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How research on voting behaviour contributes to a more nuanced picture of Islam

Today, the Netherlands is holding its elections, a crucial opportunity for every Dutch citizen to express their satisfaction or discontent with society through vote. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for marginalized groups, including Muslims, to abstain from voting despite the significance of this democratic process.

Much of Western Europe associate Islam with politics in a negative way. Preconceptions such as 'Islam is anti-democratic' or 'Islam is a threat to liberal ideas' prevail. The lack of scientific research only further increases the risk of unfounded assumptions. This is what sociologists and Radboud researchers Rachel Kollar and Niels Spierings want to change.

Political participation

Kollar and Spierings, together with their colleagues, investigate how religion among Muslims in Western Europe plays a role in whether or not to vote during elections. Through this study, they hope to paint a more nuanced picture of Islam as a religion. Almost 8,000 Muslims from 17 European countries were surveyed about their political participation. This looked particularly at the frequency of private prayer, mosque attendance, and religious identification. What emerged? For Muslims whose parents moved to the Netherlands, personal prayer seems to affect political participation positively. This was not yet the case for the group who migrated themselves. What does this tell us about Islam as a religion?

Religion comprises various elements

'First, it is important to understand that Islam consists of several building blocks,' Kollar said. 'These building blocks are part of the religion as a whole, but Muslims can also practice them separately.' She gives an example: 'So someone who often prays privately and is religious does not necessarily fully identify as a Muslim and vice versa.'

Spierings adds, "For the Muslims who migrated to the Netherlands, religion was primarily a custom and a group characteristic. It was strongly related to building a network in a new country, coming together, and exchanging information. Praying was also something you did out of habit. This generation does not yet see a connection between the degree of 'being religious' and voting behaviour during elections. However, earlier research does show that they vote significantly less than the rest of the population in European countries: 83% of the Dutch population said they voted. Among Dutch Muslims in that data, it was only 60%'.

The definition of religion is constantly evolving

'For the children of migrants, we also found no correlation between mosque attendance and voting behaviour, but we did find that Muslims who pray more often in private are more likely to vote,' says Kollar. Kollar and Spierings thus show that it is crucial to know which aspect of religion you are looking at, and which group of believers.

Kollar concludes: 'This research suggests that for the children of migrants, the perception of religion plays a bigger role in the decision to vote than before. One explanation for this political activation may be that Muslims raised in Europe have acquired a more personal relationship with Allah. From this more personal religious involvement, they are more concerned with society and the needs of others. To deepen this hypothesis, however, more research is needed, and we will take that up in a larger study.'

Towards more nuance

Spierings calls the insight 'essential for the debate on Islam in Europe and also the Netherlands. If we want to understand why Muslims drop out in society, or if we want to make Muslims feel more part of society, you have to be able to put your finger on the sore spot.'

By understanding how Muslims participate politically, we can identify the factors that lead to involvement or disengagement. Here, nuancing Western European perceptions of Islam is essential to make Muslims feel at home and pursue a more inclusive society.

This article is based on a collaboration between Radboud researchers Rachel Kollar, Nella Geurts and Niels Spierings. The underlying publication will soon appear on the European Political Science Review website. It is part of a larger NWO Vidi research project (VI.Vidi.191.023): Is Islamic religiosity a friend or foe of democracy and emancipation? 

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Diversity, Politics, Religion, Society