In his piece “Is there a crisis of secularism in Western Europe?,” Tariq Modood reprimands me for enunciating a misleading view of what is happening in Europe. By speaking of a crisis of secularism, I exaggerate the problem, he says.

Tariq Modood and I have been in dialogue on secularism for over a decade now. He was among the few who very early on recognized the main point of my 1998 book: that we need not an alternative to but an alternative conception of secularism, one that is different from mainstream conceptions shaped by French laïcité and the American wall of separation variant. Since we agree on much, I begin with stating where and how much we agree.

I agree with him (1) that most European states follow neither the French nor the American model. Virtually all European states have a stable regime of individual rights that includes the right to religious liberty. None could have managed to install such a regime without in the past attacking the power and privilege of their churches, a stridency which could not have been possible without some degree of state-church separation. Yet, unlike the French, there is no lingering hostility towards religion in other European state-structures.

The case in America is different. Although American churches had a legacy of enormous power and privilege, they left it behind in Europe. This is part of what Americanization means. So, American self-understanding has rarely exhibited hostility to religion. Yet, denominational conflict compelled the state to withdraw substantial support of religion, forming another key ingredient of American self-understanding. In Europe, however, hostility was followed by active support. Virtually all of Europe developed an institutional arrangement that grants some privilege or public recognition to a given church. Indeed, some states still have an established church, a privileged arrangement that goes well beyond recognition. Like me, Modood finds the combination of separation of church and state and support for a given church compatible with secularism. He calls it moderate secularism. I am indifferent to the term, but I agree (2) that this is a form of secularism. States that run in accordance with such a regime are secular states. Modood is also quite right that (3) there is no effective challenge from the church or radical secularists to this moderate political secularism. This may not be the best of all possible worlds from their points of view, and currently it might even be tilted in favour of secularists, but it is an acceptable compromise.

Such is the context in which non-Christian migrants, the majority of which are Muslims, have been arriving, settling, and making claims that “relate to the place of religious identity in the public sphere.” Modood says and adds (4) that “it is here, if anywhere, that a sense of crisis of secularism can be found.” Our fourth straight agreement. Elsewhere I have written: “It is clear that secularism has a precarious life in non-western societies. What is not always obvious …is that the secular states underpinned by secularism are coming under strain even in Europe where only some time back they were believed to be firmly entrenched and secure.” I added: “It is true that substantive secularization of European societies has also brought in its wake extensive secularization of European states. Regardless of their religious affiliation, citizens have a large basket of civil and political rights unheard of in religion-centered states, past or present.” But still, problems remain. The migration from former colonies and an intensified globalization has thrown together in western public spaces pre-Christian faiths, Christianity, and Islam. The cumulative result is unprecedented religious diversity, the weakening of the public monopoly of single religions, and the generation of mutual suspicion, distrust, hostility, and conflict. This is evident in Germany, probably even in Modood’s Britain, but was  dramatically highlighted by the headscarf issue in France and the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands shortly after the release of his controversial film about Islamic culture.

So we both agree that the crisis of secularism is directly related to the arrival, predominantly, of Muslim immigrants in Europe. He says:

Political secularism has been destabilized, and in particular the historical flow from a moderate to radical secularism and the expectation of its continuation has been jolted. This is not because of any Christian desecularization or a ‘return of the repressed.’ Rather, the jolt is created by the triple contingency of the arrival and settlement of a significant number of Muslims.

Note the language here. Political secularism, Modood says, was “destablized” and “jolted,” words hardly any different from “crisis,” for crisis too refers only to a critical turning point, one that can go either way, to recovery or mortality. It does not mean imminent death, an impression falsely given by Modood’s essay.

But let me not quibble over words. For we have another, fifth agreement to report. It lies in our joint hope that European secularism will respond to these changes. Europe can’t just go on with the same “moderate secularism” and jettison the problem. As Modood puts it, this secularism needs to be multiculturalized. I take this to mean that the historical compromises between church and state have to be extended to other religions, particularly to Islam. (I don’t disagree on this point, our sixth agreement) So, for him, Moderate secularism is a perfect ideal. Conceptually and normatively, all is well. It simply needs to be extended to other religions, a feat that can be accomplished by comparatively easy institutional adjustments. So, I must stand corrected. For Modood, moderate secularism can and should go on more or less as it is, but, in order to accommodate Muslims, must undergo some institutional adjustments. How then can we speak of—that horrible term—a crisis of secularism in Europe? Surely, this is hyperbolic, a gross exaggeration!

Here is where we profoundly disagree. Moderate secularism, for me, is irretrievably flawed. The multiculturalization of this secularism is neither easy nor sufficient. It is not easy because it presupposes massive change in cultural background. Institutional adjustment is bound to be difficult because an internal link exists between the collective, secular self-understanding of European societies and deeply problematic institutional arrangements. Quite plainly, current European institutions are deeply biased. They have accommodated Christians but will not be able to accommodate Muslims. They are not sufficient because simple accommodation without some accompanying “hostility” may not work for all Muslim citizens.

Why are institutional adjustments difficult to achieve? Here we must take recourse to something missing in Modood’s account, namely, history. Using a broad brush, we might say that European secularisms arose in predominantly single-religion societies. Issues of radical individual freedom and citizenship equality arose in European societies after religious homogenization. The birth of confessional states was accompanied by massive expulsion of subject-communities whose faith differed from the religion of the ruler. Such states eventually found some place for toleration in their moral space, but as is well known, toleration was consistent with deep inequalities and with humiliating, marginalized, and virtually invisible existence. For instance, church buildings of minority religious groups could not look like churches and had to be tucked away in bylanes far from the High Street where the church of the dominant group stood.

The liberal-democratization and the consequent secularization of many European states has helped citizens with non-Christian faiths acquire most formal rights. But such a scheme of rights neither embodies a regime of interreligious equality nor effectively prevents religion-based discrimination and exclusion. Indeed, it masks majoritarian, ethno-religious biases.

The new reality of deepening religious diversity has brought the religious biases of European states into increasingly sharper relief. Despite all changes, European states have continued to privilege Christianity in one form or another. They have publicly funded Christian schools, maintained church real estate and clerical salaries, facilitated the control by churches of cemeteries, and trained the clergy. In short, there has been no impartiality within the domain of religion, and despite formal equality, this continues to have a far-reaching impact on the rest of society.

Thus, these biases are evident in different kinds of difficulties faced by Muslims. For example, in Britain a third of all primary school children are educated by religious communities, yet applications for state funding by Muslims are frequently turned down. Currently there are, Veit Bader informs us, only five Muslim schools, compared to 2,000 run by Roman Catholics and 4,700 by the Church of England. Similar problems persist in other European countries. In both France and Germany, not a single school run by Muslims is subsidized by the state. This is also manifest in the failure of many Western European states to deal with the issue of headscarves (France), in demands by Muslims to build mosques and therefore to properly practice their own faith (Germany, Italy), in discrimination against ritual slaughter (Germany), or against the right to have proper Muslim burial grounds (Denmark, to take just one example). In recent times, as Islamophobia grips the imagination of several Western societies (exemplified by the cartoon controversy in Denmark and the Minarets issue in Switzerland), it is very likely that their Muslim citizens will continue to face disadvantages only on account of membership in their religious community.

Removing these biases will not be easy because of resistance from the Right, institutional resilience and differences in the nature of Islam and Christianity, not to speak of non-Semitic religions such as Hinduism. Moderate secularism will be severely tested. Indeed, that test has already begun, which is why talk of strain or even crisis is justified.

I have so far been talking as if the initiative lies squarely with only one agent, the European state (and its supporters), and Muslims will respond enthusiastically to any  initiative from this reformed (multiculturalized) state. But this is being too sanguine about the self-understanding of Muslims or their current condition in Europe. It underestimates their alienation and ghettoization. Only after we attain a better, deeper understanding of Muslims in different parts of Europe, can we learn about what should and should not be and what currently can and cannot be accommodated. Indeed, only in a more relaxed atmosphere can a plurality of voices—the more vulnerable voices included—emerge and be better heard, a change that will have a huge bearing on our collective judgment on what should and should not be accommodated. (As of now we hear two dominant voices—the ultra-orthodox and the lapsed Muslim, the latter a convert to radical secularism.) Indeed, a hearing of these diverse voices may necessitate not just accommodation but more active fostering of some hitherto unnoticed Muslim beliefs and practices or more negative state-intervention in others; it is entirely possible that the state may not only have to support some religious practices but also inhibit others. Now, European states may be only too happy to abort some Muslim practices, but such intervention will entail a massive shift in their conception of secularism—from that of separation followed by support of religion to one of separation followed sometimes by support and sometimes by an inhibition of religion, what I call principled distance. In short, the state may have to set aside its moderate (accommodative, not hostile to religion) stance. Currently, the practice of most European states towards Muslims is: offer little official support, no accommodation, and, with few exceptions, stay indifferent to massive societal intolerance. What might be required is more support to some Muslim practices, less to others, and active interference in societal intolerance—in short, an attempt by the state to tackle both inter- and intra-religious domination.

In sum, extending moderate (accommodative) secularism to Muslims, under existing conditions, will be very difficult, for it presupposes massive shifts in background cultural conditions for which Europe may not yet be prepared. Europe has not seen deep religious diversity for a very long time. It would not be too off the mark to say that not appreciating deep religious and cultural diversity is one of the central failures of modern Europe. To my knowledge, overcoming this is a bigger challenge than any other issue. By now, even the conceptual resources for such a change appear to be missing. In any case, moderate secularism’s accommodation will not be sufficient because the modern (democratic) state must have the legitimacy to also negatively intervene in some socio-religious practices, if only to protect the interests of vulnerable internal minorities. This in part entails abandoning moderate secularism. To respond to the challenge of deep diversity, Europe might be better off with an altogether different conception of secularism.

What I have said above needs some qualification, for it ignores two facts. First, it neglects the informal politics of state and non-state actors, where interesting changes might be occurring. Second, it does not take into account the existence of the European Constitution, which is very different from the constitutions of individual European states. I acknowledge the importance of both. These factors could make a substantial difference. But difficulties block progress in these sites too. First, nothing prevents individual states from ignoring the European Constitution. Will France, Belgium, or Italy listen to the EU if it declared the banning of the burqa to be unconstitutional?  The second point is particularly noteworthy. To make it, we need to make distinctions between (a) norms of secularism embedded in the informal politics of states (and non-state actors); (b) norms embedded in formal, institutional politics and articulated in representations and reflections found in laws enacted by legislatures, executive decisions, judicial pronouncements, and constitutional articles; and finally, (c) normative ideals governing the relationship between the state and religion expressed in doctrines, ideologies, and political theories.

I believe that the doctrinal, ideological, and theoretical formulations of Western secularism are by now highly restricted and inadequate as are the formal politics and laws inspired by these doctrines and ideologies. The rehabilitation of secularism is virtually impossible unless we reduce our reliance on these formal practices and formulations. These doctrines and theories have become part of the problem, hurdles to properly examining the issues at stake. They include French laicite and the American wall of separation model, as well as the formal, institutional political practices of most European states. If we continue to remain in the grip of these formulations and practices, we would simply not notice other conceptions that have probably been pushed into the background. Once we have shifted away from these and start to focus on the normative, informal practices of a broader range of Western and non-Western states, we shall see that better forms of secular states and much more defensible versions of secularisms are available. This requires an anthropology of secular practices of Western and non-Western political actors, from which Modood’s moderate secularism is galaxies removed.