Since Islamic extremists carried out the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the world has been watching as the United States has led the war against terrorism.
Muslim populations in the United States and Europe have been caught in the middle of this storm. Life has become more difficult -- not only for them but for their host societies, as well.
Now, two senior academics -- Peter Zervakis of the Centre for European Integration Studies at Bonn University in Germany, and Pamela Jackson of Rhode Island College in the U.S. -- are coming together to explore how Muslim integration is being handled in the United States, Germany, and France.
They believe that by examining this issue, they may be able to pinpoint ways of minimizing Muslim radicalism within host countries, while at the same time helping to prevent Muslim communities from being exposed to hatred and misunderstanding.
"We want to examine these different approaches, stemming from ideological, historical, cultural backgrounds. And actually, if we try to mix these approaches, there might be a new way to counter fanaticism and Islamism," Zervakis said.
Zervakis, explaining the study further, notes historical differences of mentality between Americans and Europeans. He says that in Europe, a stronger role has traditionally been accorded to the state, which has outweighed the influence of the individual in society. By contrast, people in the United States have sought to limit the power of the state and accord it instead to the individual.
As a result, he says, the European state has demanded observance of state laws but has left alone the individuals' private sphere, such as in matters of religion:
"This problem, at least in Germany and France -- Germany probably more than France -- is not seen as related to the kind of Islam immigrants follow. Actually, the Americans had to point out and to emphasize to our [European] state authorities that there might be a new danger of terrorism if those fanatic Islamists who are being organized here in Germany become too strong," Zervakis said.
Zervakis says that in the United States, by contrast, peer pressure tends to be the agent which produces social conformity. In other words, the host society demands of newcomers that they share broadly similar views and habits as a price of admission to society. This does not necessarily mean giving up one's religion, but it does mean adopting at least the exterior lifestyle of the host society.
This may be one reason why U.S. efforts to integrate Muslims appear to have progressed further than efforts in either France or Germany.
Of course, the number of Muslim immigrants is much smaller as a proportion of total population in the United States -- some 1 percent -- as opposed to some 4 percent in Germany and 7 percent in France.
In Providence, in the U.S. state of Rhode Island, Pamela Jackson says the joint study could find practical application in government circles. "We are looking at [this question] from an academic perspective, from the perspective of pure research, trying to understand why there is the difference in the situation of Muslims trans-Atlantically. But yes, pure research is ultimately of use to policymakers," she says.
She says the project is meant to pull together many strands of information from different sources.
"We have a lot of groups trying to understand and document the situation of Muslims in our society. For example, in the United States, there is the group which calls itself the Center for American Islamic Relations, and they gather information on bias incidents against Muslims, and publish that information. They discuss [for instance] the closing of the Islamic charities right after 9/11 in the United States. That was done as a security measure from the perspective of those in the central government who argued that these charities might be used to fund extremist groups. Well, the Center for American Islamic Relations discusses the fact that that prevented a lot of Muslims from fulfilling their spiritual obligations to contribute a certain amount of funds to charitable causes, and also stops good works being done in areas that have had a lot of difficulty," Zervakis said.
Jackson also says that in the highly charged atmosphere following 9/11, there has been heightened scrutiny of Muslim populations in a myriad of ways at the community level:
"People picked up for visa violations were largely let go, unless they were of Arab descent, which is not the same as Muslim but is increasingly mixed up and seen as the same as Muslim. So sure, of course, they are under greater scrutiny, really, in all three nations [of the study]," Jackson said.
Returning to Zervakis in Bonn, he says that the proposed study could also throw useful light on how Americans and Europeans understand each other -- or indeed misunderstand each other -- on the matter of the threat from Islamism.
"The Americans feel that the Europeans are not conscious enough about this new threat. There are different perceptions. Islam is not being regarded as a threat in Western Europe in this way, in spite of the huge immigration we have to face. Whereas on the other side, it is being seen as a major threat in international relations," Zervakis said.
The joint study will get under way later this year if it receives approval from the universities involved.