Commentary on Paul Statham’s “Public ‘Barriers’ to Islam? Examining How Political Debates and Public Opinion Shape the Inclusion of Muslims in Four European Countries” by ARC Student Fellow Susie J. Tanenbaum

Paul Statham is Professor of Migration and Director of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR) in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK.  The Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (JEMS), his extensive publications include the books Contested Citizenship: Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Europe (2005), The Making of a European Public Sphere (2010), and The Politicization of Europe (2013).  A political sociologist, Dr. Statham’s current research focuses on “the political accommodation of Islam and Muslim minorities in their Western societies of settlement” (ARC website).  On March 2nd, we had the opportunity to hear his presentation, “Public ‘Barriers’ to Islam?  Examining How Political Debates and Public Opinion Shape the Inclusion of Muslims in Four European Countries.”


In contrast to immigrant societies of North America, Western Europe has a permanent minority population of only five to nine percent, and multicultural debates in European societies tend to focus specifically on accommodation of Muslim populations.  Scholars have conducted cross-national studies of Muslim incorporation, and some have suggested that Islam is in conflict with European societal institutions and national identities rooted in Christianity (Alba & Foner 2008).  Others have countered that European states uphold liberal norms by extending religious group rights to Muslims, often in spite of public dissent (Joppke & Torpey 2013).


Dr. Statham is among the first scholars to have conducted an empirical study with the aim of assessing “ordinary people’s views” on extending group rights to Muslim populations in four European countries: Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Germany.  Group rights, which exceed the rights of individual citizenship, accommodate the particular needs of minority groups.  To avoid reification, Dr. Statham included Muslims of four different national origins: Pakistanis, Turks, Yugoslavs, and Moroccans.  Interview questions gauged opinions on “contested boundaries over Muslims” — building mosques with visible minarets, allowing teachers to wear religious symbols, and offering religious education in public schools.  The ‘gaps’ in responses within countries served as indicators of socio-cultural distance between non-Muslim majority and Muslim minority populations (Statham 2016).


Dr. Statham provided context for his analysis by reviewing church/state separation in each of the countries under consideration.  This revealed wide variation in the degree of Muslim accommodation and Christian group privilege.  In Britain, the Church of England is highly privileged, but the state extends paternalistic support to minority religions.  In Germany, the state recognizes particular religious groups as public corporations but has denied this status to Muslims.  The legacy of “pillarization” in the Netherlands offers state support for broad-based religious pluralism.  Meanwhile, the concept of laïcité in France restricts all religious activity in the public sphere.  Despite the differences, patterns can be detected: Britain and the Netherlands are more accommodating of Muslim group rights; Britain and Germany privilege their Christian churches; and the Netherlands and France maintain religious parity, with the Netherlands practicing inclusion and France enforcing exclusion.


The first research phase involved examining relevant national political debates, which play a role in mediating public opinion on Muslim group rights.  Claims data about Muslims and Islam were drawn from newspapers spanning a ten-year period.  Four sets of actors were identified: representatives of the state and judiciary, legislative and political parties, non-Muslim civil society organizations and groups, and Muslim organizations and groups.  The results indicated that in Britain, the state and civil society support Muslim group rights; in the Netherlands, the radical right Party for Freedom challenges the state’s and civil society’s position on this issue; in France, the state and civil society actually lend support to Muslim involvement in the debate over group rights; while in Germany, the state, political parties, and civil society are neutral on extending Muslim group rights.


Recognizing the differences in national contexts, the second research phase measured ‘gaps’ within each country between non-Muslim and Muslim opinion on group rights.  Telephone survey interviews were conducted (in languages other than English, as needed) with a sample of 7,000 majority and Muslim minority respondents.  While the first section of the survey posed one question about constructing mosques with visible minarets, specifically gauging views on Muslim group rights, the second section posed one question about teachers wearing Christian clothes or symbols and another question about teachers wearing the Islamic veil.  Similarly, the third survey section posed one question about Christian education and another about Muslim education in public schools.  The structure of the second and third sections allowed for comparisons as well as a more nuanced analysis of majority and Muslim minority views on religious rights.  A two-way analysis of covariance was conducted, controlling for age, education, and income.  Gender was included as an independent variable.


The research results permitted a cross-national comparison.  The findings were noteworthy, and some were unexpected.  Dr. Statham reported that, in all four countries, there were statistically significant ‘gaps’ in majority and minority respondents’ views on Muslim group rights.  Muslim respondents supported parity with Christian group rights, while majority opinion shifted from supporting Christian group rights to opposing Muslim group rights.  Most surprisingly, British majority respondents expressed the strongest opposition to extending Muslim group rights, even though Britain had the most accommodating state policies and the most supportive public debate on religion of all four countries.


Dr. Statham emphasized the methodological importance of including majority populations in comparative studies on the accommodation of minority group rights, also called “opportunity structures”.  In this study, the shift in majority opinion was responsible for the significant ‘gap’ between Muslim and non-Muslim responses, indicating socio-cultural distance and a potentially high level of controversy over Muslim group rights.  Dr. Statham’s working hypothesis for understanding the British case was that the absence of a “pressure valve effect” in the form of an anti-Islam political actor in Britain, similar to the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, may have resulted in low-level resentment in everyday life interactions, which went undetected by the political elites.  This is a troubling dynamic to consider, especially at a time when right-wing nationalism is on the rise in Western Europe and the United States.  During the question-and-answer section of his presentation, a few alternative explanations were proposed.  It will be interesting to see how Dr. Statham develops his analysis in subsequent phases of this groundbreaking study.


~Susie J. Tanenbaum