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Islam and Western Society

Within the Western world, the Islamic religion is the recipient of many negative reactions. It is said that it is a religion of narrow intolerance: for gays, for nonbelievers, for Western modes of dress and the rights of women. Most importantly, it is accused of being a religion that, by its very nature, espouses violence to insure conformity to its creed and to attack those who support rival religions. These concerns have led to questions about the feasibility of including Muslims, both those born in Western countries and immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, within the fabric of Western (American and European) life. Critics of programs such as the immigration of Middle Eastern and North African refugees into Europe, Canada and America have claimed that Islam is historically incompatible with Western democratic ideals. Are such concerns valid?

Islam has long history within Europe. Beginning with the invasion of Berber forces from Northern Africa in 711, the Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic reign for 500 years and parts of Spain remained under Islamic rule until the 15th century. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled Turkey beginning in the 14th century, extended over most of Eastern Europe as well as Northern Africa, reaching its peak of influence and conquest in the 16th century, and leaving Muslim European populations, which exist today, throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Within the regions controlled by Muslims, diverse religions often lived side by side in peace. In Moorish Spain, both Christians and Jews held “favored” status and were allowed to practice their religion and even hold bureaucratic positions, although members of their faiths had to pay special taxes. The so-called “Golden Age” of Jewish culture in Spain extended from the beginning of Muslim control of Iberia into the 11th century—all under Muslim rule. Both Spanish architecture and literature from the period represent a hybrid of Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions. Although there were occasional anti-Jewish and anti-Christian episodes, including the infamous Granada Massacre of Jews in 1066 (related to a supposed plot to murder the Berber king by Joseph Ibn Naghrela, the king’s Jewish vizier), for most of the period of Islamic rule, the various religions and ethnicities lived harmoniously. Spanish Jews living under Islam fared far better than under Catholicism, which followed it and which persecuted them and expelled them from the peninsula. The Muslims of Spain were credited with bringing ancient works of Greek literature and philosophy to Europe, a strong influence in precipitating the Renaissance.

Islam and European cultural history are deeply entwined, a point often forgotten or ignored by those who claim that European traditions and Islam are incompatible. But Islam, it is claimed, has always been a religion of violence, extending its territories by force. That may be, but no less can be said about Christianity. Crusading Christians in the 11th century left Europe for the “Holy Lands” and massacred Muslims both when they arrived and along the way, having been promised by Pope Urban II that their capture of Jerusalem would bring forgiveness of their sins and entry into heaven. Wars between rival Christian kingdoms or between Catholics and Protestants raged across Europe up to the 20th century, while European countries such as The Netherlands, England, France, Portugal and Spain “colonized” the Far East, Africa and the Americas, wreaking genocidal havoc among the indigenous populations, destroying entire cultures and establishing “possessions,” some of which remained under their domination until the mid-20th century. In the 20th century, massive genocides, which involved the deliberate decimation of entire races, nationalities or ethnicities, included the Turks’ near-elimination of the Armenians, but also the German’s deliberate destruction of the Herero people in Namibia, the Serbs’ attempt to wipe out Muslim Bosnians, and of course Hitler’s killing of 6 million Jews during the Jewish Holocaust.  In Northern Ireland, 3000 Catholic and Protestant Christians were killed, through terrorist bombs, assassinations and torture in the “troubles,” which lasted from the 1970’s until the late 1990’s, and mutual hostility still prevails in the region, which, in Belfast, divides its religious populations with a wall. Labeling one religion or culture as historically more violent than another seems either ill informed or disingenuous.

But what about Islamic prohibitions against homosexuality and its treatment of women? Equal rights for gays and lesbians, as well as women, has been a major component of a liberally-oriented attitude shift within Western nations for the last several decades. The Koran is vague about the “sins of Lut” (referring to the same story as the Bible about Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah), which it implies are homosexuality and prescribes no specific punishment (although it references Allah destroying all the occupants of the cities, as is written in the Bible). However, within the Hadiths, the reputed sayings of Mohammed, there are references to severe punishment, including death for male homosexuals. Of course, in the Old Testament Bible, the chapter of Leviticus also forbids homosexuality and prescribes death as the punishment. Paul condemned male-with-male sexual relations as sinful in the New Testament. But within most Western countries, attitudes toward homosexuality have changed with the times, even in official pronouncements by Pope Francis (although not among most fundamentalist Christians in America and Europe), while Pew Research studies have revealed that the vast majority of Muslims, even those within Europe, reject homosexuality.[1] No European countries define homosexuality as illegal, while 65% of predominately Muslim countries do. Same-sex marriage is not legal in any Muslim countries but is legal in 13 non-Muslim countries. Among Asian countries, homosexuality is illegal in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, and Singapore and the predominately Muslim countries of Bangladesh and Malaysia. Interestingly, it is also illegal in several Caribbean countries, including Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, and Trinidad and Tobago, while being legal in the Muslim countries of Bahrain, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, although gay citizens endure discrimination in most of these countries.

There is little evidence that attitudes toward homosexuality are changing in Muslim countries. In fact, according to recent Pew Research polls, younger Muslims in predominately Muslim countries are less accepting of homosexuality than are their parents.1 Even within the U.S., Muslims are less accepting of homosexuality than is the general population.[2] Despite these findings, we should not forget how recently dramatic shifts in attitude toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage have taken place within Western countries.  As little ago as 1997, 70% of Americans opposed same sex marriage and it was not until 2011 that those in favor became a majority. Until 1962, homosexuality was a punishable crime in every state in the U.S. (including a punishment of life imprisonment in Idaho). In 1962 Illinois removed its anti-sodomy laws from its books, but it was not until the 1970s that any other states followed. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state of Georgia’s laws against private homosexual acts. In 2003, when the Supreme Court reversed itself and overturned a Texas anti-sodomy law, making such laws illegal throughout the country, 14 states still had such laws. The Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal within the United States in 2015. The same year, a record 60% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, leaving a significant minority which continued to oppose it, mostly for religious reasons.

In France, over 100,000 people took to the streets of Paris in 2014 to protest that country’s legalization of same-sex marriage. Notably, among Asian countries, such as China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and India—all countries which contribute a large number of immigrants to the West—only Japan approaches Western openness toward homosexuality,1 although we rarely hear mention of the homophobic attitudes present in many Asian cultures. Even in the West, attitudinal changes with regard to homosexuality are recent, and legal victories for same-sex marriage are tenuous. To regard differences between non-Muslims and Muslims on these issues as massive and irreconcilable or even dramatically different than those between Westerners and other immigrant groups is a gross exaggeration.

Beyond a doubt, women in predominately Muslim countries are denied the same freedoms as men. Muslim countries that enforce Sharia law are the most restrictive of women’s behavior in relation to dress, to being able to walk unescorted by a male outside the household, and to driving. But even more secular Muslim countries such as Indonesia have restrictions that would be unheard of in Western countries (e.g. “examining” female police recruits for virginity before hiring them). In Saudi Arabia a woman who walks without a male escort and is raped may be punished as much as the rapist, and bears partial blame for her victimization. These practices seem egregious by Western standards, but the degree of restriction of women’s rights differs among predominately Muslim countries and those that are within or close to Europe support more egalitarian laws. Turkey and Kazakhstan, both Muslim majority countries, rank “low” on gender bias on the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) and Bosnia and Herzegovina, of whose population 45% is Muslim, ranks “very low” on gender bias, in the same category as most Western European countries.[3]

Historically, Islam has been more tolerant of other religions than Catholicism has been, however, with the secularization of Western countries, that pattern has been reversed (although recent terror attacks have made Muslims the recipients of either governmental restriction or social hostility in several Western countries, such as France, the U.K. and Denmark). The Islamic State (ISIS) is notoriously intolerant and even murderous toward non-Sunnis, including Christians and Shia Muslims, but this is not a pattern among Muslim countries, although it is sometimes observed in sectarian hostilities within the Middle East, which may be as extreme as bombing religious buildings.

Restriction of religious freedoms is a complex issue because it includes not just restriction of minority religions within a country, but restrictions upon those who practice the majority religion (e.g. against marrying outside one’s faith or changing one’s faith). Blasphemy, the criticism of God or sacred symbols is a crime in almost a quarter of the world’s countries and includes such disparate nations as Iran, Singapore, India, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Peru, and the Bahamas.[4] Needless to say these include Muslim, Hindu and Christian majority countries. The majority, but not all, predominately Muslim countries have laws against blasphemy, while the majority of predominately Christian countries do not. Apostasy, the act of leaving one’s faith or converting to another religion, is a crime in only a handful of countries, all of them with predominately Muslim populations. In addition, in some Muslim majority countries in which it is not a crime to convert to another religion, it is a crime to convince someone else to do so.  Muslim countries thus are more likely to have laws restricting religious freedom than non-Muslim countries.

There is also the issue of Sharia law. Sharia law is law based upon the Koran or the Hadiths, both as sacred texts, but is not necessarily related to how one practices religion. Most, but not all Muslim countries have some form of Sharia law, most often alongside civil law and in most cases related to family matters and inheritance. Famously, Saudi Arabia has adopted Wahabiism, a sect of Islam that interprets the strictest form of Sharia Law, as the state religion. Contrary to popular accounts, the alliance between Wahabiism and the ruling House of Saud goes back over 200 years. Although Osama bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia, he was less Wahabi and more influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, partly because of the tutelage of the Egyptian militant, Ayman al Zawahiri, himself influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood jihadist, Sayyid Qutb. ISIS, on the other hand is much more aligned with Wahabiism in its attacks on other religious positions, it’s insistence on severe Sharia Law, and so forth. The country in which Wahabiism is strongest, outside of Saudi Arabia, is Pakistan, which seems to be split between a more cosmopolitan secular Islam and fundamental Wahabiism.

The population of Saudi Arabia is rather small and the country contributes only a small proportion of the world’s Muslims. Pakistan is much larger, second only to Indonesia in terms of the number of Muslims in its population. Although most Muslim countries subscribe to some form of Sharia law, those populations that favor the strictest, Whabiist interpretation consist of a small proportion of Muslims. A recent Pew Research study found that few Muslims world wide support strict interpretations of Sharia Law and even fewer support jihadism as practiced by groups such as ISIS.[5]

Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries differ not only by religion, but also by geography and culture. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion[6], based upon extensive research, claimed that the moral framework from which most well-educated Western Europeans and particularly educated upper middle class liberal Americans make their judgments is WEIRD compared to that of the rest of the world. WEIRD is an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Haidt found that Westerners, particularly well-educated Westerners in rich countries, valued such things as liberty, care for others, and fairness above all other moral values. The rest of the world, but also those less educated and less well-to-do living within Western countries, places as high or higher value upon such moral issues as loyalty, obedience to authority, and the sanctity of religion and its symbols.

Haidt was mostly interested in analyzing why American conservatives and liberals saw the world so differently, but his findings give us an insight into some of the cultural differences that may divide our world in ways we usually see as religious or political. China, for instance, with its long history of Confucianism, a philosophy which stresses obedience to authority, easily adopted Communism and readily substituted obedience to the state in place of religion, as did North Korea and Vietnam. All three of these countries are near the top of lists of countries that are hostile to and restrict religious liberties, as well as other human rights. Middle Eastern and Northern African countries, the source of most recent Muslim immigrants to Europe, have long histories of valuing authority, loyalty and religious sanctity above individual liberty. In fact, according to Haidt, nearly any country that does not share the Western emphasis upon universal education (including women as well as men) and the priority of individual freedom—values flowing from the Western Enlightenment—is likely to place its highest emphases upon obedience to authority, loyalty and religious sanctity. This is also true of subpopulations within Western countries, even the United States, where we see the least educated of the electorate supporting conservative political candidates who parade their religion in front of the voters and offer authoritarian solutions to problems, often in the guise of protecting “freedom.”  Not coincidentally, the supporters of Marine Le Pen in France[7] and Donald Trump in America[8], both conservative, anti-immigration candidates, are less educated than the supporters of these candidates’ opponents. Ironically, those who want to stop immigration from African and Middle Eastern countries (and in the U.S., from Mexico) are perhaps closer to the immigrants in some of their values than they are to the more liberal citizens of their own countries.

In modern times, Islamic dominated countries tend to be less open to ideas related to gay rights, women’s rights, multiculturalism and eclectic religious practices than Western countries. While these changes reflect an enlightenment focus upon the individual and his or her freedom, which also separates the West from much of Asia with regard to the same issues, they also reflect a more recent secularism that has swept aside religious-based restrictions upon freedom  of behavior that is characteristic of the last several decades in the West. While a few Muslim countries have experienced strong secular tendencies, Turkey for a while at least, comes to mind, this has by and large not been the case and has resulted in a wider division between the Islamic world and the West than has existed in the past.

Additionally, in Western democracies in Europe and the Americas, constitutional laws determine what is allowed and what is not and, in virtually all Western nations except the Vatican, religion is independent from government. The United States was founded as a nation with the purpose of guaranteeing rights upon which the government could not infringe. The rules of one or another religious denomination do not determine American law, nor change which rights are protected under our constitution. Even if one religion becomes the majority religion within the country, our laws must be independent of that or any other religion’s precepts. Additionally, the government cannot make laws that restrict the practice of a religion unless they are practices that can be shown to violate the right of others. These are the guarantees provided by the United States Constitution. Such constitutional rights are based upon Enlightenment thinking about the rights of individuals and the need to constrain the power of the state. They also, through the “Bill of Rights” protect certain “inalienable rights” even should the majority want to restrict them. These include freedom of religion and speech, among other things. Within this constitutional framework, and that of other Western countries, immigrants have traditionally been assimilated into the Western way of life. However, with each wave of immigration, many Westerners have felt that their countries’ values and their way of life were being threatened. Within many European countries, there are already sizeable Muslim populations whose ranks are being swelled by immigration kindled by the turmoil in many Middle Eastern and African nations, as well as the greater economic opportunity in Europe. The U.S. has a much smaller Muslim population and has accepted a much smaller number of Middle Eastern or African refugees than have most European nations. However, the fear generated by this wave of immigration is similar, if not more pronounced, in the U.S. compared to Europe. Does this influx of immigrants actually threaten the Western (European and American) way of life?

ISIS, the Islamic State, certainly provides a threat to Europe and America because of its commitment to terrorism. But what about ordinary citizens of Middle Eastern and African countries who happen to be Muslim? In this essay I have tried to show that neither their religion nor their histories poses an extraordinary challenge to their assimilation into Western culture. Their sheer numbers may stress economies and social support networks, but with dwindling populations in several Western countries, younger wage earners may prove to be as much a boon as a burden.

The larger question is how to get people who are not accustomed to a value system, which places individual liberty above such things as obedience to authority and the sanctity of religion, to accept a different ordering of moral priorities. Religion shouldn’t be the sticking point. Catholicism was built upon the same principles of authority and religious sanctity and using them, ruled the Western world. Yet the Enlightenment brought about a change of priorities, and religion became a private matter, not one legislated by the state. There is nothing threatening in a Muslim following Islam in his or her own activities and no reason it should impinge upon anyone else’s freedom. It is only the mindset that government should enforce religious tenets which causes a problem. This is not the mindset of most Muslims who already live in the West, but it is something which new immigrants may expect to be the case, given the countries from which they come. (It is also the point of view of some Christians who live within the West. For instance, in the U.S., a Christian, Arizona legislator recently attempted to pass a bill that would require everyone in that state to attend church, and conservative and Catholic religious groups within the United States have tried to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing abortion for years). In order to combat this idea that the government should enforce some forms of behavior that are dictated by religion, what is called for is a fierce adherence to the principles of individual freedom, which are the source of our democratic rule in Western countries. Such religious freedom is also necessary in order for a minority to be able to express its religious beliefs, and this is a powerful message that will not be lost on immigrants who find themselves and their religion a minority in their adopted countries.

Tolerance based upon legal rights is not sufficient to insure assimilation of immigrants into the larger Western cultures. The larger cultures must also be genuinely welcoming. Ever since Albee and Nee’s groundbreaking work on assimilation[9], acceptance by the mainstream society, supported by laws preventing discrimination in work or education, has been seen as essential to assimilation of immigrant groups. But acceptance is not enough. Racial and ethnic barriers may play a part in preventing assimilation, particularly when such barriers are buttressed by structural barriers such as ghettoization or disparities in the quality of education. Virtually all theories and research on assimilation indicate that not knowing the language of the dominant culture is a barrier, perhaps the greatest barrier, to assimilation and one promoted by ghettoization, which in turn is a product of structurally enshrined discrimination. Lack of acceptance, structural barriers based upon race or ethnicity, ghettoization and failure to learn the language of the dominant culture all promote lack of assimilation and that, in turn, is a factor in determining the likelihood that immigrants or their offspring may be converted to terrorist causes once they are in Western countries.

Terrorist threats are real, but so far they have mostly represented the actions of a small minority of individuals who live on the fringes of society, have serious social and personal problems, and do not represent typical Muslim attitudes toward the West. The real threat to Western values posed by Muslim and other immigrants comes from attempts to constrain or even erase constitutionally-based liberties in an effort to insure our safety, either physical or economic from the perceived threats of radical Islamic terrorism and Islamic takeover of countries leading to the imposition of Sharia law on everyone. In France and Belgium these constraints occurred in the form of an extended states of emergency. President Hollande in France has asked for emergency powers, to be extended indefinitely, powers which include the right to conduct warrantless searches and to order house arrests without consent from the courts. Such measures, if not temporary,  would necessitate a change in the French constitution. Hollande has also proposed that French-born citizens with dual citizenship who are convicted of terrorism lose their French citizenship, a proposal that also would require a constitutional change. France has already banned the wearing of the hijab in public schools and several French cities have banned “burkinis” as a ‘threat to public safety.” In Germany, face coverings have been banned.

In America, Presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for ending “birthright” citizenship, the automatic citizenship accorded to all those born within the United States. His suggestion, if implemented, would require a constitutional amendment. Trump has also said that, if elected, he would temporarily ban all Muslims from coming to the United States, set up a registry of Muslims in America and conduct surveillance of Mosques, all of which would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. Former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has recommended that all American Muslims be subjected to a “test” to determine if they believe in Sharia, and if so, that they be deported.

Western nations are constitutional democracies. What allows persons of all different religions, value systems, and cultural heritages to live peacefully alongside each other in Europe and America is that we all agree to abide by the same laws—laws based upon constitutions, which protect our liberty to worship, think and speak as we wish, so long as we do not violate the rights of others. It is precisely because our nations protect these rights at all costs that we needn’t fear the admittance into our countries of persons from cultures where such freedoms are not guaranteed. We know that, once inside our countries, everyone will abide by the same rules, and the rules will be applied to everyone equally. To live within our borders is to live by these rules and over time, everyone sees the value of this, even those for whom it was at one time a new experience. This is what assimilation is about. If we stop living by these principles and change the laws we live by out of fear, we will have created a different culture—one in which only a narrow range of views pertaining to religion and speech is allowed. And that is how we will lose our Western democratic identity.


[1] “The Global Divide on Homosexuality.” http://www.pewglobal.org/2013/06/04/the-global-divide-on-homosexuality/ Retrieved 2015-12-1

2 “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.” http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/ 1 September 2011. Retrieved 2015-12-1.

3 OECD Development Centre (2015), Europe and Central Asia: SIGI Regional Report. http://www.oecd.org/dev/development-gender/SIGI-BrochureECA-2015-web.pdf Retrieved 2015-12-28

4 “Which Countries Still Outlaw Blasphemy and Apostasy?” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/28/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/ Retrieved 2015-12-4.

5 “Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world.” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/22/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/ Retrieved 2016-8-20

6 Haidt,  J. (2012) The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.

7 “Where are France’s National Front voters?” http://www.france24.com/en/20130807-national-front-fn-voters-elections-france-politics-le-pen-far-right-immigration-taxFrance Retrieved 2015-12-4.

8“Who really supports Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush — in 5 charts.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/15/who-really-supports-donald-trump-ted-cruz-ben-carson-marco-rubio-and-jeb-bush-in-5-charts/ Retrieved 2015-12-15.

9 Alba, Richard D., and Victor Nee. (2003). Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and the New Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.












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  • Response
    Islam is a complete religion that Allah Almighty has bestowed upon Muslims. Islam give us information on every matter and teach us how to be sober and serious during the time of comfort and joy. Must learn the education of Islam because in this way you can make our life easy. ...

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