The publication of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has fostered an exceptionally vibrant intellectual debate on secularism and on the conditions of belief under modernity, as the readers of this blog very well know. For the social sciences at least, this fundamental rethinking on secularism inspired by Taylor’s work could not be any timelier: the stand-off between classical secularization theorists and the proponents of the religious economies model, which has continued for about two decades is only recently giving way to new paths of investigation.

Precisely because this debate offers such a crucial opportunity, I want to point out what I see as two important points of neglect in this burgeoning discussion: The first is the tendency to ignore the political-sociological understanding of secularism as movements that engage in concrete political struggles to advocate certain social identities and interests. Historical struggles in the name of secularism are often not simply contestations between different visions of experiencing transcendence or between alternative political principles that claim to offer the best solution to the question of harmonious social coexistence. For the most part, they are political movements carried by actors with specific social identities and interests, who often seek to exclude or assimilate certain social groups. Secondly, the debate thus far has not substantially contributed to a long-needed widening in our understanding of secularism that can only be achieved by incorporating non-Christian religions and non-Western regions into a comparative framework along with Christian and Western cases.

In a recent conference on Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age at Yale University, the last panel before Charles Taylor’s keynote address stood out among others in one important respect. In this final session of the conference, Nilüfer Göle for the first time introduced the relationship between Islam and secularism into the discussion in a central way. She made the important observation that reflections and studies on Muslims and secularism had the inescapable fate of being perceived as accounts from the perspective of a specific culture, rather than as endeavors in the mainstream philosophical and social scientific discourse on secularism. Göle further argued that we cannot properly understand secularism in the contemporary West if we do not closely examine the complex interactions between Europe and Muslims—who both as immigrants and through Turkey’s candidacy to the EU constitute Europe’s “internal other”.

This intervention was followed by an equally important one by Seyla Benhabib, whose work has always been closely attentive to Muslims in Europe, whether from the perspective of the accommodation of cultural differences in liberal democracies or that of immigrant rights. She followed on the path opened by Göle by laying out some of the crucial issues involving European Muslims, Turkey, and secularism.

Crucially, Benhabib then brought into the discussion the history of the European Jews, a topic that had been virtually absent from the various debates at the conference up to that point. And she did this through an incisive, if alarming, comparison between the situation faced by the European Muslims today and that encountered by the European Jews in the past. Both religions are strongly characterized by orthopraxis, Benhabib pointed out, and this allowed for the stigmatization of these groups’ publicly visible rituals, religious dress, and places of prayer, exerting on them strong pressures for assimilation. She noted that Muslim immigrant activists in Europe make explicit references to the similarities between their situation today and that of the European Jews in the past, as when they carried a banner that read: “We are not the Jews of tomorrow!”

The reference by Muslim immigrant activists to the history of European Jews is understandable because of its effectiveness in getting the point across. Contemporary German public culture has been deeply marked by the guilt-laden memory of the Holocaust, and this comparison offers the best means for migrant and pro-migrant activists to dramatically remind European publics the dangerous implications of the stigmatization of religious minorities, as well as of calls for their assimilation.

Benhabib’s intervention at the conference, as I understood it, thus had a double agenda: introducing the history of European Jews into the discussion on the history of European secularism; and pointing out the normative urgency of coming to terms with exclusionary European attitudes towards Islam. It was a reminder to all conference participants that refusing to assign these issues a central place in the recently burgeoning intellectual discourse on secularism and belief would amount to a crucial failure, if this discourse is to have a normative-political thrust for our times.

Benhabib’s comparison of the attitudes facing today’s European Muslims and yesterday’s European Jews made me think of another striking historical similarity between two widespread European discourses: the contemporary anti-Islamic discourse and the anti-Catholic discourse of late nineteenth century. Among scholars of religion and secularism, José Casanova has noted this similarity on a global scale. However, in Germany at least, this comparison is not as frequently encountered in the public sphere as the Islamophobia/anti-Semitism comparison, probably because the anti-Catholic rhetoric and legislation of the late nineteenth century have not left nearly as deep a mark on German collective memory as anti-Semitism and its atrocious culmination in the Holocaust. But when German journalists refer to current controversies about headscarves or the construction of new mosques, they sometimes use the term Kulturkampf in a manner similar to the American term “culture wars.” What is often not reminded to the readers is the original context in which this term was coined: a series of discriminatory laws and policies implemented by the Prussian and Imperial German states and targeting the Roman Catholic Church, enthusiastically supported by Liberals as a “struggle for civilization.”

Historians of nineteenth century Germany with a culturally perceptive lens, such as Helmut Walser Smith, Margaret Lavinia Anderson, and Michael Gross, have extensively documented the contours of the “anti-Catholic imagination” based on political pamphlets, newspaper and journal articles and illustrations, and literary pieces from this period. Some of its major elements are the following:

  • Catholicism, based on the notion of absolute obedience both in its theology and its religious hierarchy, is not compatible with enlightenment, reason, and progress.
  • Catholicism is a religion of popular superstition.
  • Catholicism is not compatible with the ideals of modern democracy. Catholic clergy manipulate their ignorant flock to vote for candidates supported by the Church.
  • Catholicism is the religion of the poor peasants and the working classes; it hampers industrial activity and economic efficiency.
  • Catholics are nationally unreliable, as their primary allegiance is to Rome rather than to Berlin.

Similar themes can of course be found in anti-Catholic discourses circulating elsewhere and in other times, not least in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States in the context of the influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe. In nineteenth-century Germany, anti-Catholicism was carried mainly by politicians belonging to the National Liberal and Progressive parties; Liberal newspapers and magazines; prominent Protestant academics and intellectuals; Old Catholics who had established their own church following the promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870; and last but not least, the Protestant League, which was established in 1886 to continue the fight against the forces of Roman Catholicism on German soil.

Many anti-Catholic actors sought to evoke a passionate reaction from the public through imaginative narratives bordering on hysteria and fantasy. “Convent atrocity stories” about defenseless women punished in cruel ways by priests and nuns and about sexual orgies taking place behind the closed doors of the monasteries were popular narratives in the Liberal press of the period. One may be tempted to underplay the significance of these stories as the ordinary stuff of the populist press, but their dangerous potential was revealed clearly in the incident known as the Moabiterklustersturm. Fueled by the anti-monastic atmosphere created by these stories, in August 1869, hundreds of Berlin residents gathered outside of a Dominican chapel and Franciscan orphanage in Moabit—depicted in the press as a monastery—and vandalized the buildings at night while the monks fled for their lives. For German Catholics, this event was a dramatic crystallization of the rise of anti-Catholic sentiments in Germany, a perception that provided one of the major motivations for the organization of political Catholicism.

The anti-clerical laws and policies of the Bismarckian state in Prussia and in the Empire realized the worst fears of the German Catholic Church. The Kulturkampf started with the disbandment of the Catholic Department of the Prussian Ministry of Religious Affairs and Education in 1871. Legislation passed in the following decade and a half banned religious orders from German territory, severely limited the autonomy of the Catholic Church in its internal affairs, subjected the clergy to a long list of strict requirements and regulations, and led to the arrest of clergymen who did not comply.

Two pieces of legislation particularly reveal the most disturbing tendencies of the Kulturkampf: The Expatriation Law passed in the Reichstag in 1875 gave the German state the right to confine a priest to a specific region or expel him from German territory and take away his citizenship, if he continued his clerical work after having been deposed by a court. Similarly, the Jesuit law passed two years earlier included a clause that gave the police the right to remove German Jesuits from a certain district or confine them to a certain district in Germany. Kulturkampf policies gave rise to widespread popular resistance among German Catholics. While the Catholic clergy and population widely suffered—many priests were imprisoned and left without financial support, as pulpits remained vacant over long periods—these policies proved largely ineffective and were gradually dropped around the mid-1880s.

The reasons for the striking salience of German anti-Catholicism in this period, as well as the adoption of anti-clericalism as state policy during the decade and a half following the foundation of the Second Empire are complex, and I will not attempt an explanation here. What seems striking, however, is the structural similarities between this discourse and the anti-Islamic discourse widely circulating in the German public sphere today. We can outline some of the major elements of the anti-Islamic discourse as the following:

  • Islam is a backward religion that is incompatible with modernity. In this, it differs from Christianity and Judaism which are reformed, privatized, and tolerant towards critique.
  • Muslim culture is based on absolute obedience to authority. It does not recognize individuality and subordinates the individual to family, community, and God.
  • Muslim practices violate human rights, as well as the “fundamental values” of the German Constitution that are based on Western norms.
  • Muslim culture oppresses women, does not allow their participation in public life, and promotes the absolute domination of men over women.
  • The religion and culture of Islam are responsible for the fact that the integration of Muslim immigrants to European host societies has failed.
  • Muslims exploit discourses of tolerance, multiculturalism, and religious freedom in Western societies. Afraid of being labeled xenophobic, liberals in European countries exhibit a “false tolerance” towards Muslim groups.

One comes across the anti-Islamic discourse in many venues in contemporary Germany, including newspapers articles, television broadcasts, politicians’ public speeches, and pamphlets published by anti-mosque “citizen initiatives.” It is, however, most expansively articulated in an emergent popular European genre characterized by the fusion of autobiographical accounts of self-liberation with the critique of Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s De maagdenkooi is of course the prototype for this genre. The German translation of Hirsi Ali’s book was published in 2004—with the title Ich klage an—and became an instant bestseller in Germany. Following its success, a number of Muslim immigrant female authors published similar accounts. Necla Kelek’s Die fremde Braut (The Foreign Bride) has been the most successful of these German versions. It became a bestseller, while making its author, a trained sociologist, a well-known actor in German debates on Islam and immigrants.

Like anti-Catholicism, the anti-Islamic imagination is often articulated through imaginative visual metaphors and historical fantasies that seek to evoke strong sentiments among European publics. Let me provide just one example: Carriers of the anti-Islamic discourse often conceive women’s status in Muslim culture as a form of slavery, and Kelek devotes an entire chapter to the institution of slavery in Islamic history to make the point. Similarly, Hirsi Ali’s foremost imagery for describing women’s situation in Muslim communities—as attested by the English title of her book, The Caged Virgin—is that of captivity: “The enclosed women and girls are located in the internal cage. This women’s cage is surrounded by an even larger cage in which the entire Islamic culture is locked up.” The headscarf, according to Kelek, is an irrefutable visual proof of the oppression of women in Islam: “the headscarf is the sign of the reduction of the women to her sexuality [. . . .] She is exclusively a sexual being that must be excluded from the public sphere for her own protection.” Evaluating this theme in light of her central motif, Hirsi Ali imaginatively compares Muslim women who say they wear their headscarves voluntarily to kidnap victims who develop an attachment to their captors.

The anti-Islamic discourse is by no means uncontested. On the contrary, many immigrant and pro-migrant intellectuals and activists have advanced powerful critiques of this exclusionary discourse. The carriers of the anti-Islamic imagination are deeply frustrated with these liberal and multiculturalist voices who, according to Kelek, “practice false tolerance against those who despise our laws and use them only in order to extend their religious influence and to further their reactionary praxis in the name of freedom.”

Hirsi Ali’s and Kelek’s bestsellers exemplify the anti-Islamic imagination in an especially crystallized form. However, one can say with some confidence that the mainstream discourse on Islam in Germany often draws upon similar themes, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly. It is worth noting that Necla Kelek has been invited to the Islam Conference—the beginnings of an intermediary consultation between the Muslim community and the German state—by the German Ministry of the Interior since its first meetings in 2006. It is indeed worth thinking about why Kelek and Hirsi Ali are welcomed passionately by many Europeans as authentic “liberal” Muslim voices.

This brief, if schematic, comparison suggests that the anti-Catholic discourse prevalent in late nineteenth-century Germany and today’s anti-Islamic discourse bear striking similarities. Imaginative stories about young women punished inhumanly by nuns and popular fantasies about sexual orgies behind the closed doors of the convents are replaced today by the imagery of enslaved Muslim virgins locked in cages and popular fantasies about Muslim men given free sexual reign in their individual harems. What remains the same is the negative stereotyping of a minority religion as fundamentalist, oppressive, and backward. In consequence, it is increasingly difficult to make reasonable and justified critiques of problems in Muslim immigrant communities without feeding the bottomless appetite of the anti-Islamic imagination, or without evoking anger and resentment in immigrant communities, as these have been forced into a constant defensive posture.

There are obviously important differences in the political contexts of late nineteenth century and early twenty-first century Germany. Moreover, in terms of a distinction emphasized by Will Kymlicka, Catholics in the Second Empire were a national minority, while Muslims in contemporary Germany constitute a minority with a recent immigration background. And yet, these two groups have been subjected to very similar kinds of exclusionary discourses by social actors who saw (and in the case of Muslims see) themselves as advocates of secularism. Given the established position of the Christian Democratic Party, a party built in the post-World War II era on the foundations of the pre-war Catholic Zentrumspartei, Muslim immigrant activists in Germany may do well by using the slogan: “We are not the Catholics of tomorrow!”