Religious Norms in the Public Sphere (RPS): Florence


iGov- the Institutions and Governance program – in association with the Mediterranean Program of the Robert Schuman Center for advanced studies  (RSCAS)  has organized, an international, interdisciplinary meeting for scholars exploring the issue of religious norms in the public sphere (RPS) under the supervision of Prof. Olivier Roy. 

This workshop took place in Florence on December 10-12, 2009.

For the workshop's program: program


The issue of religious norms in the public sphere has most recently arisen in the context of polemical attacks related to Muslims (regarding the veil, the Danish cartoons, and the issue of apostasy), and has led to a debate over the compatibility of Islam with so-called “western norms” also referred to as “modern” and “secular.”The conference has started with the questions that have arisen around Islamic Norms in the Public Sphere and has compared the results with other religious norms.


As far as Islam is concerned, the questions of whether and how religious norms should be integrated into public life have arisen recently in the context of Muslim communities in the West.  Factors such as the failure of political Islam, globalization, and the establishment of Muslim populations in the West result in three new potential paradigms for Islamic norms in the public sphere:

1. Integrating or reframing Sharia into a modern State law system.

2. Recasting Islamic norms as cultural norms for an ethno-cultural community, either a national community or as a minority population.

3. Interpreting Islamic norms as moral or ethical norms of a purely religious faith community, based on an individual and private choice.


But the same questions are also relevant for traditional Muslim societies with Muslim populations are grappling with how to apply these paradigms to their existing political and social systems.  For example, in Muslim societies, the issue of building a “church” (e.g., the dyanet in Turkey, official muftyat elsewhere), the transformation of Sharia into state law, the de facto secularization of civil societies (e.g., in Iran), the growing trend towards individualism and spiritualization of faith, despite the strength of communal bonds, and the questioning of the taboo on apostasy (e.g., conversions to Christianity in Morocco), all contribute to a vital debate on the appropriate role for Islamic norms in the public sphere.


Meanwhile in Western societies, reactions to Islamic norms that are beginning to appear in the public sphere might include:

1.Multiculturalism: Islamic norms represent the fundamental expression of an ethno-cultural minority identity, for which state action such as the establishment of an arbitration court or the passage of targeted legislation would be appropriate e.g. the call to establish an Islamic arbitration court in Ontario following the model of the rabbinic court, the declaration of Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, about the possibility of recognizing non-Christian courts (ie sharia courts) to decide certain matters of family law.

2. The “Church” model: Muslims are treated as any other community of faith in that society—u this has been the predominant U.S. approach

3. Individual or “citizen” model (e.g., French laïcité):  Islamic norms are viewed as an individual set of values which should be kept strictly in the private sphere. A well-publicized example of this debate is the ban on public religious displays in public schools in France


The Network on Islamic and Religious Norms in the Public Sphere (RPS) has explored these paradigms in different contexts.

It has brought together experts stemming from different disciplinary backgrounds such as political science, sociology, economics, law and religious studies. It has given priority to leading scholars who approach their scholarship from a comparative and empirical perspective. The aim is to think in an innovative way, avoiding culturalist debates, and focusing instead on the concrete ways individuals and groups are experiencing answers and conflicts.