Mosques and political engagement in Europe and North America

Aubrey Westfall, Wheaton College

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

As a site closed to non-Muslims and associated with foreign leadership, the mosque in Europe and North America is regarded with suspicion and the fear that terrorist networks and extremist ideologues are using them to embed themselves in Western countries. These perceptions persist despite the dominant reading of Islamic sources that suggests active citizenship within democratic society is permissible, even desirable (Peucker, 2018), and with many efforts by Muslim leaders to reassure their communities. With a desire to better serve their community, many Muslim political and civic leaders are looking for ways to build institutions that are compatible with social integration in Western contexts (Klausen 2005). As Dazey explains in this collection, these leaders seek ways to construct a “civil Islam” through a converging agenda shared by state and religious leaders.

The mosque demonstrates remarkable potential as a site for this convergence.[1] Though the links between the mosque and political or social integration are complicated and variable, many states recognize the central nature of the mosque and adopt different strategies to either control mosques or harness their potential for the purposes of the state, increasing the sociopolitical integration of resident Muslims. The mosque plays a critical role in developing social cohesion by linking Muslims to others within their community, both inside and outside the religious institution. This essay discusses the role of the mosque in promoting political integration and engagement in Europe and North America, demonstrating commonalities in mosque effects even while theorizing areas of critical trans-Atlantic difference.

Mosques and political behavior in the United States       

A well-developed body of research has explored the way religious institutions create political communities through helping congregants develop basic civic skills (Brown and Brown 2003, Jones-Correa and Leal 2001, Peterson 1992, Schwadel 2002, Smidt 1999, Verba, Schlozman and Brady 1995) and expand their social networks (Putnam 1993, Putnam 2000, Schwadel 2005). Religious institutions also provide a venue through which congregants can get information about political issues and discuss public affairs (Brown and Brown 2003; Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2014). The general consensus is that the link between religion and politics is not about a belief system promoted by the religious institutions, but rather the way the institution facilitates social interaction. The effect should theoretically transfer to any religious tradition that involves similar congregational dynamics. And indeed, a growing literature affirms the same mechanism at work in mosques in Western democratic contexts.

Evidence from the United States consistently reveals a positive relationship between mosque and political involvement. Read (2015) finds that those who are heavily involved in their mosques are more likely to be civically active in a number of secular community activities and organizations. Likewise, Jamal (2005) finds an association between mosque participation and civil and non-electoral political activities in New York, while Ayers and Hofstetter (2008) find a positive relationship between religious practice (mosque attendance, prayer, volunteerism) and political participation. The 2007-2008 Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (MAPOS) data reveals that respondents involved in mosque activities are more likely to identify as Americans and participate in politics than their counterparts who are not involved in mosque activities (Dana, Barreto, and Oskooii 2011). Using original data from a survey of Muslim Americans in 22 locations across the United States, Dana, Wilcox-Archuleta, and Barreto (2017) find that those involved in their mosques are over 50 percent more likely to become politically active compared with those not involved in their mosques. Westfall (2018) demonstrates that there is a positive relationship between mosque attendance for social and religious activities but no relationship with attendance for prayer, suggesting that religious institutions must engage with social lives of their congregants in order to have a substantive political effect.

Figure 1 illustrates the effects demonstrated in the literature with frequencies of data on political participation from the 2011 Pew Muslim American Survey and the MAPOS referenced above.[2] Both surveys measure mosque attendance for reasons other than prayer, capturing behavior less tied to ritual and more open to participation across class and gender. Both measures of mosque attendance and political engagement refer to the previous year and are all measured dichotomously, with the respondent reporting that they either did or did not do the behavior indicated. The Pew data samples 1,033 adult Muslims, 37 percent of whom attend mosque for reasons other than prayer, while MAPOS samples 745 Muslims, 65 percent of whom attend regularly mosque outside of prayer services.[3] Attending mosque is associated with statistically significant higher rates of political engagement across all of the variables, with an especially marked difference in the MAPOS data.[4]

Mosques and political behavior in Europe

Research on degree of Muslim civic engagement in other Western contexts is less conclusive but seems to indicate similar trends. Using World Values Survey Data, Norris (2013) finds that there are considerable similarities across the Atlantic in the positive effects of religious participation on strengthening civic engagement, measured through self-reported voluntary activism within religious organizations, membership in a broader range of secular community associations, and patterns of political activism. Oskooii and Dana (2017) find that mosque attendance by ethnic minority Muslims in the UK is associated with increased self-reported rates of electoral and non-electoral political participation, like protesting or signing a petition, compared to ethnic minority Christian adherents. Giugni, Michel and Gianni (2014) use original survey data of Muslims in Sweden to support the argument that religious associational involvement is a strong predictor of political participation and protest. Phalet, Bayso and Verkuytem (2010) find that the salience of Muslim identity is associated with different political goals and actions across different ethnic Muslim groups in the Netherlands and caution against simplistic assumptions about all Muslims regarding the relationship between religion and politics.

Despite this warning, Figure 2 demonstrates simple descriptive statistics of the effect using the 3,522 individuals in the Muslim sample of the European Social Survey (ESS) waves from 2002 to 2014, the same dataset used by Isani in this collection.[5] Because this survey is not designed explicitly to sample Muslims, the question asks how often the respondent attends religious services apart from special occasions, which is recoded into a dichotomous variable of regular attendance (at least monthly). Forty percent of the sample reports regular attendance, and there is no differentiation between attendance for prayer services and other social or religious activities. Based on work finding that attending different types of services yields different outcomes for participation (Westfall 2018), the generic indicator of religious service attendance should dilute the effect of attendance on political engagement. In general, the results in Figure 2 demonstrate much lower reported rates of European Muslim political participation compared to the US data, with little differentiation based on attendance of religious services. The only significant differences are found in volunteerism, signing a petition (with a relationship in the opposite direction than hypothesized), participating in demonstrations, and participating in a boycott.[6] It would be inappropriate to draw many conclusions from direct comparisons of these trans-Atlantic data sources due to differences in measurement of both the religious attendance and the political engagement variables, and also because the ESS data is pooled over multiple years and across countries with very different political systems. At most, the comparative data is suggestive, hinting at lower levels of engagement and potentially different dynamics at work in European versus American contexts.

Explaining trans-Atlantic differences

The remainder of this essay considers how these different dynamics might manifest through the central mechanisms linking mosque attendance to political engagement. The first is in the way the mosque is a source of information and mobilization through religious leadership. Most typically, European state intervention in the mosque has focused on the religious leadership and reflects a desire to increase the presence of homegrown European imams over foreign imams who presumably hold traditionalist and culturally informed views.[7] For example, the French government has created initiatives with Muslim councils to develop training programs for homegrown imams. The Netherlands has started a certificate program for Islamic chaplaincy and has also developed a required acculturation program for imams through which they learn the language and the Dutch law that is relevant to their position. Some countries, like Sweden, Belgium, and Spain have provided funding for mosque construction and imam salaries. In general, however, these efforts are small-scale, because most governments want to avoid the public perception that they are encouraging Islam. Of course, some state intervention is more hostile. Denmark refuses entry to foreign imams, and Germany targeted Salafi mosques and organizations with raids and bans, in hopes of limiting the spread of the Salafist ideology (Erasmus 2016).

Whether inclusionary or exclusionary, even the small-scale public European state intervention in religious life stands in contrast to approaches in the US, where state involvement in religion is governed by norms developed with reference to the institutionally-embedded Christian faith. Recently these norms have been somewhat uncomfortably extended to non-Western religious traditions, though low-profile state incursion and surveillance of religious life is common in North American Muslim communities. Furthermore, as the North American Muslim community has grown, concerns over foreign-born imams are beginning to mirror those in the European context (Burnett 2013). Despite these trends, religious practice is legally protected in the United States and the American society is highly tolerant of personal religiosity.

Mosque leadership and information transfer is only one mechanism by which religious associational membership influences political and social behavior. The general consensus of the research on religious associational membership and political engagement demonstrates that the strongest effect is attributable to group dynamics and the development of social capital. Religious associational membership is theorized to creates social trust, which contributes to more generalized political trust and political participation. The effect works for other types of voluntary associations as well, and both ethnic and cross-ethnic voluntary associational memberships have been associated with a strong positive effect on political participation among immigrants in Europe (Jacobs and Tillie 2004). Ethnic networks are homogenous and primarily comprised of co-ethnics, while cross-ethnic networks refer to mixed associations, where membership is comprised of different types of people. The most important distinction between the two reflects the difference between “bonding” social capital, which reinforces group identities, and “bridging” social capital, which overcomes social cleavages (Putnam 2000). Translated to the mosque experience, those that promote bonding social capital would bind Muslims of the same ethnic or cultural identities in networks, while mosques promoting bridging social capital would promote links across Muslims of different cultures and ethnicities. The former might be useful for promoting political participation associated with affinity group promotion or ethnic grievances, while the latter might develop richer social capital that links the group to a larger civic community, or it may help stimulate pan-ethnic Muslim mobilization.[8] There is some evidence for the stronger effect of bridging social capital among Muslims in Switzerland (Giugni et al. 2014) and the United States (Westfall et al. 2017), but the distinct migration experiences and concentrated ethnic Muslim populations in many European states may influence and limit the degree to which developing bridging social capital within the mosque is possible.

Muslim reactions to Islamophobia

Mobilization within the mosque through leadership and social networks is only part of the story. The way the larger society reacts to Islam and the presence of mosques can constrain or enable the political participation of Muslims, and it will likewise influence the way mosque leadership and the congregations conceive of their place within society. Islamophobia is widespread and increasing in both Europe and North America and largely driven by the same forces on both sides of the Atlantic (Ogan et al. 2014). Though trends in Islamophobia are similar, the degree to which the social and political environment tolerates the expression of these ideas, or the degree to which the state is seen as being complicit in promoting Islamophobic perspectives varies across countries, as do state-led efforts to encourage and include Muslim perspectives. The perception of social and official hostility could lead Muslim communities to distrust the political community and turn inward, as implied by the work of Isani in this collection, or it could motivate oppositional political mobilization. The latter effect was seen in black churches in the United States, where the exclusion of African Americans from civic and social life with Jim Crow institutionalized a racialized public sphere, which led to the development of a “black counterpublic”(Dawson 1994). The counterpublic includes religious institutions, communication networks, and a number of other groups and organizations that encouraged oppositional political tactics that challenged the white supremacist status quo, often through the “politics of refusal” discussed by Hall in this collection. In a context where Muslims are politically excluded despite Muslim feelings of political entitlement, a similar outcome facilitated by mosques is a distinct possibility.

Where society rather than the state is at issue, a hostile social environment could provoke societal withdrawal by Muslims, but it could encourage further engagement with wider society in an attempt to alter mindsets, especially if the Muslim presence is legitimized by the state. Djupe and Calfano (2012) provide evidence that personal experiences with discrimination constitute a form of civic education, and that these experiences are associated with higher levels of tolerance in Muslim Americans. The options and incentives associated with discrimination are important and highly contextual.

Concluding thoughts

The very different state approaches to Islamic leadership, the social compositions of mosques, and variation in the social climate warrant comparative study that will help answer critical questions: Do the mechanisms linking mosque participation to civic engagement work in similar ways across countries? How does state intervention shape the way the mosque functions for its congregants? What role does the mosque play in divergent experiences with Muslim integration? However, answering these questions requires a fuller understanding of the comparative legitimacy felt by Muslims in the public sphere and of the experiences of Muslim individuals in their mosque environments. Rather than engaging with state and elite-level concerns about how they fear Muslims will behave, it is more informative to engage with the actual behavior of Muslims and the connections that Muslims make between their behavior and their religious life.

This research requires rich cross-national data focusing on Muslim’s experiences within their mosques and social networks and covering a broad range of formal and informal political behaviors and opinions. Studies on the political engagement or integration of Muslims in Western contexts have typically focused either on democratic values (gender roles and equality, sexual minority rights, the boundaries of free speech) or on rather infrequent behaviors like voting. But, as Robert Putnam and numerous others have argued, civic engagement through informal participation or membership in social networks is just as critical as political participation for “making democracy work” (Putnam 1993). Conceptualization and measurement of “active citizenship” including indicators of both formal and informal participation within the existing political system is therefore necessary to capture the full possibilities of the political integration and engagement of Muslims in western democratic societies (Hoskins and Mascherini 2009). It is equally important to pay special attention to protest behaviors and the “politics of refusal,” like those activities documented by Hall in this collection, which capture an important dimension of active and engaged participation. While there are a few national data sets with rich questions about political participation and large samples of Muslims, they do not allow for cross-national comparison, and the international datasets dramatically under-sample Muslims.[9] A concentrated effort must be made if there is interest in exploring the potential of religious associational life for enhancing the political engagement and integration of Muslims.

It is possible that, by the time we ask the right questions, the mosque will lose some of its importance in the lives of Muslims. There is evidence of declining attendance in formal religious services among Muslims in Europe. Of the Muslims sampled in the European Social Survey from 2002 to 2014, 26 percent report weekly attendance at religious services, and 22 percent report attending only on holy days. Among second generation immigrants only 18 percent attend weekly services. The rates are higher in the United States. According to the 2011 Pew survey of Muslim Americans, 47 percent of respondents, report weekly mosque attendance for prayer. Declining attendance could signal integration into secular modes of living, since there are similar trends in the non-Muslim population (Brenner 2016). Alternatively, declining mosque attendance could represent the loss of an important venue through which Muslims can develop civic skills and social networks and reconcile their religious and civic democratic lives.

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[1] The designation “mosque” can mean different things in different contexts. Technically mosques are used solely for religious worship. In many Western contexts, it is more common for Muslims to be affiliated with Islamic centers, which are usually open to the public and include a number of facilities, including a mosque. They are therefore often colloquially called mosques. The behavioral survey data illustrated below refers to a “mosque or Islamic center” and leaves the interpretation up to the survey respondent.

[2] Data from both surveys is included to demonstrate the effect across a wide variety of political indicators. The surveys sampled Muslims in different ways. The Pew survey includes data from phone interviews of 1,033 adult Muslims living in the United States using a probability sampling mechanism. The MAPOS data does not use probability sampling and was collected in-person as individuals of 745 individuals recruited with reference to a skip pattern as they left 16 mosques and Islamic centers in six cities (Barreto and Bozonelos 2009).

[3] This difference is likely attributable to sampling method, as the MAPOS data sampled individuals as they left the mosque or Islamic center.

[4] Statistical significance is determined through independent group t-tests, p<0.05. For full statistical analysis of these relationships using logistic regression models of the Pew data, see Westfall (2018).

[5] Like Isani, I limit the analysis to Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom due to considerations of comparability and sample size.

[6] Statistical significance is determined through independent group t-tests, p<0.05.

[7] The contrast between the foreign and homegrown imam is made obvious by Jonathan Birt (2006) in his essay “Good Imam, Bad Imam,” where the good imams and now governments have been eager to promote “civic religion.” “The good imam ought to acquire the skills to promote ‘civic religion,’ adopt an effective integrative pastoral role for Muslim youth, and challenge the extremism promoted by the bad imam. The bad imam works outside the ‘opportunity spaces,’ refusing the praxis and rhetoric of ‘civic religion,’ and may either be obscurantist and isolationist, or rejectionist, anti-West and possibly a supporter of violence and terrorism” (Birt 2006, 692-693).

[8] In this collection, Seurat alludes to both bridging and bonding social capital mechanisms in her analysis of social networks effects created by the Hajj, suggesting that the nationalist dynamics may be creating more bonding social capital between co-nationals, undercutting the ability of the Hajj to create bridging social capital serving a pan-Islamist identity.

[9] For example, the World Values Survey collects data in many countries in six waves from 1981 to 2014. However, they do not sample the same countries every year, and the Muslim representation within the countries sampled is remarkably low. The United States, with a population of about 300 million that is 1 percent Muslim, is sampled in four of the waves, and the total number of Muslims sampled is 19 out of 6,223 total respondents, or 0.003 percent. Likewise, Germany, a population that is about 6 percent Muslim, is sampled in three waves and yields a total of 87 Muslims out of 6.136 respondents, or 0.01 percent. The European Social Survey used here does not include North American countries and collects seven rounds from 2002 to 2014. They sample 1,000 Muslims only in waves 4, 5, and 6, and within the individual waves a country sample exceeds 100 Muslims only once (Belgium in 2012 with 110 Muslims).