Svenska Swedish flag


2006: The Secular State and Society

Only a few decades ago, the future of religion in the West seemed predictable and there was good reason to suppose that the rest of the world would follow suit, with society growing increasingly secularised. The question of the future of the secular state could be deleted from the agenda, for the simple reason that there would be ever fewer believers to challenge it. Evidence to the contrary – in America for example – was simply dismissed.

The theory seemed to have the backing of historical logic. Secularisation and the secular state marked the culmination of a long process in the West whereby Christianity had steadily lost ground. The ideas of the Enlightenment were surely in ascendance. Modernity indeed implied secularism. Science and social progress appeared victorious in the contest for souls and society. But western secularism was never without its complications: extreme utopian political creeds, such as communism and fascism, were arguably quasi-religions in their own right.

At the start of the 21st century, however, it seems as if we have entered a post-secular era. Religion has proved itself important in ways that have widely different meanings. The experience may be primarily an individual, inward concern, or it may represent the core of certain movements which respect, or profess to respect, the secular state but claim the right to determine its member’s lifestyles. But movements have also appeared which aspire to leave their imprint on society as a whole and thus to abolish the secular state. Are these fundamentalist movements akin to the religions whose divisions had such a destructive impact on Europe?

How is the secular state to act in relation to these manifestations of religions? Should it endeavour to remain neutral, as in the US, or support religion but show equal favour to all convictions, as in India? Does a weak state religion act as a safeguard against rivalry between religious groups as arguably it does in the UK, or should a strict distinction between church and state prevail as in France or Turkey? What are the prospects for constructing secular constitutions in the Middle East, after the coalition forces dismantled a singular secularist, Saddam Hussein? Does it matter if those prospects are slight? And how should Europe respond to and fight the movements which challenge the secular state and perhaps wish to gain control of it? Under what conditions will those movements challenge such a state and in what ways? And above all, can the secular state endure in the long term without a secularisation of society? That is to say, if a majority of the population is religious, will they accept a secular state?

In this conference these issues were discussed in a threefold manner: first the historical forces behind the emergence of the secular state and society are outlined, and then the threats to secular society considering Europe and Islam are discussed taking examples from different European countries, and finally the future of multicultural society.


Olivier Roy: France and Islam

Writer and Professor, EHESS, University of Paris, France

Theodore Dalrymple: Muslims in Britain – The Effects of Secularisation

Writer and Journalist, UK

Lars Hedegaard: The Growth of Islam in Denmark and the Future of Secularism

Writer and Journalist, Denmark

Carl Rudbeck: Sweden and Islam

Writer and Journalist, Sweden

Tariq Ramadan: The Muslim Mission in Europe

Writer and President of the think tank European Muslim Network, Belgium

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The Price of Freedom – Muslim Women in Holland

Writer and Politician, The Netherlands

Bassam Tibi: What Islam for a Post­-Secular Europe? – The Case of Germany

Writer and Professor, University of Göttingen, Germany

Dogu Ergil: Turkey, Europe and Islam

Professor, Ankara University, Turkey

Etyen Mahcupyan: Challenges of Change and Authoritarian Secularism

Writer and Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, Turkey

Pierre Lellouche: The Islamic Threat

Writer and Politician, Deputé of the Assemblée Nationale, France

Rolf Ekéus: Contradictions in Secularism and Islam; Iraq

Ambassador, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Sweden

Paul Scheffer: The Multicultural Drama – European Experiences

Writer and Journalist, The Netherlands

Ibn Warraq: Identity, Culture, Reason and the West

Writer, Founder of ISIS (Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society), USA

Kenan Malik: The Failure of Multiculturalism

Writer and Journalist, UK

Nathan Shachar: Multiculturalism – Some Views on a Conceptual Muddle

Author and Journalist, Sweden

Hugh Roberts: Against Identity Politics

Dr, Director, International Crisis Group, Cairo, Egypt