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World Religions in Assisi with Pope Francis


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September 8 2014 16:30 | Auditorium BNP Paribas Fortis


Paul Scheffer

University of Tilburg, Netherlands



How often do we hear the unanswerable ‘immigration has always been with us’, the notion that people are always on the move and our own time is no exception? The Amsterdam municipality writes, matter-of-factly: ‘Almost half of all Amsterdammers were born outside the Netherlands. This is nothing new. For centuries Amsterdam, as a city of immigrants, has been open to people of different origins and faiths. Think of the Portuguese Jews, French Huguenots and seasonal workers from Germany.’

Even if we accept that from a historical perspective there’s nothing new under the sun, no one can doubt we are witnessing a profound change to the composition of Western populations. People certainly moved around a great deal in the seventeenth century, but that surely does nothing to mitigate the upheaval that cities are going through now. The guest workers from Morocco and Turkey who are changing Dutch neighbourhoods aren’t simply counterparts to the seasonal workers from Germany who spent time in the Low Countries in centuries past. The fact that Jews from Portugal fled to the Netherlands to escape the Catholic Church’s Inquisition doesn’t make it a matter of course that refugees from Islamist despotism in Iran and Afghanistan should come to live here. 

Receiving societies are hesitant in their dealings with newcomers; established populations are becoming noticeably more rigid and tending to turn away from the outside world. There’s a need for a more candid approach to the frictions and clashes that always result from the arrival of sizeable migrant groups. Earlier generations of historians and sociologists have left us a remarkable body of work to draw upon. Oscar Handlin, the best known historian of immigration in America, is one source of inspiration. In The Uprooted (1952) he describes the causes and effects of migration from Europe to America. They can be summed up in one sentence: ‘the history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences.’  Alienation and loss are key features of any description of the arrival of migrants in a strange environment.

Handlin is thinking primarily of those who came, ‘for the effect of the transfer was harsher upon the people than upon the society they entered’.  He tells the story of the millions who were set adrift by industrialization and by the astonishing population growth of the second half of the nineteenth century. The dislocation and poverty that resulted, especially in rural areas, led to mass emigration from countries including Ireland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway and Poland. Huge economic and social forces were at work, and people were torn loose from environments they had occupied for centuries. Hardly anyone welcomed this liberation, Handlin says, since above all it meant separation.

In unfamiliar surroundings many sought refuge in the certainties of their religion. ‘In that sense all immigrants were conservatives. . . . All would seek to set their ideas within a fortification of religious and cultural institutions that would keep them sound against the strange New World.’  This hankering after old structures and customs served as an aid to survival in an urban environment. It’s easy to see why many migrants tried to perpetuate village life in foreign cities, which makes it all the harder to understand why immigrants are so often described as great innovators.

In their new country, so confusing and full of dangers, people felt a need for the support of their religion, but maintaining religious faith was a challenge: ‘The same environment, in its very strangeness and looseness and freedom, made it difficult to preserve what could be taken for granted at home.’  The end result was all too often a sense of not belonging anywhere any longer. ‘They had thus completed their alienation from the culture to which they had come, as from that which they had left.’  This is an experience shared by many contemporary migrants as they try to connect with a new society.

It was not only the migrants themselves who were afflicted by insecurity. Those already living in the new country, which after all was not a blank canvas but had customs and traditions of its own, were thrown off balance. Handlin acknowledges their side of the story: ‘Everything in the neighbourhood was so nice, they would later say, until the others came. The others brought outlandish ways and unintelligible speech, foreign dress and curious foods, were poor, worked hard, and paid higher rents for inferior quarters.’ 

In an earlier study Handlin had examined the reaction of nineteenth-century Bostonians to the arrival of Irish immigrants, who came in huge numbers. After the two groups clashed it took at least half a century for the city to regain its balance. ‘Group conflict left a permanent scar that disfigured the complexion of Boston social life.’  Yet Handlin’s approach was subtle and he avoided laying the blame on one side or the other. He used cautious terms like ‘latent distrusts’ and ‘social uneasiness’ to describe the attitudes of longstanding residents. 

It’s not hard to understand reactions like these. People saw their world changed by immigrants and instinctively harked back to a shared notion of the community as it had been before. It serves little purpose to impress upon people who no longer feel at home in their neighbourhoods that we all have to move with the times. In the often hostile expression ‘stranger in your own country’ lies a recognition that migration has brought people from all over the world to settle in today’s major cities. We need to face up to the feeling among established populations that a tried and tested society is being lost, just as we need to acknowledge the feeling of uprootedness among many newcomers.

Yet that alienation does not last for ever, quite the reverse in fact. Back in the 1920s American sociologist Robert E Park described what was then generally referred to as the race relations cycle as beginning with isolation and avoidance and moving on via contact, competition and conflict to accommodation and assimilation.  There is an underlying logic here: on arrival migrants tend to keep to themselves, partly as a result of the attitude of avoidance they detect in the society around them. In the years that follow, migrants and their children struggle to claim a place for themselves in the new country, and this leads to rivalry and strife. The question of how everyone can live together becomes unavoidable. If a satisfactory answer is found, the descendants of the original migrants will be absorbed more or less smoothly into society. This is a hopeful view and it suggests the familiar model of three generations.

Of course the process can’t really be divided into phases or generations as neatly as this, but the important point is that every story of migration involves conflict. That was and is the case in America and the pattern is being repeated in contemporary Europe. It’s difficult to say how long or how severe the period of conflict will be, but the phase of avoidance is gradually coming to an end. We should see today’s frictions as part of a search for ways for newcomers and the established population to live together. Conflict has in many ways a socializing effect.

Emancipation will not be achieved without pioneers. In the pressure cooker of the past few years there has been an unmistakable quickening of developments. Conflict is ultimately a sign of integration, so we should make a clear-eyed assessment of the anger and frustration of many migrants’ children. Far more often than we may realize, behind what they say lies a burning ambition to be part of society. In 1918 sociologist Georg Simmel wrote about the significance of conflict. His verdict on indifference is wholly negative, whereas he believes conflict has something positive at its core: ‘Our opposition makes us feel that we are not completely victims of circumstances. It allows us to prove our strength consciously and only thus gives vitality and reciprocity to conditions from which, without such corrective, we would withdraw at any cost.’  

Immigration is the most visible aspect of globalization, which gives many people a sense that their familiar world is vanishing. This is not yet felt to be an improvement. In European countries many people are convinced that a period of stagnation or even decline lies ahead. Few still believe their children will have a better future, whereas the post-war generation enjoyed the prospect that their offspring would live freer and more prosperous lives. It doesn’t really help to say that future generations will see these as the good old days. Right now all that counts is that a sense of loss has taken hold and people are looking for ways of reaching beyond that experience.

In the history of immigration the pendulum swings back and forth between openness and withdrawal. Later we’ll examine the American experience at some length, but we should note at this point that after forty years of mass immigration between 1880 and 1920, new legislation was introduced that kept the numbers to a minimum until 1965. The similarity with present-day Europe is striking; here too, after decades of mass immigration, there’s a widespread desire for tighter controls.

In other words, the call for the influx to be curbed is not an exclusively European phenomenon, nor does it represent an inability to get along with migrants, a failing that could perhaps be ascribed to Europe’s relatively short history of immigration. A more restrictive policy as a means of restoring the social balance is an option that ought to be taken seriously. History shows that spontaneous rapprochement between indigenous populations and newcomers is rare. The risk that each side will keep raising the stakes with opposing declarations of loyalty – both in effect openly saying ‘my own people first’ – means we must take the trouble to explore what lies behind this hostility.



The movement of peoples over the past few decades has had a considerable impact. Natives and newcomers often seem far apart, and beneath a veneer of harmony countless stories can be heard – by those willing to listen – about daily cultural clashes. A conflict successfully avoided for years has erupted all the more fiercely. Where silence reigned for so long, too much is now being said and too stridently. Multicultural diplomacy alone will not be enough to build mutual trust, but for a long time few awkward questions were asked, both because no one was particularly interested in the answers and because it was felt too much would be stirred up if they were. Noiriel remarks that crises surrounding migration ‘are moments in which the social rules for the whole of the receiving society are ruptured and redefined’. 

The call for integration prompts the response: ‘Integration, fine, but into what?’ A society that has little or nothing to say for itself will quickly be exposed as flawed. This has not escaped the attention of migrants, who respond with a combination of ‘What do you actually want from us?’ and ‘For heaven’s sake leave us alone’. As one student remarked: ‘You never know where you stand here. What is integration, in fact? What are Dutch or French or British norms and values? I have a feeling politicians are deliberately vague about them, so that they can always say: no, that’s not what we meant.’

Such reactions are all too often expressed in aggrieved tones, but anyone aiming to close the chasm nevertheless needs to come up with a convincing response. ‘Diversity’ is a commonly deployed concept, but it does little to clarify matters. It ought to go without saying that an open society is characterized by divergent outlooks, lifestyles and beliefs, but even in a liberal democracy there are limits: not everything that’s different is valuable. Embracing diversity indiscriminately is tantamount to protecting traditional habits and customs from critical scrutiny. There’s a tendency to address migrant families as members of the groups to which they’re presumed to belong. This applies not only to the first generation, which is to some extent preserving the traditions of its countries of origin, but to the children and grandchildren of migrants as well. They are regarded as perpetuating a particular culture, whereas it may well be that many ‘Turkish’ children prefer listening to American rapper 50 Cent than to Turkish pop star Sezen Aksu – quite apart from the fact that many different influences can be found in Aksu’s work.

There’s another reason why the prevailing view of diversity doesn’t necessarily represent progress. If minorities continue to see themselves primarily as ethnic groups, there’s a real danger that majority populations too will increasingly conceive of themselves in ethnic terms, especially when in many cities they find themselves outnumbered. American sociologist Charles Gallagher has observed: ‘Like it or not, middle-class and lower middle-class whites see themselves as a minority and have adopted a posture of being the victims.’  This is the risk we run by emphasizing ethnicity. Why should one group be allowed to appeal to its own ethnic identity if another group is not? 

It’s important always to keep in mind the aim of creating a society in which people are asked how they see their futures, not one in which they’re judged according to their pasts. Getting there will be a process of trial and error, and all citizens will need to look beyond ethnic dividing lines.

It’s often argued that integration should engage both newcomers and natives, but what does this actually mean? Instead of emphasizing the differences between minorities and the majority, we should concentrate on shared citizenship as an ideal to which everyone can aspire. Migrants can be invited and challenged by a society only if it has a strong culture of citizenship. Problems surrounding migrants and their children are general social issues writ large. They concern not only important institutions such as education but constitutional rights like freedom of expression. This is the reason migration cuts so deep: it goes to the heart of institutions and liberties.

The basic principle is simple: native populations cannot ask of newcomers any more than they are themselves prepared to contribute. Those who encourage others to see themselves as fellow citizens must have at least some notion of what it means to be a citizen and, as far as possible, turn that notion into practical reality. Hence the embarrassment that typifies debates about integration. An established population that asks people to integrate will sooner or later find itself facing similar demands. This is all part of an ongoing quest, a process of social renewal.

Take linguistic skills. There can be no doubt that the command of a country’s official language is a prerequisite for all those trying to hold their own as citizens. The Dutch have therefore talked a great deal over the past few years about language deficits in migrant families, a problem currently referred to as ‘low literacy’. It was only a matter of time before people started asking: How good are the reading and writing skills of the indigenous Dutch population? It quickly became clear that hundreds of thousands are struggling, and initiatives are now being implemented that are aimed at raising levels of literacy across the board.

This is just one example of how debates about integration can make hidden social problems visible, introducing issues that go far beyond the emancipation of migrants. The growing divide between low-skilled and educated people demands attention; Flemish writer David van Reybrouck regards this as the most important cause of current dissatisfaction with democracy. Many people with little more than a basic education no longer feel represented: ‘As in the Netherlands, a parallel society has grown up in Belgium. The low-skilled are in the majority, but they genuinely feel themselves to be a minority that is subjected to discrimination.’ 

Integration conceived as a reciprocal process confronts society with profound questions about what is means to be a citizen. What skills are essential? What kind of knowledge is required? Those who think migrants should know more about the development of their adoptive country’s constitution, for example, cannot avoid the question: What exactly do you know about it yourself? This has revealed another weakness of Western societies. Doubts about the historical awareness of the average citizen matter, because citizenship involves a realization that something came before us and something will come after us. It’s hard for any sense of responsibility to develop unless people see themselves as part of a continuing history.

Which brings us to another series of questions: What image of the past do established residents want to present to newcomers? Might there not be a need to discuss this image with everyone, irrespective of background and origin? Are schoolchildren taught in any meaningful sense about colonial history? Is any attention paid in schools to migration into and within Europe over the centuries? Gestures are of little use. It’s essential to hand down as truthful and self-critical an account of the past as possible. The issue of integration has forced many countries to take a fresh look at school curricula. 

There’s an even more fundamental sense in which the principle of reciprocity prompts societies to question themselves. It concerns the rights and duties attached to citizenship. Citizens are now well aware of their rights but far less likely to have been given a clear understanding of their duties. This is a crucial problem, since freedoms unaccompanied by a sense of responsibility will start to erode. The issue of religious freedom illustrates the point. Muslims invoke the right to practice their religion and that right is non-negotiable, as long as it’s exercised within the bounds of the constitution, but it also confers upon all believers a responsibility to defend the rights of people of other faiths or none.

There’s a need for shared norms to which both the majority and minorities feel bound, and they include the right to freedom of conscience. The question that needs to be addressed is: What do the difficulties surrounding integration tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of society as a whole? The search for ways to live together demands self-examination on all sides. That’s the deeper significance of the reciprocity we seek: those who ask migrants to take a critical look at their traditions must be prepared to hold their own cherished assumptions up to the light.

Citizens, whether newcomers or otherwise, should not be required to absorb themselves into society as it is now but rather to identify with society as it has the potential to be. Everyone should feel invited to help society move closer to its ideal of equal treatment. Reciprocity as a basic principle of citizenship means that anyone trying to combat discrimination against migrants and their children must be prepared to oppose forms of discrimination within migrant families, against unbelievers, for example, or homosexuals. We can’t pick and choose when it comes to equality. 

This became clear on a visit to a school in Antwerp where a large majority of pupils are from Muslim families. One commented, as a joke: ‘I’ve counted the Belgians at our school. There are twenty-three.’ The school has a long tradition and many of the children do well, but the teachers say it’s become difficult to talk about evolution in biology lessons, about the Holocaust during history lessons and about ‘perverts’ like Oscar Wilde in literature lessons. A choice has to be made. Should teachers give in to the religious prejudices many children bring from home or oppose them, with all the patience and dedication that requires?

The reverse is also true, of course. A society that cherishes the principle of equality must be willing to listen to those who claim they’ve been discriminated against at work or in pubs and clubs. Sometimes legal action is necessary, but in many situations the key to success is persuasion, not compulsion. Campaigns and rules may help to combat discrimination, but we all need to confront prejudices publicly, challenging them as a step towards developing mutual trust. 

Not everyone is favours such reciprocity, as is clear from comments like ‘they came to us, we didn’t go to their country’? This amounts to saying that the majority has the power and the right to force minorities to adapt. Such an imbalance of power can never produce a truly integrated society, if only because the protection of the rights of minorities is a defining element of democracy. The opposite view is equally unproductive. It often takes the form of claims that there can be no reciprocity while the imbalance between the established and newcomers is as great as it is now. In other words: ‘You can’t ask the same of those at the bottom as you do of those at the top.’ This attitude leads nowhere, except to the paternalistic notion that people in migrant communities are not responsible for their fate. Shared citizenship means, by definition, that we are all invited to enter the public arena as equals.



Having looked at integration in a general sense we must now turn our attention to the inability of receiving societies to find ways of dealing with Islam. A number of clear choices have to be made, but they will be acceptable only if based on the principle of equal treatment. Nothing feeds suspicion so much as a sense that double standards are being applied.

What would relations with Islam on the basis of equal treatment look like? The separation of church and state, on which freedom of religion is founded, is the first priority. Not only must the state be safeguarded against improper pressure from the church; to an equal or even greater extent the church must be protected against meddling by the state. Certainly where Islam is concerned, as a matter of principle nothing must be laid in the way of Muslims who want to practice their faith openly. Mosques belong here, even though many people will be shocked to learn that the Essalaam mosque in Rotterdam, with its fifty-metre-high minarets, is expressly intended as a major feature of the city’s skyline.

If we are going to emphasize the principle of equal treatment, then we need to ask ourselves whether Europeans are complying with it. Many countries have regulations that are at odds with the separation of church and state, such as the obligation to pay church taxes in Germany and Denmark. The secularization of institutions needs to go further, and those who ask Muslims to respect religious freedom should feel obliged to summon up a comparable willingness themselves. The recent decision by the European Court that the requirement to display crucifixes in Italian state schools is incompatible with the principle of equality is therefore a move in the right direction. 

This certainly does not mean religion must be banished from the public sphere. Behind the unwillingness to accept a highly visible Islam lies the notion that religion is purely a private matter, but the separation of church and state is not the same as the separation of church and society. Religions are an essential part of a pluralist society, which is why Muslims, especially given the differences that exist between them, must venture into the public arena of the countries in which they now live. This is a paradoxical invitation, since as someone remarked: ‘You only really want to accept a passive Islam.’ Indeed, up to now there’s been little willingness in the West to see Islam as part of social life.

First of all, then, a clear commitment to the equal treatment of religions is needed. Political Islam can be combated effectively only if the principle of freedom of religion is defended unambiguously. A leading question can then be posed: Doesn’t the exercise of the right to religious freedom inevitably bring with it a duty to defend that same freedom for other believers and for non-believers? This is of course exactly what political Islam contests, not only in words but with threats and violence.

The political ambitions of Islam do not exist in a vacuum, rather they are based on a fairly common habit of dividing the world into Muslims and non-Muslims. Far too often, Muslims withdraw into a believing ‘us’ that strives to keep its distance from an unbelieving ‘them’. When freedom of religion is exploited as a means of spreading contempt towards non-Muslims, the right to that freedom is eroded and sooner or later a time will come when Muslims start to undermine their own ability to live in a democracy characterized by religious diversity. The right of one is after all the duty of another. This holds true for everybody, including members of the Muslim community. If a significant majority cannot summon respect for this rule, Muslims will stigmatize themselves.

Interreligious dialogue, which is underway everywhere, requires a number of principles to be held in common. At the very least such a dialogue has to be based on the acceptance of religious freedom. Experience shows that quite a few religious leaders reject this: ‘Yes, it is laid down in the law of European countries, but elsewhere it may be different; higher authorities will have to decide.’ We can simply take note of such reactions, but that is to follow the path of least resistance. When it comes to equal treatment a more principled stance would be appropriate from those who lay claim to equality as a matter of principle. The integration of Islam into democracy therefore requires it to make profound adjustments.

Finally, the principle of equal treatment has another inevitable consequence. Anyone claiming freedom of religion for a group must be able to summon a willingness to grant the same freedom to members of that group. Alternative movements are now quite often excommunicated, as Tariq Ramadan is forced to acknowledge. He’s extremely critical of the absence of a culture of dialogue within the Muslim community, where denunciation is rife.  We need only think of how some of the more wayward groups within Islam, such as the Alevis and the Ahmaddiya movement, have been excluded. Ramadan believes there’s a lack of willingness to enter into dialogue with those who hold different beliefs.

The ways in which disputes within Islam are handled are most problematic of all when it comes to the loss of faith. Most Muslims have exceptional difficulty on this point. But again, anyone who demands the right to practice his religion freely has no choice but to grant that same right to other members of the same religious community. Faith must either be practiced in freedom or abandoned. This too is a long way from the situation as it stands, since for Muslims openly saying you no longer believe means social exclusion or worse. Young Salafists leave no room for doubt about this: ‘An intruder inside the house is certainly more dangerous than one outside,’ said Mohammed Bouyeri. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is perfectly clear on the issue of apostasy: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.’ (article 18). Like many other articles of the Declaration, this has remained a dead letter in many countries, where freedom is restricted in the name of a state religion. In the Western world too, the freedom to abandon the Muslim faith is disputed and ex-Muslims have formed groups in order to stand up for their choice publicly in the face of serious threats. Muslims will have to learn to accept the decisions of those who want openly to bid farewell to their faith.

Freedom of religion does not exclude criticism of religion. On the contrary, part of the price of an open society is that religious traditions can be the subject of public debate. Some sensitivity on the part of critics is only right, since speaking freely about things some people regard as holy can be deeply hurtful. Nevertheless, if Muslims intend to live in liberal democracies while retaining the idea that the Koran or the prophet are above all criticism and must never be the object of ridicule, then they condemn themselves to the role of eternal outsiders. Freedom for Muslims can be defended only if Muslims are willing to defend the freedom of their critics.

Statements made by the British and Dutch governments as they consider making blasphemy punishable under law once again have not always been sensible either. Why should insulting the gods be any worse than insulting people? Anyone who supports the principle of equal treatment is obliged to regard religious and secular worldviews as equal before the law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear about this: religion is on a par with other convictions. There are certainly limits to freedom of speech, but we can’t draw the line at criticizing or ridiculing a faith, otherwise we’d have to start by tossing onto the pyres The Praise of Folly by Erasmus, with its passages about ‘folly in the Bible’.

Conflict avoidance is the wrong response when freedom of expression is at stake, not only for reasons of principle but because it does nothing to calm the situation when feelings run high. One evasion leads to another. If a decision is made not to publish any more cartoons, then what about the commotion surrounding an opera on the subject of Aisha, one of the prophet’s wives? The performance was abandoned in response to threats. If objections are met in the case of opera, what should be the reaction when a newspaper discovers that even an image of the Koran on the front of its monthly magazine section is reason enough for some delivery boys to refuse to distribute it? The ban on images embraced by part of the Muslim world can never be a guideline for journalistic or artistic expression, if only because it’s a short step from banning images to banning spoken statements, and from there to banning comments made in writing. By that point openness has been abandoned altogether.

On balance, freedom of speech contributes to peaceful conflict resolution. Precisely because people are able to convert their anger into words or images, the road that leads from resentment to aggression becomes longer. It’s no accident that the cartoons affair eventually led to violence in Middle Eastern countries, where freedom of speech is much more limited and people are therefore more likely to resort to violence as the last available means of expressing their discontent. The idea that limitations on freedom of speech could help to calm feelings within the Muslim community is therefore based on a misconception. 

The impasse over Islam shows there’s still no generally accepted basis for a discussion about its place in a liberal democracy. Diplomatic avoidance doesn’t help, whereas honesty about the principle of religious freedom does. Most liberal societies do not yet live up to the ideal of equal treatment. There’s every reason for a critical reconsideration of the majority culture and at the same time a need for self-examination on the part of the Muslim minority. Muslims could be far more open about what is happening in the mosques and take a more active stance against expressions of intolerance in their own circles.

Shaping public opinion in this way remains difficult for many Muslims. Solidarity with your own community is often understood as a promise to say nothing about the things that give offence within that community. Often people think: we’re not going to hang out our dirty washing, we’re vulnerable enough as it is. But room for newcomers in a society actually increases when differences of opinion are made more plainly visible. What Islam needs are whistle blowers, people who’re willing to let go of their spurious loyalty to ‘the community’ and break out of that deadly encirclement by friend and enemy to speak freely about wrongdoing within the divided world of Islam – like the parents who revealed financial mismanagement at an Islamic school, for instance, or the writer who brought to light the way mosques were orchestrating claims for welfare payments, or women who draw attention to tyranny and violence behind the closed doors of the home, or leaders of mosques who inform the security services about extremism they come upon there.

Such whistle blowers will ease relations, counteracting the crude caricatures on both sides that result from distrust. Something that is by no means cohesive – whether it be the culture of the majority or of a minority – is too often seen as monolithic.  To put it another way, peaceful co-existence is an extremely limited interpretation of what integration means. Compare the Europe of before and after 1989. Where there was cold peace and distance there is now space for interaction and rapprochement. The same applies to the multicultural society. We are still too much caught up in the era of diplomacy and non-interference, but society demands more than that. The future of Islam affects everyone, not just Muslims. Trust is another word for integration, and it will develop far more readily if pluralism becomes visible on all sides.




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