and sciences at Washington University sees them as well.

Bowen, an anthropologist and recent author of "Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State," said that while immigration from Muslim countries dates to just after World War II for former colonial powers like France and the United Kingdom, it has been a much less familiar phenomenon for other European states such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the site of last week's deadly shooting spree.

"What they've mainly experienced has been relatively recent since the 1990s with an influx of new populations," he said in a phone interview from London.

Complicating matters, immigrants aren't always in the best position to assimilate into their host society.

"These are, many of them, people seeking asylum or they are refugees," he said. "These people have no knowledge of the place they are ending up. They are often in very fragile states. Many of them have been through a lot. They are not exactly arriving ready to become active, normal citizens of the country."

Bowen feels the problem may be exacerbated by a general European discomfort with theological displays in public life as opposed to the U.S. where religious pluralism -- and the rough-and-tumble debates it engenders -- has become second nature.

This tendency toward secularism is particularly notable in France, he said.

"Even those countries where religions have been more prominent for a long time like the Lutheran countries of the north, it's been basically one religion or, in Germany, Protestantism in some parts and Catholicism in others," Bowen said. "Now you have a whole development coming in and mixing things up whereas in the U.S., things have been more fluid."

Nor are these the only factors that can give rise to tension. Unlike the racially diverse United States, where anyone can "look" like an American, the Nordic nations are far more ethnically homogenous making immigrants stand out.

"We have these very liberal, international-looking, humanitarian societies, where there is this rapid influx of new kinds of people who are not ready to fit in and would find it difficult to fit in anyway because Norwegians or Swedes aren't used to thinking of Kurds or Somalis as Swedes like them."

The result, Bowen said, is the increasing rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic political parties that could be breeding grounds for individuals who may want to follow the same path as last week's shooter.

"This guy is an extreme expression of something a little bit more widespread in these countries," he said.

The Midwest Picture

Rebecca Wu, spokesperson for the St. Louis FBI office, said things have been fairly quiet with little anti-Islamic activity occurring in recent years.

"When it comes to hate crimes against Muslims in eastern Missouri, we really haven't seen a lot of incidents," she said. "Our office continues outreach to the Muslim community so they know if there is a hate crime they can contact us."

Hayat said that despite the reputation of the Northeast and West Coast as being more cosmopolitan, she's found the Midwest to be a generally friendly environment. She recalled that while ugly or threatening incidents did occur after 9/11, there were shows of support as well.

"To be honest, I feel very comfortable and very happy here," she said. "I think people in St. Louis are very accepting."

Aroesty said that while the danger of violence always exists, she also knows it's not necessarily predictable and it can be hard to generalize from larger political movements or trends.

"There are always going to be lone wolves and you can't anticipate where they are going to come from unless you get lucky on the intelligence front," she said.

Bowen said he doesn't know of any real differences between the Midwest and elsewhere in the nation when it comes to such issues. With the advent of the internet, xenophobic ideas can spread freely anywhere. In fact, he said that evidence was emerging that shows that the suspected Norwegian shooter may have been influenced by websites in the United States and the United Kingdom.

"On the level of ramping up hatred, these things have now become pretty international," he said. "English-language readers all over the world can access them. I don't think there's any particular difference in Missouri from Colorado or New York city."

Nor does Hayat.

"Hate has no boundaries," she said.

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.