It all started, as it does quite frequently these days, as a debate on Facebook, this one among a group of libertarians discussing the relationship between religion and state.
A friend posted a news story reporting that a halal supermarket—i.e., a supermarket selling only food and drinks that are permissible under Islamic law—in Paris has been ordered by local authorities to sell pork and alcohol (which are not halal) or face closure. Apparently older residents of the area had complained that they were no longer able to buy the full range of products that had been available under the store’s previous ownership.
“We want a social mix,” said the head of the municipality. “We don’t want any area that is only Muslim or any area where there are no Muslims.” He added that he would have reacted in the same way had a kosher supermarket opened on the site, and indicated that the authority was taking legal action to revoke the shop’s lease, which runs until 2019.
Members of the Facebook group seemed to agree that this was another example of the French tradition embodied in the nation’s constitutional requirement of laïcité, or the strict separation of state and religious activities. This is sometimes contrasted with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—which guarantees freedom of religion but doesn’t require the government to maintain secularism.
Notwithstanding a recent court ruling that a Denver bakery could not refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, the general consensus among my Facebook friends was that what had taken place in Paris would never occur in the U.S. No federal, state, or local government would force a licensed halal supermarket to “diversify” the range of its products by adding alcohol and non-halal meats.
But as the group’s contrarian, I decided to challenge the evolving agreement among my friends. Aren’t we being perhaps a bit dogmatic when we elevate political principles above the lessons we draw from real-life experiences?
Are we going to allow members of a religious group that worships nude to show up unclothed in public places? Why is female circumcision wrong and male circumcision fine? And why not legalize polygamy, which has been around longer than same sex-marriage? You allow Muslims to have their own halal supermarkets based on commitment to freedom of religion. Why not allow Muslim men to marry several wives?
We could go on and on with this kind of debate, which should not be dismissed as one of those reductio ad absurdum exercises. After all, there are millions of Muslims worldwide who practice polygamy, which is in accordance with their religious law. So it was not surprising that a prominent Italian-Muslim leader proposed recently that polygamy must become a civil right in Italy similar to same-sex marriage, which the country allowed earlier this year. And why not? There are probably more Muslims than gays in Italy today.
“There’s no reason for Italy not to accept polygamous marriages of consenting persons,” proposed Hamza Piccardo, founder of the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations, adding: “When it comes to civil rights here, then polygamy is a civil right. Muslims don’t agree with homosexual partnership and still they have to accept a system that allows it.”
In the West we seem to agree that female circumcision is cruel; we even refer to it as “female genital mutilation.” But it was estimated this year that 200 million women have undergone the procedure—in 27 countries in Africa, as well as in Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Yemen. What happens if Muslims from these countries decide to settle in Europe in the coming years? Why are we going to deny them the right to practice their religion, even though all attempts to criminalize male circumcision, practiced by both Jews and Muslims, have failed? Why the double standard?
The answer is clear: the majority of Americans are members of the Abrahamic religions who regard, for instance, public nudity as running contrary to their core cultural values. In case you haven’t noticed, there aren’t many pagans around, and unlike, say, gays, they don’t have a major influence in Hollywood and Broadway.
To put it simply, when it comes to freedom of religion and figuring out the exact boundaries between religion and state, numbers count. And as more Muslims settle in the West, and gain citizenship and the right of vote, the contours of the debate over religion and its place in society are bound to change.
We like to imagine that debates over core political issues are conducted by great philosophers who are committed to our sacred values. But in liberal democratic societies, the principle of one-man-one-vote carries a lot of influence in terms of how we define morality or, for that matter, what we recognize as a “legitimate” religious belief.
The debate over religion and state that evolved in the Christian West in the aftermath of devastating religious wars—and was applied to other societies with large Christian majorities, and with sprinklings of assimilated Jewish communities (completing our so-called Judeo-Christian civilization)—may have to change.
Members of a religion whose adherents don’t subscribe to the notion of religious freedom, who believe that religion and state cannot be separated, are beginning to challenge what we regard as the basic axioms of the Enlightenment. They are doing that by using their growing political power, and they are quite confident that they have the upper hand in the birth-rate battles that are transforming demographics worldwide.
During our above-mentioned Facebook debate, several of the Jewish discussants were horrified to learn that a French official might have the power to force a kosher butcher to sell pork. But the analogy between kosher butcher stores and halal supermarkets is misplaced.
The declining Jewish population of France, of around 500,000, consists mostly of secular Jews who have assimilated into French society, with many leading Jewish politicians and intellectuals celebrating France’s principles of secularism and state-religion separation. In fact, most French Jews aren’t likely to frequent kosher butcher shops, and with the exception of a small ultra-Orthodox community, they aren’t residing in neighborhoods with Jewish majorities.
On the other hand, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, about 5 million, and it keeps growing as a result of emigration from the Middle East and high birth rates. And unlike modern Jews, most Muslims in France haven’t been going through a process of secularization and integration into French society. They probably wouldn’t understand what the terms “secularism” and “liberalism” mean, and if anything, under the influence of growing religious radicalization in the Muslim world, they have been embracing less tolerant and open forms of Islam in recent years.
According to the common liberal fantasy, the multicultural nature of Western societies allows these Muslims to have their cake and eat it too, to maintain their religious identity while integrating into the general population and becoming French or German or Swedish “like us.” Soon enough, the hijab-wearing woman will look like any other sexually liberated French woman.
In reality, Muslim immigrants take advantage of multiculturalism to maintain their religious identity while resisting pressure to assimilate into French society. Parisians hope that the Muslims congregating in their neighborhoods will eventually leave their ghettos, like Jews did after being granted civil rights following the French Revolution. A few halal stores might remain, but the majority of Muslims will shop in the general supermarket.
Most Muslims are not following this liberal game plan. With their growing population, they are spreading into new parts of the cities. They will become the majority in more and more neighborhoods in Paris, where new mosques will be built and where more women will be wearing hijabs. And one day, the only option for France’s aging Christian population will be to shop at the local halal supermarket.
If you think this is a farfetched nightmare scenario concocted by an Islamophobic mind, consider the way that members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community or Haredi in Israel have been winning the demographic wars, strengthening their political power, and gradually transforming their secular country.
The ultra-Orthodox Jews, who still dress like it’s 1815 in Eastern Europe, adhere to rigorous religious laws, including strict separation between men and women, and shun any form of modern education, including basic prerequisites of math, science, and language.
They constituted a tiny minority of 30,000 when Israel was established in 1948, residing in a few small neighborhoods in Jerusalem and near Tel Aviv, with many refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the new state. But Israel’s secular founders, including the first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, agreed to exempt the young Haredi studying in religious schools from mandatory military service, to provide them with government subsidies to study, and to support their expanding families of five to ten children (compared to secular Jewish families with two to three children).
A vicious cycle developed. With the number of the ultra-Orthodox Jews growing dramatically, the community was able to increase its political influence, with its parties joining coalition governments and acquiring new financial and other benefits for its members and allowing them to grow their families—which continued to live on government subsidies, becoming a drag on the economy.
Today the ultra-Orthodox Jews number around 800,000 and constitute 11 percent of the Israeli population. With a growth rate of 5 percent, one of the highest of the world, they could increase to 20 percent of the population by 2030.
While much of the public rhetoric in Israel has been about multiculturalism and coexistence between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, in reality the Haredi resist embracing the liberal and secular values of Israeli society. They not only maintain their separate religious and cultural identity, but also are gradually able to force their norms on the secular Jewish majority.
Hence their political parties ensure that, despite growing pressure from the younger, secular Israeli Jews who reside in advanced modern urban centers in and around Tel Aviv, no attempt will be made to separate religion and state in Israel. The Orthodox-controlled rabbinate continues to maintain jurisdiction over personal-status issues such as Jewish marriages and Jewish divorce, as well as Jewish burials, conversion to Judaism, and kosher laws, while rabbis representing the Reform and Conservative branches of American Judaism continue to fight for state recognition.
In addition to new towns established by the government to accommodate the growing Haredi population, many ultra-Orthodox Jews are also trying to establish a presence in other areas of the country. And the storyline is familiar: several Haredi families move to a mostly secular neighborhood, where they demand that their “religious rights” be protected by, for example, banning traffic and forcing stores to close down during the Sabbath. More Orthodox Jews then join the first group, and before you know it, the entire neighborhood becomes another Haredi outpost. Most recently, under pressure of the religious parties, stores in the Tel Aviv area have lost their permits to open during the Sabbath.
The ultra-Orthodox have some cultural and historical ties to the secular Jewish majority, and they certainly doesn’t pose any national-security threat. And yet not only have the secular Israeli Jews failed to integrate and assimilate the Haredi, but the latter have used their growing demographic power to help them transform the norms of Israel’s secular culture.
Why would anyone believe that a religious minority like the Muslim population of France in Europe, which has historically and culturally been estranged from the secular Christian majority, would be able to integrate—or would even be interested in integrating—into secular European politics and culture?
Add to that the national-security challenges that a radicalized Muslim population poses to Europe, and it becomes clear that the notion that multiculturalism and religious freedom will eventually resolve these problems is nothing more than wishful thinking. That a European political leader would actually take steps to increase the number of Muslim immigrants makes no sense at all, unless the goal is to commit national political and cultural suicide.
It goes without saying that many Muslims and Jews who practice their religion can be assimilated into secular Western societies. Unlike the Haredi, modern Orthodox Jews do coexist with the secular Jewish majority. Exposed to modern education and culture, they don’t try to preserve a separate identity or exhibit intolerance toward those who don’t share their values, and they have excelled in science, business and other professional arenas.
There are many Westernized and modern Muslims in Europe and the United States. In fact, one of the reasons that so many Muslim immigrants have done so well in the United States is that the majority of them, especially those who arrived from Iran and South Asia, tended to be highly educated and secular, which isn’t the case with the more recent arrivals from countries like Somalia and Afghanistan.
And let’s face it: there aren’t so many Muslims, or for that matter ultra-Orthodox Jews, living in the United States. They amount to tiny and insignificant minorities, and that can be accommodated in our pluralistic society. Even if they fail to assimilate into the secular environment, they aren’t able to change American society and culture in the way that the large Hispanic population could in the coming decades.
Secularism and other legacies of the Enlightenment, including liberalism, democracy, and capitalism, may be “universal” in the sense that they have been embraced by many different societies. But nonetheless, each society’s unique history and culture determine whether and how that process takes place.
Hence the German form of capitalism is quite different from the American or Anglo or Chinese one. The United States, Switzerland, and India all have democratic systems, but would anyone seriously suggest that those systems have anything in common save the right to vote? And liberalism means different things in different places. Not even our British cousins have embraced the American tradition of a free press. The Scandinavian style of social democracy could develop only in the small and homogenous societies of Scandinavia. And then, as discussed above, there are the different ways that the Americans and French interpret the principle of freedom of religion.
From that perspective, a nation that absorbs a large number of immigrants from societies whose core cultural values and beliefs run contrary to its dominant norms cannot expect to maintain its common traditions in the long run, as members of a group that rejects them increase in numbers and gain more influence.
So prepare yourself for the inevitable. Expect the Muslim population in Europe to use its growing numbers to do what is clearly in its interest: remaking Europe to reflect its own culture and values.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.