Islam and Social Democrats: Integrating Europe’s Muslim Minorities

(Damien Roué, 2008, Flickr creative commons)

The first serious divergences between Muslims and the left in Europe began with the fatwa issued by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and religious demands to censor his novel, The Satanic Verses. The split widened later that year, when France began to restrict the wearing of girls’ headscarves in schools.

Until then, parties on the left had embraced the mostly working-class minority as a natural ally. Migrants from Muslim majority countries first began settling permanently in Western Europe in the 1970s and ’80s. The unexpected transformation of receiving countries into “immigration societies” provoked nationalist and racist reactions on the right, while parties on the left appeared the likely beneficiary of the influx of future voters. German trade unions were already enrolling Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in the 1960s, decades before the German state considered granting Turks easy access to citizenship. When the Socialist leader François Mitterrand was elected French president in 1981, he authorized foreigners to create cultural and political associations—mostly benefiting Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians—that party leaders hoped would federate under the Socialist banner.

Parties of the left began supporting civic integration efforts at the same moment that center-right parties began battling an ascendant extreme right. While Christian Democrats repeated the mantra that “Germany is not a country of immigration,” for example, German Greens and Social Democrats lobbied for dual nationality for Turks. Conservative coalitions at the time portrayed the immigrant population as a drain on resources and a threat to security and the national way of life. The Social Democratic defense of the second generation’s “right to be different” and to participate in politics allowed center-left parties to defend their ideals while making inroads into a budding electorate of millions.

Mitterrand followed a similar path in creating SOS Racisme, a pioneering anti-discrimination organization that offered proof of pervasive everyday racism in French society, from the front doors of nightclubs to human resources offices and housing agencies. Through media work and effective use of the slogan “Touche pas à mon pote” (“Get your hands off my buddy”), the group contributed to a revolutionary shift in the public imagination of North Africans from immigrants to fellow citizens. Naturally, it was hoped that the association would act as a feeder for activists from the banlieues into the party.

A Cultural Cold War

The emergence of cultural and religious confrontation in the European public sphere since the end of the Cold War has drastically changed the dynamic between Muslims and left parties. It is the domestic political counterpart to nearly twenty five years of punctuated military clashes between the Muslim majority world and many of the same Western countries that are now home to large Muslim minorities. The politicization of Islam and the varying degrees of repression of religious extremists in North Africa and Turkey during the 1990s also contributed to more intense religious identity within the Muslim diaspora.

At the same time, the European federations that were linked to Muslim Brotherhood movements abroad became increasingly assertive of their rights as citizens and believers across Western Europe. In many countries where it had been a point of pride to be inclusive and supportive of Muslim identity politics, the left got burned. Many of the most controversial demands made by Islamic organizations—for example, demands for religious censorship and for women’s right to cover their hair or faces for religious reasons—came into direct conflict with the left’s progressive values of gender equality and the freedom to criticize religion.

The reactions to al Qaeda terrorist attacks committed by several dozen European Muslims, first in the United States and then Spain and the United Kingdom, helped lay a particular religious template over these diverse immigrant-origin populations. Later, the global row over the Danish “prophet cartoons” sealed an adversarial relationship between religious Muslims and the left. This was not exactly what the Socialist Party had in mind for this group of new voters. It was unprepared for the religious turn in minority politics, from “Touche pas à mon pote” to “Touche pas à mon prophète.”

Downplaying Religion

The response of center-left parties has been to downplay the religious attributes of minorities in national politics. Most of the left in Europe, unlike in the United States, views affirmative action as tokenism and a distraction from real, structural solutions. It took decades before any French Socialist members of parliament or party leadership emerged from SOS Racisme, while the right-wing French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy nominated five cabinet ministers with a Muslim background within weeks of taking office.

According to Johannes Kandel, a long time Islam analyst with Germany’s Social Democrats, his party “emphasized the aspects that play to its strengths: economic and socio-political measures.” For years, Social Democrats have proposed laudable methods to improve integration outcomes, from increasing educational equality and labor market participation to funding more recreation rooms and soccer fields in underprivileged areas. An SPD position paper from 2011 states flatly that the “main causes for real integration deficits are not cultural, religious, or ethnic differences between majority society and migrants but rather the absence of equal opportunity.” Socialist and Social Democratic parties prefer to see integration problems exclusively as socioeconomic ones.

The right is thus able to dominate the symbolic politics of recognition with Muslim groups, even while it has spearheaded vocal criticism of Islam’s perceived excesses and taken the lead in laying down the law of the land. It is uncontested on both the “populist” front and the “engagement” front, while the left appears both opposed to Muslims’ collective identity and unwilling to defend against affronts to their religious freedom. When center-right parties push the dangers of headscarves and halal, they often look more in touch with women’s issues and animal rights than their progressive opponents.

Socialist and Social Democratic parties prefer to see integration problems exclusively as socioeconomic ones. The right is thus able to dominate the symbolic politics of recognition with Muslim groups

During a brief window from 2002–2006, for example, center-right parties became interested in helping fit Islam into state-church relations, establishing the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman and the Deutsche Islam Konferenz, among others. Some on the left accused governments of trying to create a Muslim lobby and stoking communitarianism, playing into the conservative narrative of religious membership at the expense of shared citizenship. More fundamentally, these debates stir mixed feelings in those leftist political parties with anticlerical roots. After all, these are parties whose signature achievements of the postwar period include ballot parity for women politicians and standing up to paternalist mores regarding divorce and abortion. The counterproductive result is that center-left parties are unwittingly conspiring to deny institutional equality to the Islamic religion. This is a missed opportunity to address basic religious compatibility issues and to extract compromise positions, in the way that the Catholic Church was tamed for democratic society, or that Jews were emancipated in majority Christian nation-states.


When parties of the left have been more supportive of Muslims’ religious rights, they have done so in a way that attracts accusations of being the useful idiots of reactionary Islamists. In this narrative, leftist indifference allows paternalist cultures to thrive, producing intolerant outcomes and integration failures. Such was the case in the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party made major pushes to help organize British Islam in 1997 and 2005 while its Muslim partners refused to attend Holocaust commemorations, and in Germany, where in 2002 the state television network broadcast “Naïve Tolerance,” a report that exposed the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the publications of one of the partner organizations invited by the mayor of Bremen to participate in the city’s “Islam Week.” Elsewhere, aggressive lobbying and lawsuits by Muslim groups against the publication of the “blasphemous” Danish cartoons embarrassed leftist parties.

These trends have continued this year. In April the lone Muslim board member of Sweden’s Social Democrats was pressured to resign because of his association with reactionary preachers and statements about attacking Israel with fighter jets. And in the 2013 race for German chancellor, the Social Democratic candidate told a Muslim constituent that he supported separate swimming facilities for men and women and drew howling protests from the Christian Democratic government of Angela Merkel. He beat a quick retreat.

There are a handful of positive examples of left-led engagement at the local level, especially in France, Germany, and Sweden, but in national politics across Europe, the left is virtually indistinguishable from the right when it comes to policy on Muslim minorities—except that the center right has been more likely to move toward engagement. Despite its anti-immigration stances and emphasis on security, the right has taken fairly conciliatory stances on practical aspects of Islamic religion in Europe. Center-right parties seized the opportunity after September 11, 2001 to promote simple religious equality, increasing the number and oversight of mosques, chaplains, imams, and so on. Shortly after Sarkozy was named French interior minister in 2002, he told an interviewer,

We are not going to resolve the problem of young people in the banlieues just by giving them soccer fields and youth centers….The banlieues, like any other cities, need inspirational places where people gather and respect one another, where the values of life and hope are defended. A synagogue, a temple, a church, or a mosque can fulfill this function.

Across Europe, intensive negotiations over the composition of Islam councils to oversee the religion’s adaptation to local situations required wheeling and dealing with religious community leaders. In country after country, the left teed up an agreement but didn’t follow through. They all got stuck on the same question, which accompanied any serious attempt to grant Islam institutional status in state-church relations: who was willing to sign a deal with self-described “moderate” Islamists? In France, Socialist governments in the early and late 1990s led to tentative consultations, but it was the center-right government that elicited a deal to constitute the French Council for the Muslim Faith. In Italy, the center-left government tasked the interior ministry with creating an Islamic council in 1998, but it was the Christian Democratic interior minister who clinched the deal for the Consulta Islamica in 2004. Similarly, the German Greens had been readying the country for the concept of “German Muslims” for years and helped pass a new citizenship law in 1999. But it was the Christian Democratic interior minister who established the Deutsche Islam Konferenz in 2006.

Some of this has to do with timing: the center right was in power during the critical years following 9/11. But this was also likely done in hopes of bringing out the conservative contours in these minorities’ identities.

Center-right parties are feeling the extreme right breathing down their necks, however, and any good will they have built up is quickly dissipating. Elected officials within the French Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), German CDU, and Italian Lega Nord all engage in Islam-bashing to varying degrees, targeting almost all outward expressions of Muslims’ piety. The UMP deputy mayor of Nice stated blankly in July that Islam and democracy were “absolutely incompatible.” In the face of such insults, parties of the left become the default option for all but the most assimilationist Muslim voters. But when Merkel, Sarkozy, and David Cameron declared that multiculturalism was dead, there was no one there to state an alternative vision.

Overlooking Disagreements

The good news for left-wing parties is that migrant minorities don’t seem to care. Even after the Social Democrat grandee Thilo Sarrazin published an incendiary pamphlet, Germany Does Away with Itself, that argued migration was dumbing down the German population, and the party voted to uphold his membership, Turkish Germans told pollsters they would vote 64 percent in favor of Social Democrats, well above the 27 percent the party was polling nationally. Meanwhile, the German government and the United Nations are considering how to prosecute Sarrazin for hate speech.

In matters of foreign policy, center-left and center-right positions toward the Muslim world are both fairly similar. For example, European parties of both left and right unanimously supported the protesters in Taksim Square this June. But the Turkish diaspora in Europe, it should be noted, leans away from the protesters and toward the Turkish government. The small scale Euro-Turkish solidarity protests with Taksim in 2013 paled in comparison to the crowds that thronged the National Assembly in 2011 to protest President Sarkozy’s law criminalizing the denial of Armenian genocide—a law that was passed with the full support of the French Socialist party. On Israel, meanwhile, it is often presumed that the left will be friendlier to the Palestinian cause, but again center-right parties show little difference in substance. The conservative French president Jacques Chirac angrily threatened to leave Israel while visiting East Jerusalem in 1996, scolding Israeli security guards who prevented him from greeting Palestinian passersby and walking freely. Four years later his Socialist rival Lionel Jospin was pelted by rocks and forced to flee under the protection of his bodyguards after a tense debate with Palestinian students at Birzeit University in the West Bank (two days earlier he had declared that Hezbollah was a terrorist movement). At the next opportunity, however, Muslim voters overwhelmingly chose the French Socialist Party.

It would be presumptuous to treat recent immigrants’ current preference for progressive politics as evidence of a coming permanent left majority among the next generations of natural-born citizens.

For the time being, European Muslims have shown themselves willing to overlook their differences with the European left. Whereas Muslims’ interests as religious people lie to the right of center, their interests as socioeconomic actors still tend to be best protected by socialist and social democratic parties. In surveys, self-identified Muslims say foreign policy and religious freedom issues are important, but for most of them they do not appear to be decisive electoral factors. At a moment when identity and cultural issues are becoming more important to the working classes, which are moving away from mainstream social democratic parties to the left and right, it is noteworthy that bread-and-butter concerns like housing, medical services, and education, as well as the fight against racism and discrimination and for immigrant rights, remain more significant to Muslim voters.

The Left and Islam after the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring has further muddied the waters. In the winter of 2011, the UMP French defense minister offered Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali help putting down the incipient uprising, while the French prime minister (also UMP) accepted a vacation junket from Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But ministers from the Socialist Party had a similar record of hearty praise for Ben Ali and good relations with Mubarak. In Italy, the Berlusconi-led government clung to Ben Ali well into the revolution, but the Italian left was no less cozy with him. It was a nominally Socialist Italian government that helped Ben Ali seize office to begin with, seeing in him the embodiment of secular, modern North Africa.

Leftist parties express a desire to right these past wrongs, but like everyone else they are unsure of how to do so. There is a good reason for the schizophrenia: Islamism’s dual position as a language of the oppressed against authoritarianism and as the language of the repressive politico-cultural forces against which the left has defined itself for much of the last century. The unraveling of the Muslim Brotherhood governing experiment in 2013 in Egypt has deepened the confusion.

But as Khaled Chaouki, an Italian-Moroccan dual citizen recently elected to the Italian parliament, put it, the left’s “feelings of guilt outweigh its misgivings.” A major conference of European socialists and North African Islamists was held at the European Parliament in May. The Italian Democratic Party even harbored dreams of federating a “Muslim international” of parties under the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) umbrella, a project that foundered because of internal divisions.

The image of European social democrats encouraging pan-Islamist regional integration is a strange one. The Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) has had observer status in the European Parliament’s conservative caucus since 2005, and Tunisia’s Ennahda party, which models itself after AKP, would also seem to be a natural ally of Europe’s center-right mass parties historically aligned with Christian democracy.

How can the left support the party of headscarves abroad and combat their allies at home? And how much longer can a minority population that votes for Islamist parties in Muslim-majority countries prefer social democratic parties in Europe? In 2012 86 percent of Muslim voters in France supported Socialist candidate François Hollande—in no small part because they were repelled by Sarkozy. The diaspora of Turks and Tunisians in Europe, however, is more conservative than the domestic electorates in Turkey and Tunisia. The AKP received 49.5 percent of the vote in Turkey but was the choice of 60 percent of Turks who voted at foreign polling stations in 2011. Half of the Tunisian diaspora’s representatives in Europe in 2011 came from the Ennahda party, compared to 41 percent in Tunisia proper. It would be presumptuous to treat recent immigrants’ current preference for progressive politics as evidence of a coming permanent left majority among the next generations of natural-born citizens.

Averting Further Fragmentation

As right-wing rhetoric about Islam becomes increasingly toxic, there is political space on the left for a more robust and liberal defense of Muslims’ religious rights. With demographic projections showing continued growth of the Muslim population in Western Europe before leveling off at 25 to 30 million people (or 7–8 percent of the population) in 2030, political parties have no choice but to look upon Muslim voters as Benjamin Disraeli was said to view the nineteenth century working classes: like angels imprisoned in a block of marble. If Muslims’ religious identity isn’t welcome on the left, then Muslims for whom practicing Islam is an important part of their lives will try to carve out a tolerant space elsewhere—whether by retreating from broader European societies or forming new identity-based parties.

If left-wing parties want to appeal to this electorate over the long term, it is crucial they discover the meaning of state neutrality in the complex institutional settings of European nation-states. The Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah recently wrote that countering extremism requires “an alliance of those of all faiths and none who can live with and tolerate cultural difference against those, wherever they live and whatever their religion, who cannot.” This basic plaidoyer to get on the right side of that battle for toleration is still necessary, and still too uncommon. Paradoxically, in order to keep religion out of politics and to overcome the boundaries of Muslim community, the left needs to take an active, engaged role in shaping the contours of this minority’s religious interactions with state and society.

Timothy Garton Ash’s “liberal pentagram” (inclusion, clarity, consistency, firmness, and liberality) provides the kind of ambitious but critical policy framework needed to encourage different faith communities to arrive at the same indispensable conclusion: the law of the land is the law. This cannot happen unless the institutions that deal with religion engage with Muslim religious organizations and leadership—including the least progressive groups—to create analogous ties to those the state already maintains with all other major faith communities.

This will require acknowledging that long-term progressive goals may supersede short-term progressive values: a headscarf ban in public school classrooms might seem like great political theory to some, but what if the parents of girls most in need of “integration” simply send them to segregated schools as a result? And if gender-segregated swimming hours at the local municipal pool are generally granted to women who want to swim alone, what business is it of the state whether they do that for “feminist” or “Islamist” reasons?


Rather than defending liberal order, left parties have become so worried about losing votes that they feel compelled to cater to populist temptations about Islam and immigration more generally. Even British Labour leader Ed Miliband recently returned to the old saw that “migrant workers” are an inherent threat: “It’s not prejudiced when people worry about immigration. It’s understandable. And we were wrong in the past when we dismissed people’s concerns.” However concerned politicians may be about losing the Muslim vote, they are more worried about the potential wrath of anti-Muslim voters in their own ranks. This may be the reason parties on the left have tried hard to emphasize non-religious collective identities. But when the left “bets against God,” as the Italian intellectual Giancarlo Bosetti has put it, it simplifies everything as a battle for power between the secular state and religious authorities—and forgoes potential alliances with faith communities that share common moral, economic, and social ground.

Without the basic integration of Muslim religious communities into existing state-religion structures, the religion issue will remain a grievance that unites this minority in feeling Muslim—regardless of how religious they are otherwise—in response to the hysteria over halal, hijabs, minarets, and niqabs. If the parties of the left don’t want to lose voters to new religious formations, they must create the conditions for people of faith to feel more comfortable in national institutions. There is room for more complex answers than those offered so far.


Jonathan Laurence is associate professor of political science at Boston College and non-resident senior fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. He is the author ofThe Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims (Princeton 2012).