From banning burqas to B&B bigots: can Europe tolerate religious tolerance?

Sunday 31 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery

This year, Belgium and France both took steps towards banning women from wearing the Muslim burqa in public, and similar bans have been seriously discussed elsewhere in Europe. Meanwhile Switzerland has banned minarets. So is Europe now putting its own ‘secular’ culture before religious toleration?

The legacy of the Reformation and religious wars, followed by the Enlightenment, spawned a particular tradition of secularism in Europe based on the separation of religion and politics, and the principle of tolerance. Of course, religious conflict was never completely stamped out, but until recently it was assumed that religion was becoming less important, as the process of secularisation unfolded, and enlightened, liberal values took the place of superstition and deference to religious authorities. This assumption has been upset most starkly by the growth of Muslim communities all over Europe, made very visible by the appearance of women in headscarves and burqas, as well as more dramatic manifestations like the protests against the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons in 2004 and 2005. Following 9/11 and 7/7, the presence of large communities within Europe who seem not to share its values has caused panic among many would-be guardians of European secular liberalism. Are they right to see the burqa as a symbol of dangerous reaction that must be suppressed? Or are such concerns overblown, and even racist?

In Britain too there have been heated debates about hijabs and niqabs, but tellingly, concerns about religious threats to secular values are not confined to Islam. When then shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said before the general election that he thought Christian bed and breakfast owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples, there was an outcry, and all mainstream commentators agreed that the law should prevent any such discrimination. But some conservative Christians have protested that it is they who suffer discrimination, or even persecution, because of their religion. For them, it is not Islam that threatens to undermine traditional culture, but a militant secularism. The debate about faith schools and whether they should be allowed to privilege members of their given religion reveals a similar tension. So who is tolerating whom, or not?

At the heart of the issue is a conflict over what secularism means: is it about leaving religion behind and embracing modern, liberal values, or instead about allowing individuals and communities to live by their own values without official interference? Should religion have special treatment, in the form of exemptions from equality legislation, for example? Or is such legislation itself too prescriptive for a truly secular and multicultural society? Should we all be free to discriminate according to our own consciences? Should Europe stick up for its liberal values against religious threats, or turn the other cheek?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Evan Harris
campaigner for secularism in the public sphere; former science spokesman, Liberal Democrats; writer, Guardian Political Science blog

Abid Raja
chair, Minotek, Norway; author, Dialogue on Violence, Suppression and Extremism

Nathalie Rothschild
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
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