by Silvio Ferrari and Sabrina Pastorelli (eds). Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2012. 391pp. Cloth $134.995. ISBN: 978-1-4094-5058-0.

Reviewed by Darren Walhof, Department of Political Science, Grand Valley State University. Email: walhofd [at]


This edited volume is part of a European Commission research project called “RELIGARE ,” or “Religious Diversity and Secular Models in Europe. Innovative Approaches to Law and Policy,” which broadly examines the protection of religious freedom in Europe. The eighteen essays, written primarily by legal theorists and sociologists, focus on the religious freedom issues raised by the public presence of religion in a diverse range of European countries, including the UK, Turkey, Italy, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The book is divided into three parts. Essays in Part I address theoretical questions about religion and the ever-changing conceptions of “public” and “private.” The second and third parts focus on case studies of the enactment and regulation of religion through religious apparel and dress codes (Part II) and through places of worship (Part III).

The essays in the first part of the volume helpfully introduce some of the concepts and categories at issue. In their chapter, Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens and Noura Karazivan contrast common law and civil law traditions in terms of the relationship between the state and religion. Most importantly, they argue that the state in countries with civil law traditions tends to be viewed abstractly as the bearer of sovereignty and thus as an end in itself, which in turn makes it easier to justify restrictions on religious practices for the sake of protecting the state or republic. In countries with common law traditions, in contrast, the state is primarily seen as a pragmatic means of implementing democratic will and protecting individual rights, with the result that restrictions on religious practices are less likely to be accepted.

The distinction between common and civil law traditions also arises in Silvio Ferrari’s chapter that concludes Part I, though it would have nicely introduced the volume. Ferrari identifies three broad patterns of the relationship between religion and the state in Europe. In the first, the dominant, traditional religion serves as a broad civil religion within which religious pluralism is situated, as in Italy. The second pattern, most evident in France, founds civic identity on a set of secular principles, ensuring that the public sphere and the state are shorn of religion. The third pattern, which he identifies with the common law tradition of the U.K., aims at broad religious pluralism within the limits set by human rights. Ferrari notes that all three approaches are being strained by increasing pluralization and publicization of religion, provoking a rethinking of the public sphere. Toward this end, he helpfully conceptualizes the public sphere in terms of three overlapping spaces: the common space, which people necessarily enter to get to [*217] work, engage in commerce, or participate in social life; the political space, where public debate takes place; and the institutional space, which includes legislatures, courts, and other places involving decision-making with enforcement power. Ferrari persuasively argues that this differentiated conception of the public sphere can help us think more clearly about the public presence of religion.

As with many edited volumes, the chapters do not always cohere well into a unified whole. The biggest gap in this case is between theory and practice, manifested in the book as the difference between the theoretical chapters of Part I, on the one hand, and the two parts containing the case studies, on the other. The chapters on religion and dress codes in Part II are primarily detailed descriptions of the legal situations in Turkey (by A. Emre Öktem and Mehmet C. Uzun), the United Kingdom ( by Javier Garcia Oliva), Italy (by Sabrina Pastorelli), and Bulgaria (by Maya Kosseva and Iva Kyurkchieva). The descriptions are generally clear and informative, and these essays could serve as helpful reference material for other researchers. But some further attempt to connect these cases to the concepts and categories outlined in Part I would have enriched our understanding of the broader questions about public and private, and also lent more coherence to the volume.

The implicit theme in these chapters is how political discourse and state action seek to impose singular interpretations on practices that in fact have complicated and multiple meanings. These issues are made explicit in Sara Silvestri’s very fine concluding chapter to Part II, which offers a comparative analysis of “burqa debates” across western Europe. Silvestri deftly keeps the complexity of the multiple practices of covering in view, while at the same time providing a persuasive theoretical analysis of the symbolic role these practices play in European political discourse. One of her key insights is that this discourse in effect holds Muslim women in Europe accountable for what is happening in places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. In framing Muslim women as oppressed subjects who need liberating, Silvestri argues, these debates rob them of agency, thereby subjecting them to a patriarchal form of oppression even while allegedly decrying such oppression.

While many scholarly words have been written about head coverings, much less attention has been paid to the topic of Part III, places of worship. The importance and complexity of place when it comes to religious freedom is demonstrated in the chapters by Anne Fornerod (on France), Vincenzo Pacillo (on Switzerland), and Tymen van der Ploeg (on Bulgaria, Italy, and Holland). These descriptions are complemented well by Noel Villaroman’s theoretical analysis of having a place of worship as an international human right. After examining some of the important relevant international covenants and declarations, Villaroman puts forth a conception of the right to a place of worship that includes six elements: the right to purchase real property; the right to build and repair a structure for worship; the right to solicit and receive contributions; the right to unhampered use of the place of worship; the right of protection from both state and non-state actors; and the right against [*218] discrimination in applications to build a place of worship. Though the connections are not made explicit, Villaroman’s multiple-dimensional conception points back to the issues raised in Part I of the volume on the inadequacy of the standard public – private divide in addressing religious freedom.

The chapters on places of worship also point to an issue that receives too little attention in this book: what counts as a religion? Most contributions to the volume take it as obvious that we know what we are talking about when using the concept “religion,” but in fact, as scholars like Talal Asad and Olivier Roy have shown, politics and power permeate the very way that the concept gets constituted. In the European context, this has sometimes involved the use of state power to marginalize practices that fail to meet an implicit standard of religion framed largely along the lines of Protestant Christianity.

One chapter that starts to broach the relation between religion and power is Alessandro Ferrari’s contribution to Part I. He argues that a “double-standard secularism” has taken hold in Europe today, marked not by the neutrality or indifference of the state toward religion, but by an inclusive, supportive pose toward traditionally dominant religions and a harsh, exclusionary approach towards others, especially Islam. On these terms, crucifixes, for example, are read as modest, passive, and innocuous symbols, allowable in the public sphere, while Muslim headscarves are read as conspicuous, active, and threatening, thus subject to regulation. The result is a degradation of religion in both cases, since the crucifix is allowable only by virtue of having become a cultural, secularized symbol, while headscarf restrictions are said not to inhibit religious freedom because the scarves are not a necessary part of religious practice. As Ferrari insightfully argues, this flips Locke’s argument about indifferent matters and religious tolerance on its head. He contends that an abstract notion of social cohesion is increasingly allowed to trump freedom understood as personal autonomy, which in turn erodes the special character of religious identity by rendering it invisible. Hopefully further similar investigations into religion and power will be part of the RELIGARE research project going forward.

Religion in Public Spaces will prove useful to researchers interested in the legal and political issues raised by the public dimension of religion. It could also be used as a supplemental text in advanced undergraduate or graduate seminars on religion and law or religion and politics, although its high price might discourage instructors from requiring students to purchase it.

Copyright 2013 by the Author, Darren Walhof.