27 March 1992 - 29 March 1992

Religious Fundamentalism and Democracy in the West

Chair: The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Howe QC

The idea for this conference came out of the conference on the Middle East in May 1991. Despite an attempt in the terms of reference to focus also on other religions, which in their strict or fundamentalist form might come into conflict with basically secular legal systems, because of allegiance to external, higher, authorities, the debate turned predictably, and almost exclusively, on Islam, and to a large extent on the situation in Britain.

After some preliminary sparring over definitions of “fundamentalism”, “secular” and “democracy”, the conference settled down to trying to establish whether there were indeed any areas where the views or practices of a strict Muslim would necessarily come into conflict with the principles and laws of Western liberal democracy. And if there were none, in what way and why were Muslim communities, especially in Britain, but perhaps in different ways in France and Germany, seen as some sort of threat by the indigenous population (and not in the US)? It was beyond question that historically Islam had been seen in that light - the Crusades and Dante’s treatment of the Prophet in the Inferno were cited. This traditional hostility infected current attitudes and led to Muslims and Islam being little respected in the West today. The activities of terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad and the, in Western eyes, retrograde laws and abuse of human rights in some prominent Muslim states fed this attitude. This created overt hostility whenever some external event triggered a reaction. But, it was pointed out, these groups and states represented only a tiny proportion of the 1.2 bn Muslims in the world, who should not be judged and condemned because of the acts and attitudes of a few: within Islam there were many mansions.

The fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini anathematising Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and calling for his “execution” was of course in everybody’s mind. While Khomeini’s motive was probably political, it was a religious drum he had chosen to beat. The fatwa had struck a chord in the minds of many Muslims in a number of countries. While many others, probably the majority, rejected the authority of the fatwa and some had said so at the time, it had undoubtedly fed the perception in the West of Islam as a militant and hostile force and it was impossible to ignore the fact that men had died as a consequence of it. Western governments were bound to defend the principle of freedom of speech, though it would have helped to defuse the confrontation had they said also that they regretted the insult to the Muslims’ religious feelings (again, some did); and so there emerged a sharp, perhaps fundamental, difference of values. There was a general feeling, I think, that the British Blasphemy Act of 1658 which applied only to the established church, was an anachronism and should either be repealed or extended to protect all religions (but could a line be drawn, e.g. at Scientology?). The practicality of limiting the right to free speech by some measure forbidding the stirring up of religious hatred along the lines of Northern Irish, New South Wales or Indian legislation, was mooted, but rejected as undesirable and probably ineffective. Moreover, most Muslims we were told, on a true interpretation of the Qur’an, while “not able to tolerate” the insulting of the Prophet, would not think it right to pursue their objection by force. In the same way, Christians might object strongly to certain portrayals of Christ, but would not carry their objections into violence. If that were so, what at first appeared to be a fundamental conflict, could turn out to be manageable, provided what was claimed as the majority view prevailed. (The point was however made that Khomeini being dead, his fatwa could not be rescinded and somewhere someone might try to obey it.)

A second area of discussion was the position of women. Again on a true interpretation of the Qur’an, we were told, women should enjoy equality of treatment with men and no difficulty or conflict with modem Western liberal views arose. This, however, was strongly contested by some who argued that even in the Qur’an there were passages which clearly subordinated women and, further, that the traditions of Islam had overlaid the Qur’an in this area. This issue may be primarily for the Muslim community to resolve; except in such areas as polygamy or the age of marriage, the state need not intervene; and in those areas, where the state’s intervention was justified, there was no inherent conflict with Qur’anic precepts, which either condemned practices such as forced marriage or, in other areas, were permissive not mandatory.

A third area of discussion was education. In general, the more Muslims and followers of other religions knew about their own and other religions, the better. Britain’s efforts here were praised. The import of Muslim teachers was noted, as was the French programme for training such teachers in France. There was a clear need for open-minded theologians to review the fundamental tenets of Islam. It would be desirable for the Muslim community to monitor and where necessary, through democratic process, try to ensure that the media gave a fair picture of Islam. The question of separate Muslim schools was raised. This high-lighted the different approaches of France, Britain and the US towards assimilation and integration, with implications spreading beyond education. In France, where the problem was seen as ethnic rather than religious, assimilation was the clear aim, in order to prevent the growth of separate non-French communities, even though as individuals members of those communities were Muslim. In the US, where, partly perhaps because the number of Muslims is proportionately small, but principally because of the tradition of immigration and multi-culturalism, Islam was not perceived as a problem: integration was the objective, in the sense that while “ghettoization” must be avoided, the Muslim community, like other communities, should be encouraged to take a full part, as a community, in the political and cultural life of the country. Britain, it seemed from the discussion, characteristically fell between these two models, professing integration as an aim, but in practice tending towards assimilation. Thus while the issue of separate schools did not arise in France (and the wearing of head-scarves to school was banned), in the US separate schooling was not a problem, and in Britain the idea was rejected in principle, but there was an uneasy feeling that if publicly-funded Church and Jewish schools existed, Muslims should receive the same treatment provided that certain educational norms were observed, even if that resulted in separate (but equal) education for girls (segregation it was pointed out was not unknown in Jewish schools). An interesting point was made that the quality of local government was important in containing friction, Birmingham (UK) being contrasted with Bradford, though the concentration of Muslims was similar in each.

The question of halal slaughter of animals for food was touched on briefly.

In the field of international relations, the conclusion was that Muslim communities did not have much impact on their host’s foreign policies although some other religious communities, e.g. the church in Germany or Ireland, and the Jewish community in the US, did carry weight. As noted above, however, the activities of Muslims in the Middle East affected the countries of Western Europe and contributed to the militant and threatening image of Islam there: and while the US might see itself as immune, it too was affected by these activities. In the US, and perhaps in Britain, the organisation of the Muslim community into political lobbies would be seen as a triumph for integration. The point was made however that the variegated nature of Islam prevented the emergence of a single head to speak for the community. There was a strong call in this context for tighter control of immigration and for a clear signal to be given to immigrants that they must accept the rules of the club they came to join, but the general feeling of the conference was not sympathetic to this, at least in the context of religion.

By the nature of the discussions, and of the topic, no firm conclusions were reached. But some lines of thought emerged:

  1. Muslims could do a lot to help themselves by distancing themselves from the so-called fundamentalists, encouraging open-minded study and criticism on a sound theological basis of the tenets of Islam as they had developed, both in general and as they bore on the position of women. Work to this end was in train already.
  2. Governments should encourage the study in schools of comparative religion.
  3. While freedom of speech was vital, those who exercised it had a duty to do so with a view to the susceptibilities of others, just as those offended by its exercise had a duty to react within the law.
  4. Whether assimilation or integration should be the aim depended on the culture and traditions of the host state - as one participant remarked, each country represented approached the problem in a different way, and yet each seemed to think its own approach was satisfactory.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Howe QC
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Surrey East (1974-92)


Mr Gary Bunt
The Graduate Society, University of Durham

Dr Peter B Clarke
Senior Lecturer in the history and sociology of religion and Director, Centre for New Religions, King’s College, London

Mr Umar L J Hegedus
Manager, IQRA Trust, London, (providing information about the faith of Islam and the Muslim way of life)

Dr Richard I Lawless
Reader in Modem Middle Eastern Studies, Centre for Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies, University of Durham (researching Muslim communities in Europe)

Mr Bryan Magee
Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, Wolfson College, Oxford; Hon Senior Research Fellow in History of Ideas, King’s College, London

Mr Peter Mansfield
Freelance Journalist

Mr Edward Mortimer
Assistant Foreign Editor, Financial Times

Dr Jorgen S Nielsen
Director, Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Birmingham

Dr Hugh Roberts
Freelance writer and consultant; Visiting Research Fellow in Political Science

Mr Ziauddin Sardar
Independent writer and critic; specialist on Muslim thought and affairs

Mr Hazhir Teimourian
Middle East Specialist, The Times

Mr John Wilkins
Editor, The Tablet, London

Dr Hesham el-Essawy
Islamic Society for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance, London

M Alain Boyer
Adviser on religious affairs, Ministry of Interior, Paris

Dr Olivier Roy
Researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and Professor, Institute d’Etudes Politiques, Paris; author

Herr Herwig Bartels
Assistant Under Secretary for Near and Middle East Affairs, Foreign Office, Bonn

Professor Dr Petra Kappert        
Lecturer in History and Culture of Near East, University of Hamburg

Professor Mohamed Khalil
Fellow, US Institute of Peace (1991-92)

Professor Suna Kili
Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Bogaziçi University, Istanbul

Dr R Scott Appleby
Associate Director, The Fundamentalism Project (five-year international public policy study conducted by American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Professor Said A Arjomand
Professor of Sociology (1980), State University of New York at Stony Brook; author

Professor Peter J Awn
Professor of Islamic Religion and Comparative Religion, has recently completed a term as Chair, Department of Religion, Columbia University; Visiting Professor of Religion, Princeton University

Dr Edith L Blumhofer
Consultant, Religion Division, The Lilly Endowment

Professor Harvey G Cox
Baptist Minister and Thomas Professor of Divinity, Harvard University

Professor Nicholas Jay Demerath
Lecturer, Yale University; Professor of Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Professor William A Graham
Harvard University: Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies; Professor of the History of Religion and Islamic Studies (Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations and the Committee on the Study of Religion)

Professor Riffat Hassan
Professor, Religious Studies Programme Department, University of Louisville

Professor William R Hutchison
Harvard University: Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America; member, Committee on History of American Civilisation; author.

Professor Daniel H Levine
Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Father Richard J Neuhaus
President, The Institute on Religion and Public Life, New York City

The Hon Michael Novak
Theologian; author

Professor David C Rapoport
Professor of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles; Editor, Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence

Rabbi A James Rudin
Director, National Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee

Mr George Weigel
Roman Catholic theologian; President, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington; author