Muslim Migration and the Borders of (Christian) European Identity

In: Beyond Binaries
Joshua Ralston
Search for other papers by Joshua Ralston in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


Dieser Artikel bemüht sich durch sprachlich-rhetorische und praktisch-politische Untersuchungen aufzuzeigen, wie Grenzen in Europa gezogen und konstruiert werden. Vor allem anhand der Flüchtlingskrise 2015–2018 zeigt Ralston die Widersprüchlichkeit liberal-politischen Denkens im Umgang mit Religion und Muslimen in Europa auf. Die gerne aufgemachte Opposition von Nationalisten und Kosmopoliten versucht er aufzubrechen, indem er nachweist, wie sowohl konservativ als auch liberal orientierte Akteure Muslime als fremd in Europa wahrnehmen. Auf diese Weise kommt er zu dem Schluss, dass die übliche Rede von Dichotomien zwischen Islam und Europa zu Gunsten einer komparativ-politischen Theologie aufzulösen sei, die versucht, das Beste der liberalen und jüdisch-christlichen Tradition aufzunehmen und um den kulturell-religiösen Reichtum des Islams zu erweitern.

In the summer of 2015, European media, politicians, and the general public became increasingly aware of the refugee and migration crisis caused by the Syrian war. While millions of people had fled Syria years earlier to neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, it was not until a large number sought asylum in Europe that political and social discourse became fixated on the humanitarian crisis. Throughout the summer and into the autumn of 2015, over 1 million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants arrived in Europe.1 In those initial months, Germany and Sweden combined to accept, either permanently or temporarily, at least 600,000 of these people.2 By contrast, other European governments such as those in Hungary attempted to close their borders, while the United Kingdom and French governments cautioned against more open border policies. Over the past five years, the urgency of addressing the migration crisis, both in Europe and in the Middle East and Africa, has given way to internal policy debates within the European Union and the rise of nationalist parties with anti-immigrant positions.3 Even countries and political leaders who had initially encouraged just and fair adjudication of asylum cases now find themselves appealing to the populist concerns for more restrictive borders. Five years on from 2015, it was barely news that Italy outlawed the rescue of migrants at sea or Denmark refused the asylum appeals of dozens of Syrians.

The migration crisis created a political crisis within Europe. Were European nations obligated to welcome migrants and allow them to seek political asylum through legal means or should Europe limit migration and protect its borders, encouraging migrants to seek asylum in countries closer to home? These political debates were marked throughout by longstanding cultural and religious arguments that focused on vital questions about European identity, the rule of law, and religious and cultural diversity.

How are we to interpret this crisis and what it implies about the European and Western political framework and the struggle between those championing restrictive border policies that seek to keep migrants out and calls to respect international and European laws that recognize the fundamental human right to asylum? One dominant framing of this debate, especially by champions of closed borders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Nigel Farage in Britain, is to juxtapose ordinary people against elite internationalist. Another is to contrast a liberal and humane approach that upholds international law with populist conservatives that reject the liberal traditions in favour of nationalism. Is this simply a case between nationalists and globalists? Or between the elite and the working class, cities and rural environments, leftists and conservatives? Or do these binaries fail to capture the theo-political complexity of these last few years?

This chapter argues that the social and political crisis within Europe caused by migration is not best understood through simple binaries that juxtapose conservatives versus liberals, or nationalist versus internationalist. Instead, I show how the debates about migration are tied up with longer tensions within political liberalism, especially as it impacts Christian, secular, and Muslim relations. Put simply, with the movement of a large number of Muslims into Europe in recent years, Western political ideology finds two major features of its identity and practices at an impasse. On the one hand, Europe has longstanding commitments to nurture a political space of liberal tolerance, human rights, religious freedom, and porous internal borders – including the right to asylum. On the other hand, this tradition has been constructed, both in rhetoric and external borders, over and against a perceived illiberal Muslim. The liberal tradition of the Geneva Convention demands legal welcome for the Muslim refugee, even as the longer political ideology of Europe questions the possibility of Muslim integration into and acceptance of political liberalism and its accompanying commitments to freedom of speech, tolerance, and religious freedom. The rhetoric and debates surrounding the refugee crisis is the apparent collision of these two sources of European identity. The chapter shows that both advocates for restrictive borders and champions of migrant rights are both heirs to different parts of the legacy of European political liberal traditions. These have been shaped by church history, the post Westphalian settlements about the nature of religion and its perceived threat to public order, and the complex ways that Christian theology and ethics have impacted European identity. Borders have been constructed, partly at least, to keep out non-liberals – most often Muslims – that would threaten the underpinning of liberal democracy and challenge the makeup of Europe. And yet to refuse asylum seekers, to fail to respond in legal and just ways, is also to fail to abide by the ideals of European society. To expand and interpret these claims and explore how they continue to shape the current social, political, and theological (understood here primarily as the discursive appeal to Christianity in public responses) responses to asylum seekers and refugees, I want to sketch how Europe and appeals to the idea of the ‘West’ have been shaped through two competing, albeit overlapping ideas, and how these come to be deployed in theo-political discourse.

1. Europe and the Liberal Tradition

First, Europe is regularly defined through the legacy of political liberalism and collectivism that emerged both since the Enlightenment and more recently since the end of the second World War and the development of the European Union. However, one traces the history of the concept of Europe be it to the Greeks and Romans, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, the Renaissance and Reformation, the post-Westphalian political settlements and the rise of nation-states and European project after the French Revolution, the contours of this project are well known and consistently invoked by politicians. Without getting bogged down in the various genealogies, histories, and debates, it should not be too controversial to claim that the ‘West’ is constructed around appeals to the ideals around law, representative government, political secularism, individual human rights, and tolerance. A central part of the modern European heritage is a commitment to forms of representative government and the rule of law. This develops in part through legal scholars who put forth notions of international law and proto human rights discourse. For instance in this rendering of the West’s emergence as told by contemporary scholars such as Michael Allen Gillsepie4 and John Witte,5 Hugo Grotius and Johannes Althusius from the Protestant traditions as well as Francisco de Vitoria of the Catholic Salamanca School helped to shape the development of European tradition through their emphasis on law as a trans-national value and right. In addition, the development of liberal political theory after the wars of religion through thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, Kant, and others, is a hall mark of the European project. These various commitments then come to shape a general Western commitment to some form of political secularism – be it through French laïcité, Anglo-American Church-State separation, religious-state partnership in Germany or the lingering or unofficial establishment in Scandinavia, Greece, and Italy.

In terms of migration, European failures during the second world war to protect Jews and other groups led to the official enshrinement legal protocols to protect migrants and enshrine legal safeguards for dissidents, the persecuted, and asylum seekers. The United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the creation of the UNHCR aimed to provide a legal and political framework for protecting and aiding refugees.6 While this definition leaves many questions open regarding its relevance for asylum seekers and internally displaced persons, it has been legally applied to persons who cross national borders because of active persecution and are formally categorized as refugees by the UNCHR. Legal recognition of refugee status is critical since it, at least theoretically, guarantees the right to nonrefoulement and protection under international law.7 It is this tradition and particularly its supposed ‘liberal’ and European roots that have been drawn on throughout the last few years to advocate for programs and policies that would support refugees. Legally, the European liberal tradition would appear to demand that human beings are offered a safe legal route to seek the political protection of asylum.

And yet this liberal telling of the European story conceals as much as it reveals. So the second aspect of European and Western identity that is worth examining is how this very same political and social identity and practices is partly a framework that is built in and through distinguishing it from the illiberal world, chief amongst this other is the Turkish and Arab societies where Islam is the majority religion. Joseph A. Massad has recently argued that Islam is central to the ideology, identity, and historical construction of Western liberalism. “Liberalism as the antithesis of Islam has become one of the key components of the very discourse through which Europe as a modern identity was conjured up.”8 In this work, as well as other critics such as Talal Asad or Gil Andijar, scholars have argued that European liberalism, as well as modern Christian political theology, has partly been created through the process of expelling (in the case of Andalusia), resisting (in the Case of the Ottoman Empire), or othering (in the case of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa) Islam. That is to say that the very notion of Europe and the West – and its appeals to liberalism and human rights – are partly developed in direct contrast to a perceived illiberal enemy or neighbour. As Talal Asad notes, “Europe (and the nation-states of which it is constituted) is ideologically constructed in such a way that Muslim immigrants cannot be satisfactorily represented in it.”9 In order to project the liberal tradition of Europe, it becomes vital to either reject or assimilate non Europeans, in this case Muslims. The 2020–21 French debates over religious freedom and the so called separatism law are a case in point. Let me expand a bit longer on this longstanding worry about Muslims, the West, and political theology in relationship to liberal political theory, security, and borders.

While the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers moving into Europe in 2015 and 16 is unprecedented, the political, ethical, legal, and theological questions that has raised to the fore are not new but in fact very old. Migration is tied up with the long and contentious history of Europe’s relationship with Muslim societies, in particularly the Arab World and Turkey, and the way that Christian political theology, both in its secular and Christendom forms has been understood. Writing in 2009, Anouar Majid argues that “No one seems to be reading the intense debate over immigration and minorities who resist assimilation as the continuation of a much older conflict, the one pitting Christendom against the world of Islam.”10 Looming large, and often central to the rhetoric of those political and religious figures championing closed borders, is the relationship between Islam, Christianity, and Western political liberalism.11 The refugee crisis, however, has made this long simmering debate much more explicit. Luca Mavelli and Erin K. Wilson argue that Western perceptions of what counts as a good or bad Muslim are vital for understanding public rhetoric toward forced migrants and the policy decisions taken by various political actors. These divides and divisions testify to the “growing importance of religious identity in the politics of migration and refugees.”12 The refugee crisis has often pitted, in ways real and imagined, migrants who ‘deserve’ welcome over and against many Muslims migrants who are treated with either suspicion or disdain. For instance, the numerous violent attacks, such as in Paris in November 2015 or in Manchester in May of 2017 only heighten Western Europe’s questions about how Muslims capacity to integrate into European liberalism.13 The 2020–2021 debates within France over republican values and the law against separatism, which includes specific bans targeting French Muslims, are focused primarily on the compatibility of Islam with French values of equality, liberty, and fraternity.

2. Islam as Enemy to the Liberal Tradition

These recent events reinforce longstanding anxieties in Western Europe and North America about Islam, its relationship with liberal values, and Muslims’ capacity to live within Christian or secular states. While medieval anti-Islamic rhetoric is well known, exemplified by the twin events of the Crusades and the Reconquista, early Modern political thinkers show strong concern about the compatibility between Islam and the emerging political culture of Western Europe. Take, for instance, John Locke’s seminal text, A Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke judges Muslims, as well as atheists, Jews, and Roman Catholics, to be ipso facto incapable of living in his proposed political community.14 The problem according to Locke is that Muslims cannot maintain allegiance to their Islamic convictions and also loyally reside under a non-Muslim political authority; ultimate allegiances lie elsewhere and thus threaten the stability of the political community.

Such concerns about Islam’s relationship to the public arena persist to this day, characterized in the oft-repeated dictum that Islam recognizes no distinction between religion and politics. Typically these observations are quickly followed by condemnation. Summarizing this dynamic, William Cavanaugh notes how, “contemporary liberalism has found its definitive enemy in the Muslim who refuses to distinguish between religion and politics.”15 Muslims’ perceived inability to integrate into the West, adopt liberal democracy, or protect minority rights commonly are attributed to Islam’s insistence on merging the spiritual and political. The accuracy of these readings of Islam and the failure of these visions to account for the variety of political and legal systems and cultures that have marked Muslim societies or the history of colonial incursion is not the current concern. What should be admitted is that these ‘liberal’ critiques of Islam remain and part and parcel of the broader Western imaginary and political discourse. They continue to fund and fuel, either latently or explicitly, many of the political claims and actions that have shaped European and North American responses to migrants and frame the ways that religious identity have become part and parcel of the politics of refugee resettlement over the last few years. In and through this rhetoric, the liberal tradition that enshrines the legal protection of asylum comes into tension with aspect of the liberal traditions own wariness toward Muslim belonging.16 For instance, the influential conservative British commentatory and public intellectual, Douglas Murray, contends that the best values of Europe and the West are being undermined by multiculturalism and immigration. In his best selling book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, and Islam, Murray provocatively avers that “the civilization we know as Europe” is in process of betraying itself and squandering its rich cultural, religious, and political heritage due to migration.17 Most specifically, Murray identifies Muslims, both those who are citizens of European nations and those who have recently migrated to Europe, as an existential threat to liberal values such as tolerance, freedom of speech, and political integration.

Throughout the political debates, Christianity and Judeo-Christian values played a vital rhetorical function in the calls to protect Europe from immigrants, especially Muslims. Rogers Brubaker argues, for instance, that appeals to “Christianity have become increasingly central to national-populist rhetoric in the last decade.”18 According to his analysis, the turn to Christianity is intricately tied up with Islam. Numerous nationalist populist parties in Western Europe have begun to construct a Christian-secular identity politics to resist the “civilizational threat from Islam.”19 Christianity here does not function primarily as a set of religious practices or theological beliefs; in fact many who argue for this Judeo-Christian-Secular identity neither practice nor believe in traditional Christianity. Instead, Christianity serves as one central part in a broader imaginary of identity and civilisation that supports conceptions of freedom, gender equality, and liberalism. Christianism, as Brubaker names it, is juxtaposed with a depiction of Islam where freedom, gender equality, and political secularism are an impossibility. Hannah Strømmen and Ulrich Schmiedel show how the far right in Europe, not to mention others as well, present Muslims as a fundamental threat to the liberal values of Europe such as tolerance and Islam as a “totalitarian political power with colonizing ambitions.”20

It is vital to recognize the ways that Christianity and the secular are not necessarily antithetical. While Christian practice and some forms of the secular may confront one another and often clash – as in the anti-clericalism in some renderings of French political thought or the more ardent interpretations of Church-State separation in the Anglo-American world, their relationship is far more complex and often even symbiotic. Part of this has to do with the ways that secularization often leaves in place many of the practices, rhythms, holidays, and assumptions of the religion that it seeks to distance itself from. As the Turkish-German sociologist and theorists, Nilfüfer Göle points out, “Secularity has developed in a way that intertwines it with the particular religion from which it attempts to distance itself” such that “just as French laïcité holds a particular articulation with Christianity and represents a form of ‘cathlo-laïcité,’ Turkish laiklik also displays some characteristics of Islam. It pretends to be neutral, yet it tacitly endorses Sunni majority norms.”21 However, the relationship between Christian political theology and secular political practices also exceeds Göle’s description of cultural assumptions and religious distancing. In fact, Christianity and the secular become intertwined in their relationship toward and distance from Islam. Christianity is commonly described, particularly when it is juxtaposed to Islam, as uniquely capable of undergoing secularization. Christianity renders to the state what is owed the state and to God what is owed to God. In some ways, Christianity is often understood or depicted as the mother of the secular. This intermingling helps explain why numerous new atheist and ardent secularist found common cause with right wing Christian movements.

3. Security and Borders

The relationship between the liberal European tradition and Muslim migrants is not only, or even primarily enacted, through political rhetoric, but through securitization and the enforcement of borders. As Iker Barbaro argues, “Borders and security have played a pivotal role in the development of the European project” since both the end of the Second World War and the Cold War.22 Before turning to the questions around Europe’s border, a brief comment on security. While much has been written about the increasing securitization of Europe and North America after 9/11 and subsequent attacks in London and Madrid and now Paris, Brussels, and Berlin, this has been with religious identity, Muslims, and surveillance. As Jocelyne Cesari provocatively notes, European policy makers have increasingly been engaged in the ‘securitization of Islam.’ “The anti-terrorism statutes have been invoked overwhelmingly against Muslim defendants. All of these policies seem to have a disproportionate effect on Muslims.”23 Surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities, the Prevent programme in the United Kingdom, visa and travel restrictions, as well as the cultivation of ‘moderate’ Muslims are all part and parcel of this programme of the rise of the security state. These processes, procedures, and surveillance measures, both within and beyond national borders, are not exclusively directed at Muslims. Few escape the increasing preponderance of surveillance. And yet to tie back to the central questions of this chapter, the rise of the security state and the fixation particularly on the Muslim and the mosque can be read as a modern re-iteration of the Inquisition, or at least this has been provocatively argued by Anouar Majid.

Moreover, according to Liz Fetke, Muslim citizens within Europe and Muslim migrants to Europe – regardless of what legal status they hold – are both seen through the lens of the war on terror and the security state. Citizens and migrants are often equated by the state, media, and security regime because of their religious identity. “The enemy without and the enemy within are linked by their adherence to a faith that stresses community.”24 This meddling of citizen and migrant has been all the stronger since the attacks in Paris in 2015. The fact that the attacks in Paris were primarily carried out by second generation French citizens rendered both citizens and migrants as security threats. The European identity of citizens25 could again be questioned, even as the asylum seekers and refugees were viewed through the lens of the threat they posed and not the threats they sought to escape. Nicholas De Genova notes how the “figure of the refugee – so recently fashioned as an object of European compassion, pity, and protection – was refashioned with astounding speed” into the Muslim other who is a potential terrorist or criminal.26

The security threat, both real and imagined, that (Muslim) migrants represent is intricately tied to borders. In fact, the very porous borders within Europe enacted through Schengen, demand a strict border between Europe and all else. Traditional visa procedures, airport security, Frontex, and the European External Border Surveillance System Sites are all deployed in increasingly sophisticated ways to protect the borders of Europe. In addition, sites such as the Italian island of Lampedusa, Southern Spain, and the Greek Islands have increasingly functioned as areas of cultural and political contestation to define the borders of Europe. Far before 2015, regular patrols of the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea functioned to provide both humanitarian assistance to migrants smuggled across the sea and also as border patrols. As Driessen, a scholar of migration, noted in the late 90s, “the Mediterranean is not only a political, demographic and economic divide, but also an ideological and moral frontier, increasingly perceived by Europeans as a barrier between democracy and secularism on the one hand, and totalitarianism and religious fanaticism on the other.”27 When natural borders such as seas, mountains, and rivers do not exist, it becomes imperative to erect physical borders that divide Europe from what is not Europe. This was the case during Spain’s entry into the Schengen Area in the 1990s, when the physical barrier and walls of Europe were erected in what is geographically Africa.

That is to say that the boundaries of Europe are not fixed but in flux. This may sound odd if one is thinking primarily of the physical and geographic space that describes the continent called Europe. How can a land mass change its boundaries except through the slow ebbs and flows of weather and nature across millennia or million of years? However, Europe has always been as much or more an idea and socio-political practice than only a physical space. Think for instance of the fact that Europe distinguishes itself as continent from Asia without a clear physical demarcation to the East. Where Europe stops and Asia starts moves West and East as politics change. Even so-called Eastern Europe or the Balkans in Southeast Europe are both included and excluded throughout this history. While Britain proudly sees itself both as the centre of Europe and somehow not Europe. More to the present concerns, Greece can be claimed as the centre of the European philosophical, scientific, and political history of the West on the one hand, but then also be rendered somehow outside the West through the erection of the wall in the winter of 2015 and 2016 on its border with Macedonia. The fact that asylum seekers and refugees are now largely stranded in camps in Greece and Italy, having their cases adjudicate there before they can be considered to be one of the 120,000 people to be resettled across Europe, is a legal enactment of these shifting borders.

While James Castan Pintos is certainly correct that “the fences of Ceuta and Melilla do not distinguish between a Christian Cameroonian and a Muslim Senegalese”28 or, we might add, the make shifts wall and gates of Macedonia do not divide Yazidi, Christian, and Muslims, such a reading is also too quick a dismissal of how borders are not only racialized but also framed through religious identity. Security and migration policies, even in ostensibly secular countries remain marked by concerns about good and bad religion. Moreover, the fact that three major sites of border contestation occupy space next to a Muslim majority neighbour (Greece and Turkey, the Italian Islands and Tunisia and Libya, Spain and Morocco), as well as the direct and indirect comments about Turkey, Islam and the European Union also press against a dismissal of religion as a major, albeit not the only factor in the construction of the theo-political identity of migrants. As Nicolas De Genova argues, “Europe’s borders, like all borders, are the materializations of sociopolitical relations that mediate the continuous production of the distinction between the putative inside and outside,” which depend on certain racial, political, and religious conceptualisations of what it means to be European.29

Locating the current crisis of political and moral vision in Europe within this longer theo-political history helps to make sense of the various responses across Europe and the ‘West’ to the migration crisis and to Muslim-Christian-secular relations in Europe. The varying reactions to the migration crisis from Germany, the U.K., Hungary, Greece, and Italy – and the debates over Dublin IV and shared responsibility of resettlement – might be better understood as highlighting and employing distinct modalities of this European political and legal history. Merkel’s initial more open commitment to refugees and Sweden’s willingness to take in nearly a quarter of a million people should not be depicted as the only heirs to the liberal European tradition in contrast to nativist or nationalists in Orbán’s Hungary or Brexit Britain. There are also longstanding liberal European reasons and practices that shape these more restrictive policies. It is not simply a debate between closed and open borders, humanitarian concerns versus realistic politics, or even liberal versus illiberal, but about how liberalism and Europe understand itself and its relationship to Muslims.

4. A Comparative Political Theology for Europe

The multivalent legacy of both political liberalism and Christianity in Europe, and their ambivalent relationship to Muslims, that has been charted in this chapter must be acknowledged and engaged if a more coherent and just approach to European identity, religious pluralism, and migration is to be found. While the rhetoric that contends there is an inherent rivalry and clash between Christians and Muslims or secularist and fundamentalists remains dominant in public discourse, it does not account for the complexity of history or of human and social relationships. Many of the loudest voices in current migration debates continue to deploy the dominant narratives of a clash of civilizations or inherent and immutable rivalry between the Europe and Muslims.30 At the same time, it is insufficient for Christians, secularists, Jews, and others who wish to champion a more multicultural approach to European political diversity to point only to the liberal tradition without attending to how the very same liberal tradition was and is involved in the construction of binaries and borders. In light of these longer contradictions within European liberal discourse, both right and left, a new approach to Islam and the liberal traditions of Europe is needed, one that refuses neat binaries and re-imagines the relationship between Christianity, Islam, and the West. The social, theological, and political relationships between Christians, Muslims, secularist, Jews, and others in Europe are not fixed or determined.

In his 2014 book, the historian Richard W. Bulliet’s proposed understanding the relationship between Christianity and Islam in a new way, one marked by what he provocatively termed an Islamo-Christian Civilization. According to Bulliet, the popular conception of the West as Judeo-Christian was largely a post-World War II invention that sought to address the long history of anti-Judaism in the West and re-imagine a more symbiotic relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and political liberalism after the Shoah. While there are drawbacks to the approach to Judaism, especially as it risked obscuring the ways that Christianity and Europe persecuted Jews, Judeo-Christian had the benefit of recognizing the ways Jews and Christian shared a common and contested heritage and mutually contributed to European culture and politics. In an analogous, albeit different way, Bulliet argues that Islam can and should be included in this broader account of civilizational emergence. By showing the ways that European, Turkish, North African, and Arab polities and thinkers influenced and shaped one another, Bulliet proposes a broader framework for interpreting European identity and religious pluralism than the divisions charted in this chapter. “The past and future of the West cannot be fully comprehended without appreciation of the twinned relationship it has had with Islam over some fourteen centuries. The same is true of the Islamic world.”31 Islam and Latin Christianity share a broader Greco-Semitic culture, theology, and philosophical framework, and often impacted and shaped one another both across the Mediterranean and also within Europe. The recent human migrations between and across Europe are neither the first nor the last in the longer history of Christian-Muslim relations. Acknowledging this mutual influence, and the long history of Muslims in Spain, Italy, the Balkans, and more opens up new possibilities for engaging the question of European identity and Muslim belonging. Moreover, Bulliet also shows how both Muslim critics of the West and Western critics of Muslim silence the nuanced and diverse perspectives of Muslims, Christians, and liberals who refuse such tropes by engaging and learning from one another. The increasing interest, for instance, in Jürgen Habermas’ thought in both Iran and parts of the Arabic speaking world is a case in point of such engagement. The liberal political tradition is not the exclusive purview of Europe, Judaism, or Christianity, but has been claimed and refashioned in new ways by Muslim thinkers.

In light of this more dynamic history of Christian-Muslim relations, one that recognizes how ideas and culture have more porous borders than the fixed borders of the nation-state, I conclude the chapter by arguing for the importance of building on this legacy to develop more fully a Christian-Muslim comparative political theology withing the context of Europe and the liberal tradition. Comparative political theology draws on the methodological approach of both comparative theology and political theology in order to offer a nuanced and dynamic approach to Christian, Islamic, and secular thought and action. As this edited volume shows, comparative theology engages in acts of inter-religious dialogue through examining how concepts, ideas, and practices are understood and enacted by different religious traditions. It does so in order to answer challenging questions or see, new insights by exploring the overlap and differences between religious traditions and thinkers. By bringing this theological method to bear on political and social debates, comparative political theology shifts us away from essentializing accounts of religious traditions – such as by claiming Islam is an inherently political religion, while Christianity is secular. Instead, comparative political theology attends to the shifting ways that the concepts of politics and religion are shaped and formed in distinct contexts, by different thinkers and communities, and throughout history. Just as Latin Christianity’s relationship to political governance has altered from say the late medieval view on the divine right of kings to modern arguments about how Christian theology upholds the dignity of individual rights and thus can advocate for democracy, so too has Islamic politic thought shifted throughout the ages. Islamic political thought is not one thing and cannot be equated only with more Islamist strands that view the state as the means of enforcing sharī’a or the caliphate as a necessity for political and religious practice. In fact as Rushain Abbasi’s recent article has shown, Islamic thought has a complex relationship to civil governments, that while different than European renderings, do distinguish between religious and political authority.32

One way that comparative political theology might aid us in approaching the legal and political debates around Muslim migration and European identity is through recognizing the multiplicity already present within political liberalism and Christian political thought. There is not one political liberalism, but many. We can see these tensions within current European debates about Muslims, Christianity, Judaism, religious freedom, and secularism. For instance, the current French debate circles around whether or not French practices, as well as European commitments to religious freedom, allow the public display of religion or require a private-public distinction. Within France there are dissenting interpretations, not only about religion, but about secularism as such. There is not one secularism or political liberalism, but many. Just as comparative theology demands attending to the multiple voices within Christian and Islamic traditions, so too must political theology recognize the variance within European political traditions. William Connolly argues in his important work, Pluralism, a key fact of contemporary politics is the deep heterogeneous makeup of our societies. In such political arenas, appeals to uniformity and fixity in the name of religions or secular ethics are bound to fail. Instead, political and legal environments marked by multiple belongings and various ethical and religious identities are constantly to be negotiated and contested. In such an arena, “you work politically (and I might add legally) to negotiate a generous ethos of engagement between multiple faiths whose participants inevitably bring pieces and chunks of it with them into the public realm.”33 Simply put, the goal of a comparative political theology of law cannot be a final settlement, but an improved framework for understanding and contestation.

By exploring the diversity within Christian, Islamic, and liberal traditions and their debates around public law a more nuanced perspective on our shared and diverging theologies, laws, and practices can emerge. In terms of public relations between Muslims and Christians, such theo-legal and political comparison aids adherents of both traditions to move towards enhanced commitment to issues of the common good and beyond the fear and violence that characterizes recent Christian-Muslim relations in Europe. Such animosity is often fueled by caricatures, with secularism equated with immorality and godlessness by many Muslims and sharī’a viewed as simply barbaric and patriarchal by many non-Muslim Europeans. A comparative political theology works to overcome such ignorance by producing a more honest assessment of the benefits and limitations of political secularism and liberalism than those currently offered by either its ardent defenders or detractors in the two traditions. In so doing, the best heritage of the European experiences of political solidarity through shared financial and ethical responsibility, federalism and nationalism, and political liberalism might be nurtured both within Europe and beyond its shifting borders.


To borrow the words of the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty it is vital to provincialize Europe in relationship to the migration crisis and resist an exclusively Euro-centric reading of it. The crisis is not primarily a European one, and nor has Europe borne the primary brunt of hosting displaced people. There are far more refugees in total in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan than in Europe, with nearly 5 million people being hosted in those three countries alone compared to the approximately 1.4 million across Europe. Moreover, the crisis is first and foremost one for the human beings driven from their homes, secondly a crisis for Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Eritrea, and elsewhere, where the vast majority of forced migrants are coming from.


See for instance Connor 2016.


For more on populism and political theology, see Schmiedel & Ralston 2021.


Gillespie 2008.


Witte 2007.


United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article I. A.


Ibid., Article 33 (1) covers “non-refoulement”: “It provides that no one shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.” The increasing reluctance of Western states to accept applicants for asylum begs important legal and ethical questions about the practice of refoulement and the applicability of international law and human rights decrees within sovereign nations. For a historical survey of the changing opinions on asylum in Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, see Gibney 2004, chaps. 3–6.


Massad 2015, 11.


Asad 2003, 159.


Majid 2009, 3–4.


These divisions within Western responses have been ceased upon by groups such as Daesh (ISIS) to advance their own vision of a world divided between Muslims and Christians. In fact, a central strategic aim of ISIS is to eliminate the grey zones of coexistence and to refuel a conflict between Christendom and the Dar al-Islam.


Mavelli & Wilson 2016, 7.


For a study on the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric in Western Europe and North America, see Green 2015.


Within Locke studies there are numerous debates about how to interpret Locke’s apparent exclusion of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. See Perry 2011, part II.


Cavanaugh 2009, 5.


Excerpts of this are from Ralston 2020, 1–17.


Murray 2017.


Brubaker 2017, 1198.


Ibid., 1193.


Strømmen & Schmiedel 2020, 28.


Göle 2015, 4–5.


Barbero 2012, 754.


Cesari 2009, 11.


Fetke 2009, 60.


As such, someone can be born and raised for generations and not be perceived as fully British, German, French or Spanish – and thus not truly European, even as I – born thousands of kilometres away near the Pacific Ocean in the United States – can easily claim the European heritage of my ancestors that left that continent over a century and a half ago. Which is another way of saying that Europeanness often signals whiteness and either Christianity or secularity – or better a Christian-secular formation that questions the Muslim at the border, and renders the African, South and East Asian as foreign.


De Genova 2017, 17.


Driessen 1998, 100.


Castan Pintos (n.d.)


De Genova 2017, 21.


While the dominant voices juxtaposing the West and Muslims are groups like ISIS or far right populists in Europe, there is also a risk in some of the critical theorist studied earlier in the chapter of reifying, in the opposite way as someone like Samuel Huntingdon or Sayyid Qutb, a fixed imagine of both Europeanness and Muslim. These thinkers raise important critiques of Europe and the liberal traditions, especially around the legacy of colonialism, racism, and Islamophobia, but there is a tendency to imagine that political liberalism and Christianity is always and inevitably going to essentialise and marginalise Muslims.


Bulliet 2004, 45.


Abbasi 2020, 185–225.


Connolly 2005, 31.

  • Collapse
  • Expand