Late last week, the lower house of the Swiss Parliament passed a piece of legislation that would bar Muslim women from wearing face-covering veils, including the burqa, a body-covering, full-veil robe worn by Muslim women, in public places. If the law passes in the upper house, Switzerland will join a significant handful of European countries – France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain – that have considered or implemented similar bans. French women who continued to wear the burqa received their first fines in September, while some Parisian Muslims reacted with anger when they were told that they were no longer allowed to pray in the city’s streets.
Across the Atlantic, Americans are closely divided over how comfortable they feel with public religious expression by Muslims. Like so many other issues, however, comfort with these aspects of Muslim culture and religious expression are strongly correlated with age, not only in the general population but also in more conservative circles that register higher overall levels of discomfort.
Recent PRRI research reveals that while white evangelical Protestants overall tend to be less comfortable with public displays of Muslim religion and culture, there is a striking generational divide between older and younger evangelicals. When asked about a variety of public displays of Muslim culture and religious expression (including Muslim women wearing the burqa and Muslim men praying in an airport), younger white evangelicals (age 18-39) are far more likely to say they are comfortable with these displays than their older counterparts (age 40 and up).
Our recent report, What It Means to be American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years After 9/11, illustrates the depth of the gulf between old and young:
- Overall, 51% of the general population report feeling comfortable with a Muslim woman wearing the burqa in public (48% would not).
- Fifty-three percent are comfortable with a group of Muslim men praying at an airport (45% are not).
- Fifty-seven percent say they are comfortable with a Muslim teaching elementary school in their community (41% are not).
- Sixty-two percent of younger white evangelicals feel comfortable with a Muslim woman wearing the burqa in public, compared to 38% of older white evangelicals.
- Roughly half (51%) of younger white evangelicals feel comfortable with a group of Muslim men kneeling to pray in an airport, compared to 40% of older white evangelicals.
- More than 6-in-10 (63%) of younger white evangelicals say they would be comfortable with a Muslim teaching elementary school in their community, compared to one-third (33%) of older white evangelicals.
Although a large number of states have introduced legislation that would ban Muslim Shari’a law from U.S. courtrooms, there has not been a move, as in Europe, to limit public prayer or prevent Muslim from wearing face veils outside their homes. Looking at these numbers, it seems unlikely that a serious attempt to regulate public expressions of Muslim culture or religion would be successful in the United States.
After all, while our research does pick up a certain measure of discomfort with the specter of Shari’a law, overwhelming majorities of evangelicals of all ages agree that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular. And 54% of younger white evangelicals say that American Muslims are an important part of the religious community in the U.S., compared to 37% of older white evangelicals. These numbers alone seem to suggest that as time goes on, the place of Muslims within American society will bend toward greater acceptance.