Why secularism secures Islam’s independence in Europe

Farid Hafez

There is no proof of the link between the numerous terrorist attacks in Belgium over the last few years and a very conservative interpretation of Islam, which is especially propagated by the literalist Salafi school, also known as Wahhabism, mainly originating from Saudi Arabia. Although there is no proof of this, Belgium’s government is now attempting to take Saudi Arabia’s control of Brussels’s largest downtown mosque. This was done after the recent recommendations of a parliamentary inquiry commission, which was constituted following the double terrorist attack in Brussels in 2016. The Saudi government’s 99-year rent-free lease on the mosque dating back to 1969, signed by Belgian King Baudouin, should be dismissed, according to the commission. Currently, the mosque is operated by the Saudi-sponsored World Muslim League, which propagates this very conservative trend of Islam. According to the authors of the commission, the mosque is a hotbed for extremism.

Because of its conservative outlook, some Muslims even endorse this governmental move since they also represent an interpretation of Islam that is more rooted in Belgium’s society. This is understandable. However, one should also raise a fundamental question: Is a state in a legitimate position to interfere in religious issues?

This is also not an issue limited to Western governments alone. Although one can clearly see a systematic attempt by European governments – especially interior ministries – to take control of Islam, this much is true, if not truer, for other political orders, from monarchies to authoritarian regimes in democratic garments.

But let us return to Brussels and, more generally, to Europe. The strongest argument for taking control over the mosque is that this very conservative interpretation of Islam sows seeds for violence. But if there is no empirical evidence of the mosque’s personnel inciting violence, this is an empty claim. Let us use a very specific example.

It was said some in the mosque preached it was best not to marry Shiite women. Well, will the Belgian government step in if other conservative interpretations of religion, let us say, a rabbi, forbids Jewish women from marrying non-Jews?

In other words, is the problem only with Islam and Muslims? Do European governments only want to intervene when it concerns Islam? Legitim-izing such an intervention basically implies that a government is able to define the difference between good and bad religions.

More than in the case of monarchies, this is not what state neutrality is about. Secular states not only revolve around the principle that organized religion is not to intervene in state affairs, but that the state is not to interfere in religion either.

While this principle is generally applied when it comes to churches, many European states seem to deny the state’s restrictions vis-à-vis the Muslim community. The principle of secularism thus becomes nothing more than lip service.

Beyond that, the structural problem of this move is that if a state is allowed to intervene, where is the limit? Today, many Muslim Belgians may welcome the government handing this mosque over to a group that represents a more moderate version of Islam. But there is no guarantee that the state, once empowered to interfere in Islam, on another occasion will not tighten the rules defining acceptable Muslim groups even more. And once empowered to interfere in Islamic affairs, the state may also easily create its own Muslim groups that solely serve the state’s interests.

Indeed, this can already be seen in other European countries. While European states use the fuzzy notion of political Islam to denounce the social activities of different Muslim groups, European states have essentially produced their own politicized form of Islam, their own politicized, political Islam. It is a political Islam in reverse.

If European states want to guarantee full, equal citizenship, it has to also be based on the equal treatment of Muslim communities, especially in cases like Belgium, Austria and Spain where Islam is legally recognized and as such, highly institutionalized.

Likewise, if Muslims want to practice their religion freely, they ought to work toward building independent institutions based on their communal interests. This means being independent from state institutions, be it from other Muslim countries as much as from their respective European states.