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Muslim fundamentalism in Europe… So what?

- December 16, 2013

The following guest post is by Cas Mudde, assistant professor in the School for Public and International Affairs at the University of GeorgiaErik Voeten
As Erik Voeten recently posted, various European media recently reported on research on fundamentalism and out-group hostility by the Dutch sociologist Ruud Koopmans at the German Social Science Research Center (WZB), which found that “Islam fundamentalism is widely spread.” Koopmans and his collaborators interviewed nearly 9,000 people in six West European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden), including 3,373 ‘natives’ and 5,548 ‘immigrants,’ respectively of Moroccan (2,204) and Turkish (3,344) origin. The survey stands out because of its cross-national scope, its solid theoretical and empirical basis, and the high number of ‘immigrant’ respondents. That said, both the research report and the media reporting are interesting to analyze on the basis of what they do and don’t mean.
As one would expect, the short research report is much more elaborate and nuanced than the media reports. Most notably, it adopts both a Muslim exceptionalism and a comparative fundamentalism approach. Regarding the latter, Koopmans rightly notes that religious fundamentalism is not unique to Islam, and that (both Christian and Muslim) fundamentalism is strongly correlated with out-group hostility. That said, much of the report is on Muslim exceptionalism, stressing that Muslims are much more fundamentalist (see figure 1) and hostile toward out-groups than Christians.

The most striking finding, going against decades of received wisdom, is that young Muslims are as fundamentalist as older Muslims. This is particularly surprising because, unlike the old Muslims, who are the original ‘guest workers’ who immigrated from Morocco and Turkey, the vast majority of young Muslims are born and raised in Western Europe. This finding goes against the received wisdom that ‘immigrants’ have assimilated by the third generation; a process that used to hold up for most of the 20th century, but seems to have changed in the current interconnected world. That said, recent research on French immigrants showed that the fourth generation (which they call ‘2.5 generation’) is much more integrated than the third.
The most problematic part of the report is the, undoubtedly unintentional but nevertheless unfortunate, distinction between “Muslim immigrants” and “Christian natives.” As said, today most Muslims are not ‘immigrants’ but ‘natives,’ who were born and raised in the particular West European country. Moreover, many (non-Muslim) natives are not Christians. In fact, this is the only questionable part of the data of the survey: 70 percent of the ‘native respondents’ indicated that they were Christians. That seems an incredibly high proportion for a largely secular region. While numbers differ widely, mostly according to how it is measured, a comparative Ipsos-MORI survey of 2011 found much lower percentages. Using the inclusive question “What, if any, is your faith or religion even if you are not currently practising?,” they found that 49 percent of Belgians, 45 percent of the French, 50 percent of the Germans and just 35 percent of the Swedes mentioned Christianity. In the Netherlands, which wasn’t included in the study, the percentage is 44. While a more accurate representation of Christian ‘natives’ would probably narrow the gap with the Muslim ‘immigrants,’ it wouldn’t change the (much more) widespread fundamentalism among Muslims.
There are also some concerns with the measuring of ‘out-group hostility.’ Given the historical and contemporary context, it is not surprising that Muslims are much more anti-Semitic than Christians. As many commentators have argued, Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism of Western Europe. The levels of Islamophobia (and ‘native’ anti-Semitism) in this report are much lower than in many other studies, which is largely a consequence of the very strong wording. While anti-Semitism is measured with the question ‘Jews cannot be trusted,” for Islamophobia the question is “Muslims aim to destroy Western culture.” This is probably because the researchers wanted to ask Muslims a similar question, “Western countries are out to destroy Islam.” Unfortunately, this has led to a significant underreporting of ‘hostility’ toward Muslims by ‘natives.’ Moreover, given the ‘War on Terror,’ it is highly doubtful whether the two ‘destroy question’ can truly be seen as equivalents.
Not surprisingly, the media focuses almost exclusively on the Muslim exceptionalism aspect, which is the dominant media frame in reports on Islam and Muslims. The main difference is how strong the findings are reported. For example, whereas the German version of The Huffington Post headlines “Are the Rules of Islam More Important Than the German Laws?”, the conservative German newspaper Die Welt titles “Muslims: Religion is More Important than Law.” Only a few media reports ask questions about the findings; most notably, the Dutch (Protestant) newspaper Trouw headlines “Survey Proves That Many Muslims Are Fundis. Or Not?,” interviewing Arabist Jan Jaap de Ruiter, who questions the equivalence of the statements across religions. For instance, he argues that religious laws are much more important for Muslims than for Christians, because they are very different (“The Sharia is really something completely different than, say, the Ten Commandments”).
In the end, the main question is: What does this all mean? Most media only report Koopmans’s warning against the intolerance of Muslim fundamentalism. However, in a very nuanced conclusion, he also stresses that religious fundamentalism should not be equated with support for, or even engagement in, religiously motivated violence, and emphasizes that Muslims constitute only a small minority of West European societies. Hence, “the large majority of homophobes and anti-semites are still natives.” Does this mean that (West) European democracy is in trouble, now or in the future?
Perhaps a comparative perspective can help answer this question. As Rachel Gillum shows, there is no difference in religious fundamentalism between Muslims and Christians in the United States. That might sound promising, but there is also little difference in religious fundamentalism between Muslims in Europe and the United States. In fact, the real difference is in Christian fundamentalism. In the United States 30 percent of the whole population take the Bible literally, 60 percent of White evangelicals (or 49 percent of conservative Republicans) think the Bible should have more influence on U.S. laws than the American people, anti-Semitism and homophobia are much more widespread than in Western Europe, and many prominent politicians believe the Constitution is or should be based on the Bible.