Islamic Religious Education in Europe and European Recommendations as Mutual Challenges

Martin Rothgangel

Basic Ideas of European Recommendations

For a long time, the matter of religion and education was not an issue for the Council of Europe, but this changed after 9/11 with the Toledo Guiding Principles (OSCE/ODIHR, 2007). In this document, “two core principles” of relevance for Islamic religious education (IRE) can be underlined: “first, that there is positive value in teaching that emphasises respect for everyone’s right to freedom of religion and belief, and second, teaching about religions and beliefs can reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes” (Jackson 2014, 26). In addition, the Council of Europe Recommendation (Council of Europe, 2008), which was further developed in Signposts (Jackson, 2014), deserves particular attention. The dominant perspective here is that religion is a cultural phenomenon, and corresponding learning processes are understood as a special aspect of intercultural learning. With regard to basic educational criteria, items such as the “capacity to put oneself in the place of others”, “co-operative learning in which people of all traditions can be included and participate”, and “provision of a safe learning space” (Jackson 2014, 23) are relevant. Furthermore, the following objectives (cf. Jackson 2014, 23) are important guidelines for the observation of IRE and Islamic schools:

  • • developing a tolerant attitude and respect for the right to hold a particular belief
  • • nurturing a sensitivity to the diversity of religions and non-religious convictions as an element contributing to the richness of Europe
  • • ensuring that teaching about the diversity of religions and nonreligious convictions is consistent with the aims of education for democratic citizenship, human rights, and respect for equal dignity of all individuals
  • • promotion of communication and dialogue between people from different cultural, religious, and non-religious backgrounds

Taking these basic ideas into account, the following section takes a critical O 1 o

look at the country contributions in this book. At the same time, however,

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one should also be questioning how appropriate these “European criteria” are for the different IRE contexts in Europe, as these criteria result from a perspective that views religion as a cultural issue and prefers that RE be teaching about religion - a perspective that is not always and everywhere taken for granted.

Observations Regarding IRE in European Countries

It is striking how heterogeneous IRE and Islamic schools are organised in Europe. The very different historical backgrounds are a decisive influence, which can lead to a regional education system even within individual countries (e.g., Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Switzerland). This shows the enormous challenge that any European recommendation faces; even from a national perspective, it often seems impossible to organise education in general, and IRE in particular, in a uniform way. In addition, the following challenges are present in almost every country:

  • • expectations of the state regarding Islamic communities
  • • critical public discourse on Islam
  • • respective headlines on Islam in the media
  • • threats from right-wing parties
  • • the influence of Turkey or Saudi Arabia or both
  • • a diversified Islamic community, resulting in Muslim pupils with different linguistic, cultural, and national backgrounds
  • O 7 7 o

There is almost no explicit reference to the respective European recommendations (an exception is Greece) in this book. If one looks more closely at the text, one can, beneath the regional heterogeneity, detect several reasons for this. First, many European countries (e.g., Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, Germany, Greece) do not comply with the EU recommendations insofar as denominational RE predominates, and religion is not primarily understood as a cultural phenomenon. However, this does not imply that in these countries IRE would necessarily contradict the European recommendations. An example of this can be found in Switzerland:

The aim of denominational education is to strengthen the pupils’ ability to orient themselves religiously. To promote tolerance and competence in difference, this denominational education should be based on the Christian tradition and reflection on patterns of interpretation in other denominations and religions. Consequently, basic religious knowledge about the Christian religion, its denominations and its relationship to other religions is imparted. This is intended to contribute to a broader cultural education and the further development of a community based on Christian values.

IRE in Europe, Mutual Challenges 251

Therefore, the development of identity and religious expression should also be promoted.

Nevertheless, various problematic issues can also be identified with regard to IRE. Amongst others:

  • • Passages of textbooks opposing Islam and Darwinism and criticising atheism as “humiliating for humans”. This is, for instance, the case in a Bulgarian handbook for Religion - Islam, published in 2002-2003. Fortunately there has been a “radically new stage of the conception of teaching ‘Religion’ in Bulgarian public/municipal schools” since 2018-2019, where amongst others, “human rights, bioethics, interreligious dialogue” are basic topics.
  • • A problematic role of the church is shown in the Cypriot South, where the powerful Greek Orthodox Church raises objections against “more knowledge about other religions (especially Islam) and non-religious positions into the curricula”. Obviously such a position conflicts with the European recommendations.
  • • The insufficient training and problematic role of IRE teachers is often mentioned (e.g., Austria, Belgium, Germany).
  • • Although there are increasing efforts in certain countries such as Austria and Germany to establish a cooperative RE, this often happens only between Christian denominations, but not between Islam and other religions. In view of the rise of secularism and religious diversity, there is a clear need for further development along the lines of the EU educational goals (“co-operative learning in which people of all traditions can be included and participate”). The model proposed in the Finnish text, with common and separate phases, could be groundbreaking in this regard.

If one focuses on the countries of Western and Northern Europe (especially Denmark, England, Norway, Sweden), which conceptually correspond to the “teaching about religions” approach of the European recommendations, some characteristic problems and challenges emerge as well:

  • • From the perspective of Muslim minorities, a non-denominational RE for all can be a problem, as it is often dominated by a Christian perspective, and Islam is not sufficiently reflected in the curricula (e.g., Norway, Sweden) or its treatment depends on the teacher (e.g., Norway).
  • • This could be related to the fact that the desire for a “safe space” (Netherlands) can be observed among Muslims, which often consists in the establishment of a denominational RE in the context of Islamic schools (e.g., England, the Netherlands). Remarkable in thisrespect are also the forces of resistance which currently prevent the establishment of Islamic schools in Norway and Flanders (Belgium).
  • • In contrast to the EU recommendations (“that teaching about religions and beliefs can reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes”), it can be observed that this organisational form of RE can produce othering effects (Denmark) and prejudices against Islam and Muslims (Norway).
  • • An RE for which the state is responsible can be mixed with national elements, as when talking about Danish, English, or Norwegian values. An understanding of religion as a foundation for culture can strengthen this effect: “This cultural emphasis on Christianity as a cultural entity crucial to the Danish State places Islam as ‘the other’ in a dichotomy” (Denmark).
  • • The latter aspect is linked with an essential point: Religion and IRE are closely linked to personal as well as social identity issues (Norway, Sweden, Denmark; see also Cyprus, Finland, Greece). This can also be observed in England, where “a turn towards religion for a sense of belonging” is observed among Muslims. There is a desire for RE which treats religions like a “shopping list” and ignores the question of God and transcendence.
  • • Finally, the politically motivated weakening of RE currently observed in England, or even its exclusion from public schools as in France, is no solution, as the following remark by the director of a French private Muslim school makes clear: “We try to bring the pupils back into the heart of Islam with a good understanding. You haven’t done that in state schools, let’s do that”.

Consequences and Challenges for IRE in

Europe and for EU Recommendations

After a long period without EU recommendations on religion and education, the recommendations outlined above represent a clear step forward. Politics is the art of the feasible. To this end, one can approach the understanding of religion as a cultural issue and cast RE as teaching about religion. Nevertheless, the analysis in the second section makes it clear that this understanding of religion and RE does not correspond to European diversity, and it takes insufficient account of the personal and social identity issues associated with religion. Further comparative RE research would be desirable, in which, for example, the treatment of Islam in various forms of RE in Europe is empirically investigated. On this basis, recommendations could be made which correspond to European diversity and which could take a more appropriate account of specific contexts.

At the same time, it is clear that, regardless of the form of IRE, positive developments can be observed with regard to the educational goals

IRE in Europe, Mutual Challenges 253 and guidelines of the European recommendations, although there is still a considerable need for action. Three questions might be crucial: Will forms of denominational RE cooperate with RE for other religions as well as with subjects such as ethics, philosophy, and citizenship education? Will a “neutral” RE for all adequately address the identity questions of both religious majorities and minorities? And will a comprehensive subject with religious as well as non-religious worldviews succeed in avoiding a functionalisation of the state and a marginalisation of the religious dimension?


Council of Europe (2008) Recommendation CM/Rec (2008)12 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the dimension of religions and non-religious convictions within intercultural education. Online available from: education_ENG.pdf (accessed 7 January 2021).

Jackson, R. (2014) The European Dimension: Perspectives on Religious Education from European Institutions, Professional Organisations and Research Networks. In: Rothgangel, M., Jackson, R. and Jaggle, M. (eds.). Religious Education at Schools in Europe: Part 2: Western Europe. Gottingen, V&R Unipress, pp. 19-41.

OSCE/ODIHR (2007) Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religions & Beliefs in Public Schools. Warsaw, OSCE/ODIHR.

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