A liberal society must be able to accommodate different levels of religious observance and different intensities of religious belief, writes Shadi Hamid. There is no easy “solution,” but to the extent that there is one, it entails a liberalism that accommodates, rather than attempts to snuff out, religious difference and diversity. This piece originally appeared on the Raddington Report.
The Trump administration’s January 27th travel ban was almost unanimously decried by analysts, particularly those who, like myself, focus on Middle East politics and counter-extremism. As one colleague Benjamin Wittes concluded, the executive order seemed characterized by “malevolence,” rather than any plausible national security rationale. While many of us pushed back aggressively, seeing the danger in stoking anti-Muslim bigotry to say nothing of the human toll imposed on those who could not (re-)enter, it is not merely enough to argue that the more immigration the better, or that as many refugees as possible should be welcomed, in numbers perhaps comparable to Germany’s acceptance of more than 1 million refugees, more than half of them from Syria. In admitting large numbers of immigrants and refugees, many of whom may have their own distinctive cultural and religious orientations, questions of integration and social cohesion will always loom large, however sensitive and even politically incorrect such questions may seem.
Every nation-state has a particular national or civic identity of some kind, and demographic changes resulting from mass immigration can put stress on that identity, however liberal that identity may be. There is, still, something to be said for shared notions of citizenship, with the rights, obligations, and norms that come from pledging allegiance to a nation. As David Frum writes, “The social trust and social cohesion that characterize an advanced society like the United States are slowly built and vulnerable to erosion.”
Every nation-state has a particular national or civic identity of some kind, and demographic changes resulting from mass immigration can put stress on that identity, however liberal that identity may be.
But, this is less a problem of a proximate threat of Islamic terrorism—immigrants from the seven countries listed in the executive order are already vetted under what is perhaps the world’s most stringent regime—and more a question of ensuring that the American model of integration continues to be a successful one. This requires moving beyond facile assumptions that anyone who calls for stronger borders is a bigot. Concerns around culture must be discussed frankly and openly, since some of the concerns, and even objections, are legitimate.
Even if some immigrants have trouble integrating in Western societies—particularly in European countries that have more “ethnic” notions of citizenship and nationhood, such as Poland or Hungary, or those that hold to more aggressive conceptions of secularism—such as France, and to a lesser extent Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and others—sometimes the greater danger is the reactions that newly-arriving immigrants provoke among the existing population, some of whom may see their religious observance or religiously-inspired illiberalism as a challenge to their way of life. The influx of Syrian refugees due to the civil war there, and that of Muslim migrants more broadly, has been a key factor fueling right-wing populist parties that promote strong anti-Muslim or anti-Islam sentiments. The populist upsurge, in turn, threatens liberal norms and drags mainstream right-of-center parties further rightwards. The illiberal populists currently in charge in Poland and Hungary, for example, became vociferous opponents of Germany’s refugee policy and European Union resettlement quotas more broadly, reinforcing already strong anti-immigrant sentiments and fears around absorbing Muslim migrants. Such sentiments also played a role in the success of the Brexit campaign.
In my own writing, I’ve pushed back against the notion that “we’re all the same” and all ultimately want the same things—part of the longstanding liberal faith that, with the right economic incentives and government policies, religious and cultural differences can be resolved or papered over. We aren’t all necessarily the same and we shouldn’t pretend that we are. Doing so undermines our credibility as analysts, when any casual observer of European politics can tell that the religious attitudes of, say, French Muslims differ from those of the broader French public, who, over time, have taken an uncompromising strain of secularism (laïcité) to be a defining element of national identity.
Survey data makes this clear enough. According to the 2009 Gallup Coexist Index, 58 percent of French Muslims either “very strongly” or “extremely strongly” identify with their religion, compared with only 23 percent of the French public. Talk of a “clash of civilizations” is as unwise as it is imprecise, but there does appear to be a clash of values. Somewhat remarkably, according to the same survey, zero percent of British Muslims apparently believe homosexuality is morally acceptable. Among French Muslims, the proportion is much higher, at 35 percent, but that is still more than 40 percentage points lower than the 78 percent of French people who say homosexuality is morally acceptable.
Not all Muslims, of course, are practicing, yet many are, and, especially in Europe, the gap in religious observance between Muslims and non-Muslims is significant. To be unapologetically Muslim today is to, in a way, show that other futures are possible, that the “end of history” may in fact have more than one destination. As I argue in my new book Islamic Exceptionalism, if Islam, as a faith tradition, has been—and will continue to be—resistant to secularism, then the very existence of observant Muslims serves as a constant reminder of this historical and religious divergence.
There are two responses to this “problem” of religious and cultural difference. One is to insist that such differences are intrinsically bad or divisive, and to see Islam’s outsized role in public life, at least among some Muslims, as something automatically nefarious. This, in turn, leads some critics of Islam to call for limiting Muslim immigration. But this doesn’t address the fact that most Muslims in France are, in fact, French citizens or will become French citizens. To insist that Muslim citizens give up aspects of their religious identity or observance in order to be fully French, British, Swiss, or Norwegian is only to fuel a cycle of alienation that has no end. Historically, forcing people to be liberal or secular, when they don’t want to be, doesn’t work particularly well.
A liberal society must be able to accommodate different levels of religious observance and different intensities of religious belief. A liberal society can, in fact, survive with a minority that opposes, say, blasphemy or gay marriage—which many Christian Evangelicals also oppose. More than that, a liberal society cannot truly be liberal if it is unable, or unwilling, to allow citizens to express their own personal illiberalism—as long as they do so through legal, democratic channels and within the constitutional frameworks of their countries.
There is no easy “solution,” but to the extent that there is one, it entails a liberalism that accommodates, rather than attempts to snuff out, religious difference and diversity. The approach, then, must be one of promoting religious pluralism over homogeneity. Which brings me back to the American context. There are many reasons that the U.S. has been better able to integrate its Muslim population (including higher levels of educational attainment among American Muslims), but one important factor is that the U.S. has long been more hospitable to public expressions of faith and religiosity, which means that a conservative Muslim need not choose between their American-ness, on one hand, and their Muslim identity, on the other. One can embrace both simultaneously. To ask that American Muslims disavow sharia, without which Muslims cannot partake in religious rituals such as praying, fasting, and charity, as some prominent politicians have called for, risks replacing the relatively successful model of American integration with a French-style demand for assimilation. Such an approach would be a mistake—and it would only heighten the very contradictions and tensions it would ostensibly be attempting to address.