Secular and religious citizenship

Migration is currently one of the most pressing and controversial topics globally. Concerns are also particularly expressed about the compatibility of newcomers’ cultural and religious traditions with those of the receiving countries. We have previously seen that the practice of polygamy as allowed in certain countries and religions can act as a barrier to citizenship acquisition when a person decides to migrate.


How Western countries deal with the accommodation of religion in secular societies has proven to be a fruitful field of research. Machteld van der Zee, for example, has studied Sharia Councils in Britain where, since the 1980s, Islamic family law has been informally institutionalized in the form of Sharia councils. Based on her field work she warns against Islamic fundamentalism whose aim it is, in the West, to form disciplined diasporic communities ruled by Islamic laws. This is said to undermine and reorder Britain’s secular and democratic character.



Mario Peucker has looked at the (in)compatibility of Islam with citizenship in Western liberal democracies. Concluding that issues such as the acceptance of homosexuality ‘remain contested themes in the liberal project’ generally, he found it more constructive to analyse Muslims’ enactment of active democratic citizenship in civil society. Empirical research seems to indicate that, by and large, Muslims’ Islamic faith ‘is not an obstacle to enacting their democratic rights and duties as active citizens’. Research by Ruud Koopmans is less optimistic, finding that ‘religious fundamentalist attitudes are much more widespread among Sunnite Muslims than among native Christians’ in the Western European countries that Koopmans studied. Other issues concern the rise of antisemitism in Europe (related to the transfer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Europe given the growing number of Muslim immigrants) and ‘face covering clothing’, on which the Netherlands for example imposed a limited ban.


The subject of secular and religious citizenship is discussed in Bryan Turner’s chapter in the Oxford Handbook on Citizenship. Against the backdrop of ‘the problems associated with growing religious diversity in Western societies as a consequence of global migration and the resulting increase in religious minorities’, Turner feels that ‘the prominent question of modern societies, given the dominance of state sovereignty and the growth of secularization, is whether religious membership enjoys some degree of autonomy or whether it is subordinated to the secular model’. More generally, liberal states are confronted with the paradox that the secular state needs a foundation in morality and religion that the liberal state cannot coercively create. Also referred to as the Böckenförde dilemma, Turner explains that ‘a liberal-democratic state depends on a liberal culture that it cannot produce by the typical coercive means at its disposal, namely, law and order’.


There are no easy answers to the difficult questions raised by the increasing diversity that modern societies are confronted with. The issues raised by Turner, however, are vital because secular citizenship and religious membership often compete for domination of the civic sphere. Joining Van der Zee and her research on Sharia councils that operate under the flag of mediation and arbitration, Turner asks whether, in a sovereign state, the growth of legal pluralism involving Sharia is a challenge with the public sphere. Legal pluralism also challenges the notion of the equality of citizenship. Turner sees the risk of social fragmentation and parallel communities, which are hard to prevent when offering religious exemptions from taxation, military service, dress codes and the humane slaughtering of animals.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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