9/11 impact was less in Europe, says WUSTL anthropologist

Due to differences in perceptions of Muslims in American, European cultures before attack

Because the Sept. 11 attacks happened on U.S. soil, it makes sense that they might have had a more profound impact in the United States than in Western Europe.

John Bowen

But the location of the attacks isn’t the only reason for that, says John R. Bowen, PhD, an anthropology and religious studies professor, both in Arts & Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis, who has spent the past 10 years studying Islam and civil law in France and England.

Key differences in how Muslims were perceived before 9/11 in the United States and Western Europe played a key role in how much — or how little — attitudes on Muslims changed after 9/11, Bowen says.

“After 9/11, many in the United States came to fear American Muslims for the first time; most knew nothing about Islam,” says Bowen, PhD, the Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences. “But fear of Muslims already was present in parts of Europe.”

The reason behind that, Bowen says, is two key differences between Muslims in the United States and Muslims in Europe.

The first difference is socioeconomic status.

“Immigrant Muslims — who include many highly educated professionals coming from South Asia and the Middle East — in the United States are better off than average Americans economically,” Bowen says.

“In Europe, most Muslim immigrants came as unskilled laborers after World War II. As a result of Europe’s recent deindustrialization, these poorer immigrants often lack the wherewithal to take care of themselves, which lead others to resent their presence.”

Second, the United States is “so self-consciously” an immigrant society, Bowen says. In contrast, he says, immigrants in many European countries are seen with suspicion.

“Being an immigrant is normal for us,” he says. “With the exception of Native Americans, we’re all descendants of immigrants.”

It has been 10 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but Americans’ relatively newfound distrust of American Muslims lingers, Bowen says, fueled by the open hostility of Islam by some right-wing Protestant religious leaders, including Florida pastor Terry Jones, who burned a copy of the Koran this past spring.

“We in the United States have to take more seriously our principle of treating all religions alike and treating all Americans with equal respect,” Bowen says. “In the case of prejudice against Muslims, including the recent spate of silly but provocative ‘anti-Sharia’ laws passed in a dozen states, we have really fallen short of our own ideals.”

Bowen — author of the book Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State (Princeton University Press, 2009), the forthcoming Blaming Islam (MIT Press, 2012), and chair of the Council for European Studies — will be featured in a panel discussion, “Navigating a Post 9/11 World: A Decade of Lessons Learned” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15 in Whitaker Hall Auditorium on Washington University’s Danforth Campus.

The panel will examine the way Americans struggle to balance the need for greater national security with our traditional ideals of civil liberty and religious freedom, especially as it relates to American Muslims.

Participants, other than Bowen, include:

  • Sahar Aziz, LLM, associate professor of law at Texas Wesleyan University and a legal fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, panelist;
  • Gulten Ilhan, professor of philosophy at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, panelist;
  • Ahmet Karamustafa, PhD, professor of history and of religious studies, both in Arts & Sciences, introduction; and
  • R. Marie Griffith, PhD, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics and the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, moderator.

The program will be presented by the Gephardt Institute for Public Policy and the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.