The disputes over the compatibility of Islamic norms with the laws in force on the Continent are multiplying within European societies. The reality is nevertheless more complicated than the dichotomous representations emerging from these controversies would suggest

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:44

Controversies over the compatibility of Islamic norms with the laws in force on the Continent are multiplying within European societies. The reality is nevertheless more complicated than the dichotomous representations emerging from these disputes would suggest. Indeed, the social inclusion of Muslim immigrants is not always linear, integration does not necessarily mean a dilution of religious identity and the “European values” invoked by so many people are not as self-evident as some would have us believe.


Last August, the Swiss city of Lausanne denied a Muslim couple’s request for naturalization over their refusal to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. The mayor, Gregoire Junod, said that the couple lacked respect for gender equality and did not meet the criteria for integration. He noted that while freedom of religion is protected by the laws of the canton, “religious practice does not fall outside the law.” The vice-mayor, Pierre-Antoine Hildbrand, who was part of the three-member committee that questioned the couple, said: “The constitution and equality between men and women prevail over bigotry.” The case became international news.[1]


This was not the first incident involving handshakes in Switzerland. In May 2016, responding to public uproar, regional education authorities in the Basel-Country canton overruled a decision by a school in the town of Therwil to exempt two Syrian brothers, aged 14 and 15, from shaking the hands of female teachers. They stated that religious belief is no excuse for abstaining from a local custom that shows respect and warned that the parents might face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs if they insist on adhering to their interpretation of Islamic law. Deputy Geneva grand council member, Magali Orsini, said about the refusal to shake hands: “It is madness, a provocation that could take us back in time.” Simonetta Sommaruga, a Swiss cabinet member, said: “This is not how I see integration. We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom. The handshake is part of our culture.”[2]


While these examples are the exception, not the rule, to Muslim life in the West, tensions between Islamic norms and European norms that transform into national and international scandals have become common occurrences across the continent. To note only a handful from a long and ever-growing list, the controversies involve the wearing of full-face veils in public spheres; the wearing of hijabs and beards in schools and workplaces; accommodations in public swimming pools and sports centers; calls of the adhān transmitted through mosques’ loudspeakers; praying during break time in schools; sex education classes; halāl butchering; male circumcision; and exemptions from the selling of harām products and introduction of halāl products.


The accumulation of controversies in recent years has fed doubts as to whether Muslims and the European liberal order can coexist. A vicious cycle constantly expands, whereby secluded disagreements stir concerns over the broader implications of Islamic manifestations in the public sphere, encouraging further disagreements. One result is the rise of populist leaders, who nurture xenophobic sentiments and endanger the liberal order itself. In France, anti-Muslim populism suffered a resounding electoral setback, but even there it is stronger than what Emmanuel Macron’s landside suggested. In the United States, 46.1 percent of voters supported Trump in an election with a 55.7 percent turnout of registered voters, whereas no less than 33.9 percent of French voters supported Marine Le Pen in the second round with a 74.6 percent turnout.


Mainstream European politicians reject the politics that call for the elimination of any expression of Islam in European public spheres. They make clear that Islam, as a faith, has a place in Europe. But they also accept the notion that the social cohesion of their societies is endangered. Over the past decade, the mainstream turned against multiculturalism or the notion that nation-states should tolerate and accommodate different and conflicting norms and challenges to their core values. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, probably the strongest voice for human rights among Western leaders, was one of the first to signal the shift, when she said almost ten years ago: “Of course the tendency had been to say, ‘let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side and be happy to be living with each other.’ But this concept has failed, and failed utterly.”[3] Five years later, then British PM David Cameron, addressing the future of Islamic education in his country, lamented that in some parts of Britain it is possible to get by without speaking English or ever meeting people from other cultures. He vowed: “if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down.”[4]


The new conventional wisdom of the mainstream, applied in some countries more rigorously than in others, is that parallel societies should not be tolerated, preachers who challenge constitutional norms should be restricted and even banned, and more and harder efforts should be made to encourage people with migration backgrounds to integrate. Last summer, in Denmark, where parliament introduced legislation targeting Muslim families that required children up to six years of age to learn “Danish values,” including gender equality and Christian traditions, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen explained: “Ghettos must disappear. […] We should be able to recognize our country. There are places where I don’t recognize what I’m seeing.”[5]


The mainstream conventional wisdom seeks a conversion of sorts: to see Muslims entrenched in their Islamic identity become integrated citizens who accept local rules and restrict their religious expression to the private sphere. Yet the reality is more complicated than binary depictions dictate; the path from “parallel societies” to social cohesion is not always linear, radical Islamic views are not necessarily anti-integrationist, and “European values” are not self-evident as some would like to believe. An understanding of several paradoxes of the integration debate is crucial for it to be more constructive.



Inclusion and Challenges to Majority Norms


One striking fact about the proliferation of publicized and politicized conflicts between Islamic norms and the norms of European majorities is that they are a relatively new phenomenon. Twenty years ago, millions of Muslims lived in Europe, but one hardly heard of legal challenges and political debates involving manifestations of Islam. For example, in Germany, 15 legal appeals against decisions of schools to compel Muslim pupils to participate in mixed-gender swimming lessons have been recorded to date. Of these, only three were filed before 2006.[6]


Ironically, part of the reason why more Muslim Europeans are standing up for what they perceive to be basic religious norms is that they are more integrated into their receiving societies. To initiate a legal appeal, speak up in the media, or plead with local politicians, one must possess certain skills and resources—financial, logistic, linguistic, and other. Newcomers to Europe did not have these assets. As the years passed, some among the first generation of migrants were naturalized, learned the local language, obtained job security, and developed social networks. Second and third generations were born and educated on the continent. Religious life institutionalized on transnational, national, and local levels, and a competitive field of Islamic organizations triggered struggles for influence and provided new resources and confidence for social activism.


For Muslims who have always been devout, or who have found their way back to the fold of religion, an enhanced social status implied, among other things, greater opportunities to advance Islamic causes. From their point of view, demanding space for religious norms is not a provocation against European norms because their norms are part of the European story, whether the majority likes it or not.


It is misleading to think of integration as a one-dimensional process. Among the European Muslims who demand space for their norms are individuals who are highly educated, do well financially, and have non-Muslim friends. Some have asserted their Islamic identity not because they are closed off from the mainstream secular society, but rather have done so in response to intense interactions with that society and concerns regarding its values. There are many good reasons why European governments should insist that every boy and girl command the language spoken by the majority and learn the history and traditions of their receiving states. However, it is fanciful to think that in doing so Islamic norms would disappear from public spheres.



Integration and Islamization


There is much to say in support of the position that distinguishes between mainstream and radical Muslim groups in Europe and calls to restrict, or even ban, the latter. Among the radicals are Islamists (Muslim Brothers and their ideological affiliates), Salafis (in the sense of Muslims who adhere to the teachings of the Saudi religious establishment), members of Hizb al-Tahrīr, and others. Religious leaders who affiliate with these groups strongly disagree on some issues but share a sense of Islamic supremacism, a belief that Islamic law applies to and should direct all aspects of life, and a conviction that Allah’s final revelation should be actively spread across the world. These views are not conducive to integration. There is, however, another side to consider—the ways in which some anti-integrationist ideas facilitate integrationist practices.


The case of Islamists is the primary example of this point. Since the late 1970s, Islamist scholars (though not only Islamists) developed a theological concept that sees the mass migration of Muslims to Europe and their permanent settlement there as a transitional phase leading ultimately to the conversion of the continent to Islam. This concept, rooted in medieval Islamic, post-Reconquista responses, apologetically legitimizes the voluntary acts of moving from Muslim to Christian secularized countries primarily as a means to spread Allah’s message.


One proponent of this view is the Egyptian-born (1926) and Qatar-based (since 1961) Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, a former Muslim Brother and a prolific advocate of the idea that the solution to the woes of Muslim societies is the creation of sharia-based regimes. Al-Qaradāwī assigned Muslims in the West the role of peaceful proselytizers. He wrote: “Muslims in the West should be sincere callers to their religion. They should keep in mind that calling others to Islam is not restricted to scholars and sheikhs, but it goes far to encompass every committed Muslim.”[7] He went so far as to argue that considering Islam’s universal mission on the one hand, and the West’s leadership of the world in contemporary times on the other, Muslims must have a presence in the West and spread Islam there; thus, if there were no Muslims in the West, such a presence would have had to have been created.[8]


This vision sees the integration of Europe into Islam, rather than the integration of Muslims into Europe. However, it has been utilized, regularly, by al-Qaradāwī and his followers to justify fatwas (religious decisions) that enhance integration within a shar‘ī context.


In his capacity as a jurist, al-Qaradāwī advances a pragmatic, lenient approach based on a belief that Islam’s essence is to make things easy. He holds that if only Islam would be understood in a manner true to its real spirit, non-Muslims would be more inclined to convert, and Muslims whose religiosity is weak would return to their faith. To apply this approach, he and his followers utilize two main religio-legal mechanisms: search between the schools of law and beyond them in order to find the most lenient solution; and a generous treatment of the religio-juristic notion that in order to protect the primary objectives of the Lawgiver, it is legitimate, in some cases, to suspend the prohibited. As part of the latter notion, al-Qaradāwī elevated the spreading of Islam in the West to a primary objective.


Since 1997, al-Qaradāwī has headed the European Council for Fatwa and Research. The Council, a Dublin-based voluntary panel, was established at the initiative of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, an umbrella-association ideologically tied to the Muslim Brothers. It has sought—and largely failed—to monopolize Islamic jurisprudence across the continent, but nevertheless has had an impact in making facilitations part of the religio-juristic discourse. Among the groundbreaking decisions al-Qaradāwī and the Council have issued over the past two decades were the legitimization of mortgages for Muslims in Europe who are not homeowners, even if they can find an apartment for rent; the legitimization of Muslim service in NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan; and the legitimization of the continuation of marriages between women who have converted to Islam and their non-Muslim husbands. These decisions broke long-held taboos in Islamic jurisprudence and enhanced prospects for integration in crucial fields.[9] The Council also encouraged naturalization and electoral participation, and the maintaining of friendly relations with non-Muslim majorities.


One of the main justifications for pragmatic concessions applied by al-Qaradāwī and the Council was the duty to spread Islam in the West. For example, in legitimizing mortgages, the Council explained that if Muslims would not become homeowners, they would not have time to engage in proselytizing.[10] It is possible to interpret the decision as an attempt to facilitate the Islamizing of Europe through integrationist policies, and it is equally possible to read it as an attempt to normalize Muslim life through triumphalist anti-integrationist speech. The ambiguity is not an unintended result. It is encouraged by, and appeals to, people who are torn between visions and refuse to relinquish either.



The Contradictions of the European Liberal Project


A common argument in the integration debate is that Muslims should respect the core values of their receiving societies because as members of a minority group, which chose to make Europe its home, they should be the ones accommodating. This argument finds favor also among Muslim commentators because it appeals to a basic sense of decency.


But what precisely are the core values of European countries? One of the reasons why the introduction of Islamic norms in European public spheres creates tension is that in trying to make up their minds about the legitimacy of these norms, European majorities confront inherent contradictions that could otherwise be avoided.


Liberalism is an ideology that defends two core values—freedom and equality. Historically, the progression of both was interrelated. Women’s rights are a primary example. The more legal and social norms guaranteed equality between men and women, the more women were able to exhaust their potential and pursue their dreams like men.


The prevalence of liberalism requires that in exercising freedom, people would choose equality over inequality. The manifestation of certain Islamic norms reveals that this is not always the case. The Islamic justification for headscarves, for example, is that women are a cause of temptation for men and it is their responsibility to avoid temptation. In essence, from a shar‘ī point of view the only difference between hijabs and full-face veils is how jurists—male jurists, that is—understand what causes men to lose their minds. The wearing of headscarves is an injury to the core value of equality. It is less evident that it is an injury to the core value of freedom. To the extent that women decide independently to cover themselves, they exercise a fundamental right that liberal ideology guarantees: to practice a belief in a way that does not directly infringe on the freedom of others.


In their effort to assert the link between freedom and equality, liberals insist that women do not freely choose the hijab. Rather, they are forced to do so. This is not true, at least not in all cases. There is indeed a strong element of religious and cultural indoctrination encouraging this life decision, but indoctrination also greatly impacts the choice of women to wear bikinis. No matter how one spins the debate about the headscarf, it forces an inconvenient dilemma upon societies that take it for granted that freedom facilitates progress—how much liberalism can a liberal society impose without becoming illiberal.


It is, however, not always freedom and equality that European majorities defend. For some conservatives, “core values” are inseparable from Christianity. The proliferation of Islamic institutions and norms in public spheres is seen as an assault on the Christian character of Europe. For example, debates about the transmission of calls to prayer were driven not only by environmental concerns but also by sentiments of dismay and offense that a landscape dominated by church bells is being encroached upon by the sounds of another faith; these concerns underscored an expectation that Christianity should be privileged in the public sphere over other religions.


The problem is that, in theory, no religion should be privileged over another in secular, liberal societies. For a long while, the tension between a secularist present and a Christian past was dormant in Europe because, as the only major religion, Christianity enjoyed a de-facto privileged status. The growth of Islamic manifestations is challenging this status-quo and undermines the sense of belonging and identity that have allowed devout Christians to make peace with the public decline of their religion.


Christmas festivities are a good example. European Christians and secular Europeans with Christian backgrounds relate to these festivities differently. Religious Christians see them as a public recognition of the Christian character of society. The non-religious see them as colorful traditions that make children happy and help the economy. The ability of symbols to simultaneously appeal to and satisfy different viewpoints is a great asset for social cohesion.


In recent years, several cities and towns in Europe cancelled or redefined aspects of Christmas festivities to avoid the appearance of bias against Muslims. The angry responses these actions caused have become a seasonal tradition of sorts. It is fair to say that most non-religious Christians, and even many Muslims, would be happy for Christmas celebrations to remain an integral part of their winters. Still, from a legal point of view, it is difficult to defend the privileging of one religious holiday over others without answering a basic question—is Europe still a Christian continent? Does Christianity have a special status? Europeans have skillfully avoided this question for decades. Now it is more difficult to do so.


Integration is impossible without core values. To defend their core values, European majorities must be clearer about what these core values are. There is much to lose in doing so.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Agence France-Presse, “Muslim Couple Denied Swiss Citizenship Over Handshake Refusal,” The Guardian (18 August 2018).

[2] AFP, “Swiss Ruling Overturns Muslim Pupils' Handshake Exemption,” The Guardian (25 May 2016) and “Muslim School Pupils’ Exemption from handshaking Causes a Stir in Switzerland,” Le News (5 April 2016).

[3] Kate Connolly, “Angela Merkel Declares Death of German Multiculturalism,” The Guardian (17 October 2010).

[4] “Tory Party Conference 2015: David Cameron’s Speech in Full,” The Independent (7 October 2015).

[5] Alastair Tancred, “Too many people of non-Western backgrounds are not contributing to society says Danish PM as he unveils plans to eradicate ghettos by 2030,” Mailonline (2 March 2018).

[6] Fabian Spengler, Islamic Norms and German Schools, MA Thesis, Tel Aviv University, 2017, pp. 62–3, 77.

[7] Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, “Duties of Muslims living in the West,” (originally posted 7 May 2006),

[8] Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, Fī Fiqh al-Aqalliyyāt al-Muslima. Al-Qāhira: Dār al-Shurūq, 2007, first published 2001, p. 17.

[9] Uriya Shavit, Sharī‘a and Muslim Minorities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 16–49, 95–117, 140–152, 158–62, 225–231.

[10] Yūsuf Al-Qaradāwī, Fī Fiqh al-Aqalliyyāt al-Muslima, p. 177.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Uriya Shavit, “The Paradoxes of the Integration Debate”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 36-44.

Online version:
Uriya Shavit, “The Paradoxes of the Integration Debate”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: