Faith in the secular

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Is it possible for a devout Muslim to feel loyalty to a secular state? The question, which may annoy those devoted to a strict interpretation of multiculturalism, is a good one. It is a testimony to the fervour of a faith in which, for most Muslims who are in the first generation of immigration to Europe and North America, religion and the state have been coterminous - or where they are not, the most ardent spirits preach that they should be so. Thus the question which must be put to Muslims - actually, which they must put to themselves, if they come to or are born in a western secular state - is: can you put your religion, and the piety with which you embrace it, on one level and your civic being and duties on another?

We must ask that question, and the others dependent on it - such as those about schooling, family practices, attitudes to the state and especially foreign policy - because in most western nations, particularly in such European countries as Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Spain, significant sections of the host community are alarmed by Muslims and by the projected rate of growth of their communities. Simply put, that alarm is based on a fear that if Muslims become a large minority or a majority in a city or area they will be intolerant of non-Muslims and seek, through democratic weight, to de-secularise those parts of the state they can.

If that alarm turns into fear and distrust, and thence to aggression and hatred, we are in for a slide into violence that no politician, and certainly no multicultural invocations, can halt. Hence the need for the questions, and the need to see such questions as good. And, as important, there must be a realisation that for all the questions to be put to European Muslims, there is a corresponding need to put the same or similar questions to the non-Muslim majorities.

In a recent talk, the Dutch writer and political activist (of the centre-left) Paul Scheffer posed this two-faceted necessity on the troubled engagement between western societies and Islam. Citing the influence of the American Oscar Handlin’s book The Uprooted, Scheffer observed that there are two kinds of alienation attendant on immigration: one, that of the immigrant, uprooted, often poor, often unable to understand, often dependent. On the other, that of the native population, those who often see themselves as the real French, or British, or Dutch, who experience mass immigration into generally poorer areas as a destruction or worsening of their way of life. To deny the reality of either is to cause resentment and worse.

Scheffer said that the reaction of societies that saw themselves as institutionally liberal - such as the Scandinavian, the Dutch and the British - had been to extend tolerance. That tolerance, however, lay above all in not asking questions, especially the hard, politically incorrect, non-multicultural questions of the kind mentioned above. It lay in adopting a model of multiculturalism which - as the British writer Kenan Malik has put it - gives members of ethnic or religious groups a fixed cultural identity and thus limits their capacity for change and adaptation. If, says Malik, a culture is marked as one that must be preserved, it means, implicitly, that people of that ethnic group ought to be acting, thinking and speaking in a certain way.

It lay - lies - in the powerful notion in many of our educational systems that minorities, whether immigrants or subsequent generations, should not learn British, Dutch or Danish history and culture. No better way could be found than cutting them out of the common collective memory.

And it lies in the attitude to the welfare systems in European states. Immigrants who come to developed countries and take advantage of welfare, either by entitlement or by falsehood, will always be a source of grievance to the settled population (of any origin). Welfare systems played to the maximum do not involve their recipients in the society - they can insulate them from it, in idleness and victimhood.

Here, most clearly, comes the other set of questions: the questions for the non-minority. If we ask immigrants what it means to be truly civic, this is a question we must also put to ourselves, we in western Europe who often have a weak sense of what our society stands for. If we put on immigrants the responsibility to change, adapt and accept, then we must put that responsibility on ourselves also - we who collectively brought immigrants to our countries, largely to do jobs unwanted by native workers, or essential for the maintenance of health and welfare systems.

If we ask immigrants to understand our culture and history, we should ask ourselves: what do we understand? What are we taught and what of that do we retain? How far is a robust notion of citizenship passed on from parents to children, teachers to pupils, professors to students?

And if we seek to make access to welfare systems dependent on strict criteria, and on contributions to it, then we have to create and police such a system for all. Immigrants are not the greatest spongers on welfare, in spite of racist propaganda, simply the most visible. Welfare systems do need - and will increasingly need - to be based on merit and responsibility, by all. Immigrants, often, only do what they see others doing.

Scheffer, speaking from the bruising experience of the Netherlands, said that two questions, however, particularly concerned Muslims. One is - do you, when demanding freedom for your religion, extend that to other religious and ethnic groups, whom you see as just as worthy of respect? And when members of your religious group seek to dissent, criticise or leave, will you support that freedom? These are largely questions for Muslims - but they are for all the faithful whose faith defines their lives, private and public. On the assent to these questions the future peaceful integration of new and old immigrants into our societies depends.

john.lloyd@ft.com

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