Montaigne Centre Blog


Religion is a building block not a stumbling block for the integration of Muslims

integration-1777535_960_720Tom Zwart

Again, as a result of the recent terrorist attack in London, members of the Muslim community are increasingly being portrayed as ‘different’: they are painted as religious fundamentalists who cannot separate politics from religion; who treat women as being inferior to men; and who offer the cold shoulder to LGBT. There are calls for the banning of certain orthodox Muslim religious organisations; the exclusion of religious symbols from public life; the constitutional entrenchment of ‘our values’; and the active ‘integration’ of Muslims into mainstream society. During his 2011 speech before the Munich Security Conference then Prime Minister Cameron called for replacing the passive tolerance of recent years by a much more active, muscular liberalism: “A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them.” 

This kind of rhetoric is no longer limited to fringe anti-immigration parties, but has spilled over into the vocabulary of so-called established parties as well. Muslims are expected to subscribe to ‘our way of life’. In this view, the presumed value gap can only be bridged if minorities relinquish their values and replace them with mainstream ones. The description of the process which should lead to this value transplant is rather sketchy. In the Netherlands integration courses are used to familiarise newcomers with Dutch values. Recently, more emphasis has been put on pledging loyalty to values which supposedly are part of Dutch social institutions.

Being religious may have an impact on one’s values, but it does not per se lead to a rejection of modernity. On the contrary, Muslims in Europe tend to be both religious and modern at the same time. While outside observers may associate Islam with traditional dress and ditto outlook, it turns out that Muslims themselves usually are quite eager to fit in. Research shows that Muslims often are highly motivated to actively take part in society and that their religiosity acts as a driver. These Muslims strive to be good Muslims and good citizens both at the same time. In their view, being a Muslim and an active citizen are perfectly compatible. They do not see any contradiction between the two, because their faith encourages them to take part in society. Consequently, there is strong evidence that Muslims gradually absorb most of the culture of the society in which they live.

The question is whether the ambition to fit into society is also supported by Islam itself. The answer to that question is not a matter of theology, but a matter of law. It depends on the interpretation of Shari’a, the law of Islam. The discussions between Islamic legal scholars on the correct interpretation of Shari’a are similar to – and at least as fascinating as – the discussions on the proper construction of the U.S. Constitution conducted by Supreme Court Justices. Several approaches can be distinguished within Islamic legal scholarship, which provide different answers to the question.

The Salafi school seeks to preserve Islamic law as it stood during the time of the Prophet. On the other end of the spectrum is the liberal approach, which accepts legal tradition but also allows for a modern interpretation relying on human logic. Very interesting are the interpretative schools standing between these two poles. For instance, the Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat doctrine was developed to address the religious needs of Muslim minorities residing in non-Muslim countries, which are different from those of Muslims residing in Islamic countries. This doctrine offers Muslim communities residing in the West some legal leniencies, which allows them to fully take part in social and political life. Another such intermediary school consists of Muslims who were born and bred in Europe. They do not regard Muslim majority countries as a place of origin from which Muslims were exiled into diaspora. To them the question is not so much whether they are allowed to stay in Europe, but with which obligations they should comply.

The most prominent member of this group, Tariq Ramadan, who is a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford, identifies both the Islamic sources and the social, political and cultural context of Europe as elements of the Muslim identity (see for example his book: Western Muslims and the Future of Islam). He makes clear that Muslims should consider themselves full citizens of the states in which they reside and should participate with conscience in the organisational, economic and political affairs of the country without compromising their own values. Although Muslims should practice their religion within their own community, this does not mean that they should isolate themselves from the surrounding society. Muslims should have a genuine feeling of belonging within the European society. He refuses to allow Muslims in non-Muslim societies to see themselves as the perpetual ‘Other’. According to Ramadan, the Shari’a teaches Muslims to integrate everything that is not against an established principle of Islam and to consider it as their own. That is the true universality of Islam: the principle of integrating the good, from wherever it may come, has made it possible for Muslims to settle in almost all the cultures of the countries in which they have established themselves and make these their own, and it should not be different in the West.

Therefore, many Islamic law scholars are offering interpretations of the Shari’a which allow and even encourage Muslims in the West to fully take part in social life. This is a far cry from the political rhetoric which portrays Muslims as religious recluses who are detached from modern society. Religion does not seclude Muslims from society, but actually encourages them to participate in it. Such participation is essential to bring about acculturation, i.e. the two-sided process of mutual adaptation and acceptance between majority and minority.

Interestingly, religion is not the only factor which motivates Muslims to fit in. As part of our ongoing research we are discovering that there are several other cultural resources which encourage Muslims to civically engage. Thus, Muslims who engage in transnational organisations linking them to their countries of origin tend to be better educated, more comfortably established, more secure and better connected. Households and extended families act as support bases for pursuing career opportunities. Kin networks pass on important knowledge and provide a flexible and stable material base for family members who engage in re-skilling.

As far as education is concerned, although Muslim schools are not without their challenges, cultural coherence in education can enhance the self-esteem of the children and may assist them in countering negative stereotypes and discrimination they may face in society at large. Enrolling in such schools provides access to a network of social relations and structures that fosters, rather than fetters, the civic integration of Muslims into society. The idea that Muslims schools marginalises youth inside a religious ghetto is therefore incorrect. In addition, many Muslims actively take part in their community associations, such as sport clubs. Critics argue that these kind of self organisations lead to isolation and ghettoisation. Although it is true that there is such a risk, research shows that these organisations also contribute to the social participation of Muslims. They increase the skills of their members, who can rely on those skills to take part in other organisations, and they tie the Muslim community to the rest of society.

Therefore, for politicians who believe that Muslims should embrace ‘our way of life’ there is good news: they are already doing it. If they would like Muslims to continue along that path, the best way to do so is to allow them to rely on cultural resources such as religion, relations with the country of origin, religious schooling and associations within the community. It goes without saying that these activities enjoy the protection of constitutional and human rights, such as the freedom of movement, the right to family life, the freedom of association, the right to education, and freedom of religion.

This does not take away that young men are committing terrible acts under the banner of Islam. These terrorists are individually accountable for their horrific acts. Engaging in them in the name of Islam is a cynical ploy developed by ISIL to create division and discord between Muslims and their fellow countrymen in Western Europe. The terrorists themselves often are criminals who cloak themselves in Islam to give their acts an ideological twist (see Le Djihad et la Mort by Olivier Roy). Islam is a religion of peace and we should be as sceptic about the claims made by these terrorists as when self-proclaimed pacifists engage in battle or people calling themselves vegetarians delve into a steak.