The war over mosques


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THE method of comparison is most fruitful when we want to analyze the evolution of a society, trying to understand which are the more important and significant variables to take into account. Nevertheless, in comparing the presence of Muslim minorities in Europe, and the different models of multiculturalism, all considered to be part of a common frame of liberal states, we encounter serious problems of interpretation.

For a start, though Europe is undoubtedly composed of liberal states, this common frame of founding principles and references is interpreted very differently in each country (from the constitutional foundations to the politics and policies on immigration and religious pluralism), producing many multiculturalist models, and specific ways of treating, in particular, Muslim communities, because Muslim minorities are very different in each country (ethnically, socially, culturally, and so on) and between countries.

While not focusing specifically on the different models of multiculturalism, it is clear that not only are there differences between countries but also within countries, both regional and across cities. Equally, there are often many similarities in the policies of different cities, though they belong to different countries, following different frames of interpretation, because of different legislative systems (including different ideas and practices of citizenship) and different traditions of dealing with migration and religious minorities.


To quote an example, though clearly not true anymore, it is still widely asserted that there is a French republican assimilationist model based on individual integration, a British multiculturalist model based on collective and communitarian recognition, a German model based on refusal of citizenship and the logic of Gastarbeiter, and so on. Most models have, however, changed enormously, in some cases accentuating differences, in others commonalities.

The laws on citizenship have changed several times in different countries, moving towards a more common direction – the growing influence of European normative frames, particularly on rights, is indicative; on the other hand, the politics of several countries have dramatically changed their direction (it is enough to think of the spectacular change in Dutch politics towards migration and Islam specifically). All these show that given the specific problems in each country, facing its peculiar difficulties and failures, there is an attempt to find new solutions and new directions.

Muslim minorities themselves need to be understood in the plural. There are significant differences in terms of country of origin, levels of integration or institutionalization, gender ratio, previous knowledge of the country (former colonies, common language, knowledge of history and cultural symbols), passage of generations (most countries are no longer facing the first generation of migrants, and are already witnessing the second, the third, the fourth…), and so on. They in any case also represent a new significant presence in statistical terms: there are close to 15 million Muslims in Western Europe, more than eight million Muslims in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, making for a total of more than 23 million Muslims who we could call Europeans. To these, to have a more complete picture, we might add the 76 million of Turkey, a country that has applied to join the EU (or at least the over six million of its European part) and the 20-25 million of Russia. Together, this represents a serious change in the European religious landscape.


The liberal thought and practices of Europe have been questioned from many points of view – through the fact of Muslim presence in Europe; sometimes because of problematic issues posed by Muslims themselves; but more often because of an affirmation of principles and practices towards Muslims decided by institutions, or debated in the public space by a section of European public opinion. In many countries of Europe, the emerging presence of Islam as an internal actor (in religious, social, cultural and political terms), and its increasing visibility in the public sphere (through collective activism and politics of recognition, but also through mediatization, institutionalization and incorporation), is raising new problems concerning the presence of religion in the public space.

In many cases, political parties, media, public institutions, governments – at the local, regional and national levels – and parliaments tend to give specific and contextual answers to these problems, finding specific solutions, even when the issues raised, if correctly interpreted, can be compared with and are comparable to the issues raised by other religious (and even non-religious) groups. We might define this tendency as exceptionalism, that is a tendency to see Islam and Muslims as representing an exceptional rather than standard case, one that does not fall within the cases relating to religious pluralism, and therefore requiring specific bodies, actions and specific targeted reactions unlike those used for other groups and other religious minorities.

Examples of exceptionalism include the forms of representation of Islam in various European countries, which not only vary from case to case but also differ with respect to the recognized practices of relations between states and religious denominations in general. Other cases concern the promulgation of laws banning specific dress (such as various forms of hijab, niqab and burqa: even if such laws are often masked in a way that they do not seem specifically related only to Muslims, though applied only or mainly to them) or buildings (minarets in some regions of Austria – Carinthia and Vorarlberg – and Switzerland), or the introduction of specific questions or conditions when applying for citizenship or other types of permits.


Forms of exceptionalism from a legal, political and social perspective are, however, present in many other fields, in line with a pervasive trend affecting countries with the widest range of state structures, a trend that appears to be becoming stronger. They even include, in some countries, the language used about Islam and Muslims (and the existence and success of a specific literature), and the setting up and increasing impact of political parties for whom the presence of Islam and Muslims in Europe is becoming a central focus of their agenda.

Sometimes exceptionalism takes a ‘positive’ and inclusive rather than a negative and exclusive form (even though theoretically it is equally problematic): allowing specific dress codes or behaviour (for example, in swimming pools for Muslim women), or other similar cases, particularly in the judicial field, concerning family laws.

These politics and policies concerning Islam and Muslims often contradict the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of religious communities constitutionally proclaimed and enshrined for other denominations and religious minorities. And their base and conceptual foundation is not equality of treatment or freedom, including religious freedom: exceptionalism seems to be constructed in these cases as a (problematic) third way between a universalistic application of principles and norms and the cultural rejection of a specific actor. The example of mosques and mosque related conflicts demonstrates this clearly.


Mosques represent a way for Islam to leave the private sphere and to officially enter the public sphere. Conflicts about them can rely on ‘real’ or supposedly real reasons, such as a fall in the value of property, fear of increased traffic, parking problems, fear of invasion of public spaces (courtyards, parks, playgrounds), or other supposed social priorities in the area. But far more often, they are connected to ‘cultural’ reasons such as foreignness of Islam to ‘our’ culture, defence of women’s rights, reciprocity, ‘non-integrability’ and/or incompatibility of Islam with Western/European/Christian values and so on.

While reasons of the first kind may be (but often are not) empirically based, and as such may be constructed discursively, those of the second kind serve to justify a Kulturkampf whose objective is no longer the mosque as such – which becomes a symbol to be targeted – but Islam itself, portrayed as a different and foreign religion, ‘alien’ and incompatible with democracy, the West, liberalism, Christianity or ‘our traditions’, according to the context.

Of course, the two sets of reasons often overlap and reinforce each other. Some forms of conflict could actually be interpreted using the tools of ethology and sociobiology, rather than those of anthropology and sociology, still less of urban planning. Examples include forms of imprinting on an area, such as the spreading of pig urine, or the placing of pigs heads or spilling of blood, using primitive proprietary dynamics of privatization, passing through the logics of sacralization and desacralization of space.


As a more general question of mosques, one should also note the spread of a vocabulary that refers to contamination, pollution and precautionary measures (used explicitly, with reference to mosques, by various anti-Islamic groups), as well as a return of the categories of purity and contagion in the cultural and political debate. Further reflection is needed here, recalling the historical precedents of the use of this kind of language and interpretation, and the risk that tragic ghosts of the past may reappear.

Most conflicts over mosques in Europe are concerned with, either primarily or marginally, the question of the minaret, its height, or its very existence. The minaret appears to have become a symbol par excellence of the conflict surrounding Islam, or rather of its visibility in the public space. The case of the Swiss referendum against minarets (November 2009) represents a sensational demonstration of this tendency. This issue was not only an internal Swiss question, as most observers imagine. It is likely that in other areas of Europe, a similar referendum would have produced similar results, as many polls have showed.


Having said this, the Swiss referendum highlights the emergence of a significant and paradoxical element which merits further reflection. Few people have noticed the fact, only apparently contradictory, that in three of the four cities where minarets, and their corresponding mosques, actually exist, and have existed for a long time, and where the Islamic presence is greatest, the referendum was unsuccessful. The highest percentage of votes favourable to the referendum was obtained in internal Appenzell, where the Muslim presence is minuscule if not nonexistent.

To state more sharply, we can synthesize as follows: where there are no minarets, and possibly not even Muslims, fear forces people to banish the first and fear the others; where they exist and may even be visible, there is far less fear. Obviously, this does not mean that the more you know Muslims, the more you must like them, or at least not fear them, but it does mean that in places experiencing natural dynamics of encounter and confrontation, as well as concrete intercultural policies, long-term trends of integration are activated, whose effects are visible. This seems to suggest that more than the dynamics of the presence, it is the process of visibilization of Islam in the European public space which is the real problem.


The conflicts over mosques and minarets are obviously the outcome of a more general climate around Islam and attitudes towards Muslims in Europe. They immediately reveal whether we are in a situation of normality and thus experiencing a relatively linear process of integration, or whether there are important signs of suspicion and distrust, if not of real Islamophobia. If Islamophobia is the fever, the conflicts over mosques become an excellent thermometer to measure its level.

But, the fever is not the illness, only a symptom of it, which leads us to inquire into its origins. Explanations can be found at various levels of complexity. A first level is the simple application to mosques of the classic ‘Nimby’ (Not in my backyard) syndrome, which we can summarize as a theoretical acceptance of the principle but not of the practice. This level explains a part of the conflicts over mosques, and pertains more to the reasons declared than the real motivations. More subtle and more problematic to understand is the complex mechanism of ‘reactive identities’: identities that are created in reaction and in opposition to another identity – whether this other identity is real or, more often, only an imaginary, culturally constructed one. Characteristic of such identities – which involve both autochthonous populations and immigrant communities – is the over-determination or over-semanticization of cultural elements.

Minarets/mosques, but also veils and burqas, when analyzed in-depth, all begin to seem false problems. The real problem is the relationship of Europe with Islam, on one hand, and the relationship that the Muslims have with Europe and the West, on the other (that which they have, and that which we imagine they have).

Mosques and minarets end up looking more like a discursive substitute: a transitional object, to state in psychoanalytic terms. Mosques are the symptom; the illness is Islam, or rather the West’s imaginary of Islam which, like the Islamic imaginary of the West, appears more and more conflictual. But the phenomenon is more complicated, and does not follow a single direction.


On one side we can observe long-term trends that reflect greater integration and inclusion: constitutions, the system of jurisdictional safeguards, as also consolidated institutions like schools which have a greater stability and a strength than the changing trends of politics. Unlike policies and politics which change rapidly, institutions are a guarantee of coherence and durability, or at least of a slower and more meditated change than the one pushed by public opinion. And despite everything, they work in the direction of integration, the extension of rights and their consolidation, and not in the direction of cultural opposition and social conflict.

This process is also taking place on the religious plane. There are strong differences between religious communities (even though one can argue that those inside the various religions are even stronger, particularly in respect to the way of approaching religious alterity and practising inter-religious relations). But there is also a common religious grammar that ends up by comprehending and recognizing the religious practices of others and the meaning they have for the believers – praying, including in the community, fasting, clothing codes, an idea of modesty, sexual and gender terms of reference, the sense of pure and impure…). In this lies the possibility of obtaining recognition and building alliances, and constructing relations of trust and confidence.

On the other hand there is the cultural conflict about Islam and the debates in the public sphere, more specifically their political instrumentalization, that often favours exclusion, separation, differentiation, selective application of law, targeting Islam not only in policies but also in normative terms. An example that is particularly problematic in terms of principle is the request, often advanced in the case of conflicts about mosques, to involve the local population in a referendum. Like the Swiss national referendum mentioned earlier, these requests raise important and problematic issues.


There are two ways of thinking about democracy: one that emphasizes the role of the popular will (traditionally, it was more the left, but today it is more the right-wing that sustains this vision); the other that, while recognizing the role of the popular will, reminds us that it has to express itself within limits and guarantees that are precise and insuperable.

Any referendum is democratic if and only if it is founded on, and does not place itself against, the democratic principles guaranteed by the constitution. Otherwise it becomes the most illiberal and anti-democratic weapon that exists. Unsurprisingly, most countries exercise a filter of constitutional legitimacy prior to even considering whether a referendum proposal is in itself admissible. Within such a frame, a referendum to ask citizens if they agree to the building of a mosque is unconstitutional. Moreover, to let citizens believe that they have the right to decide on the fundamental rights of other citizens can result in injecting a dangerous poison into society as a whole. It is, in a democracy, antithetical for the majority to decide on the rights of the minority, because it is precisely on the protection of these (minority) rights that a democracy is founded. In this sense the agitation of the political entrepreneurs of Islamophobia is purely instrumental; the problem is that this instrumentalization is often successful.

We previously described mosques and minarets as transitional objects, symbolic of a principal object, which is Islam. This is only the first half of the argument. The second is that Islam too is in turn a transitional object which represents and signifies the pluralization of society, and in particular, religious pluralism. Islam has become the discursive substitute for important changes in society which are not generically tied to religious pluralism as such. In concrete terms they concern gender roles, clothing codes, family models, parental authority, ideas of modesty, purity – sacredness issues related to the relationship between religion and politics, religion and democracy, religion and state. In secularized societies it has become increasingly difficult to discuss such concerns in religious terms, and this is what cultural and religious pluralism is bringing into the limelight.

Islam – rightly or wrongly – has thus become the most extreme example of alterity and the changes that alterity brings to our societies because of its symbolic overload and the problematic history that joins it to Europe, as also because of the striking and formidable aspects of some of its contemporary manifestations (among which the emergence of transnational Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism). Finally, because of the significant statistical dimension of its presence, Islam today is at the centre of the political and social debate in Europe. And it will be there for a long time.


* Some reflections on the Islamic presence in Europe, multiculturalism and cultural conflict that constitute the starting point of the reflections presented in this article, have featured in some of my previous essays. ‘Conflicts, Cultures and Religions: Islam in Europe as a Sign and Symbol of Change in European Societies’, in Yearbook on Sociology of Islam, n.3, pp.18-27, 2006 and Multiculturalism in Italy: The Missing Model, in A. Silj (ed.), European Multiculturalism Revisited, Zed Books, London, 2009, pp. 147-180. On Islam in Europe, see B. Maréchal, S. Allievi, F. Dassetto and J.S. Nielsen (eds.), Muslims in the Enlarged Europe: Religion and Society, Brill, Leiden, 2003; S. Allievi and J.S. Nielsen (eds.), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and Across Europe, Brill, Leiden; and more recently M. Van Bruinessen and S. Allievi (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe, Routledge, London, 2010. Specifically on mosques and mosque related issues, see Conflicts over Mosques in Europe. Policy Issues and Trends, 2009, and S. Allievi (ed.), Mosques of Europe. Why a Solution Has Become a Problem. Alliance Publishing Trust/Network of European Foundations, London, 2010.