Muslims in Europe, bearers of pluralism

December 18, 2013

This is a guest post from Jan Jaap de Ruiter, an Arabist at Tilburg University (Netherlands).

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A debate has erupted in European and American media on the question of whether and to what extent Muslims in Europe are to be considered fundamentalists. The debate was sparked by a report from the Berlin Research Agency for Social Research (Wissenschaft Zentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung). On the basis of a survey conducted in 2008 by Ruud Koopmans among 9,000 persons, around half of whom were Muslims of Turkish or Moroccan background in six European countries including the Netherlands and Germany, Koopmans concluded that “Islamic fundamentalism in Europe is widespread.” The Dutch newspaper NRC interviewed Koopmans, who declared that “alarmingly high numbers of Muslims, some 45 percent, believe that Jews cannot be trusted.” The survey also showed that 60 percent of the respondents did not want gay people as friends, and that 54 percent think that the West is out to destroy Islam. Furthermore, 65 percent of respondents said that religious law is more important than the laws of the country of residence (see here, here and here for earlier reporting on this survey on the Monkey Cage) .

Fundamentalism, not a marginal phenomenon

These and other results led Koopmans to conclude that Islamic fundamentalism in Europe is not a marginal phenomenon. In his report, Koopmans claims that “his findings clearly contradict the often-heard claim that Islamic religious fundamentalism is a marginal phenomenon in Western Europe,” but he fails to give any specification of sources claiming so. The report and the conclusions drawn quickly found their way into the media, predictably reinforcing the frame of Muslims being a threat to Europe.

Asked about my reaction to the results of the German study, I stated in the Dutch newspaper Trouw that it was to be expected that in answer to a question about their divine law, Muslims would not be likely to say that the Sharia is less important than the law of the country of residence. Sharia as the law of God enjoys in both mainstream and orthodox Islam after all a very high status. Taking this into consideration, a percentage of 35 percent saying that they do consider national laws more important is in fact pretty high. This being said, it would nevertheless be naïve to ignore the results of this survey. The big question, however, is how these results should be interpreted.

Other surveys

A good yardstick for interpreting surveys is to compare them to other surveys. The European Values Survey ​(published in 2011 and available on the Internet) has conducted large-scale surveys in almost all European countries (see here for nice displays in the Atlas of European Values). One of these showed that in Turkey and Morocco, 75-92 percent of the population does not want to live next door to homosexuals. This also applies to 51-62 percent of the populations of Russia and Lithuania. Another analysis showed that 51-62 percent of the Turks in Turkey do not want Jews as their neighbors, as is the case with 15-26 percent of Poles and Lithuanians. The European Values Survey ​​also examined the extent to which inhabitants of countries agree with the following statement: “Having a democratic political system is a good way of governing this country” on a scale from 1 (yes) to 4 (no), Turkey came to an average of between 1.69 to 1.91, England scored slightly more negatively with 1.92 to 2.15 and the results for Russia were even lower: 2.16-2.39. Morocco scored closest to answer 1 (yes), and thus quite high, with an average between 1.20 and 1.44. Interesting furthermore are American survey data presented in a guest post by Rachel Gillum indicating that 57 percent of the general American population agreed with the statement that “Right and wrong in U.S. laws should be based on Gods’ laws” against 49 percent of U.S.-born Muslims and 46 percent of foreign-born U.S. Muslims agreeing to it.

Alarm

We find that the alarmist tone in the report of the German research institute is put in a different light if its results are compared with surveys like those referred to above. What emerges is a mixture of positive and negative, of desirable and undesirable characteristics. Thus people in Turkey and Morocco do not want gay neighbors, while they value democracy highly. The English and the Russians score lower on the preference for democracy than Turkey and Morocco. Russia, Lithuania and Poland show significantly high percentages of disgust against gay people and/or Jews. The United States context is quite revealing as well, where the general American population — not the U.S.- and foreign-born Muslims in the country — shows the highest support for the law of God when it comes to the question as to which law should decide what is right and what is wrong.
Muslims, bearers of pluralism

A valid and justified conclusion to be drawn from the survey carried out by WZB should have been that there is indeed a lot of work to be done when it comes to fundamentalist tendencies among Muslims in Europe. An equally valid and justified conclusion, however, is that Muslims are no exception in a Europe in which many  “native” populations are contending with dislike of Jews, hatred against gay people and all kinds of undemocratic tendencies. Furthermore, it shows that, in spite of everything, Muslims in Europe seem to be doing better when it comes to embracing diversity and democratic values ​​than Muslims in Islamic countries. In the U.S., it is Muslims that show less support for the law of God than the general American public.What all of this shows, if anything, is that Muslims can apparently be different and that they are able to change. So let that be the new frame.

  *This article is a slightly adapted translation (with permission) of an article that appeared earlier in the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

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John Sides · December 18, 2013