This animosity has its roots in a dangerous lack of understanding of Islam and how it differs from Christianity’s view of the individual and the community.
In recent years, we have watched as European governments have sought to restrict or completely prohibit practices perceived as contradicting national or liberal democratic values. The recent hubbub about the burkini is just another iteration of already existing restrictions. The only differences are in the details: whether the location is France or some other European countries, whether the issue is the burqa, nigab and hijab in specific professions, public institutions and spaces or schools.
Why the controls? Many feel the recent influx of Muslim immigrants to their respective countries is threatening the very Judeo-Christian Western character of the traditional European state.
But while Europeans are trying to maintain their sense of ownership over the public sphere, restrictions on religious expression in the public domain strike at Muslims’ most basic of rights: to continue living their lives as guided by the dictates of their own conscience.
Christianity is a morally-driven, not legally-driven, religion. The faith’s prescriptions and proscriptions to its believers are few, and are all private in nature. Western states have their origins in Christianity, which, in general, have always maintained a clear division between religion and state, as a matter of principle: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17).
For Christianity and its followers in Western countries, any clash between Christian tradition and secularism, even in highly secularized societies such as France, is minimal and of little long-term consequence.
Islam (and Judaism), on the other hand, is a holistic religion. It encompasses all aspects of the believer’s life. It regulates activities of the state, as well as almost every part of the individual’s daily life, including dress, eating habits, and behaviors at home and in public. For the Muslim believer, the precepts of the faith are divine commands from which no deviation, however small, is possible. In certain cases, believers will prefer to die rather than abrogate the word of God.
Forcing Muslims to act in public in a way that goes against the dictates of their religion is like forcing a Western liberal to act in opposition to his or her conscience, or forcing a vegan to feast on meat – with one key difference: When one acts against one’s conscience, one only has to answer to oneself. For the religious Muslim, going against the word of God is simply not an option, even if that means breaking the laws of the state.
Preventing individuals from fulfilling their religious requirements, physically forcing them to contravene what they perceive as divine commandments is a recipe for a religious war. Moreover, such a conflict will not only be led by religious extremists, but many average citizens who happen to strictly adhere to their faith.
Pew Research in 2006 found the level of Muslim identification in Britain, Spain, and Germany is similar to that in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Jordan, and is even higher than levels in Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia. Over a third of French Muslims and a quarter of Muslims living in Spain say they have had a bad experience as a result of their religion or ethnicity. And the most recent reports indicate that Muslims living in Western countries continue to identify more as Muslim than European.
These statistics should make us all uneasy.
Judeo-Christian citizens of the West can and must act to prevent the outbreak of religious war. The first is to understand and accept the differences between religious traditions. Next, there needs to be an intellectual and public discourse to set boundaries of public tolerance toward the Muslim “other.” This discussion should produce intellectual, legal, and public tools for shaping the public domain in a way that acknowledges the different religious traditions, and allows space for individuals to act in accordance with their religious beliefs.
Paradoxically, the only Western democratic country facing a similar challenge is the State of Israel. Judaism, like Islam, is a holistic and legalistic religion, requiring that its adherents not deviate from God’s commands, even if doing so conflicts with the laws of the sovereign state. While there are still struggles over the issues of religion and state, Israel has by and large developed a public and intellectual tradition that prevents conflicts from arising between different value systems.
So often, Israel looks to the West as a source of political and economic inspiration. Today, the West should turn to Israel for advice and inspiration on how to face their current crisis of religion and state.
Finding ways to reduce the tension to a minimum is in the interest of European states and Muslims living in European countries, in equal measure.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Center for Religion, Nation, and State at the Israel Democracy Institute.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Independent Journal Review.