Europe: Muslims in Christian-Democratic parties

Europe: Muslims in Christian-Democratic parties

In the past I've been approached by journalists who were looking for information on Muslims in Europe. I generally help them out, answer questions and direct them to where they can find more information. That's usually the last I hear from them.

Philip Ebels, a Dutch journalist, was working on an article on Muslims in Christian-democratic parties. When he turned to me for information, I gladly helped him out, as I usually do.

However Philip Ebels deserves an honorary mention, for being the first to mention my blog, to quote me, and (as far as I can remember) to also get back to me with the article after it was published. It's also the first time I've seen a thorough treatment of this topic, which is usually overlooked in the discussion of Muslims in European politics. I'm therefore happy to be able to post it here (in translation).


Many Muslims in Europe are active in Christian-democratic parties. Together they appear to work against a growing secularism. A trend?

It had never so busy by the press section. From all the corners of the wold, they came to look at the swearing in of Mahinur Özdemir as regional parliament member of Brussels last month. It was a first in Europe. Never before was there a parliament member with a headscarf.

Less attention was paid to the fact that Ms. Özdemir, a practicing Muslim, represents a (traditional) Christian-democratic party, the Humanist Democratic Center (until recently the Social Christian Party). That is not a first, on the contrary. Everywhere in Europe Muslims are devoted to Christian-democratic parties.

In the Netherlands Coşkun Çörüz has been a member of parliament for the CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) since May 2001. Until November 2006, Nihat Eski was as well. Ayhan Tonca is a municipality councilor in Apeldoorn and would have been in parliament if not for the commotion around his possible denial of the Armenian genocide. All three are of Turkish origin.

Two other elected party member of Ms. Özdemir are Muslims. The Flemish CD&V (Christian-Democratic & Flemish), the French Union for a Popular Movement (partially formed by the former Christian Democrats), the Italian People of Freedom, and the German Christian Democratic Union of Germany have Muslims in their ranks. Many thousands are probably active as members.

It seems paradoxical - certainly at a time of increasing extremism. According to some it's simply war. We against them, and vice versa. But it's not such a paradox. Because both see a common opponent in European secularism. "In my human and social ideas, religion plays a role, and the CDA accepts that," says Çörüz in an interview in de Volksrant. "I can be in other parties as an immigrant, but my religion plays no role."

Is this a trend? Not by the CDA, according to de Volkskrant. Last month it wrote that Muslims are leaving it wholesale. After leading an active multicultural policy in the 90s, the party seemed to make an about face after 9/11. Four months later Balkenende (current Dutch PM) declared: "For me the multicultural society is not something to strive for," The storm of hardening seems to have abated, but "the enthusiasm of the 90s will never return."

Professor Jean Tillie of the University of Amsterdam also doesn't see a trend. He's linked to the Institute of Migration and Ethnic Studies. His study of voting behavior among immigrants even shows a drop of the number of Turkish-Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch CDA voters.

Eddy Bilder, parliament member for the CDA and former chairman of the orthodox Christian Course Movement CDA (Beweging Christelijke Koers CDA), confirms this. "In my close vicinity I don't see an increase in the number of believers of other faiths. On the contrary, in the parliament fraction it's gone down."

The party spokesperson of the CDA, Marcel Meyer, draws a different picture. He emphasizes the common interests of all believers. "We think that faith does reach further than the private sphere. That appeals to everybody, also Hindus, Buddhists or Jews." He sees two trends. "First I see more and more believers of other faiths, second more and more youth who become members of the CDA."

So what is it? It's difficult to find reliable data about the number of Muslim members since religious convictions are not recorded. Yet it's reasonable to expect that more Muslims will join Christian-democratic parties. First simply because there's more Muslims. Through immigration and an above-average birthrate, the Muslim population of Europe grows faster than the rest.

Moreover, the estimated 20 million Muslims in Europe - of a total population of almost 500 million - are drastically underrepresented politically. Barely thirty are in parliament and a handful in government. According to the website, in 2004 eight of the 785 elected European parliament members were Muslims. (For 2009 data is not yet available). But as the second, third, fourth generation of immigration gets a better education and European nationality, they would also get more politically involved.

While some raise a hue-and-cry, integration quietly continues. The polder-mosque in Amsterdam which opened last year - where sermons are in Dutch and men and women can pray together - is a good example of that. "A handful of radicals aside, the majority speaks the local language properly, pays taxes and participates in the democratic process," says professor Jean Tillie.

Muslims in Europe traditionally vote for the Left. But that can also change. Now the choice of party is chiefly decided by concerns about social services or immigration policy. But as slowly but surely a middle-class forms, it can be expected that normative considerations will play a greater role.

And who other than the Christian democrats? They defend the traditional ethics and the place of faith in society. Regarding issues such as abortion, (gay) marriage, euthanasia, or stem-cell research, they don't think differently at all. "If you take a look at the values contained in the CDU party program, these are the same values that an enlightened Muslim can also find in Islam:" says Bülent Arslan, board member of the North Rhine-Westphalia CDU, "justice, freedom, the importance of family."

Madeleine van Toorenburg, integration spokesperson for the CDA says in an interview in De Pers: "it's clear that Muslims vote for us. We have many similarities through religion. Muslims are often closer to us than people who aren't religious."

The latter category has grown sharply in Europe in the last fifty years. In the past everybody was religious. Meanwhile, we're the most godless continent on Earth, after Australia. A survey of the European Commission from 2005 shows that just half the Europeans "believe in a god". In North and Central Europe a third believe, in Estonia, not more than 18%. Also youth believe significantly less. Enter a random church on a random Sunday morning and the couple of elderly widows will bear witness to this so-called post-Christian Europe.

The arrival of millions of Muslims brought faith back to the public space. Secular Europe responded allergically and had a fit. Turkey has banned all religious symbols in schools, universities and government buildings since 1997; France since 2004. At a Dutch school only the burka is banned. Since 2003, 8 of the 16 German states ban teachers from wearing the headscarf. Also during the swearing in of Ms. Özdemir there were voices of protest. Last month the last school in Antwerp announced a headscarf ban. In many countries the debate continues and one ban or another is on the agenda.

It's logical that moderate believers will know to find each other in such an environment. They disapprove of what they see as radical secularism. Van Toorenburg: "Sometimes it seems as if religion may not play any role in politics. Then I think: is it allowed, religion as an inspiration source?" More orthodox believers go a step further. "We find ourselves at a turning point," says Eddy Bilder. "Twenty years ago Christians thought to impose their ideas on society. Now it's different. Now the liberal society imposes its norms on the religious. Look for example at the position of women, or the acceptance of homosexuality."

Together we stand strong, is the idea. The CDA had even proposed once at a gathering to change the C (Christian) to S (Spiritual) or R (Religious), to unite all believers. Or in the worlds of John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter: "Beating back the wolf at the door in the form of hyper-secularization is going to require help from Muslims."

Will the believers truly unite in a growing godless world? Will Christian Democrats continue from now on as religious democrats? It won't get as bad. Esther Ben-David, the pseudonym of the moderator of the "Islam in Europe" blog, sees moderate believers getting closer more as a marriage of convenience. "The Church is not really interested in having a Muslim Europe, or a religious Europe. It's interested in having a Christian Europe and it might see Islam as a way of renewing interest in religion"

"It's more probable that Muslims will organize by their own identity," says also professor Tillie. "A party like the Dutch Muslim Party, which participated in the municipal elections last year, could do that very well." Bilder stresses that the gulf between the orthodox will not get smaller. Moderates getting closer he can somehow see happening.

Yet the trend can't be completely denied. So, for example, the Turkish AK-party, based on Islamic foundations, has been an acting member of the European People's Party, the umbrella organization of Christian democrats. the NMP (Dutch Muslim Party) also wants to be a party for Muslims and non-Muslims with a goal to "minimize the gulf between Muslims and non-Muslims and improve the (negative) image of Islam."

Moreover, there is data to back it. A recent survey of Moroccan Belgians by the King Baudouin Foundation shows that 4.3% of the first generation are members of a Christian-democratic party. Among the second generation that's 9.3%. A pan-European study has unfortunately not been conducted yet.

With an eye to the future, professor Tillie expects that Islam in the Netherlands will take a comparable place as Catholicism thirty years ago. Funny to think that the Catholics then united with the Protestants to form one party: the CDA.

Source: De Groene Amsterdammer (Dutch), Philip Ebels

Update: Fixed, NMP is the Dutch Muslim Party.

See also:
* Belgium: Who are the Belgian Moroccans?
* Brussels: First woman with headscarf in parliament
* Antwerp: Two schools ban headscarves

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