In the past several weeks, hundreds of lives have been lost at sea as refugees flee northern Africa seeking safety in Europe. How is this humanitarian crisis related to religious freedom? To what extent is this mass emigration related to a lack of religious freedom in home countries? On the other side of the coin, what do religious freedom issues in the EU have to do with the treatment of these refugees? To what extent do the religious identities of these migrants influence EU refugee policies?
By: Joel Fetzer
Almost four centuries ago, a group of dissident Protestants left Europe for the New World in pursuit of greater religious liberty. At home, these Pilgrims faced fines and imprisonment for practicing their unpopular faith, and they believed that in America, they would enjoy more freedom of conscience. Though much has changed in post-Enlightenment Europe, many immigrant-origin religious minorities and practitioners of even formerly dominant religions still face legal challenges and public disdain because of their beliefs.
Muslim newcomers from the Middle East and Africa probably encounter the most public violations of their religious liberty. Within Europe, their situation varies dramatically from country to country. Migrants desiring to follow Allah experience some of the stiffest challenges in the Netherlands and France, while in the United Kingdom and Luxembourg fellow believers enjoy comparative freedom. Some of their difficulties are practical: City authorities refuse to approve projects to construct purpose-built mosques; those prayer facilities that exist are hopelessly overcrowded at peak times; legislatures ban Halal slaughter; and state schools outlaw the wearing of Muslim head coverings. Many more insults stem from the fraught post-9/11 and now post-Charlie Hebdo fear of terrorism: racial profiling, surveillance of Arabic speakers, and infiltration of mosques by security forces.
Other problems are more psychological or spiritual, such as those caused by the nearly unavoidable, semi-pornographic images spewed out by European advertising agencies and the media. Still others are socio-economic: widespread segregation, poor housing and schools, dismal employment prospects (especially for individuals wearing Islamic clothing), and a two-track criminal ‘justice’ system. Ironically, “conservative” groups, such as the owners of large enterprises, are often much more likely to accommodate Muslim immigrants’ religious preferences than are supposedly “left-wing” entities that include socialist government officials, labor unions, or advocates for women’s rights.
But Muslim newcomers are not alone in their misery. Recently arrived Jewish communities in Europe have increasingly come under violent attack for supposedly supporting the Israeli government’s actions against Palestinians, or simply as an expression of the millennia of European anti-Semitism. In perhaps the most shocking anti-Jewish hate crime in France, a multiethnic street gang kidnapped Moroccan-origin Ilan Halimi in a Parisian suburb and spent three weeks torturing him to death. Yoav Hattab, the son of a Tunisian rabbi, was murdered more quickly during a hostage crisis at a kosher grocery store in Paris earlier this year. On both sides of the Rhine, firebombings of synagogues and vandalism of Jewish graveyards continue apace.
Meanwhile, various governments or activists in the region have proposed banning the kosher slaughtering of animals and the circumcision of Jewish (and all other) boys. Little wonder that the number of French Jews making Aliyah is reaching record levels.
Even practicing Christians in Europe encounter increasingly public conflicts between their beliefs and the views of the broader, more secular society. Though many state-supported churches in the region are attended primarily by the elderly or have literally become museums, more and more privately funded, multiracial or majority-African congregations have sprung up all over the continent. I once visited a vibrant evangelical church in southern France, for example, where the bulk of the congregants originated in North Africa. Their co-religionists in Europe have occasionally confronted restrictions on public proselytizing, such as those once in place in Greece and Geneva, Switzerland. A few native-born Catholic and Lutheran clergy and their immigrant supporters in the “Church Asylum” movement have faced criminal prosecution for committing religiously motivated civil disobedience on behalf of undocumented asylum seekers.
On the other side of the political spectrum, some conservative British Christians such as Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele claimed that their conscience did not permit them to provide sex counseling to LGBT couples or to perform same-sex civil partnerships. Lower courts sometimes disagree about whose rights should prevail in these situations, but the European Court of Human Rights tends to take a dim view of such claims.
Much of the root cause of restrictions on immigrants’ religious freedom, I believe, is post-Christian Europe’s thoroughgoing secularization. Especially among the intellectual and political elite, actively practicing and believing in any traditional religion sets one a priori outside the inner circle of social acceptability in almost all EU countries. (Exceptions that come immediately to mind are the predominantly Roman Catholic nations of Ireland, Poland, and Slovakia). When European leaders make policies that affect the rights of foreign-origin believers, these politicians, bureaucrats, and directors of civil-society organizations increasingly fail to empathize with religious people because all too often they don’t know any regularly practicing Muslims, Jews, or Christians personally. It’s always easy to dismiss the views of “ignorant, backward fanatics from the suburbs” if one doesn’t oneself live in Europe’s segregated and economically disadvantaged banlieues.
If a religiously practicing migrant suffers from further discrimination based on class, gender, ethnicity, native language, and educational level, her alienation from “mainstream” European society is almost complete. To the ethnic and economic segregation of “foreigners” and “natives” is added a new divide: level of religiosity. When secular European elites living in posh central-city neighborhoods make new laws banning Muslim dress, for example, the outrage from the relatively religious but poor suburbs is hard to overestimate—or contain. This bleak situation can lead one to despair about the future of religious freedom and ethnic harmony on the continent. Should we therefore expect a second wave of religiously motivated emigration out of Europe into North America and other more accommodating locales by today’s “New Pilgrims”?
Joel Fetzer is the Frank R. Seaver Professor of Social Science at Pepperdine University.
This piece was originally authored on June 9, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.