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Interview with Ruud Koopmans: Understanding Muslim Immigration to Europe

[Historically,] Islamic societies were actually more advanced, more liberal, and more tolerant than Western societies. So, there is nothing intrinsic to Islam that explains these problems.”

Every country that welcomes immigrants must ask fundamental questions about who will be allowed in and who will be excluded. Prior to the pandemic of 2020, global migration was greater than at any previous moment in history. The immense social pressures of migrants, particularly to Western liberal democracies, brought an overarching question to the fore: How well do they fit in?

Fretting over this issue of integration is, by no means, a novel concern. Even in fifth century B.C. Greece, says writer Peter Jones, of Mediterranean immigrants making a home in Athens “discretion and orderliness were expected.” At the turn of the twentieth century, it was Irish and Italian immigrants who were seen with cultural suspicion in the rising global hegemon of the day, the United States of America. 

Today, rightly or wrongly, one group more than any other is viewed as difficult to integrate into Western society: Muslims. But is their sundry reputation deserved? 

At Europe’s largest independent social science institution—WZB, Berlin Social Science Center—one researcher, former advisor to Germany’s Office for Migration and Refugees, and current academic at Humboldt University is the sought-after expert on this issue. This is Dr. Ruud Koopmans.

While it would have been a great pleasure to chat over coffee in a Berlin café with Dr. Koopmans, the combination of pandemics and planes dashed that idea. Instead, from half a world apart, Dr. Koopmans at the end of his day and I at the beginning of mine speak online about this topic of his expertise. 

“Muslims are much worse at integration than other groups of immigrants,” you famously said in an interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske. Does this integration difficulty have something to do with religion?

In 2015, I did a comparative study of six European countries and found levels of religious fundamentalism and hostilities toward various outgroups were widespread among Muslims. 

And religious fundamentalism leads to integration problems, is that the idea?

Well, not just religious fundamentalism. Religious conservatism, which is a bit wider than religious fundamentalism…makes successful integration into core institutions in society—such as the education system or the labor market—difficult. 

For instance, for groups that have very conservative values about the participation of women in the labor market, which is extremely low among Muslim groups, there is only one breadwinner. Women who don’t work tend to have more children, and that’s what you find among Muslims compared to other groups. If you have more children…because parents can only invest so much time in helping…education outcomes among Muslim immigrant groups tend to be lower than a lot of other immigrant groups. 

Another mechanism is social integration. Contacts with the majority society are very important—social capital. For instance, if you want to be successful in the labor market, it is very helpful to know people who have access to valuable knowledge and resources, who know where job opportunities are; who know how to behave in a job interview; who know where the best schools are and how to apply. 

Orthodox religiosity—not just Islamic but also Christian or Jewish—goes with social closure. Orthodox believers prefer acquaintances and friends within the same religious groups. In some cases, there are even formal bans on having contacts with others, especially in the area of intimate relationships (such as) marriage. That makes access to resources and knowledge in the wider society more difficult. It leads to segregation.

And segregation for minority groups has negative consequences. 

It makes their trajectory much more difficult than those immigrant groups that have values that stand much closer to the receiving society. 

Christian Bjørnskov at Aarhus University has said that integration is not a problem of Muslims per se but is connected to country-of-origin. For example, North African and Middle Eastern immigrants tend to have the greatest difficulties integrating into Western societies. Muslims from Bosnia—not so much. Are integration issues related to country-of-origin instead of religion? 

To the extent that there is variation within the Muslim world, there is something to that. Muslims from Balkan countries: Bosnia, Albania, and those from central Asia also by the way, (such as) Kazakhstan; in short: Muslims from post-communist countries tend to do better than those from the Middle East and North Africa. 

The reason is [that] they are much less religious. They identify less often as Muslim and even if they do, they are often not practicing. They don’t go to the mosque. Their levels of religious fundamentalism are much lower. 

So, the mechanism still applies. It is about orthodox/fundamentalist religiosity. This is the problem.  

And [fundamentalism] is certainly not a problem limited to the Middle East and North Africa. Just look at Pakistan and Bangladesh. The two main Muslim groups in the United Kingdom are also at the bottom of the integration ladder in the U.K. 

Another exception is Iranian immigrants in Western Europe and North America. The reason again is the same as the Balkan countries. 

What propels Iranians to come to Europe and North America? What regime did they flee from? It was the regime of the Ayatollahs. Iranians that came here tend to be highly educated. They tend to be secular. Research from the Netherlands shows…their descendants—less than half of them identify as Muslims anymore. Even those that do identify as Muslim practice their religion in a very liberal way. 

So religiosity still plays a role. 

During your early career, you were studying why anti-nuclear protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s were so successful. How did you go from that to studying the inner workings of Islam?

To some extent it is curiosity. 

I started working on these anti-nuclear, peace movements, left-libertarian movements. Then they were looking, in 1994, for somebody to do research…on the rising right-wing extremist violence that was sweeping over Germany at the time. 

I applied what I had learned from studying left-wing movements to studying right-wing movements. One of the things I had learned—and it’s one of the core lessons of the social movement literature—is that you cannot understand social movements without taking into account the political and social context in which they operate. Political opportunity structures is the word. 

You have to look not just at the movements themselves but the public debate on which they mobilize. If you study right-wing extremism, you have to study the topics on which these movements thrive. One of the most important ones is immigration and integration. Then I quickly stumbled on the fact that if you compare different immigrant groups, they are not all of a kind. Some groups integrate very well and are completely unproblematic, and others integrate more difficultly, and one of the key factors is religion. 

That’s how I came to my latest topic—namely trying to explain the causes of the crisis of the Muslim world, which is the topic of my latest book The Dilapidated House of Islam.

“Muslims make the most demands on their adopted country, in terms of trying to obtain religious rights.” This was a conclusion from a 2013 paper you wrote with Sarah Carol in the journal EthnicitiesDynamics of contestation over Islamic religious rights in Western Europe.Do these religious claims for “rights” cast negative views upon the group demanding them?

Islam—if you take it in an orthodox conservative interpretation—places very strong demands on the public behavior of believers. It is not a privatized religion. It is not like Buddhism. Even a very convinced Buddhist does not necessarily demand of a school that their child has to be able to wear this or that. Same with Hindus. In the study, we looked at Hindus in the United Kingdom. We looked at religious claims. We hardly found any by Hindus even though there are almost as many Hindus living in the United Kingdom as Muslims. Most of the claims were by Muslims. 

That does not need to lead to great controversies, as long as these would be relatively moderate claims for accommodation. A claim: “Let’s have halal foods in school canteens” shouldn’t be a problem. 

Some people would object. You cannot satisfy everybody. There will always be a few true racists and Islamophobes who will be against any concession. But there are certain things you can easily accommodate. 

Should teachers in public schools be allowed to wear headscarves? That is a more contentious issue. Some argue that public schools should have a certain neutrality, especially if we are dealing with minors. 

Of course, within that particular religion, there are some who have even more far-reaching claims. We found in the two countries that had most accommodated moderate claims…fundamentalist groups took the stage and made even more radical claims. Once the headscarf is accepted, now we also want to be able to wear a Burka, and also to wear a burka as a kindergarten teacher. Or, instead of just demanding that there would be halal food in school canteens, in the U.K., we got cases about Muslim cooks who refused to cook pork or taxi drivers who refused to take blind passengers with their guide-dog because the dog was haram. Or demands in Canada and the U.K. for Sharia courts to handle cases of family law. 

Of course, those are highly controversial claims because they touch upon fundamental individual rights issues and naturally lead to controversy. 

I don’t think that religious claims [naturally] escalate. But if you have a situation—that, unfortunately, over the last 40 or 50 years has been the case in Islam—where you have strong fundamentalist currents who seize the opportunity structures of multicultural policies and…human rights, and they very well know how to use the language of human rights to actually undermine human rights, the claims actually hurt…their own community.

From your 2017 paper “Why Do States Extend Rights to Immigrants,” you concluded that immigration was a matter of a state’s labor needs. Not all states, however, extend cultural, religious and individual human rights to its immigrants. Those that do extend rights are correlated with: 1) a history of being a colonizer, 2) a colony, 3) a colony with a small, or low density population, 4) the role of electoral politics. Was there anything that startled you about those findings? 

The literature about immigrants’ rights is all about ethnic nations and civic nations, namely that latecomer nations that result from separatist or national unification movements [Germany and East European states] tend to have ethnic citizenship regimes that exclude immigrants from rights, whereas early nations (prototype: France) tend to have an inclusive civic national identity that more easily grants immigrants’ rights. 

This ethnic/civic concept finds no support in the data. That distinction does not explain anything. It seems to be overrated. 

Taking advantage of political opportunity structures” is a recurring theme in your research. Can you explain this a little more?

Sure. The striking thing was that in those countries [such as Switzerland and Germany] that offered the least opportunities for Muslim claim-making, their claims were the most moderate. There, they were focused on things like headscarves and construction of mosques. There was…not much opportunity…for fundamentalist groups because Muslims there were preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues.  

In countries such as the U.K., the Netherlands, and Sweden where the receiving society…leaves it up to the claim-maker to define what is, or is not, a duty according to their religion, as soon as somebody says, “this is part of our religion; it is a religious duty for me,” then it becomes an individual human right that the state cannot infringe upon. And it basically becomes an inviolable human right that has to be respected; that has to be tolerated; that has to be accommodated. That open interpretation of human rights is an opportunity structure that enables fundamentalist groups to seize the initiative.

What happens in countries such as the Netherlands and the U.K. is that these fundamentalist groups start to dominate the image of Muslims in the public debates. So that’s the kind of Muslim you see in the media because they create all these controversies with their claims. Thereby, all Muslims become associated with these radicals. So, policies that intend to be…integration-friendly actually end up harming the group that it’s supposed to help. 

Over the years, that has been my general criticism of multicultural policies. Good intentions have often translated into very bad outcomes. 

Countries that maybe didn’t have such good intentions—or were more practical you could say—found a better balance between the interests of the receiving societies and the rights of immigrants. They have often been more successful with integrating immigrants than multicultural countries. 

Your 2010 publication “Trade-Offs between Equality and Differencediscusses this paradox.

Yes. We see countries that have strong multicultural policies and generous welfare states actually have worse integration outcomes than other countries. 

It reminds me of the Chinese proverb—No good deed goes unpunished. So, is there a correlation between Muslim immigrants to Western countries and a decline in social cohesion and social trust? 

Well, not just Muslim immigrants. This is true for immigration more generally. That, of course, is not very original. Many people have studied this both in immigration settings but also in non-immigration settings: people like Alberto Alesina in the United States. Countries that have an ethnically diverse population, that is, not [necessarily] a population of immigrant origin, also tend to have lower levels of social trust. 

Robert Putnam was the one to introduce that hypothesis. Putnam’s study led to a huge body of follow-up research, to some extent with contradictory findings. 

But lately there has been a series of meta-studies and they basically confirmed that Putnam was right. Ethnic diversity [harms] social cohesion, social trust, and cooperation at the local level.

Speaking of local, we seem more harshly divided today than ever before between visions of local and global identities. Your 2019 book The Struggle Over Borders: Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism explains this divide—this cleavage. Was there anything in the book that hasn’t been given the attention you think it deserves?

Our study was not to formulate a distinction between cosmopolitans and communitarians for the first time. Though I think we were the first to actually use these labels to denote the two poles—and to tie this political cleavage to philosophical debates in political theory and political science. British author David Goodheart’s distinction between the anywheres and the somewheres is about the same political cleavage. 

What we did—we actually brought to the table empirical findings…to show that there is actually such a cleavage that increasingly structures politics in Western democracies. 

Since we’ve written the book…this cleavage has deepened enormously and threatens to rip societies apart. Look at what’s happening in the United States right now. That is no longer a political cleavage. It seems to be a political canyon that can hardly be bridged anymore.

Would it be fair to say your most recent book The Dilapidated House of Islam is about socio-economic failings in the Islamic world being attributed to the religion of Islam?

Not exactly. Of utmost importance is that there are many Islams. Just like in Christianity [or any other religion], there are many ways in which you can interpret and live a religion. 

If you look at the development of Muslim societies, it wasn’t always the case that they were lagging behind other parts of the world. [Historically,] Islamic societies were actually more advanced, more liberal, and more tolerant than Western societies. So, there is nothing intrinsic to Islam that explains these problems. 

I focus on the period since 1970 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism within the Muslim world. It is this Islamic fundamentalism that is to blame for the problems that the Islamic world is facing, and these problems are manyfold: stagnation of democracy, demands for non-separation between religion and state, introduction of Sharia. And of course, this leads to anti-democratic tendencies. It leads to the fact that in Muslim countries—unlike in other parts of the world where social revolutions and the downfall of dictators have led to the establishment of democracies or at least semi-democracies—the downfall of authoritarian regimes, even if followed up by elections, only led to the coming to power of radical Islamist regimes: Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria. [There are] numerous examples. The “Arab Spring,” which was welcomed so hopefully, in most Muslim countries, led to another form of authoritarianism. That’s one thing. 

The second is human rights more generally; the rights of women; the rights of religious minorities; the rights of sexual minorities have also not made any progress—or actually become worse in the Islamic world—because of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Whereas at the same time in other parts of the world, emancipation took place. Then, Islamic fundamentalism—because of the claims it makes on the state and because of its intolerance to any other interpretation of Islam as well as to other religions—leads to conflicts, [including] violent conflicts. [It] explains why if you look at civil wars all over the world, about three-quarters of them nowadays are between different Muslim groups, or between Muslim minorities that want to separate from non-Muslim countries. 

And finally, there is hampering of economic development because they are hostile to secular knowledge, and [they are] hostile to the emancipation of women, thereby excluding half of the population from the labor market and from economic innovation. 

[Islamic fundamentalism] also leads to problems in immigration societies, as we talked about. Orthodoxy and fundamental religiosity are hindrances toward integration. 

Very important: It is not Islam as such but Islamic fundamentalism that has recently risen. That is the core of the problem. That’s the message of the book.

That also implies that the situation is not hopeless, in the sense that if [the Muslim community] can get rid of fundamentalism, these problems can go away.

Thank you. That is a good note to end on. 

A note of hope.

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