Who decides the content of your faith?
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.