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.