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The Right to Remain Religious: Muslim Integration and Human Rights in Post Secular Europe

Aug 1, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Volume I, Issue 1

By Valerie Zwart, Webster University Leiden

While many European leaders have recently cited the failure of multiculturalism as proof of the need for heavier integration (secularization) policies, Muslim European nationals are ill-equipped to claim their religious and cultural rights. A discourse allowing discussion of religious rights within secular society is slowly growing, but not quickly enough to address the tensions already come to fruition. This essay will argue that institutionalized European secularism is losing its authority in the post-modern 21st century and with it its position as moderator of the multiculturalism debate. The multi-faceted realities inherent to a post-modern world are changing the religious societal landscape. While policy is not likely to sustain any quick growth in the coming time, the highly charged space dividing religious from secular could benefit from the emergence of a post-secular discourse. This discourse could clear the air for faith-based issues to ease back into the public sphere, diffusing both the threat on religious identity felt by the continent’s Muslims and the threat on secular tradition used as nativist polemic against them. The human right to religious affiliation and identity calls out to be championed in this new, post-secular era.

The Right to Remain Religious: Muslim Integration and Human Rights in Post Secular Europe

News journals ended 2010 with a flurry of predictions for the upcoming year as they also scrutinized the first 10 years of the 21st century for trends and lessons learned. One particular buzz phrase—“the immigration issue”—stands out as a significant marker of the decade.  Triggered in part by the unprecedented anti Muslim sentiment following the September 11 attacks, a wave of heated debate began. The logistics of multiculturalism, the feared Islamization of Europe, and the reform of immigrant integration policy began to gain momentum in the discussions of the early 2000s. While initially fear-driven, this flood of policy evaluation and public debate has since provoked a diverse spectrum of opinion over the last years.

Modernity developed as a pendulum swing away from the church-governed structures of pre-Enlightenment Europe. Rising in tandem with it was secularism, which demanded the end of ecclesiastical power over society and the separation of state affairs from religious norms. Religion would preside over the modern state no more. This divorce of church and state resonated deeply throughout Europe as the new prototype for modernizing nations to adopt. The polarization of religion and civil society was only a natural progression, as individuals and nongovernmental organizations clamored to claim the right to freedom of (and from) religion. And so the theory emerged, its assumptions hardening into an accepted paradigm: The more modern a society, the less religious its people (Casanova, 2003; Ziebertz & Riegel, 2009). The European brand of modern secularism came to represent the neutralization of state affairs, and more significantly, the extinction of religion’s social significance.

Without falling into essentialism, it could be generally considered an accurate statement that Islam is a prescriptive religion providing norms to influence every aspect of a believer’s life. Many Muslim countries[1] are “modern” states in the throes of industrialization. These states may operate under democratic principles and carry out their affairs without the direct intervention of religious figures, but the secularization of civil society does not accompany this. Immigrants to Europe from Muslim countries face more integration challenges than those from countries where secularism is historically entrenched.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned schema correlating modernity with a decrease in public value of religion places Muslim countries on the primitive end of the evolutionary scale—we assume that they will mature and ease into secularism once they have advanced to a higher level of economic development (Ismail, 2004).  Aside from the obvious influence of the linear-stages-of-growth model conceived by W.W. Rostow,[2] academic Olivier Roy (2007) notes that the intellectual debate over Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” has also shaped the discussion inordinately, countered by very little concrete sociological analysis of Muslim practices in a secularized Western context (2007).

The counterpoint to the argument of secular culture and religious culture at odds is an integration theory idealized by countries such as the Netherlands. Integration as multiculturalism is defined as a maintenance of mutual respect between two distinct cultures, neither a “dilution of minority culture into a dominant mainstream” nor a dilution of majority culture in “a politically correct muck” (Mogahed & Nyiri, 2007, p. 20). While the clean vastness of such a chasm appeals to many, the concept of nonreactive cooperation between pristine cultures is weakly constructed. Even if completely distinct cultures share a common space, there is no guarantee that cooperation will not veer sharply to competition, the opposite of polite coexistence. The fear that embittered and isolated young Muslims could build up a set of separate and parallel institutions to those of secular Europe may be “a recipe for future civil wars” (Sinno, 2008, p. 5). In this light, the assimilation school of integration theory, which promotes a near-seamless swallowing-up of one culture by another, appears to mercifully solve the radicalization scenario. This theory also has a gaping hole, however. Even the most homogeneous of cultures contains what one scholar has dubbed “the tyranny of small differences” (Giry, 2006, p. 10). The existence of even slight variations of thought, background, or belief can spontaneously spark conflict. Notably, national discussions on the identity of Muslim immigrants in Europe are rarely led by the immigrants themselves; immigrants are overwhelmingly consigned to remain objects of such discussions rather than participants in them (Modood, 2009).

With both multiculturalism (which has galvanized a “them versus us” mentality) and assimilationism (which has taken on neo-imperialist connotations) under fire, a fresh integration paradigm is desperately needed. Semblance of a middle ground between the two extremes is being found in a postsecular, postmodern integration paradigm. Anthropologist Martijn de Koning observed this in the experience of second and third generation Muslim immigrant youth. As they seek to resolve the conflict of identities thrust on them by their Muslim community on one side, and secular Dutch society on the other, the youth’s reflections on the practice of their faith in the Netherlands become part of an “ongoing process of negotiation and compromise” between Muslim and European, religious and secular (de Koning, 2008, p. 41). The result is not a muddled cultural relativist compromise, but rather the formation of a new prescriptive discourse which can flex to address every area of their life. This discourse can be described as a transnational public forum rather than a single rigid culture prone to cause conflict of interest (Bowen, 2004).  Yet the complex social, cultural, and religious negotiations brokered by European Muslim youth are not the means to a concrete identity. The negotiations are their identity. Their world has largely separated religion from the public arena, and they have become adept at leaving and entering these two spheres. Plurality, a key facet of post modernity, is a comfortable and natural skin. The identity crisis presents itself only when the commanding loyalties pit themselves against each other, and the youth are made to believe that they must limit allegiance to only one of the many. In a classic postmodern rejection of exclusive meta-narratives and established boundaries, second and third generation Muslim immigrant youth are laying surprisingly resilient foundations in a space defined by shifting tectonic plates.

Many of the Muslims who are born and raised in Europe may be coming personally to terms with their multifaceted identity, but this hardly resolves the larger issue at hand. Secular society’s relegation of Islamic identity to the private sphere is matched by its political and cultural construction of Muslim immigrants as a minority. Both come across as constraints on Muslim immigrant participation in the public and political spheres (Salih, 2004). If, as DutchPartij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) leader Geert Wilders so fiercely preaches, Europe is truly in danger of an impending “Islamization” of her states, then we should widen the path for European Muslims to allow them less closeted expressions of their faith-based culture. Otherwise an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy may be launched in the efforts of European states to stifle Islam from their societies: The isolated pockets of repressed Muslims produced by such a campaign are breeding grounds for Islamism and fundamentalist Islam. What might a “widening” of the playing field for Muslim immigrants look like? For one, governments could begin to lump Islam into a different category, giving it the tax breaks and concessions directed to other religions, as well as working with Muslims to plan the building of new mosques. As human rights duty-bearer, the state has the responsibility to respect its citizens’ religious beliefs, to protect its citizens’ human right to hold religious beliefs, and to help its citizens fulfill their religious obligations to the fullest extent possible (as long as other citizens’ rights are not impinged upon).

“Most Muslims,” asserts an editorial in The Economist, “will integrate successfully into western societies, especially if commonsense policies like language-teaching, job-creation schemes and anti-discrimination programmes are promoted” (2002a). This simplistic formula for integration fails to take into account the complex, emotional negotiations of identity which take place underneath the technical integration process. “Speaking the language and having contacts with Germans is more important than feeling German,” says Ruud Koopmans of the Social Science Research Centre in Berlin (The Economist, 2010). The pragmatism of this statement betrays an inadequate understanding of the immigrant’s humanity.

After all the fuss, Islam is only “a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis,” posits Roy (2007, p. xiii). The waning of monolithic secularism in Europe is being spurred by the end of modernity in the postindustrial developed nations. Post modernity has become the natural successor, providing a discourse founded on plurality which explains overlapping identities in European citizenship and culture. It is in this multifaceted context that spiritual belief and religious commitment are beginning to reenter civil society as valid partners in discourse.

Religion and the state will not soon reconcile away from the oil-and-water relationship prescribed by the various forms of secularism throughout Europe, but the societal relevance of religion is cautiously being revived (Ziebertz & Riegel, 2009).  Postsecularity acknowledges that a causal relationship exists between religion and societal norms and morals, which in turn have social and political implications.  Because postsecularity exists in tandem with postmodernity (which rejects the existence of objective truth), religious convictions and claims on truth in the public sphere are presented through discussion and reasoning, not imposition or obligation (Casanova, 2003). Religion and the state remain structurally separated, but the postsecular society provides a forum for which true tolerance—the freedom to openly display and articulate religious beliefs with respect and without fear of censure—plays moderator.  This paradigm has the potential to infuse new perspective into “the immigration issue” in Europe, neutralizing the charged integration debate by allowing Muslim immigrants to cultivate a European identity while maintaining integrity in their expression of religious cultural identity.

The acknowledgement of this amalgamation of overlapping, coexisting identities may be able to steer integration policy forward through the current multiculturalism-assimilationism deadlock. In the nexus between postmodernity and postsecularism is a dignity-restoring integration paradigm worthy of the 21st century. At the core of this paradigm is an invitation extended to Muslim Europeans to step out of the closet.  “Second-generation rights” have in the past been more aptly treated as second-class rights. The new atmosphere of openness slowly growing with postsecularism offers a glimpse of a new era, in which the right to religion is finally a viable, claimable right within European society.


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[1] Countries where a majority of the population is Muslim. Please note the difference between Muslim countries and Islamic countries, which are states governed under Islamic law.

[2] The theory posited by Rostow in The Stages of Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960)  that all industrializing countries pass through five consecutive stages of development, the pinnacle of which is mass consumption.

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