It is easy to believe that Muslims are having trouble integrating into European societies. Media reports these days are full of stories of young men traveling to Syria or Iraq and coming back radicalized, about acts of violence against military or Jewish targets, or both. Scholarly studies reinforce this narrative by focusing on fundamentalist elements in the Muslim community, on Islam as a “barrier” to inclusion, or through sensationalist titles like “Europe’s Angry Muslims.”
There is no denying that some Muslims feel alienated from their societies, or that a very small number veer into violence. According to recent research, these facts stick with us for two reasons. Stuart Soroka has argued that we tend to remember negative over positive information, creating a “negativity bias.” Making matters worse, work by Brendan Nyhan shows that incorrect information is difficult to dislodge, especially if it is tied up with the believer’s personal identity; if so, corrections may even further entrench false beliefs.
Under these circumstances, we are likely to forget that Muslims hold important leadership positions in European politics, for the most part lead quite normal lives and reject terrorism in large numbers. What we need are more systematic studies that can help us understand how Europe’s Muslims are integrating, by which measures, and why.
Drawing on an enormous survey conducted in France in 2007-2008, we asked one key question associated with integration in our newly published research: What makes Muslims feel French? We put under the microscope the idea that practicing one’s religion was a key impediment to Muslims’ feelings of Frenchness. We also compared the influence of education and wealth levels, friendship networks, and markers of immigrant integration, such as whether someone was born in France, had French citizenship and spoke fluent French.
Our first finding was that Muslims do feel less French on average than non-Muslims, but that on the whole, they still identify with the nation. Fully 75 percent of Muslims completely or somewhat agree that they feel French. While this may trigger a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full debate, we see this glass as three-quarters full.
Still, what explains why some Muslims feel more French than others? It turns out that religiosity does decrease the likelihood of feeling French among Muslims — but not only among them. Religiosity also causes lower levels of feeling French among Christians. In this respect, being religious in secular France is a greater impediment to feeling French than being Muslim.
More important than religiosity — and the most important factor of all — is immigrant integration. If you are born in France, have French citizenship and speak fluent French, you are extremely likely to feel French whether you are a Muslim or not.
This suggests that integration is already happening among Muslims in France and will continue to progress over the coming generations. It even calls into question whether we should worry about Muslims as a group at all, or simply focus on encouraging immigrant integration equally among all newcomers regardless of their religious backgrounds.
These facts and our findings will not overturn entrenched beliefs that Muslims are hard to integrate into European societies. But for readers moved by evidence rather than by rhetoric, our study shows that by one key measure in one key country, Muslims are already well-integrated and will only become more so with the passage of time.