Most of the twentieth century can be seen as a progressive advance for various stripes of political secularism – from the Communist authoritarian to the liberal democratic one. This historical trajectory was complicated by the anti-colonialism of Gandhi and disrupted by the 1979 revolution in Iran which established the Khomeini-led Islamic republic.
In Western Europe, right into the 1990s, and in contrast to India and some Muslim-majority countries for instance, there was a sense across the political spectrum that political secularism was a done deal. It was a non-issue, with perhaps some reaction if some secularists pushed for the historical development to be speeded up or taken too far, like when the Mitterand government in France proposed removing public funding for Catholic schools in the 1980s, or when bishops defend the state link with the Church of England.
Yet, this century is proving to be a time for re-thinking secularism (what some call ‘post-secularism’) across the globe. Different parts of the world have their own re-thinking in process and of course start in quite different places – as this series of blogs will discuss. In the case of Western Europe which I focus on in this piece, the debate has crucially to do with the reality of multiculturalism.
By multiculturalism I mean not just the fact of the post-immigration ethno-religious diversity but the presence of a multiculturalist approach to this diversity: the idea that equality must be extended from uniformity of treatment to include respect for difference. This means understanding that the public and the private are interdependent rather than dichotomized as in classical liberalism. This provides the intellectual basis for the public recognition and institutional accommodation of minorities, the reversal of marginalisation and a remaking of national citizenship so that all can have a sense of belonging to it.
There was a sense across the political spectrum that political secularism was a done deal
This multiculturalist challenge, at one time seen to go with the flow of liberalism – of human rights, racial equality, decomposition of collectivities such as the nation – is properly understood as requiring not just the reform and extension of liberal democratic institutions but a re-thinking of liberalism. Equally, the question arises, with increasing force, as to what implication does the emergence of this ethno-religious socio-political complex have for political secularism (indeed for secular institutions more generally such as workplaces, schools, hospitals, universities, etc.) Should state funding for faith schools be extended to cover minority faiths or cease altogether?
Liberal political theorists define political secularism as ‘state neutrality’, meaning that the state must not privilege some religions over others but must instead treat them equally and must not identify with any one of them. Multiculturalists contend that a strict policy of non-identification with a particular language, history and culture, however, is impossible for a state to achieve. It is therefore better to interpret state neutrality to mean that connections between state and religion must be inclusive, rather than push religious groups away.
For example, while French authorities interpret neutrality in relation to school lunch to mean that Jewish and Muslim children or vegetarians should not be able to ask for special meals, neutrality could mean that the state makes a reasonable effort to equally meet the needs of all the pupils rather then imposing a majoritarian preference upon all. Moreover, to single out religion for non-identification – while allowing gender, sexuality and ethno-racial identities to recast the public space - is unfair to those for whom such identities are important.
What implication does this have for a multiculturalist re-thinking of secularism? We must keep in mind that political secularism in Western Europe does not take one form. The mainstream Western European approach is best characterized as ‘moderate secularism’. Moderate secularism sees organized religion not just as a private benefit but also as a potential public good or national resource which the state can, in some circumstances, assist to realize. However, the way this is institutionalized is quite different in moderate secular states such as Britain, Germany, and Denmark.
The Church of England is the official church in Britain; the Lutheran Church is recognised as a national but not a state church in Denmark. In Germany there is no concept of a national church but both Protestants and Catholic churches have taxes collected on their behalf by the state, and, additionally, receive large amounts of funding from the state to carry out various welfare functions like care of the elderly.
There is also a more radical secularism in European political culture, which is self-consciously exemplified in French laïcité. This form of secularism is less about accommodating religion than about maintaining a republican national space in which religion is not present while ensuring personal religious freedom outside the civic space. This civic space encompasses not just political and judicial institutions but also schools and, as far as some of its advocates are concerned, extends also to public culture, streets, parks, and shops.
How does this relate to the accommodation of new ethno-religious minorities such as Muslims? The above suggests that Western Europe may respond, indeed is responding, to Muslim political assertiveness in two opposing ways, based on its response to two controversies that erupted in 1989: the Salman Rushdie affair in the United Kingdom and the headscarf affair in France.
Supplementary laws were created to bring religious equality in line with racial equality
In response to the former, realizing that Muslims were excluded from existing racial discrimination and incitement to racial hatred laws, the UK government started collecting data to map and respond to socio-economic inequality between religious groups. In due course, supplementary laws were created to bring religious equality in line with racial equality (the laws on both of these being the strongest in Europe and most likely to be enforced), and policies began to target Muslim disadvantage no less than racial disadvantage.
The UK government sought interlocutors and partners amongst nationally and locally organised Muslims in order to identify and address legitimate grievances and, more generally, began to develop multi- and interfaith governance in order to express respect for religious communities and the importance of cohesion amongst them as well as in society generally.
If Western European nations follow this example, they might allow Muslims to represent themselves in civil society, the media, and government at all levels, and encourage dialogue between religious groups and society. They might further treat religious discrimination and incitement to religious hatred seriously, and enforce the law through an agency (perhaps along the lines of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission). Moreover, they might fund Muslim schools, bring Muslims into governance, and promote inter-faith relations at all levels, including in state ceremonies such as Remembrance Day.
Measures like these have been enacted in various European countries to different degrees. But some have also imitated the French prohibitionist response to the 1989 headscarf affair instead. Based on this example, some Western European nations have banned “ostentatious” religious insignia in schools and prohibited the wearing of face veils by adults in all public places. They have created a top-down national Muslim council as an interlocutor to the government, but this body only addresses a narrow religious agenda rather than political concerns or, alternatively, addresses a wide agenda without actuating policy (as in the case of the Islam Conference in Germany).
Finally, too many European governments discourage Muslim self-representation in politics and civil society and prefer to initiate debates about Islam’s relationship to national identity in which Muslims are the objects of discussion rather than participants in it. This was the case for the French identity debate initiated by President Sarkozy a few years ago.
Western Europe will not be able to integrate its growing population of Muslims into its national polities without rethinking political secularism. This will be much easier where moderate secularism and multiculturalism prevail, as opposed to a more radical form of secularism. European nations must oppose radical secularism, antipathy to public religion, and the trampling and alienating effects this tendency is having on religious freedoms and a growing European Muslim population.
Just as European citizens and governments must oppose the extreme nationalism that is asserting itself across the continent, they must also turn away from extreme secularism which, apart from in France, is not the Western European way. Affirming its historically moderate secularism, and adapting it to accommodate a multifaith national citizenry, represents Europe’s best chance for finding a way forward.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).
The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.