Park 51 and Burkas

It has been revealing to watch the French parliament’s 336 to 1 vote in favor of the ban on burkas this month together with the controversy over the building of a Mosque near ground zero.  Both events expose the unabated social apprehension towards Islam and Muslims on either side of the Atlantic. At the same time, however, the controversies also tell us something about how differently that apprehension gets politically framed in either country and brings to light just how different the United States and France’s institutional separation of church and state really are.

France’s “assertive secularism,” as Kuru terms it, embedded in laicité, has helped create the 336 to 1 collaboration between the right and left in France. For once, the ban on the burka sits well with both the right’s defense of French tradition as Catholic and Western and the left’s contestation of that narrative along with their own, alter-defense of France from any political religious identity or authority. In either case, Muslims using the public sphere to express and thus promote their religious values simultaneously plays to the fears of cultural weakness on the right and religious authority on the left.

Such a fear of the public presence of a religion, in and of itself, is much more difficult to politically channel in the US, thanks to its institutionalization of a “passive secularism,” (Kuru’s terms again) which is much more permissive of religious authority in the civil and public, although not political, spheres. While it is true that many in the American right have publically targeted Islam (New York Post comments here), their accusations were inherently less anti-Muslim than the French right, and they tried to articulate that their opposition was to the “radical” Muslims behind the project, not Muslims in general. Likewise, the American left generally defended the project (see an interesting interview with the project’s developer here) and the rights of Muslims to finance religiously-inspired community projects as a desirable expression of diversity and tolerance and something that was quite American.

Tombs, Real Estate and Crucifixes: Church-state relations in Europe today

This week has seen a concentrated spate of church-state events in Europe: a tomb raid in Belgium by government inspectors looking for hidden evidence relating to pedophilia investigations, a corruption case involving real estate deals managed by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, currently the Archbishop of Naples, and the continuing saga of the EU vs. crucifixes in Italy.

So far, despite sending a sharp-worded statement about the respect shown to the tombs in Belgium, the Vatican has given full signal to cooperate with the civil authorities in both cases, although it has reserved its diplomatic rights in the Sepe case as stipulated by its Concordat with Italy (stipulations the Vatican does not enjoy in Belgium).

These structures governing the relationship between religion and state, as Belgium attests, have a surprising degree of variance throughout Europe, and often reflect the success of negotiations between liberal and conservative forces over the future of religion in political life in the early 20th century. While often taking advantage of and trying to expand these privileges in the years immediately following these deals, the Church more or less backed away from them after she had re-found her footing, for better or worse, in modern, democratic, post-war European politics.

Depending on the country, and the institutional deal, the Church has tried to articulate a new, public and even political voice over the last twenty years in Europe, one more closely tied to its strength in “civil” society than in state institutions.

The political maneuvering in these two cases, therefore, might tell us something about the level of confidence the Church has in its relatively new role as a civil society leader and how much distance with a the world of authority and privilege the Church still feels it needs to give up to preserve that role in Europe as the pedophilia scandal continues to tread its wake across the continent.

Interesting questions to think about as Italy brings its appeal on the legal decision against keeping crucifixes in Italian schools before the European Union’s Human Rights Court today.

Chicago’s Engaging Religious Communities Report

The Chicago Council of Global Affairs issued a report in February of this year entitled, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” The report, written by a task force led by Scott Appleby and Richard Cizik, was meant to provide a “framework” for U.S. policymakers to understand and respond to religious actors. In large part,  the report was intended to provide structure as well as practical recommendations to some of the principles Obama outlined in his Cairo speech for fruitfully engaging with the global Islamic community (and other religious communities in general).

One of the more interesting aspects of the report is a dissenting view tacked on to its end regarding the implications for the Establishment Clause of the U.S. constitution, and whether the clause puts constraints on the engagement of the U.S. government with established religions abroad (the dissenters don’t believe it should). The debate has continued over the last two months in a series of blogposts on the Immanent Frame by religion and politics experts.

While the taskforce authors do not recommend insisting that U.S. allies adopt Establishment Clauses themselves, they do recommend that the U.S. government use its Establishment Clause to encourage non-establishment norms in other countries as a means to “developing characteristics essential to a well-functioning liberal democracy.”

The report and the debate about it on the Immanent Frame illustrates just how deeply American scholars and policy-makers have internalized the association between the dis-establishment of religion and all the rights and liberties of democracy. Even one of the greatest critiques of the report, by Winnifred Sullivan, who denounces the simplistic nature of the report and the way it champions a new version of American Imperialism, herself equates Established Religions as being, “by definition not accepting of ‘pluralism, freedom and democracy.’”

This internalized association misses the startling wide range of religion-state arrangements which endorse and show favoritism to a religion or religions and the process by which many established religions, religious societies and democratic regimes have evolved over time, together, to better institute protections on human and social rights, including the protection of religious freedom. Rather than assuming Established Religions and Democracy are always anathema, a more complicated and interesting task for scholars is to take the variety of religion and state arrangements found in democracy more seriously. Among other questions, they ought to be asking what kinds of non-separation of religion and state have done a better of promoting a whole range of human and social rights, as well as ethical practices for good governance and economics, and how?

2 reasons to watch Hafiz Hussain

Earlier last month Obama announced the appointment of Rashad Hussain as a new special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). This is Obama’s second special envoy directed towards the “Muslim world” and part of his strategic “New Beginning” program he initiated in his speech in Cairo last June. His first special envoy, Farah Pandith, was designated as “Special Representative to Muslim Communities,” and, partly because of the nature of such a global charge, has done little concrete since then. There are at least two reasons to believe that Hussain might be able to do something more substantive.

First, Hussain enjoys a specific charge to the institution of the OIC. One of the most important transnational networks of sovereign states, the OIC has struck up an increasingly vocal note in its ambition to shape the contours of international discourse and policy, especially in the areas of Human Rights and the Middle East Peace Process. As Obama’s man-in-the-OIC, Hussain has the opportunity to make a concrete case for the existence of nodes of policy cooperation between the U.S. and the Middle East/Muslim World, and to lobby to make that cooperation happen.

Second, Hussain is Hafiz, meaning he has memorized the Qur’an in whole, and, what is more, he has played an active part in the American Muslim community, especially as a student involved in the Muslim Students Association. When questioned about what she had to say to the Muslim world, Pandith has responded with vague statements about lessons she learned meeting Turkish Muslim immigrants working for the state department in Europe (interview here). But when Hussain goes to make a case before the OIC, he can speak as the voice of one who’s been a protagonist for his own religious community in the U.S. and, Obama-Cairo-style, try to diffuse the facile anti-American stereotypes floating near his interlocutors by telling the story of his own American religious flourishing.

Hussain’s job is not going to be easy, and his profile also includes several disadvantages: He is exceptionally young (31 years); he is an Indian-American like Pandith (and, thus, like Pandith, is already stoking charges that the U.S. is not serious about taking the Middle East seriously); and his Islamic religiosity scares folks in the U.S. (see, for example, here ). But I would not count him out and hope his American story can help him along to substantive and fruitful bargaining at the OIC.

Sartori, Islam, Rosarno

Last week, attacks on migrant workers in Rosarno, Italy and the riots which ensued brought the conflicts over immigration in Italy to the global news audience. Although the great majority of the immigrants involved were from “Christian cultures” of sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt’s foreign minister made headlines for accusing the attacks as another example of religious racism in Europe versus Islam. As a background drop to this accusation, for several weeks before the riots began, a vicious debate unwound in the newspapers between Tito Boeri, a relatively well-known Italian academic, and Giovanni Sartori, who holds a reasonable claim to one of the top ten most influential political scientists of the world in the last 50 years. Angelo Panebianco, another leading Italian political scientist, also weighed in on the debate.

Essentially, Sartori argued that integrating Muslim immigrants into Italian democratic life posed difficult, although not insurmountable problems. For successful integration or “Italianization” to occur, he claimed that immigrants need to adhere to a basic political ethic of tolerance and that they respect the principle of a separation of church and state. The latter, he argued poses a major problem because Islamic culture, in general, traditionally does not support such a separation. He juxtaposed this Islamic cultural bent unfavorably against that of the millenarian Jewish tradition.

Leaving aside the historical evidence, I just want to point out that this is an odd claim to make, not least because there is no evidence that integration in Italy is being hampered by efforts by the Italian Muslim-community to do away with the present church-state arrangement in Italy. It is especially strange in light of the fact that Italy’s constitution held up the Catholic Church as the “official religion of state” until 1984, and because the state of Israel does the same with the Jewish religion to this day. Which is to say, the whole separation of church and state question is much more complicated than Sartori would like to admit and in his two juxtaposing societal cultures, a Jewish and an Italian one, democracy survived, even flourished, for decades without such separation.

Panebianco, while also making dubious claims about Islamic culture as a whole, was at least more honest in his response, which also affirmed the inherent difficulty of Islamic immigration in Italy. It is not Islamic immigration, in general, for Panebianco, that is problematic for integration, but the public and political expression of Islam in Italy which poses the problem, not just to the social-liberal foundations of the Italian constitution, but because such expression challenges the traditions of Italy’s established public religion, namely, Roman Catholicism. As long as Italian Muslims practice “quietism,” Panebianco sees little difficulty for Islamic integration into Italian life, but if they allow their religion to affect their politics, in Italy, that sounds like fanaticism to him.

Which brings us back to the messy political geography of the Swiss Minarets, and the strange, unfolding alliance consequences of a Catholic Church in favor of Islamic immigration.

Swiss Minarets

The Swiss constitutional referendum last week banning the future construction of minarets garnered curiously mixed reactions in Europe which reflected the confusing political geography of the issue. One aspect of that geography is the emerging policy preferences of Christian church leaders (versus Christian political leaders). The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Switzerland, most significantly, wrote that the decision created “bitterness” in their hearts, and neighboring Catholic spokesmen in France and Italy did not like the precedent it set at all. Abbot Erminio de Scalzi, for example, auxiliary Bishop of Milan, said that, “it is not by forbidding minarets that one defends Christian values,” (see text here). De Scalzi’s comments are further evidence of an evolving, though not always consistent, Christian church position held by leaders from Rowan Williams to Ratzinger, that defends common, inter-religious “spiritual rights.” These spiritual rights, church leaders claim, require similar political status and protection as those of UN-recognized human rights. In creating such a position, church leaders are breaking with many “Christian” political leaders of the right (such as those allied with the Swiss People’s Party) who frame their opposition to immigration and islamization in the language of tradition and moral identity. Church leaders’ defence of religious pluralism sounds a lot like liberalism, and their soundbytes in the press over the Swiss incident were close to those of left and socialist politicians. However, church leaders’ intent to protect their own public presence in the state by promoting the spiritual presence of all religions in the state and to encourage the practice of a Christian political ethics of hospitality and “convivenza,” is infused with a religious logic and rhethoric which are in acute contraposition to the traditional political intuitions of most European liberals.   A political geography just about as non-Cartesian as Switzerland.

Catholic Anglicans, Islam and l’ora di religione

Douthat wrote quite the Op-Ed piece in the Nytimes last week which argued that darker motivations  lay behind Pope Benedict’s move to create a special Anglican-rite institution within the Catholic Church, suggesting that it was a way to circle the wagons against the growing strength of Islam, the “foe” of all Christians in Europe. To support his argument he juxtaposed statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in support of some sort of possibility for the application of Shari’a law in Britain with Benedict’s Reggensburg address.  I found it interesting that this week also saw the Italian Bishop’s Conference go on the record in favor of Islamic public religious education for Muslim immigrants. The Italian Catholic Church, which could hardly be characterized as a hotbed of liberals and which long enjoyed the exclusive privileges of educating Catholic doctrine to all Italian school children for one hour a week (l’ora di religione) has consistently come out in support of the political and spiritual rights of Muslim immigrants in Italy, offending both the right and the left in the process. While Benedict is certainly keen on reminding secular, liberal and socialist Europeans of their need to recognize their Christian roots, he also seems to be finding common cause with people of other religious faiths interested in reframing the role of religion in the public sphere and renewing its importance. Not exactly the treatment of someone you would suspect is circling the wagons.

Church and Health Care Reform

In the heat up of the last month over health care reform in the United States, it was curious to see how little morally charged the discussion grew to be. For a debate so often cast  in the “culture wars” mold (where religion is often the battle-banner of choice) religion has mostly remained out of this. It is not that big moral issues are not at stake here, but many religious leaders and institutions are having a hard time figuring out a coherent public role in the age of Obama. The Catholic Church’s recent reactions are instructive.  In the early days of the debate, many Bishops (the same who lined up against Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame) came out  strongly against the reform, saying that no health care was better than a poorly reformed health care. But this ran counter to many Catholic social imperatives in the US, reflected in the traditional, massive presence of Catholic institutions in the world of health, from hospices to nursing homes to hospitals, and did not sit well with huge numbers of the Catholic electorate either.  The US Conference of Bishops recently put up a website which recognizes all this but then flutters in its attempts to claim a voice or direction in the national debate. Following Obama’s speech, which seemed to lay to rest the rumors that the reform would finance abortions, the Bishops’ statements have seemed to largely agree with those of the President.  The scramble to find a united voice, however, is keeping the Bishops timid, and far from the mobilization potential they flexed in the last few years on immigration and abortion legislation. Religion, for now, is all quiet on the culture war front.

Iran’s Clerics

Saturday’s world-wide, coordinated protests against Iran’s election results, along with President Ahmadinejad’s week of difficulties in presenting a coherent and believable cabinet, have kept the spotlight on the Islamic Republic’s question of legitimacy and what minimal level it needs to keep functioning as such.  So it is interesting to watch the response of the religious clerics in Iran and to try to guage how much power they really have over politics. Rafsanjani, former president, powerful cleric, made big headline waves with his speech on July 17th which seemed to criticize the supreme Ayatollah Khamenei, although Rafsanjani has been working hard this week to signal that he is not putting Khamenei or the Islamic Republic in doubt, just discussing an electoral issue (see aljazeera article). Although he used a Friday prayer sermon to deliver the message it is unclear how much his status as religious leader gives him any bargaining power over the decisions made by Khamenei. It appears that the same question can be posed of the group of 9 highest ranking clerics, of whom, the New York Times reported this week (see article), 3 have openly protested the post-election results and only 1 has actually congratulated the election winner, Ahmadinejad. In the weeks since the final results of the election were posted, it has often been said that real change in Iran will have to come from the inside, and through deft use of the republic’s religious and clerical language. Some clerics are now publically doing just that, but the power which that language and symbolic status bestows upon them to affect change is still to be seen.

Benedict and Obama

I hope you are still thinking about the multitudinous of this speech:

Obama is meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome this week following the G8, and most of the news has highlighted possible cooperation on reducing global poverty as well as possible conflict over bio-ethics.  Following Obama’s speech in Cairo and Benedict’s own awkward, piece-meal attempts at addressing the Islamic world, I would be disappointed if these two giants of softpower did not save half of their alloted time to talk about inter-religious friendship. There might be  just as much that they can do together to improve relationships between the “(north)West” and “Islam” as they can hammer out to win the war on poverty.