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From Tahrir Square to the “Puerta Del Sol”? Reflections about an Ongoing Process

I. When, one week before the regional and local elections, the squares of several Spanish towns – as Madrid’s “Puerta del Sol”– were occupied by hundreds of young and not-so-young people, the so-called “15-M [15th May] Movement” was born. The press immediately ventured a comparison between these protests and those taking place just a few months earlier in some Countries with a Muslim majority, whose symbolic image remains Tahrir Square .


The comparison, launched by the international media, is too flat to hold water. Similarities are based on a “facebook generation” capable of mobilitating the masses thanks to the Internet, which is unconnected with traditional forms of political agitation. There is also the character of the vindications: imprecise and generic on one side but, on the other, linked to the very concrete conditions of daily life, etc… Yet, the differences between the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, and those taking place in Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities are too deep for an adequate comparison. The only real analogy is the fact that these movements express a profound discomfort ad that, up to recent times, we would have considered them impossible on either shore of the Mediterranean.



As to the nature and implications of the facts taking place in the Muslim-majority Countries, we shall hear contributions from extremely competent speakers from the Oasis Committee, so I refer you to their analyses. However, can the protest in the Spanish squares provide us with an insight into the question on our agenda: Secularism and New Secularism: a Viable Route?



Let us start from a rapid description: who took the protest to the streets in Madrid? The first set was made up of anti-establishment young people who had also been active during the previous months by sparking protest episodes particularly in the university and against the Catholic Church. Around these early no global and radical left-wing protesters a number of diverse groups aggregated themselves: long-time unemployed running out of financial resources, young people unable climb the first rung in the job ladder, irregular immigrants, groups denouncing corruption and flaws in the electoral system, thus denoting a profound weariness about the political class, and so on. Even a handful of “grassroots Christians” came to the square.



About this level of the problem commentators have filled the pages of the newspapers. On one hand, they turn the spotlights onto the undeniable symptoms of deterioration in the mechanisms of political participation in Western democracies; on the other, they move stern accusations against the protesters for attempting to radically question the possibility of an effective democratic participation. None of this is actually new in the social and cultural panorama, compared with other episodes in which popular dissatisfaction was expressed much more violently, as in Genoa on the occasion of the 2001 G-8 summit, or in the French banlieues in 2005, or again in London in 2009. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that in Madrid the same anti-establishment issues were mixed up with the impulse of people wanting to express, somehow tentatively, their frustration for being unemployed or their impotence before an increasingly self-referential political class. Until now they have declared themselves non violent, and nearly always have acted as such. Yet, as the weeks go by, there is the impression that the heterogeneity of the square is disappearing: the die-hards are just the same radical anti-establishment left-wing groups who had started the protests in he first place. One month after the 15-M the encampment was suddenly abandoned with a view of replacing the protest with other, yet unspecified, forms of vindication.



For the purpose of our reflection the most interesting factor is the expression of the discomfort emerged in the square. Before analysing the roots of such discomfort, the fact that it exists and has not been resolved by political or social measures alone must be taken into due account. Many international observers, from Octavio Paz to George Steiner and Edgar Morin, have noted weariness and a deadly passivity among Europeans in the last few years. Their voices almost echo that of Pierpaolo Pasolini: back in the mid-1970s, he had spoken against the consumeristic homologation of the Italian youth, whether left- or right-wing. Indeed, underneath the bad tempers which obviously originate in difficult work and life conditions, it is a the fact that the “Puerta del Sol” has fuelled in many young and not-so-young people an energy and desire to change which seemed to have been extinguished by the resignation of the last three years of financial crisis. Something is moving, or at least something has, even for one instant, stirred the hearts of young people and adults, troubling many observers with an unexpected event taking place outside the conventional political framework.



II. The answer provided by the square protests is obviously too rigid and below the level of the malaise it reveals. In fact, the password of the 15-M movement was borrowed from Stéphane Hessel’s booklet: “Indignez-vous!” . Those encamped in the squares are therefore known as the “indignados” (the angry ones). Hessel’s slogan quickly spread among them, as if they had wanted to identify the substance of their protest with a rage against the “establishment” and exclude themselves from the procedures of democratic participation. Paradoxically, the tone of their vindications betrays a stifling statalism, indicating a disproportion between their discomfort as the symptom of a need and statalism as a response to it. To some commentators, their merely reactive, angry, accusatory attitude is so inadequate as to thoroughly disqualify the phenomenon from a social and political point of view ; and here the critics are not entirely to blame.



The malaise now affecting the public opinion has in fact been creeping underneath our society, according to the renowned sociologist Víctor Pérez Díaz. He has been wondering about it for some time by searching much further than the indignados’ analysis. He believes that beyond some strictly political factors there are cultural and moral reasons that cannot be ignored. He maintains that the crisis of democracies – now denounced by the 15-M movement – is a crisis of representation as well as an existential one. This is why, even though institutions are very important, they cannot be expected to function as automatic mechanisms. Unlike the indignados, Pérez Díaz does not intend to discredit the democratic system but rather refer to a cultural work able to express itself through the institutions: “After all, the most important thing is the culture of the people, which depends on the way they use the institutions… culture understood as the imaginary expressing a vision of things and forms of life” . How can this culture of the individuals be educated? Pérez Díaz offers two interesting suggestions to contrast the current panorama. On the one hand, he remembers that the European cultural imaginary cannot be understood except by going back very far into the past to find its 20-25-century-old roots. On the other hand, he believes that democratic societies are “the background to the search for the common good: for common goods linked to different visions of a «good life»” . In short, according to Pérez Díaz, the crisis of Western democracies is a real one, requiring a cultural work that is much deeper than the level of events in the square. What is needed is a work of memory and exchange of virtuous practices in view of a good life. Only in this way will it be possible to come out of both the existential and the institutional crisis.



From a sociological viewpoint, Pérez Díaz would then address the well-known “Böckenförde question” of whether the liberal, secularized State may live on normative premises that it is unable to produce itself . Could the explosion of the protest in the squares be a further symptom of the inability of our democracies, which stake everything on formal procedures to guarantee their own survival? The German jurist and the Spanish sociologist suggest that these democracies will not be able to stand very long. Certainly, the response from the square does not resolve the Böckenförde question, but this does not adequately explain the protest; and the fact that purely formalist democratic systems could resolve it is an illusion.



III. To answer the Böckenförde question, which lies at he heart of the debate on secularism and the new secularism, it is necessary to resume a cultural work that starts precisely from the malaise. We must understand the nature of it, for the “Puerta del Sol” malaise is not just socio-political, as politicians and commentators tend to think; nor is it just cultural or moral: it is ultimately anthropological and religious.



What is the pre-political task regarding us all and imposed on us by the recent episodes of impatience? Very briefly, we have the responsibility to adequately interpret this malaise, which certainly is expressed very ambiguously and often ideologically, especially within the circle of those who are most committed to the protest. If we do not want to shut ourselves away from this reality, and end up in the reactive position of those who limit themselves to quibble – however acutely – on what others are experiencing, our leading role must be first of all educative and cultural. The hypothesis we propose is that unease is the inevitable symptom of that “set of needs and evidences” that forms every individual’s elementary experience. By starting from it, the events urge us to different tasks: the first –a decisive one -- is that of accepting the need to educate ourselves. If, in fact, we failed to perceive our own unlimited need for justice, truth or goodness, we could not identify any trace of it in the protesters; we would inevitably tend to propose social measures or employment policies in answer to their unease. These things, indeed, have already been done, with poor results. Secondly, those adults who continue to educate their own humanity – according to John Paul II’s famous expression: “Man is the way of the Church” --, are called to an involvement in the education of others, adults and young people alike, to re-arouse and illuminate this elementary experience from within the fabric of daily life, in all circumstances and environments.



The critical point of this education emerges the moment when it is felt that the nature of the elementary experience is ultimately religious. This is why it has also been called “religious sense”. The existential questions and the ultimate needs arise within experience from the contact with reality – as the protests have demonstrated – and always point further, beyond what human beings can produce by their own efforts. This aspect of the constitutive transcendence of the dynamism of every human experience, where reason and religiosity meet, is virtually absent from public debates in the West. Not surprisingly, also in the “Puerta del Sol” a “spirituality board” was instituted, among others, with vague references to new age or Eastern-type meditation references. Certainly, this spiritual opening was unimaginable in the 1970s and its evolution must be noted. However, the goal to be pursued by the elementary experience remains far away: to recognize that religiosity does not characterize just some moments in life, cut out from the ordinary network of relationships and actions, but it is the inevitable horizon enabling all actions, all relationships, all circumstances of human life. In short, it is a question of recovering educationally that basic nexus between reason and religiosity which John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio had recalled and which Benedict XVI has made emblematic of his relationship with the secularized West, as exemplified by his contributions at Regensburg and Les Bernardins.



IV.The discourse proposed to us on the new secularism will find its theoretical justification and offer a concrete service to Western societies if, faced with phenomena such as that of the “Puerta del Sol”, it can show the ultimate dimension of man as a relationship with the Mystery, a relationship making up every action, from the most private to the public ones. In this way it will also be possible to abandon one of the dogmata of the ethical and political system of Western modernity: the division between the public and the private sphere. Democratic institutions will not be the only ones to guarantee their permanence through formal public procedures. Pre-political foundations are necessary to any democratic system, Böckenförde dixit. The protests in the squares urge us towards a kind of work that may make the link between human religiosity, political rationality and democratic participation clear and operational, and able to educate the youth in this sense.



We started from Tahrir Square to arrive at the “Puerta del Sol”. Let us quickly go back to the Islamic world. In the light of the events in the West read through our cultural and educational hypothesis, it can be inferred that one cannot think of simply exporting democratic procedures into Countries with a Muslim majority, as if they were those automatic mechanisms criticized by Pérez Díaz. Such a formal model of democracy could not work unless it were accompanied by a cultural work on its pre-political premises, which cannot avoid opening the question of the role of religions in the public (ethical, social, political) debate; but even before that, the role of religion in a wholly human understanding of man, that is, according to all his dimensions of rationality, affectivity and freedom, both in the private and in the public sphere. In the Countries with a Muslim majority this work will surely have different connotations from what we have described as those of Western secularized societies.



In both cases, we are faced with a decisive contribution of the Christian faith to the common good. The vision of the common good coming from our concept of a good life is based on the idea of man mentioned above. This is why our responsibility as Christians is to verify that a lived-out faith may educate the “religious sense” in terms of a deep self-understanding and therefore a capacity for understanding others. The ripening of the elementary experience can lead to a critical judgment on the totality of the phenomenon of unease and the capacity for a dialogue that may offer an answer to the infinite desire that has begun to stir. Such an answer is that which, by pure grace, has come towards us through the humanity of Jesus Christ, present in His living Body that is the Church.