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.”