Liberal states and Muslim minorities


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THE recent setback to the multicultural thrust of European nation states, despite its limited ambitions, has raised many questions about the efficacy of liberalism and liberal-democratic states to integrate the people of other religions and cultures, particularly the Muslim immigrants. There are many who see this retreat of western liberal states from their commitment to a multicultural mode of integration as a temporary political strategy to stem the rising tide of far right-wing parties. However, one must go beyond this narration of the failure of the multiculturalist model of political integration. Rather, one must examine the issue at a much more theoretical level, i.e., by going back to the very foundations of western liberalism.

How far can the liberal democratic state in Europe go in accommodating the demands of other cultures, particularly those of the Muslim communities? What is the nature of multiculturalism that was being practiced but had to be abandoned in the face of a growing political assertion of Muslim communities? Does the current form of multiculturalism offer an alternative mode of integration or is it just another variant of the assimilationism that was being practiced in varying degrees at both the policy and societal levels of European society? Does the retreat of the multicultural thrust of state policies reflect its logical outcome, not a deviation, given the nature of multiculturalism that was pursued? Can the Indian model of a liberal state and multiculturalism provide an answer to the problem of integration of Muslim minority communities in the European world? This paper examines some of these questions related to management of cultural and religious diversity, particularly the Muslim minority communities in both the European and Indian settings.

Before addressing the above questions, a short definition of a liberal state and multiculturalism is required. A liberal state is one that guarantees basic fundamental rights to its citizens and governs in accordance with the principles of the rule of law, accountability and nondiscrimination. Both the Indian and European states fall within the scope of this definition, despite vast differences in the historical trajectory of their evolution. Multiculturalism too means different things in different contexts. In sharp contrast to the notion of pluralism, multiculturalism unmasks the ‘value neutrality’ of a liberal state and demands the equal recognition and representation of group/community rights and culture in the public sphere. It advocates the notion of multicultural citizenship and multicultural nationhood. At a broader level, it aims at reconciliation of cultural diversity and political unity.


Within the framework of political multiculturalism one can trace two distinct phases in the engagement of European governments with Islam and Muslim immigrant communities. During the first phase (1974-1989), the European governments’ dealings with the Muslim immigrant communities essentially revolved around accommodating the religious needs of the Muslim populations of immigrant origin: the availability of burial sites, prayer spaces, ritual animal slaughter, religious education, chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the army, permission for the construction of mosques, the establishment of Muslim schools, among others.

It is interesting to note that these multicultural concerns were totally absent during the period of large-scale Muslim immigration (1950s and 1960s) required for the postwar reconstruction of Europe. They only surfaced in 1974 when the policy of immigration was officially ended under the impact of the oil shock, though it continued under the guise of family reunification in most European countries. Hence, we need to contextualize both the limited thrust of European policies during 1970s and 1980s and its subsequent abandonment in the 1990s in order to understand both the dilemma and limits of European liberal states in pursuing the policies of multiculturalism while dealing with the Muslim immigrants.

The pragmatic multicultural arrangements made during the 1970s and 1980s were derived from multiple objectives, ranging from cultural packages for Muslim immigrants to help them cope with the economic crisis emanating from a shift in the economy from manufacturing to service industry, securing Muslim governments’ cooperation to manage religious needs, and tapping Arab resources for investments in Europe.

However, the assertion of the Muslim immigrant community in European public sphere and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with an anti-western tone in the Muslim world by the end of the 1980s, sensitized western governments to the need for regulating Islam in the European hemisphere. The governments were particularly alarmed by the fact that the demand for recognition of Islam in the public sphere came from second and third generation Muslims, who were expected to have been assimilated into the dominant European culture. Controlling Islamic fundamentalism within the discourse of ‘securitization of Islam’ thus became the primary concern in dealing with Muslim immigrant communities. Equally important was the slow realization that Muslim immigrants were no longer guest workers but a permanent reality, a part of Europe.


The second phase (since 1989) began with these considerations in mind. This phase was characterized by a policy of regulation, control and incorporation that reflected the continuity of the historical patterns of the subordination of the Church to the state in Europe. These efforts favoured certain Muslim groups over others; sought to educate immigrant imams locally, requiring them to speak the vernacular and understand the local culture; stiffened the criterion of citizenship; facilitated construction of mosques (but without minarets) and funded religious instruction in the hope of reducing financing by and influence of Muslim states; imposed restrictions on the wearing of the hijab; and virtually moulded Muslim organizations into structures that corresponded to national criteria and objectives, such as Belgium’s Central Body for the Islamic Council, Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, and the French Council of the Muslim religion.


Two explanations can be advanced for this policy of regulation and the refusal to accord legal recognition to new faiths, particularly Islam. First, ‘autonomy’ to various denominational churches in Europe was granted only in the twentieth century after exercising strict state control/supervision and subjecting them to thoroughgoing processes of democratization and secularization. Over the years Christianity has lost its political influence and been reduced to the domain of ‘private sphere’ and to the status of ‘civil religion’. In other words, collective community rights in the West came to be placed on the agenda only after a uniform structure of social and civil laws had been established in society. The existence of a uniform civil code is important because it, to some extent, prescribes the limits of permissible cultural diversity. The infusion of a liberal ethic into community practices helped modulate the potential conflict between community rights and gender equality.

On the other hand, Muslim society has yet to undergo such a structural transformation. Thus, any process of granting further autonomy to Islam, many fear, might result in the promotion of a fundamentalist world-view against the secular democratic order of western countries. Second, western liberal democratic states can deal with and regulate an organized church, but do not know how to engage with an amorphous, diversified and unorganized Islam.

Given the context of globalization and the age of information technology, one wonders whether an eighteenth and nineteenth century institutional assimilationist model of integration will have the desired result in terms of the integration of Muslim immigrant communities. In fact, this approach has multiple implications that might hinder the meaningful integration of Muslim communities in European society. To date, for instance, no national Islamic council created by a European state has become an effective interlocutor with the government for facilitating a fruitful two-way dialogue. Most have floundered. The attempt to artificially promote a nationally oriented Islam may well accentuate the trend of Muslim alienation, promoting further movement towards communalism. If anything, the trend towards Muslim differentiation and alienation appears to be growing stronger, with the younger generation in the vanguard.


Second, attempts to nationalize and secularize Islam could hinder the development of a modern Euro-Islamic identity that amalgamates western culture with Islamic orthopraxy, parallel to the distinct Arab Islamic, South Asian Islamic and East Asian Islamic cultures and identities that have emerged elsewhere in the world.

Third, an exclusivist thrust on minorities fails to take into consideration the need to educate the majority community about the minority’s culture and religion, given that meaningful integration is a two-way process. The government initiatives so far have not gone beyond promoting inter-faith centres and the ‘symbolic politics of multiculturalism’.

Given this scenario and approach, which does not address the pathetic economic situation of Muslims and comes closer to the model of assimilation, those Muslims confronting poverty, bigotry, de facto segregation and limited social mobility, often find it difficult to embrace Europe’s liberal democratic views on gender equality, sexual liberalization, and the principles of compromise, egalitarianism and identification with the state. These are all issues that challenge the traditional views, not only of Muslims but also of individuals with an Arab, Turkish or South Asian heritage, as the vast majority of Europe’s Muslims are.


In addition, there are two other factors related to the nature of liberalism itself that come in the way of a meaningful accommodation of Islam and Muslim minorities. First, the growth and development of liberalism in Europe is associated with the general process of homogenization of society and nation state. It eliminated the ‘other’, or at least pushed it outside the boundaries of the national self. This flushing out of the internal ‘other’ created conditions conducive to the growth of a liberal orientation. With the elimination of the religious and cultural others, all that stood in the way of equality were differences of privileges based on status.

The early liberals recognized this impediment, and consequently were hostile to the privileges of corporate bodies and classes. The point to be noted is that when the ‘other’ is metonymically related, the ideology of formal equality gains wider acceptance. And conversely, when the ‘other’ confronts the ‘national self’ metaphorically, the discourse of cultural difference gains substantial ground. The implication of a linkage between the evolution of the liberal state in Europe and the process of homogenization is that if Islam and Muslim communities have to find a place in a secularized Europe, they too need to undergo a similar process of assimilation.

Second, there is a disjunction between the pluralist claim of a liberal-democratic nation state and its construction of exclusive nationalism derived from a common descent, religion, culture, language or history. There is a link between operative laws concerning citizenship, immigration and the further development of exclusive forms of nationalism wherein outsiders are either excluded in principle or have to be completely assimilated. This further complicates the task of accommodating the religious and cultural demands of Muslim immigrant communities at the national-political level.


A reworking of the extant policy towards the Muslim communities will be aided by an understanding of the Indian version of liberalism and multiculturalism that has shaped the political practice of the Indian state and its approach towards religion. In both respects, the Indian practice differs radically from the European experience. First, in mark contrast to European liberalism that believes in individual autonomy as the best guarantor of religious tolerance and cultural diversity, the Indian view regards religious and cultural autonomy of the group as equally central, as these differences are considered to be both a source of discrimination and diversity. Hence, the Indian Constitution guarantees collective rights (both religious and cultural) of all social groups, including religious and linguistic minority groups (Art 25-30). Gradually, the discourse of minority rights emerged as an integral part of Indian secularism, unlike in the West.

Second, unlike the western construction of nationalism, India began its nation building exercise through a process of democratic consultation and negotiation among different individuals and communities as reflected in the constituent assembly debates. By ruling out a state religion for India, the Constitution assured the minority communities about the non-homogenizing path of the nation building process. Further, it remained deliberately vague in its formulation of the core values of the Indian nation.

Ironically, this helped the post-colonial state in adopting a ‘moderate’ and ‘cautious’ nation building process that facilitated a smooth accommodation of various regional, cultural and religious aspiration and identity at the national level. A flexible, accommodative process of nation building helped the various communities, particularly the minority religious communities, to identify with the ‘nation’. It needs to be underlined here that ever since the early 1980s, when the Indian state started asserting the principle of majoritarianism as the basis of Indian nationalism, the majority-minority relationship deteriorated sharply, giving rise to sectarian and divisive forces at the cost of national unity and integrity.


The Indian notion of secularism based on the principle of equidistance from all religions, indirectly recognizes and legalizes the role of religion in the public sphere, to the extent that it does not adversely affect the democratic political process and political outcomes. Without going into detail, suffice it to say here that unlike Europe, India adopted a non-institutional and non-representative approach in dealing with religion and religious groups. This in part explains the non-coercive, non-regulative behaviour of the Indian state towards Muslims.

Thus the Muslim communities have, over the years, established a very large number of Islamic schools without facing any hindrance from the state. The historical experiences with separate religious schools (viz; the Catholic schools in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands) is that they contribute to, rather than detract from, the integration of their respective religious communities into the common polity. In brief, when states do not pursue aggressive policies of enforced assimilation, but rather engage in even-handed accommodationist policies and allow religious minorities considerable autonomy, including the freedom to voluntarily integrate into common public institutions, the chances that minorities will develop into ‘isolated’ groups living from cradle to grave in separate institutions are substantially reduced.


Finally, the Indian democratic political process has acted as a bulwark against the spread of militant fundamentalism among the Muslim minorities, despite their increasing alienation from the state system. The noticeable features of the Indian state system are its flexibility about norms, doctrines and principles, being non-definitional, its fuzziness about things ‘political’ and decision-making process, a capacity to live with uncertain situations, a tendency to look for context-specific solutions and developing a political grammar that recognizes the public-private, formal-informal distinctions, but without making them official.

Over the years this flexibility, the capacity to be accommodative, ambiguity, fuzziness, vagueness and non-doctrinal tendencies of the Indian political process have proved to be its strength, not weakness, unlike what the many advocates of a rational-modernist model of development would like to believe. It has helped in dealing with the complex issues of integrating the large social diversities that exist in India without resorting to violence.

Muslim communities tend to articulate their demands through the major mainstream political parties. This is reflected in all major initiatives of the government, be it grants to minority educational institutions; extending the benefit of affirmative policy of reservation in government employment to backward caste/OBC Muslims in many states; inclusion of Urdu in the 8th Schedule; and setting up a Minority Rights Commission, among others. In addition to these constitutional commitments, the government and various political parties seek to enhance the representation of Muslims in decision-making bodies both through nomination of members of minority communities to elective office and partly through elevating them to positions of power and authority in government.


To what degree this ensures that the minorities are able to affect political decisions remains an open question. Nevertheless, this political practice does give to the minorities a sense of representation and participation in the decision-making process. By adopting multiple strategies and negotiating with multiple centres of decision-making within Muslim communities at both levels, centralized and decentralized, and by encouraging the Muslim communities to participate in the general political process of the country, the Indian state has not only been successful in accommodating many of its major concerns but, to a substantial degree has thwarted the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In contrast, the European states are finding it difficult to negotiate with their Muslim communities in view of the absence of a single representative structure among Muslim immigrant communities.

In this regard it is worth noting that European societies have democratic regimes and if they do not keenly pursue a programmatic model of cultural and social homogenization that carries the potential to generate a counter-tendency towards religious reassertion, the prospects are that barring concern about religious identity, Europe would be spared any large-scale Islamic resurgence despite the alarmist fears that are so often expressed. In fact, to a great extent, Islam functions as a marker of social identity in a minority societal context.

The experience of India is instructive in this respect. Despite a weak civil society and a weak democratic political tradition, India has successfully ‘managed and administered’ the second largest Muslim population in the world without the threat of pan-Islamism, mainly because the state has been moderate in its nation-building activities and allowed democratic space to its minorities. Surely European countries with a strong civil society and democratic institutions should be in a better position to obviate the possibility of a large-scale Islamic fundamentalist consolidation.

It is in this context that one can argue that the educated generation of European Muslims is probably the most valuable resource shared by both the Muslim communities and wider society in the task of integration of the two into a future multicultural society. Since they can operate more effectively in a trans-cultural space, religion is reappropriated through strategies of cultural reduction and hybridization in order to bridge the gap between the country of origin of their parents and the social context in which they grew up. Hence the making of a ‘Muslim French’, ‘Muslim British’, ‘Muslim German’ or even a ‘Muslim European’ and a ‘Muslim Indian’ is a distinct possibility.