Tove H. Malloy

My professional website

Can Europe balance secular values and religous tolerance?

Europe’s history of promoting religious tolerance is almost 500 years old, and the first policy of minority rights protecting the freedom of religion goes back to 1598 (the Edict of Nantes). Secular values have increasingly been promoted as state policy in many European countries since 1789. And after 1989, many European countries have begun to implement an international minority rights regime that protects both the freedom of religion and the right to culture of ethnic minorities. So, it is not that Europe does not have experience in trying to balance secular values and religious tolerance.

However, it is important to note that tolerance is essentially a negative response that does not require any acceptance or positive action on behalf of actors. The notion of tolerating a tradition that is foreign or perhaps disquieting is not transformative but rather static and supports a status quo. The fact that tolerance does not require actors to try to understand the other point of view is therefore not a policy that will promote change.

While a policy promoting status quo need not be a problem, if it promotes a good policy, the problem in Europe is that the policy in those western countries now experiencing xenophobia is biased towards one religion, or group of religions, the Christian-Judeo tradition. Xenophobia is less pronounced in the countries that were dominated by the Ottoman Empire which provided protection for non-Muslim religious minorities. With Western Europe becoming more multi-faith as a result of immigration, the questions are (1) how to adjust the understanding of religion to include all religions, and (2) how to readjust secular policies to promote equality among religions?

What is lacking in Europe is a political will to improve the understanding of religions as well as the guts to rethink the secular. If the general public were better educated about the religions of the world, politicians might not get very far with condemning non-Christian religions and Europeans might begin to accept non-European religions. And if the notion of the secular as enshrined in constitutional frameworks were redefined to promote equality among religions as opposed to hierarchy of religions, courts would have material to adjudicate in a fair manner.

With regard to the German court ruling on male circumcisions, prominent German politicians have spoken out against the ruling – the sincere intentions behind this remain to be evaluated. However, laws are changed by politicians not judges. In France, former President Sarkozy wanted to initiate a national debate on the secular (laïcité) but apparently with the disingenuous intention of preserving Christian hegemony. Hence, non-Christian groups did not play along. However, norms are changed through inclusive public deliberation.

The answer to the question is that Europe has the historical experience and a modern international legal framework to balance the two. But national laws and national norms need to be adapted to modern circumstances through political means.

I made this comment to  The Morningside Post, see here

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An ECPR standing group

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