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Many are familiar with the concept of “secular Jews,” people who choose to identify as Jewish despite being non-practicing, agnostic, or even atheist, because they see Judaism as a culture or ethnicity and not just as a religion. Almost a quarter of American Jews fall into this category, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
But is there such a thing as “secular Muslims”? Or is it meaningless to map this concept onto Islam? On this question, Europeans disagree—and, in Italy, that theoretical disagreement comes with concrete consequences.
In France, less than a third of Muslims are “practicing,” Roy said. Around 23 percent reportedly attend mosque on Fridays, and only 40 percent reportedly attend more than once a year. Branca believes the situation is similar in Italy; there is no nationwide data about mosque attendance, but according to a survey conducted in Lombardy, the province with the largest Muslim population, only 12 percent of Muslims belong to some kind of Islamic association.
Beneath the semantic debate, then, lies a deeper question: Who gets to speak for a religion? The orthodox, because they are the most strictly observant and sometimes the most actively invested? The secular, because they can be the most numerous? In Europe, where secular people from Muslim backgrounds are affected by political and social attitudes toward Islam, these are live questions.