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The three countries that make up North America are primarily countries of immigrants. Following the explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, European immigrants began to increasingly colonize North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. These immigrant peoples were primarily made up of diverse Christian and some Jewish communities and began to form their own states, constitutions, and countries in the 18th and 19th centuries beginning in the Eastern areas of the continent and finally consolidating their western boundaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The matter of cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious diversity has been a major issue confronting Canada, the United States, and Mexico from their beginnings. The question of whether and how to assimilate, integrate, tolerate, or embrace diversity remains a crucial issue today, exponentially heightened as immigration laws have largely opened up since the mid-1960s massively increasing the number and diversity of cultural and religious communities present today in North America. Addressing issues and concerns raised by First Nations Native Peoples, African Americans, and a host of national, ethnic, and religious minority peoples in North American countries has become a major challenge in these societies for both the common citizen and public policy makers.
Judeo-Christian religious diversity has played a crucial role in the history of North American countries and, despite the advent of modernity characterized by secularism and the scientific revolution, continues to play a significant role in popular culture, politics, and cultural knowledge today. Furthermore, religious diversity is a crucial facet of North American immigrant, cultural, and ethnic diversity. Especially apparent among immigrant groups is the role of religious communities in integrating new immigrants into North American societies. Not only do numerous religious institutions provide basic settlement services, but they also play a crucial role in providing a social network of relationships and a sustainable settlement community. Especially prevalent among immigrants is the tendency to express, preserve, and live out their cultural and ethnic identities through their religious communities and traditions. This double function of immigrant and ethnic religious communities together with the long-established historical and continuing importance of religion in North American culture dramatically highlights the importance of religious communities and of being genuinely educated about North America's religiocultural diversity.
Historically, the countries of North America have endeavored to protect religious diversity by establishing and preserving the freedom of religion. The United States even went as far as to attempt to separate religion from state institutions at a very early stage in its history. In 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed and became a model legislating for the freedom of religion in the 1791 Bill of Rights. The first amendment consists of the statement, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This article was intended not only to protect state institutions from religious interests but to protect religious institutions from state domination. And Alexis de Tocqueville, a well-known French visitor to America in the 1820s, observed on his travels, that the separation of religion and state has in many cases served to increase religious participation and diversity rather than subtract from it.
Canada on the other hand, although it guards religious freedom as well, has never officially embraced a policy of separating church and state. Rather, Canada has historically endeavored to protect religious freedoms by enshrining the liberties of minority religions in the constitution. For example, the Canadian constitution includes a protection for fully funded Catholic separate schools in those provinces that possessed them at confederation in 1867. Because of this legislation the province of Ontario still funds Catholic schools with public funds to this day. Moreover, Canada's official multicultural policy has led to the public funding of activities for immigrant religious communities such as language classes, citizenship classes, leadership training sessions for youth, teacher training, and conferences.
North American countries are addressing the issue of dramatically increased religious diversity in a plethora of ways since this issue has gained in importance exponentially as immigrant religious diversity has multiplied since the opening of immigration laws in the United States in 1965, and in Canada in 1967. One group of religious communities that has gained increasing prominence, and is facing increasingly challenging issues in North America because of its incredible growth, and also because of the repercussions of the September 11, 2001 attacks, is the Muslim communities of North America. A closer look at Muslim communities here will help to unearth the complexity and extent of the challenge and incredible potential of North America's religious diversity for both everyday citizens residing in North American countries and for their public policy makers.
ISLAM AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY IN NORTH AMERICA
Historically, states have attempted to address the issue of diversity in any number of ways from exclusion and outright elimination, to assimilation and versions of integration and tolerance, to accommodation, preservation, and support for cultural difference. Although the United States allows every individual the rights and freedoms to pursue and preserve any legal form of culture he or she chooses to engage in, the United States is popularly known as a cultural melting pot of assimilation. However, not only does this perception ignore the incredible success with which diverse and distinct immigrant and ethnic religious communities have survived here, it renders the recent so-called multicultural wars in the United States inconceivable. Indeed, America has begun to struggle with multicultural voices that have made significant headway in educational institutions and the mass media that may have implications for religious and specifically Muslim diversity.