There is an urgent need to renegotiate co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims

This article was published in Oasis 24. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:27

The lack of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims can be traced to the fact that we find ourselves facing a “complex encounter” of civilizations in which individuals are transmitting different conceptions of history and the world, of the religious, the political and of what is public space. There is an urgent need to renegotiate a co-existence in which each person agrees to concede something in favour of a renewed collectivity that can take account of the new pluralisms and the need for a new sense of belonging.

European societies are experiencing an increasingly marked cultural and religious “pluralisation” within their populations and territories, but also a growing “multiculturalization” of the religions present there because these are referring to diversified repertoires of meaning. The recent heavy waves of migration are adding to this diversity, provoking questions (or downright anxiety) in broad strata of populations already prey to other uncertainties linked to the effects of globalization: the economic and financial crisis of 2008, the restructuring of the labour market, the ecological challenges, the crisis of legitimation affecting politics in disenchanted societies, the international geopolitical tensions and the powerful impact of terrorist acts seeking to destabilize our societies. The latter are, by now, fuelling a good part of the media content and are draining states of substantial financial resources in the attempt to guarantee their populations’ security and hold young people’s radicalism in check. For many of our co-citizens, the future appears increasingly uncertain.


An Undeniable Ferment

Worrying religious practices and discourses exist within these societies, although some people avoid discussing them out of embarrassment or even for fear of provoking negative reactions, including amongst their loved ones. The increasing visibility of religious symbols (Islamic ones, above all), the maintaining of various transnational ties and the claims of religious and non-religious minorities are calling former certainties into question and sometimes destabilizing them. One may think, for example, of the debates on freedom of expression and religious freedom or, more generally, on the different conceptions of democracy, human rights and respect for the equal treatment of all. Then there are the tensions linked to everything that is perceived as the challenge to the autonomy of politics and the law posed by religion, to the questions about loyalty to European states on the part of those who hold dual nationality and to the disputes about the concrete rules that ought to be promoted in order to guarantee the secular character of public institutions. Friction is also being created by certain issues linked to practices regarding food and clothing but, primarily, to relations between the sexes and promiscuity and these are sometimes perceived as so many objections to current patterns of basic socializations.

In this respect, the most recent controversy (which exploded in the summer of 2016) has concerned the banning of the burkini on some French beaches. Concerning the most miscellaneous aspects of life, such issues are sometimes perceived as a challenge to traditions, customs and, more generally, national or cultural identity. Some people therefore promote petitions to reassert their attachment to certain values or customs; others become involved in anti-Islamization movements; still others reach the point of not respecting anyone who differs from themselves, showing as much through speech and/or actions expressing varying degrees of symbolic or physical violence. Nevertheless, a large, silent majority (comprising Muslims and non-Muslims) appears to be puzzled and disturbed by these phenomena because it wants only to live peacefully. Others protest more or less openly and seek to promote a more conscious way of living together.

All in all, it is the whole European public sphere that has, by now, been hit one way or another by cultural and religious pluralisation, and this at every level: individual people and local or national societies, in the everyday situations arising in places of socialization at a national or even supranational political level. In the shared spheres of action, differences and divergences are expressed in polemical tones rather than in a genuine exchange of ideas but there are also those who are aspiring to overcome them by developing – albeit (very) slowly – new forms of consensus or even (but only very rarely) a common rationality that takes processes of mutual co-inclusion as its starting point.


Adjustments in Place

Until quite recently, relations were those of a mutual indifference, were it for no other reason than the tensions resulting from any attempt at social innovation. However, three studies conducted in Belgium between 2006 and 2014[1] – i.e. shortly before the magnitude of the young people’s departures for Syria (and then their return) became clear, and before the attacks that hit Europe from Belgium (the Jewish museum in Brussels, the failed attack on the Thalys train and the bombs at Brussels airport and at Maalbeek underground station) – show that the majority of Muslim and non-Muslim Belgians were already viewing their mutual relations in terms of malaise and even tension. Many attribute the origin of this phenomenon to the social withdrawal observed during the 1980s, primarily following the Iranian revolution, which opposed the western model, and/or the rise of racism in a context of economic crisis in Europe.

The current state of relations has at least three distinguishing features. In the first place, an absence of ties and the development of a marked “closing-off” which are contributing to mutual ignorance, the living of parallel lives and the persistence of strong ethno-national connotations. In the second place, a lack of knowing and recognition accompanied by attitudes of mutual diffidence, which are such that it seems hard to form an opinion about the other or to contextualize the talk circulating and/or keep one’s distance from it. In the third place, a difficulty in constructing peaceful relations or, worse still, a degeneration into mutual accusations, in which each side blames the other for the problems.

Nevertheless, there have been numerous instances of mutual accommodation at both an institutional and a personal level, even if these are often not made known or are positively denied and this right at the time when the quantitatively significant arrival of migrants from Muslim-majority countries constitutes an unprecedented novelty.

On the one hand, numerous institutional measures have been adopted pretty much everywhere in Europe, albeit with varying intensity and at varying paces. In Belgium, for example, Islamic worship was officially recognized early on (1974), with all the symbolic and concrete consequences that this has brought: the financing of Islamic teaching in state schools, accompanied by the appointment of over 700 Islamic religion teachers for primary and secondary schools; the establishment of an Islamic Worship body that might act as interlocutor with the state, as in the case of all the other recognised religions; and the financing of mosques and imams. Furthermore, society has worked on itself, primarily for the purposes of institutionally addressing racism and forms of discrimination linked to ethnic or religious considerations or, if necessary, penalizing them increasingly mandatorily (see the Moureaux law of July 1981, the creation of the Equal Opportunities Centre and the fight against racism in 1993) but then, subsequently, also for the purposes of developing plans directed at actively promoting diversity in the context of business enterprises, above all.

At the European level, in 1994 the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, launched the project “Giving Europe a Soul.” Its purpose was to establish a dialogue between religious communities and the European institutions. In the wake of this initiative, the preamble to the Treaty of Lisbon, which was signed in 2007 and came into force in 2009, mentioned the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” as a source of inspiration for the European construct (a way of promoting the inclusion of everyone, Islam included), whereas Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union establishes an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representatives of the various denominations. According to the sociologist, Jean-Paul Willaime, these institutions are now promoting a “recognition secularism” insofar as, albeit respecting the autonomy of the state and of religions and taking care to guarantee the fundamental principles of freedom and non-discrimination, European institutions are recognising “the religions’ social, educational and civic contribution by integrating it into the public sphere.” In the sociologist’s opinion, the institutions are agreeing to take the public role of the various denominations (including Islam) in the democratic life of societies officially into consideration.[2]

On the other hand, at the level of individuals and collectivities, forms of behaviour reflecting mutual empathy have often developed. Furthermore, initiatives helping people to learn how to get to know each other and live together have sprung up. There are people working concretely in their own neighbourhoods or in places of socialization such as schools or sports clubs in order to testify to the concern there is for the other; businesses that accept the wearing of the Islamic veil (on fixed conditions, if necessary), some of them going so far as to include it in company uniforms; human resource managers who try to keep their staff happy by guaranteeing that canteens offer products that are acceptable to Muslims; Muslims who decide to set up their own businesses so as to be able to manage the obligations linked to their convictions; and, lastly, numerous Islamic associations that aim at making their humanitarian activities known and raising the awareness of non-Muslims as well.

And yet, although these forms of accommodation are very important and are operative in various contexts, and although a good part of the Muslim and non-Muslim population simply desires to enjoy peaceful relations, it seems that these dynamics are suddenly little perceived, poorly understood or (deliberately) ignored. More space is being given to what shocks and disturbs than to what – no matter how silently or slowly – is being born. The fact of knowing about and even living these practices and being able to provide concrete examples,[3] of itself allows us to see more clearly how far we have come and to counterbalance the more superficial forms of discourse on the subject. Indeed, generally speaking, much of the talk remains too distant from the theatre of action and this fact confirms some people in their sensation of being particularly unpopular and poorly respected, if not actually persecuted. The more there is a difficulty in critically examining oneself and one’s personal and collective responsibilities in building these relationships, the greater the forms of resentment can become.


Plural forms of belonging

The lack of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims can be traced to the fact that, looking beyond the concrete consequences of certain individuals’ violent radicalism, we find ourselves facing a “complex encounter” of civilisations[4] in which individuals are transmitting specific conceptions of history and the world, of the religious and the political and their reciprocal relationship, of the public space and of their own relations with others, with life and with happiness. The malaise is increased by reciprocal imaginings of the other that, despite their sometimes bizarre nature, should not be ignored but deconstructed and all the more so given the tension of the current geopolitical context. In actual fact, these representations generate attitudes that tend to discriminate and reject and these produce reactions and mirroring representations in their turn. Basically, they reinforce an escalation of separation dividing Muslims and non-Muslims. Assertion of identity forgets that forms of belonging are always plural and tend to be increasingly so. In this context, it would therefore be more appropriate to take advantage of the conflict and dare to hold a debate in order to grasp where, exactly, the different perceptions and misunderstandings lie, then hierarchize the problems and evaluate whether points of convergence can be found.

In order better to grasp the nature and scope of this complex encounter of civilizations, it is necessary to open up new perspectives in which everyone reconsiders their own conceptions of democracy and the religious. On the one hand, it would be useful to reconsider some of the dominant, erroneous forms of discourse in Europe that establish a historical connection of cause and effect between the secularization of societies and the advent of democracy: it is important to remember that the state’s secularization has been possible, first of all, in the societies in which religions played a central role and it is also thanks to the presence of religious minority groups that were aiming at obtaining a better recognition of their rights that democracy was born.[5] And when some Muslims claim that democracy was already being practised during the classical era through the concept of shūrā (consultation), it is important to clarify what is being referred to, so as better to grasp the specific features of each system. Do not religions perhaps, of themselves, act as critics and buffers in relation to the state and its possible temptations to become authoritarian? In the current conditions, religions not only constitute genuine reserves of meaning but also authentic resources in terms of identity and ethics. They are capable of stimulating and fuelling debates, forms of solidarity, mobilization and action but also community withdrawal. And, extending the dialogue with Willaime, are not religions perhaps capable of transforming themselves and revitalizing democracy, more nowadays than before, since they know how to re-appropriate traditions in a critical manner and/or contribute to the transmission and legitimation of common principles through specific cultures? Could Islam, in particular, not constitute an opportunity, by pushing citizens to reflect more deeply on the meaning and significance of basic normative achievements such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights?

On the other hand, it is equally important to challenge the nexus between religion and violence and the forms of discourse according to which religions would be the main vehicles for barbarities. If we think of the atrocities of twentieth-century history, we are entitled to wonder whether there have not been more massacres linked to the modern secular ideologies (such as the various nationalisms, Stalinism and Nazism) rather than religions.[6] This not in order to fall into the error of cultural relativism but, rather, to reaffirm the need to maintain the right distance from things and recognise that religions also constitute ethical resources capable of stimulating the new forms of collective momentum that we need.

At the cognitive level, there is the need to acquire those forms of knowledge – particularly regarding the history of ideas or the contributions made by the humanities – that could offer everyone a better global framework for understanding the relations and their problems. Other initiatives could be undertaken in the context of behaviour, savoir-faire and savoir-être, in order to break both with the extremist and apologetic forms of discourse and with the stereotypes and promote debates, even if these were only to begin with a correct use of terms and concepts.

In the last analysis, this ferment can and must be considered an opportunity and all the more so now that we find ourselves in a totally unprecedented context in which both the political institutions and the religious ones have been weakened and are, for that reason, more inclined to collaborate. Let us not forget that, beyond the principles of social regulation, the vibrant heart of our democracies is founded, first and foremost, on respect for people and contexts that make it possible to create and establish relationships of trust. It would be necessary to begin taking account of every person’s specific features and to develop a new common culture in which the priorities are re-established on the basis of reasoned debates that lead people to look afresh at collective modes of thinking and functioning. There is an urgent need to renegotiate a co-existence in which each person agrees to concede something in favour of a renewed collectivity that can take account of the new pluralisms but also of the need to allow a new sense of common belonging or “shared destiny” to emerge. This is the way in which the escalation of separation can be halted: on condition that civil society really becomes aware of the urgency of taking a constructive leap forward.


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] See Jordane De Changy, Felice Dassetto and Brigitte Maréchal, Relations et co-inclusion. Islam en Belgique (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2007); Célestine Bocquet, Felice Dassetto and Brigitte Maréchal, Musulmans et non musulmans à Bruxelles, entre tensions et ajustements réciproques (King Baudouin Foundation, November 2014); Célestine Bocquet, Brigitte Maréchal et alii, Musulmans et non-musulmans en Belgique : des pratiques prometteuses favorisent le vivre ensemble (King Baudouin Foundation, November 2015). The two reports are available on the King Baudouin Foundation site and on the Cismoc site (

[2] Jean-Paul Willaime, Le retour du religieux dans la sphère publique – Vers une laïcité de reconnaissance et de dialogue (Editions Olivétan, Lyon, 2008).

[3] See, in particular, the above-mentioned reports on good practices (November 2015).

[4] See Felice Dassetto, La rencontre complexe : Occidents et islams (Academia-Bruylant, Louvain-la-Neuve, 2004).

[5] See, also, Peter Van der Veer, “The religious origins of democracy,” in Gabriel Motzkin and Yochi Fischer (Eds.), Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe (Van Leer Jerusalem Institution and Network of European Foundations, London, 2008), pp. 75-82.

[6] Eric Hobsbawm cited by José Casanova, “The problem of religion and the anxieties of European secular democracy,” in Gabriel Motzkin and Yochi Fischer (Eds.), Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe, (Van Leer Jerusalem Institution and Network of European Foundations, London, 2008), pp. 63-74.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Brigitte Maréchal, “Revitalizing Democracy as a Response to Violence”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 55-62.

Online version:
Brigitte Maréchal, “Revitalizing Democracy as a Response to Violence”, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: