Islamic Religious Education in Belgium

Leni Franken and Caroline Sdgesser

State-Church Relations and the Muslim

Communities in Belgium

State and Church in Belgium

Since its independence in 1830, the federal state of Belgium1 has been a traditional Catholic nation, but today it is characterised by secularisation, a decline of institutionalised religion, and increasing religious diversity, with Islam as the main non-Christian religion. The number of Muslims in Belgium is estimated at 782,000 or 7.6% of the population (PEW Research Center 2017). This relatively high number of Muslims, compared to other religious minorities, is mainly the result of labour migration during the 1960s and 1970s, which attracted many Muslims from Turkey and Morocco. In the 1980s and 1990s, this labour migration was followed by family reunification and, more recently still, by refugee crises.

For many years, the Belgian government was little concerned with Islam, but at the beginning of the 1990s, several initiatives were taken in order to better integrate Muslims into Belgian society and in order to adapt the Islamic faith community to the Belgian church and state regime, which is characterised by active support for recognised religions. In order to get financial support, a religious or non-religious worldview has to be officially recognised by the federal Parliament. While there are no official criteria for recognition, it is commonly admitted that, in order to get this recognition, a worldview must: (1) bring together a relatively large number of adherents (‘several tens of thousands’), (2) be structured in such a way that there is a representative body that can represent the religion in question in its relation with civil authorities, (3) have been present in the country for a fairly long period (‘several decades’), (4) present some level of social benefit, and (5) not encompass any activity that is contrary to public order.

Today, seven worldviews are recognised (in chronological order of recognition): Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and ‘non-confessional humanism’. One additional worldview - Buddhism - enjoys federal subsidies and will, according to the latest agreement of the Federal Government, be recognised in the near future. Recognition entitles a worldview to significant privileges: the federal government pays the salaries and retirement pensions of the clergy and of non-confessional moral consultants. The government also finances chaplains and consultants in hospitals, prisons, and in the army; religious courses at school are financed by the local governments (Flemish, French, and German); recognised worldviews get free broadcasting time on radio and television; and material goods and housing for the clergy are subsidised by public authorities (regional, provincial, and municipal).

The Muslim Communities in Belgium

Islam had already been officially recognised in 1974, but this recognition did not have an immediate effect; imams were not paid by the Belgian government until 2007, 33 years after official recognition. In addition to some complex federal legislative matters, one of the main problems relating to the recognition of Islam was the lack of a ‘representative body’ for the Muslim community. The financial benefits of recognition require such a representative body to be effective, as public authorities cannot decide on their own which imams and mosques must be financed, in accordance with the principle of state and church separation (Article 21 of the Constitution).

In 1968, the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC) in Belgium was the first mediator between the Muslim community and the Belgian state; it was housed in the ‘Great Mosque’, a federal building in Brussels, leased by the Belgian government to Saudi Arabia. Once Islam was recognised (1974), this Centre, which was known for its (financial) connections with the Islamic World League2 and with Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, was still the mediator between the Islamic community and the Belgian state. It is this Centre that selected the first Islamic Religious Education (IRE) teachers for Belgian state schools.

Triggered by the success of the ultra-right and anti-Islam populism in the 1990s, but also by a new awareness of the needs of the Muslim communities, several initiatives were taken by the Belgian government to create a ‘new’ representative body for Islam: the Executive of Muslims in Belgium (EMB). However, these attempts to establish the EMB did not succeed. Since 2014, there has been a new Executive, but it has often been criticised for a number of reasons, including a too-lax attitude toward the prevention and condemnation of radicalisation in Islam; its ongoing policy of importing imams from abroad (mainly from Turkey and Morocco); its failure to establish a full training program for Belgian imams; and its permissive policy with regard to IRE. A new EMB was reorganised in February 2016 and approved by the minister of justice. In December 2020, a new crisis emerged between the EMB and the new federal Minister in charge of recognised worldwiews: as a result, a new period of uncertainty begins for recognised Islam in Belgium.

As in many other nation-states, the Muslim community in Belgium is quite heterogeneous and this - together with the lack of a hierarchical structure, the different languages spoken in Belgium, and too much state involvement - is one reason why the EMB failed to become established. Besides, many Muslims struggle, as in other European nations, with prejudices, leading amongst other things to (labour) discrimination, discrimination on the housing market, and fierce debates about such things as building and opening mosques, ritual slaughter (prohibited by law in Flanders and Wallonia since 2019), full covering of the face (prohibited by law since 2011 in the public places in Belgium), establishing Islamic schools (cf. infra), and wearing the hijab. With regard to the latter, since 2013 there has been a general ban on wearing ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ in schools of the Flemish Community (Gemeenschapsonderwijs or GO!; cf. infra). This ban, which not only affects female Muslims but also Sikh boys, was highly contested and was considered unconstitutional by the Council of State3. Hence schools of the Flemish Community are often blamed for their policy. However, in many Catholic schools wearing the veil is also not allowed: even though there is no general ban on ‘ostentative’ religious symbols in these schools, most Catholic schools in Flanders have a general ban on headgear (with the exemption of winter gear and sun protection), which de facto means that in these schools (which form a substantial majority of schools in Belgium; cf. infra) wearing the veil is often not allowed. In the schools of the French Community, there is no general regulation on the veil. However, most schools, public or private, do not allow head coverings. The ban is also effective in some higher education establishments, where the students are over 18 years of age. However, in 2019, the new Brussels government lifted the ban in establishments organised by the French Community Commission (COCOF) and in January 2021 the administration of the French Community announced a similar decision for its own network.

Religion and Education in Belgium: General Overview

Since 1988-1989, the different Communities (Flemish, French and German) have been responsible for education, which means that each Community offers education in its own language, has its own minister, and issues its own decrees about education. Due to this autonomy and the particular history of each Community, some important differences exist between them, with regard to religion and education, for example. However, in spite of these differences, there are also important similarities.

First of all, the education system in the different Communities is subject to the national Constitution, wherein it is stated that “education is free” and that “the community offers free choice to parents” (Art. 24, §1). In order to guarantee this free choice, the Belgian state funds not only its own schools (governmental or state schools) but also schools

a Enrolment in state and private schools in the Flemish Community (2018-19).“

Figure 2.1a Enrolment in state and private schools in the Flemish Community (2018-19).“

established by ‘private’ groups and organisations (non-governmental or private schools). As a result of history, more than 60% of all Belgian schools are state-funded Catholic schools. In addition, there is a substantial number of ‘neutral’ state schools, the majority of which are schoolss established and funded by the Flemish Community (Gemeenschapsonderwijs or GO!) or by the French Community. Other state schools are established by the municipalities, cities, or provinces. Most schools in Belgium are Catholic and the total number of state schools and of non-Catholic private schools (e.g. Protestant, Jewish, non-confessional and Islamic schools) is rather small, as illustrated in Figure 2.1a and 2.1b.

At present, there are only four recognised and thus state-supported Islamic schools, all located in the region of Brussels and supported by the French Community. While the first Islamic school was opened in 1989, it was only recently (2016) that a secondary school was opened. A fifth Islamic school in Brussels and a first in the region of Wallonia (in Charleroi) are currently at the planning stage. In the few recognised and thus state-funded Islamic schools, the regular curriculum is taught, and two hours of IRE are scheduled on a weekly basis. In the Flemish

b Enrolment in state and private schools in the French Community (2014-15)

Figure 2.1b Enrolment in state and private schools in the French Community (2014-15).5

Community, several attempts have been undertaken to establish Islamic schools, but without success. In Mechelen, for instance, the plans to establish an Islamic primary school were for reasons of ‘mobility’ abolished by the city government in 2018. One year later, the ‘Selam college’ in Genk, which should have opened its doors in September 2019, was refused recognition by the inspection because the school would, according to a state security service report, not respect human rights and children’s rights.6 More successful in their establishment are the ‘Lucerna colleges’, which are managed by the Turkish Gülen movement. Although these schools do not have the official status of Islamic schools but of non-denominational private schools, all the students in these schools are enrolled in confessional IRE.

Religious Education and Islamic Religious Education in Belgium: The Current Situation

In addition to the abovementioned régionalisée! and ‘pillarised’ education system,' Belgium also has a distinctive model of religious education (RE), which was decided in a School Pact in 1958, and since 1988 has been embedded in the Constitution: “schools run by the public authorities offer, until the end of compulsory education, the choice between the teaching of one of the recognised religions and non-denominational ethics teaching” (Art. 24, §1). As a result, state schools today organise RE in the six recognised religions (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism,8 Islam, and Orthodox Christianity) and in non-confessional ethics.9 In the Flemish Community, these subjects take up, in primary and secondary state schools, two hours per week. In the French Community, this was reduced in 2016 to one hour; in the hour freed up, a new course, Philosophy and Citizenship Education {Cours de Philosophie et de Citoyenneté, CPC), was added (cf. infra). RE in Belgian state schools is thus organised in a confessional and segregated way: during RE classes, students are separated according to the religion they (or their parents) have chosen. In order to guarantee freedom of religion and education, pupils in state schools can be exempted from RE. In the French Community, exempted students take an additional hour of CPC, but in the Flemish Community, no alternative subject is offered.

Because, according to the Constitution, “all pupils of school age have the right to moral or religious education at the community’s expense” (Art. 24, §3), the state also pays for RE classes in state-funded private schools, which are mainly (but not exclusively) Catholic. Hence Roman Catholic RE is a compulsory school subject in most Belgian schools. Apart from this state-supported RE, there is also the possibility of having RE in non-recognised faith-based schools10 and in faith schools, such as Talmud-Torah schools, Sunday schools, and mosques. The classes in these non-recognised schools are not funded by the state.

Table 2.1a Students (%) enrolled in IRE in the Flemish Community



Primary state schools



Secondary state schools



All primary schools



All secondary schools



Table 2.1b Students (%) enrolled in IRE in the French Community



Primary state schools



Secondary state schools



All primary schools



All secondary schools



Since the official recognition of Islam, state schools in Belgium are constitutionally obliged to organise IRE if at least one parent or student requires this and, accordingly, the first IRE classes - which, like the other RE classes, are of a confessional kind - were organised in 1978. For many years, IRE was only taken by a few students, but as can be seen in Table 2.1a and 2.1b, in recent years, an increasing number of students has been taking it: in the Flemish Community, IRE was taken by 22% of the students in state schools (primary and secondary education) in 2018-19," which is twice as many as ten years ago. In large cities and urban areas, the number of students enrolled in IRE is significantly higher. The figures are quite similar in the state schools of the French Community: 21.7% of the pupils at primary level and 19.8% of the students at secondary level were enrolled in IRE. There also the number of students enrolled in IRE is significantly higher in large cities. In Brussels, for example, the percentage of students enrolled in IRE climbs to 50.7% at primary level and 48.6% at secondary level.12

Islamic Religious Education in Belgium: Curricula, Textbooks, Teacher Training, and Inspection

From 1975 to 1993, the ICC was responsible for IRE in state schools, and thus also for the recruitment, inspection, and appointment of teachers. Between 1993 and 1999, a ‘Technical Committee’, established by the provisional EMB, was responsible for IRE, but due to internal tensions and problems, this committee could not be maintained. In 1999, the responsibility for IRE was given to the then established new Executive

Islamic Religious Education in Belgium 39 and, since then, the EMB has been and still is responsible for IRE in state schools as well as in the four recognised Islamic schools. In the Flemish Community, the CIO (“Centrum Islamonderwijs’),13 which co-operates with and is supervised by the EMB, takes care of IRE. In the French Community, IRE teachers are recruited directly by the EMB.


For many years, there were no curricula for IRE in Belgium. In the Flemish Community, the first curricula14 were designed in 2001, and in the French Community there were no curricula before 2013. However, since the Flemish curricula were very traditional, they were substantially transformed in 2013-14 in order to bring them up to date. In the new curricula, which were based on the German didactic framework and on a Turkish curriculum (cf. Lafrarchi 2020), there were some references to religious diversity, to fundamental rights and freedoms, and to (the dangers of) religious fanaticism. In addition, several controversial issues such as the status of women within Islam, internal diversity within the Islamic community, the tension between religion and science, and the importance of text interpretation, are no longer excluded.

In the French Community, the EMB released curricula for primary and secondary levels in 2010, but these were in fact only very broad outlines of the themes that a teacher should cover each year. In 2012, the government of the French Community implemented a working group for all RE curricula. The aim was to ensure that every RE curriculum included the following themes: “philosophical questioning, interreligious dialogue and education to active citizenship”. As a result, in 2013 a curriculum or ‘Référentiel des Compétences' was issued for IRE as well as for each of the other RE classes. It is, however, a very limited document and has been recognised as insufficient as a curriculum for Islamic education in primary and secondary schools. The programmes, endorsed in 2010 by the EMB, were not modified according to the 2013 curriculum, however. The 2010 programmes are available alongside the 2013 curriculum on its website.15


Up to the present, there has also been a lack of high-quality and context-related textbooks - that is, texts which are adapted to modern European society. At present, the only Flemish textbooks for IRE are based on translations from Turkish textbooks, edited by the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs {Diyanet}. In these books, the focus is merely on Islamic doctrine, decency (adab), worship, crime and punishment, the Prophet, the Quran, and Islamic culture. Attention to other religions and to non-religious worldviews is almost totally absent, as is attentionto contemporary discussions and controversies (e.g. ritual slaughter, wearing the burqa, polygamy, talaq, male circumcision, Islamic terrorism, evolution theory vs. creationism). Besides, these books are written in a rather traditional way, and consideration of the Flemish/European context in which they are going to be used is often absent. In the French Community, the situation is even worse since there are no ‘official’ textbooks for IRE at all. In order to compensate for this lack of textbooks, IRE teachers have taken the initiative of sharing resources and prepared lessons on an internet platform."’

At present there are no textbooks for IRE written by Belgian Muslims or edited in Belgium. Accordingly, there is no textbook support for teaching Islam in a way that is adapted to the Belgian (and European) societal, political, and educational context. The EMB defends the use of the current textbooks, and there are no immediate plans to produce more suitable ones. In addition, the number of hours devoted to IRE in the French Community has just been cut in half (cf. supra), and many people are concerned that IRE could soon disappear altogether from state schools in this Community; therefore, not much effort is being made to improve the textbook situation.

Teacher Training

When the first Belgian IRE classes were organised in 1978, there were not enough well-educated teachers for IRE. In order to solve this problem, teachers were imported from abroad (mainly from Turkey and Morocco), but most of them did not speak the Belgian languages (Dutch, French, and German) and did not have enough knowledge of and affinity with Belgian (and European) culture. Accordingly, teaching IRE in Arabic was, for many years, not unusual in Belgian schools. In addition to ‘imported’ teachers, a small number of teachers for IRE was raised and educated in Belgium, but since there was no specific teacher training for IRE, their educational background was also insufficient. In 1990, the Flemish government required that all IRE teachers pass a language test, and from 1993 onwards, an official pedagogical degree (GPB) was required in addition to a degree in secondary education (for primary school teachers) or a bachelor’s degree (for secondary school teachers). Additionally, IRE teachers must have a degree in Islam, obtained at the EMB.

In 1998, Islam was for the first time organised within a Flemish teacher training programme in Brussels at the ‘Erasmushogeschool’. In recent years, the number of IRE teacher training programmes in the Flemish Community has increased, and today, there are IRE teacher training programmes at five Flemish university colleges. Since 2014-15, there has also been a one-year master’s degree (60 credits) in Islamic Theology and Religious Sciences at the Faculty of Theology (Catholic

University of Leuven), which was officially recognised by the EMB in 2017. In spite of this initiative, however, the programme does not reach much students.

As in many other nations/regions, the average level of IRE teachers is still very low; according to a question raised in the Flemish Parliament, only 10% of the IRE teachers in primary schools have the required teacher degree and 25% have a ‘sufficient’ teacher degree. For secondary schools, the number of IRE teachers with a required degree is also very small. Even though this problem seems most dramatic for IRE, the number of teachers with a required degree is also below par for other RE subjects. Hence the problem is not a specific IRE problem, but a more general RE problem.1'

Following the adoption of the 2002 decree,18 RE teachers in the French Community have had to pass an examination in French, but many of them did not succeed at first and were allowed to take the exam again. The decree of 200619 listed conditions to be met in order to be designated an RE teacher, including: to be Belgian or a national of another member state of the European Union, to meet the language requirements, and to be “the holder of the required title in relation to the function to be conferred” (a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, depending on the level of teaching). As in the Flemish Community, however, meeting this condition can be temporarily suspended in the event of a shortage of qualified candidates. In addition to the qualifying training for IRE, the validity of which is attested by the EMB, it is possible to claim a diploma from another skill area, supplemented by a certificate of aptitude issued by the EMB; the latter has, in fact, full latitude in determining the abilities of the teachers.

In 2016, the first training programme for IRE teachers in the French Community started within the faculty of theology at Université Catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain) located in Louvain-la-Neuve. As in Leuven, the EMB is a partner in the programme. At the initiative of the French Community government, an institute for the promotion of Islamic education was set up in the French Community at the end of 2017. The aim of the ‘Institut de promotion des formations sur l’islam’ is to promote and support existing and future programmes in Islamic sciences and theology.


In 2005, the first inspectors for IRE were appointed, and currently there are seven in Belgium - four in the Flemish Community and three in the French Community - but it is not certain whether this number will be sufficient for the increasing number of IRE teachers and students enrolled in IRE. Besides, inspection itself raises many issues. In order to assure the separation of church and state, the state merely facilitates IRE classes (by offering the required classroom infrastructure, financing teaching materials, and paying the salaries and pensions of IRE teachers and inspectors), but it is not responsible for the content and inspection of the subject, neither for the quality of teaching and learning. Even though curricula must officially be in accordance with the international and constitutional requirements concerning human rights and children’s rights, this religious autonomy in education nevertheless permits the teaching of ideas that are opposed to the principles of liberal democracy, or teaching religious theories such as creationism under the guise of a ‘true’ scientific theory. As a result of the separation between church and state, it is almost impossible for the state to intervene here. Very recently, there has been a discussion within the Flemish community on the educational aims of RE, but the proposal to have more state control over RE was blocked by the Christian Democrats because they saw this as an infringement of religious and educational freedom.

Improving Islamic Religious Education:

Recent Trends and Initiatives

In response to the increasing number of IRE classes and the above-mentioned problems, several initiatives have been taken in the Flemish Community. In 2013, the new curricula were launched and, compared to the previous curricula, they are more open and reflexive. In addition, the first Islamic textbooks for Flanders were edited and distributed in 2011. On the face of it, this is a good initiative, but, as previously stated, improvement is still needed.

As is also referred to above, the increasing number of teacher training programs is significant. Finally, there is within the Flemish Community growing co-operation between the EMB and the Ministry of Education. In order to improve the quality of IRE, these two actors signed a Statement of Engagement for Qualitative Islamic RE2'1 in 2016. This statement aims at “the improvement of IRE and the investment in training and refreshment courses for IRE teachers”. In order to realise this, four points of action are identified: (1) in-service teacher training, (2) an actualisation (optimisation) of the present teacher degrees for IRE, (3) the appointment of an extra inspector, and (4) the reorganisation of the Centre for Islamic Education. In accord with this statement of engagement, a new inspector was appointed in May 2017, and the criteria for IRE teachers became more stringent. In the future, teachers for primary and lower secondary education will need a bachelor’s degree in Islamic education, while a master’s in Islamic theology will be required for teachers of the higher grades of secondary education.21

In 2018, the Centre of Expertise for Intellectual Reformation, Research and Advice (CIRRA) was established. This independent expert Centre promotes a rational Islam, with a particular focus on citizenship

Islamic Religious Education in Belgium 43 and identity, radicalism and alienation, youth education and pedagogy, and care and well-being. Accordingly, one of the core aims of the Centre is the improvement of IRE teaching through a combination of research, training, advising, and networking.22

In the French Community, especially since 2016, the situation has been significantly different. In that year, IRE was reduced to one hour per week at the primary level, and a year later it was also reduced at the secondary level, to allow space for the new CPC class. In addition, following a decision by the Belgian Constitutional Court in March 2015, pupils and students can now be granted an exemption from all RE classes - a possibility that had already existed in the Flemish Community since 1990.23 In case of exemption, students attend a second hour of CPC. Even though only around 6% of pupils and students have requested such an exemption, RE in state schools in the French Community is now widely perceived as a subject that will ultimately be dropped from the general curricula.

This recent reform has caused RE teachers to organise themselves in the non-profit organisation Collectif des Enseignants de Religion dans 1’Enseignement Officiel - CEREO (organisation of RE teachers in state schools) to defend confessional RE.24 In addition, IRE teachers have regrouped in another organisation, Coordination des Enseignants de Religion Islamique - CERI.25 In the current context of Islamist radicalisation, both CEREO and CERI argue that IRE in schools can promote a peaceful, democracy-compatible Islam, and that it would be unwise to leave RE totally in private hands. However, the French-speaking part of Belgium has a long tradition of looking towards the French system of laïcité-, many have long believed that religion should not have any place at all in state schools and are determined to see the end of public funding for RE. After the regional elections of 2019, the French Community government decided to set up a commission to decide whether or not to implement further reforms.

Islamic Religious Education in State Schools: The Current Situation and Future Prospects

On 13 November 2015, the world was shocked by the cruel IS attacks in Paris. Quite soon after these attacks, the press reported that numerous Belgian Muslim students “understood” or even “excused” the massacre of members of the editorial team of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It was also reported that some IRE teachers did not condemn the attacks firmly enough. In several Flemish schools in Brussels, it was also reported that young children had been threatened with objectionable views on crime and punishment and on heaven and hell, not only by family members, but also by imams, so-called ‘Islamic experts’, and IRE teachers. In some cases, this even led to children being affected by sleepdisorders. In spite of IRE at school, “those who are in the best position for putting these children’s minds at rest - imams and teachers of Islam in official schools - do not take any initiative”.26 In addition, several young pupils in Brussels refused, for instance, to drink and to swim during Ramadan (in order to avoid swallowing water) or to participate in music classes, which were considered to be haram T1 Quite often, IRE teachers seem to be an important part of, rather than a solution to, the problem.28

In February 2018, there was also a commotion in the press about an IRE teacher who was active on a website for IRE teachers, propagating among other things that scientific research proved that eating pork is unhealthy, that a Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man, and that it is recommended for Muslim women to wear the veil.29 Even though the EMB immediately condemned these ideas, this incident demonstrated that there is still a problem with the (pedagogical) background and expertise of some IRE teachers and thus also with IRE.

In spite of these cases, a new generation of IRE teachers also seems to have been appearing: well educated, putting forward a modern vision of Islam, and not being shy of discussing difficult questions with their pupils, like exogamy, conversion, and homosexuality. Hicham Abdel Gawad was one of them. His book, Les questions que se posent les jeunes sur l’Islam. Itinéraire d’un prof (The Questions Young People Ask about Islam. A Teacher’s Itinerary), published in August 2016, enjoyed wide success in French-speaking Belgium. However, Abdel Gawad has now lost his position as an IRE teacher in circumstances that a court of law will have to decide upon; according to his own view, his stance on issues like homosexuality was judged to be too progressive by the EMB.

Nevertheless, many positive steps towards improvement have been made, especially in the Flemish Community. Since the number of Muslims in Belgium has increased and good IRE is often seen as a fundamental key in the fight against terrorism and radicalisation, IRE gets more and more political attention. In 2015, the Minister of Flemish Education and the EMB appointed about 20 IRE teachers who give, as experts on Islam, lectures about Islam in different state schools in order to counter the discourse of radicalisation.30 In addition, the Flemish Community schools (Gemeenschapsonderwijs) organised, in cooperation with IRE inspectors, in-service training on depolarisation for all Flemish IRE teachers, focusing on the critical and contextual study of Islamic sources as a way to counter current discourses of radicalism and extremism.31 In a similar vein, there was a pilot project with the ‘method-Benzine’ in several Flemish Community schools in Brussels. Based on a critical-hermeneutical and contextual reading of the Qur’an, as developed by the French scholar Rachid Benzine (2008, 2013), students learn to interpret the Qur’an and to reconcile Western values with Islam. Questions such as ‘Is it allowed for Muslims to drink alcohol?’

‘Are women required to cover their heads?’ and ‘Is it required for all Muslims, including children, to participate in the Ramadan fast?’ are answered from within this critical-hermeneutical perspective.

The Future of (Islamic) Religious Education in Belgium

Belgium has a long tradition of IRE in state schools, but unfortunately, young Muslims are often dependent on very traditional - if existent -textbooks, on unqualified teachers, and on the goodwill and expertise of the EMB. Given the separation of church and state, state control over IRE has proven to be virtually impossible. In order to improve the situation, different scenarios are possible.

Non-Confessional Religion Education for All

First of all, there has been since 2008 a discussion going on in the Flemish Community about the introduction in all recognised schools (state and private) of a non-confessional and compulsory RE subject called LEF, wherein the focus is not only on adequate and objective information about different religious and non-religious worldviews, but also on ethics, philosophy, and citizenship (Loobuyck and Franken, 2011; Franken and Loobuyck, 2013; Franken and Loobuyck, 2020). Although there is much discussion about this proposal, the situation has, in contrast to that in the French Community, not changed (as yet).

The driving force behind setting up this new subject is that the present RE system in Belgium is no longer adapted to the current educational context, which is characterised by increasing secularism and religious diversity. For many years, the main aim of RE was to socialise students in their own tradition (i.e., a confessional aim), but since many students no longer belong to a particular religious tradition and since society has significantly changed with regard to religion, one of the main aims in RE today is to prepare students for their lives in a diversified society. However, since Belgian students are separated when they have RE classes in state schools, this is probably not the most appropriate way “to cultivate reciprocity, sensitivity and empathy and to combat prejudice, intolerance, bigotry and racism” (Jackson, 2014, 137).

In addition, there is also an urgent need for religious literacy. Today, students’ knowledge of religion is often inadequate, and such religious illiteracy often leads to misunderstanding, intolerance, and a non-nuanced view on religion - not least on Islam. In order to improve students’ religious literacy, the proposed subject LEF clearly includes knowledge about religion (including Islam) and non-religious worldviews. Unfortunately, this focus on religious literacy is almost absent in the CPC curriculum, which is in our view a serious lacuna that needs to be worked upon.

Confessional (Islamic) Religious Education on Request

The organisation of a common, non-confessional RE subject for all students does not necessarily exclude other - confessional - RE subjects, provided that they are never compulsory for the students. Whether these subjects will be organised inside or outside schools, and whether they should be state subsidised or not, should be a matter of (sub-)national state policy. Once confessional RE is organised in recognised schools (as is the present case in Belgium), the state should have sufficient power to elucidate under which conditions this kind of RE can be part of the (regular) curriculum, and to guarantee these conditions, e.g., by funding and co-organising the required teacher-training classes, by reviewing curricula and textbooks, by formulating a core curriculum for RE, and by having control of the training, work, and performance of teachers.

With regard to IRE in particular, this also entails that the EMB will need to be receptive to criticism and open to new theological interpretations in the European context. This means, among other things, that IRE teachers should try to find, within Islamic traditions and Islamic history, answers and approaches to present questions and discussions. These answers and approaches should be able to go some way to resolve many contradictions between Islam and a plural society and to make pupils feel at home as they grow up and identify with European society. As has been said by al-Azm (2008, 149), Islam should, like any other religion, be seen as “a living, dynamic evolving faith responding to widely differing environments, rapidly shifting historical circumstances and continuously developing knowledge-models and paradigms”. What we need is an ‘enlightened’ form of IRE, which is adapted to the European context and to core European values such as freedom, (gender) equality, non-discrimination, and autonomy. To end with the challenging words of Aslan (2011, 32):

Islamic education is related to a specific context. Thus, Islamic education in Europe is also bound by its context. Attempts to establish an Islam in Europe, which is alien to its context, are ultimately doomed to failure.


1. Belgium is a federal state, with a complex structure, containing three regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels-Capital) and three Communities (French, German, and Flemish). While the regions have jurisdiction over ‘space-bounded’ matters (e.g., regional economy, agriculture, environment, infrastructure, and transport), the Communities have jurisdiction over ‘person-related’ matters (e.g. health care, social policy, culture, the use of language, and education). With more than 6,500,000 people, the Flemish Community, where the official language is Dutch, is the largest Community. The French Community is the second-largest Community, with more than 4,200,000 people and French as its official language.

The German Community, where German is the official language, is a very small Community, with about 76,000 people. Given the very small scope of the German Community, we will not include it here.

  • 2. The Islamic World League or Muslim World League is an international, Islamic, non-governmental organisation, whose centre is located in Mecca. The League promotes Islam in an active way: it coordinates and educates imams and RE teachers; it edits, prints, and distributes its own Qur’ans and Qur’an interpretations; and it finances mosques, Islamic schools, and Islamic RE worldwide. Because the World League is mainly financed by the government of Saudi Arabia, it is an important exponent of Wahhabism.
  • 3. RvS October, 14th 2014, nrs. 228.748 and 228.751-228.756.
  • 4. [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 5. These figures are for 2014-2015 and are the latest published by the ministry in Les indicateurs de Venseignement 2016. Available from: http://www. [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 6. Islamitische school in Genk krijgt geen tijdelijke erkenning, leerlingen melden zich bij andere school, De redactie 2019-08-31. Available from: [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 7. Pillarisation can be defined as "the ‘vertical’ division of society in closed social groupings or ‘pillars’ along class and ideological or religious lines, with each pillar having its own social institutions such as newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, health insurances, farmers’ associations, banks, schools, hospitals, universities, youth movements and sport chibs.” (Franken and Vermeer 2018, 2)
  • 8. The school subject ‘Anglicanism’ is only organised in the Flemish Community, not in the French and German Communities.
  • 9. In the French and German Communities, this subject is organised by the state. In the Flemish Community, this subject has since 1993 been organised by the recognised humanist freethinkers.
  • 10. Due to the Belgian system of state support for faith-based schools, the number of non-recognised and non-subsidised faith-based schools is very small. The most well-known examples are privatejewish-orthodox schools in Antwerp.
  • 11. Available from: [Accssed 12 May 2020].
  • 12. Available from: [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 13. Website: [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 14. Available from: [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 15. Available from [Accessed 2June 2020].
  • 16. The platform was located here: However, the website appears to be down (May 2020).
  • 17. 1367467/verslag/1372036 [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 18. Decree from the French Community Parliament of March 27, 2002, pertaining to RE teachers (MB 2002-05-08).
  • 19. Decree from the French Community Parliament of March 10, 2006, pertaining to the status of RE teachers (MB 2006-05-19).
  • 20. Vlaams Ministerie van Onderwijs (09-11-2016), Engagementsverklaring voor een kwalitatief islamonderwijs. engagementsverklaring-voor-een-kwalitatief-islamonderwijs/ [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 21. Crevits weert islamleerkrachten zonder juist diploma, De standard 06-05-2017. Available from: 02868788 [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 22. Website: [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 23. The Court’s decision (RvS, de Pascale nr. 5885, 12-03-2015) was based on a parent’s request arguing that forcing them to choose an RE class violated their constitutional right for privacy and non-disclosure of their philosophical opinion.
  • 24. More information on the organisation is available (in French) from: [Accessed 12 May 202].
  • 25. CERI does not have a website, but manages a page on Facebook: https:// [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 26. Radicalisering bij moslimjongeren: Ik ben bang dat er geesten in mijn lichaam kruipen, Knack 09-05-2017. Available from: https://www.knack. be/nieuws/belgie/radicalisering-bij-moslimjongeren-ik-ben-bang-dat-er-geesten-in-mijn-lichaam-kruipen/article-longread-850233.html [Accessed 12 May 2020]. See also: Tienduizenden Belgische moslimjongeren angstig over martelingen en de hel, Knack 11-05-2017. Available from: [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 27. Muziek is haram en zwemmen mag niet; Streng religieuze moslimkin-deren weigeren muziekles, De Standaard 10-06-2016. Available from: https:// [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 28. Jacky Goris, hoofd Brusselse GO!: 'We widen de funeste invloed van salafistische haatpredikers indammen’, Knack 10-05-2017. Available from: article-normal-850359.html [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 29. Moslimexecutieve roept islamleraar op het matje, DeStandaard 19-02-2018. Available from: [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 30. Crevits zet islamleerkrachten in tegen radicalisering, De Redactie 17-03-2015. Available from: zet_islamleerkrachtenintegenradicalisering-l-2273449/ [Accessed 12 May 2020].
  • 31. Islamleraren in de strijd tegen radicalisering, De Standaard 17-05-2017. Available from: [Accessed 12 May 2020].


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Al-Azm, S. J. (2008) Science and Religion, an Uneasy Relationship in the History of Judeo-Christian-Muslim Heritage. In: Foblets M.-C. (ed.) Islam & Europe. Challenges and Opportunities. Leuven, University Press, pp. 127-158.

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Lafrarchi, N. (2020) Assessing Islamic Religious Education Curriculum in Flemish Public Secondary Schools. Religions, 11 (3), 110. DOI: https://doi. org/10.3390/rell 1030110

Loobuyck, P. and Franken, L. (2011) Towards Integrative Religious Education in Belgium and Flanders: Challenges and Opportunities. British Journal of Religious Education, 33 (1), 17-30. DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2011.523517

Pew Research Center (2017) Europe’s Crowing Muslim Population. Available from: [Accessed 15 April 2020].

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