Islamophobia Threatens Democracy in Europe, Report Says

In a report on the health of democracy in the post-Soviet world, Freedom House painted a bleak picture of the state of liberal values in parts of Europe. The Washington-based human rights advocacy organization, which publishes a global freedom index every year, highlighted a number of worrying trends in 29 countries in Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia.

Chief among them was the strengthening of authoritarian politics in a number of countries, as well as the rise of “illiberal nationalism” in others, particular European Union democracies like Poland and Hungary. The European struggle to come to grips with the migrant crisis on its borders, as well as ongoing economic turmoil, are the leading causes of this democratic malaise, according to Freedom House.

The new assessments were published this week in Freedom House’s annual Nations In Transit report, focused on the countries that started transitioning toward democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. It usesthe organization’s specific ratings that evaluate nations across a range of criteria, from corruption to the strength of electoral institutions to the independence of the media. Weighted for population, the average Democracy Score in the 29 countries profiled by Freedom House has declined for 12 years in a row.

“The biggest challenge to democracy in Europe is the spread of deeply illiberal politics,” details Freedom House’s press release. This, as WorldViews has charted over the past year, has been very much on display in the response to an influx of refugees and migrants from Syria and other countries. Right-wing politicians, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, fanned populist flames by grandstanding over the threat of Muslim migration.

Their rhetoric, garbed in ominous declarations of a clash of civilizations, played to domestic audiences and, in a few cases, boosted the political prospects of some ruling parties. Governments from Poland to Slovakia to Hungary rejected E.U. proposals to accommodate tiny numbers of refugees.

Leaders in these countries, the report states, “exploited the crisis to strengthen their populist appeal, disregarding fundamental humanitarian principles and the ideals of democratic pluralism for short-term partisan gain.”

The mood exacerbated wider strains within the European Union, whichfaces an existential moment in June as Britain votes in a referendum on its membership in Europe.

“Claiming that Europe faces a Muslim invasion has become standard fare for a range of politicians and political parties in Europe,” Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations in Transit, said in a statement. “This kind of speech undermines democracy by rejecting one of its fundamental principles—equality before the law. There is a danger that this kind of hateful, paranoid speech will lead to violence against minorities and refugees.”

The report also digs into various social and political crises in Eurasia sparked by the drop in global oil prices, the scourge of corruption in Ukraine and the deepening dictatorships of Central Asia. You can read it in full here.

The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity

The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are united in their belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad and are bound together by such religious practices as fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and almsgiving to assist people in need. But they have widely differing views about many other aspects of their faith, including how important religion is to their lives, who counts as a Muslim and what practices are acceptable in Islam, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The survey, which involved more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews in over 80 languages, finds that in addition to the widespread conviction that there is only one God and that Muhammad is His Prophet, large percentages of Muslims around the world share other articles of faith, including belief in angels, heaven, hell and fate (or predestination). While there is broad agreement on the core tenets of Islam, however, Muslims across the 39 countries and territories surveyed differ significantly in their levels of religious commitment, openness to multiple interpretations of their faith and acceptance of various sects and movements.

Some of these differences are apparent at a regional level. For example, at least eight-in-ten Muslims in every country surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia say that religion is very important in their lives. Across the Middle East and North Africa, roughly six-in-ten or more say the same. And in the United States, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly seven-in-ten Muslims (69%) say religion is very important to them. (For more comparisons with U.S. Muslims, see Appendix A.) But religion plays a much less central role for some Muslims, particularly in nations that only recently have emerged from communism. No more than half of those surveyed in Russia, the Balkans and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia say religion is very important in their lives. The one exception across this broad swath of Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and Central Asia is Turkey, which never came under communist rule; fully two-thirds of Turkish Muslims (67%) say religion is very important to them.

Generational differences are also apparent. Across the Middle East and North Africa, for example, Muslims 35 and older tend to place greater emphasis on religion and to exhibit higher levels of religious commitment than do Muslims between the ages of 18 and 34. In all seven countries surveyed in the region, older Muslims are more likely to report that they attend mosque, read the Quran (also spelled Koran) on a daily basis and pray multiple times each day. Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the generational differences are not as sharp. And the survey finds that in one country – Russia – the general pattern is reversed and younger Muslims are significantly more observant than their elders.

Emin Poljarevic

Project Responsibilities: Scandinavia news and research

Positions: Affiliated researcher with the Department of Political Social Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy

 

Personal Website

Area of Expertise:

  • Modern Islamic History
  • Islamist Social Movements
  • Islam and Muslim Minorities in Scandinavia
  • Sociology of Islam

Background:
Emin Poljarevic holds a PhD (2012) and M.Res. from the European University Institute (2008MA from the University of Uppsala (2006) and ). Previously he worked as a research assistant and project coordinator at the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University (2004-2007). Here he conducted research on social security issues in Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia.  During his PhD studies, he was a visiting assistant professor at the SAXO Institute, University of Copenhagen (2010/11). Poljarevic has presented papers at an extensive range of conferences, and has published several book chapters and articles. His current research interests intersect between social movement studies, the study of state repression, and dynamics of social motivations. At the time he is developing a postdoctoral research project intended to explore patterns of socio-political shifts in the Middle East and North Africa with special focus on Islamist social movement organizations.

At the Met, a New Vision for Islam in Hostile Times: A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty

Over the past decade, many Americans have based their thoughts and feelings about Islam in large part on a single place: the blasted patch of ground where the World Trade Center once stood. But a rival space has slowly and silently taken shape over those same years, about six miles to the north. It is a vast, palacelike suite of rooms on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where some of the world’s most precious Islamic artifacts sit sequestered behind locked doors.

When the Met’s Islamic galleries first opened in 1975, they were presented as a cultural monolith, where nations and cultures were subsumed under one broad banner, as if Islam were another planet. Haidar and her colleagues have tried to emphasize the diversity of Islamic cultures across time and space. One result of that altered emphasis was the gallery’s new name. The “Islamic Wing” is gone, replaced by the “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.” It is a mouthful, but it makes a point.

Finding partners in Islam

(by Lorenzo Vidino, an analyst at the Investigative Project and the Jebsen Center at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is author of “Al Qaeda in Europe.”) As the United States battles insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan while fearing the next terrorist attack on our shores, it has become apparent that the solution to the struggle against radical Islam is neither military nor diplomatic, but rather, ideological. Only by tackling the ideology that motivates potential jihadis from Baghdad to London can the United States hope to win what will undoubtedly be a generational conflict. During the Cold War the West supported various pro-democracy and anti-Communist voices throughout the world, and the same can be done today. Why not empower moderates within the Muslim world? Why not intervene in what is often defined as a civil war for the soul of Islam in support of those who espouse positions that are compatible with our national interest? A recent report published by the RAND Corporation suggests that is the strategy we should adopt. The report states that Saudi financial support has promoted “the growth of religious extremism throughout the Muslim world,” and that more moderate voices have been often overshadowed given their relative lack of financial backing. Only by correcting this resource imbalance can we defeat extremists. And even though they have been often overlooked, the potential partners throughout the world abound. In some cases the ideal solution is to revamp traditional forms of Islam that over the last few decades have suffered the aggressive competition of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism. From Central Asia to Morocco, from Indonesia to Somalia, Sufi Islam has traditionally influenced hundreds of millions of Muslims with its mystical, moderate, and tolerant message. Today various organizations such as the Carolina-based Libforall Foundation or the Michigan-based Islamic Supreme Council of America are helping spread the thought of progressive Sufi thinkers through a network that reaches many countries in the Muslim world. But also within Sunni Islam many progressive voices can be heard. Naser Khader, a Syrian-born member of the Danish Parliament, has become one of Europe’s best known Muslim leaders, thanks to his organization’s pro-integration message and grassroots activism. In the wake of the cartoon crisis, Khader created the Democratic Muslims Network, which aims to combat radicalization among young Danish Muslims with concrete efforts. Last year, he organized a job fair through which hundreds of young Muslims were hired by Danish companies, a remarkable achievement considering the levels of unemployment – and consequent disenfranchisement – that plague European Muslims. At the same time, his organization attempts to overcome various difficulties, including constant death threats, and spread its pro-democracy message, which is epitomized in the “Ten Commandments of Democracy,” a document all members must sign. Khader, who has the word “democracy” in Arabic tattooed on his arm, considers the first of the commandments the most important: “We must all separate politics and religion, and we must never place religion above the laws of democracy.” The push for change is not limited to staunch secularists like Khader. There are also more traditionalist voices calling for a modern and moderate interpretation of Islam. Soheib Bencheikh is a Saudi-born cleric who studied Islamic theology at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo and then moved to France, where he became the mufti of Marseilles. Bencheikh, whose religious credentials dwarf those of most Islamists, calls for a reinterpretation of Islamic texts that is loyal to their letter but is in line with today’s world. “Religious teachings were developed and formulated between the eighth and 12th centuries, and have not undergone any reform or updating since that time,” says Bencheikh, “[Muslims today] experience a dangerous discrepancy between their status as citizens and their status as believers.” Throughout the Muslim world many courageous intellectuals, clerics, and activists are struggling to make their message heard, campaigning for the diffusion of the values of tolerance and democracy within Islamic societies and among Muslims in the West. They preach a reformation through which Muslims, while remaining loyal to its key tenets, would be able to reconcile Islam with modern life. Yet moderate voices, while still representing the majority of the Muslim world, are often overshadowed by aggressive and well-organized radicals. It is in the West’s best interest to support these voices of reason, as they represent the best antidote to the radical ideology that is generating most of the terrorism and violence throughout the world.