There is no difference in religious fundamentalism between American Muslims and Christians

December 16, 2013

This is a guest post by Rachel Gillum, a PhD Candidate at Stanford University.

Erik Voeten.

Religious fundamentalism among Muslim immigrants in Western Europe is dramatically greater than that among Christian Europeans, according to a recent study by Ruud Koopmans from the Wissenschaftszentrum in Berlin discussed on the Monkey Cage last Friday.  On the surface, these findings legitimize concerns surrounding the incompatibility of Western and Islamic values.

Like Europeans, Americans express fear over Muslim integration and Islamic fundamentalism, although very little is known about beliefs among Muslims living in the U.S.  A recent nationwide survey of U.S. Muslims, which I designed, provides some insight — the Muslim-American National Opinion Survey (MANOS) reveals that levels of religious fundamentalism among Muslims and Christians in the U.S. are nearly identical.

As one of the few nationally representative surveys available of Muslim Americans, MANOS provides insight into the degree Muslim Americans hold fundamentalist views, as defined by Koopmans.  Data from existing surveys of the general American population allow me to assess where Muslims stand relative to other Americans in believing that religious rules are more important than the laws of the country and the degree individuals hold literal interpretations of holy scriptures.


Graph by Rachel Gillum, The Monkey Cage

Results from MANOS and the General Social Surveys reveal that the general American population holds nearly identical levels of fundamentalist beliefs as Muslims, if not slightly more.  Just over 57 percent of the general American population believes that “right and wrong in U.S. law should be based on God’s laws,” compared to 49.3 percent of U.S.-born Muslims and 45.6 of foreign-born Muslims.  About a third of each group believes that society should not be the one to determine right and wrong in U.S. law.  Such numbers reveal that the general American population is more fundamentalist than the average European, and that Muslim Americans are less fundamentalist than European Muslims, according to the Koopmans study.


Graph by Rachel Gillum, The Monkey Cage

Limiting the sample to those who either identify as Christian or Muslim, figure 2 displays the percentages of Americans who believe that the Bible/Koran should be taken literally, word for word. Making up the largest percentage of Christians in Pew’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 59 percent of evangelical protestants agree that the Bible should be taken literally.  This compares to 22 percent of mainline protestants, 62 percent of black protestants and 23 percent of Catholics.  Sixty-seven percent of foreign-born Muslims express literalist views towards the Koran, as do a similar number of African American Muslims.  Half of U.S.-born Muslims (who do not identify as black) believe the Koran should be taken literally.

Why less of a gap in America?

American Christians are considerably more religious and socially conservative than Western Europeans.  This, in part, explains why there is less of a gap in levels of fundamentalism between American Muslims and Christians.  However, American Muslims also express lower levels of fundamental beliefs than European Muslims. Why?

The connection between affluence and the decline of religious belief is well-established in the social sciences.  Major socioeconomic differences between Muslims in the U.S. and Muslims in Europe may be one piece of the puzzle explaining different levels of fundamentalism between the two groups.

The bulk of Muslim immigrants in the U.S. today arrived during or after the 1990s, the large majority pursuing economic opportunities and advanced degrees. Muslim immigrants in the U.S. are thus just as wealthy as, and tend to be better educated than, the average American.

This high-skilled migration flow to the U.S. stands in contrast to the low-skilled labor immigration that Western Europe attracted following World War II to help rebuilding efforts. More immigrants were later admitted into European countries to meet rapid economic growth, allow family reunification and provide asylum.  Muslims in Western Europe have had significant issues with poverty and integration, making up around 20 percent of the low-income population, compared to 2 percent among U.S. Muslims.

Feelings of threat

Koopmans argues that fundamentalism is associated with feelings that one’s “own group is seen as threatened by outside enemies.”  Consistent with this expectation, the more fundamentalist, general American population is significantly more likely to believe that Islam encourages violence, compared to native Europeans.  Similarly, European Muslims are 15 percent more likely to believe that the West is out to destroy Islam compared to American Muslims.

Even with American Muslims holding more positive perceptions than Europeans, there is still work to be done to foster more positive Muslim-American relations. My recent study finds that after more time in the U.S. and across successive generations, Muslim Americans are increasingly expecting unfair treatment of Muslims by U.S. law enforcement. Basically, I find that as Muslims become more familiar with American institutions, they become more aware of anti-Islamic discrimination and hostility in the U.S.

Altogether, these findings suggest that levels of religious fundamentalism can be found equally among Muslim and Christian adherents in the United States. Issues of out-group fears may be of less a concern however in the U.S. case due to the stronger socioeconomic position of American Muslims and more successful integration.

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John Sides | December 16, 2013