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).