II: Interdisciplinary Exploratory Essays on Islamic Religious Education in Europe

Comparative Perspectives on IRE in Europe

Oddrun M.H. Braten

Comparing (I)RE: Why and How?

Comparative perspectives in education are needed to help us better understand how supranational phenomena are dealt with. Seeing a broader picture is important to understanding developments in single countries. No country is isolated from developments elsewhere, so in today’s globalised environment, systematic comparative efforts are increasingly important. However, one also needs to pay attention to the particularities of each national context because educational systems are often very different (Braten, 2013, 2015).

One example of a supranational phenomenon is the increasing number of Muslims in European countries, accompanied by public controversies. One example of a national phenomenon is the way Islamic religious education (IRE) is dealt with in particular national contexts. Although in practice categorising different “types” of (DRE is not that easy, in the introduction to this book a distinction is made between (1) IRE in state schools, (2) IRE in state-funded Islamic schools, and (3) education about Islam as part of a non-confessional, integrative subject. Picking one country from each of these categories, I will make a brief comparison between Cyprus, the Netherlands, and Denmark.


Having been under Ottoman rule beginning in 1571, Cyprus has a long tradition of being divided into different communities based on religious affiliations. This was maintained during a period of British colonialism until the 1960s. A war in 1974 divided the island into a Turkish North and a Greek South. Religion is connected to sub-national identity on both sides: while the Turkish education system of the North is associated with Islam, the Greek education system of the South is connected to Orthodox Christianity. RI/RE for pupils belonging to religions other than Orthodox Christianity is not provided in the Greek part (notwithstanding a considerable Muslim population of 18% of the total), but education for minorities can be arranged in the Turkish part. In state schools in the North, RE is organised as Islamic religious instruction (IRI), and there is no attention given to other religions or to Islamic denominations other than the Sunni tradition.

Debates about issues concerning Islam as well as about the place and content of (I)RE/(I)RI in state schools are found on both sides of the island, but the idea of educating about religions seems to be largely untried. Overall, RE/RI is not seen as important by school principals; accordingly, the number of (I)RI lessons in schools is low, and qualitative teacher training seems not to be a priority. However, since 2016, some new textbooks from South Cyprus have added a small section about religions other than Orthodox Christianity.

The Netherlands

As in Cyprus, there is a system of segregation in the Netherlands, where society has been divided into three “pillars”, based on religion. This pillarised model is still present in education, where we can distinguish between state schools, Catholic schools, and Protestant Christian schools. Each of these school types accommodates about 30% of pupils; the remaining 10% are a.o. in Steiner, Montessori, and Islamic schools -the latter being established in the 1980s due to family reunion rights of guest workers arriving since the 1960s. It may seem that a fourth pillar is appearing due to the increasing recognition of Islam as a major religion.

At present, efforts are being made to accommodate the needs of all citizens in order to raise their religious literacy. Although the pillarised model is criticised, it is still intact, despite claims that the country is moving towards a post-pillarised age (Geurts, ter Avest and Bakker, 2014). In a pragmatic way, adaption to the new complexity happens in practice before the structure changes - hence the concepts “structural pillarisa-tion” and “mental depillarisation”. For instance, most “Christian schools” are open and inclusive to all, and governmental schools are moving from secular “neutrality” to “active pluralism”. The public debate has stimulated religious literacy, for example, through the establishment of Spiritual Movements in 1985, a primary school subject for all with orientation about different religions and worldviews. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the killings of Pirn Fortuyn and Theo von Gogh, Citizenship Education was established in 2006 in order “to convey respect and knowledge of the basic values of a democratic constitutional state (...)”.


In Denmark, there is a principle of equal treatment of religions and worldviews, but Lutheran Christianity has a highly privileged position. The

Comparative Perspectives in Europe 247 importance of Christianity in national history, especially Grundtvigianism, is central to the Danish narrative. Since 75% of the Danish population are members of the Danish Church, this narrative has strong support in public debate. A good illustration is the sensitivity regarding the name of the inclusive non-confessional state school subject Knowledge of Christianity: when a school locally tried to change this title to the more inclusive term Religion, this was prohibited by the state. Another illustration is the reluctance to teach religions other than Christianity until the seventh grade. Furthermore, when students learn about Islam, this is always in comparison to Christianity (i.e., the Protestantism of the Danish Folk Church).

Some textbooks for state schools do include chapters on other religions beginning in the third grade, but studies have revealed a tendency to connect the topic of Islam with rules and conflict, thus reproducing stereotypes. A more positive picture is created when it comes to Christianity, in which case connections are made with love and absence of conflict (Kjeldsen, 2016). In the public debate in Denmark, the cultural importance of Christianity has led to the explicit “othering” of Islam, marking Islam as a threat to “Danishness”. This is dangerous because radicalisation might be triggered more frequently if a radical distinction between Danish values and Islamic values is established and reproduced.

Considering “Islamic Literacy”

A commonality across these three cases is that because Islam is the most rapidly growing minority religion, there is public concern about the potential growth of radicalisation and extremism. The exception is North Cyprus, where there is a Muslim majority, but even here we can observe a concern with extremism (see, for example, the controversies about attempts to establish private Islamic schools which do not conform to the official Turkish teaching of Islam). Another similarity is that, despite religion and RE often being important in the public debate, in practice RE is low on the school agenda: The amount of time allocated to lessons is limited, and there is little emphasis on the training and professional development of teachers.

In contrast to the recommendations made in Signposts (Jackson, 2014; see also Rothgangel’s contribution in this volume), the idea that there is a need to educate learners about Islam (or, for that matter, other minority religions), has not been well established. This might be expected in segregated models, where the main purpose is to educate students into their own religion. It is perhaps more surprising that the Danish model, which pretends to be neutral and inclusive, is no less biased.

The establishment of numerous state-supported Islamic schools in the Netherlands is an example of how the accommodation of IRE

is dependent on existing structures. It seems to be a pattern across national cases that Islam is dealt with in a way that reflects historical developments in the nation in question (Braten, 2014, 311). Being stuck in old structures is a major obstacle to addressing the present need for Islamic literacy - and by extension, general religious literacy - in society. Neither Christianity nor Islam are effectively being taught as the complex evolving global religions they are.

A comparative perspective reveals that there is a too narrow focus on one’s own national context. It makes visible that a supranational perspective is important for a better understanding of the need for Islamic and religious literacy. We can also observe how concerns for national (religious) identity are a supranational phenomenon, an indication that the role and place of religion in national imaginations are now being renegotiated in Europe (Braten, 2013, 115-118; 2014, 309). Concern for national traditions could be combined with greater international awareness, including acknowledging Islam as a complex, evolving global tradition, worthy of high-quality education. Thus, comparative perspectives are important for seeing a broader picture in national contexts.


Braten, О.M.H. (2013) Towards a Methodology for Comparative Studies in Religious Education. Münster, Waxman.

Braten, О.M.H. (2014) New Social Patterns: Old Structures? How the Countries of Western Europe Deal with Religious Plurality in Education. In: Rothgangel, M., Jackson, R. and Jäggle, M. (eds.). Religious Education at Schools in Europe. Vienna, Vienna University Press, pp. 287-313.

Braten, О.M.H. (2015) Three Dimensions and Four Levels: Towards a Methodolog}' for Comparative Religious Education. British Journal of Religious Education, 37 (2), 138-152. 001:10.1080/01416200.2014.991275.

Geurts, T, ter Avest, I. and Bakker, C. (2014) Religious Education in the Netherlands. In: Rothgangel, M., Jackson, R. and Jäggle, M. (eds.). Religious Education at Schools in Europe. Vienna, Vienna University Press, pp. 171-204.

Kjeldsen, K. (2016) Kristendom I Folkeskolens Religionsfag. Odense, Syddansk Universitet.

Jackson, R. (2014) Signposts. Signposts - Policy & Practice for Teaching About Religions & Non-Religious World Views in Intercultural Education. Strasbourg, Council of Europe.

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