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How much religious freedom can an Arab Muslim expect in Europe?
none (2013)
  • Marcel Stuessi, Swiss Human Rights Lawyer

How much religious freedom can an Arab Muslim expect in Europe?

Arab Muslims who come to the West for work and security are often strong believers. Reli-gious law requires them to follow specific religious practices that may appear unusual to the average European observer. This situation has caused strained relations between the local (mainstream) population and Muslim migrants.

To make the position of Arab Muslims living in Europe more tangible, imagine the following situation. Assume that Mahmoud, a devout young Muslim, left Damascus to live in Zurich, Switzerland. As a young professional he was fed up with both Syria’s political turmoil and the economic stagnation that have plagued the Arab nation for quite some time. The prospects of a new and prosperous life made him move abroad. Thanks to his enthusiasm, Mahmoud quickly found a decent job with a Swiss construction company. Also imagine that most of his spare time is spent participating in Muslim community life. Despite the fact that he has already gained some Swiss friends, he feels most comfortable among his Arab compatriots. Because of his particular lifestyle he involves himself sparsely with local Swiss tradition. Instead, Mahmoud practises most of the religious demands he was taught as a child. For instance, he gets up in the middle of the night for prayer, gives part of his salary away to a private Muslim school, volunteers at the nearby mosque, cooks only halal food, and abstains from alcohol. He is also the type of person who thinks that a woman’s greatest role in life is to look after her husband’s family. Once he gets married he wants her to follow his religious practices, and that she a fortiori raises his children in accordance with Muslim beliefs.

Without doubt, Mahmoud’s position is that of a stereotypical Arab as many Muslim migrants find themselves in similar situations. Thus, the example sketched is not overly fanciful. The above situation generates two intriguing questions:

- To what extent can a Muslim migrant live up to Islamic practices?

- And why do Muslim migrants have specific, sometimes unusual, religious expectations when they settle in the West?

Having said that, there is need to refer to the theoretical assumptions the paper embarks from. I basically claim that the two questions above can (at least partially) be answered by measuring the extent of religious freedom found in the countries of interest. This special type of exercise not only gives an indication as to what religious freedom means in Europe, but also, and this especially, gives clues as to why migrants expect what they expect. As in the above case of Mahmoud, the paper addresses these questions by looking at two model countries: Switzerland and Syria. The word model as applied here does not refer to a tested legal or social construction that is perfecting an earlier set up. Instead, it is used in a more neutral fashion, namely for particular religious freedom norms that are bundled together and enacted in view of a specific concept or greater idea. In Switzerland and Syria this type of model exists by means of religious freedom concepts. As we will soon see, analyzing them is illuminating and practical. It will provide reasonable results that help answer the two questions posed.

The paper assesses three dimensions of religious freedom – one measuring the level of state interference with individual religious freedom, another involving the amount of collective religious autonomy granted by the state, and a third representing the proximity between religious and governmental institutions. It is equally claimed that the theoretical accounts of this paper can be applied to varying national jurisdictions, especially to those governing pluralistic societies.

The experiment begins by the development of theoretical indicators necessary to assess individ-ual aspects of religious freedom. Next, these theoretical indicators are applied to concrete con-stitutional law found in Switzerland and Syria. The objective of this method is to illustrate the extent to which individual religious freedom has been internalized by the respective legal sys-tem. Subsequently, the same approach is taken with regard to the right to collective religious freedom. It means that consideration is initially given to a philosophical reason why collective religious freedom is important; then theoretical indicators are established; and finally, concrete Swiss and Syrian constitutional law is applied and illustrated. As for the proximity dimension, a slightly different objective is pursued. Although the same method is utilized, the proximity dimension does not search for degrees of any justifiable right, but for the resulting configurations between religious institutions and the state. The question is how close Swiss and Syrian public authorities come to religious organizations (or whether powers are even merged). So the issue is one of legal structure, but not one of claimable right. Finally, an overall conclusion will be drawn. This will also be the time to ponder over Mahmoud’s hypothetical situation. It must be emphasized also that this theoretical paper is bedevilled by questions of scope. It is not possible to answer comprehensively the two questions raised.

Publication Date
Summer July 25, 2013
Citation Information
Marcel Stuessi. "How much religious freedom can an Arab Muslim expect in Europe?" none (2013)
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