Islamic Religious Education in Europe: Introduction

Bill Gent and Leni Franken

With Fear and Trembling

It could be said, transposing the well-known concept “mysterium tremendum et fascinens” coined by the German scholar Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), that the fields of both education and religion have the capacity to evince both trepidation and fascination from those who set foot on their respective territories. Regarding the former, you have only to consult any collection of sayings and quotations to be reminded of how many ways there are of explaining either the purpose or the nature of education. And as for religion, many of those who have reflected on the nature of religion both in history and within the lives of societies and individuals would agree with the statement of Jonathan Sacks, the one-time chief rabbi of the United Congregations of the British Commonwealth, that “Religion is like fire: it warms but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame”.1

In short, both education and religion are areas of contention, and this is not alleviated when they are combined in “religious education” (RE). There is, indeed, a wonderful apocryphal story which is sometimes told to illustrate just how daunting the field of RE can appear to be, particularly for those in power whose lot it is to make key decisions - political and educational - about this hybrid field of endeavour. The story begins with the appointment of a new Minister of Education who, wishing to get up to date with recent developments in the state school curriculum, decides to visit the chief adviser at the Education Department for a briefing. The minister arrives to keep the appointment to find that the chief adviser has prepared by rolling out a large antique-style map on her desk. Then, very skilfully, she points to the various landmasses on the map and compares them to the various subjects of the curriculum ... science, modern languages, history, and so on. The minister finds this helpful, and says so, but then suddenly remembers that one curriculum area has been missed out. So, she enquires, “And where do we find religious education?” The chief adviser looks rather nervous as she points her quivering index finger to the very edge of the map and reads out the words scribed there: “And here lie dragons”.

The European Religious Education Scene

Given all that can be said about the contentious and politically sensitive nature of RE, and taking into account the distinctive history and character of each nation-state, there is nevertheless evidence to show that, across Europe as a whole, there has been substantial recent activity relating to the field of RE. This can be illustrated by reference to examples drawn from several distinctive but interrelated areas of RE activity.

European Religious Education Projects

First, there have been a number of RE-related pan-European projects that have drawn in both material and personnel from across a range of European nations. The most well-known project is probably the REDCo project,2 which was a European comparative research project in eight countries that aimed at establishing young people’s views on religion in education and its contributions both to dialogue and to conflict in the process of transforming European societies. After this project, cooperation was continued in the established REDCo network and, in 2012, the follow-up study REDCo II was conducted. Due to its pan-European and innovative character, REDCo was - and still is - a very successful project, putting (comparative) RE research visibly on the map.

Also noteworthy is the Religion and Democracy in Europe initiative, which was supported by the Network of European Foundations (NEF). The project focused on the relation between religion and democracy in European societies and aimed “to open up and contribute to the public debate on issues of strategic importance for the future of European societies” (Pepin, 2009, 6). One of these specific issues was religious education and, in 2009, a report on this topic, Teaching about Religions in European School Systems. Policy Issues and Trends (cf. infra) was published.

Another good example is the Religious Education at Schools in Europe project (REL-EDU),3 which is a joint research project between the Protestant and the Catholic religious pedagogical departments at the University of Vienna, aiming to provide comprehensive accounts and analysis of the range of RE practice found across Europe. Thirteen agreed themes provide a common framework, and six volumes have been published for Vienna University Press by V&R (covering Central Europe, Western Europe, Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Southeastern Europe, and Eastern Europe.

Religious Education Networks

Second, there is the work of many RE-related organisations that encourage the collaboration of colleagues from across Europe. Well-known examples in the field of RE are the International Seminar on Religious

Education and Values (ISREV),4 the Nordic Conference on Religious Education (NCRE), and the EASR Working Group on Religion in Public Education.-’ In addition, an increasing number of sessions on RE have been organised by European scholars at the annual EASR conferences, but also at other international conferences such as IAHR (International Association for the History of Religion) and /.S.S7? (International Society for the Sociology of Religion).

Religious Education Publications

In addition, major academic journals include material relating to religious studies and/or RE across Europe. Well-established examples in Europe are the BritishJournal of Religious Education (BJRE),6 the Journal of Beliefs Values: Studies in Religion and Education (JBV)1 and the Zeitschrift für Pädagogik und Theologie (ZPT).8 Besides, non-European academic journals on RE, such as Religion and Education? Journal of Religious Education,'0 and Religious Education" also have several European RE scholars on their editorial boards and publish many articles and reviews focusing on the European RE scene. Moreover, attention is often given to RE-related matters in journals that are not specifically dedicated to RE. Examples include: from the field of religious studies, Numen,'2 Religion,'3 Religions,'4 Journalfor the Scientific Study of Religion' 5; from the field of law, Religion and Human Rights"’; and from the field of education, Educational Review.'1

This academic output on RE is, however, not limited to journals. There is also a significant number of books and book series with a distinctively RE focus that have been published by teams of scholars of RE drawn from across Europe. The Vienna University Press series on RE in Europe has already been mentioned, and also the REDCo project, which resulted in many books (monographs and edited volumes), mainly published by Waxmann. In addition, an increasing number of academic publishers such as Springer and Routledge cover RE in individual books and book series, such as the present series Routledge Research in Religion and Education. Among these series and books, the number of publications focusing on Islamic religious education (IRE) over the past decades has also been growing.

Religious Education Guidelines

As if the attempt over recent decades to note, record, and disseminate thinking and activities relating to RE across Europe and beyond were not enough, there has also been a most impressive - and courageous, some might say - attempt to shape the nature of RE (particularly underlying principles) and its future development across Europe. The Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools,'8 published under the twin imprimaturs of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in 2007, was grounded upon two core principles: that there is positive value in teaching that emphasises respect for everyone’s right to freedom of religion and belief, and that teaching about religions and beliefs can reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes (OSCE/ODIHR, 2007).

Signalling an increasing interest in the role of RE in intercultural life and learning, this was followed seven years later by the Council of Europe’s publication, Signposts - Policy and Practice for Teaching about Religions and Non-Religious World Views in Intercultural Education (Jackson, 2014),19 which sought to give flesh to the Commission of Europe Recommendation Council of Europe (2008) on the importance of pursuing initiatives relating to the diversity of religions and non-religious convictions within intercultural education.

Also noteworthy is the aforementioned report on Teaching about Religions in European School Systems. Policy Issues and Trends. This report identified trends, key issues, and challenges facing EU education systems if teaching about religions is to contribute to intercultural and citizenship education, putting forward some recommendations to help bring this about.

Religious Education and Citizenship

Last, RE has been increasingly linked with human rights education, democratic education, and citizenship education (e.g., Jackson, 2003, 2014; Meijer, 2011; Miedema and Bertram-Troost, 2008; Miedema, 2012; Kjeldsen, 2016), and in this regard it has garnered increasing attention. The positive link between citizenship and RE is often related to the idea that good citizenship education, which aims at an inclusive and democratic worldview, may help the state to prevent (religious) radicalisation and extremism. In addition, the awareness is growing that students should, as future democratic citizens in a plural society, be well informed about different (religious and non-religious) worldviews and about the possible threats of radical ideas. In this regard - and taking into account the seemingly almost obsessive link that has been generated in the public mind between Islam and terrorism - it is not surprising that academic and political attention have been particularly given to Islamic education (cf. Aslan and Hermansen, 2015). Especially since 9/11 and its aftermath, “good” Islamic RE (IRE) is often seen as a key tool in the fight against terrorism and radicalisation.

“Islamic Religious Education” in Europe

Islamic Religious Education and Radicalisation

The former considerations bring us to the main theme of this book: Islamic RE in Europe. All over Europe, the Muslim population has, due to labour migration, family reunification and, more recently, refugee crises, increased in recent decades, and this trend will in all probability continue in the near future. According to the PEW Research Center (2017), Muslims made up 4.9% of Europe’s population in 2016 and would, in a medium migration scenario, reach 11.2% of Europe’s population by 2050. This increasing number of Muslims in Europe is one of the reasons why IRE has become a relevant topic in academic research.

In addition, the fear of Islamic radicalisation and the terrorist attacks in the name of Islam are important triggers for present discussions about and reflections on IRE in Europe. For many decades, Islamic radicalisation and terrorist attacks in the name of Islam seemed to be far away from home for most European citizens, but since the beginning of the 21st century, things have changed significantly. In the Netherlands, for instance, the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who had “provoked” Islam in his short film Submission, was murdered by a Muslim in 2004, and in 2005, the publication of the so-called Muhammad-cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-posten eventually led to protests worldwide, violent demonstrations and riots in some Muslim countries, and several (planned) attacks on the address of the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who now lives under special police protection. In addition, there were the terrorist attacks by Al Quaeda in Madrid (2004) and London (2005) and, more recently, by the Islamic State (IS) in Paris (2015), Brussels (2016), Nice (2016), Berlin (2016), London (2017), Manchester (2017), and Barcelona (2017). In addition, thousands of European foreign fighters moved to Syria and Iraq, where they and their families have been stranded since the fall of the caliphate. Although some European nation-states have initially been reluctant to repatriate their nationals and children born there, it seems that inaction may be more dangerous in the long run and that a policy of repatriation and re-integration seems the best - albeit not risk-free - option. As these examples show, Islamic fundamentalism and religiously inspired terrorism are no longer exotic matters, but they are everyday realities in Europe. Hence the place of Islam, and thus also of IRE, in Europe gained increasing attention among politicians, policy makers, stakeholders, and academics.

In this context, the concepts of politicisation and securitisation have recently come to the fore: as noted by Gearon (2019a, 1), “[o]n first glance the politicization and securitization of religion may seem remote from education”, but “[a] second look reveals widespread international initiatives aimed at the uses of education precisely for political and security purposes, notably in the countering of terrorism, violent extremism and ideologies opposed to liberal democratic values.”20 This tendency, however, could infringe on the intrinsic value of IRE and could have a reverse effect since the kind of IRE that is encouraged by the state and organised in state-funded schools might be different from the kind of IRE that is expected by young Muslims and/or their parents. Finding a gentle balance between the expectations of the different Muslim communities on the one hand, and of politicians, educators, and stakeholders on the other, seems to be one of the main challenges of IRE today.

Islamic Religious Education: Education About and/or Into Islam?

At present there seems to be a consensus in Europe (cf. Jackson, 2014) about the need for religious literacy in order to combat prejudices and intolerance. Since Islam is in most European nation-states the second-largest religious group, there is also an urgent need for Islamic literacy, not only for non-Muslims, but also for Muslims who are raised in Europe, but are often ignorant of their “own” traditions. Hence the plea in the abovementioned European guidelines for “teaching about religions and non-religious worldviews in intercultural education” (Jackson, 2014).

However, notwithstanding the importance of religious literacy and the need for academically embedded, “objective”, contextualised, and nuanced knowledge about Islam (and also about other religious traditions and worldviews), one of the problems with this approach is that Islam (like other religions and worldviews) is often approached in a reductionist way, without taking into account its internal diversity as well as its historical, societal, national, global, and political contexts. Moreover, several studies reveal that if Islam is in theory supposed to be taught in an objective or neutral way as part of an integrative subject about religions, it is in practice often approached in an orientalist, essentialist, or even “Christian” way. That is the focus is on “the man, the book, [and] the faith” (cf. contributions on Denmark, Norway, and Sweden; see also the contributions from Boe, Franck, and Panjwani in this volume), rather than on its many traditions, interpretations, and manifestations. Besides, Islam is sometimes caricaturised in textbooks, where it is portrayed as something alien (and even dangerous), rather than as an irreducible reality in present European societies. If students learn about Islam in this way, it seems it will be very difficult to reach one of the core aims of integrative and non-denominational RE: fostering tolerance and dialogue among students with different religious, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds. Moreover, students’ feelings of alienation and exclusion from the “main” society might even be affirmed or enlarged if a nuanced and context-related picture of Islam is absent. Rather than preventing Islamic radicalisa-tion, this kind of education about Islam can thus do the opposite and affirm the reasons why some Muslims oppose Western liberal democracy and turn to extremist interpretations of the Qur’an and other Islamic sources.

Taking this into consideration, one could also argue for the organisation of classes into Islam in publicly funded schools. In contrast to the previous RE model, the main aim of IRE (or Islamic religious instruction [IRI], cf. infra) is here not to inform students about different religious traditions, but to socialise them in their own religious tradition and to strengthen their Muslim identity. Since the dominant - liberal -education paradigm in Europe does not always fit with an “Islamic” worldview, this kind of IRE can also be seen as an attempt to cope with the “right to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with [the parents’] own religious and philosophical convictions” (ECHR- 1st protocol, Art. 2). Moreover, by facilitating IRE in state-funded schools, students might feel less alienated and more accepted by the “main” society. According to T. Modood (2015, 9), this policy of accommodation or affirmative action can foster among many Muslims a feeling of equality and, in relation to this, of inclusion in a non-Islamic, European environment. In addition, organising IRE in state schools is, like other forms of co-operation between Islamic communities and the secular state, seen more and more as a way to prevent radicalisation among youngsters. As Modood (2015, 4) has stated: “(I)n recent years concern with Islamist terrorism and “radicalisation” have led states to extol and condemn certain kinds of Islam, to co-opt certain Muslim groups into governance, to engage in matters of Imam training and the schooling of Muslim children.”

Seen from this perspective, confessional and denominational IRE could be an important tool in the prevention of radicalisation and the integration of Muslims in Europe, and it may contribute to good citizenship education too.

However, in spite of its benefits, organising confessional IRE in state-funded schools may not always be that easy. A recurring problem is that, in order to organise this kind of IRE in a European context, the responsible Islamic community needs official state recognition, but this recognition is, due to the heterogeneity of “the” Muslim community and due to a lack of organisation and structure, far from evident, as for instance the cases of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Switzerland make clear. But even if IRE is organised in state-funded schools, many problems remain and new problems pop up, such as the lack of teacher-training programmes (with low-skilled teachers as a result) and the lack of quality teaching material that is adapted to the European context. At present, textbooks and/or curricula are in several nations (e.g., Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, and Greece) still imported from, supervised by, or largely influenced by Turkey. Moreover, since IRE is in most nations (Finland is a noteworthy exemption) organised and supervised by the respective Islamic communities and not by the state, it is not always easy to manage this situation in a constructive way without infringing on the separation of church and state.

The Issue of School-Related Terms and the

Nature of “Islamic Religious Education”

In addition to the abovementioned complications and challenges, the concept of “Islamic religious education” - the main focus of this book -is also worth exploring. For, here, the exact meanings of both the terms “Islamic” and “Islamic religious education” have been the subject of considerable analysis, debate, and variation.

To begin with, what does the term “Islamic” connote? A number of scholars, wanting to guard against over-simplification and essential-ism, have expressed concern at the very loose and sometimes seemingly interchangeable usage of the terms “Islamic” and “Muslim”. In this vein, for example, Douglass and Shaikh (2004) have made a case for differentiating between the uses of the term “Islamic” (that is, related to the ideal of Islam) and “Muslim” (that is, related to the outworkings of the ideals of Islam in Muslim history, culture, and practice). Indeed, Marshall Hodgson has gone even further in coining the term “Islamicate” in order to refer “not directly to the religion - Islam - itself but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among nonMuslims” (Hodgson, 1974, 59). Others, too, have ardently challenged not only the binary assumption that the west is “secular” whilst Muslims are “religious” but also, as the latter usage is said to demonstrate, the process of “religification” through which being Muslim is taken to be the prime marker of the identity of those of a Muslim heritage; for, after all, “no Muslim is just a Muslim” (Panjwani, 2017).

Turning now to the term “Islamic religious education”, it is important that we not only note different usages of this term but also explain the sense in which we have chosen to use it in this book. Patently, the initials IRE can be used to indicate a number of different educational practices and contexts, but there have been variations in how different commentators have articulated these, and sometimes, indeed, in whether the alternative term “Islamic education” is substituted as if the terms are interchangeable.

Berglund, for example, in her booklet Publicly Funded Islamic Education in Europe and the United States (2015), identifies three broad types of publicly funded, pre-university Islamic education: (1) Islamic instruction, the sort of confessional activity (with the aim, that is, of nurturing those initiated into the Islamic religion) that would be found in a mosque class or other settings used for Muslim “supplementary education” as it is increasingly termed; (2) IRE offered as a subject in state schools (which, we assume, has a confessional aim); and (3) teaching about Islam, non-confessional courses on Islam offered to Muslim and non-Muslim students alike.21

Panjwani and Agbaria (2018), on the other hand, also identify three types but with slightly different emphases and wording: (1) IRE as religious instruction. This is a confessional activity which is in many ways rooted in the historical tradition of teaching Islam to Muslims.22(2) IRE as education inspired by Islamic tradition, which is reflected mainly in what are called schools with an Islamic religious character (sometimes also referred to as “faith-based”), whereby a range of subjects are taught within what is often seen by its proponents as an Islamic epistemological framework. (We assume that, in this sense, this term could be applied to both publicly funded and privately run Muslim schools). (3) IRE as education about Islamic/Muslim traditions which, they suggest, comes closest to the non-confessional model of teaching about religions (though they do not explicitly state whether this would apply to courses within a publicly funded school).

Given the complications with terminology and the need for a certain uniformity in order to compare different IRE models, authors were asked to make clear what they understand when talking about IRE or IRI in their contributions. As a result, these concepts might have slightly different connotations between chapters.

In the context of this book, of course, we also have to be sensitive to the particular educational frameworks and their underlying histories and principles that have developed differently across the European nation-states. This can affect not only what sense of IRE applies to a particular national setting (or settings in the case where a federal or municipal approach to education applies, as in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, for instance) but also to the possible different meanings or nuances of particular terms within different national contexts. This is particularly so in the case of the term “publicly funded” or “state”, as in a term like “publicly funded state school”.

It could be suggested that there is a continuum in many of the terms used in this type of discourse: from “confessional” and “denominational” IRE/IRI at one extreme to “non-confessional” and “non-denominational” IRE at the other. For some this would still be problematic.23 A continuum between “state” schooling and “private” schooling might be more feasible in that the intermediate stages between the two poles could be attempted, starting at the private school pole with terms like “not-recognised and non-subsidised private schools”, “fully/partially subsidised private schools”, and “state-recognised but non-subsidised private schools”. However, the complexity of the situation soon becomes obvious, particularly as each term seems to demand further qualification, and also with the realisation that a single school stands on a whole series of lines of continuum (curriculum, stance towards religion, funding, ownership, and so on).

In the light of this predicament, the approach proposed by Maussen and Bader (2015, 3) seems both elegant and helpful. They suggest the two key terms “governmental” and “non-governmental” schools:

“[G]overnmental” schools are schools “owned, run, and financed by (a flexible combination of) governmental (federal, state, municipal) authorities” and are therefore considered to be neutral. “Nongovernmental” schools are “owned and run by (central or local) organisations or associations whether (partly or fully) publicly financed or not”. These schools can be confessional (“faith-based”), but they can also be secular, or based on a particular pedagogy such as that of Steiner, Freinet, or Montessori.

In this book, rather than insisting on a standard use of terms or phrases, we have asked authors: (1) to consider the clarity of terms they use, particularly for readers from different contexts; (2) to use terms consistently; and (3) to explain the meaning and background of terms that might be opaque or ambiguous for some readers. This includes how, given their own circumstances, they have chosen to apply the term “IRE”.

Scope and Structure of the Book

For the present study, European countries have been chosen which have a minority of 5% or more of their population designated as Muslim. The one exception to this rule is the case of Finland which, though its Muslim population is below the 5% threshold, nevertheless has an interesting (and indeed, as far as we know, unique) practice in its state schools relating to IRE.

The book is divided into four sections: an introductory chapter; Part I, 14 chapters, each looking at IRE in the context of one European country (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland); Part II, ten short “exploratory essays” looking at IRE in Europe as a whole from a number of different perspectives (comparative; European; educational; citizenship; democratic; hermeneutical-critical; postcolonial/ feminist; pedagogical; normative; legal). In the fourth section, the book concludes with a plea for post-secular IRE - understood as education into as well as about unAfrom Islam - in state-funded schools.

In order to create a common pattern that will facilitate ease of reading and assimilation, the nation-based chapters of Part I more or less follow a recognisable pattern: a general overview of the relationship between education, the state, and religion; how the concept of IRE applies; IRE in relation to curricula, textbooks, teacher training, and inspection; recent trends and initiatives relating to improving IRE; the current situation regarding IRE in publicly funded schools and future prospects; and endnotes and references.

If Part I brings together material and ideas related to how religion, education, and IRE apply to a series of individual European nations, then Part II is highly innovative in looking at a number of themes, issues, and concerns across these European nations and from a multi-disciplinary perspective. As such, it is our hope that the material gathered together in this book will not only make a valuable contribution to the growing body of material on RE and IRE across Europe but will also encourage others to delve deeper into this fascinating and multi-faceted dimension of contemporary European life.


  • 1. Sacks, RabbiJ. (2002), BBC Radio 4 Thought fortheDay, 13 September 2002.
  • 2. Final report summary available from: rcn/47525_en.html [Accessed 4 May 2020].
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  • 20. Gearon’s ideas have been mitigated and discussed byJackson. For an overview of the discussion, see Gearon, 2019b and Jackson, 2019.
  • 21. This can be taken further, of course, in the making of a distinction between “non-confessional”, “integrative” courses on Islam as part of a broader, general course on religion in which lessons take place in the context of mixed groups of Muslim and non-Muslim students (as is for instance the case in Norway, Sweden, and the UK) on the one hand, and "non-confessional courses” but “separative” in which students are separated on a family/religious heritage basis, on the other (as found in Finland).
  • 22. Presumably, the authors are referring to what takes place in faith centres of learning such as mosque classes and madrasas.
  • 23. Problematic in that many would suggest that “confessional RE” is a selfcontradictory term because education is by definition non-confessional in its aims. As such, the poles of such a continuum might be better formulated as "religious instruction” (or "nurture”) and "religious education”.


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