What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Secular Muslim’?

In Italy, some want the category recognized by the government. Others say it’s totally meaningless.

A Muslim woman holds a European flag during a pro-EU demonstration.
A Muslim woman holds a European flag during a pro-EU demonstration. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters)

Many are familiar with the concept of “secular Jews,” people who choose to identify as Jewish despite being non-practicing, agnostic, or even atheist, because they see Judaism as a culture or ethnicity and not just as a religion. Almost a quarter of American Jews fall into this category, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

But is there such a thing as “secular Muslims”? Or is it meaningless to map this concept onto Islam? On this question, Europeans disagree—and, in Italy, that theoretical disagreement comes with concrete consequences.

Two Italian Somali women, the anthropologist and former politician Maryan Ismail and the engineer and immigrant rights activist Layla Yusuf, founded the Movement of Secular Muslims on April 5. The group may not yet count many members, but it already enjoys a high profile: The co-founders presented it in a speech to members of parliament and journalists in the Lower House of the Italian Parliament, and they had the support of former Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, who gave a speech praising the initiative.

They want to pressure Italian and EU authorities to acknowledge that there is such a thing as “secular Islam”—and they want its representatives, “secular Muslims,” to get a seat at the table when Muslim associations meet with Italian authorities to discuss issues like the protection of religious minorities, the integration of Muslim immigrants, and funding to build mosques. The movement is planning an international conference on secular Islam, to be held this fall.

In Italy, this effort is doubly tricky, because the government doesn’t yet officially recognize Islam, never mind secular Islam. The constitution requires minority religions to sign a formal agreement or “intesa” before they can receive the benefits of recognition: funding for their sanctuaries, state acknowledgement of their religious marriages and schools, and so on (this doesn’t apply to the dominant religion, Catholicism). The government is currently negotiating the terms of an official recognition of Islam after signing a preliminary agreement with Muslim authorities, who vowed in February to cooperate on security issues and make imams preach in Italian.

Ismail, a self-described “feminist, socialist, and secular Muslim,” is among the scholars involved in these negotiations. But she also fears that “orthodox Islam,” as she describes the strict interpretation of sharia and the Quran, is getting overrepresented in the process. “What I want to ensure is that when we’ll have [officially recognized] mosques in Italy, we’ll also have secular people on the board, just like Jewish [congregations sometimes] have secular people serving on their board,” she told me, noting that mosques aren’t only a place of worship, but also serve as cultural centers and as places for community cohesion.

Complicating the picture is the fact that different people take “secular Islam” to mean very different things.” Ismail and co-founder Yusuf define secular Islam not in opposition to worship but in opposition to political Islam. It’s not that they swear off all religious practices in their personal lives, but that they object to the imposition of religious practices. They cherish the separation of religion and state, and don’t believe that Islamic principles should guide public and political life.

“To me, religion is something intimate and private,” Yusuf explained. Her decision to promote secular Islam stemmed from her experience working with Muslim immigrant women as the chair of an association serving that population in Emilia Romagna, one of Italy’s largest and most prosperous provinces. “Immigrant women struggle more than men to find a place in Italian society, because many of them just stay home with the kids and never learn the language,” she told me. “In my experience working with them, I found that immigrant women from Muslim countries, and especially from the Maghreb, are often pressured to stay home by jealous husbands who use a strict interpretation of Islam as an excuse.”

Yusuf wants secular Muslims and imams to “work together to fight this practice of using the Quran as a pretext to oppress women.” She is inspired by European Muslim scholars who aim to reconcile religious belief with secular culture, such as the progressive French imam Tareq Oubrou.

Ismail, who observes Ramadan and has gone on pilgrimage to Mecca, recognizes that her approach could be called “progressive” or “liberal” Islam, but said that she chose the term “secular” in order to stress the value of “separation between religion and state, which is now a priority.”

But others, who understand the concept of secular Islam differently, question the underlying premise of the Movement of Secular Muslims. Olivier Roy, a French scholar of Islam teaching at the European University Institute in Florence, told me that Islam is a religion, not a culture, and thus the concept of secular Islam “doesn’t make any sense”—it would be as contradictory as funding “a non-religious religious community.”

Although some non-Muslims wrongly conflate Muslims with Arabs, prompting the erasure of a distinction between religion and culture, Roy insists on the importance of this distinction. “There is an Arab culture, a Turkish culture, an Indonesian culture and so forth, which of course have been influenced by Islam,” he said. “But there’s no such thing as a Muslim secular culture.”

The movement’s fixation on the term “secular” will prove self-defeating, according to Roy; instead, “they should use the correct terminology and call themselves liberal,” the scholar said. He noted that many Western nations are already acknowledging Reform Judaism, also called Liberal Judaism—and as a result, this group has a political voice. He argued that a similar level of political acknowledgment for liberal Islam would be just as important and impactful, enabling progressive Muslims to achieve their aims more effectively than a misnomer like “secular Muslims” ever could.

Paolo Branca, a professor of Islamic Studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, believes that the issue is more complex. “Being secular doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to subscribe to the French concept of laïcité,” he said, referring to the strict separation of religion and state that plays an important role in France. Rather, being secular can mean that one doesn’t belong to the clergy and that one’s life doesn’t revolve around religious norms—a definition that, he argued, could be applied to “the silent majority of Muslims” in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. “Muslims are just like everyone else”; just as most Italians are Catholics who celebrate Christmas and Easter but whose life doesn’t revolve around religious norms, the same can apply to Muslims in Italy.

What arguably differentiates the situation of secular Italian Catholics from that of secular Italian Muslims is that that the former represent the majority among Italians and thus, as secular people, don’t feel a need to identify themselves based on their religious identity. The latter, as a minority, are more likely to feel that their lives are affected by negative political and social attitudes pertaining to their religious heritage, even if they do not practice regularly or at all.

This issue extends far beyond Italy: Across Europe, there is a gap between Islamic associations and the Muslim population, according to Rolla Scolari, the editorial director of Oasis, an international foundation studying Christian-Muslim relations. “We have to ask ourselves: Whom do European Muslim associations represent?” she wrote in an email. “According to the German Ministry of Interior, for instance, German Muslim associations, as listed by the authorities, represent just 20 percent of the local Muslim population of 4.3 million. What about the other 80 percent? Presumably this number includes both people who attend mosques without feeling the need of an official recognition, and people who just don’t attend mosques.”

In France, less than a third of Muslims are “practicing,” Roy said. Around 23 percent reportedly attend mosque on Fridays, and only 40 percent reportedly attend more than once a year. Branca believes the situation is similar in Italy; there is no nationwide data about mosque attendance, but according to a survey conducted in Lombardy, the province with the largest Muslim population, only 12 percent of Muslims belong to some kind of Islamic association.

Despite the fact that, as figures from France and Germany seem to suggest, secular Muslims may constitute a “silent majority” in several European countries, this identity debate is particularly pressing for Italians—and that may help explain why it’s crystallizing into a movement in Italy specifically. The fact that Islam still has no legal standing in the country and that the constitution mandates a strict regulation of religious groups makes it a priority for secular Muslims to have a seat at the table now that negotiations for the recognition of Islam are underway. For example, Judaism received official recognition in 1987, but because only Orthodox Judaism was represented in negotiations at the time, Reform Jews have no official standing today; their marriages, say, are not recognized.

Ismail said that secular Muslims tend to be committed to diversity, and that having them on the boards of mosques and Islamic associations would allow them to advocate for the interests of women, LGBT people, and religious minorities like Shia and Sufis—groups that have traditionally been marginalized by conservative Islam. “Right now, many Muslims are being told that they have to renounce their faith because of their sexual orientation, and this needs to be stopped,” said the anthropologist, who has clashed in the past with conservative Italian Muslim leaders.

But others are skeptical that the Movement of Secular Muslims will effect change as its leaders envision. Even if conservative Muslims are the minority, Branca argued, it’s hard to prevent them from having a larger say in mosques, where the more-observant minority tends to be more active, “because that’s what usually happens with religious associations.”

Beneath the semantic debate, then, lies a deeper question: Who gets to speak for a religion? The orthodox, because they are the most strictly observant and sometimes the most actively invested? The secular, because they can be the most numerous? In Europe, where secular people from Muslim backgrounds are affected by political and social attitudes toward Islam, these are live questions.