Armenia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta, Russia, San Marino and Cyprus are to appear before the European court of human rights. The issue in question concerns whether crucifixes should be forbidden in Italian classrooms, as they allegedly constitute a violation of each state's legally-mandated neutral impartiality. The countries that feel directly implicated in the issue have joined the defendant, Italy, and are represented by the eminent European jurist Joseph Weiler, himself a practicing Jew.

Here is a case in point of how rich and paradoxical Europe's ideological landscape has become. Religions not only compete with each other, they sometimes join to form alliances: a Jew shows support for a symbol of the Christian faith, and Orthodox Bulgarians come out in favour of Italian Catholics. Globalisation and open borders have brought out a number of conflicts where different faiths meet. The most interminable of these conflicts throughout Europe centres on the question of Muslim identity, continually harped upon by Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders, who dramatically exposes the latest ideological fissures. But at least one valid question is hidden behind this rhetoric: What should be the relation between religion and the state in 21st-century Europe?

Religious illiteracy

It is evident that the debate on Islam is not just about religion. Anti-Muslim feeling has become the most noticeable form of xenophobia in modern Europe, a form of racism that is apparently acceptable, perhaps even enlightened, because it is opposed to fanaticism and "Medieval obfuscation".

Still, at the heart of this confrontation lies religion. And Europeans of 2010 are ill prepared to respond to the challenge of religion. Europe is the world's least religious region, a zone tempered by secularism on a planet that otherwise is burning in pious fervour. Christianity, historically the dominant religion in Europe, now finds itself in the place of the outsider. Examples of its rejection are omnipresent, from the example of British Airways, who fired a flight attendant because she refused to take off a cross, to the (aborted) constitution of the EU, where God had no chance of being mentioned. We could also speak of religious illiteracy, the incapacity to recognise religious faith as a legitimate force in present-day life. It is through this view of reality that we can understand the fear that Islam provokes throughout Europe – a double fear, because it is a religion of foreign origin with a level of intensity that is no longer seen on the continent.

Of all the possible arrangements with heaven, a political orientation hostile to religion suddenly seems to be the best candidate, for example secularism as it is practiced in France. The Muslim veil can then be forbidden in good conscience, because the crucifix must also disappear. The law is the same for all, or to put it succinctly: uniform suspicion, uniform control, uniform repression.

Churches and state in partnership

However, neither is this the "one true way". Europe's goal is not to eliminate all sign of religion, but rather of the multiplicity of religions. Just as in economics and technology, the West doesn't have a monopoly on political ideology. It cannot simply impose its authority on the rest of humanity, declaring that God is dead, or at least very old, and consequently should be excluded from earthly affairs.

Even in Old Europe, secularism has certainly not been the only state philosophy. Germany has had a longstanding partnership with the Church, and the enlightened indifference of the British with respect to questions of one's faith (The police officer who is a member of the Sikh religious community wears a turban? So what?) is somewhat ironic in view of the fact that the state church has a queen at its head. And in Italy, religious affairs are still conducted in the shadow of Vatican influence, whose effect is that of cultural placidity: the veil would hardly be shocking to anyone used to seeing religious vestments and nuns in their habits.

Religion as resistance

These models contain resources for religious tolerance that Europe needs for a pluralist religious future. Veiled Muslim women who are denied access to public schools find refuge in private Catholic schools, where wearing clothing related to beliefs poses no problem. It is an alternative to secularism, an example of different faiths uniting against religious hostility. It is also the end of this idea of the Christian Occident to which certain conservatives have been so dearly hanging onto.

The fact that the majority of the Turkish population is Muslim is not a justification for rejecting its EU candidacy. But having a state ideology or a religious monoculture would be. A country in which it would be impossible to construct a church without running into difficulties would be in violation of European tradition. The same is true for the construction of minarets.

It's true, religion is dangerous. In its name so much blood has been spilled. But it can also be a force of resistance against vague attempts at domination and the will to conform to the state or to society. In Muslim countries, the call to Islam is a means of calling for justice against dictatorial regimes like that in Egypt. An intelligent political policy takes into account the fact that believers represent a beneficial challenge, an argument in favour of the presence of religion in public places. Each cross atop a church in European cities is there to remind us that the way in which we live is not the only possible reality. This is equally true for the crescent on a mosque.