Religious fault line divides Europeans

Europe remains divided by attitudes to Muslims and to religion in general. Two issues stand out, both highlighted by a new poll carried out for the Financial Times.

One is the contrasting attitudes of the majorities in different countries towards their Muslim fellow citizens. In the UK, Muslims are viewed with much greater suspicion than in France, for example.

The other big theme is the differing status of religion in European societies. In France, and to a lesser extent Britain, religion is seen as a private affair. Less than a quarter of inhabitants of the two countries support the idea of faith schools, and many have misgivings about allowing religious attire in schools and workplaces. For more devout Muslims, this issue can cause concern.

But in Spain and the US, the picture is different, with much more enthusiasm for faith schools. Italians and Americans also mostly accept religious symbols and dress in public places.

On the key issue of whether it is possible to be both a Muslim and a citizen of their country, Germans and Britons have the most misgivings. By contrast, in Spain, the US and France more than 70 per cent said it was possible to be both.

Erik Bleich, an expert on European race relations at Middlebury College in Vermont, said: “The poll suggests that people in Britain are turning away from the more progressive or multicultural approach to diversity that has prevailed there for decades.”

An overwhelming majority of French people regard Muslim immigrants as French, see them as suitable marriage partners for children and do not consider them threats to security. This may seem surprising less than two years after the riots in French suburbs and three years after France banned Muslim headscarves from schools.

But Patrick Simon, a demographer at Ined demographic institute in Paris, said the riots of November 2005 had not been Islamist revolts against France. Rather, the main grievances were economic and against the police. “There was a social motor, not a religious motor,” he said.

Fewer than a quarter of Spaniards saw the presence of Muslims as a threat to national security or thought Muslims had too much political power. Only a fifth said they would object to their child marrying a Muslim.

The US prides itself on integrating immigrants more successfully than European countries. However, 40 per cent of Americans with children said they would object to their children marrying Muslims. Mr Bleich suggested this might be because more Americans than Europeans belonged to churches. “If you asked someone in an evangelical church, ‘Would you object if your child married a Catholic?’ you might get quite high numbers too.”

A third of Italians and Germans, and 46 per cent of Britons felt Muslims had too much political power. Of the British figure, Mr Bleich said: “That radically over- estimates the amount of power Muslims have.” Only four of 646 members of parliament are Muslims, and Muslims had failed to change Britain’s Iraq policy.

The poll’s methodology weighted the sample for factors such as age and gender but not for religious belief, and the number of self-declared Muslim respondents appears low. In France, Muslims are thought to represent 8-9 per cent of the population. In Germany and the UK, the figure is closer to 3-4 per cent. But self-declared Muslims represented only 1 per cent of the respondents in these three countries.

This is the first of an eight-part series on Muslims in Europe. The next part of the FT series will look at Islam in European politics.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 20, 2007.
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