American Multiculturalism vs. French Ethno-pluralism: The Debate over Arab and Muslim Assimilation

Lanouar Ben Hafsa


Although they have become more visible across the Western world, Arabs and Muslims remain inadequately described and poorly misunderstood. In the United States, and in France, despite their expanding numbers and their growing involvement in the decision-making process, both groups still suffer from widespread prejudice, especially the negative image conveyed about them in the media and within some political circles.


Until the 1970s, Arab and Muslim immigrants had been a neglected dimension in either American or French ethnic and religious history. But the rise in the number of such foreign-born residents in both countries added to the growing fear over the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism and generated considerable interest and public debate on how well these groups would assimilate into the mainstream culture of their host societies and fit within a pre-established order.


This paper not only aims to cast a fresh and objective look into how American and French citizens of Arab and Muslim descent adjust to their new environment but also attempts to provide some insights into how the United States and France accommodate Islam, as both nations, because of their different immigration histories and their relatively diverging ideologies, do not have a commonality of views on how society should be structured and organized.


Two elements have been decisive for such a study: first, my experience in France as a postgraduate student at Sorbonne University, second, the research I conducted in 2004 on Arab Americans as Senior Fulbright at the Center for Arab American Studies, at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Both encounters not only helped me draw a number of conclusions regarding the respective experiences of two communities, united by common historical and cultural ties but so different as to the way they adapt to their host societies. They especially enhanced my understanding of what it really means to be Arab or Muslim in France and in the United States.


To support the research’s central point, a number of questions will be addressed: Are Arab-Americans in general and American Muslims, in particular, unwilling to assimilate? Is Islam inherently incompatible with Western and Judeo-Christian values? Should policymakers see Islam as the enemy of the West? Should the prevalent anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world be understood within the broader context of a “clash of civilizations” or “war of religions”, as stressed by some scholars, or should it be considered a “natural response” to a temporary conjuncture necessitating reconsideration and change? Finally, what role should Arab and Muslim leaders in both countries play to provide community stability and maintain their identity in an ever-changing world?


Arab Americans, American Muslims, French Arabs and Muslims, American Multiculturalism, French Ethno-pluralism, Assimilation.

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