Réflexions sur le Califat

Conférence: Violences et radicalismes au coeur de l’Islam contemporain, Inauguration du cycle “Hors le murs”, organisé par l’Université Internationale de Rabat, à la Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc, à Rabat. Avec Jean-Noel Ferrié (Sciences-Po, Rabat), Stefano Allievi (Université de Padoue), Mohamed Sghir Janjar (Fondation Abdul-Aziz), Farid El Asri (Sciences-Po, Rabat).  (ici)
Rabat, 19 Janvier 2016

Imams in Western Europe

Authority, Training and Institutional Challenges
Rome, November 5-7, 2014
LUISS Guido Carli University and John Cabot University, Rome, Italy
Stefano Allievi
Keynote Speech
“Precarious Reality, Distorted visibility: Mosques, Imams and Preachers in Italy”

Immigration, religious diversity and recognition of differences: the Italian way to multiculturalism

Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power

Volume 21, Issue 6, 2014

Special Issue: What Remains of the National Models of Integration? Ideal-typical constructions and social realities of immigrant incorporation in Europe Continua a leggere

Mosques in Western Europe

Oxford Islamic Studies online, July 2014

Stefano Allievi

Western Europe, Mosques in Continua a leggere

Avrupa’da Müslüman Öznenin Üretimi: Fikirler, Bilinçler, Örnekler

M. van Bruinessen, S. Allievi, translation of Producing Islamic Knowledge

After Oslo. Europe: the time has come to reflect

Stefano Allievi, University of Padua

Muslim communities all over Europe sighed with relief when they heard that the Norwegian massacre had not been carried out by one of their own. If that had been the case, the price to pay would have been a terrible one. Many non-Muslims also breathed their own sigh at not having to confirm their prejudice against Muslims. This reaction is disquieting in its triviality and automatism. The press in Muslim-majority countries is pointing out these inconsistancies, asking “Why is this not called Christian terrorism?” “Why are we not creating a plot theory?”

The massacres in Oslo and on the island of Utoya, carried out on July 22nd by lone killer Anders Behring Breivik, provide us with food for thought, while we wait for further facts to emerge on the case.

At the initial unfolding of the events, many Europeans believed the attack was of Islamic origin. This automatic reaction warrants reflection. As Europol data confirms every year, the attacks carried out and the acts of violence perpetrated by Islamic fanatics in Europe are a tiny percentage of the total attacks, bombs, massacres and murders that occur each year. For example, according to the 2010 report, there were 294 terrorist attacks in Europe (significantly fewer than in 2008 when in turn there were fewer than in 2007), of which 237 were carried out by separatists, 40 by the extreme left, 4 by the extreme right and 2 single issue attacks (linked to a specific local cause), 10 non-specific and only 1 (in Italy) of Islamic origin. In spite of this there were 587 arrests on terrorism charges during that same year, of which 413 were separatists, 29 were extreme left militants, 22 extreme right wing militants and 2 were single issue terrorists, 11 unspecified and 110 Islamists. There were 408 people sentenced for terrorist crimes , of which 268 were separatists, 39 extreme left militants, 1 extreme right militant, 11 unspecified and 89 Islamists [1]. This data can be interpreted in various ways. One could consider the discrepancy between the number of arrests and imprisonments of Islamists and the number of attacks carried out by Islamists, as a sign of effective prevention. This greater vigilance concerning this kind of terrorism has had a real effect, with a number of attacks in various countries prevented in locations where there would have been high numbers of victims, such as airports and other public places. One the other hand, one could see this data as the mark of selective attention and greater nervousness regarding Islamist terrorism, and perhaps an underestimation of other kinds of terrorism, such as from the extreme right.
This data cannot be blamed exclusively on the media, although the media is a phenomenal amplifier and sound box for the European fear of Islamism. These numbers should also make us seriously reflect, not only on the presence of Islam in Europe, but also on what it means to be European, and on our attitude toward Islam and Muslims [2]. Biases against Muslims in Europe can be traced back to a long campaign that precedes 9/11 and that has proved to be very effective and pervasive. The Northern League’s campaign against mosques in Italy began in 2000 [3], and even before that, Islamophobia was constructed by the Front National in France and by other political players in various countries [4]. Therefore, some prejudices are not so much a reaction to Islamic violence in the West, but rather something far more profound and ancient.
We seem unable to abandon this Pavlovian reflex in spite of frequently being proved wrong. In fact the news all too often reports on the risk of Islamic attacks that then never take place during great events, such as the Olympic Games, the G8, the Jubilee, and so on. There are occasional confirmations, but our automatic reaction never results in a debate, reflection or demands for a self-critical analysis. Shouting ‘Islamic wolf’ has enabled successful careers in journalism, the security forces, the judicial sector and, of course, in politics. Private, let alone public, apologies to Muslims for mistakes are very rare. And yet, this phenomenon has damaged the lives of thousands of Muslims, who then become the occasional victims, if not of violence, certainly of rejection, controversy and ordinary daily harassment at school, at work and on the streets.
Muslim communities all over Europe sighed with relief when they heard that the Norwegian massacre had not been carried out by one of their own. If that had been the case, the price to pay would have been a terrible one. Many non-Muslims also breathed their own sigh at not having to confirm their prejudice against Muslims. This reaction is disquieting in its triviality and automatism. The press in Muslim-majority countries is pointing out these inconsistancies, asking “Why is this not called Christian terrorism?” “Why are we not creating a plot theory?” These are questions that should be asked throughout the West as well.
We must also reflect upon Europe’s internal violence, which has been emerging in recent years. Fear of an Islamic danger has produced a crowded web of large and small political parties, groups, websites, newspapers, writers and intellectuals, competing in the easy and productive Islamophobia market at so much per kilo. This is the hornet’s nest in which the Oslo assassin dipped his hands and then drafted his extremely personal opinions and his tragic conclusions. It is no coincidence that many of these references are quoted in his memorial, and it is significant that the xenophobic and islamophobic ravings he published are filled with recurrent themes that are actually widespread among the mainstream media and extremist viewpoints in Europe. These references consist of buzzwords, quotes and even specific linguistic similarities, such as calling Europe ‘Eurabia’, a neologism invented by Bat Ye’or but brought to success by Oriana Fallaci, who was also quoted by Breivik[5].
It is obvious that it would be neither correct nor intelligent to blame on his intellectual references the responsibility and consequences of Breivik’s actions. This, as always, would be a very slippery slope. One cannot, however, ignore that on this subject there have been bad teachers (yes, precisely in the sense used in other times and other political circles for Toni Negri and others) and terrible practitioners. Some of these voices have been provided with disproportionate and uncontested space in the public debate and the media, permitted to use language that other cases would not be allowed[6]. In many political speeches, in too many newspaper articles and even in statements from religious leaders, if one replaced the word ‘Muslim’ with the word ‘Jew’, these same statements would be considered simply unutterable. The rise in xenophobic and Islamophobic political parties all over Europe proves that this is not just a question of style. There are too many misunderstandings, too many shortcuts, too much superficiality and too many mistakes. There is too little internal debate and, of course, a number of unacceptable acts of violence. But the time has come for everyone to seriously reflect on where all this is leading us.
[1] For those wishing to research the matter personally, the link so little used by journalists and self-appointed experts on Islam, is: http://www.europol.europa.eu/content/publication/te-sat-2010-eu-terrorism-situation-trend-report-671 (see in particular pages 10 and 11 as the in-depth analyses on Islamic terrorism, especially the one mentioned above from page 18 onwards).
[2] See S. Allievi, Le trappole dell’immaginario. Islam e occidente, Forum, 2007.
[3] Italian Islam’s ‘Black September’ was in 2000, when the anti-Muslim kulturkampf became apparent in various circles, such as with the publication and favourable reception and disseminating of an essay by political analyst Giovanni Sartori, entitled Pluralism, multiculturalism and foreigners, filled with inaccuracies, inconsistencies and blunders, but extremely successful. Then there was the pastoral letter from the then Cardinal of Bologna Giacomo Biffi, equally widely broadcast and debated in Catholic circles, resulting in a peculiar Catholic form of Islamophobia until then silent. And of course there was the Northern League’s political campaign, which started with the case involving the mosque in Lodi and that has never ended. On the contrary, it is in constant evolution (on the Italian case see my books Islam italiano, Einaudi, 2003, and I musulmani e la società italiana, Franco Angeli, 2009).
[4] V. Geisser, La nouvelle islamophobie, La Découverte, 2003; M. Massari, Islamofobia. La paura e l’islam, Laterza, 2006; C. Allen, Islamophobia, Ashgate, 2010.
[5] See G. Bosetti, Cattiva maestra. La rabbia di Oriana Fallaci e il suo contagio, Marsilio, 2005, and S. Allievi, Ragioni senza forza, forze senza ragione, Emi, 2004, and also Niente di personale signora Fallaci. Una trilogia alternativa, Aliberti, 2006.
[6] The case involving the Northern League’s MEP Borghezio, is paradigmatic but anything but unique. Only on this one occasion was he good-naturedly suspended by the party for three months for having made the unutterable statement that he agreed totally with the reasons and motivations, albeit not the methods, that inspired the Oslo assassin. The aforementioned Member of the European Parliament is a professional statement-maker on this subject (he effectively does practically nothing else), and is elected on the basis of these reasons. He is hero of the Northern League’s base, celebrated in Pontida, and has never been invited to use more moderate language, let alone more serious arguments.


Life with citizen Islam

Stefano Allievi says Islam has become a European fact despite its symbolic overload


Islam has become the second religion in Europe in terms of the number of followers, thus making Europe not an enemy, but an opportunity: it is the European part of the Muslim ummah. But, in recent years, European societies seems to consider Islam more a threat than an advantage. The problems European countries face is, then, to make these two tendencies meet, because both are true: the fact that millions of Muslims find in Europe a land of opportunity, and the fact that millions of Europeans, for good or bad reasons, fear Islam. Inevitably this process will pass through some kind of conflicts, some of which, particularly on symbolic terms, we have already seen in European societies, which shows that cultural conflicts are becoming the contemporary form of social conflict.

The Muslim presence in Europe constitutes, in fact, a dramatic cultural change for Western European societies, particularly for the countries that only a generation ago were still exporting labour force. Furthermore, considering the tumultuous history of relations between the Islamic world and Europe, especially across the Mediterranean, the presence of Islam in Europe represents a historic watershed. If in the past one could talk of Islam and the West, now, one can speak of Islam in the West, and eventually through the role of second and third generation of immigrants and converts, of an Islam of Europe, if not yet of a European Islam.

Islam is no longer a transitory phenomenon whose presence is only temporary and can eventually be sent back ‘home’. Nowadays, a population of about 20 million people that can be considered ‘culturally’ Muslim lives in western Europe, with no intention to go back. Among this population it is already difficult, now, and it will be even more difficult (and, in the end, a simple nonsense) in the future, to distinguish between the Muslims ‘of origin’, the ‘mixed’ populations, like the so-called second generations culturally grown up ‘between two cultures’, but also those coming from a situation of mixed marriage and the ‘autochthonous’ Muslims (which include the converts to Islam, but also naturalised people). This presence have to be considered, in perspective, the new Muslim population of Europe: European Muslims, not Muslims in Europe.

The future of this presence depends on many different factors and tendencies. But, what is absolutely clear is that between economic integration and political refusal, between tolerance and Islamophobia, between social mixing and mediatic hysteria and between demographic change and symbolic threats, Islam will find its place in Europe, because Muslims will do it too, and they are already doing it.

Minarets, mosques, but also veils and burqas, or other conflictual issues related to the presence of Islam in Europe (included on principles: from the Rushdie affair to the Danish cartoons controversy) will reveal at a certain point as being false problems. The real problem is greater than all this: it 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.

If the conflictual issues are the symptom, the illness is the Western imaginary of Islam, which, like the Islamic imaginary of the West, appears more conflictual in the recent past. If Europe wants to solve these conflicts, it has to pass through them, making the reasons of the sentiments and behaviours of significant parts of society, the fears that move them, the drives that they contain, emerge. And, Muslims in Europe need to enter into these discussions, even when put in unpleasant forms.

It will be necessary to discard the idea of Islamic ‘exceptionalism’, the presumption that Muslims are always different, that they need unique and peculiar instruments. The European approach must remain firmly anchored to the universalism that characterises the European juridical construction: to the principle that the law is the same for all, that rights are personal and inviolable, that it is not possible to do away with the principle of the universality of the law, which is at the foundation of the idea of the West, the justification of its history and its legitimate pride.

Reflection on these themes must leave the short term, the agitation of the present – a horizon that for the political entrepreneurs of fear rarely goes beyond the next elections – and enter in the perspective of the middle and long term, shifting from elections to generations. Because the new generations (second and third, and tomorrow fourth) of Muslims are already in Europe and are different from those that preceded them, from their immigrant fathers and mothers; but in the same way the new generations of Europeans are no longer people who have seen Muslims arrive from somewhere, but persons who have always been side by side with them from their birth: in the neighbourhood as at school or at work.

If policies and politics change rapidly, institutions are a guarantee of coherence and duration, or at least slower and more meditated change than that which drives social and political forces. And, despite everything, they are more solid than they seem: and, they work in the direction of integration, universalisation, 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 level. There is a common religious grammar that ends up by comprehending and recognising the religious needs of others and their meaning: praying, also in the community, fasting, having clothing codes, an idea of modesty, specific gender and sexual roles, 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. But, for this Muslims need also to understand that the idea of reciprocity, so often evoked off the point (as when a Moroccan immigrant group which wants to set up a prayer room is crushed by the reply that in Saudi Arabia you could never build a Christian church), has instead a profound and socially significant meaning, when it asks to mutually share the pain of an injustice, of a discrimination, of a religiously motivated act of violence, wherever it may take place, in Europe or in Muslim countries towards Christians or Jews.

Islam – rightly or wrongly (other diversities are often much more ‘other’) – has recently become the most extreme example of alterity and of the changes that alterity brings to European societies. These changes do not only come from Islam and Muslims. However, 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. As we have stated in the beginning, Islam has become the second religion, or the first of the non-Christian minorities, in all European countries. So, it will be impossible from now on to understand Europe without taking into consideration its Muslim component; but at the same time it will be impossible to understand Islam without taking into consideration its European and Western component. Islam has become a European fact and its internal component. And Europe an internal fact of Islam. It is not something that is going to happen in the future. It has already happened. We have to begin to understand its consequences.

Stefano Allievi is a professor of sociology at the University of Padua, Italy.


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 www.india-seminar.com