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Harmonising Muslim identities and West European societies
September 29,2016   By:chinahumanrights.org
Harmonising Muslim identities and West European societies
 
Mi Jung van der Velde , Tom Zwart
The Hague University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht University
 
1. Introduction 
 
This paper outlines a project that is being developed to harmonise Muslim identities and West European societies. It is being carried out by a consortium consisting of the The Hague University of Applied Sciences, the Free University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University.
 
For the purpose of this paper, Muslims are considered those persons who consider Islam an important part of their identity. As is the case in China, 'the' European Muslim does not exist. Although Muslims share the same faith, they are diverse in many other respects. In addition, the term 'majority' actually stands for an amalgam of groups and individuals with different characteristics, distinct values and various backgrounds. Nonetheless, to be able to present the issues clearly, for the sake of discussion throughout the paper we will rely on the minority-majority binary.  
 
Politicians and the media create the impression that the social and political participation of Muslims leaves a lot to be desired. They often assume that being a Muslim and taking part in a democratic society under the rule of law cannot be combined. Underlying this assumption is the idea that Muslims have distinctive views on the position of women, homosexuality and the separation of church and state, which stand in the way of participation in a democratic society. 
 
Some politicians have called for a ban on certain Muslim organisations, especially Salafist ones, based on the assumption that they are not open to interaction with society and are vulnerable to radicalisation and extremism. Those politicians call for the introduction of a 'resilient' or 'militant democracy' which actively opposes challenges to its existence.  Although the German constitution has established such a militant democracy, the concept is alien to the constitutional system of other European states.  
 
Assumptions about the incompatibility of Islamic and democratic values are based on prejudices and have no factual foundation. Research conducted in the U.S., Australia and various European countries shows that many Muslims do take part actively in society by way of 'civic engagement'.  They show their commitment by engaging in relations at work, by doing voluntary work and by investing in their neighbourhoods. 
 
In addition, many Muslims take part actively in their religion-based community associations, such as Quran study groups, schools and sport clubs.  Critics argue that these kind of self organisations lead to isolation and ghettoisation. Although it is true that there is such a risk, research shows that these organisations also contribute to the social participation of Muslims. They increase the skills of their members, who can rely on those to take part in other organisations, and they tie the Muslim community to the rest of society. 
 
Research also shows that Muslims often are highly motivated to take part actively in society and that their religiosity acts as a driver.  These Muslims strive to be good Muslims and good citizens both at the same time. In their view, being a Muslim and an active citizen are perfectly compatible. They do not see any contradiction between the two, because their faith encourages them to take part in society. 
  
These positive research outcomes do not play any role in the public discourse. This could be the result of the fact that in liberal-modernist societies religion is often regarded as something irrational, which should not play a role in rational societies. As part of the development from a traditional to a modern society, the disappearance of religion is seen as inevitable. Young Muslims challenge this assumption because they take part in modern society while cherishing their religious identity. In addition, although this may seem paradoxical, the liberal secular world Westerners live in is a world shaped by Christian beliefs.  This means that the longstanding antagonism between Islam and Christianity is likely to play a role here as well.  But if young Muslims believe that it is possible to combine their faith with taking part in a modern society - and there is ample proof that they succeed in doing so  - the time has come for politicians and media to accept this as well. 
 
2. Growing tensions between Muslims and majorities in Western Europe
 
The picture emerging in the media and the political arena is that the tensions between Muslim minorities and the majority populations in Western European societies are growing by the day. The presence of large numbers of Muslims in Western Europe is being portrayed as a threat to 'our way of life'. Europe's faltering economy, the growing number of Muslim immigrants coming from conflict areas like Syria, and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, conducted by self-proclaimed Muslim Jihadis, create fertile ground for such representations. 
 
The media and politicians regard members of the Muslim minorities as being 'different'. In this narrative Muslims are religious fundamentalists who cannot separate politics from religion;  who treat women as being inferior to men; and who offer the cold shoulder to LGBT. Accordingly, the calls for interventions are growing louder, such as the banning of certain orthodox Muslim religious organisations; the exclusion of religious symbols from public life; the constitutional entrenchment of 'our values'; and the active 'integration' of Muslims into mainstream society. 
 
This negative rhetoric is often accompanied by hate crimes being committed against Mosques and religious centres. Muslims suffer from stereotyping,  discrimination and exclusion from society. Consequently, many Muslims do not feel welcome and they believe that they are being excluded from society. Some withdraw from society into their own religion and culture.
 
Therefore, the current tensions have put into motion a vicious circle of pushing Muslims to the margins, which is countered by their detachment from society. This process may lead to further tensions, xenophobia and hate crimes, as well as radicalisation, extremism and terrorism.  
 
This is likely to play into the strategy of ISIL, which is aimed at letting Western societies implode as a result of growing discord between Muslim minorities and right wing populist  political parties. 
 
The current project challenges this discourse, which dominates politics and the media, by analysing what is actually happening behind the politico-media facade. It assists in creating Muslim narratives and in including those in the Western European discourse. In addition, the project is aimed at empowering young Muslims through education. Consequently, the project consists of three parts. First, there is an anthropological subproject, which is based on the so-called receptor approach to human rights, which has built a record of success over the past few years.  Second, another subproject focuses on the social psychology dimension of this issue. Finally, a third subproject consist of developing a course for young Muslims which will assist them in increasing the civic engagement. 
 
3. Subproject on enhancing the social and political participation of young Muslims through education
 
The goal of this subproject is to develop a course aimed at strengthening the social and political participation by young Muslims in Western Europe. The development of the course is a work in progress, which is being carried out in consultation with Muslim educational organisations, Muslim religious organisations and general educational institutions. 
 
The proposed course differs from the many programmes aimed at de- or counter-radicalising Muslim youths.  De-radicalisation programs are aimed at protecting the population against terrorists by encouraging suspects to abandon their radical beliefs. These kind of projects are driven by fear. The current program is aimed at realising the positive duty of the state to ensure that all citizens are able to enjoy the benefits of living in a democratic society. The main driver, therefore, is republicanism. 
 
That should not blind us to the fact that some young Muslims are turning away from society and withdraw into extremism and even terrorism. Although this only affects a very small group, every drop-out is one too many. The factors leading to radicalisation are complex, situational and not always related to religion. However, there is no doubt that rejection by society, exemplified by islamphobia and discrimination, plays a part.   This means that society as such can contribute to combating radicalisation and alienation among Muslims by supporting their ambition to be full-fledged members of society.  
 
However, Muslims are being exposed to islamophobia and discrimination almost on a daily basis. The counterterrorism policies of European states are stigmatising Muslims as a 'suspect community', as happened to the Irish on the British mainland during the Troubles.  This leads to discouragement of young Muslims who see their overtures being snubbed. 
 
4. This general learning objective has been specified in three sub objectives: 
 
I. To make the students aware of what it means to be a Muslim in the West
 
The students will be asked to indicate what it means to them to be Muslims. The question will be raised whether there is a Muslim identity and whether that Muslim identity can flourish within the boundaries of a democracy under the rule of law. The question will also be addressed whether Muslims should organise themselves separately or whether they should become part of general political formations. The students will also deal with diversity within the Muslim community and determine whether that is a strength or weakness, and if it is a weakness, how that can be turned into a strength. They will be asked to asses which opportunities are created by being a member of a community and which risks this may entail.  Thus, the opportunity to fall back on your own religious support network might keep you from interaction with the wider society. 
 
II. To make the students aware of the rights and duties of Muslims in a democracy under the rule of law 
 
The students will be introduced to the rights and duties of Muslims within a democracy under the rule of law. The question will be raised whether there are different degrees of citizenship.  The students will be invited to reflect on whether Muslims have to shed certain values as a condition for citizenship. They will also address whether the rejection of certain core values should lead to loss of citizenship. The course will also consider the propriety of dual nationality.  
 
III. To make the students aware of the opportunities Muslims have to impact democratic decision making
 
The participants will consider the options they have to have an impact on political decision-making and the way they are being portrayed in the media. They will identify which initiatives they can take to draw the attention of politicians and how they can lobby them effectively. They will consider how they can improve the image Muslims have in the media and how they can define themselves before anybody else does. 
 
Underlying these learning objectives are certain guiding principles, which will be laid out in this sub section.  
 
First, those who wish to participate in society are not required to give up their values and their identity and to replace them with liberal-secular values as a pre-condition for doing so. On the contrary, the course will tap into the religious identity of the students, which already serves as the driver of their participation, to the maximum extent possible. This will be done with the help of the so-called  receptor approach to human rights, which sees culture as an important source of human rights. European constitutions guarantee the freedom of religion, the freedom of expression and the right to take part in the governance of the by electing one's representatives. This underscores the idea that citizens are allowed to maintain their own identity while they are taking part in the political process and society. 
 
In addition, the social and political participation undertaken by and the self organisation existing within the Muslim community will be the points of departure of this course. Best practices taken from Muslim communities across Europe will serve as illustrations. 
 
Furthermore, the message to the students will be that it is important that they themselves take the initiative and that they do not wait until others see the light. In order to secure a better future for themselves it is important that they take charge. Succeeding in European societies requires seizing opportunities. The course is aimed at increasing the 'civic literacy' of the students: how to make maximum use of the opportunities offered in a democracy to pursue their dreams and remove barriers. 
 
Additionally, teacher in the course will try to persuade the students that they have 'agency', i.e. the capacity to turn the tide in times of adversity. This requires them to make maximum use of the available opportunities, even if these seem limited. The 'How to run your supervisor' course of the Netherlands School of Human Rights Research will serve as a model: this course teaches PhD candidates how they can impact the coaching offered by their supervisors to a maximum extent, while operating within a power framework in which they are the junior party. This may allow them to cross the threshold resulting from isolation and distrust. 
  
Moreover, the course will lead to enhancement of the self-awareness and assertiveness of the students. They are part of and pay an important contribution to society and this idea will be reinforced throughout the course. 
 
Finally, the students will not only be made aware of opportunities and how to use them to their advantage, but will also learn how to tackle islamophobia and discrimination. The course provides democratic means to bring undesirable situations to an end. The BBC documentary 'NYPD: Biggest gang in New York?' will serve as a source of inspiration. The documentary shows how a group of black citizens, called 'Copwatchers', who are concerned about the amount of force used by the police against black people, constantly film police action. In this way they hope to prevent police violence, and, alternatively, to gather proof if it occurs anyway.