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Constitutions and secularism, a necessary nexus?

Susanna Mancini and Michel Rosenfeld (eds.), Constitutional Secularism in an Age of Religious Revival (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014)

This article was published in Oasis 19. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-17 17:34:20

Susanna Mancini and Michel Rosenfeld have offered readers a particularly rich and stimulating edition of contemporary narratives as regards the constitutions and secularism. A heterogeneous group of philosophers, jurists, anthropologists and sociologists have been called upon to explore the salient subjects around which revolves the perennial debate on the relationship between constitutions and religion in the contemporary epoch. There emerges a picture that is dense in perspectives not neglecting the historical dimension, the more specifically constitutionalist and legal philosophy sides, the subject of religious freedom and its relationships with other fundamental rights (in particular, the right to expression of thought and the right to gender equality), or, lastly, certain yardsticks, such as legislation on the Islamic veil. This volume, moreover, addresses religious approaches, looking in particular at the Christian-Catholic, Islamic and Jewish traditions, whose compatibility is examined in relation to the contemporary constitutionalist blueprint, both from a theoretical point of view and in its practical declinations: in particular, attention should be paid to the in-depth analysis of the Egyptian Constitution of 2012 which had just been emanated when this volume was being prepared. The writer of this review draws three impressions from the various contributions to this volume which in various places achieve a notable advance in our understanding of this subject. First of all, the broadly-held belief of the editors of this work, and of many of those who took part in it, that ‘constitutional secularism’ is an unfailing part of a constitutional state. In a certain sense, secularity is a pre-condition of the very existence of a constitutional state, but it is also part of a juridical-political project to which contemporary constitutionalism leads. If without secularisation a constitutional state does not exist, in the same way a constitutional state that does not pursue and explore its own secularity during the course of time, also, does not exist. A second element that impresses the reader, however, is the presence of dissonant voices. In this volume the professions of secularity are not absent. But if most of the contributors place secularity at the foundations of the modern state, there are also those who believe that the choice in favour of secularity is only one of the options of the state. It is secular, but its secularity depends in substantial terms upon its sovereign character. Insofar as it is sovereign, a legal system establishes itself, and, when creating itself, normally chooses a secular approach – but it could also act differently. For example, it could establish an official religion. In this sense, Egypt and France are on the same level, inasmuch as both these countries have exercised their sovereignty: the first, crowning a religion with an established status; the second, leading religion outside the political sphere. The third interesting fact is the area considered by the editors. They continue to move in a context marked by monotheisms and by the perimeter of Western States, albeit extended to its historical offshoots. Whether dealing with South Africa, Canada, Egypt or Israel, the reader nonetheless has in front of him in practical terms only Christianity, Islam or Judaism, and systems forged by Western juridical culture. One is led to ask whether, in expanding the perimeter, the categories should not be thought about anew; and whether the combination of Abrahamic monotheism and constitutionalism is purely accidental.

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