Humanists and Muslims in Belgian Secular Society
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;
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.
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".
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" .
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".
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" .
As for Belgium, "Migration History and Social
Mobility" (MHSM) surveys have been conducted some years ago among Turkish
and Moroccan men. The results provide "the
first nationally representative picture of religious practice and Islamic
affiliations". 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.
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".
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".
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. 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, 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".
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.
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:
"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
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" .
In the publications of other contemporary sociologists of religion as well
we are confronted with expressions like the "secularization myth", "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:
"secularism is understood either  as an
anti-religious or post-religious ideology;  as a specific Western-Christian
form of organizing the relationship between state and religion;  as
an attempt of control by the state of religious communities; or  as
an expression of respect for the human rights’ principle of freedom of
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. 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,
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, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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" .
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. 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
-, this continuing debate that Muslims are being subjected to is quite
understandably protested against, as being a kind of discrimination in
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":
"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
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
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"
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, or the well-known
verses confirming that "there is no compulsion in religion") - nor
from a historicizing point of view.
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. 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
and also, as a dynamic and living faith, to adapt itself to the most diverse
cultural, political and social circumstances.
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 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,
and (2) that our Muslim partners not only accepted this fact, but that
they regularly recognize it publicly as well.
However, what has nót been done till now,
is discussing this collaboration from a philosophical and theological point
of view: 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.
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).
Religious education in public schools,
indeed, is an ideological corner-stone of the post-war ‘Belgian system’.
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.
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.. From
the very beginning this association made a stand for a pluralistic, open
society. Collaboration with the other
religious communities (Catholics, Protestants and Jews) as well as with
humanistic organizations is very close.
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, one could describe
it as being somewhat aloof.
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.
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.
This fact clearly confirms Nikki Keddie’s statement,
"that government secularization policies often
ping about anti-secular reactions, especially among certain classes and
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'.
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; some years later,
the threat that was seemingly posed to that position by Belgian freemasonry,
led to a vigorous, clerical reaction.
As a consequence, the secularist or laïcist movement was pushed into a
radically anti-clerical, anti-religious and finally atheistic direction.
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. 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
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,
organized humanism is concentrating its efforts on the defense of democratic
pluralism and equal rights for all philosophical communities,
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.
Illustrative for this new attitude
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" .
5.2. Finally, let me return once more to
the course of ‘lay morality’, 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.
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; 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.
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:
"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’),
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Intérieur, Passion et désenchantement (Beyrouth-Paris
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
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,
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),
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),
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
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”
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
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),
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
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.
L'Exécutif des Musulmans de Belgique
fait la chasse aux enseignants religieusement, philosophiquement et politiquement
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)
Letter of the President of the Union of Humanistic
Brussels, October 26, 2000.
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.