by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 11
November 2020

The EU must not interfere in religion

Who decides the content of your faith?
by Peter Franklin
An Imam reads a poem during Friday prayers in France. Credit: Getty

You’ll never guess what Trump’s done now. With his time in office fast running out, he’s announced the creation of an “institute” for the training of Muslim clerics.

“It is important to be firm about this,” he said at a special press conference: “I think, for example, that we should have debates at the [federal] level in connection with the idea that was raised some time ago of setting up an American institute for the training of imams, to ensure that this message of tolerance and openness can be conveyed…”

Unsurprisingly, the President’s words were met with deep concern — or, at least, they would have been had Trump actually said them. But he didn’t. In reality, they were uttered, almost verbatim, by another president — namely, Charles Michel, President of the European Council (who called for a “European institute”, not an American one). His remarks, though widely reported, have provoked little controversy, which is odd because the implications are disturbing.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the principle of counter-radicalisation. In particular, providing information and support to imams worried about radicalisation in their communities is a necessary step. But why the focus on imams alone? Other influential figures like teachers or local politicians would also find such a resource useful.

When Michel talks specifically about the “training of imams” the impression given is that the institute would be training people to become imams. In other words, it would be operating as the Muslim equivalent of a seminary (though note that in Sunni Islam the concept of an imam is not identical to that of a Christian priest).

If that’s what Michel meant, we should be concerned. It is not the place of a democratic state — or a supranational authority like the European Union — to take a commanding role in the running of any religion. It’s true that history has bequeathed us various anomalies, like the sovereign status of the Vatican City or the privileged position of the Church of England in the British constitution. However, there’s a world of difference between those curiosities and governments having a “religion policy”.

Whether achieved through formal separation of church and state, as in the United States, or some other settlement, the fact of the state having no further policy on religion is an important marker of authentic pluralism.

Needless to say, it is the duty of a government to uphold the law. It is entitled to take resolute action against any movement, religious or secular, that seeks to subvert it. Other than that, though, the state should mind its own business — and certainly not seek to impose a belief system of its own.

We shouldn’t imagine that any such EU initiative would remain confined to Islam. It wouldn’t be long before the calls came to enforce “tolerance and openness” on other faiths too. Just as China has state-controlled umbrella bodies for each of its five official religions, Europe would extend its own regulatory structures — because anything else would be discriminatory.

EU religion policy would be less oppressive than China’s — but nevertheless there would be one. Best not to cross that line at all.

Join the discussion

  • It’s tricky. I’d agree if we were just talking about a normal religion, but we’re talking here about a neo-fascist politico-religious philosophy, propagated by many imams (and others), who inspire their followers with depressing frequency to commit unspeakable atrocities. No state (or political union) should seek to have a role in the training of clergy, but the state can and should take action against incitement to crime. This should certainly include closing mosques and deporting imams. I suppose an analogy could be made with the threat posed to the British state by Jesuit priests in the late C16 and C17. Then the remedy was more straightforward – hanging, drawing and quartering. I don’t think the EU is suggesting that, yet.

  • ‘Moderate’ Muslims always point to a ‘perverted interpretation’ of their texts as the reason for the atrocities carried out under the banner of Islam, but have utterly failed to provide the ‘correct’ interpretation which would avoid such ‘perversion’. It’s therefore fully justified for governments to do their job for them, and remove those parts of their texts and teaching which would, if they weren’t protected by the fig leaf of ‘religion’, be classified as hate crimes.

  • “EU religion policy would be less oppressive than China’s” until it suited its purpose to be even more oppressive.

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