Ein Vortrag in Budapest an der Central European University (Workshop „Liberalism after Neoliberalism), 6. Juni 2008
“We cannot excuse hostility against any religion under the pretense of liberalism“.
These words of President Obama – spoken in Cairo two days ago lead right to the center of my daily struggle. As a journalist and a blogger, I cover issues like immigration, integration, Islam in Europe, terrorism, xenophobia, islamophobia and occidentalism – the hatred of the West.
My daily bread is hostility towards religion – mostly Islam – under the pretense of liberalism. And at the same time: hostility towards the western liberal order under the pretense of religion.
We have to face both sides of the equation.
This is one of the most threatening tensions in our societies in Europe these days: the need to reconcile the secularist liberal order of postwar european countries with the advent of a new religion on the continent.
A mutual stress is felt all over Europe: accommodating Islam as a part of our social fabric and our legal framework brings out fears about the sustainability of our (widely varying) models of secularism on the part of the majorities.
And on the part of the newcomers who have decided to stay for good, it stirs fears about loss of identity and “assimilation”.
Many are trying to capitalize on this situation, and politically, it seems to be quite promising business in some european countries – among them the small ones that pride themselves to be especially liberal like Denmark and the Netherlands (an interesting fact that might deserve some discussion).
The dutch populist Geert Wilders – famous for denouncing the Quran as “Mein Kampf” for our days, just finished first in the European elections if we can believe the exit polls. He claims to be a liberal, in fact the last liberal left standing on the Continent.
His main point is the danger the immigrants of muslim origin pose for the liberal order of postwar Europe. He is very vocal in denouncing the “appeasement” of the well-established political forces in the Netherlands and beyond towards the Muslim’s illiberal lifestyle. Headscarves, forced marriages, genital mutilation against girls are the well known symbols for the perceived threat of islamization. Take the demographic changes within our societies into account, and “Eurabia” is dawning.
Of course there is reason to worry: Many immigrants are lagging behind in schools, they are isolating themselves in their communities instead of intermarrying and mingling, they are failing in the labour market and so on. And there are disturbing pockets of islamist radicalism in all European countries. The attacks of 9/11 were prepared in Hamburg. In Germany, would be-terrorists gathered in a place called “Multikulturhaus” – as if to mock the German approach to multiculturalism.
But this is actually not what drives people to support someone like Wilders. The emotional core of the anti-muslim-immigrant populist surge in Europe is the perceived threat of a liberal lifestyle by a wave of immigration and demographic change. This is why mosque-bulding projects in European cities are sure to draw such controversy.
And this is not a completely irrational fear. The question boils down to the subtitle of a very lucid book on the issue (Caldwells “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe”): Can Europe be the same with different people in it?
It is no longer just a debate between minority and majority, insiders and outsiders, migrants and natural born Europeans. Many of the most vocal critics of the consequences of muslim migration to Europe are themselves immigrants: Turkish, Iranian, Somali or Arab feminists for example, who have fled their home countries to Europe because of the lack of basic freedoms and who now face the undermining of those very freedoms by their own compatriots and coreligionists.
In Germany we have not just imported guest workers and their offspring – we have also imported the Turkish debates about secularism, religion and the nature of the modern state. Kemalists and Islamists slug the old battle for Atatürk’s heritage out in Berlin, Bonn, Cologne and Munich.
It is sometimes very hard to tell who are the true liberals in this fight: Those who say they want to preserve the liberal achievements of modernity often resort to authoritarian means. (Take for example the well known Dutch critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She wrote a comment about Turkey’s AKP government last year in which she sided with the Generals against the elected turkish government.)
Christopher Caldwell borrowed his title obviously from Edmund Burke’s 1790 book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Is he overstating his case by using the term revolution?
Hardly. There are major changes going on – in terms of demographics, culture and domestic as well as foreign policies of the European countries – and many of them relate to immigration.
And the most contentious thing about this situation is this: Religion is back to haunt the European public as a political challenge. Some of our most lively debates during the last years were about headscarfs in public schools and courtrooms, cartoons making fun of religious sensitivities, mosque-building-projects and so on. It would be an understatement to say that the Europeans have been taken by surprise.
There is widespread anger, shock and resentment about the fact that the issue of religion in the public sphere is on the table once again. Had we not settled these problems once and for all? Religious belief was a private matter, we thought. Less and less people cared about religion anyhow, attended sunday service or listened to what the pope had to say. But with the Muslims there is a new and increasingly vocal group of pious people that wants to be taken serious, wants to find a place in the framework of church-state-relations – or maybe even challenge that very framework.
There is an analogy between Evangelicals in the US and muslims in Europe: Both groups stand for the unresolved in the relation between religion and secular society. Both groups remind the majorities in the US and in Europe that our societies are not as secular as we tend to think they are.
Europeans tend to hide their religious affiliation. We tend to play our religion down. A good european is either non-religious or he does not make a public stance of it. In America, there is a completely different attitude: American pollsters know that people here tend to exaggerate how often they attend sunday service. Why? Because being a believer makes you more trustworthy for your neighbor, not less, as is the case in Europe. That makes it much easier for people of all kinds of faith to blend in. Religion in America is generally regarded as an integrating factor, whereas in Europe religion out in the open (especially if it is not conform with the official majority religion) tends to be seen as a factor for disintegration. This of course is based not only on secularist ideology, but on a bloody historical experience with religious strife in Europe. But: From this general outlook, a group of immigrants defined by their religion is a frightening thing in itself. Underlying this fear is a dubious concept though – the „European Muslim Community“. I will say some words about it later.
European political parties have only just begun to see muslim immigrants and their children as an interesting constituency. This of course relates to the fact that growing numbers of immigrants have become citizens of the European countries, and have begun to take part in elections.
But it is not just that. In our debate about immigration and integration in Germany, a new consensus has formed. Across the political spectrum, citizenship and democratic participation are embraced more and more as means of integration. This is quite remarkable if you consider the anti-immigrant stance that German conservatives took for decades. But since they are in power in the Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats, they created a high ranking office for integration in the federal chancellery. They also created a task force to hold an „Islam Summit“ and an „Integration Conference“. And last not least they have begun to open the highest ranks of the party to people with strange sounding names. Emine Demirbüken-Wegner, born in Turkey, educated in Germany, married to a German conservative politician, is the first woman of turkish origin to be elected a member of the federal leadership council of the CDU.
There is a handful of muslim MPs in the Bundestag, which is not enough, for sure. But you can expect to see more representation after this fall’s federal election. Things are moving slowly in the right direction. And Germany – this may come as a surprise – is the most progressive country in Europe in these matters. We do not have a relevant right-wing anti-immigrant movement like many other European countries – just think of Italy’s Lega Nord, Austria’s FPÖ, France’s Front National, the Folkeparti in Denmark and so on.
Both major parties basically share the vision of integrating muslims by dragging them into the political process and into the framework of our church-state-relations. I am not saying that this consensus cannot be shattered – by a major terrorist attack for instance. But you have to admit that we have come a long way in the last ten years.
So much for the good news. We have to step back a little to see the possibility for a backlash that may be hidden in the progress that I just described.
And this possibility is incorporated in the very concept of „European Muslims“. Another writer friend of mine, the arab journalist Hazem Saghieh – the editor of the Beirut based arab daily Al-Hayat – put it this way:
European countries are all worrying about their Muslim populations, but there is one reality they have failed to grasp: that they have played a part in creating the problem, in the form of “Muslim communities”, in the first place. The immigrants and their descendants who fall under this designation may have arrived as Pakistanis, Turks, Moroccans, Algerians, or Iraqis; it was only after they settled in the west that they were transformed into “Muslim communities”. Such communities are, to a certain extent, a “virtual reality” that exists above all in the minds of western politicians, “experts” and journalists – and, of course, in the minds of their supposed and self-appointed “spokesmen”.
What Hazem describes here is an often overlooked effect of our debates on immigration and integration. Let me give you an example There are Iranians living in Germany for decades who are staunch secularists. Som came as enemies of the Mullah-regime, they had to flee Iran after Khomeini’s revolution. But when they are invited to speak on tv about the Iranian situation or the fate of Iranians in Germany, they will be presented as „moderate muslim voices“.
This is so strange: I doubt that most of them have seen the inside of a mosque since their thirteenth birthday (if ever). Nevertheless, they will not protest – knowing that, if they were not speaking under the label „muslim“ – nobody would care to listen. And so it goes for all immigrants from muslim-majority-countries in Europe: wether Kurds or Turks, Sunni or Shia, Alevi or simply secular, Pakistani or Morrocan – in Europe they are quite simply seen as „members of the Muslim community“. This is a highly problematic concept: it overrides all the interesting cultural, ethnic, religious and political distinctions between the dozens of different communities that make up European muslims. And it forces even staunch atheists to pose as „moderate Muslims“ or “Ex-Muslims” if they want to be heard.
This sweeping generalisation plays into the hands of those groups who thrive on the idea of a separatist muslim identity overruling all other affiliations – like the muslim brotherhood and its many offsprings.
So in fact European societies are producing more and more Muslims day by day by adopting this approach to their immigrant problem.
Take the German situation: It has become common sense that there are „3 million muslims“ in Germany. How do we actually know this? There has not been a census in decades, so we cannot rely on statistical data. The German authorities – for lack of real data – just lumped together all the estimates about immigrants from muslim majority countries and their children and grandchildren, and these numbers add up to about 3 million people we now call „muslims“. That does not mean they attend friday prayers or even the occasional mosque, or eat halal food. We do know next to nothing reliable about their habits and beliefs. The various muslim organisations in Germany count only about an estimated 150.000 members. (Again, there are no official numbers.) You can imagine why their chairpersons nevertheless would like to be considered the legitimate voices of 3 million muslims. But most of the so-called muslims have never heard of these self-proclaimed spokespersons.
This is what my friend Hazem, a secularist intellectual with Lebanese roots, alludes to, when he writes:
Thus we arrive at the paradox that secular countries may have “invented”, or at least helped to foment, religious sects in their midst. They have done so through a form of blindness resulting from an essentialist view of the other. Even where they avoid this view at an earlier stage, it can affect their understanding later – for in battling against perceived dangers from ideological enemies in the Muslim world, these countries may also inadvertently adopt some aspects of their foes’ worldview, and then apply these selfsame assumptions to their own Muslim citizens.
Which is to say: In declaring the approximately 3 million immigrants from Muslim majority countries in Germany, France’s 4 million, Englands 2 million to be simply European Muslims – we are absolutely in tune with the most conservative Muftis and Ayatollahs of the Middle East.
They would obviously love to get a spiritual and political hold on those who left their countries to live in the West. They would like to control the way the Muslims live in Europe, they would love to guide them by way of fatwas and sermons in an unchartered territory. This is definitely not in our interest as European societies. And it is also not in the best interest of the faithful themselves, because they need spiritual guidance from Imams and Hodschas and Muftis who are grounded in the daily life of European cities, not out-of-touch-preachers way back in the old country.
The prominence of the „muslim issue“ in European political debates is at least in part due to the failure of our societies to include these immigrants under an overarching national identity that is at the same time inclusive, strong and tolerant vis à vis cultural and religious differences. The blame for this situation does not only go to one side of the equation. But still: The weakness and the narrowness of European national identities accounts for much of the problem. And here lies a dangerous possibility: An artificial European Muslim identity could become increasingly attractive for those immigrants who are not able to see themselves quite simply as German, French, British, or Danish muslims.
So: Am I saying that there is no such thing as a muslim community – just like Margaret Thatcher quipped „there is no such thing as a society“? No, but it is something rather hard to grip. The European muslim comunity is very diverse, and it is in a state of transformation. Into what shape it will morph, depends largely on the attitude of the non-muslim environment.
A state of transformation for the Muslims of Europe means:
– they will have to face their own diversity and find a way of coping with it (intra-muslim-community-tolerance); there are no viable models for this back home (just think of Sunni-Shia-bloodshed in Iraq)
– their leaders will have to make a decision about their future role: will they be advocates of the rights and needs of a religious group among others? Will they focus on the spiritual and mundane needs of this group here and now? Or will they continue to operate as a bridge to „the old country“, its mores and customs, and its religious authorities?
– they will have to develop something for which there is no precedent – a muslim worldview, complete with a theology and a jurisprudence, for a situation of permanent minority status. Muslims never saw the need to adapt to such a situation (minority status for Muslims was always going to be transitory), although they have a rich history of thinking about other faiths as minorities. It is their greatest challenge for the years to come.
These are some crucial requirements for the european majorities for the next years:
– Europe must change its attitude towards religion in the public sphere
In Europe, enlightenment, modernity, pluralism, democratic freedoms have been achieved in fighting back the grip of the church on public life.
In America, churches were part of the struggle for these very values. The freedom of religious worship is one of the core freedoms. Europeans sometimes have a hard time to see this. They are quick to give it up when confronted with a form of religious belief that is not mainstream – meaning middle-of-the-road-christianity. This shows in many of the controversies about the headscarf or mosque- projects in European cities.
– Europeans will have to live with more religious diversity. Either we will find a way to open the system of state churches and quasi state churches to other religions, or we will have to disestablish the churches and adopt radical secularism (which is not a very likely solution).
– Is see a three-step-program ahead of us:
1) isolate the fanatics and be wary of those who want to islamicize public space by imposing their restrictions on everybody
2) accept nothing but full loyalty to the constitution (no room for sharia as a separate source of the law)
3) treat the religious beliefs and rituals of Muslims with equal respect – even if – and maybe especially so – if they do not conform to the liberal mainstream of society.
We are not going to see „Eurabia“ – an islamicized Europe that haunts many conservative commentators. But we are also not going to see all Muslims blending into the wider public’s attitude towards gender equality, homosexuality, individualism and moderate dress codes. We might even see a significant group rather stressing the distinctions between Muslims and their environment. They will not be the majority. Even so, Europe has to embrace this as a legitimate expression of religious freedom. And in this respect America has a lot to teach us.
But there are also encouraging examples in Europe. Two days ago I met the Grand Mufti of Bosnia on a panel discussion in Berlin. He was quizzed about the separation of religion and state in islamic law by the audience. He said he was a product of a secular state – communist Jugoslavia – and he not just survived it as a muslim. He came to cherish it.
Dr. Ceric has lots of visitors from the Arab world. They find it hard to understand that his organisation is separated from the state. He tells these visitors that he thinks there are huge benefits from this: I am free to preach whatever I want. No government office interferes with mit “Hutbas” (sermons). “Europe is a good place for Muslims”, I tell these visitors. “Even though 100.000 of us were killed here in the last decades and Europe was standing by.”