The effects of discrimination on European Muslim trust in governmental institutions

Mujtaba Ali Isani, University of Muenster

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

European Muslims and Discrimination

European Muslims face marginalization, discrimination, and exclusion based on being seen as an out-group with a different culture, identity, religion, ethnicity and worldview (Landman, 2006: 19; also Crowley, 2001; Sidanius et al., 2004). They therefore encounter restrictions in accessing economic and political opportunities. As a result, European Muslims might become skeptical of the political context they are living in and of political institutions which are seemingly unable to prevent or protect them from discrimination (Caldwell, 2009; Maxwell, 2010a, 2010b).

This essay hypothesizes that Muslims who face discrimination are significantly more likely to distrust their domestic institutions. Indeed, survey data of European Muslims, who participated in the European Social Survey (ESS) between 2002 and 2014, reveals that around one-third of the 3,601 respondents indicated that they feel part of a discriminated group in their country. As a comparison, among the non-Muslim respondents of these surveys, less than six percent indicated they felt discriminated against (see Table 1).

Table 1: European Muslims Compared to Non-Muslims Who Feel Part of a Discriminated Group
  Feel Part of Discriminated Group
  Yes No
Muslim 33.22% (1,153) 66.78% (2,318)
Non-Muslim 5.90% (11,877) 94.10% (189,462)
Source: ESS 2002-2014. Authors’ own calculations. Absolute numbers in ().

As shown in Table 2, a majority European Muslims who feel discriminated against perceived themselves to be discriminated against because of their religion (62 percent), and this surpasses all other reasons for discrimination.  Discrimination based on religion can take various forms including the harassment of women who wear the headscarf (Sauer, 2009), no formal recognition of Islam by the state (Joppke, 2013), and just a general characterization of Muslims being foreign to the land (Alba et. al., 2003). Westfall (2018) points out that Muslims who attend mosque regularly may be seen as suspiciously, as mosque attendance is inaccurately attributed to participation in terrorist activity. On the contrary, as shown by Westfall (2018) and others, mosque engagement is more likely to have positive effects such as participation in secular community activities.  This ties in well with the starting point of this essay, as it seems as though practicing Muslims are more likely to feel discriminated against on religious grounds, as some in the host society may see their appearance and certain activities as suspicious. An often highlighted problem faced by practicing Muslims in the West is a lack of praying space and problems in getting permission to build mosques. The problems faced by US Muslims with mosque construction highlighted by Tepe (2018) may even be more severe in Western European countries like Spain, Germany and France (see, for example, Cesari, 2005; Astor, 2011). Muslims, especially mosque-going Muslims, are therefore more likely to feel discriminated against if they cannot adequately practice their religion in their country.

Table 2: Self-Identified Sources of Discrimination Among Discriminated Muslims
Reason for discrimination[1] Percentage
Color or Race 30.96%
Nationality 43.71%
Religion 61.84%
Language 16.05%
Ethnic Group 23.94%
Age 1.47%
Gender 2.52%
Sexuality 0.78%
Disability 0.61%
Other Grounds 6.68%
Source: ESS 2002-2018. Authors’ own calculations.

1 The self-identified grounds for discrimination are not mutually exclusive.

Perceived Discrimination and Governmental Trust

It can be argued that people who feel discriminated against become skeptical of the political context they live in and the political institutions of their country. Governmental trust may be defined as an individual’s confidence that the executive would attend to their interest even if governmental authority were exposed to little supervision (Easton, 1975). Trust is considered to be essential for the stability and legitimacy of institutions (Gibson, 1997; Klingemann, 1999; Seligson, 2002). Moreover, it is seen as indispensable for institutional endurance and effective functioning (Brehm & Rahn, 1997; Norris, 2002; Putnam, 1993).

As shown above, European Muslims feel especially discriminated against, and the question is whether this makes European Muslims more unfavorable and more skeptical of the political context they are living in and the political institutions of their country, which are seemingly unable to prevent or protect them from discrimination. I expect that European Muslims who feel part of a discriminated group are less likely to be trusting toward their governmental institutions (H1).

Other factors that may affect trust institutions as theorized in the previous literature are utilitarian factors such as satisfaction with one’s economic situation (Maxwell, 2010a), satisfaction with democracy, government, and one’s health situation (Röder & Mühlau, 2012). Since the population of European Muslims is predominantly composed of immigrants, whether they are first or second generation immigrants, may also be an important factor to determine their trust in political institutions (Alba & Nee, 2003; Dancygier & Saunders, 2006; de la Garza et al., 1996; Maxwell, 2013; Röder & Mühlau, 2011, 2012; Waters, 1999). Finally, demographic factors such as age, education, sex, religiosity, and political interest could also affect political trust (for an overview, see Isani and Schlipphak, 2017).


To test the hypothesis that it is perceived discrimination which is affecting trust among Muslims, while controlling for other important factors mentioned in the literature, I analyze the pooled dataset of the ESS from 2002-2014.[2] This dataset contains 207,432 respondents without considering any missing values on the dependent or the independent variables. Among these respondents, 3,601 self-identified as Muslim. Around 95% of the European Muslims in this dataset are immigrants, of which approximately 71% are first-generation immigrants.

I operationalize political trust through trust in four domestic institutions, namely, the national parliament, police, politicians, and the legal system, all measured on a 0-10 scale. I use each of these “trust in” variables as dependent variables, but also combine these variables into one general trust variable which adds all of these scores. Descriptive statistics as well as the operationalization of the other variables is shown in Table 3.

Table 3:  Summary of Descriptive Statistics and Coding.
Variables Mean (European Muslims) Coding
Dependent Variables
Trust in National Parliament 5.40


 0-10 scale of increasing trust.
Trust in the Legal System 6.05


 0-10 scale of increasing trust.
Trust in the Police 6.42


 0-10 scale of increasing trust.
Trust in Politicians 4.33


 0-10 scale of increasing trust.
Combined Trust 22.13


 0-40 scale of increasing trust.
Independent Variables
Economic Satisfaction 5.15


0-10 increasing scale of satisfaction.
Democratic Satisfaction 6.39


0-10 increasing scale of satisfaction.
Health Satisfaction 6.97


0-10 increasing scale of satisfaction.
Government Satisfaction 5.17


0-10 increasing scale of satisfaction.
Religiosity 7.11


0-10 increasing scale of self-perceived religiosity.
Discriminated Group 0.33


Coded 1 if an individual feels part of a discriminated group in the country of residence and 0 if otherwise.
First Generation 0.68


Individual and parents not born in country of residence.
Second Generation 0.25


Individual born in country of residence and at least one parent is an immigrant.
Political Interest 2.25


1-4 increasing scale of political interest.
Education 11.64


Number of years of formal education top-coded at 26.
Female 0.46


Coded 1 if individual is a female.
Age 41.91


Calculated age of respondent.
Source: ESS Rounds 1-7 (2002-2014). Absolute numbers in parentheses.


I estimate four models to test the hypothesis. For the combined trust dependent variable I estimate an ordinary least squares (OLS), and for each of the other variables I estimate ordinal generalized linear models (OGLM) as the ordinal logit models violate the proportional odds assumption. Table 4 presents only the results of the combined institutional trust model due to space considerations.[3]

Table 4: Explaining Trust in the Political Institutions among European Muslims
Independent Variables
Economic Satisfaction 0.29*** (0.07)
Democratic Satisfaction 0.93*** (0.06)
Health Satisfaction 0.37*** (0.06)
Government Satisfaction 0.97*** (0.07)
Religiosity 0.12* (0.05)
Discriminated Group -1.69*** (0.27)
First Generation 0.59  (0.48)
Second Generation -0.04 (0.53)
Political Interest 0.67*** (0.13)
Education 0.02 (0.45)
Female 0.92 (0.24)
Age 0.02* (0.01)
N 2,742
R2 44.36%
Source: ESS Rounds 1-7. Own calculations. Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression estimated with country-fixed effects and clustered standard errors, including controls for ESS waves 1-7, not plotted here. Standard errors in parentheses. * = significant at the 0.05 level ** = significant at the 0.01 level *** = significant at the 0.001 level.

Discussion, Further Analysis and Conclusion:

The results as seen in Table 4 show that if European Muslims perceive themselves as part of a discriminated group, they have significantly less trust in domestic institutions. Substantively the coefficient for the “discriminated group” shows it has one the strongest effects on the trust in institutions. This is a discouraging trend as discrimination can lead to problems in political integration as well political participation of Muslim citizens as shown by the works of Adda et. al. (2016) and Erisen (2017) in the French and American contexts.

Further analysis of the ESS as reported in Table 5 depicts that European Muslims are overall quite trustworthy of domestic institutions. However, it is the perception of being discriminated against that makes European Muslims more skeptical of the government. Future signs do not seem promising, as additional analysis showed that second-generation European Muslim immigrants are more likely to perceive themselves to be part of the discriminated group than first-generation Muslim immigrants, and they are less likely to trust domestic institutions. Currently, most Muslims in Europe as well as in my sample are composed of first generation immigrants, so prospectively trust and feelings of discrimination are likely to worsen.

A recurring theme in this POMEPS series is that there might be significant generational differences in how Muslims respond to conditions in Europe and the USA. Hall (2018) depicts how a group of second-generation British Muslims engage in the politics of resistance and refusal. Seurat (2018) and Hamming (2018) point out that second-generation Muslim immigrants may reject certain cultural practices of their parents to follow more orthodox forms of Islam. The analysis done for this memo reinforces the generational differences present among Muslim immigrants in the West. Not only are second-generation Muslim immigrants more likely to feel discriminated against, but they are also significantly less trusting of government institutions.

Table 5: Mean Combined Trust in Domestic Institutions by Religious Denomination

Religious Denomination Trust in EUP (0 to 40 scale)
Protestant 24.30 (n= 36,080)
Eastern Orthodox 17.65 (n= 9,404)
Roman Catholic 19.19 (n= 59,162)
Other Christian 20.30 (n= 2,253)
Muslim 22.13 (n= 3,172)
Jewish 20.87 (n= 198)
Eastern Religions 21.36 (n= 775)
Other Non-Christian Religion 19.81 (n= 530)
Belonging to No Religion 20.23 (n= 76,687)
Source: ESS Rounds 1-7 (2002-2014).

In conclusion, this essay’s primary finding, that the perception of being discriminated against has a negative effect on trust in political institutions suggests that more needs to be done by the respective European governments and the European Union to reduce feelings of discrimination among its Muslim population. These could be but are not limited to, for example, an increase in mosques and praying spaces for Muslim residents or programs that develop understandings (or remove misconceptions) of Muslim practices such as the wearing of headscarves. Eliminating feelings of discrimination may be crucial in maintaining cordial European Muslim relations with domestic institutions and the society at large.



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[2] Based on criteria of survey representation, EU/Schengen membership and minimum number of Muslim respondents, we choose the following 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

[3] The OGLM models show similar results.