Geert Wilders, Charles Taylor and European Halal

Its been a big month for multiculturalism in the Netherlands. The far-right, anti-Islam politician, Geert Wilders, was acquitted of charges of inciting hatred against Muslims (see here) and a law which will have the effect of criminalizing the ritual slaughter of animals as required by Islamic Halal and Jewish Kosher traditions was passed with wide margins in the Netherlands lower house of parliament (see here).

I couldn’t help but think about Charles Taylor’s oft-quoted article from 2007 in which he wrote that “almost every reason for toleration’s apparent fall into disrepute concerns Islam.” The growth of “block thinking” about Islam, he argued, had led Europeans to categorize all acts of religious piety by Muslims as suspect and dangerous to democratic society. Fearing the consequences of such religious intolerance, Taylor used the article to make an urgent appeal for crossover individuals from “Islam” and “Europe” to step forward and give voice to the possible nodes where Islam and democracy can flourish together.

At a glance, it would seem that Taylor got things backward in the Netherlands- proponents of both Wilder’s acquittal and the ritual slaughter law argued that they were defending a tolerant and multicultural vision of Dutch society by protecting free speech and making the country safer for animals. Taken together, however, and in light of the high levels of popular support that the measures received, both episodes confirm Taylor’s claim that European definitions of tolerance and multiculturalism do not seem to extend to Islamic religious identities and ethics. Both decisions make it more difficult for most Muslims to live as religious persons unless they do so in an altered way which is defined by the secular state. In doing so, as Taylor would argue, the vast mosaic of religious persons who eat Halal or are sympathetic to blasphemy laws are lumped into the same boat together. Such undifferentiated lumping hides an immense variation in the patterns of political consensus or discord that those voters share with the rest of Dutch voters, and it feeds west-versus-the-rest mentalities.

Equally interesting, (and block forming), is that both episodes offer further examples of new sets of political cleavages forming in Europe along religious lines. As we have discussed on this blog before, in certain issue areas religious identities appear to overpower traditional opposition between the political left and right, turning both sides of the spectrum into secular allies against a religious other. Tellingly, the Halal initiative was proposed by an animal rights party which pieced together a powerful voting block in the Dutch parliament by enlisting the support of both the Dutch right and labor parties. Fighting the amendment was an alliance of Muslims, Jews, Christian Democrats and a small Calvinist political party. It has not been a month of cross-over voices finding new ground in multicultural Holland.