Professor: Separation of religion and state ‘key to tolerance’

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Immigrants to the EU must accept the basic elements of its member states’ political systems in order to integrate into European life, said Dutch Professor Henk Dekker. He was speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia in Bratislava.

Henk Dekker is a professor at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Do you think ‘Islamophobia’ in Europe is a new phenomenon, or is it something embedded deep in European history? 

I’m not a historian, but of course I know that now and then in European history, conflicts with Muslims have been an issue. But now we are in a completely different situation. We have large-scale migration, globalisation, and a completely different system of mass communication. Ideas, messages, and rumours spread fast, and mobilisation can be undertaken within an hour. 

In principle, ideas, feelings and emotions can be translated much more quickly for mass behaviours. In our condition, warfare is mostly psychological. Relatively speaking, it is easier to inject fear into huge masses of people. What might not be different is human beings’ need for self-identification and the fact that some elites might have an interest in strengthening the differences between groups of people. 

Is it realistic to treat Muslim minorities in European countries as a coherent group? Should we not rather focus on the problems of “young unemployed people of North African origin from the suburbs” or “Youths of Algerian origin with insufficient skills for the current labour market” and so on when designing policies for integration and intra-society coherence, for example? 

For each policy, you need in-depth analysis. Muslims never form a coherent group. Even in a small country like the Netherlands, you have so many Muslim organisations. First of all, forget all stereotypes. When you get to know all the differences, you will see that the reality is much more complicated. For instance, political struggle and conflict also take place among Muslims. 

There are voices saying that there is something in Muslim culture or in Islam as a religion that makes it incompatible with “our” modern society based on tolerance and the principles of democracy. In each religion or ideology, you may have radical groups that strongly believe that their truth is the only truth and would like to do kind of missionary work, persuading others of their truth. But at the same time, there are lot of other people who do not want to think this way, who show respect for other ideas and who are in favour of meeting and exchanging views and understanding. 

It is good to know who is in these radical groups and why, what their ideology is and why some people are attracted to it, as well as why they are ready to sacrifice themselves. But again, that is nothing specific to Islam – it is a more general phenomenon. 

Do you think that the creation of specific Muslim representation – for example political parties – in the countries with large Muslim minorities would help their integration, or would it just strengthen their separation, marginalisation and even radicalisation? 

Radicalisation is never an effect of integration. On the contrary, it is a result of marginalisation and exclusion. And when it comes to political parties, well…in the Netherlands, we always had different groups of people – Roman Catholics, Protestants, and even various groups among them. 

Peace was possible because each group had its own political party, its own newspaper, its own schools and hobby clubs, etc. Only the leaders were talking with each other and they came up with compromises. Groups were completely separated. But that was also another situation – without the mass media we have today, without the mobility. 

You cannot say that what worked in the last century will work also nowadays. Even more so because those traditional pillars do not exist anymore – such as the Roman Catholic party, Protestant parties, etc. Modern parties combine groups that were clearly separated in the past. Therefore it would be a strange situation if suddenly some kind of Muslim pillar were established – and not just in the case of the Netherlands. 

However, in several countries, the Muslim majority gets money from the state for some elements of such a pillar – for example newspapers. In theory, nothing is preventing the creation of a Muslim party. But that would require Muslims in one country to have the same political attitudes. That is not realistic. Therefore they usually participate in the “mainstream” liberal, social-democratic or conservative parties. 

To what extent can society respect cultural differences? Where are the ‘limits of tolerance’? 

That is a difficult political question. The separation of state and religion is the key. If somebody immigrates into the country, it should more or less mean that he or she accepts basic elements of its system. 

Many discussions revolve around religious dress, for example veils worn by Muslim girls in schools. For me, the key question in such cases is “is your religious dress compatible with your role at that moment?” In school, communication is paramount, for example. The teacher and the students – but also the students among themselves – have to communicate. If the face, or a significant part of it, is covered, I think that prevents effective communication. That is why universities forbid the burkha. The best you can do in these cases is look at them from a practical point of view. 

One interesting point is the situation of minorities within minorities, regarding their power rather than in a strictly quantitative sense – for example, women in Muslim communities or gay/lesbian Muslims. Should we intervene if they are discriminated against, or should we stand aside in the name of respecting different cultures? 

We should absolutely intervene. In many constitutions no discrimination is allowed. There are no exemptions. 

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