Islam at the Threshold

Chapter 29
Islam at the Threshold

Andrea Pin


The development of Islam–State relations across Europe and North America displays a double-sided process. Modern secularized societies seem to play a major role in shaping Islam, but European political and legal systems are also shaped by the pluralism in which they live, with Islam playing a notable part. This chapter briefly outlines the paths that some European countries have chosen to take in addressing Islam and then compares them with the path chosen by the United States.

Tolerance and Freedom

European States have created a very complex political and legal environment where, in line with their different cultures, law and religion are linked.1

The shaping of Islam–State relations in each State has led to developments which have not necessarily diverged from consolidated legal traditions, but whose effects have sometimes been new or different from the spirit of the traditions themselves. Western Continental European approaches to Islam can probably be divided into two different models.

The first approach may be seen as an attempt to prevent the Islamic presence from playing a strong role in society and politics. These efforts can be detected in different countries that follow different State–religion models. Three of these States that diverge in legal and religious policy but which attempt to prevent Islam from playing a role in the public sphere will be considered in this chapter.


Although it belongs to Eastern Europe, Bulgaria deserves significant attention2 because it has joined the EU; because of its connections with Western Europe; and because its religious policy has been assessed by the European Court of Human Rights, which has repeatedly censored the country because of its attempts to control its Islamic community.

Bulgaria understands the relationship between Church and State within the context of its long tradition of State–Islam relations. Under the influence of the ties that connected Muslim leaders to political institutions during the classical Muslim period, the contemporary leaders of Bulgaria have tried to control the life of the Muslim community in their society. They have often interfered with the selection of Muslim leaders and have even replaced them. The interventions of the State in the dynamics of the Muslim community seem to have arisen not only from the need to support a form of Islam that is held to be compatible with Bulgarian democracy: more specifically, these interventions should probably be seen as attempts to create an Islamic leadership in line with the programmes of the political leaders of the country. In the view of the European Court of Human Rights, the replacement of Muslim leaders has generally coincided with changes in the Bulgarian ruling majority at a political level. Thus, these interventions seem to have served at least two aims: preventing Islam from open conflicts with public institutions but also turning it into a religious branch of official Bulgarian policy.

The Court heavily censored Bulgaria’s attitude towards Islam and criticized its attempts to bestow a unified leadership on the Muslim community by supporting some leaders rather than others. In the Court’s opinion, the State has the role of maintaining peaceful pluralism rather than producing religious monopolies. In doing this, the Court reaffirmed the ‘religious’ boundaries of political institutions.3


The Belgian experiment is particularly interesting because it has involved major efforts to provide national Islam with a unified leadership.4 The political institutions have displayed a democratic approach in engaging in consultations with the Muslim community, with the goal of creating an official Islamic Committee, but they also have revealed their fears by excluding extremists. Later, when the Islamic Committee became bogged down because of internal conflicts, Belgian political institutions became deeply involved in religious questions once again.

The government was strongly criticized because it intervened in the life of the Muslim community in a substantial way. The Court d’arbitrage upheld the legality of these political interventions because it considered them exceptional measures which were compatible with an exceptional situation, and were even necessary, given the non-hierarchical structure of Islam.5

One can understand the Bulgarian and Belgian efforts to provide the Muslim community with a unified leadership and even to manipulate it in order to make it compatible with an open secularized society. Olivier Roy has stressed that in the modern Islamic world these efforts are common and that freeing Islam from State control could have pernicious effects on Islam and the whole society. As an example, he notes that Afghanistan and Pakistan are among those countries that did not give any shape to national Islam in a broad sense.6 But the limited appeal of the national Islamic committees for Muslims living in Bulgaria and Belgium also needs to be considered. Belgian Muslims have felt a certain frustration at feeling manipulated by the State. Indeed, political efforts have led to a national Islam that seems to be more representative to the State than it is to the Muslims themselves.


The notorious French laïcité has displayed a fluctuating approach.7 Most scholars agree that it has developed in its attitude to Islam from being hostile in character to being more open. What is of central importance now is whether a more hostile approach is returning, as suggested by the notorious ban on the Muslim veil.

One can probably argue that this return to the old secularism owes much to the present situation: a hostile State is responding to a seemingly hostile religion. The French State appears to be pursuing the goal of limiting the social and cultural impact of the public presence of Islam.

It is notable that France has even considered and pursued the hypothesis of creating a semi-official board of Islamic experts and representatives.8 In spite of its long history of separation between Church and State, the French government created the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman in order to provide political institutions with a representative and reliable mouthpiece for Muslims.9 This approach seems to be very important, in two senses. First, it shows that when a religion is in the public domain, the State feels compelled to move forward and to interact with that religion, even facilitating the creation of a representative body. Second, if religion plays a public role, even a secular State may prefer to negotiate policies with, rather than ignore, religious communities.

The confrontation between the State and religion seems to involve a dual response from the State. On the one hand, it seems willing to give a voice to Muslims. But when we come to more sensitive areas such as education, the approach is different. The need to limit the role of religion becomes stronger, as the ban of the veil eloquently demonstrated. But French institutions have gone further. They issued some important documents in order to elucidate the new French approach to religion. The Charte de la laïcité stressed the need to reaffirm the centrality of secularism and the values of a democratic, tolerant society in schools, relegating other moral values to a secondary role.10 Thus, the more religion asks for a public and political audience, the more France recalls the political and civic value of secularism that it sees as being strongly bound up with the essence of democracy.

Charters like the French one seem to reflect the opinion that immigrants and new cultures must be placed within a neutral democratic framework. This should be the same for everyone: spiritually binding on all cultures, and even consciences as well. This sort of deontological code seeks to reaffirm civic values in the context of a new cultural and religious environment.

Freedom: Equality Rules

Spain was able to cope with the legacy of Franco without violent uprising. This ‘peaceful’ achievement of democracy led to a positive view of religious minorities. The reform in Spanish Church–State relations took the shape of a new pact with the Catholic Church,11 as well as a long series of negotiations with other religions, on the basis of a new law on religious freedom.12 However, both the law and the agreements with other religions may be criticized.

The first criticism regards the general law: it has had the merit of opening the door to a new policy of agreements, but in reality it is little more than a vacuum. It says very little about religious needs and leaves almost all substantive questions to the agreements themselves.

This pushed the main religions towards concluding agreements in order to achieve a more complete degree of religious freedom. Jews, Evangelicals and Muslims signed separate agreements, thereby formally complying with the provisions of the Constitution. But with regard to the content and the policy of these pacts, the results are open to debate.