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Religious Threat and the Re-re-thinking of Secularism: Why Citizens Fear Muslim Immigration

With terrorist attacks by Islamist groups, the recent refugee crisis or the continuing rise of rightwing populist parties filling the headlines, it is obvious that political conflict over Muslim immigration has advanced to a central challenge in almost all European democracies. Overcoming this challenge requires, at least in part, that we better understand what citizens think about Muslim immigration, why they think this way, and how what they think relates to politics. In a recent study forthcoming in Comparative Political Studies we propose a new explanation and argue that irrespective of changes in religious demography, economic prosperity or even immigration policy, it is the institutional arrangements of state support of religion, that is, the friendliness or identification of the state with a religious tradition, which shape the views citizens have toward Muslim immigrants and the accommodation of their religious rights.

Our argument builds on existing explanations for anti-immigrant sentiment. Like others before us, we stress the fundamental role of cultural threat, i.e. concerns revolving around issues of national identity, shared values, and social cohesion – all of which may be threatened by immigrants. Scholars have also developed more specific cultural threat arguments to explain negative attitudes toward Muslim immigrants in particular: their traditional religiosity and related cultural beliefs on gender roles or sexuality are often considered incompatible with the liberal and secular lifestyles of European societies.

Counter to What You May Think, European Democracies are Far From Secular

We agree that what makes Muslim immigration unique is that European democracies must now deal with new religious customs and immigrants’ claims for the accommodation of religious rights. But where we depart from previous explanations is in one crucial assumption: counter to conventional belief European democracies are far from secular. Institutions of state support of religion are widespread and they are also a significant and tangible element of the public life and collective identity of its citizens. State support of religion ranges from the public identification with traditional religious symbols, holidays and customs, over religious education in public schools, to very concrete forms of financial subsidies for religious organizations.

It is important to stress that we are not saying that European publics are “religious” in terms of active religious practice or beliefs. What we are saying is that collective identities and institutions of public life are intimately related to historical religious traditions and are now shared by all citizens regardless of whether they consider themselves to be religious or not. These institutional settings are important because when the political, social, and cultural life of a public is defined by strong references to religious tradition, religious minorities pose a direct threat to this collective identity. Their practices are not easily accommodated because this would entail a loss in what is essentially perceived a zero-sum game.

Under conditions of high state support of religion, accommodating new religious minorities involves the changing of existing rules as well as the loss of long-standing traditions, valuable privileges, and maybe even everyday habits. Citizens in general are likely to be concerned with religious symbols on flags and in public buildings, religious holidays and festivals as well as with what their children learn and eat in school. They prefer the status quo and are uncomfortable with change. They see religious newcomers as a threat to their way of life and react with animosity to their practices and demands such as the removal of Christian symbols from public buildings, the rededication of religious holidays and festivals, or the banning of certain foods from school menus.

In contrast, where governments are more neutral or removed from majority religion and where public life is less pervaded by religious tradition, less changes to the institutional status quo are necessary. Citizens have only little to lose and are less likely to see religious minorities as threat or competitors. Accordingly, citizens will be more tolerant and accommodating toward the Muslim minority.

New Evidence From A Subnational Comparison

How can we support our argument empirically? So far, quantitative comparative studies have been hampered by the simple fact that large international surveys usually do not include questions on Muslim immigrants and their religious practices. Our solution was to conduct a subnational comparison and to investigate a federal state, where such survey data are available and where religious matters are regulated at the subnational level: Switzerland. The institutional variation across cantons is comparable to the variation we observe across European democracies. Some French-speaking cantons, for instance, resemble the laicist model in France. Christian churches are organized as private associations and do not constitute public legal bodies. In other cantons, the churches are best described as state churches comparable to the situation in Scandinavia. In between, religious regulations vary considerably.

A subnational comparison also allows us to deal with a difficult problem in cross-national comparisons: to control for the specific context of Muslim immigration, that is, the main countries of origin and ethnic background of Muslim immigrants, the social and historical conditions of Muslim immigration, and consequently the specific challenges to the integration and accommodation of this immigrant group.



 Predicted probabilities (along with 90% HPDs) of agreeing “somewhat” or “totally” with the survey items, depending on the scores of the Religious Support Index.

The results of our statistical analyses support our argument and show that when the political, social, and cultural life of a canton is defined by strong references to religious tradition, citizens perceive Muslim immigrants as a threat to their way of life and react with animosity to their practices and demands. The figure above illustrates our main finding. Higher levels of state support of religion are clearly related to more negative attitudes toward Muslim immigrants and their religious rights. Contrasting the observed minimum index score with its maximum reduces the positive evaluation of the number of Muslims in the canton from 32 [+-5] percent to a mere 19 [+-6] percent. This is evidence of a substantial institutional effect. For attitudes toward Muslim women’s right to wear a headscarf, the respective difference is around 6 points on the probability scale. With regard to the right to build minarets, we find a difference of 9 points, from 36 [+-5] to 27 [+-3] percent. Again, this is an effect of considerable size. What citizens think about Muslim immigration and the accommodation of Muslim religious rights is clearly and powerfully related to the institutional status quo in which they find themselves.

To get a better understanding about which particular religious policies are responsible for the effects of state support of religion on attitudes toward Muslims, we looked separately at single components of the index. We found that effects on citizens’ attitudes toward Muslims stem from mostly cultural aspects of religious regulation that either relate to the upholding of a collective identity – such as religious symbols on flags, religious holidays, and religious education in public school – or that are highly visible to the general public, such as church taxes. In contrast, the many intricacies of church funding are not known to large parts of the population and do not affect their sense of religious–cultural identity and, thus, their views of the Muslim minority. Interestingly, we find that state support of religion does not affect the attitudes of religious people more or less than of seculars. Instead, there seems to be a broad overarching consensus among the religious and the secular as well as across denominations when it comes to attitudes toward Muslims and their rights.

Re-re-thinking the Role of Religion in Democracy

Our finding is valuable for the recent debates on immigration. It emphasizes the role of political institutions next to and above demographic or economic factors. At the same time, it underlines how important it is to develop more specific arguments to understand attitudes toward Muslim immigrants. The religious claims of this particular immigrant group pose new challenges for Western democracies that are themselves far from secular and whose public institutions and collective identities are intimately related to historical religious traditions. Our finding is in line with cross-national studies on religious discrimination that find that religious regulation leads to more social hostilities toward religious minorities. While these focus on the effects of restrictive religious policies, we show that even more benevolent religious regulation may have negative effects on the way religious minorities are viewed and treated.

Finally, our results have important implications for the renewed debate on the role of religion in modern democracies. Although it was long believed that democracy presupposes a separation of religion and the state, several scholars have called this liberal notion into question by arguing that not only is strict separation virtually absent in Western democracies but that a state´s identification with majority religion may be irrelevant or even beneficial to democracy. Our results contradict this view and suggest that state support of religion may have unintended negative consequences. This detrimental effect on democracy runs via the attitudes of its citizens. Where states support majority religions such important values as religious tolerance, liberty, and equal treatment may suffer.

About Richard Traunmüller

Richard Traunmüller

Richard Traunmüller is a junior professor of empirical democracy research at Goethe University Frankfurt. His work on religion and politics, political sociology, and political methodology has been published in Comparative Political Studies, European Journal of Political Research and Political Analysis, amongst others.

Richard Traunmüller @

About Marc Helbling

Marc Helbling

Marc Helbling is a full professor of political sociology at the University of Bamberg and head of the Emmy Noether Research Group on Comparative Integration Policy at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin. His research on immigration and citizenship policies, nationalism, xenophobia/Islamophobia, as well as right-wing populism has appeared in Comparative Political Studies, European Journal of Political Research, Political Science Research and Methods, and Social Forces, amongst others.

Marc Helbling @

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