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.