Islam, states, courts, and the acceleration of secularization in Europe

In a European environment in which Christianity is still present, but where the historical churches have lost their former strength as well as a growing share of young people, decisions by courts and states are contributing to the speed of secularization, writes Olivier Roy in a recent issue of the French monthly Esprit (November) devoted to the decline of Christianity in Europe. Roy identifies two trends in legal and judicial decisions across Europe pertaining to religion. On the one hand, there are attempts to create rules for controlling Islam, but they bring consequences for all religions—e.g., as they concern religious signs in public space. On the other hand, there are attempts to affirm a Christian cultural identity in Europe—e.g., to establish Christian symbols in state buildings in Bavaria or ban the building of minarets in Switzerland.

Such moves have to find ways to respect the principles of religious freedom. As Roy remarks, this does not require that they put all religions on an equal footing, but it is mandatory for states and courts to abstain from judging beliefs. Either one has to claim that a ban has nothing to do with religion but only with issues of public safety (e.g., a ban on burqas/niqabs would be justified by their masking effects), or that it applies to all religions equally, effectively moving them out of the public square (e.g., the French ban on all “ostentatious religious signs” in schools in order to prevent girls from wearing an Islamic veil).

Roy goes on to examine current or recent debates and court cases on banning circumcision, Jewish or Muslim slaughtering of animals, blasphemy, and clergy immunity. For instance, arguments against circumcision for non-medical reasons have not only been about respecting a child’s bodily integrity, but also not limiting his freedom of religious choice through the procedure—implying a view that religion is an individual, optional choice, free from tradition and community. A French company was condemned in 2005 for an advertising parody of da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” not because it offended God, but because it had created suffering for Catholic believers—a response that no longer has to do with the sacred, but with reducing harm and damages. Roy concludes that there is a trend of decisions that actually negate what religions really are and ultimately contribute to the secularization of European societies.

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