Cooperating modernities in Tunisia?

[This month’s post is being hosted by the Contending Modernities blog, a new project at the University of Notre Dame exploring modernity from Catholic, Muslim and Secular perspectives]

In April, Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan came out with an article in the Journal of Democracy on “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations.” If the article is right, Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists are participating in an encouraging pattern of political cooperation that bodes well for the country’s democratic development. There is good reason to be hopeful about the relevance of an emerging “Tunisian model” of secular-Islamist negotiation, not only for Tunisia’s future but for all those countries affected by the Arab Spring. Yet there is also reason for caution… read full entry here

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?

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.

Islam, Islamic Anxiety and Muslim Women in America

Several recent surveys on religious attitudes in the US have confirmed the rise of anxiety among Americans towards Muslims and the grafting of that unease onto the political spectrum. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in addition to the results of Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s new book, American Grace, all point to American feelings towards Islam as an emergent factor shaping the contours of US political alliances and rhetoric. This growth trend, as Dionne and Galston write for the Brookings Institute, can be captured in responses to the question of whether Americans believe that Islamic values are compatible with American values. In the PRRI post-election survey, for example, two-thirds of Republicans answered this question in the negative compared to only thirty percent of Democrats. Newt Gingrich and Sharon Angle’s warnings about Shari’a law, mobilization against the Ground Zero Mosque, and support for the Oklahoma referendum banning any future implementation of Shari’a law are all recent manifestations of these sentiments from the American political right.

It would be interesting to probe the growth of these fears and anxieties a little more- are they mostly a function of the insecurities produced by the links between Islamism and international terrorism as John Green of the Pew suggests? Or do they have more to do with the non-Judeo-Christian otherness of Islam, as Putnam and Campbell suggest? Assuming a top-down institutionalization of Shari’a law is still a far off threat in America, what is most unsettling to voters on the right about American Muslims taking a more active part in American public life? In fact, what would that America look like anyway? Perhaps not surprisingly, and seemingly in response to this very question, a pair of pieces from the liberal-leaning media (nytimes’ “Muslim Women Gain Higher Profile”  and PBS’s “The Calling”) have sketched what that America could look like by showcasing the lives of Muslim women in the US. Neither of the pieces shy away from the women’s difficulties and sufferings, but both also celebrate just how much American-mosaic-building these women have accomplished by assimilating big American values while unapologetically adding their own religious values to the pot. It gives us a glimpse of how this experiment might succeed (again) and what the fruitful magnifications of such success might entail for both America and Islam.

Ground Zero Mosque Reactions in the Middle East

For this month’s post, I thought it could be interesting to troll through some of the reactions of the Arabic world media to Obama’s iftar speech and the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.

What is most remarkable about such a troll is the lack of much of a reaction to the controversy. National papers in places like Egypt and Algeria have hardly reported on the debate and Arabic news giants like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Asharq Alawsat have either largely ignored the controversy or downplayed its significance for the Islamic world, as Abdul Rahman al-Rashid has pointed out here.

So why hasn’t the Ground Zero Mosque caught the attention of the Islamic world?

The lack of reaction might just be circumstantial, so far. As Jytte Klausen points out in her excellent study of the Danish Cartoons crisis, reactions in the Islamic world to the cartoons took months to develop and required the presence of both activists who promoted such reactions and leaders who missed opportunities to diffuse them.

That said, the lack of reaction also exposes a certain ambivalence in the Arab media about the controversy and towards America itself. On the one hand, the Islamophobia which the reactions to the proposal have revealed confirms rather than challenges many popular characterizations of US society in the Islamic world. On the other hand, that same Islamophobia has not emerged as the dominant actor in this story (yet). Leaders and intellectuals beyond Bloomberg and Obama have defended the proposal on the basis of democratic principles of separation of religion and state and, with their help, the mosque may still be built.

So while the controversy has brought fears about “Muslim” designs towards the US out into the open, it has also revealed a US public struggling to overcome that phobia. Depending on the how that struggle ends, this means that the Ground Zero Mosque might yet prove to help Obama in his attempt to reach out to the Islamic world. Alternatively, it could make such an attempt an even more ephemeral task.

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.