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Religion and Human Rights in Europe

Published in 2014, Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is an anthology of written works by Judith S. Goldstein, the founder and executive director of Humanity in Action. "Religion and Human Rights in Europe" was written on March 15, 2005. Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is available for purchase as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.


This past Sunday Francis Fukuyama published an article in the Book Review section of the New York Times about the relevance of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Fukuyama observed: “Europe today is a continent that is peaceful, prosperous, rationally administered by the European Union and thoroughly secular. Europeans may continue to use terms like “human rights” and human dignity,” which are rooted in the Christian values of their civilization,  but few of them could give a coherent account of why they continue to believe in such things. The host of dead religious beliefs haunts Europe much more than it does American.” (1)

There is no reason to expect that Fukuyama would or should have written more expansively about the nature of religion in Europe today since his perspective was singularly focused on Protestant beliefs, economics, culture and society. But I found his paragraph to be interesting because he identifies Europe as “peaceful,” secular and secularly committed to the doctrine of human rights—and religiously dead. Yes, Europe is at peace under America’s protective shield. Yes, Europe abhors war, especially American induced wars, and wishes and believes that negotiations and reason will defuse just about any conflict.

Europe, no longer prone to making war on its own continent, feels at peace with the rest of the world. But Europe, and in this context I speak mainly about Western Europe, is not at peace with itself. I think that this is mainly due to the religious challenge posed by millions of Muslims and Arabs within Europe’s borders. In France, the Muslim/Arab population is somewhere between 4 and 5 million out of 60 millions; in Denmark, 200,000 out of 5 million; in The Netherlands over 1,000,000 out of 16 million and in Germany 3 million out of a total population of 80 million. The Muslim and Arab populations have grown in Europe as a result of European guest worker policies in the 1960s, family unification policies, liberal asylum procedures, open borders for former colonial subjects in countries such as France and the spectacularly higher birth rates of the immigrants compared to the host European populations.

One doesn’t have to be in Europe to know that many European countries are having a hard time coming to terms living with their non-Christian populations— and I would include its Jewish populations as part of changing perceptions and attitudes about other religious minorities. In the American media, one reads stories almost everyday about these difficulties. To cite but a few stories that recently appeared in the Times. Two Dutch parliamentarians, one a Muslim who castigates certain Muslim practices and the other a Christian who campaigns against allowing more immigrants in to The Netherlands, have to be guarded all the time because of death treats. (A segment on “60 Minutes” featured Hirshi Ali one of those two under constant threat.) British moderate Muslims are trying to gain a stronger voice over that of British extremists; The Mayor of London pronounced that Israel is engaged in ethnic cleaning and that Sharon is a war criminal; disputes over Muslim women wearing the veil at schools and at work; French prisons as breeding grounds for extremist views. These subjects constitute a small sampling from the media.

The European and American press have woken up to these issues. Politicians are forced to take positions about immigration and refugee policies. And private views of suspicions and discomfort are spilling into public discourse despite the armature of political correctness and restrictive notions of free speech—restrictive, that is, compared to America’s dedication to the First Amendment.

Every European country is different in its history, current political discourse and configurations of political forces that affect religious and other majority/minority issues. But every European country faces the traumatic fact that it—the nation state—is no longer homogeneous racially, religiously and ethnically as it was after the Second World War. Every Western European country, also shares the common legacy of having accepted human rights principles and institutions in the reckoning after War and Holocaust. Human rights doctrines and institutions developed as a means of moral rectification in Europe and, in America, as the idealistic justification for defeating the Axis countries. Western Europe started anew in the sphere of universal values and norms after it had destroyed itself through Nazi aggression and acceptance, complicity or powerlessness—or a lethal combination of all three—of anti-Semitic persecution. Furthermore, national laws put force behind the noble human rights doctrines, which were essentially a wish list of best behavior for the human population. Human rights doctrines were also deeply relevant in a tumultuous period, in the late 40s and 50s, of colonial resistance to European domination and the Cold War.

What were those human rights principles that Fukuyama says that Europeans now can’t identify? They were acclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in the UN’s General Assembly in December 1948. It is important to remember that Europe accepted the human rights doctrines when it was essentially free of minority tensions within its own borders: European Jewry was decimated and religious affiliations and beliefs were less and less relevant to major portions of the Western European populations. Through those doctrines, Europe guarded itself against a resurgence of hatred, which it anticipated and feared would come from the right in order to protect the victims of the past. Europe never anticipated that its human rights pronouncements would be tested in regard to its Muslim and Arab populations.

The process of secularization continued during student protests of the 60s. The sexual, gender and social revolutions of that period finally pushed Christian leaders and institutions out of the mainstream. Europe was happily liberated, prosperous and buttressed by the welfare state which incorporated economic security and idealistic values. European nations committed themselves to high taxation in the service of high benefits and moral principles—soft Christianity, one could say. After the devastation of the Depression in the 30s and the War, Europe finally committed itself to taking care of its own.

If Europe loves human rights, it loves the welfare state even more. And there is the rub—or at least one part of its disaffection with the current states of affairs. The welfare state was built on a sense of sharing with one’s own people—sharing benefits and values that reflected a consensus about religious identification—or lack thereof—work, family, sexual mores, gender and public and private behavior. But who constitutes “ones own” in Europe? Well, millions of people who support secular Europe built upon a Christian template. There is little ritual observance: churches are empty most of the time; many have even been converted to art centers; priests and ministers are hard to find. Yet, I think it critical to recognize that there is a residual Christianity that is alive to the perceived and real differences in regard to the Muslim and Arab populations in Europe.

The sense of the “other” goes two ways. The other, from the European Christian/ secular perspective, is the Muslim and Arab population present but essentially ignored in Europe in the 1960s through the following decades. The other, from the European-based Muslim perspective, is the Christian or secular European. Those different perceptions of the other —perceived and real—are central to a multiplicity of tensions in Europe. They affect the welfare state, the nature of the family, young students, what you can say, write and film, women and men in the workplace, at university and at home. We know all too well how that sense of the other turns into prejudice, hatred, even paranoia. Studies about anger, emotions and prejudice show that humans may be inherently suspicious of those who are different. In fact, people are wired to distrust outsiders, according to some recent studies at Northwestern University.

Beyond the intrinsic distrust of others, Europe has to come to terms with its diverse populations in the post 9/11 world. Fears of terrorism rest dangerously upon Europe’s obvious failures to integrate their Arab and Muslim populations. Muslims can become radicalized in Europe because of the dislocation, discrimination and  the temptations of the secular life. Set adrift in Europe, the reversion to the familiar can turn easily into the religious fanaticism as a means of providing a viable identity and resistance to European society. A resurgence of anti-Semitism with its vestigial Christian roots now mixes with Muslim and Arab antagonisms towards Jews in Europe because of Israel’s presence in the Arab world.

Islam appears to be a vital, immediate source of belief and identity for Muslims  in Europe in contradistinction to the residual religious concerns of Europeans. Thus, when people speak of a dialogue about religions in Europe, one must move beyond Christians, Jews and Muslims to include the secularists who are the most dominant part of the population. It is obvious that discussions cannot be limited to theologians and political party that represented the interests of Protestants or Catholics, as was the case into the mid-20th century. Who speaks for the secularists? What are their beliefs? And who in Europe speaks for Islam given its decentralized nature?


Each European country will deal with the religious/secular, minority/majority dichotomies based upon its own history and political, cultural, social, secular and religious currents. Some countries, such as Britain and Sweden, are more amenable to minority populations; some, such as Denmark, are unwilling to undergo basic changes in their populations and sense of identity. It is perfectly clear, however, that one critical challenge is both nation-based and European wide: how will Europe reconcile its obligations to abide by idealistic human rights declarations with its yearning for homogeneity—yearnings that are based upon a common Christian past and current secular beliefs and behaviors.


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About the Author

Judith S. Goldstein founded Humanity in Action in 1997 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. Under Judith’s leadership, Humanity in Action has organized educational programs on international affairs, diversity and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. She received her Ph.D in history from Columbia University and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar for her MA studies. Judith has written several books and articles about European and American history, art and landscape architecture. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several boards and advisory groups.


Goldstein, Judith S. "Religion and Human Rights in Europe." In Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks, 56-59. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2014.


1. New York Times, March 13, 2005, p.35.

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