European research on religious “fundamentalism” criticised

Experts describe tone of WZB’s European survey as alarmist, saying proper interpretation of the findings on the attitudes of Muslims in Europe depended on comparison with other surveys.

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LONDON // A leading German research institute faces criticism over a six-nation survey concluding that “Islamic fundamentalism” in Europe is not a “marginal phenomenon” but attracts wide support among Muslims.

Two-thirds of Muslims interviewed about their attitudes towards religion said religious rules were more important to them than state laws, according to the report from the WZB social science centre.

The survey also showed more than half of Muslim respondents believed the West was “out to destroy Islam”.

European media have seized on the findings to suggest intolerance is increasing.

The study was intended to gauge “native” European as well as “immigrant” Muslim opinion.

The study also found evidence of “fundamentalist attitudes” among respondents declaring themselves Christians, though to a lesser extent.

Nine thousand people were interviewed in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden. However, the Muslim respondents were drawn only from Moroccan and Turkish communities.

This choice of sample reflected the strong presence of these groups in those countries. But Europe’s Muslim community is much broader based, including people with origins in the Middle East, South-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Maghrebin and African countries.

Jan Jaap de Ruiter, an Arabist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, described the tone of the WZB research as “alarmist” and suggested the methods were questionable.

In the Dutch religious newspaper Trouw, he argued it was not surprising that Muslims would find it difficult to say “their divine law, Sharia, is less important than the law of the country of residence”. In that context, he added, a figure of 35 per cent giving priority to state law could even be seen as high.

Dr de Ruiter said proper interpretation of the findings depended on comparison with other surveys. He cited other research that found 70 per cent of Spanish Muslims considered westerners generous and 56 per cent of German Muslims thought westerners honest.

Writing before his methodology was called into question, Professor Ruud Koopmans, WZB’s research director, said: “Both the extent of Islamic religious fundamentalism and its correlates – homophobia, anti-Semitism and ‘Occidentophobia’ – should be serious causes of concern for policymakers as well as Muslim community leaders.”

He said the conclusions were based on a “widely accepted” definition of fundamentalism: believers should return to eternal and unchangeable rules laid down in the past; these rules allow only one interpretation and are binding for all believers; and religious rules have priority over secular laws

In the December issue of the WZB journal, Prof Koopmans wrote that the data showed “religious fundamentalism is not a marginal phenomenon within West European Muslim communities”.

Support for all three listed propositions was expressed by 44 per cent of the Muslims interviewed.

Fundamentalist attitudes were “slightly less prevalent” among Sunnis with origins in Turkey than than those of Moroccan background. Sunnis make up more than 70 per cent of Turkey’s Muslims, and also represent the majority of Moroccan Muslims.

Of the respondents of Turkish Sunni origins, 45 per cent of those interviewed embraced all three statements. The proportion rose to 50 per cent among those of Moroccan origin.

Respondents from Turkey’s second-largest Muslim community, the Alevis, a group with roots in Shia Islam, were judged by researchers to present markedly less fundamentalism, the rate falling to 15 per cent.

Prof Koopmans accepted that because Muslims made up a relatively small part of the European population, the actual number of Christian fundamentalists was at least as high.

He also acknowledged that fundamentalism “should not be equated with the willingness to support or engage in religiously motivated violence”.

These qualifying remarks have not blunted criticism of the WZB analysis.

Cas Mudde, of the school for public and international affairs at Georgia University in the United States, challenged the distinction made between “Muslim immigrants” and “Christian natives”.

“Most Muslims [today] are not ‘immigrants’ but ‘natives,’ who were born and raised in a particular western European country,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “Moreover, many [non-Muslim] natives are not Christians.”

Dr Mudde added that the study suggested lower levels of both Islamophobia and “native” anti-Semitism than had been identified other reports.

He blamed the researchers’ choice of language. “While anti-Semitism is measured with the question ‘Jews cannot be trusted’, for Islamophobia the question is ‘Muslims aim to destroy western culture’.

“This is probably because the researchers wanted to ask Muslims a similar question, “western countries are out to destroy Islam”. Unfortunately, this has led to a significant underreporting of hostility towards Muslims by ‘natives’. Moreover, given the ‘war on terror’, it is highly doubtful whether the two ‘destroy question’ can truly be seen as equivalents.”

Dr de Ruiter felt Muslims in Europe could be said to have done relatively well in terms of embracing diversity and democratic values.

“The valid conclusion of the study by WZB should have been that there is indeed a lot of work to do when it comes to fundamentalist tendencies among Muslims in Europe, but there are no current exceptions in Europe,” he said. “The ‘native’ population also has to contend with dislike of Jews, hatred of gays and doubts about democracy.”

Dr de Ruiter said a lack of Muslim reaction to the report was noticeable but added: “For some time, Muslim leaders have adopted a silent response to this kind of information.

“That has everything to do with negative images of Muslims and Islam and they opt for silence rather than seeking debate or defending their position.”