Loving Enemies in Uganda

My colleague and mentor from the University of Notre Dame, Dan Philpott, has just come out with a beautiful, short, fresh film entitled Uganda: The Challenge of Forgiveness and produced by the Fetzer Institute in Michigan. The film features a series of gracious interviews with community and religious leaders in Northern Uganda and the acts of forgiveness, political and personal, they committed towards Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA):

Now, Kony and the LRA have terrorized northern Uganda with wretched violence for more than twenty years, and they have a particularly cruel history of abducting children and women. But, in the film, we find out that Philpott’s interviewees have responded to this cruelty with an unusual calculation: because Kony and his men were children torn from their own communities, they decided to seek him out.

Among others, then, the film includes lengthy conversations with the Catholic Bishop of Gulu, John Baptiste Odama who, along with Anglican Bishop MacLeord Baker Ochola II, had pursued options to make it easier for Kony rebels to lay down their guns. In 2008, Odama had advanced on peace talks with Kony, himself, and then went on a tour of the United States to criticize military operations backed by the US and the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a solution to his country’s crisis. The indictment of Kony by the ICC, in fact, was partly to blame for the failure of the Bishops’ negotiations and produced a classic moral dilemma which peace scholars have often referred to as the tradeoff between peace and justice in certain conflict situations.

Philpott, who is just out with a new book on the politics of reconciliation argues that Kony certainly should be brought to justice, given the breadth and cruelty and intensity of his crimes. And it is a good thing that his continued impunity has recently come under the intense light of the world media audience, thanks in large part to the video Kony 2012 produced by the young, daring activists at Invisible Children which, as they say, went viral over the waves last month.  The headline stories have continued this week with US troops tracking down Kony in the Central African Republic- Fox News has dubbed it the Man Hunt.

But lost in much of this quest for righteous vengeance has been this incredible story captured in Philpott’s interviews which pushes us to expand our short horizons of justice. As Odama challenges, finishing off Kony will not heal their communities, at least not in any enduring way. For to get to that, there is only the struggling movement towards political reconciliation and personal forgiveness.

Ode to Rick

For some time now, I had been waiting for a major Catholic politician to publically denounce John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on religion and politics in America. That it was Santorum who did so, from the gut, invoking bile, was a bit unfortunate and made it that much easier for liberals and conservatives alike to frame the national conversation we’re having on religion in the public sphere right now as another battle in the culture wars. And that’s too bad, because Santorum had a good point to make about Kennedy’s speech, about his “absolute wall of separation” and the burdens he seemed to place on religious individuals to bury their social and moral activism in private, individual, personal piety (we’ll leave out, for now, the history our soon-to-be first Catholic president was up against at the moment).

This reevaluation of the role of religion in the democratic public sphere, which Santorum essentially advocated, does not have to be the wedge knocking out a republican-democrat, secular-religious divide in America today. The recent attention to the work of public intellectuals like Cornel West, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Robert Putnam and David Campbell speaks to a much wider concern among contemporary thinkers of many philosophical stripes to recover public religious reflection in the right light, and appreciate the need for it in America’s national discourse.

This concern seemed to be shared by President Obama as well, whose discourse on religion in 2006 could also be read as an effective attack on the privatization-of-religion-thesis which Kennedy appeared to embrace (again, against an important, anti-papist backdrop). As Obama said then,

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Now, Obama is much less intestinal than Santorum here, but the both of them (and Habermas, Taylor, Putnam and West) recognize that the idea of secularism in America as a scissors to any cords tying religion and politics together gets something wrong and that there’s got to be a better way of letting religions’ higher intuitions and moral verve shape policies and political visions. The culture wars framework and the accusations of “Santorum’s fatwa” or “Mullah Rick,” (other than indicating the problems the left still has when it comes to Islam and politics), miss the point that these guys aren’t trying to throw us back to the 1950s, whatever that means. It is not a reversion to a religious-based society that Santorum and Obama are talking about, but a recalibration of public religion’s role in a religiously-plural, politically-secular democracy.

And in an open democratic public sphere, we get to put Santorum’s political theology (and Obama’s and the bishops’, too) to a critical conversation.

So, to that end, I want to make a public appeal to Santorum’s greater visions here, in which, I believe, he looks out unto churches around America today, and he sees young men and women hearing a gospel calling them to reform themselves, to take the straight and narrow path and to be good to neighbors and the weak and the old and not just to yourself, and he sees cauldrons of civic activism in that call (and probably a lot of boy scouts, too), and he wants to pour it all out so badly.

True that Rick.

But can we work on our language a little more? And if you feel like vomiting on Kennedy’s absolute wall of separation, can you at least not puke on the eloquence and power with which he contests religious divisiveness? And which made him so loved for so long by so many Catholics and put his grin over all our little heads in every Catholic classroom in America for at least four decades? Kennedy, in the same speech:

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe.

Kennedy, at least, knew how awful religious polarization and discrimination in America looked like. If you don’t want something like that again, Rick, and if it’s the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood you’re trying to shore up, then you’re going to have to learn to find words that allow you to lock arms and grab shovels with your brethren across the way, who also love their neighbors and the old and the weak (and the girl scouts, probably, too) because the waters are still rising in America today.

And one last thing. This isn’t the first time Obama’s been accused of phony theology. Some of the best parts about religion from his 2006 address, and echoed again in his 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech, were written as elegant reflections on implorations against the religious bigotry of some of his previous political language, when it came to the issue of abortion. And now, Barack, you’ve been accused of the same, including by fairminded voices much closer to home. Please, don’t sit out this conversation, Mr. President, nor the obligations of your former words.

New Italian Perspectives on American Political Catholicism

A certain profile of Public Catholicism has been on full show in America this past month. The show, so far, has included the strong opposition of the US Bishops to the White House’s decisions on contraceptives, Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign and, to some extent, the deliberations among Catholics of the Supreme Court over Obama’s health care policy.  Santorum’s comments on President Kennedy’s speech about religion and the public sphere were especially revealing and fueled several weeks of national conversation about the contemporary role of religion in politics. It has been a fascinating discussion and brought into light important shifts in the direction of American political Catholicism.

I just want to add some comparative perspective to this debate by noting that a similar national conversation is happening right now in Italy. There are important historical and political differences to political Catholicism in either country, of course. Just to name one, abortion is much less politicized in Italy than the United States, while “family welfare” policy is much more so. However, I believe that further, careful reflection on the structure of these two national debates could give us a richer understanding of the possibilities and risks in store for public Catholicism in certain post-secular environments.

Let me start with this word, “post-secularism,” and just say that what I want to get out of the term is an important sense of change in the religious fortunes of institutional religion in the United States and Italy. The Catholic Church, in both countries, has come to a realization that they have survived the period of “Great Secularization” in the West and remain in a position of social and political strength. Among the G8 countries, if we look at the World Values Surveys (WVS), the United States and Italy are the only two to broach 30% regularly practicing religiosity (World Gallup Poll figures put self-reported regular religious practice in 2011 for both countries at 47%, although that seems to be a stretch). Germany, the only country that comes close, boasts less than 15% on the WVS surveys of late. Japan, Britain, France, Canada and Russia slink down after that.

So what about political Catholicism in Italy today? In the 1990s, what caught the eye of most political scientists was the collapse of the Christian Democrats in Italy, thanks to corruption, scandals and overreach.  And yet, in the midst of the wider destruction of the Italian political system which followed, the Catholic Church (as opposed to the Catholic party) proved to be one of the most popular institutions left in Italy and was generally looked to for a source of political stability. This has proved to be the case once again today. Following the collapse of Berlusconi’s government and an impending economic crisis in Italy last fall, the Italian Catholic Church proposed that the time had come once again for Catholic politicians and organizations to step into the fray. To some extent, they got what they wanted: Italy’s “technocratic” government is also a heavily Catholic government and includes Prime Minister Monti, himself a devoted Catholic, and several other major Catholic figures in Italy with close ties to Catholic movements. Italy’s new Minister for International Cooperation and Integration, for example, is Andrea Riccardi, founder of the lay Catholic movement of the community of Sant’Egidio. Riccardi, perhaps more than any other Catholic in today’s government, has become a lightning rod in the media for the debate over Italian political Catholicism.

There are rumors that a new Christian Democratic party will arise from the ashes following the end of the technocratic government’s term. Yet, even if these rumors turn out to be true, it is doubtful that such a party could include the whole Catholic world in any way that resembles that of the old Christian Democrats. Instead, what looks to be happening is the development of a new form of political connection between Catholic movements and organizations, on the one hand, and the national public sphere, on the other. In this respect, the Italian situation looks very similar to that in the United States, a country that has always been allergic to any organized form of a Christian Democratic party.

The lay movements here are key. In both countries, powerful individuals, who are supported by the clergy, and whose identity, politics and charisma were forged in the intensely associative life of a lay Catholic movement, have  taken on political roles of leadership and acknowledged their religious sources and values in the process.

Some sort of parallel can be drawn between this and  the experience of Catholic Action in the first part of the last century, which produced a Christian Democratic political elite that ran governments in many post-war Catholic countries. Catholic Action was also deeply associative and activist, but one thing that has changed is that there is no longer one Catholic movement and no longer one (mass) Catholic party. Jacques Maritain, it should be noted, and many of the writers of Vatican II documents, foresaw this shift as inevitable and even, prophetically, thought that it could be understood in the right light as a rich, growing experience.

That might yet be the case, but for the moment, a growing political polarization has accompanied this pluralism of public Catholicisms in Italy and the United States. Splits, which can often be personified by naming certain movements, are raking Catholic communities over the coals. In the old days in Italy, the Christian Democratic party became masters of compromise and inter-ideological synthesis, and when that didn’t work, the Church helped cajole individuals of all stripes to stay together.  This is no longer the case. Catholic Workers, Charismatics and Traditionalists (the biggest Catholic movement without a name, Scott Appleby has claimed) have not often seen eye-to-eye politically in the States; nor have Communion and Liberation, the Neocatecumens or Sant’Egidio in Italy. The presence of Santorum and Riccardi bring these divisions to the light even as they showcase the possibilities for future, public Catholicisms.

So there’s got to be a better way of navigating this pluralism.  Putnam and Campbell have made a strong case that one of the gifts religion can offer to modern democracies is in the creation of thick, “horizontal” bonds of social trust among  citizens, even in Catholic societies like Italy. In other words, the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood, a point deeply ingrained in the spirits of many early Christian Democrats.  Compromise marks democratic politics, even religious politics, and has often been accused of sapping the moral strength of religious political movements. But new political Catholicism, in the plural, might make a run for brotherhood by distinguishing themselves in the pursuit of the politics of compromise in a different key. We might call it the pursuit of the politics of reconciliation. Over the last 25 years, Catholic leaders have built up substantive skills as political peacemakers in civil war contexts by preaching political forgiveness. Could those skills be applied to everyday domestic politics, too?

E se i Fratelli fossero la Dc del Cairo?

[Excerpt from an interview by Lorenzo Biondi published with Europa, an Italian daily newspaper, on the November 28th, 2011 elections in Egypt. To read the whole interview online, click here]

Non c’è il rischio che l’affermazione elettorale degli islamisti li spinga verso il radicalismo?
Di certo la vittoria li inorgoglirà. Ma l’elettorato egiziano oggi è molto scettico nei confronti di chiunque cerchi di accentrare troppo potere nelle proprie mani. La Fratellanza cercherà di rassicurare quell’elettorato, come sta facendo anche Ennahda in Tunisia: mettendo in chiaro innanzitutto che non hanno intenzione di instaurare uno stato islamico, che non vogliono guastare i frutti della rivoluzione.
Un portavoce della Fratellanza ha detto a Der Spiegel: «Il “modello turco” non ci interessa. Loro consentono l’adulterio e l’omosessualità». Qual è il potenziale “democratico” dei movimenti a ispirazione islamista?
Se ci aspettiamo una laicizzazione completa della politica islamica, siamo fuori strada. Nel breve periodo si dovrebbero tenere sott’occhio alcuni criteri “minimi” come il rispetto della democrazia elettorale e delle opposizioni laiche. I Fratelli musulmani continueranno a perseguire valori che hanno un fondamento religioso, ma in una cornice diversa di regole. La retorica sulla loro agenda morale può rimanere invariata, anche se cambiano i mezzi con cui cercano di realizzarla.

Interreligious Dialogue in Doha

The Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) recently held its ninth annual Conference, from October 24th to 26th in Qatar. This year’s theme was “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue.” An impressive group of international Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars reflected on how religious leaders might translate the moral insights of religious thought in such a way as to provide ground rules for an ethical use of social media.

The setting of the conference, however, was just as interesting as its theme, and revealed how the relationship between religion and state is being re-evaluated in contemporary global politics. This re-evaluation recognizes that religious institutions continue to provide services which further the business of statecraft in a way that the state, by itself, is not always capable of doing. Whether it be through promoting inter-religious dialogue in Qatar, reconciliation in post-conflict societies, religious political parties in emerging democracies or faith-based initiatives in the United States, regimes are attempting to harness the power of religious projects in increasingly explicit ways. The advantages and risks of the new relationships between religion and states which form as a result are not often well understood, and the DICID conference put both on display.

Let’s begin with the opportunities. The sponsorship of the DICID by the state of Qatar has clear advantages for advancing the success of interreligious dialogue as well as its normative goal to build peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations of different religions. The most important of these advantages is that the DICID guarantees that a major, inter-religious dialogue will be hosted annually in the heart of the Middle East by an Islamic-friendly, modernizing state. In this sense, the projection of inter-religious dialogue is not only good for world peace, but good for Qatar as well, and its ambitions of becoming the region’s leading diplomat-at-large and global promoter of “Muslim modernity.”  As an economically powerful, Muslim-majority state, Qatar is burning to prove to the world the success of a religiously infused model of modern Muslim society.  The DICID’s opening video, replayed throughout the conference, emphasized the extraordinary promise of this vision, with moving images which recalled Qatar’s media campaign to host the 2022 World Cup.

The success of this vision, so far, endows Qatar with a unique credibility within the Muslim-majority world to act as a trustworthy interlocutor with religious others in the West. Thus, the conference was able to include religious leaders and clerics from the Muslim world who might normally be suspicious of the political agenda of an interfaith dialogue initiated in the Christian or secular West (as many such initiatives are). An eminent cleric of Mauritania, for example, began his presentation by heaping profuse thanks and admiration for the projects of the Emir of Qatar, saying, “I do not have much hope for the success of interreligious dialogue, but I came because of the good work of the state of Qatar.”  For interreligious dialogue to succeed, and bring religious leaders to a meaningful, transformative discussion, it must gain the confidence of these skeptics and convince them of its neutral design towards peace. As the conference’s host, Qatar can do much to build this confidence in the Muslim world.

Yet, at the same time, the very nature of the conference as a state-led political project complicates this quest for a religious consensus among the leaders that could build such peace.  As its host, Qatar implicitly recognizes the importance of interreligious dialogue as a political tool for order, security and peace, and justifiably uses its position of power to invite religious leaders to help in the task.  The effectiveness of a meaningful consensus among religious leaders, however, is hampered when that consensus becomes a function of a political agenda, as opposed to a religious one.

In this respect, it was interesting to note the paucity of prayer at the conference, and the lack of any organized attempt at a shared sacred ritual among participants. Although the meeting began with a prayer by a Muslim Imam, the sacred content of the meeting remained in the background. In other inter-religious initiatives which are hosted and led by religious organizations (the Sant’Egidio International Prayer for Peace, for example), the attempt by religious leaders to unify hearts and souls together and beg God for illumination, compassion and mercy, is the explicit framework which sets the tone for religious leaders’ search for consensus and peace.

As the Grand Mufti Ceric argued, part of the business of inter-religious dialogue is to ensure that the “serious business of politics is not left to politicians alone.” Inter-religious dialogue can help do this by articulating universal truths about human existence and question, critiquing, fustigating, and pulling politics (and each other) towards divine ideals.  Religion, of course, is also too important a business to be left to religious leaders alone. It is the political imperative of constructing everyday peace and order which moves politicians to host initiatives such as these in the first place and to invite religious leaders to remember their vocation as mediators of divine compassion, including here on this earth. These, in essence, represent the contours of a new model of religion and state in global politics, one in which religious and political leaders recognize their distinct, but dependent, universes of action and meet together in the public sphere to work towards the common good.

Qatar, therefore, has a difficult line to walk in order to encourage inter-religious dialogue, but to not set its agenda; to encourage an inter-religious framework for peace, but to set the dialogue free and to allow its religious logic and gifts to fill out the political imperative for dialogue today. If Qatar is successful in doing this, and I hope it is, it will not only further its distinctive political prowress in the gulf, but will have also contributed to the creation of a fruitful model of religion-state cooperation in the Middle East today.

Ramadan in Qatar

It’s the last day of Ramadan in August in Qatar, my first in a Muslim country, and the quiet fasting daylight is quickening to be broken.

While perhaps not as much as many warned or feared in July, fresh violence marked this month, in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, and in Palestine and Israel. But fresh political hopes as well, and rather than feed a lens of Ramadan-as-violence, I want to simply observe here the following Ramadan-hopes floating on the headlines this August in Qatar. Meager as these hopes may seem, they are signs of possibility. And they have just as much right as the violence to be associated in the press with the good works and almsgiving and communion with family and others and God that so many are seeking together in this moment (pursuits which have overwhelmed my green beginner reflections on Islam throughout the month).

1)      Libyan rebel fighters took Tripoli and despite continued fighting, throughout the week rebel leaders of the National Transition Council stressed restraint, promised reconciliation and pushed against purging. The government of Qatar, the first Arab government to really support the rebels’ struggle and the host of talks between Libyan political factions throughout the conflict, scrambled to layout a plan to help Libyan reconstruction efforts.

2)      Although Israel severed ties with them on account of it, Qatar has stepped up its efforts to help mediate the future of Palestine by providing political and legal aid to Palestinians as they submit a formal bid for statehood to the United Nations in September.

3)      Although Qatar broke with the league to protest Syria’s harsh crackdown last month, the rest of the Arab league joined Qatari diplomats’ chorus this week, condemned Assad’s violence and moved towards implementing consequential sanctions on the regime.

Geert Wilders, Charles Taylor and European Halal

Its been a big month for multiculturalism in the Netherlands. The far-right, anti-Islam politician, Geert Wilders, was acquitted of charges of inciting hatred against Muslims (see here) and a law which will have the effect of criminalizing the ritual slaughter of animals as required by Islamic Halal and Jewish Kosher traditions was passed with wide margins in the Netherlands lower house of parliament (see here).

I couldn’t help but think about Charles Taylor’s oft-quoted article from 2007 in which he wrote that “almost every reason for toleration’s apparent fall into disrepute concerns Islam.” The growth of “block thinking” about Islam, he argued, had led Europeans to categorize all acts of religious piety by Muslims as suspect and dangerous to democratic society. Fearing the consequences of such religious intolerance, Taylor used the article to make an urgent appeal for crossover individuals from “Islam” and “Europe” to step forward and give voice to the possible nodes where Islam and democracy can flourish together.

At a glance, it would seem that Taylor got things backward in the Netherlands- proponents of both Wilder’s acquittal and the ritual slaughter law argued that they were defending a tolerant and multicultural vision of Dutch society by protecting free speech and making the country safer for animals. Taken together, however, and in light of the high levels of popular support that the measures received, both episodes confirm Taylor’s claim that European definitions of tolerance and multiculturalism do not seem to extend to Islamic religious identities and ethics. Both decisions make it more difficult for most Muslims to live as religious persons unless they do so in an altered way which is defined by the secular state. In doing so, as Taylor would argue, the vast mosaic of religious persons who eat Halal or are sympathetic to blasphemy laws are lumped into the same boat together. Such undifferentiated lumping hides an immense variation in the patterns of political consensus or discord that those voters share with the rest of Dutch voters, and it feeds west-versus-the-rest mentalities.

Equally interesting, (and block forming), is that both episodes offer further examples of new sets of political cleavages forming in Europe along religious lines. As we have discussed on this blog before, in certain issue areas religious identities appear to overpower traditional opposition between the political left and right, turning both sides of the spectrum into secular allies against a religious other. Tellingly, the Halal initiative was proposed by an animal rights party which pieced together a powerful voting block in the Dutch parliament by enlisting the support of both the Dutch right and labor parties. Fighting the amendment was an alliance of Muslims, Jews, Christian Democrats and a small Calvinist political party. It has not been a month of cross-over voices finding new ground in multicultural Holland.