Resilient Islam: Muslim Controversies in Europe

By Statham, Paul | Harvard International Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Resilient Islam: Muslim Controversies in Europe

Statham, Paul, Harvard International Review

Recently, public policy debates over the political accommodation of ethnic minorities of migrant origin in Europe have focused on Muslims. The real or perceived difficulties Muslims face in adapting to the Western societies in which they have chosen to settle is an electoral issue for radical right populist parties, including the Front National in France, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, the Vlaams Blok in Belgium, and the Det Konservative Folkepartei in Denmark. There has been a shift from multicultural towards more civic integrationist governmental policies in Britain, and also in the Netherlands, which had previously gone furthest towards transforming multicultural principles into policies. In Britain, US-style citizenship rituals now allow migrants to express their allegiance when becoming naturalized Britons, while, as of July 2004, Dutch migrants will only receive funding for education in Dutch, not in their native language. In addition, the real threat of terrorist atrocities by Islamic extremists in European cities after the March 2004 bombings in Madrid has made a fresh negative impact on the public imagination regarding Muslim migrants and their descendants on European soil. At the same time, attempts by Muslim organizations to condemn terrorism ring hollow against the speeches of a small minority of extremist Islamic clerics.


Even before September 11, 2001, the position of Muslims in European societies was already a key reference point for scholars and commentators in fiercely contested debates about the consequences of multiculturalism. At stake in these controversies is the state's capacity for maintaining social cohesion as well as the liberal conception of individual rights on which it rests. Problems arise from the increasing demands that migrants put forward for special group rights and recognition, exemptions from duties, and support from the state for cultural differences and identities. Public controversies have raged in response to Muslims' cultural demands, which sometimes appear to challenge the very essence of liberal values. One high-profile case involved the British Muslims' demand that Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses be banned for blasphemy, in which Muslims took to the streets to burn effigies of Rushdie as well as copies of his book. The "headscarf affairs"--conflicts over the wearing of religious symbols in state institutions--have rumbled on across Europe, principally in France, since 1988, when a headmaster first sent headscarf-wearing Muslim girls home from school. In addition, there have also been problems associated with cultural practices of Muslims. Some issues, such as food requirements, have been easily accommodated, as they were in previous generations for Jewish migrants. Others, such as polygamy and female circumcision, quite clearly contravene most liberal moral understandings of individual and gender equality. Much depends on the extent to which Muslims wish to practice such cultural traditions. Nonetheless, in light of such issues, which have received many column inches on opinion pages, the presence of Muslims has often been depicted by politicians and commentators as a challenge to the norms, values, and principles of liberal democracy.

From the European experience, it appears that Islam has been particularly resilient to political adaptation, maintaining a seemingly difficult relationship with liberal democratic states. The role of religion in politics has not been sufficiently taken into consideration as an explanatory factor by public and academic understandings of this topic, both with respect to the political accommodation of religion by the state and with respect to religion as a form of identification and belief that shapes political behavior.

Religion Matters

In social science, there is an overriding tendency to be blind to the role of institutional religions and religious belief. This unacknowledged built-in bias has often led sociologists to see religious identification as some backward or reactionary form of "false consciousness" simply masking objectives and interests that are actually secular in nature. …

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