On Islam’s compatibility with liberal democratic principles

A guest post by Mario Peucker

When we publicly discuss issues around Islam and Muslims in the West (and we still seem to do that a lot), one argument almost always comes up in one way or another: the claim that Islam somehow doesn’t sit well within ‘our’ liberal democratic society. Studies confirm the prevalence of these views, expressed – obviously – at the radical right and centre-conservative right of the political spectrum, but also by some on the left. In 2017, the Pew Research Center published U.S. survey data according to which 44% of the respondents see ‘a natural conflict between Islam and democracy’. European and Australian studies have painted a similar picture. However, when we ask Muslims in our empirical studies on how they feel about living in a non-Muslim majority society, they are usually completely fine with it and don’t see any major tensions and conflicts with the liberal-democratic principles (which also guarantees freedom of religion).

Why is that?

A closer look at where the anti-Muslim or Islam-sceptical views come from suggests that those who hold such views often argue as if they were Islamic theologians or had in-depth insights in the values and attitudes of Muslims. Their claims of ‘incompatibility between Islam and liberal democracies’ usually draw on allegedly fairly widespread views among Muslims on issues around sexual minority rights, gender roles and where to draw the line between free speech and religious vilification.

So it’s all about Muslims’ attitudes towards progressive liberal values, such as, to use one example, homosexuality? Well, it is true that Muslim communities on average hold more conservative views on these issues, but they don’t differ from many other non-Muslim faith groups, whose place in Western societies is not challenged. I argue that using attitudes on certain liberal progressive values (that are actually still contested) is not the most suitable way to examine the alleged conflict between Islam and democracy.

And looking at Islamic sources, for example, in the Koran and selectively pick a verse to support one’s argument also doesn’t get us any further (have a look at the Bible) – although you would surely find certain things in there that appear to be evidence for the claim of irreconcilability. Most Islamic scholars would probably agree but they would also highlight the enormous diversity of Islamic jurisprudence, which makes it virtually impossible to ultimately answer the question of (in)compatibility from a purely theologian perspective. So this is also not getting us anywhere.

A more constructive and empirically grounded way to put the ‘incompatibility hypothesis’ to the test is to focus our attention to the lived religiosity of Muslims and their citizenship performance in North America, Europe or Australia.  Millions of Muslims are living as ‘ordinary’ citizens in Western countries. They vote, they may attend public protests, sit on parents’ committees at the local school and run or volunteer for religious and non-religious community groups. Their Islamic faith does not seem to stop them, and for many, the opposite is the case: it drives their active citizenship.

Recent studies across the West leave little doubt: Muslims’ religiosity, especially their religious practice and active involvement in their faith community, is often positively associated with their civic and political participation. The findings of these robust studies are statistically significant. Muslims who regularly attend and are active within mosques are more likely to be also engaged in other non-Muslim civil society groups. In addition, this organizational facet of their religiosity has often been linked to increased political activism and trust. These civically mobilizing effects can be considered well established in research.

My own explorative research on civically and politically active Muslims in Australia and Germany confirms that. For them their Islamic faith is a source of civic empowerment that gets them out of bed in the morning to do their community work, it is a way of practicing their religion – not only through praying but through ‘serving humanity’, and it is a way to fulfill their religious duty of ‘doing good’ and helping to those who are in need. Everyone has their own individual way to interpret their faith as a driver of their active citizenship, but almost all of them referred positively to their faith as a civic resource, not an obstacle for their engagement.

Of course, like with any religious group, there are some who fundamentally oppose the principles of a liberal secular democracy, but they constitute a small minority within these communities. And if we really want a reasonable and civilized debate on Islam’s place in the West, we should refrain from referring to these fringe groups as the representative or even the only face of Islam.

[Post edited for typographical errors, April 30, 2018.]

Mario Peucker is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC) at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been working on active citizenship of ethno-religious minorities, inclusion-exclusion dynamics and far-right activism in Europe and Australia for 15 years and published several books, including Muslim Citizenship in Liberal Democracies (2016) and Muslim Active Citizenship in the West (2014, with Shahram Akbarzadeh).

On Twitter: @Mario_Peucker  (Mario Peucker) @victoriauninews (Victoria University)


  1. Islam is universal. A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. The whole world belongs to Muslims.

    “Western” society is trying to dictate what people within one faith are supposed to act, what they should wear. telling Muslims to go back east is stupid tell all Christians to back 2 Jerusalem then exactly no point everyone has the right to live in whatever country they choose. There are catholic schools which require a certain type of conduct even if the person is not catholic at that school. You have Sikh,Hindu and Islamic schools and they all instil good values in children in their own way and if someone has certain dietary needs then the school will adjust to that. i don’t understand why everyone has to criticise everything that is going on within the religious circles right now.

    Let’s think of all those bad things we are proposing:

    – to make children multi-lingual.
    – understand and accept the sanctity of marriage.
    – encouragement to take not even but one drop of alcohol and non-prescribed drugs.
    – encouragement not to judge or be judged on grounds of race and colour.
    – self discipline in sleeping, hygiene and diet patterns.
    – liberation of individuals from materialism and desires to live according to base instincts.
    – a detailed understanding of the other two monotheistic religions.

    Sorry to break it to you, but Islam is a religion for all colours races and nationalities. You asking a Muslim to “go to east” is like asking a Christian to go back to Palestine!

    If Christians followed the teachings of Christ, they would be called Muslims! Take a look in your history books and identify the history of Muslims in this country? Oh well you cant do that because the British education system only skims over such issues….. or decides not even to teach them.

    So what if Muslims want halal food in schools, is it affecting you, so what if Muslims pray is it affecting you? no!!! Muslims are not Asians, Muslims are the people of ALLAH! there is a difference that you should note. In a Catholic school you learn to read religious things in the church, but why cant we also have a Muslim school, not for Asians, but for Muslims to learn if they wish.

    Islam is not taking over, it does not want to take over, but it DOES want to give everyone the chance to learn and understand it. Islam can be great for everyone, but not everyone will accept it, and that is fine, EVERYONE IS THEIR OWN PERSON AND EVERYONE HAS THEIR OWN CHOICES TO MAKE!!! It is time the racists of this country wake up and realise with a bit of co-operation and understanding EVERYONE can be happy and everyone can get along! there is no need for excluding anyone and everyone can get along, there is no need to disagree with something if you haven’t even given it a chance, SURELY EVERYONE / EVERYTHING DESERVES A CHANCE TO PROVE THEMSELVES / ITSELF.

    A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. The whole world belongs to Muslims. Muslim community does not want to change British society. Muslim community needs Masajid, state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers, sharia laws, halal food, time off for Friday afternoon prayers in the Masjid, two religious holidays per year and Muslim cemeteries. These demands are in accordance with the law of the land. Muslim community is not asking for any favour. Muslim ruled India and Spain for a thousand years but they never forced natives to convert. If they have forced them to convert than India and Spain would be Muslim countries. There would be no need for a tiny Muslim country like Pakistan. The number of Muslims is on the increase because of never ending immigration, high birth rate and conversion and by the end of this century, nearly half of British population would be Muslims. Today the elected Mayor of London is a Pakistani Muslim and tomorrow the elected British PM would be a Pakistani Muslim. Have you got any objection?

    The largest ethnic minority groups in British schools are children of Pakistani origin: a community often accused of resisting assimilation and integration. Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley blamed Imams for not speaking English. She should blame British schooling for not teaching Urdu/Arabic to Pakistani children, thus depriving them of understanding the Sermons in Arabic/Urdu. They are unable to enjoy the beauty of Urdu/Arabic literature and poetry. Imams are not part of the problem rather than the solutions. There is a proposal to teach Urdu as a compulsory language instead of French and German in British schools. The British Government is urged to remove the requirement in the National Curriculum that children between the ages of 11-14 study at least one European language. The linguistic abilities of large number of Muslim children were being ignored because they had to learn another European language as well as mastering English. The Government must promote the status of Urdu language instead of languages of European origin. Tim Benson, head of Nelson primary school in Newham said that the “nationalistic curriculum failed to recognize the staggering array of linguistic abilities and competencies” in schools such as his, where the pupils spoke more than 40 languages. The linguistic dexterity of families speaking an array of languages was celebrated but the “awesome achievements” of children mastering three or four languages were barely recognised by the education system. Social and emotional education comes with your own language-literature and poetry. A DFE’s document clearly states that children should be encouraged to maintain and develop their home languages. A study shows that bilingualism is a positive benefit to cognitive development and bilingual teacher is a dire necessity and is a role model. The price of ignoring children’s bilingualism is educational failure and social exclusion. Bilingualism could be developed by bringing a partner from Pakistan. The kids will get better at both languages. One will speak English while the other will speak Urdu.


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