Religious intolerance is a daily reality in Europe. Mainly targeted at Muslims, attacks on religious pluralism focus on refusing to share public space with non-majority religions. The key voices of intolerance are neither marginal nor can they be dismissed as old-style far-right activists.
Today, they are often heads of government, important ministers or powerful politicians. Successive recent salvos by the French president and German chancellor on the failure of multiculturalism in countries where that policy has never been promoted, and the British prime minister’s February speech associating multiculturalism with Islamic terrorism are among the latest examples.
The desire to make Islam invisible has resulted not just in stigmatising speeches, but also in new laws. On November 29, 2009, 57.5% Swiss citizens, voting in a popular referendum, agreed to forbid the building of new minarets in their country.
A new law, which came into effect on April 11, 2011, bans the wearing of the face veil in ‘public places’ throughout France. A recent study published by the Open Society Foundation found that less than 2,000 women in France wear the face veil. Many have suffered insults and sometimes physical harassment.
Yet, Christian religious processions that require face-covering hoods are still allowed.
We need to better understand the dynamics behind these controversies and new laws banning symbols of religious expression. And we must ask whether there is adequate protection of religious pluralism and confessional neutrality in Europe’s public space. The far-right in Europe have occupied public space to assert their culture against Muslim practices.
In Italy, the right-wing Northern League party organises processions of pigs on the sites where mosques are to be erected. In France, open-air ‘salami and wine’ events have been organised by an anti-Muslim movement that claims to be secular.
This shows that fear of threats to cultural identity in the face of globalisation is at the core of the ‘new right’, as sociologist Mabel Berezin argues in her book Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times.
Religious expression is again becoming a marker of national cultural identity, and the xenophobic discourse that surrounds Islam seems to have broad appeal. The current generation of far-right leaders (among them Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Oskar Freysinger in Switzerland) wear new garb.
They are younger and claim to be progressive while subverting the symbols and the struggles of the 1960s revolutions. And they are targeting Islam rather than Judaism.
Then how can minority religions be protected in public space?
In liberal democracies, the fundamental rights of minorities tend to be protected from majority abuse by domestic constitutions as well as international covenants. But the jurisprudence of the court that safeguards this convention shows that not all religions are treated equally.
In the March 2011 case of Lautsi vs Italy, the Grand Chamber of European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the presence of crucifixes in Italian primary schools doesn’t violate the right of freedom of conscience of non-Christians.
It was a success for the Italian government and 19 other governments that had urged the court to respect the national identities and dominant religious traditions of each of the 47-member states party to the convention.
The court of European public opinion appears to be growing ever less tolerant. The possibility of equality among religions in Europe is still an open question.
(Virginie Guiraudon is a research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research, France. The views expressed by the author are personal. This is part of the Religion and Public Space series in collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilisations and its Global Experts project)