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The Challenges Facing European Muslims

Written by Paulo Mendes Pinto
April 28, 2017

The freedom of not being identified with any religion is part of the most remarkable legal advances in our society, although that is one of the freedoms of which we are least aware of. After centuries and centuries in which religious affiliation could mean almost immediate death penalty, the freedom we have to not even be questioned about religion is the most direct mark of the traumas we were left with due to religious persecutions.
In fact, the Portuguese citizen benefits now from a constitutional guarantee that makes it impossible – even for the State itself – to force him to respond to questioning about his religious convictions. More than a freedom of conscience, this right that assists us is the image of the inviolability of an individual dimension where no one but oneself has the right to interfere.
And if the freedom of not being labeled in religious terms is constitutionally ruled by this inviolability, in everyday life it takes us to several very interesting fields. From the field of the security each one has, and which could be broken by putting on the label of an affiliation, to the field of the seclusion, potentially inherent to spirituality, which often implies a departure from what is material. Of course one goes through the even more fundamental side when, by inhibiting or giving the freedom not to be labeled, one creates a level of equality that is the foundation of a posture in which we are all equal before the Law and the State.
Nowadays, we are tested concerning the application of this constitutional principle, through the challenges facing European citizens who are Muslims. Is it really possible for a European Muslim to placidly keep his right not to be labeled? And I am not referring to a criminal labeling, based on dishonest generalizations, in which every Muslim corresponds to a terrorist, according to many people’s common sense; I am referring to the applicability of this crystalline principle: a Muslim, such as a Christian, or an Atheist, among all others, has the right not to be harassed because of his religious affiliation and practice. That is to say that the notion of citizenship, when it places the relation to the State above all others, decreases the value of those relationships of belonging that overshadow the idea of citizenship.
And in this simple and linear statement of the intimate place of belief, the State and its legislator have forgotten one of the most important dimensions of religious practice: the community. In forgetting this foundational aspect of the great religions, mainly the monotheisms, the State focuses the religious dimension on the individual and his private sphere, creating a huge gap in the notion of belonging and all that it entails.
Given that the notion of belonging is immensely complex, I will only focus on the dilemma that many religious persons in Europe are faced with today and which is very important in the case of European Muslims: how to publicly manage their religious identity?
To be a Muslim is to belong to the Umma, to the community of believers, just as to be a Christian is to belong to a Church, an assembly. In both cases, “being” is only a dimension made possible through relationship, communion, sharing and recognition. One is not a Christian outside of the Christian community, just as one is not a Muslim without a connection to those with whom one is a religious brother.

Therefore, if being a citizen allows for “hiding” the religious affiliation, being religious implies a dimension of visibility, even of pride, which has in the public affirmation of one’s faith one of the most important components of that belonging. It is even a question of honesty before the divinity in which one believes. One cannot repudiate or deny by omission, like Peter when the rooster crowed the night of Jesus’ imprisonment.
Nevertheless, in extreme situations, like the one we live in today, when generalizations have invaded the media, when fear seems to have taken hold of the discernment of large sectors of our society, the dilemma facing a Muslim is tremendous: to disguise the faith or, at least, not to make it public as a means of security, of defense against an entire climate of a certain hostility, or, on the contrary, to loudly affirm his affiliation, showing that it is something very different from being a terrorist, in an attempt to help undoing these biased points of view?
If the question arises in the sphere of the public affirmation of a private right, when it concerns individuals, when it concerns communities, the question acquires different contours of greater interest. Should a religious community take an attitude of visibility at a time like this? More specifically, although having nothing to do with the terrorist acts, should an Islamic community shout loudly that it does not identify with those acts, that it repudiates them, that for them, this is not Islam?
However, there are several dimensions involved. On the one hand, several citizens, whether Muslims or not, may say that the community shouldn’t do anything. Since they don’t identify with this so-called “Islam” that kills and terrifies, their posture mustn’t in any way be as the reflection of an assumption of faults that are not their own. And, of course, it is quite right to argue this way, especially since it is the individual right of each member of that community not to be exposed.
However, the same citizens will also be the first to agree on the didactic value of a position of public repudiation, helping to combat prejudice and creating a vision less marked by generalizations. The mass of our fellow citizens not only deserves clarification, but often demands assuming postures that define positions.
And, fortunately, this has been the position of the Portuguese Islamic communities. Very soon after the 13 November bombings, in Paris, there were several press releases issued by the Islamic communities, repudiating these cruel acts. Unfortunately, the “broadcasting time” giving to them by the media was very short; yet, the Islamic communities multiplied their intervention in interviews, in joint prayers, in actions that contribute to the clarification rather than to the consolidation of a climate of terror.
This also entails some risks; nevertheless, it is of utmost value the civic and religious posture that we have seen in Portuguese Muslim communities. On the 24th July, in a partnership between the Islamic Community and the Lusófona University, we will discuss, both Muslim and non-Muslim, “The self-proclaimed Islamic State, the refugees and the challenges facing Europe”, at the Central Mosque of Lisbon. In a calm environment, Muslims, Christians, Atheists and all citizens, in a serious debate, without evading any questions, will discuss a theme that marks us all.
As we close the day more enlightened after unraveling doubts and killing prejudices we will be able to declare that, once again, citizenship has been fulfilled.
Science of Religions Faculty Director at Lusófona University