The War over Mosques




The method of comparison is among the most fruitful when we want to analyze the evolutions of a society, trying to understand which are the more important and really significant variables to take into account.

Nevertheless, when we compare 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 face serious problems of interpretation.

First of all, because Europe is undoubtedly composed of liberal states: but 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, also because Muslim minorities are very different in each country (ethnically, socially, culturally, etc.) and between countries.

We will not focus here specifically on the different models of multiculturalism, but it is very clear and evident, when doing empirical research, that there are not only differences depending from one country to another; to complicate further the analysis, differences are also internal to countries, following regional specificities, and also city by city. And, on the contrary, there are often many similarities in the policies of different cities, despite the fact that they belong to different countries, and consequently to different frames of interpretation, to different legislative systems (included different ideas and practices of citizenship), to different traditions of dealing with migrations, with religious minorities, etc.

To quote but an example, it is no more true what is still often repeated: 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’, etc. Most models have changed enormously, in some cases accentuating differences, in others commonalities. The laws on citizenship has changed several times in different countries, going towards a more common direction, the influence of European normative frames particularly on rights shows its strength in the same way; on the other hand the politics of several countries has changed dramatically their direction (it is enough to think to the spectacular change in Dutch politics towards migrations and Islam specifically). All these changes show that, given the specific problems in each countries, all of them facing peculiar difficulties and failures, there is an attempt to find new solutions and new directions, mostly searching an answer day by day, without a clear path or model to follow, also due to the rapid changes in the political landscape.

Muslim minorities themselves need to be understood in the plural. There are significant differences in terms of country of origin, in terms of level of integration, in terms of level of institutionalisation, in terms of gender ratio, in terms of previous knowledge of the country (former colonies, common language, knowledge of history and cultural symbols), in terms of passage of generations (most countries are not facing anymore the first generation of migrants, and are already witnessing the second, the third, the fourth…). They represent in any case a new significant presence, also in statistical terms: close to 15 millions Muslims in Western Europe, more than 8 million Muslims in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, for a total of more than 23 millions Muslims who we could call Europeans. To these, to have a really complete picture, we might add the 76.000.000 of Turkey, a country that has applied to join the EU (or at least the over 6.000,000 of its European part) and the 20-25.000.000 of Russia. Clearly a serious change in the European religious landscape.

Liberalism in question. Exceptionalism and the case of mosques in Europe

The liberal thought and practices of Europe are questioned from many points of view, through the Muslims’ presence in Europe. Sometimes, as a consequences of problematic issues posed by Muslims themselves; more often because of affirmations of principles and practices towards Muslims decided by institutions, or debated in the public space by part of the 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 entrance and 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. To these problems, in many cases, political parties, media, public institutions, governments – at the local, regional and national level – and parliaments tend to give specific and contextual answers, finding specific solutions, even when the issues raised, if correctly interpreted, could be compared and comparable to the issues raised by other religious (and even non religious) groups. We might define this tendency as exceptionalism, that is to say a tendency to see Islam and Muslims as 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 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 approval of laws banning specific dresses (such as various forms of hijab, niqab and burqa: even if often such laws are masked in a way that they do not seem specifically related only to Muslims, even when they are 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 kind of permits.

Forms of exceptionalism from a legal, political and social perspective, are, however, present in many other fields, following a pervasive trend, affecting countries with the widest range of State structures, and that appears to be in a phase of further growth: they even include, in some countries, the language used about Islam and Muslims (and the existence and success of a specific literature), and the creation and increasing impact of political parties for which the presence of Islam and Muslims in Europe is becoming a central point of their agenda.

Sometimes exceptionalism has a ‘positive’ and inclusive instead than a negative and exclusive form (even though theoretically it is equally problematic): allowing specific dress codes or behaviors (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 proclaimed and enshrined for other denominations and religious minorities. And their base and conceptual foundation is not equality of treatment or freedom, included 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 is very clear from this point of view.

Symbolism and territory: mosques as a visible dimension

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 supposed other social priorities in the area; but 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, etc. 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, 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 those 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 the 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 re-appear.

Most conflicts over mosques in Europe include, 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) has been a sensational demonstration of this. This issue was not however only an internal Swiss question, as most observers have preferred to imagine. It is in fact probable that in other areas of Europe, similar referendum would have produced similar results, as many polls have showed.

Having said this, the Swiss referendum made a significant and paradoxical element emerge, 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, really exist, and have existed for a long time, and where the Islamic presence is greatest, the referendum was unsuccessful. While the highest percentage of votes favourable to the referendum was obtained in internal Appenzell, were the Muslim presence is insignificant if not inexistent. Translating into minimal terms and deliberately stating this double tendency in extreme terms, 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 are even visible, there is much less fear. This does not mean obviously that the more you know Muslims the more you must like them, or at least not fear them; but it does mean that in these same places where there are natural dynamics of encounter and confrontation, long-term trends of integration are activated, as well as concrete intercultural policies, which have their effects. A fact that is a good indicator of the dynamics of the presence (which is less of a problem) and the processes of visibilization (which are the real problem) of Islam in the European public space.

Rejection of Islam and Islamophobia

The conflicts over mosques and minarets are obviously the result of the more general climate around Islam and attitudes towards Muslims in Europe. They immediately reveal if we are in a situation of normality and so inside a relatively linear process of integration, or on the contrary if there are important signs at least 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.

Now, the fever is not the illness, but 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 back yard) syndrome, which we can summarise as a theoretical acceptance of the principle but not of the place. This level explains a part, but only one part, of the conflicts over mosques: and pertains more to the reasons declared than to the real motivations. More subtle, more problematic to reflect over a more 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 – are, among others, the over-determination or over-semanticization of cultural elements.

Minarets, mosques, but also veils and burqas, all begin to seem when we analyse them more in depth, 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 by looking more like a discoursive substitute: a transitional object, to say it 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 complicate, and does not follow a single direction.

On one side we can observe long-term trends that go in the direction of integration and inclusion: constitutions, the system of jurisdictional safeguards, but also consolidated institutions like schools have a stability and a strength greater than the changing trends of politics. If policies and politics change rapidly, institutions are a guarantee of coherence and duration, or at least slower and more meditated change than the one pushed by public opinions. And despite everything, they work in the direction of integration, the extension of rights, and their consolidation, not in the direction of cultural opposition and social conflict. This process is also taking place on the religious plane. There are strong oppositions between religious communities (even though we have the sensation that those inside the various religions are even stronger, 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 needs of others and their meaning: praying, also in the community, fasting, having clothing codes, an idea of modesty, roles also sexual and gender of reference, the sense of pure and impure…). In this there is 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, and their political instrumentalisation, that often goes in the direction of exclusion, separation, differentiation, selective application of law, targeting Islam in policies but also – what is more problematic – 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 we already mentioned, 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 was more the left, but today it is more the right wing that sustain this vision), the other that while recognizing the role of the popular will (as if it could be ignored) remembers that it has to express itself within limits and guarantees that are precise and insuperable.

Any referendum is democratic precisely if and only if it is founded on, and does not place itself against, the democratic principles guaranteed by constitutions. Otherwise it becomes the most illiberal and anti-democratic weapon that exists. Not by chance in many countries there exists a control of constitutional legitimacy before considering if a referendum issue is admissible. On the basis of those principles, referendums to ask citizens if they agree to the building of a mosque are unconstitutional. And to let citizens believe that they have the right to decide on the fundamental rights of other citizens means instilling a very dangerous poison into society as a whole. It is not possible in democracies for the majority to decide on the rights of the minority, because it is precisely on the protection of these rights that democracies are founded. In this sense the agitation of the political entrepreneurs of Islamophobia is purely instrumental; but the problem is that this instrumentalization works.


We described previously mosques and minarets as transitional objects, symbolical of a principal object, which is Islam. This is only the first half of the argument, the most immediate. The second is that Islam is in its turn a transitional object: which represents and signifies the pluralisation of society, and in particular, religious pluralism. Islam has become the discoursive substitute for important changes in society, which are not tied generically to religious pluralism as such: in concrete terms they are called gender roles, clothing codes, family models, parental authority, ideas of modesty, purity, sacredness, as far as the relationship between religion and politics, religion and democracy, religion and state. Subjects that in secularised societies it has become more difficult to discuss (also) in religious terms: and that cultural and religious pluralism are bringing into the limelight.

Islam – rightly or wrongly (other diversities are often much more ‘other’) – has thus become the most extreme example of alterity and the changes that alterity brings to our societies. Islam, because of its symbolic overload and the problematic history that joins it to Europe, because of the striking and formidable aspect of some of its contemporary manifestations (among which obviously the emergence of transnational Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism), but also because of the significant statistical dimension of its presence, is inevitably 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, has been proposed in some of my previous essays, among which 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”, London, Zed Books, 2009, pp. 147-180. On Islam in Europe see Maréchal B., Allievi S., Dassetto F. and Nielsen J.S. (eds.), Muslims in the Enlarged Europe. Religion and Society, Leiden, Brill, 2003; Allievi S. and Nielsen J.S. (eds.), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe, Leiden, Brill; and more recently Van Bruinessen M. and Allievi S. (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge. Transmission and dissemination in Western Europe, London, Routledge, 2010. Specifically on mosques and mosque related issues see Conflicts over Mosques in Europe. Policy issues and trends, 2009, and Allievi S. (ed.), Mosques of Europe. Why a solution has become a problem, 2010, both London, Alliance Publishing Trust / Network of European Foundations.

Allievi S. (2011), The War over Mosques, in “Seminar”, n. 621, maggio 2011, pp. 23-27