Does piety threaten secularism? In this post, Fernande Pool examines the recent Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) report on Islam in the Netherlands, challenging the implicit bias contained within its use of ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’.
In June 2018, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) published a report titled ‘The religious experience of Muslims in the Netherlands.’ The title of the report is neutral, if somewhat narrow, but the analysis (and particularly the assumptions implicit in the conclusions) suggests ‘illiteracy,’ on the part of the authors, as to what might be called the ‘lived religious experience’ of Moroccan Dutch and Turkish Dutch Muslims. Both the SCP website and subsequent media coverage present the report as signaling ‘increasing religiosity among Muslims,’ and highlight the report’s assumption that the ‘associated increased sociocultural distance’ will lead to growing segregation between Muslims and the non-Muslim majority. Less generous news outlets have (erroneously) posted headlines suggesting that the majority of Muslims feel negatively about the Netherlands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Geert Wilders, leader of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party) took this opportunity to warn against the spread of Islam in Europe with the hashtags #deislamise and #stopislam.
It is not particularly novel to point out that these headlines contribute to – and continually (re)create – the segregation of Muslims in Dutch society. Yet Geert Wilders’ representation of the data, in particular, suggests that this sociological truism bears repeating. There is an urgent need for government agencies to be more careful in their use of analytical categories such as ‘religion’ and ‘secularism,’ and in terms of the assumptions and suggestions they put forward in reports such as this. My aim here is not to flippantly criticize the report for all it misses out, but rather to critically reflect on the categories used. Of the many flawed elements in the report (not least the typology and the kinds of questions asked), I focus here on those that may actually harm the representation and position of Muslims in the Netherlands. I will also hint at alternative, more self-critical interpretations of the data that could have been presented by the report (or, indeed, in its subsequent media coverage).
My central quarrel is with the use of the categories ‘religion’ and ‘secularism.’ Key to the report is the observation that the increased observance of certain practices, such as veiling, mosque attendance, and eating halal, imply ‘religionization,’ or religious revitalization. Leaving aside for the moment whether the practices and attitudes mentioned in the report are indeed best called ‘religion’ (as opposed to, say, ‘culture’ or ‘invented tradition’), this might seem a fairly accurate assessment. However, the conclusion that ‘religionization’ occurs as opposed to secularization, or that ‘religionization’ occurs despite the secular environment, might not be accurate, or might only be accurate when ‘secular’ or ‘secularization’ are interpreted in very specific ways. The report’s imprecision as regards these categories is problematic insofar as the lack of secularization is itself presented as a problem, something assumed to both imply and result in a lack of integration. Although the report recognizes the problematic position of Muslims in the Netherlands as the ultimate ‘Other,’ its approach risks reproducing this Othered position.
Moreover, even though secularity is explicitly defined as a decline in religious belief and practice, it is also implicitly conflated with an openness to other religious and cultural positions. In the report, it is assumed that the non-decline of religion leads to a lack of openness, instead leading to a problematic sociocultural distance between religious and non-religious groups. In what follows, however, I will suggest that secularity in the sense of openness need not exist in opposition to religious revitalization.
In order to shed light on the range of possibilities contained within these contested categories, I will share some insights from my ethnographic research in what may appear, at first glance, to be a radically different context: a village in West Bengal, India. For the Muslims living in this village, ‘secular’ is a moral position, not an observation about an objective reality. It denotes a position of openness to other religious and cultural positions, and a commitment to respect and peaceful cohabitation. It also denotes an expectation from the government that people of whatever religious background are treated equally. The moral sources of this secular position are drawn from Bengali norms of sociality, as well as from the Islamic values of equality and solidarity. It is expected that non-Muslims are committed to secularism on the basis of their cultural and religious values (dharma). In other words, Islam is an important moral source for a good secular life. In light of this, here are two observations that may be relevant for the Dutch context.
First, due to the global spread of ideas and products through communications technology and physical travel, there is a tendency to desire to ‘modernize,’ that is, to rise above traditional ways of living and identifying and to become a fully participating citizen in a modern nation-state. For those for whom their religious identity is also a racialized, moral, or cultural identity – or, as in India, the very category through which one is included in the citizenry – it makes sense to ‘modernize’ within rather than outside of this identity. For many Muslims (and, of course, non-Muslims) around the world, this identity cannot be confined with a private, narrowly defined understanding of ‘religion.’ As such, it is no surprise that we see such momentous currents of change within Islam. It seems that this is exactly what is happening among Moroccan Dutch and Turkish Dutch Muslims, about whose cultural background I have not enough knowledge to speak, but who are clearly racialized in the Dutch context.
The report places Muslims in the Netherlands in five categories: secular; cultural; selective; pious; and strictly practicing. The data suggests that there is an increase in the proportion of ‘pious’ and ‘strictly practicing’ Muslims, and a proportional decrease in the number of ‘cultural’ Muslims. There is no change in the percentage of ‘secular Muslims.’ Nor is there a significant decrease of ‘selective Muslims’; instead, among Turkish Dutch the proportion is the same in 2006 and 2015, and among Moroccan Dutch the proportion has decreased 1%. In other words, there is not a simplistic trend from less religious to more religious, but rather complex changes in the practice of religion, from ‘cultural’ to ‘pious’ or ‘strict.’ This shift might indicate a process of modernization or rationalization; processes that are often assumed to operate in tandem with, or are considered elements of, the process of secularization.
Modernization processes within religion(s) are often associated with a more ‘rational,’ reflective attitude towards religious texts and practices, including an increased emphasis on the importance of inner conviction; a questioning of unwritten traditions, which some adherents may then declare ‘cultural’ rather than properly ‘religious’; and the individualization of religious belief and practice. Individualization can denote a questioning of previous generations’ practices, the carving out of a personal path towards religious expression, and a strong personal relationship with god without the intervention of others. The report observes that this process of individualization is taking place among especially the younger generation of Turkish Dutch and Moroccan Dutch Muslims. These observations show the more nuanced relationship between ‘religionization’ and ‘secularization’: paradoxical though it might seem, secularization and religious revitalization can be intimately related processes.
Secondly, as the data very clearly shows, an increase in certain (religious) practices does not necessarily decrease secularity – at least not in the sense my Indian research participants would have understood it – and as is at times implied in the report. Instead, the proportion that values a culturally diverse society is very high among the most pious and strictly practicing Muslims: 92% as opposed to 95% among so-called secular Muslims and 88% among ‘selective’ Muslims.
It is often suggested (and mentioned in the report, as well as in this reaction to it) that stricter religious adherence is a result of the experience of discrimination and the challenge of being a minority in a pluriform cultural society. Although these factors also played a role among my Indian participants (nearly all ‘secular’ countries make an exception for Muslims when it comes to their ostensible commitment to non-discrimination), to suggest that the reason for increased piety is simply to seek security and a sense of community might be too limited. For Bengali Muslims, reformist Islam offers the tools to engage in modern civility. Reformist Islam is explicitly named as the source of the secular ethic of openness.
Similarly, perhaps Muslims in the Netherlands are revitalizing their religious beliefs and practices not only to shelter from ‘plural’ society, but also because it offers an ethical base from which to engage with that plural society. In India, I found that the felt need for such an ethical basis was strong because of the corrupt and discriminatory environment: ‘secularism isn’t happening,’ lamented one of my devout participants. Given that in India, the secular polity sought legitimation by drawing on supposedly timeless religious and cultural values, it is not surprising that my participants vernacularized this practice and sought to revitalize religion as a means of imbuing (what they saw as) a degenerate, corrupt society with their (newly adopted) ‘traditional’ morality.
The Netherlands’ version of secularism is rooted in its Christian heritage, and two out of four parties in government are Christian parties. However, with the Dutch ‘losing god’ (only 14% believe in a personal god), one may be forgiven for wondering what their sources of morality are, or on what basis shared Dutch culture rests. Some of the Muslims I have spoken to for my current research on Dutch secularism and ethics among Muslims in the Netherlands feel it is entirely unclear what the ‘Dutch culture’ they are supposed to ‘assimilate’ to actually is, let alone what its ethical basis might be. Moreover, Article 1 of the Constitution of the Netherlands, supposedly the cornerstone of secular liberalism (“All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances”) has been under attack from openly illiberal politicians such as Geert Wilders. Neoliberalism may have further eroded any ethical basis if there ever was one, introducing the hegemony of economic rationality, consumerism, and competitive individualism.
In this context, perhaps the religious revitalization among Muslims in the Netherlands is actually part of a much broader ethical revitalization, one that is aimed not only at a deeper connection to god, but also at an ethical society more broadly. These are hypothetical questions, which I will explore over the coming two years of qualitative research among Muslims in The Hague. But if this is the case, religious revitalization among Muslims could arguably be a positive contribution to Dutch society, perhaps leading to conversations about the shared values that underpin a genuinely ethical secular society.
In this piece, I have both decried the simplistic analysis of the SPC report and have used my Indian ethnography to point towards other possible interpretations of the SPC’s data. But as I conclude, it is worth pointing out that even if the interpretations put forward in the report and the media were correct, it is worth problematizing the tone of lament adopted in their discussion of, for example, the lack of secularization happening in spite of increased access to higher education (and the stubborn clutching to this lament instead of an openness to self-reflection). This lament gives away the lack of neutrality on the part of the report’s authors, and for this reason the data is very easily misrepresented by those who wish to further a particular agenda and identity politics. Given that the people being researched are already in a vulnerable position, there is an ethical duty to avoid such misrepresentation by distancing oneself from the highly politicised mainstream representation of the status quo and actively promoting an epistemologically critical, open and diverse interpretation. Or, at the very least, to swallow one’s own fears and laments and present data in utter neutrality.
The mentioned research project in the Netherlands has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 707404. The opinions expressed in this document reflect only the author’s view. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
Pic 1. Picture take by dr Pool during her fieldwork.
 The report discusses data from the main Muslim groups in the Netherlands, classified by ‘origin’ or ‘background,’ but with the latter taken broadly. Someone born in the Netherlands, with only a Dutch passport, and with two parents with Dutch passports, still has Moroccan ‘origins’, and is thus called a ‘Moroccan Dutch’ (or sometimes spelled hyphenated; the report is inconsistent). For stylistic reasons, the report writes, it simplifies the denotation to Moroccan or Turkish, without the ‘Dutch’. As I think it is problematic to call someone born and raised in the Netherlands to Dutch passport holders ‘Turkish’, I maintain ‘Turkish Dutch’ (see also this blog post on the issue). Of the main Muslims groups, the report focuses on Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch, so I do the same and leave other groups unmentioned. So when talking about ‘Muslims in the Netherlands’ I am talking about Moroccan Dutch and Turkish Dutch Muslims.