The voices of Islam

Article published on Oct. 31, 2005
community published
Article published on Oct. 31, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

With an estimated 12-15 million believers, Islam is the second religion of Europe. Yet it will take time before Imams can speak with one united voice.

Democracy in the European Union depends on the recognition of religious pluralism. Here and outside of Europe there are integrationist movements, feelings of xenophobia and of racism, all played out in the name of religion. Therefore it is necessary to define the institutional framework of spiritual leadership, which is itself an extremely significant actor in society.

An enigmatic Islam

Hans Vöking, member of the Conference of European Churches, underlines that “the organisation of Islam is a complicated task”. The difficulty in creating a coherent political discourse is not caused by the lack of Muslim voices in Europe, but by the absence of both a hierarchy and of qualified (legitimate) spokespeople. It is sometimes the case that Imams who come from outside the EU are not seen as having adequate training to satisfy the requests of European Muslims.

Michael Weninger, political councillor to the European Commission on inter-religious dialogue, emphasises the different ways of belonging to Islam, which is an important factor when looking at the divergences of language, traditions and forms of integration in each separate community. Moreover, according to the Rector of the Muslim Institute of the Paris Mosque, Dr Dalil Boubakeur, “Islam is simultaneously a religion, a community, a law and a civilisation”. Therefore the very essence of Islam does not allow a separation between the religious, civil and political worlds. This unified body can be partly explained by the absence of any process of secularisation, such as that which the Catholic Church experienced during the 18th century, which has allowed Europe to evolve into a society which clearly separates the government from religious institutions.

A fledgling institution

According to Michael Weninger, “Austria is currently the only EU member state to have a legal base for religious organisations”. In Austria, Islam has been recognised as an official religion since 1912 under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this country, which has a strong Catholic majority, freedom of religion is anchored in the Constitution, and the Koran is taught in state schools to young Muslims. Furthermore, Imams are trained in Austria and this means that it is possible to cultivate genuine cooperation between the Muslim communities and the Austrian authorities. To compare some figures: amongst Britain’s 2,000 Imams, 1,700 come from or are trained abroad.

The communal will to establish real dialogue between governments and Muslim communities has driven the creation of initiatives such as Muslim Councils. These come in two types: founded and managed by the Muslim community or created and supervised by the State. In 2002, the controversy in France surrounding the Muslim veil in schools was explosive and led to the creation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) by Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior. It is composed of members elected amongst the 1,400 mosques in France and aims at integrating Islam into the secular French system. The CFCM may intervene in matters concerning political authority, the building of mosques, the market for halal meat and in the training of Imams. In Italy, the Minister of the Interior recently approved the creation of a similar organisation, of which the members will be elected by the Minister himself. In Britain, the Muslim Council was founded independently in 1997 and has a certain degree of autonomy.

Legitimacy in construction

Olivier Roy from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) believes that these Councils in France, Great Britain and Italy are not enough to satisfy the demand for legitimate relations today. If the Muslim Councils have difficulty in finding a place on the political scene, it is because they do not possess seniority or established foundations, which seem to be a gage for credibility in Western Europe. Muslim communities in Europe are only a relatively new phenomenon and they are in constant evolution. Before constructing their role, it is necessary first to explain their raison d’être; is it a question of representing truthfully the Muslims who live in Europe? Or should we encourage a more liberal Islam? That is, an Islam with European values?

Other issues are also at stake, such as internal cohesion and dissensions between representatives of different ethnicities and cultures. And if there is no model in Europe today for Muslims to gain inspiration, it is not very hopeful that Turkey will become this model either. Despite its secularity, Ankara is the source of a nationalised Islam. Therefore it is the duty of all Europeans, of every religion, to encourage dialogue and apply a preventative democracy to resolve the problem of badly integrated Muslim communities who are also in need of representation.