Multiculturalism and Islam in Europe


Multiculturalism and Islam in Europe

Intolerance of Islam and Muslims’ way of life has been on the rise in various European countries particularly during last few years.

Policy Perspectives , Volume7 , Number 1, Special Issue 2010



[Intolerance of Islam and Muslims’ way of life has been on the rise in various European countries particularly during last few years. The phenomenon has been witnessed repeatedly in the form of written, verbal and even physical assaults. The grave nature of the situation poses a serious challenge to multicultural outlook of Europe and raises solemn trepidations for Muslims. It also is not a good omen for much needed global harmony, and the role that Europe seeks to play in this connection – Ed]


What is multiculturalism? Clearly it is the opposite of assimilation and refers to the existence of several cultural or ethnic groups within a society, all functioning within their diversity and reflecting a heterogeneous society. In Europe, multiculturalism has to be seen at two levels: the private and daily life existence of citizens; and, two, public opinion and institutional decision-making bodies such as parliaments, municipalities, public administrations and so on.


At the first level multiculturalism has in fact become a part of the daily life of most European states and cannot really be reversed – but this daily life has become more difficult in terms of different ethno-cultural groups leading their own lives within their cultural traditions because of the issues arising at the second level – that of public opinion and institutional decision-making bodies.


Europe, especially since 9/11, is now seeing its multicultural divide only in a uni-dimensional construct – that of religion and specifically Islam. Here there has begun to be a growing unacceptability of the Islamic identity with the historic ghost of the crusades having been revived.


The reductionist approach to the diversity of cultures in Europe is obscuring the diversity within Muslim migrant communities themselves – which range from African to Asian and within these two groupings also there are vast differences – for example between South Asians, Arabs and Southeast Asian Muslims. Also, even within the same Islamic communities, there are sectarian divides and ritualistic differences arising from cultural influences.


Unfortunately this reductionist approach has a fallout on the Muslim communities of Europe who then react and move themselves into voluntary ghetto-isation, not just in physical terms – where groups retreat into small closed communities which tend to be far more fundamentalist than would have otherwise been the case – but also in psychological terms where their Muslim identity overpowers their overall rich cultural heritage.


Because issues which should have remained in the private domain have infiltrated the public domain, they have become symbols of intolerance or unacceptable diversity with European states moving towards policies of assimilation and rejecting symbols of religious diversity such as the veil or hijab. In reaction, Muslims are coming to see these as symbols of defiance and reassertion of their identity.


Ironically, in most European societies where women wore the headscarf not only to go to church but often as a mere item of dress, it now has come to represent a rejection of “citizenship” if worn on a Muslim head! The French, who earlier used to proudly display the diversity of French citizens, now, have narrowed the French identity to a rejection of the headscarf. At present, there is a strong resistance to burqa in France. The parliament is about to legislate a ban on burqa while the French president has made it clear that it is not welcome on the territory of his country[1].


A result of such micro level public interventions in private lives has set in motion a vicious circle where the more the restrictions on Islamic identity in the public and legislative space, the more the minority groups of Muslims close ranks to live in closed communities practicing a more orthodox and fundamentalist Islam.


What makes reconciliation amongst the differing cultural and religious groups in Europe so difficult is the European insistence that European states have a secular identity, there is a growing sense that somehow the Muslims living there are at the very least, unable to accept the secular identity of Europe; and, in the worse case scenario, are actually seeking to destroy the secular ideal and the “freedoms” associated with this ideal.


The European dialectic is premised partly on a serious misperception that Europe has traditionally had of itself – that it is inherently secular. Under the false garb of “secularism”, accommodation of “the other” is being denied. False because the fact of the matter is that Europe has always had an underlying Christian identity and, as religion has come to increasingly occupy centre stage in mainstream international politics – be it in Asia or Europe this Christian ethos of many European states is becoming more overt.[2]

However, part of the problem also arises as a consequence of the socio-economic problems of the migrant communities which are aggravated by the strong religious identity of Islam that some of these communities hold. As the religious identity becomes a major factor in the social dynamics of Western states, a growing lack of accommodation of the other becomes more marked. While Muslim Europeans are seeking a more assertive religious identity, the non-Muslim majorities in Europe are moving towards denying their Muslim citizens even the basics of this identity.


In addition, post-9/11, the whole issue of terrorism has become enmeshed within a falsely-created religious framework of “Islamic fundamentalism” or “Islamic extremism”, but the fault lines were drawn much earlier. As Sandra Mackey wrote, in 1996:


“The very term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ was given common coinage at the zenith of the Iranian revolution. Since then it has grabbed and held an American public emotionally scarred by military casualties and civilian hostages in Lebanon; violence inflicted against Westerners by Islamic militants in Algeria and Egypt; fear engendered by the shadowy group that detonated a bomb in New York’s World Trade Center; and anger roused by the endless slogans of Islamic zealots that damn the West. Regardless of the range of grievances and geography of militant Islamic groups, the American mind sees the Islamic Republic of Iran as the fount of Islamic extremism.[3]


All these factors have led to the creation of a bizarre dialectic of “Islam versus the rest” whereby there are definitely areas of misperception and conflict – both at the intellectual and realpolitik levels. Although the world may not necessarily be on a collision course between “Muslims and the rest,” yet the space for moderates and for accommodation on both sides of the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim is shrinking.


The case of the blasphemous cartoons has been the most glaring example of the dialectics between so-called “freedom” and accommodation of “the other” – so-called freedom because in reality the publication of the cartoons contravened the constitutional and criminal laws of the states where they were published – revealing agendas of hate and prevalence of deep-rooted intolerance and polarization in the developed or “free” world. As if it was not enough for this well-orchestrated act of hatred to be committed once, the blasphemous cartoons have recently been printed again in Norwegian paper Aftenposten on January 08, 2010.


One can point to a number of laws that exist in the various European states and that should have been applied against the publishers of the blasphemous cartoons. In fact, there were two main aspects of the issue of the blasphemous cartoons: one, whether their publication can be challenged legally and two, whether it merely reflects a knowledge-deficit in the West regarding Islam?


The EU position was to detract from the first by focusing on the second and calling for a dialogue with the Muslim World. While there is nothing wrong with dialogue per se the fact of the matter was that the publications contravened the laws of the European states where they appeared.


European laws relating to “Freedom of Expression”


On the cartoons’ issue, the press in all those European states that have ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, is guilty of contravening this Convention. While guaranteeing Freedom of Expression, Article 10 of this Convention states:


1: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from

requiring the licensing of broadcasting television or cinema enterprises.


2: The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection or rights of others…


In addition, countries like Denmark have made this Convention an intrinsic part of their national laws. So, when the Prime Minister of Denmark declared that he could not do anything against-the paper, Jyllands-Posten, that began the controversy, this clearly was a false statement because the European Human Rights Convention was ratified by Denmark in 1953 and is an integral part of the Danish Constitution. In fact, before ratification the Danish government made certain changes in Danish law so that it was in consonance with the Convention. Hence, the government should have sued the paper for breaking the law of the land.


As for countries like France and Norway, their constitutions also limit freedom of expression. For instance, the preamble to the French Constitution states that:


The French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789, ….


Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which is a key document of the French Revolution approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26, 1789 states:


The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.


And France is party to the European Convention also.


The Norwegian Constitution, in Article 100, declares:


“There shall be liberty of the Press. No person may be punished for any writing, whatever its contents, which he has caused to be printed or published, unless he will fully and manifestly has either himself shown or incited others to disobedience to the laws, contempt of religion, morality or the constitutional powers or resistance to their orders or has made false and defamatory accusations against anyone.”


German law is also very clear in this regard. Section 166 titled as Insulting of Faiths, Religious Societies and Organizations Dedicated to a Philosophy of Life under Chapter Eleven of German Penal Code titled as “Crimes Which Relate to Religion and Philosophy of Life” says that:


(l) Whoever publicly or through dissemination of writings (Section 11sub-section (3)) insults the content of others’ religious faith or faith related to a philosophy of life in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace, shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.


(2) Whoever publicly or through dissemination of writings (Section 11 subsection (3)) insults a church, other religious society, or organization dedicated to a philosophy of life located in Germany, or their institutions or customs in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace, shall be similarly punished.


Similarly, Section 167 titled as Disturbing the Practice of Religion, plainly spells out that:


(I) Whoever:


1. Intentionally and in a gross manner disturbs a religious service or an act of a religious service of a church or other religious society located in Germany; or


2, Commits insulting mischief at a place dedicated to the religious services of such a religious society, shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.


(II)   Corresponding celebrations of an organization dedicated to a philosophy of life located in Germany shall be the equivalent of religious services.


As for blasphemy laws, many countries have them and only blasphemy laws are exclusively in defence of Christianity. But within the EU, European law takes precedence over national law.


The following excerpt from Blasphemy and Film censorship: Submission to the European Court of Human Rights in Respect of Nigel Wingrove V. The United Kingdom gives a picture of the relevant laws of some other European countries:


Finland: Section 10 titled as Breach of the Sanctity of Religion (563/1998)


A person who (I) publicly blasphemes against God or, for the purpose of offending, publicly defames or desecrates what is otherwise held to be sacred by a church or religious community, as referred to in the Act on the Freedom of Religion (267/1998)


Austria: Under Section 188 of the Penal Code “disparaging religious doctrines” is a criminal offence.


Germany: Section 166 of the Criminal Code forbids insults to a religion or “Weltanschauung” (world outlook), publicly or by dissemination of publications. For an insult to be punishable under this law “the manner and content” of the insult must be such that an objective onlooker could reasonably apprehend that the insult would disturb the peace of those who share the insulted belief.


Moreover, to be convicted, an offender must intend or at least be aware that his or her action constituted an offence. In applying Section 166 to a work of art, the freedom of art as guaranteed by Article 5(3) of the Basic Law must be taken into account. Article 130(1) of the German Criminal Code makes it an offence, punishable with imprisonment for between three months and five years to incite hatred against segments of the population or to call for violent or arbitrary measures against them, or to attack the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population.


Under Article 130(2), it is an offence, punishable with imprisonment for up to three years, for a person to disseminate, publicly display, post, present (including presentation by radio), produce, obtain, supply, stock, offer, announce, commend, or undertake to import or export, or otherwise make accessible, writings which incite hatred against segments of the population or a national, racial or religious group, or one characterized by its folk customs, if the writings call for violent or arbitrary measures against them, or assault the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning or defaming such a group or segments of the population.


The Netherlands: Blasphemy is a criminal offence under the Penal Code Article 147 (introduction and subsection I Wetboek van Strefrecht), though this provision only covers expressions concerning God, and not saints and other revered religious figures (“godalaatering”). Further, the criminal offence of blasphemy has been interpreted to require that the person who makes the expression must have had the intention to be “scornful” (“smalend”).


Spain: The crime of blasphemy was abolished in 1988. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the right to freedom of expression, broadly protected by Article 20 of the Constitution, can be subject to restrictions aimed both at the protection of the rights of others or at the protection of other constitutionally protected interests.


Ireland: Article 40 of the Constitution


6.1: The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality:


(i) The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.


The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.


So these are the laws that put restrictions on the “freedom of expression”. The real issue, however, is the non implementation of these laws to punish those responsible for breaking it by publishing the blasphemous cartoons. Moreover, even the claims of freedom of expression do not hold in the Jyllands-Posten case because it was not the cartoonists who of their own volition got the idea to make cartoons against the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). Instead, they were deliberately commissioned by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. So, at best, it was induced expression rather than free expression.


Incidentally, when a Danish group had produced a film on the “Sex life of Jesus” portraying him as a gay, many countries, including the UK, banned the showing of this film. Denmark did not protest. That Muslims have been used at a target of hatred in countries like Denmark has been clear for some time. The fowling incidents and developments can be cited in this connection.


Beginning with their Queen, who, in April 2005, declared that Danes should show their opposition to Islam[4];


In July 2005, owner of a local transmission channel Radio Holger stated that the only solution to get rid of Muslims was to drive them out of Europe, if not to kill them. He was found guilty of racism and his broadcasting license was revoked for three months with a warning[5].


In September 2005 a member of the Danish Parliament, Ms. Louise Frevert put hateful articles on her website which declared that young Muslims, even if born in Denmark, had fundamentalist leanings which were incompatible with Danish society. According to her, “Our laws forbid us to kill our enemies in public so the only remedy is to fill our prisons with these criminals. Most efficient method would probably be to send Muslims to Russian prisons for a fee of DKK 25 per day “. Another article on her website compared Muslims with cancer cells that could be treated with chemotherapy or surgically removed.


Also, in Autumn 2005, Denmark’s Minister for Culture, Brian Mikkelsen had to apologies for his statement on War against Muslims’ Culture in the Cannon Committee set up to create 84 Danish culture works. He had reportedly said that Denmark’s culture heritage would serve as a tool to fight the influence of Muslim culture. His remarks jeopardized Committee proceedings and several members threatened to resign in protest.


Besides blasphemous caricatures, verbal as well as physical attacks against Muslims, their faith and way of life have increased to an alarming extent in recent years. Some of the unfortunate events of the recent past suggest that Muslim women and dress code are particularly a target. Brutal killing of an Egyptian woman, in broad day light and nowhere else but in the courtroom, in Germany signals the extent of intolerance. A Muslim woman in Belgium has recently been fined 200 Euros ($ 300) for wearing Burqa[6].


While Muslims in some of the European nations have faced difficulties in building mosques, the recent referendum in Switzerland that resulted in over 57 % of voters opposing the minarets is another worrisome example. Switzerland is generally known for its neutrality when it comes to issues and conflicts at global level. However, the way the whole campaign for referendum was run, seeking the signatures of mandatory 1,00,000 citizens, and how some of the rightwing politicians and groups devoted time to it, clearly shows that not only the religious liberties feel clearly threatened, but it is also indicative of increased intolerance of Islam and Muslims’ way of life. There is no such ban on the minarets of Churches in the country, or for that matter in any state of Europe.


It brings up the question as to why existing laws aimed at safeguarding the liberties of religion and ways of life are not implemented. After all, Austria strictly enforced its laws relating to denial of the holocaust and punished British historian David Irving on that count[7]. And no one in Europe raised the issue of freedom of expression to protest Irving’s incarceration for his views on the Holocaust. It would not be wrong to say that the Western media played to the prejudices of the mainstream of their societies in a most degenerate way. However, it is the states where the cartoons were published which deliberately behaved in an irresponsible fashion.


Clearly, there is a dialectical relationship between what is popularly referred to as “freedom” – primarily defined within the notion of freedom from external restraint – and accommodation, because of this limited notion of freedom. What is needed is mastery over one’s inner life – overcoming our internal fear of “the other” and anger towards “the other”. Only this can provide greater space for accommodation – which, in Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s construct refers to modification of internal representation in order to accommodate a changing knowledge of reality. Accommodation does not so much require a change in views as a voluntary compromise with the other – that has not been brought about by violent or nonviolent coercion. For the more powerful this is most difficult but essential.


That Islam is a religion of a large minority in almost all European states needs to be recognized as a reality that will not go away. If the threat of extremism is to be avoided then the marginalized Muslim communities need to be brought into the mainstream especially the youth. Countries such as Britain may want to shift all the blame of the London bombings on to the links the youth had with Pakistan but the fact is that they were British citizens already frustrated and marginalized.


It would not be wrong to say that post 9/11 developments across the globe and the so called War on Terror has further increased the difficulties faced by Muslim living in as well as travelling to the west. They have particularly been targeted for any of the acts of violence on the slightest suspicions. Now, citing the failed attempt to blow up an American jet by an alleged Nigerian Al-Qaeda activist on the occasion of last Christmas, citizens of certain countries have been subjected to pass through highly disrespectful naked body scans – and 12 out of such countries are Muslims. Such developments may not be seen in isolation, but do signal a phenomenon of targeting.


No doubt such developments are widening the already existing gulf between Muslims and the West, and mistrust is bound to rise, which by no means is good omen for global peace and harmony and perceived role of Europe/west in it.


The problem for Europe is that unless they are able to acknowledge their continuing Christian ethos they cannot have a multiple level dialogue with their minorities in order to bring them into the mainstream at all levels: political, economic and religious. Yet, the future of Europe as either a harmonious multicultural society or an imposed assimilation-centric disparate society will depend on how the public and institutional levels within European states accept the reality of its now multicultural society.




Goldberg, Michelle. “Burqa Politics in France.” The American Prospect. June 24, 2009.


Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation. New York: Plume Publishing, 1996.


Mazari, M. Shireen. “Terrorism: A Consequence of Globalization?” in, Strategic Studies, Islamabad: Institute of Strategic Studies, Vol. XXII, No. IV (Winter) 2002.

[1] Michelle Goldberg, Burqa Politics in France, 2009.

[2] Secularism refers to a belief “that the state – morals, education etc. should be independent of religion” [Chambers English Dictionary). Yet, in most Western states this is not the case – Christian values pervade their legal and moral belief systems even at the level of the state. At a very basic level, all Western states claiming to be secular – be they Northern European or North American – believe this claim when they only declare Christian holidays as national holidays. Even though people of other beliefs can claim their religious holidays, these are seen as special concessions whereas the Christian holidays are for the whole nation or country. Beyond this, the degree of “secularism” really varies from state to state and religious prejudices at the state level come to the fore every time traditional norms are challenged. Many northern European countries consistently show their Christian credentials in the manner in which the law is applied to other religions – especially the Muslims. For instance, in Norway, every adult has a church tax deducted from his income by the state unless he gives a declaration stating he does not belong to the church; and in Germany a tax deduction can be claimed against payment made to one’s church but not to one’s mosque. Take the case of Britain. Their Queen is the head of the Church of England and for an heir to the British throne marrying even a member of another Christian sect is a road fraught with difficulties, let alone marrying into another faith. More ominous is the fact that the British Blasphemy Law (it still exists) deals only with Christianity. In other words, you may blaspheme all you want against Islam – the law will not apply. Given that there is an increasing Muslim British population, one would have assumed that the British legal system would have begun to treat all its citizens equally. As for France, the whole controversy surrounding the scarf issue revealed the religious bias of the French State. Somehow French “secularism” was not threatened by Christian schoolgirls wearing crucifixes around their necks, but when Muslim schoolgirls wore scarves on their heads, the state’s educational system felt itself threatened! Now the French are mulling a total ban on Burqa, non compliance to which will mean a 750 euro fine. Prejudicial revelations like these show that it is the European psyche that is still so heavily burdened with the legacy of the Crusades that it now finds Islam an easy substitute-threat with the demise of Communism. As for Eastern Europe, their whole struggle against Communism was church-centered, so the aftermath has naturally seen persecution of the Muslims, which reached new heights of barbarity in Serbia. While the persecution of whole ethnic Muslim populations has gained new heights after the demise of the Soviet Union, and the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, Muslims in Europe have had to face systematic persecution at the hands of European governments for a while now. For instance, the Greek State aided and abetted Greek Cypriots in their genocidal policy of Enosis, which entailed the mass killings of Turkish Cypriots. The remains of mass graves can be seen in what is now the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. The most recent reflection of this prejudice against Muslims and Islam has been reflected in the US policy towards the Muslims taken prisoners in Afghanistan during the War on Terrorism and kept confined in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Whereas international law relating to war and prisoners of war was strictly followed even for the Nazis in the Nuremberg Trials and presently in the trial of the Serbian leaders; for the Guantanamo Bay prisoners no such laws are being accepted by the US government, even at the micro level, when a criminal in the West happens to be a Muslim, this becomes the central point to be emphasized – as if Islam is responsible for his criminal bent. Yet, if a Christian commits a crime, the religious factor is left out – as was reflected in the murders of two Dutch nationals, the right wing leader Pim Fortuyn and film maker Van Gogh. For further details, please see Shireen Mazari, Terrorism: A Consequence of Globalization? 2002.

[3] Mackey, The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, 384.


[4] BBC, “Danish Queen Raps Radical Islam,” April 25, 2005.

[5] BBC, “Denmark Targets Extremist Media,” August 17, 2005.

[6] RIA Novosti, “Belgian Muslim Woman Fined for $ 300 for Wearing Burqa,” December 10, 2009.

[7] BBC, “Holocaust Denier Irving is Jailed,” February 20, 2006.

Share this post