Dismantling the “Islam State”?

20/06/2013, Rome

Muslim communities in Europe retain importance and influence in their home countries and their own experiences in the West have in turn seeped back to influence developments in the Muslim world, including the Arab Spring. This statement was given by Jonathan Laurence, an associate professor of political science at Boston University and a scholar of Islam in the West, as well as an expert in European politics and transatlantic relations.

Laurence was speaking at a seminar entitled "Dismantling the Islam State? Religion and State institutions in 21st-Century Europe and the Muslim World” organised and hosted at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome on 20 June. Cesare Merlini, chairman of the Board of Trustees at IAI, welcomed participants and moderated the debate.

The integration of Muslim communities in Western Europe is one of the most controversial issues in the debate on immigration. Muslims immigrants account for 16.5 million of the 1.5 billion immigrants worldwide (around 1% of the total). Over time, several European governments implemented different strategies to deal with Muslim communities in their countries and foster co-existence and respect for democratic values, human rights and religious freedoms.

Laurence asked himself, what balance has been found to strengthen co-habitation? What are the interactions between Muslim immigrants and their countries of origin? What are the repercussions of integration in Europe in their home countries?

From 1998 to 2011, Laurence has studied the relationship between the state and Islam in the West, doing comparative research in four European countries: Britain, France, Germany and Italy, which receive the largest numbers of Muslim immigrants. His analysis gave rise to the book 'The Emancipation of Europe's Muslims. The State's role in minority integration', published in 2012 by Princeton University Press.

At IAI, Laurence highlighted how the attitudes of European governments towards Muslim integration and their organizations in public life has evolved over time. Until the 90’s, European governments had left questions concerning Muslim religious practice (such as the construction of Mosques or the training of Imams) to the embassies of their home countries. This system of 'outsourcing', however, has proven ineffective both in terms of integration and supervision.

To respond to growing tensions in the post-9/11 world, European governments have taken a different approach by implementing several measures (such as the creation of an Islamic council in the state, or other representative bodies) to tie the Muslim community to the institutional, political and cultural fabric of European democracies. For Laurence, reconciling Islamic and European interpretations of the relationship between state and religion and setting up formal channels for dialogue separate from those occurring between host and home countries is a promising start that one hopes will lead to a form of "European Islam". The European Muslim community is not an obstacle, but a motor for democracy and greater understanding between Islam and the West.

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