People worry far more about immigrants coming from outside of Europe than from within, and they worry most about Muslims. In 2010, 42 percent of survey respondents in six European countries thought immigrants were integrating well, but only 33 percent thought the same of Muslims. Scholars and international agencies have pointed out the prevalence of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination both in France and beyond. There is no denying that there are serious challenges ahead.
At the same time, it is vital to balance the disconsolate view of Muslim integration by highlighting successes where they exist. As Rahsaan Maxwell and I have shown, Europeans — and especially French citizens — should probably worry less about Muslims than they do. There is strong evidence that Muslims in France feel almost as French as non-Muslims, once birthplace, citizenship and language fluency are taken into account. To the extent that they feel less French because they are Muslim, there is a similar effect for Christian immigrants. In other words, French Muslims are already achieving integration according to one highly significant measure.
In addition, my ongoing research suggests that there are two more domains where the state of Muslims in Europe is not nearly as gloomy as we might think. With students at Middlebury College, I have been analyzing British newspaper headlines about Islam and Muslims between 2001 and 2012. We focused on headlines because they are likely to have the strongest influence on casual readers who skip the full text of the article. We assumed that these headlines would be extremely negative, playing up dramatic and dangerous events to draw readers to the newspaper. In short, we were looking for evidence of Islamophobia in the media.
That is not what we found. Instead, over the entire time period, headlines were balanced between portraying Islam and Muslims as problematic and portraying them as victims or as positive forces in society. While the British media has been more restrained in its headlines than anticipated, it is also important to acknowledge that headlines about Muslims were more negative than headlines about Jews or Christians over the same time period. Moreover, my preliminary research with Maurits van der Veen indicates that full-text articles of the same stories are much more likely than the headlines to associate Islam and Muslims with problems. The complete picture is thus not uniformly rosy, but it includes an unexpected element of media restraint vis-à-vis Muslims in the face of market incentives to take the opposite tack.
In another set of research undertaken with Middlebury College graduate Zoe Hamilton, I examined French high court rulings in hate speech cases. We wanted to know if the Court of Cassation — the equivalent of the United States Supreme Court for these cases in France — was likely to side with restricting racism or upholding free speech when these two fundamental liberal democratic values clashed
As part of our project, we examined the rate at which the court restricted different types of hate speech. We found that the single greatest disparity related to the target of hate speech. If it was directed at Christians, Catholics, white people or France, the likelihood of the high court restricting it was just over 30 percent. If it was aimed at Jews, Muslims, blacks, North Africans or other traditionally vulnerable groups, the likelihood of court restriction was almost 80 percent.
We do not yet have an ironclad explanation for these outcomes. But it is especially noteworthy that anti-Muslim hate speech is very likely to be restricted by the French high court. Its restriction rate is in the same category as the rate for hate speech directed against Jews, a group that French authorities feel a particular responsibility toward given their country’s anti-Semitic history during the Vichy regime.
Examining a wider range of cases also shows that courts have frequently repressed hate speech directed at Islam or Muslims. For example, French film icon Brigitte Bardot has collected five convictions for anti-Muslim statements since the mid-1990s. The other side of the coin, of course, is that expressing hatred toward Islam or Muslims is fairly common in France and elsewhere in Europe, even if it is possible for victims and activists to press charges against Islamophobes.
My research does not imply that Muslims have it easy in France or in Europe. Nor do I think that all remaining problems of integration are insignificant. But these findings help round out our understanding when added to the predominant research focus on the challenges surrounding Muslim integration in Europe.
It is important to take stock of successes where they exist. Doing so provides examples of public policies, private choices, judicial outcomes and individual attitudes that can temper the notion that Muslim integration is an insurmountable problem (a point also made by Fredette). In effect, it offers an opportunity to break out of what Adida, Laitin and Valfort have called a “discriminatory equilibrium” in the French context, where discrimination makes Muslims wary of assimilation, and where non-Muslim French are averse to Muslims based on their lower levels of assimilation.
In the end, identifying positive developments cannot erase all of the tensions surrounding Muslim immigrants in Europe. But it can help sketch a more complete picture of a complex reality. This, in turn, helps to undermine stereotypes and provides a basis for better integration in the future.
Erik Bleich is professor of political science at Middlebury College and is the author of “The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism,” published by Oxford University Press. He is currently a senior fellow of the EURIAS Program at the Collegium de Lyon.