One religion, two countries: differences in national identity between British and American Muslims

“Baby, listen to me, I came here and I like to live independent,” said Akhtar Mamood, his Pakistani-New York accent coming out staccato. “This country gave me food, money, respect – I love this country.”

Mamood, who immigrated to the US more than 30 years ago, is proud to call America home. He talked to me during break at his favorite Pakistani lunch spot. “We make money independently here and we’re free to do what we want,” he said. “We’re proud to be American.”

Such attitudes are envied in the UK, where Gordon Brown has publicly expressed his admiration for the US’s domestic Muslim relations.

It is not hard to see why. A nationwide survey of more 60,000 Muslims conducted by Pew Research earlier this year concluded that 72% of American Muslims consider their community a good place to live and nearly eight in 10 are happy with their lives. “They feel that they can be Muslims and Americans,” the US director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Farid Senzai, who was heavily involved in the study, said. “And the trend is one of increasing integration.”

Unable to integrate

By its very nature, Islam makes it extremely difficult for Muslims to integrate. Islam means submission, and the Quran makes it clear that Muslims expect non-Muslims to submit to Islam.

Western values are not compatible with Islam. As a result, many Muslims form ghettos and engage in other forms of non-integration.

Hair-tricker sensitivities that have Muslim extremists respond to real or perceived insults with death threats, violent demonstrations, murder and terrorism, make it difficult or even impossible for non-Muslims to believe the claim that Islam is a ‘religion of peace.’ Therefore a high birthrate among Muslims, combined with high (legal and illegal) immigration figures, have Europeans and others worried about the Muslims in their midst.

The Pew results highlight a contrast with Britain, where Muslims are less likely to be satisfied with the status quo and almost twice as likely to say that suicide bombing can be justified to defend Islam. Such attitudes perhaps help to explain why the perpetrators of Britain’s July 7 attacks were homegrown, where the 9/11 bombers were foreign-born.

Brown repeatedly has put the difference in integration in the two countries down to a difference in patriotism. Speaking at the Fabian Society in London last year, he told his traditionally leftwing audience: “A strong modern sense of patriotism and patriotic purpose … binds people together can motivate and inspire.” Asking attendees to hold their national identity up to the light he wondered: “What is the British equivalent of the US 4th of July? What is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in every garden?”

Can a difference in nationalism really explain the differences in integration between the US and the UK? And, if so, can Brown conjure up a British equivalent of American patriotism? Brown wants a nationalism built not on race, but on a set of values.

Although the prime minister rarely goes into much detail about what these values entail, he frequently summarises them in a sound bite: “A commitment to liberty for all, responsibility by all and fairness to all.” In the name of instilling these values, he repeatedly has called for the institution of a national day, the promotion of British history and citizenship in schools and, in February, suggested that passports for new arrivals be contingent on “voluntary” community service.

Bernard Crick, a former British government adviser on citizenship and former Harvard professor, is dubious towards Brown’s plans. “The stronger sense of US identity helps integration in America but we can’t artificially create one in Britain,” he said. “There’s no British equivalent of the founding fathers and the values Brown claims to be British are Anglo-American with a dash of French.”

“Americans have a way of life, a constitution, a history, but the only way to make sense of Britishness is as a narrow set of political and legal institutions – the culture is English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and now it’s Muslims and other groups too.”

Crick reminds us that while America’s nationalism has grown organically over time, Brown’s seems to be an answer to a set of circumstances that have developed over the last few years, not least the fact that the new British prime minister is Scottish, and is looking for a way to demonstrate that he is committed to a “United” Kingdom.

I put the issue to two Muslim women in north-west London who, like Crick, remain sceptical of Brown’s Britishness drive. The two young women in head scarves sit and talk to me inside a Starbucks, the rain drizzling across the windows. “Why is Brown bringing this American thing to Britain?” asked 22-year-old Zaynab Paul, “Americans are known for being over the top – that’s their way – but it’s not our way, Britons are more subtle and inward looking”.

Her friend Asha Abdillahi agreed: “In America it’s more accepted to be patriotic, but here the flags only come out during the football and the rugby.”

Unlike some Muslims in Britain these two young women – who pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan – do not feel their religion conflicts with their nationality, a tension felt by 47% of British Muslims, compared with 32% of Muslims in the US. “On our year abroad in Syria we had to come home because we missed it so much,” said Paul, who claimed to have “missed the green fields of England and the Marmite”.

Yet, just as Mamood’s declaration of love for his country was a sign of his integration with US culture, these girls’ scepticism of a Brown-style Britishness seems to be a sign of their identification with mainstream British society.

“Waving a flag is not British,” Paul said. “Diversity is.” They don’t dismiss Brown’s Britishness because they don’t like Britain; they dismiss it because, for them, it is not British enough. “Brown is just appealing to a section of conservatives and the right wing who want a more overt nationalism in this country,” Abdillahi said. “As more immigrants come in, people fear the unknown,” Paul added.

“He’s taking advantage of that feeling by saying that everyone has to be like us.” If this is true, then there is a fundamental difference between America’s nationalism and Britain’s prospective one: where American nationalism attracted diversity, luring immigrants from across the waters, Brown’s seems to be about reacting to it.

Although the women dismissed Brown’s proposals with confident scepticism, other Muslims feel more threatened. Sharif Nashashibi, who chairs the media watchdog Arab Media Watch in London, says there is something “creepy” about Brown’s agenda. “I can just imagine it being used as a tool for racist groups,” he said.

“Putting on a false Britishness will just cause resentment because they feel they are being forcibly absorbed in to one way of thinking.”

Nationalism might bind communities together in the United States, but in the UK it has the potential to isolate minorities who feel that their identity is, in the eyes of the state, in need of a change. So if Britain cannot import nationalism from the United States, can it learn anything from the country’s experience of integration?

According to Senzai, the lesson is one of socioeconomics, “Ghettoisation has led to the isolation of European Muslims,” he said. “US Muslims are living in rich suburbs with other Americans, which contrasts to the Arab quarters in Paris or the Muslim suburbs in London.”

The figures certainly confirm a social and economic disparity: on almost every indicator, British Muslims do less well than their American counterparts. According to figures from the Office and National Statistics, they are 10 times more likely to be in the lowest wage bracket and 10% more likely to leave school with no qualifications. And where American Muslims experience unemployment rates that are similar to the rest of the country, the British Muslim unemployment rate is 16% – the highest of any religious group in Britain. Nationalism, it seems, is not the only difference that separates the Muslim experience in the US from the UK.

According to Senzai, the socioeconomic differences arise from a difference in history, “The Muslims that came here were far more educated, they were professional doctors and engineers. But in Europe – Britain and France – it has been working-class immigrants who have arrived.”

Following the links left by British colonialism, Muslims immigrating to Europe often originated from rural areas of South Asia and East Africa with undeveloped education systems. No sooner had they arrived and joined the ranks of low-skilled industries when deindustrialisation – and its corresponding cycles of poverty and deprivation – began to set in.

In the US, the story was different. Following a 1965 change in federal immigration law, a wave of highly educated Arab/Muslim immigrants flocked to the US and quickly integrated into the upper end of the country’s economic strata. The oil boom of the 1970s brought in a second wave of college students from oil-rich Arab countries and Iran.

Beginning from better starting points, Muslim migrants to the US quickly integrated into mainstream society. And for those at the lower end of the social scale, the sight of fellow migrants living the American dream kept them committed to the country and believing in the opportunities it could offer.

As Mamood said to me over his chapatti: “I believe in the American dream. If you work, you make it. You lazy, you can’t do it.” “Yesterday zero, today hero – it doesn’t matter if you’re black, brown …”

Despite this widespread perception of social mobility, most data shows that it’s just as difficult to “make it” in the US as the UK. In fact, one comprehensive report from the London School of Economics in 2005 even found intergenerational mobility in Britain to be one percentage point higher than in the US. The interesting thing about the American dream is that it doesn’t have to be true for it to help social cohesion. As long as people believe they can make it, it doesn’t matter if they actually do. Hope prevents disaffection from kicking in.

In Britain, Muslim success stories are harder to come by. Because the UK’s Muslim population exists disproportionately in the lower economic bracket – and because they are more ethnically homogenous – they are more likely to encounter similar problems and be subject to the same social stereotypes. This makes religion a good platform from which to advance their common grievances.

This is the exact opposite of the US, where the Muslim community cannot speak with one voice. Two thirds of our Muslim population was born abroad across 68 different countries – and no single nation can account for more than 12% of the immigrants. As Senzai said, “There is very little integration amongst US Muslims – you often get an Arab mosque, an Asian mosque and an African mosque on the same street”.

This diversity means that although American Muslims are generally more integrated than those in Europe, we should be wary of labeling all US Islamic communities as middle-class and mainstream: “In Detroit and Chicago black Muslims are less integrated, like the Asian Muslims of Europe – isolation is often more to do with socio-economic group,” Senzai said.

It seems then that the American integration experience can shed light on the UK’s multiculturalism debate – although the lesson is not so much one of nationalism, but of education and opportunity. These transatlantic lessons can work both ways – and we should be careful to learn from the experience of those across the waters. Nationalism may help integration in the US, but America’s pockets of isolated Muslims may require greater opportunities if we want to prevent disaffection from setting in.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Rowenna Davis, The Guardian, Dec. 17, 2007,

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday December 18, 2007.
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