Book Review: The Islamic Challenge Politics and Religion in Western Europe (Jytte Klausen)

Book Review: The Islamic Challenge Politics and Religion in Western Europe (Jytte Klausen)

By Esther, Islam in Europe

Jytte Klausen gave a lecture on her book at the Carnegie Council. You can read it here, or download the podcast.

Klausen interviewed 300 Muslim leaders in Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Netherlands and the UK, on all levels of the political system, and among community leaders. It is sometimes possible to guess who the interviewees are, though Klausen rarely mentions names.

I found it to be quite an interesting study. Klausen interviewed only those Muslim leaders who were willing to take part in her study, but it still offers a good mix of Muslim leaders from different countries, of different positions and with different attitudes. My impression was that she approached the interviews critically. The study was conducted before the Mohammed cartoon crisis - it would be interesting to see whether these Muslim leaders would express themselves differently today. I bring here some of the ideas and conclusions mentioned in the book.

Klausen divides the people she interviewed leaders into four groups, based on how they saw religious accommodation - whether Islam is compatible with Western values and whether it should be integrated into existing religious frameworks. Among those who did not think Islam is compatible with Western values are the anti-clericals on the one hand and the neo-orthodox on the other.

Among those who did think Islam is compatible with western values there are the Secular integrationists - who want to ‘mainstream’ Islam - and the voluntarists (Euro-Muslims) - who don’t. while the secularists might prefer strict separation of church and state, if it isn’t possible they want the government to apply the law equally. Voluntarists, on the other hand, don’t want government interference and prefer state neutrality.

Klausen found that the higher up in the political system, the more likely it was for Muslim leaders to be secularists. Neo-orthodox were found in Muslims associations or participating in interfaith groups. One very probable explanation for this is that only those who stick with party conventions are likely to get to higher up positions in national politics.

Though one might expect the second generation to be most involved in what’s happening, one of Klausen’s most interesting conclusions is that today’s Muslim leaders are mostly first generation immigrants who had sought political asylum in Europe and who have continued their political activism in their new country. About 85-95% of the leaders in the survey were foreign-born. Germany and the Netherlands had relatively high percentages of native-born leaders (~25%), but the big exception was France, where 60% were native-born, apparently also due to the relative youth of those who participated in the study.

Muslim leaders put a lot of emphasis on discrimination on the main problem facing Muslims, though Klausen points out that the elimination of public bias will not solve all the socio-economic problems and those problems faced by Muslim in their daily lives. Muslims focus on human rights enforcement, but they should be aware that it’s a demanding standard, that would require them to change as well. Klausen expects the discussions about competing ‘rights’ to increase and that Europe would move towards the situation in the US, where almost every social conflict becomes a discourse on rights.

Muslim immigrants tend to vote for the left, but one of the interviewees, a secularist danish city councillor thought that the European Left was mistaken to think that it can count on the immigrant Muslim vote. Once the right drops its xenophobia, religious Muslims would support conservative parties. Recent research supports this theory, though it’s important to remember that not all Muslims are religious and value-conservative and that some have fled their country for this exact reason.

It was also interesting to see the different opinions on conversion. In the UK (51.6%) and France (68.4%) there was support for allowing open conversions, while in other countries there was more support for ‘mutual respect’ among the different religions - Denmark (75.8%), Sweden (66.7%), the Netherlands (73.9%) and Germany (78.3%) - mirroring, Klausen says, a national taboo on ‘inter-religious poaching’.

One interviewee thought that the Muslim presence will actually promote secularism and the separation of church and state. It brings up these very topics for discussion and forces both the national leadership and the people to take a stance. Klausen points out that thought studies show that most Europeans do not see themselves as religious, religion does matter to them, especially when it comes to the life cycle events - baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. For example, taking two of the most anti-religious countries: 61% of Swedes marry in a church and 80% of Danes are confirmed. About 75% of babies in those countries are baptized.

Very few of the Muslim leaders used the term ‘ummah’ in their interviews, and Klausen says that those who did, focused on building solidarity with the Palestinians. Turks, parliamentarians and city councillors, imams and mosque administrators who participated in the study never used it.

Most of the interviewees came across as realists, who see democracy as the end goal. Though Klausen did meet several people, none of them associated with established political parties, who saw the democratic freedoms as a means of pursing Islamic solidarity.

One last point: Klausen notes that one side-effect of the headscarf controversies is that Muslim scholars are less likely to say that the headscarf as optional. If it is optional, then it is not covered by the European convention of Human Rights and is easier to ban. In other words, the attempt to stop or stem the increasing Muslim fundamentalism is in itself causing Muslims to become more fundamental. I think this can be seen in other issues as well.

Originally published on the Islam in Europe site


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