Communicatie, Informatie, Educatie


Humanists and Muslims in Belgian Secular Society

by Herman De Ley (Draft version, © 2000)

1. Introduction: the ‘Secularization thesis’ and Islam.

1.1. Nowadays, families of Muslim immigrant origins largely inhabit the working class districts in our towns. Their social and economic situation being more or less comparable, is it to be expected that, like their predecessors at the end of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century, the vast majority of these Muslim workers too will soon be secularized? And will this secularization finally put an end to many, if not most of the social and political problems involved with their presence in our secular society?

I apologize for putting the question that bluntly. The past year, I had a couple of times the opportunity to hear this particular ‘secularization thesis’ publicly and straightforwardly argued for: once, by a Moroccan researcher, on the occasion of his presenting his PhD dissertation at the (secularist) Vrije Universiteit Brussel[1]; another time, by a leading social geographer of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL), during a public debate on the " ‘failure’ of integration policies", in Ghent[2].

In current sociological literature as well the embedding of immigrant Muslim communities in Europe is regularly approached from a ‘secularization’ perspective. Let me just mention two quite recent contributions, one with regard to the situation in France, the other to that in Belgium. As to the former, Jocelyne Cesari writes that the immigrants’ children and even more so their grand-children "have attempted to reconcile adherence to an imported tradition with a place in the French cultural sphere"[3].

Actually leaving Islam, though, is not an option in this reconciliation process. I quote:

"the evolution of Islam in Europe has not yet reached the point at which large numbers of people of Muslim immigrant origins feel ready to abandon their religion wholesale. (...) That reconciliation implies secularization and agnosticism, but not true atheism" [4].

This "reformist option", as Cesari calls it, actually divides into two different paths: (1) that of "a secularized bond with Islam that tends to relativize the commands of tradition", and (2) that of "a fundamentalist attitude that demands respect for Islamic tradition in its totality"[5]. The first, "secularizing" way is that of the "immense, silent majority" who is "re-positioning Islamic tradition into the private sphere with the utmost discretion" [6].

As for Belgium, "Migration History and Social Mobility" (MHSM) surveys have been conducted some years ago among Turkish and Moroccan men[7]. The results provide "the first nationally representative picture of religious practice and Islamic affiliations"[8]. The overall picture, here, is that of a majority remaining loyal to what is called "mainstream Islam", while being flanked by two smaller, more or less equal "wings": i.e. a "secular" one, and a "fundamentalist"one[9]. With regard to the former, "secularized wing", absence of mosque attendance is considered to be a valid indicator. According to the authors, indeed, that absence is related

"to a considerably higher degree of secularization: religion is generally less important, the functions of religion are less frequently stressed, the wearing of the headscarf for women is rather rarely considered as obligatory, and open dissent to Islamic influence in daily life is emerging"[10].


1.2. In its general or methodical application, the ‘secularization thesis’ has been dominating sociological literature since many years. Correlating secularization with modernization (the latter being accompanied by its subcategories of urbanization, migration and industrialization), the thesis has been defined as a kind of

"research programme with, at its core, an explanatory model (asserting) that the social significance of religion diminishes in response to the operation of three salient features of modernization, namely (1) social differentiation, (2) societalization, and (3) rationalization"[11].

Viewing secularization as a progressive one-way process, the thesis characteristically focuses almost exclusively on social and economic changes, while state and governmental policies are usually played down[12]. For (Catholic) Belgium, more especially, the thesis was elaborated by leading KUL sociologists, such as Jaak Billiet and Karel Dobbelaere. The latter e.g., while rejecting the cultural approach[13], stresses the role of structural changes, i.e. of processes of functional differentiation, in socially pinging about a situation of secularization, or - as Dobbelaere himself prefers to call it (at least in his Dutch publications) - a situation of "laïcization". This implies that

"on the level of society, the religious system is no longer an all-encompassing system of meaning, but is reduced to a social subsystem, next to many other subsystems, like the economy, politics, education and the family"[14].

In the 19th century, the Roman-Catholic Church responded to this privatization and marginalization of religion by setting up a system of ‘pillarization’. That system, while being meant to segregate the Catholic flock from the rest of society and keeping it under clerical control, finally has failed: the Belgian Catholic pillar itself, according to Dobbelaere, was subjected to a thorough process of laïcization, be it that the privileged position of the Catholic Church as yet has not seriously been weakened[15].

As a universal model, though - i.e. abstracting from the particular, historical and constitutional processes in a number of European countries, during the last centuries[15b] - the secularization thesis has come under heavy fire. To quote e.g. the well-known sociologist of Islam, Ernest Gellner, in 1993[16]:

"In the social sciences, one of the commonest theses is the secularization thesis, which runs as follows. Under conditions prevailing in industrial-scientific society, the hold of religion over society and its people diminishes. By and large this is true, but it is not completely true, for there is one major exception, Islam. In the last hundred years the hold of Islam over Muslims has not diminished but has rather increased. It is one striking counter-example to the secularization thesis".

Criticism, though, and even rejection of the thesis was not solely triggered off by developments in Muslim countries, but by American exceptionalism as well, i.e. by Christian revival in modernity’s "bastion" itself. One of the leading sociologists in this critical trend was undoubtedly David Martin, starting with his book of 1969, The Religious and the Secular. Studies in Secularization. Martin radically rejects the whole idea of a uniform process of secularization and even goes as far as to conclude that "the word (viz. ‘secularization’) should be erased from the sociological dictionary" [17]. In the publications of other contemporary sociologists of religion as well we are confronted with expressions like the "secularization myth"[18], "desecularization" and the "return of religion (or: of God)". In view of what is going on in different parts of the world, Europe included, this hardly comes as a surprise.


2. Muslims and European ‘Secularism’

Discussions on secularism in general, and on Islam’s (in)compatibility with it in particular, are frequently hampered by the quite divergent, if not controversial ways the concept is used and interpreted. The most important of these divergent meanings are summarized by Heiner Bielefeldt as follows[19]:

"secularism is understood either [1] as an anti-religious or post-religious ideology; [2] as a specific Western-Christian form of organizing the relationship between state and religion; [3] as an attempt of control by the state of religious communities; or [4] as an expression of respect for the human rights’ principle of freedom of religion".

The lack of conceptual clarity applies not only to Western debates but to Muslim scholarly literature as well: the meaning, that is, of Arabic translations for ‘secularism’ - such as cilmaniyya (derived from cilm, science or knowledge), calamaniyya (derived from calam, world or universe), or dunyawiyya (derived from dunya, world, and so "worldly") - is "no less varied and confused", according to Azzam Tamimi, than that of the Western original[20]. Thus, ‘liberal’ as well as ‘islamist’ Muslim intellectuals are often prone to confound constitutional secularism, based on the principle of religious freedom, with any kind of a-religious, anti-religious, or atheistic ideologies.

The dismissal nowadays of secularism, at least on the level of dominant Muslim discourse[21], has its historical roots in Western colonialism and imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries: Muslims at that time were confronted with a political secularization that was imposed by Western powers. In the European countries themselves secularization and laïcization had clear emancipatory effects (liberating society and man’s mind from the ideological and institutional shackles of the Church). In the colonies or protectorates, on the contrary, secularization was enforced as an ideological weapon - against Islam, that is - in order to suppress national or political aspirations of Muslim communities. Even today in the Maghreb, Lahouari Addi writes[22], the word "laïkiyya", being transcribed from the French word, "laïcité", is used as an insult, in order to attack or weaken one’s political opponents.

As for the present time, Europe’s democratic and secular constitutions notwithstanding, Muslim minorities are confronted here with continued discrimination[23]. What is more, such violations against their basic rights are not infrequently justified by political authorities in the name of ‘secularism’. In Belgium, more particularly, this applies not only to the headscarf incidents in schools[24], public services, etc. Even such a basically human need as that of having a decent burial for yourself and your beloved ones (‘decent’ in the sense of being in accordance with one’s personal beliefs and conscience) is still refused to Muslim citizens or residents, in most Belgian towns[25]. At least two Flemish politicians, when asked to provide for a Muslim section at the municipal cemetery, categorically dismissed the demand. Making use of a kind of Newspeak rhetoric, they justified this refusal by referring to their duty of safeguarding the achievements of secularity and more in particular the right of equal treatment for all inhabitants[26].

That persistent violation of their rights notwithstanding, Muslim Europeans are time and again called to account as to the (in)compatibility of their religion with Europe’s common human rights values and its secular framework of separation between state and religion. To my painful surprise, I recently found out that this is even done by the EUMC, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. Three weeks ago (on November 23) the EUMC published an alarming report (1999) on the growing incidence of racist discrimination and racist violence, particularly against (Roma and) "refugees and immigrants of African and Arabic countries" [27]. In the EUMC Work Programme 2000 the importance of religion, i.e. of Islam, is quite rightly stressed as an important factor in these discriminatory policies and practices[28]. At the end, however, of that particular paragraph, it is stated:

"In order for successful inclusion in [sic] socially there is also a need for adherents of Islam to accept that in Europe common values exist (built on human rights etc.) as does a framework where the state is separated from religion and everyone has equal rights e.g. men and women".

I consider such an appeal to the actual victims of racism and discrimination to be quite ill-judged (surreptitiously stigmatizing Muslims, it actually confirms and strengthens existing racist prejudices) -, not to mention that it is humiliating and offensive to communities that for almost half a century are living in Europe as law-abiding citizens. Being advanced as a kind of "préalable", or condition, for a socially "successful inclusion" - if not, as often is the case, for the actual enjoyment of their democratic rights[29] -, this continuing debate that Muslims are being subjected to is quite understandably protested against, as being a kind of discrimination in itself [30].


3. Muslims and "Unbelievers".

The implementation on behalf of Muslim Europeans of the human rights that are guaranteed by constitutional secularism, on the national level as well as on the European one, is indeed a matter of some urgency. As is emphasized by Heiner Bielefeldt, in his essay on "Muslims in the Secular State"[31]:

"it is... necessary to give a clear political signal that Muslims and their religious organizations have become part of an increasingly multi-religious society in Germany as well as in other European countries. To give such a political signal is overdue -- not only on behalf of an integration policy towards Muslim minorities, but also on behalf of the liberal concept of political secularism itself".

There is also no question that political leaders and policy makers in Europe could much benefit from Heiner Bielefeldt’s philosophical clearing up of the concept of constitutional secularism and of its human rights’ implications for a more harmonious coexistence between Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans[32].

At the same time, however, it is a fact of life that Muslims in Europe are confronted, and will continue to be confronted with fellow-citizens identifying themselves as ‘agnostics’, ‘freethinkers’, ‘humanists’, ‘secularists’, ‘unbelievers’, or ‘atheists’ - i.e. with secularism as indeed a particular and at the same time comprehensive, naturalistic or humanistic world view or ideology that is asserting itself amidst (if not against) the many religious creeds or cults within our pluralistic societies.

Once again, on the level of Muslim discourse, there is no denying that humanism, and even more so atheism, are almost universally rejected and morally condemned. E.g. the new Rector of the Islamic University of Rotterdam, Prof.A.Akgündüz, in his inaugural speech of last September mentioned the fight against "immorality and atheism" as one of the goals of his institution. To give another example: in the latest issue (N° 5) of the French Muslim magazine, La médina - a special issue on the problems of providing halâl meat in France -, an interview is published with the president of the Association of Imams of France, Mr. Tareq Oupou (himself being the imam of the El Huda Mosque in Bordeaux). In this interview, Mr. Oupou argues for a liberal as well as spiritual interpretation of the "Islamic minimum" for slaughtering animals. Putting the religious criteria into perspective, he ends up with two basic requirements, viz. (1) that the animal’s throat has to be cut, and (2) that one has to ascertain the identity and "morality of the sacrificer". This last requirement is explicitly understood by him in the sense that "the person who kills the animal should not be an atheist" (p. 43) - identifying thus once more "atheism" and "immorality"[33].

On a personal level, such a rejection eventually can be formulated in a much more virulent way, as I, for once, experienced some months ago when debating with an elderly Flemish convert, member of the (Turkish) Kadiri order. All unbelief, he declared bluntly, be it agnostic or atheistic, should be considered to be an insult against God. And when I appealed to "Muslim friends" of mine, he protested that under no circumstances a true believer could befriend a kâfir (referring to Qur’ân, s. 9:4-6, on relations with the mushriqûn). His conclusion was as clear as implacable: "So, either your so-called Muslim friends are no Muslims or they are no friends" (claiming themselves to be Muslim, they should be condemned as "thieves" and "impostors").

This paper - need it to be said? - does not aim to actually enter into a discussion with Muslims: neither on a theological level - i.e. arguing from particular Qur’anic passages (be it the so-called "punishment narratives" pertaining to the way "unbelievers" ought to be treated[34], or the well-known verses confirming that "there is no compulsion in religion") - nor from a historicizing point of view[35]. In the absence of a Muslim interlocutor at my side, this would not be a fair way of dealing with the issue. At the same time, it would not agree, I think, with the purpose of this congress.

Instead, I’d like to deal briefly with some interesting developments making for co-operation and dialogue between Muslims and humanists, at least in my own country, i.e. Belgium, and more particularly in Flanders or the Flemish region[36]. Indeed, the rejection of humanist unbelief on the level of public Muslim discourse notwithstanding, there is no fatality at all for interactions between both philosophical minorities to be inevitably antagonistic. My strong conviction in this matter is not only based on theoretical considerations as to Islam’s historically proven capacity to live with institutionalized pluralism[37] and also, as a dynamic and living faith, to adapt itself to the most diverse cultural, political and social circumstances[38]. It is most of all based on personal experiences, since almost ten years: the positive experience, that is, of Muslims (of different origins as well as denominations, so-called ‘fundamentalist’ ones included), and humanists working together in the full sense of the word, i.e. not merely on a formal, organizational level and in an ad hoc way, but on a permanent basis and in a closely human sense, i.e. "bi 'l-qalb". The Ghent Centre for Islam in Europe, while being in most ways a very modest enterprise indeed, may at least congratulate itself to be based on that experience.

Needless to say, this kind of close collaboration implies an interesting and socially important learning process on both sides: atheists or non-believers, while primarily motivated by the need to fight racism, learning to respect and appreciate Muslims’ moral and social commitment[39] as a valuable contribution to present-day society; Muslims, for their part, realizing that "unbelievers" do share many of their own values and, although being non-religious, do commit themselves for Muslims’ religious and human rights. What needs to be stressed, here, is (1) that the humanist partners in this collaboration identified themselves from the start as non-believers or even atheists[40], and (2) that our Muslim partners not only accepted this fact, but that they regularly recognize it publicly as well[41].

However, what has nót been done till now, is discussing this collaboration from a philosophical and theological point of view[42]: I mean, shifting it from the plane of social action onto the verbal plane of philosophical discourse, by means of a systematic dialogue between "believers" and "unbelievers". There is no doubt that, since both parties claim for themselves a universal truth, such a discussion will not be easy for either one of them, the mutual confidence and positive practical experiences notwithstanding[43].


4. ‘Secularized Muslims’ ?

However important they may be, the activities of individuals only become meaningful when put into their context, i.e. when looked at from a social perspective. In this case, as far as the Muslim side is concerned in this interaction, I have to point out that most of our partners, be they of Turkish, Moroccan, or generally Arab origins, are religious teachers, i.e. they are employed in public schools in order to take care of the Islamic religious education of Muslim pupils (most of the latter being of allochtonous, or immigrant origins)[44].

Religious education in public schools[45], indeed, is an ideological corner-stone of the post-war ‘Belgian system’[46]. So, Islam’s official recognition as a ‘Belgian cult’, in 1974, was very soon followed by the appointment of Islam teachers in public schools (be it in an inferior professional status); for more than a quarter of a century this appointment actually was the sole practical implementation of Islam’s legal recognition[47]. To-morrow morning, my young colleague, Miss Meryem Kanmaz, will speak to you about Islam teachers in Flanders, as part of a twofold presentation comparing their role with that of imams in the Netherlands (she will be joined by her Dutch colleague, Miss Welmoet Boender). So, there is no need for me to expand on this subject.

Let me just call your attention to a Muslim association that since more than twenty years (i.e. since 1978) is defending the interests of Islam teachers in Flanders, and at the same time is actively promoting the interaction of "Muslim" culture with the autochtonous Flemish cultural scene, the V.O.E.M.[48]. From the very beginning this association made a stand for a pluralistic, open society[49]. Collaboration with the other religious communities (Catholics, Protestants and Jews) as well as with humanistic organizations is very close[50]. On the other hand, as to its relationship with the new so-called Executive of the Muslims of Belgium, i.e. the official "head of Islamic cult" (as it is called in Belgian legal terminology) which was installed in 1999 and is officially responsible for the training and appointment of Islamic religious teachers[51], one could describe it as being somewhat aloof[52].

The constitutional separation between state and religion notwithstanding, the Belgian State was actively involved in the elective and selective process that eventually led to this Muslim Executive[53]. So it is quite ironical that Belgium’s ‘Islam policy’, while being largely inspired by fear of the so-called ‘fundamentalist threat’, itself became a focus for so-called ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim tendencies[54]. This fact clearly confirms Nikki Keddie’s statement[55], viz.

"that government secularization policies often ping about anti-secular reactions, especially among certain classes and groups".

In contrast, the activities of Flemish grass roots associations like the VOEM could be characterized with a paraphrase of Cesari’s words, viz. as 'attempting to reconcile adherence to an imported tradition with a place in the Flemish cultural sphere'[56]. Does this mean that these Islam teachers should be qualified as a kind of "secularized Muslims"? In my view, this would be quite inappropriate.


5. Organized Humanism and Islam.

In the last part of this contribution, I shall give a very concise sketch of the institutional context Flemish humanists and Muslims are working in. I shall focus on two points: (1) the institutionalization of Belgian "laïcism" and the effects of it on its public attitude (at least as far as so-called organized humanism is concerned) towards the Muslim minority and its discrimination; (2) the course of ‘non-confessional’ or ‘lay ethics’, which is being taught in public primary and secondary schools (as an alternative for the religious courses offered at the same schools by the different cults), and the unusual role it is playing in the interaction between Muslims and secularism.

5.1. The creation of Belgium, after the so-called revolution of 1830, was based on a historical compromise between Catholics and Liberals. This ‘union’ however did not last long. The secular constitution of 1831 notwithstanding, a privileged position was (re)secured for the Church[57]; some years later, the threat that was seemingly posed to that position by Belgian freemasonry, led to a vigorous, clerical reaction[58]. As a consequence, the secularist or laïcist movement was pushed into a radically anti-clerical, anti-religious and finally atheistic direction[59]. Following the French model, it aspired to a thorough secularization and modernization of the state’s institutions. Secular politicians, however, Socialists as well as Liberals, later chose for a more pragmatic attitude, forming political alliances with the Catholics. At the conclusion of the 19th and the start of the 20th century the secularist project had clearly failed and Belgian "laïcité" entered into a deep crisis.

The Belgian secularist movement being traditionally stronger in the French speaking South than in the Dutch speaking North, the major turning-point, nevertheless, in its institutionalization came from Flanders, with the creation, after World War II (in 1951), of the Humanistisch Verbond (HV, Humanistic Alliance). It was inspired, not by the French, but by the Dutch example, and its main effort went to the establishment of a ‘humanist’, ‘non-confessional’ or ‘lay morality’, i.e. a morality rejecting all transcendence and offering non-believers a philosophical, if not scientific ethics. Any ideological struggle against the Catholic Church (the endeavour for securing equal rights excepted) or against the other revealed religions was abandoned. Especially with the conclusion of the so-called "school war" and the ratification, in 1958, of the "school pact", the organized secularist movement definitely opted for a kind of "pillarization", i.e. to institutionalize itself as one, particular philosophical or ideological "family", amongst the other, religious denominations[60]. While mostly consolidating clerical dominance, nevertheless the pact of 1958 for the first time officially (constitutionally) legitimated the secular world view, more especially the existence of a morality that is completely independent of any religious creed. The course of ‘non-confessional morality’ in public schools, together with its teachers[61] and its parents’ associations, was and still is the principal source of Belgian (Flemish) secularist culture’s vitality.

Finally, having forsaken the modernist project of creating a thoroughly secularized state[62], organized humanism is concentrating its efforts on the defense of democratic pluralism and equal rights for all philosophical communities[63], and on the fight against racism and all kinds of discrimination. Since a couple of years, as a consequence, it also actively supports the struggle of Muslim communities for equal rights[64]. Illustrative for this new attitude[65] is a recent letter written by the president of the (Flemish) Union of Humanist Associations (UVV), in reaction to a radio interview on the occasion of the inauguration at Ghent University of a new course on "Islam in the Secular State" [66].

5.2. Finally, let me return once more to the course of ‘lay morality’[67], which is optionally taught in public (primary and secondary) schools. Since many years now, this course is not only followed by children of humanist or secularist parents, but also, relatively speaking, by a quite substantial number of children of Muslim parents. A couple of years ago, for that reason, the HV study group on multicultural society, Musa, organized a survey amongst the teachers of the course in secondary schools as to the presence of Muslim children in their classes[68]. The survey first of all confirmed this presence: in most cases the number of pupils fluctuates between 1% and 20%; occasionally it may even run into 100%. As to the motivation of these pupils, respectively their parents, more than half of them (54%) opted for the course because of ‘external reasons’: i.e. more than half of this group (55%) opted for it because no Islam teacher was available[69]; 15% because the Islam teacher spoke another language or belonged to a different denomination, and the rest for diverse ‘social’ reasons: e.g. out of a kind of social conformism. Only 1/3 of the youngsters opted for lay morality because of an ‘internal’ motivation, i.e. out of considerations having to do with the course itself: either because the children were largely ‘secularized’ (12,09 % of the total) or because they were attracted by the form and contents of the course (19,53%), some of them eventually having a negative ‘internal’ motivation as well: i.e. considering the Islamic doctrine to be too severe or insufficiently emancipating.

Generally, the teachers positively evaluated the contacts with their Muslim pupils, and the same goes for the contacts between Muslim and non-Muslim pupils – although some recurrent sticking points were mentioned as well. A majority of the teachers anyway considered the presence of Muslim children in their course to be an enrichment for both parties. Nevertheless, the full and concrete implementation of Muslims’ constitutional right to free choice at school (a better professional status for Islam teachers included), is generally supported, since this would reduce the number of pupils opting for the lay course for ‘external’ reasons.

Let me point out, finally, that this year a doctoral dissertation was defended at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, presenting the results of a similar survey amongst Muslim pupils (of immigrant descent) following courses of lay morality in secondary schools in Brussels[70]. The survey was held in 7 French speaking schools, and resulted in 169 responses. In this case, though, not the teachers but the children themselves were subjected to a questionnaire, and the individual researcher, being Moroccan but having lived in Belgium for eight years, started with an outspoken secularist bias as to Islam’s future in European society.

In conclusion, whatever the particular reasons for Muslim parents or their children to opt for an explicitly non-religious, secularist or humanist course, it goes without saying that this practice implies (a) a minimal form of tolerance towards secularism, and even atheism, (b) a kind of dialogue and interaction between Muslims and non-believers which has important social effects. Of course, what is implied here, is - with the words of Leila Babès - "l’islam vécu", not scholarly Islam.



Will European, more especially Belgian or Flemish Muslims in their large majority indeed be ‘secularized’, in the next future? To be quite honest, I would not know. To quote once more Jocelyne Cesari[71]:

"It is difficult (...) to predict the transformations in Islamic belief and practice that the next generation will usher in".

It is my feeling, however, that the ‘secularization’ paradigm (usually paired with its opponent, ‘fundamentalism’)[72], is not suited to give an unbiased description of religious and philosophical developments within our Muslim communities. In my view, being ‘Christian’ - or as is it has been called: "Catho-laïque" - in origin, the paradigm is a prejudiced way of looking, concentrating on so-called ‘orthopraxis’ (e.g. mosque attendance), and as such it does not do justice to ‘Islam’. More especially, the dialogue between Muslims and humanists is doomed to failure if the latter would use the secularization perspective as a kind of ‘hidden agenda’.

Finally, if social polarization between the non-Muslim majority and Muslim minorities, in our countries, goes on and Muslim citizens do not get the human rights guaranteed by constitutional secularism, the ensuing political failure will be that of secularism, not of Islam.



1. Mokhtar Aziz, La religion islamique aux yeux des élèves issus de l’immigration musulmane à puxelles optant pour le cours de ‘morale laïque’ à l’école”. Dissertation VUB, Brussels 2000.

2. Prof.Dr.Christiaan Kesteloot (KUL), Gent, October 4.

3. I quote from a recent contribution of hers, ‘Modernization of Islam or Islamization of modernity? Muslim minorities in Europe and the issue of pluralism’, in: C.I.E.-Newsletter, vol. 2 (September 2000), pp. 21-28, more especially p. 24.

4. O.c., pp. 23-24.

5. O.c., p. 24.

6. Ibidem.

7. The surveys were conducted from 1994 to 1996, but the scientific conclusions were only recently published in an English publication: Ron Lesthaeghe (ed.), Communities and Generations. Turkish and Moroccan populations in Belgium. VUB University Press, 2000. 

8. Ron Lesthaeghe and Karen Neels, ‘Islamic Communities in Belgium: religious orientations and secularization’, in R.Lesthaege, o.c., pp. 129-163 (a draft version in Dutch was published in 1998).

9. As to the particularities of the Moroccan and Turkish communities respectively, the surveys point to some remarkable contrasts, most of all with regard to the ‘secularized’ segment: “secularism has spread to a much larger degree among Moroccan men: compared to the Turks with 11 percent never attending mosques, the figure for Moroccans reaches 25 percent”, o.c., p. 160.

10. O.c., p. 144.

11. Roy Wallis & Steve puce, ‘Secularization: The Orthodox Model’ (1994), quoted in: Nikki R.Keddie, ‘Secularism and the State: Towards Clarity and Global Comparison’, in: New Left Review, 226 (1997), p. 21.

12. Keddie, o.c., pp. 21-22. In his contribution, Keddie argues “that such an overwhelmingly ‘soc-iet-al’ and non-political view cannot adequately explain secularization” (p. 22).

13. Which “is more favoured by ecclesiastical circles”, see K.Dobbelaere, Het ‘Volk-Gods’ de mist in? Over de kerk in belgië, Leuven 1988, p. 17.

14. Ibidem, p. 10.

15. O.c., p. 25 ss.

15b. The different dimensions of secularization, separation between church and state, and freedom of religion were translated in the European countries in very different ways, on an institutional level as well as on an organizational one. The literature on this phenomenon being abundant, I suffice with picking one out which perhaps is not generally known by islamic scholars, viz. a study of comparative law, published by the Central Humanist Council (Conseil Central Laïque), Brussels 1996: Relations entre états, communautés religieuses et philosophiques en Europe. Une étude de droit comparé, by W.Callewaert, Luc De Droogh, Anne Fivé, Anne-France Ketelaer & Pascale Vandernacht (the publication is bi-lingual, i.e. written in Dutch as well).

16. ‘Marxism and Islam: Failure and Success’ (1993), quoted by Azzam Tamimi, ‘The Origins of Arab Secularism’, in: A.Tamimi & J.L.Esposito (eds.), Islam and Secularism in the Middle East, London 2000, p. 13.

17. O.c., p. 22, quoted in Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century, Campidge 1975 (repr. 1993), p. 2.

18. Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (1994), quoted in: Heba Raouf Ezzat, ‘Secularism, the State and the Social Bond’, in: Tamimi & Esposito (2000), p. 124.

19. In his essay, Moslims in de Lekenstaat. Het recht van moslims mee vorm te geven aan de Europese samenleving, C.I.E.-Cahier Nr. 6 (Ghent 2000), p. 2 (my translation).

20. So A.Tamimi, o.c., p. 17, pointing to the four-volume Arabic encyclopedia on secularism (Tafkik al-Khitab al-cIlmani, i.e. Deconstructing Secular Discourse), written by the Egyptian academician Abdelwahab El-Messiri, forthcoming Summer 2001: no less than eighteen different definitions of ‘secularism’ are listed in it, collected from modern Arabic literature.

21. We should beware, of course, of making unjustified generalizations. To give just one example of an Arabic author stressing that the principal Arab countries have indeed been secularized, be it “in a slow, informal, hesitant, pragmatic and gradual way, with a lot of half-measures, partial compromises, etc.”, see the Syrian philosopher, Sadik Jalal al-Azm, e.g. with his contribution, “Sur l’islam, la laïcité et l’Occident”, in: Le Monde Diplomatique, September 1999.

22. See Lahouari Addi, ‘La laïcité: malentendus et représentations’, in: Robert Bistolfi (ed.), Islam et laïcité. Parcours européens(Confluences Méditerranée, Nr. 32, 1999-2000), p. 39.

23. With a growing incidence of racist attacks and crimes as well, as is pointed out in the 1999 report by the EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia).

24. E.g. the decision by the Ghent Municipal Executive, on December 11, 1997, confirming the disciplinary punishment against a Muslim pupil for wearing a scarf, and justifying this decision by referring to the constitutional principle of the ‘neutrality’ of the state. Food as well, of course, is regularly an occasion for willfully not-respecting childrens’ religious rights: e.g. by serving them pig meat, against the explicit wishes of their parents, or even physically forcing them to eat food that they do not consider to be halâl (an extreme example of this came under public notice two years ago, in a Catholic school, in Hoboken, Antwerp).

25. In the first issue of the newsletter that is published by the Executive of Muslims of Belgium (which resulted from the elections of December 13, 1998), it is now announced that, “after many months of laborious negotiations with municipal authorities”, 12 Muslim burial sections have been obtained - one of them in Flanders (since 1993, though, a burial place is provided for in Antwerp, notwithstanding the law on cemeteries of 1971).

26. I am referring to the refusal by the social-democratic mayor of the Flemish town of Louvain, Louis Tobback (former president of the social-democratic party, SP, and former minister of interior affairs), at the Louvain council meeting, in November 1996, and to the dismissal in almost similar language by the Ghent alderman, Mrs Chantal Claeys (member of the conservative liberal party, VLD), in March of this year. In the latter case, the refusal came notwithstanding the introduction in 1998 of a new law on cemeteries and notwithstanding a missive sent at the beginning of 2000 to all municipalities by the minister of interior affairs, confirming the legal possibility, under specified conditions, of providing for a Muslim burial section. Typical for the way Flemish politicians react to the demand for implementing human rights for Muslims, is that both Claeys and Tobback demagogically assimilated a Muslim burial section  with a kind of “Muslim ghetto”. Apparently, they prefer the other, “European” practice, that of  deportation (even the parents of Loubna Benaïssa, the little girl who was putally killed by a child abuser, were forced to bury their daughter in far away Tanger)?

27. Media release 194-3-E-18/00.

28. E.g. “it is not possible to discuss equal rights and equal citizenship if we ignore Islam as a possible factor in discrimination”. For the program, see their site on the internet, The formulation of the next quoted passage is defective.

29. As it was put some years ago by a well-known Belgian academic (of Ghent University): “they should previously sign a declaration of loyalty to the Belgian constitution”. In fact, this is precisely what happened in France, on January 28, 2000, when various Muslim associations were 'asked' by the minister of interior affairs, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, in order to achieve their public 'recognition', to ratify a text confirming their attachment to the French Republic, the separation between church and state, and articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention for the safe-guarding of human rights and fundamental liberties.

30. E.g. by Soheib Bencheikh, the Mufti of Marseille, in ‘L’Islam face à la laïcité française’, in: Confluences Méditerranée, 32 (1999-2000), p. 74: “Be it rich or poor from a human or a spiritual point of view, Islam is no more absurd than the other religions that were established earlier (...) and enjoy the advantages assigned by secularism itself” (my translation). The French declaration of loyalty I referred to in the preceding note, was indeed signed by the Muslim representatives, in a spirit of openness and constructive dialogue. Nevertheless, although the text was initially presented by the authorities as “not-negotiable”, an explicit reference to the right of changing one’s religion (apostasy) was omitted from the final version because of Muslim protest against its “superfluous and offensive” character. For a dossier on the controversy in the French press, see now the Muslim journal, Islam de France, N° 8 (2000).

31. At the end of the English version of the Dutch text mentioned earlier.

32. See Bielefeldt's important publication, Philosophie der Menschenrechte. Grundlagen eines weltweiten Freiheitsethos, Darmstadt 1998.

33. The present pope of the Roman-Catholic Church, it is true, did the same many years ago.

34. The subject has recently been treated extensively by David Marshall, in his God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers, Curzon 1999.

35. Surely, today’s philosophical atheism cannot be equated with the idolatry (shirk) or unbelief existing in the period of the jahiliyya?

36. Since some ten years, Belgium is a federal state; in the Flemish region the official language is Dutch; in Wallonia it is French.

37. Be it as a majority (cf. the dhimma) or as a minority (cf. the mudéjares, in the Catholic Spanish kingdoms, before the fall of Granada).

38. To quote the materialist philosopher Al-Azm, in his contribution in Le Monde Diplomatique (see n.21): “Au regard de ces faits historiques, il devrait être un peu plus clair que l’islam a dû être très souple, adaptable et malléable, interprétable et révisable à l’infini, afin de survivre et de s’étendre sous des conditions aussi contradictoires et dans des circonstances aussi variées que possible. Il n’y a donc rien, en principe, qui puisse empècher l’islam de s’adapter et de devenir compatible avec la laïcité, l’ humanisme, la démocratie, la modernité, etc.”.

39. Religiousness as it is lived, not as it is ideologically constructed - cf. the difference between “Islam vécue”and“Islam construit”, made e.g. by Leila Babès, in her recent publication, L’Islam Intérieur, Passion et désenchantement (Beyrouth-Paris 2000).

40. Thus clearly differentiating the project from inter-faith or interreligious forms of dialogue and collaboration.

41. Notwithstanding the fact that their collaborating with “atheists” could be and actually is being used against them by their opponents within the Belgian Muslim communities.

42. The Belgian convert I referred to earlier, when speaking with me in 1994, admitted that support coming from atheists posed “a theological problem”.

43. The problem is not only a philosophical and theological one, but probably a psychological one as well. We could perhaps refer to the “law of ‘shifting’” which was discussed, among others, by Jean Piaget. See the English translation of his Judgment and Reasoning in the Child (1924), in: H.E.Gruber & J.J.Vonèche (eds.), The Essential Piaget, 1977, p. 97: “This shifting of external experience onto the verbal plane... entail(s) a whole process of relearning”.

44. In the Belgian system, non-Muslim pupils as well can, and sometimes do opt to follow the Islamic course for one year.

45. At least for the cults recognized by law, secular or laïcist humanism included. According to the law, it suffices that one parent asks for religious (or moral) education by one of the recognized cults and philosophies. In practice, though, this right is regularly denied to Muslim parents (mostly because of the lack of sufficient qualified teachers).

46. I refer more particularly to the so-called 'pacification of education' (“schoolvrede”) which was realized with the so-called “school pact”. The latter was concluded in 1958 between the three main political families (catholics, liberals and socialists) and put an end to the “school war”. The catholic Church (with its subsidized pillar of primary and secondary schools) was the main beneficiary of this new compromise.

47. The first Islamic teachers were appointed in 1976, under the (national) liberal minister of education, Herman De Croo.

48. In English translation, its name is “Association for the Education and Emancipation of Muslims” (V.O.E.M. being the acronym of its Dutch name); as such it is the only leading ‘immigrant organization’ in Flanders identifying itself explicitly as “Muslim” (not “Islamic”), thus transcending the ‘mono-ethnic’ (be it Moroccan, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, etc.) and/or mono-denominational identities of most other associations.

49. See (the English translation of) the presentation text of the VOEM, below, Appendix 1.

50. To illustrate with a concrete example what all this means in practice: during two weeks in November, the VOEM worked together with a humanist (and socialist) cultural association (the August Vermeylenfonds) in organizing an exhibition in Flanders’ most famous “artistic village”, Sint-Martens-Latem. Were involved in this manifestation (the opening reception included): (1) an Iraqi-Kurdish master-calligrapher and painter (living in Belgium as a refugee since 13 years, and belonging to a syncretistic pach, close to the Turkish Alevi, the so-called Ahl-e Haqq), (2) a Turkish expert of kelims, (3) a Turkish musician and singer, and (4) a (female) artist and teacher from Bosnia. The active core of VOEM itself mainly consists of people of Moroccan and Syrian origins.

51. Be it that education as such, appointment of teachers included, is not a federal (or national) matter, in Belgium, but belongs to the political prerogatives of the regional governments.

52. The same goes more or less for the other leading, Moroccan and Turkish cultural organizations in the Flemish region. In the French speaking community, the negative attitude of at least the trade unionist part of the Islam teachers is becoming even more virulent: last September 10, the president of the Arab section of the Christian trade union, in Brussels, publicly accused the Muslim Executive of organizing a “witch hunt” against teachers that did not “conform” from a religious, philosophical or political point of view (see the French text, below, Appendix 2).

53. The so-called ‘Muslim elections’ were held on December 13, 1998.

54. E.g. of the forty-one candidates for one of the seventeen seats in the Executive, twenty-five did not survive their ‘screening” by Belgian security services: without legal grounds, the minister of justice, Tony Van Parys, eliminated them as being “undesirable” because of supposed “fundamentalist” connections.

55. Keddie (see supra, n. 11), p. 22.

56. See supra, p. 1.

57. I.e. after its setback under the French as well as under the Dutch régimes.

58. The turning point in the “unionist” coalition of Catholics and Liberals, was the episcopate’s proclamation of January 1838, condemning (and thus excommunicating) free-masonry. 

59. See Els Witte, Documents Relatifs à la Franc-Maçonnerie Belge du XIXe siècle: 1830-1855, Louvain-Paris 1973, p. 11, quoted by Mokhtar Aziz (see n. 1), pp. 69-72.

60. A truly humanistic “pillar”, though, even slightly comparable to the Catholic one, was never realized, because of the absence of a truly secularist political party.

61. Educated in the departments of Philosophy and Moral Science of Ghent University as well as the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).

62. In the same (qualified) way, you could say, that the institutionalized religions with the secular state had to forsake the creation of a religious (be it Catholic, Islamic, etc.), theocratic state.

63. In comparison with all the other recognized cults and philosophical communities, the Catholic Church continues to enjoy excessive privileges, financially as well as institutionally. Suggestions to change this situation, are quickly condemned by catholic authorities as being a kind of anti-catholic “conspiracy”, "harassment", or an expression of “intolerance” or “revanchisme”.

64. While in 1994 the board of the HV still refused to put its signature under a pluralistic, academic manifesto that called for equal rights for Islam, at the start of 1999 it accepted to associate itself with the Ghent Centre for Islam in Europe. Some months ago, it invited Prof. Abdullahi A. An-Na’im, as a guest of honour on the 5th Humanistic Conference, with an academic lecture on “Islam and Human Rights”.

65. Which is far from being followed by all individual humanists, be it organized (in the HV or in a masonic lodge) or unorganized ones.

66. It was actually written as a letter of protest because, according to the author, the journalist would have suggested that it was not obvious for humanists to advocate the religious rights of Muslims. See below, appendix 3.

67. In Dutch: “niet-confessionele zedenleer” or “moraal”; in French: “morale laïque”.

68. The questionnaire was sent to all teachers in the 366 public secondary schools in Flanders.  183 schools responded to it. The results were processed in the study, Moslims in de les zedenleer. Vrijzinnige visies, by Martin Hendrickx, Antwerp 1996.

69. The study does not hesitate to suggest that in many cases the constitutional rights of the parents are not respected: either because of the school’s direction discouraging Muslim pupils to opt for the Islamic course or for demanding dispensation, or because the application forms are tampered with; pupils and parents are insufficiently informed; the direction refusing to appoint teachers because of their supposedly poor Dutch; as a kind of general strategy of the school’s direction in order to discourage Muslim youngsters and their parents to ask for inscription in the school, etc.

70. The dissertation was presented by Mokhtar Aziz, see n. 1.

71. Cesari (see supra, n. 3), p. 24.

72. “Secularism and fundamentalism appear to have a dialectical relationship with one another in the US and elsewhere", Keddie, o.c., p. 39 (n. 11).

73. On the occasion of the annual celebration of the Belgian royal dynasty, on November 15.


Appendix 1: the V.O.E.M.

V.O.E.M., being an association of minorities, has the following view on popular education: to give information and training; stimulate initiatives for dialogue; realize emancipatory activities; organize debates on history, identity and social changes; thematic conferences on Islam; meetings with non-Muslims; workshops and excursions; counseling adolescents; etc.

V.O.E.M. attempts to prevent prejudices by giving a clear picture of Muslims and other immigrants; it advocates a tolerant society in which all philosophies can coexist in harmony.

We pride ourselves to be the link between mosques, associations, allochtones and autochtones of all social classes and all philosophical convictions, schools, cultural and education centres, grass roots workers, youth centres, parochial and working class centres, neighbourhood councils, women’s groups, etc. V.O.E.M. is guiding Muslims through the Flemish heritage; arts and culture are our tools.


Appendix 2:

L'Exécutif des Musulmans de Belgique fait la chasse aux enseignants religieusement, philosophiquement et politiquement incorrects.

Depuis quelques mois, des rumeurs font état que l'Exécutif des Musulmans de Belgique (chef de culte) prépare une "liste noire" des enseignants à exclure de l'enseignement pour des motifs idéologiques. Pour y parvenir, l'Exécutif utilise la méthode la plus ignoble la délation. C'est ainsi que certains professeurs de religion islamique ont été avisés qu'ils font l'objet de pétitions anonymes de la part de certains parents d'élèves qui demandent leur révocation.

L'Exécutif ne fait pas droit aux enseignants concernés pour se défendre. Il leur refuse de consulter leur dossier et de vérifier l'identité des auteurs de pétitions (s'ils les ont signées). L'Exécutif ne prend pas la peine de faire une enquête auprès des directions des écoles pour s'assurer du bien-fondé des accusations. Au contraire, il se presse de sanctionner les dits enseignants sans preuves. C'est ainsi que des professeurs irréprochables sur le plan humain et professionnel (rapport des directions des écoles élogieux) se trouvent privés de leur emploi après un exercice de la profession de plusieurs années (10 ans et plus).

Face à cette situation intolérable, la Section Arabe de la CSC-Bruxelles condamne sans réserve ces pratiques dignes de l'inquisition. Elle organise aussi la riposte syndicale qui s'impose. Une réunion de crise, sous la forme d'une assemblée générale extraordinaire, aura lieu le mercredi 13/09/2000, à 14 h 30 à la rue Plétinckx, 19, 1000 Bruxelles.

Nous lançons un appel à tous les enseignants (syndiqués ou pas) de se joindre à nous pour préparer ensemble la réponse syndicale adéquate dictée par l'attitude agressive de l'Exécutif vis-à-vis des professeurs révoqués.

Pour la Section Arabe de la CSC-Bruxelles,

Salah Héraghi, président.

(10 September 2000)

Appendix 3:

Letter of the President of the Union of Humanistic Associations (UVV)

Brussels, October 26, 2000.

Dear Sir

Re: the interview with Prof.Dr.H.De Ley

I had the opportunity to listen to your interview with my Colleague H. De Ley, this morning, be it with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I am happy that this initiative comes into the media and thus attention is being paid to the problem of the discrimination of our Islamic co-citizens. In this perspective I can also appreciate that reference was made to the humanists. However, I strongly regret the way you put your question, suggesting clearly that humanists at the present time would disapprove of Islam. I contradict this most firmly. The Central Humanist Council supports the revendications of the Executive of Muslims of Belgium for obtaining equal rights with the other recognized cults. This is very logical, indeed, because the Central Humanist Council itself is for already seven years struggling for the effective implementation of its own legal recognition. I can also assure you that the co-presidents of the Central Humanist Council, viz. myself as president of the Union of Humanistic Associations, and Mr. Philippe Grollet, president of the ‘Centre d’Action Laïque’, are having very cordial bonds with Mr. Nordin Maloujahmoum, president of the Executive of Muslims of Belgium. As to our endeavour to finally replace the [Catholic] Te Deum with a common official ceremony, independent of any particular cult, Mr. Maloujahmoum agreed to put his signature under our letter to the prime minister, contrary to the heads of the other cults...

Michel Magits, President of the UVV.

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