The West’s Religious Freedom Test

Islamic Center of America Source

This article was published as part of our Spring 2019 print edition, the entirety of which may be found here.


On March 15th, 2019, an Australian man opened fire in two New Zealand mosques, killing 50 Muslim worshippers and injuring 50 others. In the aftermath of the attack, officials discovered a manifesto written by the shooter which stated his desire “to show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands, [and] our homelands are our own” among numerous other rationales for killing Muslim New Zealanders.[1] The attacks cut right at the heart of the West’s tradition of—and commitment to—religious freedom, which for centuries has defined society not by blood-and-soil nationalism or adherence to a specific religious doctrine, but rather by a commitment to a shared set of values and ideals, among them religious freedom.

The roots of religious freedom in the West can be traced to the Magna Carta, a treaty between King John of England and a group of powerful barons in the year 1215. In it, the King promised to protect the Catholic Church’s rights in exchange for the barons allowing him to retain the throne. Although the charter failed to achieve all of its stated objectives and was thus unsuccessful in the short term, the agreement has since helped form the basis of religious freedom in the West.[2] In 1789, when James Madison was tasked with composing the Bill of Rights, the first right Madison enumerated was, by no coincidence, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Ever since, religious tolerance has held a unique place within the American ethos, as presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and George Bush, among numerous others, have praised the strength that freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and a diversity of opinions and cultures provides a society.[3]

The story is similar in Europe. In 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, drafted by Abbe Sieyes and Marquis de Lafayette during the French Revolution proclaimed religious freedom across France by subordinating the Catholic Church to the newly established French government. Over a century later, in 1920, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was speaking glowingly of the British commitment to “defend freedom of conscience and religious equality,” and in 1950, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), composed in the aftermath of World War II, specifically notes the “right to freedom of…religion,” including the “freedom to change…religion.” [4]

Yet for all the talk of religious freedom representing a fundamental underpinning of liberal society, the last ten years have seen the West’s political commitment to protecting such freedoms dwindle. The New Zealand mosque attack was simply the latest development in the West’s growing issue with religious diversity, manifesting most notably in a series of attacks, both verbal and physical, against both Muslim and Jewish communities. Like in the New Zealand attack, the attackers almost always tout their goal as ridding their native lands of religious “outsiders.” In Europe, as Muslim migrants flow in from the Middle East and North Africa, right-wing fascism has taken hold of conservative parties promising a return to the white, Christian majorities of old. In the U.S., Donald Trump’s presidency and his stranglehold on the American right can too be traced to many of the same fears. Although the West has spoken eloquently of its commitment to religious tolerance for hundreds of years, its faith in the ideal has never been truly scrutinized as the Christian majorities in European states and the U.S. have yet to come under threat. But in the globalized world of the 21st century, when the cross-cultural movement of people from different faiths is becoming commonplace, the West’s commitment to the doctrine of religious freedom is, for the first time, truly being put to the test, and the results so far do not bode well for liberalism.

In December of 2015, following a terrorist attack by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino, California in which fourteen people were murdered and 24 more seriously injured, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”[5] As numerous legal scholars have argued, by specifically targeting Muslim-majority countries, the policy is in violation of Madison’s Establishment Clause, which bans Congress from making a law respecting the establishment of a religion. Nevertheless, a July 2017 POLITICO poll found that a whopping 84% of GOP respondents and 56% of independent respondents approved of Trump’s ban, numbers indicative of a departure from the American adherence to the doctrine of religious freedom.[6] From that moment forward, the “Muslim ban”—along with Trump’s promised border wall—have constituted the hallmarks not just of the administration’s immigration policy, but also of Trump’s presidency as a whole. As conservative political commentator Ann Coulter wrote in her 2016 book In Trump We Trust, “there’s nothing Trump can do that won’t be forgiven. Except change his immigration policy,” or in other words, Trump could change his mind on just about any issue without losing our support, so long as he retains his promise to bar any more Muslims and Mexicans from entering the U.S.[7]

In addition to the Muslim ban, in July of 2017 right-wing rally-goers in Charlottesville, Virginia marched with tiki torches and shouted, “Jews will not replace us,” and received almost a tacit endorsement from the president who noted the “very fine people” among the marchers.[8] Just over a year later in October of 2018, Robert Bowers murdered eleven Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the aftermath of the attack, Bowers was found to have posted online “There is no #MAGA (Make America Great Again) as long as there is a kike manifestation,” using a derogatory term for Jews.[9] Trump’s “Muslim ban,” which was upheld by the Supreme Court in June of 2018, along with the anti-Jewish rhetoric in Charlottesville and attack in Pittsburgh, demonstrate the U.S.’s faltering over its commitment to religious liberty in the face of both Muslims and Jews being incorporated more widely and permanently into the fabric of America. Trump, the face of the Republican Party, and much of his supporters no longer seem interested in the ideal either in practice, or even in theory. As the American Jewish and Muslim populations grow and individuals of those faiths begin to occupy the highest positions in American society, Trump’s presidency appears to illustrate that a vast swath of the U.S. is questioning whether or not it is religious tolerance or rather Christianity that is truly the fundamental tenet of American identity.

This very debate appears to be being held in Europe as well. Although Marine Le Pen, President of France’s right-wing National Front Party, lost France’s 2017 presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, she collected 34% of the vote and still today commands widespread support across the country.[10] Throughout the campaign Le Pen harped on anti-Muslim themes, proclaiming at a rally in Marseille:

“We are being submerged by a flood of immigrants that are sweeping all before them. There are prayers in the street, cafes that ban women…I will say when I become president that this is not the French way…If we carry on like this, the whole of France will become a gigantic no-go zone. …A multicultural society is a society that has multiple conflicts.”[11]

After an April 2017 attack on the Champs-Elysees, Le Pen demanded that, “Islamic mosques must be closed,” before promising to deport all foreign citizens on the terrorist watch list.[12] In 2017, about one-eighth of the French population was Muslim, the vast majority of whom are immigrants themselves, with the population expected to double in the next 20-30 years. Le Pen’s proposals to close mosques and to rid France of “multiculturalism” directly contradict the value of religious freedom. Moreover, even before Le Pen’s candidacy France made headlines for banning the “burkini” from its beaches. Since the French Revolution, France has boasted of a unique attachment to secularism and has prided itself on not including religion in public society, more so than in any other Western country. Nevertheless, the French government, via Le Pen and the “burkini” ban, has forced religion back into the public eye through blatant discrimination against Muslims in recent years. The support for both Le Pen and the ban amongst the French populace illustrate an additional Western nation’s waning commitment to religious tolerance in the face of a rising Muslim presence.

Le Pen’s anti-immigrant right-wing populism is not alone on the continent. In September of 2015, over 138,000 Muslim migrants entered Hungary, more than 1.5% of the country’s population.[13] In response, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban erected fencing along its borders with Croatia and Serbia, the entry points for most Syrian and Iraqi refugees migrating West, and refused asylum-seekers passage through Hungary.[14] Orban called Muslim migration “not a solution, but a problem [and] not medicine but a poison,” adding “we don’t need it and won’t swallow it.”[15] By the 2017 parliamentary election, opposition to immigration and migration was the centerpiece of the platform of Orban’s Fidesz Party, with the party “running a single issue campaign against immigrants.”[16] Yet as Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky notes, “Hungary isn’t really an anti-immigrant country,” as in 2016 “23,803 foreigners moved there” and up until March of 2017, the Orban government sponsored “residency bond programs targeted largely at Asians” where for a $370,000 “investment in Hungarian government bonds, permanent residency could be obtained.”[17] Budapest is, however, “fiercely against a certain kind of immigrant”: Muslims.[18] Despite a “right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” Hungary’s experience, like France and the U.S., is another example of the West’s loosening attachment to religious tolerance as a valued ideal.

And it is not just France and Hungary. Other European countries have shown similar tendencies. In Germany, where the Muslim population grew from 4.1% to 6.1% in just six years, the right-wing and anti-immigrant party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has gained ground electorally.[19] While the German constitution specifically guarantees “the undisturbed practice of religion” and a “freedom of faith and of conscience,” in March of 2016, the AfD’s Lower Bavarian branch called for banning mosques, minarets, and the muezzin, the individuals who recite the Islamic call to prayer.[20] In Poland, several members of the dominant right-wing Law and Justice Party have rejected plans to construct a Saudi-funded mosque in the Polish capital, Warsaw.[21] In the Netherlands, where 17% of Amsterdam’s population is Muslim, the right-wing Party for Freedom, which holds the second-largest number of seats in the Dutch parliament, recently proposed banning the Quran and shutting down all Dutch mosques, despite the Dutch constitution’s protections for all citizens “to profess freely [their] religion or belief…without prejudice…under the law.”[22] Finally, in Austria in June of 2018, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced plans to forcibly close seven mosques and expel 60 imams for not expressing a “’positive fundamental view towards [the] state and society.’”[23] Whether it be AfD, Law and Justice, the Party for Freedom, or Kurz, each action fundamentally contradicts a commitment to religious tolerance.

As Muslim populations continue to rise across Europe and the United States, the once strong Western commitment to religious freedom appears to be faltering. It is easy to praise the idea of religious liberty when a country does not have to implement it in practice. But as Christian majorities come under threat from demographics, a once pleasant ideal no longer appears so attractive to those who feel as though the country they know is disappearing, an understandably scary notion for those who have felt at home there for centuries.

Whether the West’s commitment to religious freedom will survive the globalization of populations is uncertain, but it is only a fraction of the threat that Western democracies face in dealing with migration and religious diversity. Anti-religious freedom policies are not the only authoritarian tendencies of right-wing parties across the U.S. and Europe. Trump, Orban, and the Law and Justice Party in Poland have attacked Islam repeatedly, but they have also derided the courts, rule of law, and other institutions essential to liberal democracy in the process. While many voters may prefer democracy to dictatorship, as Ann Coulter explains when she said that Trump could, in essence, do anything and still maintain his support so long as he did not change his position on immigration, the importance of democracy apparently matters little in comparison to ensuring that religious outsiders stay out. Westerners formerly committed to a depoliticized court system and rule of law appear ready to throw those values out the window so long as their religious majorities are retained. Mass migration is unquestionably causing many in the West to rethink their commitment to religious freedom, but in so doing it may also be causing many to rethink their commitment to democracy and liberal values altogether.


[1] Jane Coaston. “The New Zealand Shooter’s Manifesto Shows How White Nationalist Rhetoric Spreads.” Vox, March 18, 2019. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/3/15/18267163/new-zealand-shooting-christchurch-white-nationalism-racism-language.

[2] “Magna Carta,” Wikipedia. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Carta.

[3] NPR. “Transcript: JFK’s Speech on His Religion.” December 5. 2007. Accessed April 1, 2019, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16920600.; Elisabeth Bumiller. “Bush, Calling U.S. ‘A Nation Guided by Faith,’ Urges Freedom of Worship in China.” The New York Times, February 22, 2002. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/22/world/bush-calling-us-a-nation-guided-by-faith-urges-freedom-of-worship-in-china.html.; Frank Weathers. “Abraham Lincoln on the Importance of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Liberty.” Patheos, June 10, 2012. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/yimcatholic/2012/06/abraham-lincoln-on-the-importance-of-freedom-of-conscience-and-religious-liberty.html.

[4] Andrew Roberts. “Churchill Proceedings – Winston Churchill and Religion – A Comfortable Relationship with the Almighty.” International Churchill Society, November 1, 2013. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/finest-hour-163/churchill-proceedings-winston-churchill-and-religion-a-comfortable-relationship-with-the-almighty/.; “European Convention on Human Rights.” Wikipedia. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Convention_on_Human_Rights.

[5] The Associated Press. “How Donald Trump’s Plan to Ban Muslims Has Evolved.” Forbes, June 28, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2019, http://fortune.com/2016/06/28/donald-trump-muslim-ban/.

[6] Steven Shepard. “Poll: Majority of Voters Back Trump Travel Ban.” Politico, July 5, 2017. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2017/07/05/trump-travel-ban-poll-voters-240215.

[7] Ann Coulter. In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome, (New York City: Sentinel, 2016).

[8] Robert Tracinski. “The ‘Charlottesville Hoax’ Hoax.” The Bulwark, April 1, 2019. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://thebulwark.com/the-charlottesville-hoax-hoax/.

[9] Paula Ward, Rich Lord, and Liz Navratil. “29 Federal Charges Filed Against Suspect Robert Bowers.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 27, 2018. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2018/10/27/squirrel-hill-synagogue-shooting-suspect-pittsburgh-mass-officers-victims-casualties/stories/201810270072.

[10] Matt Bradley. “French Election: Marine Le Pen Loses but Propels Far-Right to Mainstream.” NBC News, May 9, 2017. Accessed April 1, 2019,  https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/french-election-marine-le-pen-loses-propels-far-right-mainstream-n756716.

[11] Yonette Joseph. “In Their Own Words: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.” The New York Times, May 5, 2017. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/world/europe/emmanuel-macron-marine-le-pen-quotes.html.

[12] ibid.

[13] Shane Savitsky. “Border fences and refugees bans: Hungary Did it – Fast.” Axios, February 1, 2017. Accessed April 1, 2019,  https://www.axios.com/border-fences-and-refugee-bans-hungary-did-it-fast-1513300201-a344dd93-a4bd-4a34-85f7-10086f2ec678.html.

[14] ibid.

[15] Staff and Agencies. “Hungarian Prime Ministers Says Migrants Are ‘Poison’ and ‘Not Needed.’” The Guardian, July 26, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/26/hungarian-prime-minister-viktor-orban-praises-donald-trump.

[16] Leonid Bershidsky. “Hungary Is Winning Its War on Muslim Immigrants.” Bloomberg. April 13, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-04-13/hungary-is-winning-its-war-on-muslim-immigrants

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] Pew Research Center. “The Growth of Germany’s Muslim Population.” November 29, 2017. Accessed April 1, 2019,  https://www.pewforum.org/essay/the-growth-of-germanys-muslim-population/.

[20] Zoya Sheftalovich. “German Far-Right AfD Calls for Mosque Ban.” Politico. March 31, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2019,  https://www.politico.eu/article/german-far-right-afd-calls-for-mosque-ban/.

[21] Jack Montgomery. “Polish Lawmaker Backs Burqa Ban, No Saudi Mosques in Europe Until Poland Can Build Cathedral in Saudi Arabia.” Breitbart, August 28, 2018. Accessed April 1, 2019, https://www.breitbart.com/europe/2018/08/28/polish-lawmaker-burqa-ban-no-saudi-arabia-mosques-europe-build-cathedrals/.

[22] “Islam in the Netherlands” Wikipedia. Accessed April 2, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_the_Netherlands#Demographics.

[23] Tara Isabella Burton. “Austria is Closing 7 mosques and Licking Out 60 Imams.” Vox. June 8, 2018. Accessed April 1, 2019,  https://www.vox.com/2018/6/8/17442240/austria-closing-mosques-kicking-out-imams.

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