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Religion in the New Europe

Krzysztof Michalski

Is Islam a Threat to Europe’s Multicultural Democracies?1

Bhikhu Parekh

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  • 1 Some parts of this article were first delivered as a lecture at a joint meeting of the Centers for (...)

1Many people in Europe think that Islam is inherently incompatible with multicultural democracy, and that it poses a long-term threat to Europe. They point to the obvious fact that very few Muslim societies are democratic, and conclude that the reasons for this must lie in the inherently undemocratic character of Islam. They also point to the Muslim rhetoric that is suffused with hatred of the West and of modernity itself, and conclude that Muslims cannot be good citizens of Western democracies. In this paper I question this view. To avoid abstract generalizations and shallow sweeping remarks that characterize much of the debate on this subject, I shall closely examine the concrete case of Britain. Since Britain is typical of much of Europe both in its democratic culture and its Muslim population, the conclusions I arrive at in relation to it broadly hold true for the rest of Europe as well.

Islam and democracy

2To start with some basic facts. According to the census of 2001, Britain has around 1 6 million Muslims in a population of just under 58 7 millions—that is, just under 3 per cent of its population. The 2001 census is not entirely reliable because the question was voluntary, and as many as 4.4 million people refused to answer.

3Nearly 400,000 respondents even called themselves Jedis after the fictitious faith in the Star War films! Around three quarters of Muslims come from the Indian subcontinent, mainly from the rural areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is important because some of their difficulties in settlement, as well as some of their demands, arise not from their religion, but from their unfamiliarity with the modern Western way of life. They began arriving in the early 1960s, initially the males and later their wives and children. By the early 1990s, the migration was complete.

4The Muslim population is relatively young. Under two per cent are over 65, and almost sixty per cent are under 25, compared respectively to ten and thirty-two percent in the population at large. There have been four Muslim riots so far, compared to about eight racerelated riots by the Afro-Caribbeans. One of them concerned Rushdie’s Satanic Verses; others police insensitivity and racist marches. With the qualified exception of the first, all riots were local, relatively minor, and lasted barely a day or two. Muslims thus have so far presented no major problems of law and order to British democracy.

5What other challenges have Muslims presented to British democracy? For convenience, I shall divide them into three, namely those arising out of their social and cultural practices, moral values, and the nature and demands of citizenship.

Clash of practices: Some examples and British responses

6(1) Halal meat in schools for Muslim children. This is freely available.

7(2) Muslim method of slaughtering animals. Despite some resistance from the white population, it is allowed.

8(3) Muslim dress at work. After some resistance, this has been allowed.

9(4) Time-off for prayer from work. This is allowed subject to certain constraints.

10(5) Female circumcision. It mainly involves a small group of North African Muslims and has been banned with little Muslim resistance.

11(6) Polygamy. It has been banned since the 1980s with some but not much continuing Muslim unease. Those who had arrived before the ban were allowed to honor their polygamous obligations.

12(7) Arranged marriages. They are allowed provided that they are not forced or entered into under duress.

13(8) Publicly funded religious schools. Christian and Jewish schools have long been funded, but Muslim schools were not. Public funding has been extended to Muslim schools since 1998. There are 5 such schools. 75 Muslim schools are independent and fee-paying, and need and merit no public funding.

14(9) Withdrawal of children from schools for long visits to homeland. This is strongly discouraged and most Muslims are happy to comply.

15(10) Girls wearing hijab in schools. This is allowed. The fact that local authorities rather than the central government or schools decided policies in such matters has helped.

Clash of values

16Equality, freedom of expression, tolerance, peaceful resolution of differences, and respect for majority decision are by common consent some of the basic democratic values. By and large Muslims have shown considerable respect for them.

17(1) Equality of races is an important Muslim value and practice. Equality of the sexes poses difficulties. British Muslims have never objected to women enjoying equal civil and political rights with men. Muslim women are not prevented or discouraged from voting in elections, though the percentage is lower than in the case of men. Just under a fifth of Muslim local councilors are women, and one out of four Muslim members of the House of Lords is a woman. There have so far been no Muslim women parliamentary candidates, and naturally no Muslim Member of Parliament. Muslim organizations also tend to be dominated by men.

18Muslim girls go on to complete their school education, and do better than Muslim boys. A fairly large percentage of them go on to university, though it is lower than in the case of Muslim boys. They are discouraged from pursuing certain careers, but that is changing. Girls enjoy less social freedom, but they are rebelling against this, often citing the authority of the Koran against the conventional practice of patriarchy. Young girls demanding greater personal freedom are sometimes subjected to domestic and communal violence, of which there are about forty cases each year. The struggle for gender equality is fought out in many families, and as of now one cannot confidently say that it has become an accepted norm among Muslims. Girls rebelling against gender inequality often pit the authority of the Koran against that of the tradition. In order to do that, they need to study the Koran and attend religious classes in mosques. Outsiders mistake this as surrender to orthodoxy, and overlook its critical intentions.

19(2) Freedom of speech. Muslims value it, but do not privilege it as much as the liberals do, and would like it to be restricted when religion is involved. The Rushdie affair was a good example of this. Muslims wanted The Satanic Verses, or at least its paperback edition, to be banned. When the government proved uncompromising, they gave in, but continued to complain. It would be interesting to see what their reaction would be if a similar book were to be published today.

20(3) Muslims are sometimes discriminated against in employment. They want religious discrimination to be banned along the same lines as racial and sex discrimination. Many British liberals are sympathetic to this idea. The proposal was long resisted by successive governments. It is now conceded in response to the European directive, which prohibits discrimination on religious grounds.

21(4) Tolerance. British Muslims have by and large been tolerant both of internal dissent and of those practices of the wider society that they disapprove of. They have protested vigorously when they or their religion were attacked or misrepresented in the media or by political leaders, but they have done so peacefully. Some years ago when pimps, prostitutes and drug peddlers were operating in some Muslim areas, local residents drove them away and formed vigilante groups. Their attempts to reclaim their social space were peaceful, and were viewed sympathetically by much of the wider society.

22(5) Peaceful resolutions of differences. Muslims relied on persuasion, political pressure and peaceful protests to press the demands listed above and avoided violence, with the exception of the four riots mentioned earlier. During these riots, the older generation of Muslims did much to restrain the angry youth.

23(6) Respect for majority decision. Despite some unease, almost all Muslims accepted the ban on polygamy and female circumcision. Although they were for years unjustly denied public funding for their schools, and were unfairly discriminated against in employment and other areas, they never once resorted to violence. Even the violence surrounding the Rushdie affair was preceded by weeks of petitions, public appeals and peaceful protests.

Demands of citizenship

24In a democratic society citizens are expected to cultivate certain basic virtues, which form the core of democratic culture and without which democratic institutions lose their vitality. I shall take each of them and examine Muslim attitude to it.

25(1) Loyalty to the state. After some theological debate about Muslim obligations to a non-Muslim state, British Muslims have widely accepted that they owe unreserved loyalty to it. However, there is some ambiguity about what they should do when the claims of the state clash with those of the umma or the worldwide community of Islam. Four recent cases well illustrate this. Muslims objected to the war against Iraq in 1991, but did not mount public protests. The government of the day urged the country to respect their ‘understandable sympathies for their fellow-religionists,’ and the likely tensions were avoided. A very small number of young Muslims fought with the Taliban. They were condemned by a vast majority of their fellow-Muslims, who insisted that loyalty to Britain came first. The Imam of Finsbury Park mosque, who was preaching hatred of the West and urging support for Muslim terrorists, had long been tolerated. However, when the mosque was recently suspected of becoming a terrorist cell, it was raided and the police confiscated the weapons. Most Muslims approved of this. Finally, some Muslims refuse to join the armed forces in case they have to fight other Muslims. The potential conflict of loyalties has so far provoked no serious debate, because the number is small and the recruitment to the armed forces is voluntary.

26(2) Participation in public affairs. Muslims do so willingly. The percentage of those voting in local and national elections is not much different from that in the society at large. There are 150 local councilors and eight mayors, slightly smaller than other ethnic minorities but not alarmingly so. There are 4 Muslims in the House of Lords and 3 in the House of Commons, which is larger than for some other ethnic minorities.

27(3) Respect for parliamentary institutions. There is no open Muslim challenge to them, nor any attempt to denigrate or deny their legitimacy; in fact, the opposite is the case. A few years ago a Muslim parliament was set up to discuss issues of common concern to Muslims. It provoked some criticisms from moderate Muslims, and even greater criticism from the British society at large, which saw it as an attempt to challenge and set up a rival authority to that of the British parliament. The Muslim parliament soon became defunct, largely because of a mixture of Muslim hostility, indifference and factionalism.

28(4) Commitment to the country and a measure of pride in it. There is enough evidence, based on public opinion surveys, that most Muslims are proud to belong to Britain, and are committed to its stability and well-being. They appreciate the liberties and rights it gives them as well as its commitment to equality and justice, and are prepared to defend them. Common belonging is reciprocal in nature, and requires that both the wider British society and its Muslim members should see each other as part of a single community. Despite some hostility to and suspicion of Muslims, most white Britons accept them as rightful fellow-citizens whose well-being matters to them.

29(5) Sharing British national identity. In formal and informal ways, Islam is being increasingly interpreted in a manner that brings it closer to the central values of British democracy. Indeed, a distinctively British brand of Islam is beginning to emerge, just as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain are throwing up their own forms of Islam. The British form of Islam obviously clashes with some aspects of the Islam that the immigrants initially brought with them. Muslim media and mosques wrestle with these conflicts, and most Muslims favor a democratic reading of Islam.

30There are signs that a sizeable body of Muslim youth, almost a third according to some estimates, is increasingly turning into a kind of underclass. They do badly in schools, and are either unemployed or work in poorly paid jobs. Many of them are involved in drug trafficking, prostitution, gang warfare and other criminal activities. They are alienated from both their parental and the wider British culture, nurture a sense of victimhood, and hold anarchic and even antinomian values. As yet, however, they have shown no signs of rebelling against British democratic institutions. If not handled with sensitivity and wisdom, they could provide a readily mobilizable pool of discontent.

31British Muslims then respect and imbibe democratic values. What is true of Britain is equally true of other European countries, in all of which Muslims have shown respect for democracy and in none of which there is a history of antidemocratic protests and riots. Even the theocratic and initially popular Iranian revolution of 1979 made no dent on the European Muslims’ commitment to democracy. And the widely unpopular recant of war on Iraq did not lead to Muslim violence. They could have mounted noisy protests, sabotaged the war effort, fought with the Iraqis, or done any of the things that disaffected groups generally do. The fact that they did not do any of these things speaks volumes. It is also worth noting that nearly a third of the Muslims supported the war for several reasons. They thought Saddam Hussein a disgrace to Islam, they were keen to shake up Muslim societies and make them democratic, and some of them did not like either his anti-Shia attitudes or his suppression of religion.

32I have argued that by and large the vast majority of British and European Muslims have adjusted to democracy and pose no threat to it. Many people find this puzzling. They think that since the vast majority of Muslim societies are undemocratic, having either known no democracy at all or rejected it after a brief experiment, there is or must be a deeper incompatibility between Islam and democracy, and that the Muslim presence in the West must therefore one day pose a serious challenge to its democratic institutions. Their reasoning is deeply flawed. First, it ignores those countries, albeit very few, where democracy has been tried with at least some success: for example, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, for half of its political existence.

33Secondly, the fact that most Muslim societies are undemocratic does not mean that the blame lies with Islam. It might be one factor, but there are also others, such as their inegalitarian and in some cases feudal social structures, corrupt rulers, colonialism, a long history of external interference, and the failure to find an adequate place for religion in public life.

34Religion does not operate in a vacuum and its influence is mediated by that of many other factors. Hindus, who were told that their hierarchical religion and caste system ruled out democracy, have sustained it for over half a century in India. Jews faced a similar criticism, yet Israel is a vibrant democracy in spite of its discriminatory treatment of its Arab citizens. And the Christians, who now claim to be the natural friends of democracy, were for centuries hostile to it. None of the Christian fathers thought much of democracy, not even the great Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic Church has for centuries supported anti-democratic movements and regimes in Europe, Latin America and many other parts of the world. Christian approval of democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon, and a result of centuries of conflict.

35No religion is inherently incompatible with any form of economic and political institutions. Human beings want to live and flourish, and when their vital interests so require, they cut theological corners, reinterpret sacred texts, and make God do their bidding while claiming to do His. This is not to say that they can do anything they like in the name of religion, or that all religions are equally hospitable to all forms of economic and political structures. Religions do have certain structures of beliefs and practices that limit the available range of hermeneutic possibilities. However the range is relatively elastic; beliefs and practices require interpretation, which is inevitably shaped by human interests and the society’s cultural ethos; no religion that wishes to enjoy popular support can afford to go against vital human interests and aspirations.

36Thirdly, the fact that Muslim societies have not themselves developed stable democratic institutions does not mean that Muslims cannot live under them, because the reasons in each case are quite different. When Muslims find themselves living under democracies, they have several good reasons to adjust to them. Political survival is one; the opportunities offered by a democracy to pursue their legitimate interests and even to protest is another; the educational impact of the schools, work places, and the ethos of the wider society is yet another; and one should not underestimate the power of the media either. Many developing countries have failed to create the modern capitalist economy, but that has never prevented their diasporic members from adjusting to and flourishing in the capitalist West.

37Fourthly and finally, the way in which a group behaves when it is in a majority is often quite different from the way it behaves when a minority. Many diasporic Hindus in the West want a Hindu state in India, but vehemently protest when any of the Western societies shows the slightest sign of favoring a particular religion and compromising its secular character. This is even truer of Muslims because of their distinction between dar-al-Islam and dar-al harb and their tendency to establish a close relationship between religion and the state. When they are in a majority, they are subject to the strong temptation to press for an Islamic state with all its undemocratic potential. When they are in a minority, that option is no longer available to them, and there is no theological basis for it either. Their main concern is to secure and enjoy the freedom to practice their religion and to lead the life of their choice. Democracy allows this, and they have therefore a strong pragmatic and even a moral reason to be loyal to it.

Islam and multiculturalism

38Although Muslims do not have much of a problem living in a democracy, they do have some difficulty coping with a multicultural society. Far more than the followers of any other religion, Muslims are convinced of the absolute superiority of Islam. The Koran is believed to be unique in being the literal, direct and unmediated word of God. It claims to represent the final and definitive revelation of God, superseding all other religions including Judaism and Christianity.

39Hinduism is dismissed as idolatrous, and not really a religion at all. Religions of the book do deserve respect, but they are believed to be inferior and more like early versions of Islam. It is true that Islam reveres the prophets of Judaism and Christianity and accepts both as worthy religions. However it sees itself as embodying all that is true in them and going beyond them. The remarkable military successes of early and medieval Islam gave it a triumphalist air, and confirmed in the eyes of its adherents their belief in its absolute superiority. Unlike almost any other religion, Islam sees itself as one that is destined to rule and dominate the world. This is a stark contrast to Christianity, which is in its initial inspiration, though not in its historical practice, a religion of the poor, the weak and the dispossessed.

40This spirit of Islamic superiority is reflected in many of its beliefs and practices. The current constant invocation of its past glory and the desperate desire to revive it is one obvious example of it. Muslims are supposed to have a positive duty to convert the followers of other religions, but they are not themselves free to convert to another. That is seen as apostasy and treason, meriting severest punishment in this world and the next. Most Muslims are anxious that others should learn about their religion and appreciate its great insights, but they have themselves little or only limited interest in other religions. They may marry non-Muslim girls, but do not allow others to marry theirs, and expect those marrying within Islam to convert to it. Much of this cannot be attributed to the current Muslim feeling of siege or fear of loss of identity. Even in the self-confident Ottoman Empire where Jews and Christians enjoyed considerable tolerance, they were treated as second-class citizens. And while they were free to convert to Islam, they were strictly forbidden to convert Muslims or to marry their women.

41Thanks to all this, Muslim attitude to multicultural society is one-sided. They welcome it largely because it gives them the freedom to retain their religious identity and to familiarize others with their beliefs, practices and history. However, they also resent it because it puts them on a par with other religions and cultures, denies their absolute superiority, and exposes them and their children to other religions and secular cultures.

42This has two important consequences. Firstly, Muslims tend to take a largely pragmatic view of multicultural democracy, to be welcomed only because it gives them the desired autonomy. It has for many of them neither an intrinsic cultural or moral significance nor a theological basis. Secondly, they tend to take a narrow and static view of multiculturalism. For many of them, it means not a vibrant and creative interplay of different cultures and religions under conditions of equality, but either a multicultural dialogue on Islamic terms or a compartmentalized social universe in which different religions and cultures live out their ghettoized existence.

43British Islam is no doubt changing, and is now more open than before to a genuine interreligious and intercultural dialogue. However, it still has a long way to go before it can enthusiastically participate in the creative tensions and controversies of a multicultural society in a spirit of curiosity, humility and open-mindedness. As the Muslims reap the benefits of multicultural societies, and their youth absorbs Western liberal culture, their attitudes to multicultural society are likely to become positive. Over time Western Muslims should not only become as good democratic citizens as the rest of the population, but should also feel fully at home in multicultural societies. As this happens, it will most certainly have a profound impact on the rest of the Muslim world, and should hopefully initiate a movement for multicultural democracies there.

Need for better understanding

44Islam has long been an important part of Europe and has shaped its cultural identity. Europe too has been a significant presence in Muslim societies, and has shaped their identity as well. Each has been the other’s other, its cultural interlocutor. Their sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile relations have bonded them far more deeply than they realize or acknowledge. With the exception of Spain and parts of Eastern Europe, they have hitherto interacted at a distance and outside the boundaries of Europe. They now need to find new ways of cultivating civic amity within the very heart of Europe. I have shown why there are strong reasons for optimism.


1 Some parts of this article were first delivered as a lecture at a joint meeting of the Centers for European Studies and Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University. I am most grateful to Professors Nathan Glazer, Nancy Rosenblum, Glyn Morgan and Jocelyn Cesari for their helpful comments.


Lord Bhikhu Parekh is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Westminster and President of the Academy of Learned Societies in Social Sciences. He is a Labour member of the House of Lords and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of several books in political philosophy, his latest being Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, Harvard University Press and Macmillan, 2000.

© Central European University Press, 2006

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