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Muslim girls in Belgium: individual freedom through religion?
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by Nadia Fadil
15 the future of Culture & Religion
Research on Muslim communities in Europe has recently shifted focus from labor and social policy concerns to issues of 'religion' and 'culture'. In particular, there has been a growing interest in the possible emergence of a specifically 'European Islam'. Through examining the religious attitudes and practices of Muslim girls in Belgium, the author investigates the viability of a 'European Islam' and in so doing poses questions about the nature of secularisation, free will and individualisation of religious practice and belief.
Studies focusing on Muslims in Europe are growing at a rapid pace. While the subject of study is not new, the perspective is. Long considered guest workers in Flanders, The Netherlands and Germany, Muslims in Europe whose children constitute the 'second generation', are now being studied increasingly from a religious rather than a migrant labor point of view. In Belgium research on these communities used to be largely policy-oriented and focused on the community's socio-economic problems. The more recent research is more concerned with 'culture', with the newest trend being to focus on Islam and the possible emergence of a specifically 'European Islam'. The collective hypothesis that seems to be forming is that in coming years Islam will adapt to 'new' European structures in a way that will enable Muslims to consider themselves full European citizens. One advantage of this hypothesis is that it frees both scientists and concerned Muslims from having to choose between over-simplified categories of 'segregation' and 'assimilation'. Scientists no longer have to render Muslims exotic, nor do they have to neglect their specificities. 'Muslims' can 'integrate' themselves in this new European context and call themselves 'full members' without necessarily assimilating themselves into the dominant group. Their differentiating identity is religious and thus transnational and neutral, not ethno-national. The consensus that this model offers both parties accounts in part for the growing scholarly attention paid to 'European Islam'.
A Secularised Islam?
Various studies about how Muslims live and organise themselves in Western Europe have been carried out under the rubric of 'European Islam'. Yet these studies have remained mainly outside the field of the sociology of religion despite its well-established tradition of interpreting the different tendencies present in religion. If a 'European Islam' is really developing, a necessary question one might ask is how this Islam interacts with the Secularisation is one of the most-commonly used concepts to typify Western Europe and its relation to religion; for many it refers to the end of religion. Yet secularization, as treated in the sociology of religion, relates to the changing relationship of religion in society as modernisation takes place. Religion loses influence in spheres such as politics, economics and education and plays a role mainly in ethical and moral aspects of life. As such, secularisation implies neither an end to, nor a disappearance of, religion; it simply refers to the transformation of religion in a 'modern' era.
At the level of the individual 'believer', this change becomes manifest through the process of religious individualisation: religious practice is no longer the consequence of prescription, but rather of choice. The term 'religious bricolage' has been used to emphasize the centrality of individual choice in this construct (Dobbelaere 1999; Hervieu-Léger 1994). Another characteristic of the secularisation process is compartmentalization whereby people seek religious answers only for specific fields - mainly moral and ethical issues, while other fields - like politics or economy - are not associated with a religious discourse. Yet do these concepts hold up? Through in-depth interviews with Moroccan girls between 16-18 living in Antwerp (Belgium) about their faith and religious engagement, we can test some of the propositions about religious individualisation.
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