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.

Sartori, Islam, Rosarno

Last week, attacks on migrant workers in Rosarno, Italy and the riots which ensued brought the conflicts over immigration in Italy to the global news audience. Although the great majority of the immigrants involved were from “Christian cultures” of sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt’s foreign minister made headlines for accusing the attacks as another example of religious racism in Europe versus Islam. As a background drop to this accusation, for several weeks before the riots began, a vicious debate unwound in the newspapers between Tito Boeri, a relatively well-known Italian academic, and Giovanni Sartori, who holds a reasonable claim to one of the top ten most influential political scientists of the world in the last 50 years. Angelo Panebianco, another leading Italian political scientist, also weighed in on the debate.

Essentially, Sartori argued that integrating Muslim immigrants into Italian democratic life posed difficult, although not insurmountable problems. For successful integration or “Italianization” to occur, he claimed that immigrants need to adhere to a basic political ethic of tolerance and that they respect the principle of a separation of church and state. The latter, he argued poses a major problem because Islamic culture, in general, traditionally does not support such a separation. He juxtaposed this Islamic cultural bent unfavorably against that of the millenarian Jewish tradition.

Leaving aside the historical evidence, I just want to point out that this is an odd claim to make, not least because there is no evidence that integration in Italy is being hampered by efforts by the Italian Muslim-community to do away with the present church-state arrangement in Italy. It is especially strange in light of the fact that Italy’s constitution held up the Catholic Church as the “official religion of state” until 1984, and because the state of Israel does the same with the Jewish religion to this day. Which is to say, the whole separation of church and state question is much more complicated than Sartori would like to admit and in his two juxtaposing societal cultures, a Jewish and an Italian one, democracy survived, even flourished, for decades without such separation.

Panebianco, while also making dubious claims about Islamic culture as a whole, was at least more honest in his response, which also affirmed the inherent difficulty of Islamic immigration in Italy. It is not Islamic immigration, in general, for Panebianco, that is problematic for integration, but the public and political expression of Islam in Italy which poses the problem, not just to the social-liberal foundations of the Italian constitution, but because such expression challenges the traditions of Italy’s established public religion, namely, Roman Catholicism. As long as Italian Muslims practice “quietism,” Panebianco sees little difficulty for Islamic integration into Italian life, but if they allow their religion to affect their politics, in Italy, that sounds like fanaticism to him.

Which brings us back to the messy political geography of the Swiss Minarets, and the strange, unfolding alliance consequences of a Catholic Church in favor of Islamic immigration.

Swiss Minarets

The Swiss constitutional referendum last week banning the future construction of minarets garnered curiously mixed reactions in Europe which reflected the confusing political geography of the issue. One aspect of that geography is the emerging policy preferences of Christian church leaders (versus Christian political leaders). The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Switzerland, most significantly, wrote that the decision created “bitterness” in their hearts, and neighboring Catholic spokesmen in France and Italy did not like the precedent it set at all. Abbot Erminio de Scalzi, for example, auxiliary Bishop of Milan, said that, “it is not by forbidding minarets that one defends Christian values,” (see text here). De Scalzi’s comments are further evidence of an evolving, though not always consistent, Christian church position held by leaders from Rowan Williams to Ratzinger, that defends common, inter-religious “spiritual rights.” These spiritual rights, church leaders claim, require similar political status and protection as those of UN-recognized human rights. In creating such a position, church leaders are breaking with many “Christian” political leaders of the right (such as those allied with the Swiss People’s Party) who frame their opposition to immigration and islamization in the language of tradition and moral identity. Church leaders’ defence of religious pluralism sounds a lot like liberalism, and their soundbytes in the press over the Swiss incident were close to those of left and socialist politicians. However, church leaders’ intent to protect their own public presence in the state by promoting the spiritual presence of all religions in the state and to encourage the practice of a Christian political ethics of hospitality and “convivenza,” is infused with a religious logic and rhethoric which are in acute contraposition to the traditional political intuitions of most European liberals.   A political geography just about as non-Cartesian as Switzerland.