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Religion, Migration, and Human Dignity360°ANALYSIS

Religion and migration are two sides of the same coin.

There are many reasons why people migrate. War, violence, persecution, and political instability are only one aspect: economic reasons which are often underestimated in Germany, make millions of people leave their families and friends behind to build new lives in a foreign country. This is true for German physicians in Sweden and Great Britain as well as for German investment bankers in London or Asia. It is the reality for Neapolitan pizza bakers and for German Turkish returnees to Istanbul. The wide spread stereotype in Germany of poor economic refugees coming from Albania, North Africa, or elsewhere, is just one side of the issue; the temporary migration of the well educated and skilled elite is the other one.

The connection between religion and migration is another aspect that is constantly overlooked. The very existence of Israel can mainly be traced back to the offer of creating a home for the Jewish diaspora all over the globe. Though the criterion of having a Jewish mother was in the foreground, religious and personal identity were nonetheless also connected to the migration.

The same is true for orthodox Serbs, for Indian Hindus, for Catholics from the Philippines and for Muslims from North Africa. Even if someone thinks of himself as non-practicing, he will be shaped by the cultural background of his home country that is influenced by religion. Maronites from Lebanon will never forget their home country no matter how well they are integrated in the countries they migrated to.

In Germany there is a well-established social imperative for religious tolerance. That makes sense, especially since religious wars after Martin Luther’s reformation had torn the country apart and because there is a broad consensus in the country that religious freedom cannot flourish in a society without religious tolerance.

1. Religious freedom and democratic communities: Limits to religious tolerance

Like in every other area of life, tolerance cannot be indefinite in the complex fields of religion and migration. This statement might be astonishing or might create outrage. Nevertheless it has to be valid in those areas where religious values conflict with society’s value of upholding constitutional law and human dignity.

One might say that political processes cannot dismiss religious truth. This statement is true as well. Where there is conflict between political power and religious beliefs there is competition for who can claim universal validity and the right to interpret social and other realities. Maybe it is a competition for influence and power in general. In Europe because of religious conflicts in a lot of countries, people learned to separate or at least to differentiate between state and religion, political power and religious life. In the Christian Orthodox churches of Russia, or in Iran, this has happened to a lesser extent, simply because in the tradition of these countries, religious and political power is united. In Iran, this has led to strong theocratic tendencies, while in Russia, political power is dominating religious forces.

Difficulties occur where religious diversity becomes a crucial part of society. Then there are either exclusive rights for religious minorities or at least a balance of different traditions for living together (cohabitation). Lebanon which is a comparatively small country is yet another interesting example: there are Maronite Christians (who are part of the Catholic Church) as well as Greek Orthodox, Sunnis, and Shiites all living together in a balance that cannot be taken for granted and is difficult to maintain in everyday life.

The immigration areas of the European Union are very different from this. In France as well as in Germany it is a phenomenon of the past 50 years that with the influx of North Africans and Turks, Islam gained such a strong foothold that it can be said that there is a new religious minority in Europe. At the same time, some of the immigrating groups were bringing religious practices with them that in some cases are more based on cultural traditions than on genuine Islamic beliefs. Against this background a society like Germany now has to deal with topics such as honor killing, forced marriage, female circumcision or genital mutilation, Sharia law, Fatwas, and a lot more (for example halal slaughter or pork free food in the cafeterias of big companies).

That honor killing and genital mutilation cannot be tolerated in a democratic society is common consensus that effectively means that in a multi-religious society, limits to religious tolerance need to be established. In practice this means that when judging a young culprit there can be no thinking of extenuating circumstances because of the cultural backgrounds that made him think of family honor when killing his own sister. Likewise the living circumstances of priests accused of pedophilia cannot be a reason to punish these offenders differently than those who do not lead a religious lifestyle.

Of course there are examples of democratically non-legitimated intolerance. Why should Muslims in Germany and Switzerland not be allowed to build mosques? Why should Christians in Arabic countries except for Egypt and the Lebanon not be allowed to build churches?

But does that mean that church bells can be rung in Arab countries? Or that muezzins can call for prayer in Germany’s big cities? And what about dress codes? Should women from Germany and Europe be allowed to wear bikinis on Egyptian beaches as well? And should it likewise be permitted to wear the burka in public, which in extreme cases only leaves the eyes uncovered? Or should one agree with the French Parliament that legally banned this kind of clothing in public?

2. Religion in the public sphere and religious diversity in Germany

The examples mentioned above illustrate that until today the public sphere cannot be thought of independently from religion. A democratic legitimized order of coexistence therefore needs to deal with religious and cultural influences, no matter how strong or weak the religious ties of the parties involved in the lawmaking process might be.

In Germany, religion in the public sphere is challenged by at least four religious powers:

(1) Catholic and Evangelical Christians

(2) Secular people distanced from the church and religion

(3) Muslims

(4) Members of identifiable religious minorities

First of all there are the needs of those that would like to maintain a Christian lifestyle which means for example sticking to the dance ban on Good Friday, thinking of Corpus Christi processions as a democratic right, and wanting to except nuns from a possible headscarf ban in Baden-Württemberg’s schools. For both Catholics and Protestants, the preservation of their position is a huge challenge because their numbers and level of solidarity have clearly declined. Both main churches loose 100,000 members each year because the latter leave their churches. But with 50mn members, churches still represent the clear majority of people in Germany.

The second group (the seculars) are mainly represented by not very well organized groups of citizens who see religious freedom as a negative individual right and who live in a more or less clear distance to the Christian churches. This attitude can lead to lawsuits because of the frequency and volume of church bells ringing on Sunday, because of the hanging up of crosses in Bavarian schools, and similar issues. The second group’s expectations focus on keeping religion out of the public sphere as much as possible.

The Muslims (after all there are 4mn of them in Germany alone) mainly came with the different migration flows of the last 50 years. These are not only Turks but also people from Iran, from Arabic countries such as Morocco and Algeria, as well as Indonesia. Within these groups, a distinction between the first, second, and third generations of migrants needs to be made. Connected to this is the question why someone born and raised in Germany is considered a resident alien, but does not get the German citizenship automatically.

With regard to their religion, Muslims are not a homogenous group, either in Germany or in other European countries. What they share is that the right to practice their religion is really important to them. This includes the right to halal slaughter, to stick to dietary laws, to build and run mosques, and to a religious calendar including Ramadan, fast breaking, and other things. Legitimate claims by foreign migrant groups to practice their religion might be strange and unusual for the local population.

Religious minorities are usually exercising their right for religious freedom actively and they are eager to not attract a lot of attention. This is except for the publicly visible Central Council of Jews in Germany which stemmed from German history between 1933 and 1945. Amongst the members of religious minorities there are some groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and the New Apostolic church whose members are mainly German citizens. Members of Orthodox churches, as well as the Buddhists and Hindus mainly have a migration background. It is a matter of fact that at least 6mn Orthodox followers, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in Germany simply brought their religion with them. What else were they supposed to do?

Therefore it is actually a little surprising how little attention has been paid by the public to the connection between religion and migration. Even Abraham was a migrant bringing his own religion to his new home country. So even in the Bible we have examples for the following statement: People with a migration background do not simply leave their ancestral religion in their luggage but see it as a part of their identity even in their new environment.

3. Legitimate development of religious freedom and the commandment of human dignity

Different religious groups are all entitled to the human right of religious freedom, because of shared democratic convictions. But people from different countries are also bringing with them customs and traditions in which cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs mix and overlap. The Koran does not say anything about Muslim girls not being allowed to participate in swimming classes in school. Nevertheless this topic is being discussed, be it because of Islamic authorities’ interpretation processes or because of the realization and enforcement of identical education standards for the democratic community.

The coexistence of different religions does inevitably lead to challenges. Everyone agrees on the fact that the coexistence of different migrant groups with their different religious lifestyles needs rules. The question is: which rules should be applied?

If a society does not deal with this question it will suffer from outdated rules. This automatically leads to different kind of conflicts and begs the question: Can religious freedom in a country be applied to all people living there and what exactly does it imply? Where are its limits?

The first important statement from this concerns the fundamental legitimacy of religious expression. This allows religious freedom to flourish within a society.

Though this basic law is a guideline based on the value of human dignity, and a stable foundation for decisions, it cannot mean unlimited freedom. This means that there are tools to always rethink certain situations over and over again. Even if someone is so convinced of his religion, that he thinks of it as the only way to bliss, he has to coexist with others. The constitutional rationality of democracies can help with that. But it also needs to be developed further intellectually and institutionally.

That includes two ways of acting and attitude: Tolerance and (self) limitation

I want to shed further light on this point with a provocative thought experiment. We know that in the historical forms of the Maya religion in Central America blood played an important role. It was the center of the soul and the source of vitality. Therefore there were also human sacrifices that went as far as cutting open the chest to remove and sacrifice the beating heart.

This practice does not correspond with our understanding of human dignity. Would someone in this country try to revive the historical form of Maya religion by referring to religious freedom there would be a clear ban of human sacrifies by society as well as by the judicial system. In other words a limitation would be set to the sacrificing members of the Maya religion, which is justified by the shared conviction of human dignity in modern society.

Setting limits on certain religious practices is the price to pay for a peaceful religious coexistence. From the perspective of one of the members of this Maya religion, this ban of a, in his view, legitimate religious practice, is a not conflict free way to console the needs of his fellow citizens with those of his own religion. If these limits are established successfully they lead to changes in the religion itself: maybe the religious community of Mayas in Germany would sacrifice wax figures but not living people anymore.

Whether these limits are reasonable or not is not always as clear as it is with sacrificing humans for religious reasons. Public disputes about forms of religious expression are essential for a democratic society. The question of where freedom starts and ends, does not exclude religious practices. One example for this is the question of blood transfusion for Jehovah’s Witnesses in hospitals.

4. Religious freedom, religious tolerance, and religious limitation

Religious freedom in a democracy with a huge religious diversity is characterized by the interplay of religious tolerance and religious (self) limitation. Democratic coexistence does not mean the abandonment of religious claims for truth and validity. But it leads to the call for limits to all religious practices which according to a majority, conflict with the human dignity in a democratic state and which can and should therefore be sanctioned by law.

As we have seen, this can lead to forms of religious change. The different discussions about the Catholics of the 19th century which became known as the “Kulturkampf” (culture struggle), is one such example. Catholics were assumed, as for example by Bismarck around 1871 and 1878 to be either loyal Prussian citizens or loyal Catholics (almost in the sense of Vatican citizens), but not both at the same time. From a Catholic perspective it was, amongst other things, about defending the sacrament of marriage against civil marriage. As is well known, civil marriage succeeded and therefore for over a hundred years there has been the distinction between civil marriage and the ones performed by the church. At least nowadays this distinction does not burden the conscience of Catholic Christians anymore.

If a religious community does not accept state norms there are different forms of oppression, persecution, and martyrdom, as for example in the times of the Roman state before Konstantin. It is not a surprise that every measurement a certain religious group is not ok with is often portrayed as a form of oppression or even persecution.

This can be used as a rhetorical figure in a democratic argument if it is for sure, that it is neither about fostering a kind of state religion nor about the discrimination of a certain religious group. It is also true that in many states of the world there is religious persecution and oppression, which results from a refusal to stick to the rules of religious freedom and democracy.

Religious (self) limitation in a democratic society means the acceptance of a common set of rules to make a peaceful coexistence of all religious groups possible. How many limits are acceptable and which minimum standards for a democratic society should be applied when it comes to its religious freedom are questions open to dispute. It can and should be discussed if religious groups are to contribute to the definition of a society’s minimum religious standards themselves.

5. Establishing a council of religions and a definition for minimum standards of religious freedom

Usually, religious communities in Germany live independently and focus on strengthening their communities, the religious education of young people, and on maintaining religious community centers and initiatives. Politics on the other hand is not much of their concern.

This is also true for the Catholic and Evangelical church. There is usually not a lot of interaction with the political sphere. It is mostly about kindergartens, schools, nursing homes, or hospitals. Even the religious education in school which is a shared initiative of state and church remains in many cases clearly separated from community life.

The question for minimum standards of religious freedom is not really relevant in these areas. However this does not mean that there are no conflicts between religious and political matters even with regards to the big well-established churches. One only has to think for example of the controversy regarding homosexual priests and bishops in the Evangelical church or the strict interpretation of churches’ labor law when it comes to divorced and remarried chief physicians in Catholic hospitals.

There are even more questions when the religious needs of Jews, Muslims, members of the Orthodox churches, and others are concerned. Stuttgart’s Lord Mayor started a round table of religions in 2003 where seven religious communities are participating. Amongst others, these include Christians, Muslims, Bahais, and Buddhists. A total of 25 religious communities support the board which advocates a dialogue between the city and its religious groups.

Such a remarkable initiative would be desirable for Germany and Europe as a whole. A nationwide council of religions could meet to discuss the possible contributions of religions to a democratic and religious community. The aim of such a board for interreligious dialogue would not be to discuss religious and theological questions but to look for a way for all members of the state to live together in the best way possible.

Such a council of religions would be a strong signal for the vitality and importance of all religions in Germany. Jointly it could denounce and distance itself from practices such as forced marriage, honor killing, suicide attacks, but also the sexual abuse of minors by religious representatives. At the same time such a board could promote a better access to education and healthcare for societal groups which still seem to be marginalized by society.

Of course there will be controversial issues where no consensus will be reached. But to keep a record of that is also important for a democratic society.

This council of religions will inevitably have to deal with the question of minorities and refugees. Human rights are not tied to citizenship; and at least in my view it is, as already mentioned above, inappropriate to deny a German passport to those young people who grew up here and have adopted the country’s language and culture or to make them choose to give up the citizenship of their parents’ country of origin.

Such a council of religions would not only demand minimum standards for the implementation of religious freedom based on human dignity, but would also set limits in cases where according to the council’s view, religion violates human dignity. Such a board would not end the existence of conflicting opinions but it would make it obvious that religions can come together to jointly advocate religious freedom, without giving up on minimum standards of human dignity.

The composition of a national council of religions can be discussed from different perspectives. Here only a starting point will be offered. It will be a pragmatic necessity that one representative in the council of religions represents at least 50,000 members of a religious group. If necessary, minorities could join forces for that.

Given that very small groups could send one, small and medium sized two to four, and the biggest religious communities up to five representatives, a broad and deep discussion of topics could be guaranteed and the domination of Catholics and Protestants which still equal two thirds of the German society, would be prevented.

Migration and religion cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin. A council of religions in favor of minimum standards for religious freedom and the commitment to minimum standards for democratic coexistence could be an essential step on the way for more integration, inclusion, and enrichment through diversity. It could also foster the process of democratic opinion formation. If then a federal religion office as a complementary institution will need to be established is another question.

I am concluding with the dream that we will be able to establish general binding measures to enforce human rights and duties for people with a migration background. Maybe a UN agency is necessary for that which I would call the United Nations Migration Authority.

There are legitimate expectations on both sides: On one side there are migrants who took their religion with them, and on the other side there are the members of a society that is based on a majority principle. To worthily and bravely balance them in a sustainable matter is a duty we cannot ignore and whose fulfillment can add to a dignified, successful, and happy life!

Laichingen, 27th May, 2012.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.