Tolerance Cannot Be Based on Fear

In order to successfully integrate Muslims, European societies have to demand that they embrace the principle of religious freedom. However, this also entails a strict separation of church and state in Europe, writes Paul Scheffer in his essay

Young Muslims in Germany (photo: dpa)
If we demand that Muslims accept religious freedom, then we have to take this step ourselves. A broad new social consensus can only be based on the separation of church and state, writes Paul Scheffer

​​Relations between the West and the Islamic world have reached an impasse, partly due to our inability to develop a stable relationship between Islam and our own society. Clear-cut decisions must be made on this issue, yet these are only valid if they are based on the principle of equal treatment for all. Nothing fuels mistrust more than the suspicion that one group is judged according to a double standard.

At issue are three key questions. First, to what extent is the separation of church and state, which forms the foundation for religious freedom, actually a reality in Europe?

Second, only when we have achieved this separation can we ask Muslims – since they also claim the right to religious freedom – if they are also prepared to defend this freedom for other religions and non-believers.

Third, we have to ask Muslims if they are willing to grant this freedom, which they demand as a group, to members of their own religious communities.

No religious freedom without secularism

Let's take a closer look at these three questions. Without the separation of church and state there can be no religious freedom. There are many misconceptions surrounding this issue. The separation of church and state not only endeavors to protect the state from inappropriate pressure from the church, but also – and sometimes to an even greater degree – aims to protect the church from intervention by the state.

It is my impression that while embracing this separation, people are too often simply concerned with protecting the state. However, when speaking primarily of Islam, we cannot overemphasize the fact that no obstacles may be thrown in the path of Muslims seeking to freely practice their religion. This principle also protects mosques.

Religion is not a purely private matter

Another misconception is the notion that the separation of church and state means that religion is a purely private matter. The secular principle, however, does not lead to a separation of church and society. Religious organizations and movements are part of democracy. Even in strictly secular France during the period between the two world wars, there were strong Catholic youth movements.

Since we stress the concept of equal treatment, we have to ask ourselves if we are actually living according to this principle in Europe. In many countries there are laws and practices that are hardly compatible with the separation of church and state, for instance, the church tax in Germany, the official status of the Anglican Church in the UK, state subsidized denominational schools in countries like the Netherlands and Germany, and crucifixes that hang in Italian classrooms and court rooms.

If we demand that Muslims accept religious freedom, then we have to take this step ourselves. A broad new social consensus can only be based on the separation of church and state. We need to complete the secularization of our institutions.

In some countries, including Germany, we can observe a tendency to transform the problem of Islamic integration into a dialogue between religions. A large number of Christian Democrats say that "we" – meaning the Christian nations of Europe – have to enter into a dialogue with representatives of Islam.

We welcome all initiatives to promote dialogue, but it is not up to secular authorities to identify themselves with a certain religious affiliation. Their job is to guarantee a basis for religious and ideological pluralism.

The principle of religious freedom

German and Dutch Christian Democrats apparently have serious problems with this. What's worse, these politicians even seem to be receptive to the arguments of certain Muslims who maintain that, due to the Islamic presence in Europe, Christians are increasingly rallying around their religion.

Nevertheless, based on the notion of equal treatment for all religions, we can and should create barriers to separate church and religion. We can only effectively counter political Islamic movements if we practice the principle of religious freedom.

Once we have reached that stage, we can ask Muslims the key question: Does claiming the right to religious freedom not also automatically entail the obligation to defend this freedom for other religions and non-believers? Political Islam is combating this freedom not only with words, but also with threats and violence.

This radical interpretation of Islam did not come into existence in a vacuum. Far too often, Muslims divide the world in two: it is us against them, Muslims against non-Muslims. If religious freedom is used to spread scorn and hatred against non-Muslims, then it undermines the right upon which this very liberty is based. If this continues, sooner or later Muslims will themselves make it impossible to live in a democracy with religious pluralism.

In short, the right to freedom of worship also entails the obligation to defend that freedom for others. If the Muslim community is not willing to accept this, then it stigmatizes and marginalizes itself.

The imam only respects the religious state

A few months ago, I was invited to attend an interfaith discussion panel. As a non-believer, I was allowed to sit next to an imam, a bishop and a rabbi. Every dialogue must be based on a few common principles, and a dialogue among religions obviously requires that everyone accept the principle of religious freedom as a starting point.

But the imam would have nothing of it. While he agreed that Dutch law allows for freedom of worship, he said that in other parts of the world this could be very different, and higher authorities should comment on that issue.

We could take a pragmatic approach to such statements – the imam accepts the principle of religious freedom in the Netherlands – but that would be the path of least resistance. When it comes to equal treatment, we should be able to expect greater loyalty to the basic principles that are the foundation of our society.

The integration of Islam in democracy will require major adjustments. Immigration has created a unique situation. For the first time in history, Muslims are the minority in a largely liberal and secular society.

This is a totally new experience and it would be premature to maintain that Islam, as it is practiced here, and the principles of democracy, are not compatible with each other. It remains to be seen whether the integration of Islam in Europe will succeed, and as there are no guarantees for this, it is extremely important that there is total clarity concerning all fundamental principles.

Paul Scheffer

© 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

Paul Scheffer is a journalist and a sociologist at the University of Amsterdam

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