European Challenge for Secularism: Focus on Islam

Moral Matrix: Islam, Religious Freedom and Europe Today | Clarion Project

Source: Clarion Project


Three separate cases in different parts of the world illustrate the moral complexities that arise with differing attitudes to the separation of religion and state in public school systems. Different ideas as to what constitutes acceptable expressions of religion in the public sphere can lead to increased community tensions. Accusations fly.  Those who wish to introduce religious elements into schools are frequently accused of imposing their religion onto others, while those who oppose religion in school have been accused of religious discrimination.

These problems look set to multiply as Western societies become increasingly heterodox and diverse. The principles of toleration developed during the Enlightenment, perhaps most clearly sat out by the English Philosopher John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), primarily dealt with the complexities of different denominations of Christianity tolerating each other. Only later were other faiths considered, beginning with Jews.

Growing Muslim populations in Western countries mean that issues of where and how to demarcate religion and state will become more pressing until they are resolved. If they are not resolved, either Muslim communities will become alienated and disenfranchised due to the discrimination they perceive or Islamist extremists will abuse Western notions of religious freedom to impose their hardline agenda on others.

Neither scenario is a welcome one.

Clarion investigates where the line should be drawn in the following three recent cases in Europe. Let us know where you stand:

Syrian Christian in Ireland Forced to Learn Quran for Exam

A Syrian Christian father in Ireland is objecting to his daughter having to learn the Koran and answer questions on it for a high school matriculation exam.

All students who take the Arabic language exam must answer question about the Koran, Arabic verse and modern prose. Students are able to choose from a variety of examples of prose and verse, however, eight separate sections of the Koran are mandatory in the exam which tests the proficiency of a student’s command of the language.

“I am very distressed that having arrived in Ireland and having been granted refugee status on the basis of the threat to us as Christians we should now be discriminated against in this way,” said the girl’s father, Marwan, who asked that his surname not be used.

Irish authorities who design the tests stated that the Koran was chosen on the basis of its linguistic and literary value and not due to its religious significance. However, since the complaint was lodged, the exam will be reviewed by educational authorities.

Case for exclusion of Quran in Exam

There is no need to include the Quran in the millions of texts available to learn the Arabic language, and indeed, this can be looked upon as a form of religious coercion. Certainly those who are interested in learning world history and culture cannot understand these topics without understanding world religions. However, this exam covers a student’s proficiency in the Arabic language and is not an exam on history or religion.

Moreover, teaching religious texts with no context or learning them from questionably-qualified teachers are both educational conditions fraught with danger — especially on a high school level when a student’s critical reasoning abilities are not fully developed.

To force minors to learn the Koran to ascertain their proficiency in Arabic, while offering no option to opt out, is a form of religious coercion and explicitly against the law in Ireland.

Case for Inclusion of Quran in Exam

It is impossible to divorce language from its cultural context. Though teaching the Arabic without reading the Quran would be possible linguistically, to do so would limit students understanding, since the Quran is easily the most important book ever written in Arabic.

In the context of a language course, the study of the Quran is not a study of the Islamic religion, but rather the study of a historical and cultural work in its original language. Mandating its inclusion in an Arabic language course is as commendable from an academic standpoint, just as the inclusion of Shakespeare in an English language course would be. It is no more coercing children to become Muslims than reading the Iliad coerces children to believe in the Greek god Apollo.

Read further

Suggested Reading

Shariah and Constitution: A Personal Journey


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