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Muslim integration into Western cultures

The second issue of the academic journal Political Studies – currently based at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham –  sees publication of research that focuses upon a number of core issues in the discipline.  It opens with a paper by Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart on the cultural attitudes of Muslims living in Western countries. The full article can be downloaded here.

In 2005, the International Organization for Migration estimates that among all world regions, Europe hosted the highest number of international migrants (70.5 million). At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the OECD estimates that about one in four or five residents were foreign-born in countries such as Australia (24%), Switzerland (24%), New Zealand (19%), and Canada (18%), as were one in eight in Germany (13%), the United States (13%), and Sweden (12%) OECD 2008).  Due to these developments, European countries which used to be relatively homogeneous in their cultural heritage, historical traditions, ethnic composition, language, lifestyles, and religious faith — such as Denmark, France, and Sweden — have become far more socially diverse today

Population flows are diverse. The rapid settlement of Muslim migrants into European societies, in particular, has raised important challenges for how European policymakers manage cultural diversity, maintain social cohesion, and accommodate minorities. This is one of the main reasons for the contemporary strength of anti-immigrant parties, as demonstrated by Marie Le Pen winning 18 percent of the vote for the Front Nationale in the first round of the French presidential elections, on a platform denouncing “Islamification.” The backlash against migration has shaped party politics in many European nations, in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden. More broadly, concern over Muslim migrants has been heightened by a series of extreme terrorist events attracting global headlines, particularly by 9/11 in the United States, the bombings directed against civilian targets in Madrid (2004), London (2005), and Mumbai (2008).

These events highlight the importance of understanding the process of assimilation, and in particular, how far do migrants carry their culture with them, and to what extent do they acquire the culture of their new setting? Answers to these questions not only have important political implications; they also help us understand theoretical debates about whether basic cultural values are enduring or malleable; and whether cultural values are traits of individuals or attributes of a given society.  Theories of cultural integration suggest that immigrants gradually absorb the values and norms which predominate in their host society, especially on an inter-generational basis. By contrast, theories of divergence suggest that distinctive social values and norms are enduring and deep-rooted within each nation, shaped by collective histories, common languages, and religious traditions, so that migrant populations are unlikely to abandon their cultural roots when they settle in another country. These claims can be tested empirically by examining whether the basic values of Muslim migrants are closer to those prevailing in their societies of origin or destination.

Evidence can be compared using evidence the five pooled waves of the World Values Survey and European Values Study, a global investigation of socio-cultural and political change from 1981 to 2007. The survey includes systematic data on public opinion in affluent post-industrial societies and in many diverse Islamic states containing Muslim-plurality populations, providing the broadest comparison available from any existing social survey. Societies in the World Values Survey can be classified by their predominant religion. The World Values Survey includes Arab states, both majority Sunni (such as Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt) and majority Shi’a (such as Iran and Iraq), as well as countries in Asia (Azerbaijan, Kyrgystan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia), Central Europe (Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania) and in Sub-Saharan Africa (Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso). This allows us to compare the attitudes of three groups: Muslims living in Muslim-predominant societies (termed Societies of Origin), Westerners living in Western societies (termed Societies of Destination), and Muslim migrants living in Western societies.

A series of 13 items were selected and developed into standardized 0 to 100-point scales to monitor cultural values towards gender equality, sexuality, religiosity, and democratic values. Comparisons were drawn among these three social groups, as shown in figure 1. It is apparent that Muslim migrants are consistently located on average in the middle of the value scales, being less conservative than Muslims living in Muslim Societies of Origin, but also less liberal than Westerners living in Western societies. In other words, the position of Muslim migrants proved to be located approximately half-way between the dominant values prevailing within their Destination and their Origins. It is also striking that although much of the European debate has focused on the attitudes and practices towards the roles of men and women, it appears that on the gender equality scale, Muslim minorities are in fact far closer to Western than to Islamic publics.

When analyzing the evidence, however, several controls need to be introduced for factors which typically influence social attitudes, such as education, age and sex. After all, Muslim migrants may well prove distinctive from their compatriots for many reasons; for example, younger groups, and those with greater educational qualifications or higher socioeconomic resources, may well find it easier to relocate. Hierarchical linear models (HLM) are most appropriate for this sort of analysis, including multilevel regression analysis. The results confirm that Muslim migrants living in Western societies are located roughly in the center of the cultural spectrum, located between the publics living in Islamic and Western societies. It is entirely possible—indeed, we think it rather likely—that some degree of self-selection may be involved:  those who choose to immigrate to the U.S. or to Spain may already have values that are relatively compatible with those of their future host country.  But even if this is true, these findings contradict the idea that immigrants simply import an unmodified version of the values of their own country into their new host country.  In the long-term, the basic cultural values of migrants appear to change in conformity with the predominant culture of each society.


Download the full article from Political Studies here.


Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and also ARC Fellow and Professor of Government at the University of Sydney.

Ronald Inglehart is Professor of Political Science in the Institute for Social Research, the University of Michigan and also Director, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, Higher School of Economics

Published inEuropean PoliticsInternational PoliticsMethodology

One Comment

  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Well, you know what Keynes said about the long term (or long run).

    The article assumes that what is true for other groups – Greeks in Australia, for example – is also true for Muslims. I think this is questionable. At least some Muslims in Europe consider that it was inappropriate to have migrated here: it would have been truer to their faith to have conquered, as Muslims did in the early decades of their faith. I cannot think of a parallel to this in respect of any other migrant group,

    I suspect that we shall see Euro-Muslims swing back and forth between integrationist and separatist/imperialist attitudes in alternate generations – they are aware of the Jewish precedent, some see it as inevitable that they will in the fullness of time copy it, whilst for others it is very much a cautionary tale

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