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Religion and Society

Hybridization of Civilisations on the Public Place

Martino Diez

"And for this we need to train our primary attention neither on indices, stages, traits, nor trends, but on processes, on the way in which things stop being what they are and become instead something else." Such insightful remarks are from Islam Observed Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, a book by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, which was recently translated into Italian under the title Islam, Lo sviluppo religioso in Marocco e in Indonesia (Raffaello Cortina, 2008). In spite of the 40 years since the original edition first appeared those words are as relevant today as they were when they were originally written.


In trying to understand what was occurring to decolonised peoples, Geertz realised that the economic indices popular at the time (miles of paved road, number of TV sets and hospital beds, etc.) were largely irrelevant to understand what was going. By focusing on processes he was able to see the rebirth of religion under new forms as well as the risk of its ideologisation right at a time when most of his colleagues were forecasting society's immanent secularisation along socialist lines.


If possible, an understanding of such processes is even more pressing today than it was in the past. And the process that requires more of our attention, as recent events show, is what we at Oasis have been focusing on for some time, and which we call the "métissage of civilisations and cultures." It should be abundantly clear by now that such an expression should not be seen as prescriptive concept but should be viewed instead as an explanatory variable, made available to individuals and groups so that they may face the hard task of steering the whirling flow of events. Métissage also entails a certain positive value, one though that carries a potential for violence and confrontation which are inherent in a process whose outcomes remain open-ended.


One of métissage's most important characteristics has certainly been the appearance of many religious actors in the public arena, a space that is longer "neutral", one that in fact has never truly existed, but was in reality a typically Christian notion, shared at least as some kind of ethical, albeit unacknowledged source of inspiration. Indeed today we can easily see this when such a shared background is no more.


This novelty certainly represents a challenge, but also an opportunity to create a new form of laïcité. For instance, as concrete universals religions impose a contextualisation of the issue of rights, which in the West suffers from a troublesome level of abstractness. Regularly in fact, this or that right is proposed for inclusion in this or that international or regional charter, on the strong belief that we can have rights without duties and that the abstract sanction of principles is enough to guarantee their correct application. Instead what are needed are actual criteria, which is to say that even if the principles cannot be questioned, how they are applied can still be open to intense debate.


This was clearly the case when Milan's Piazza Duomo was the scene of a questionable prayer-cum-demonstration, an event repeated later in front of the city's Stazione Centrale (Central Railway Station). In this case calling upon on the God-given right to freely practice one's religion is not enough. Whilst the former is one of the fundamental rights most threatened in the world today—something which we at Oasis are well aware of since we closely monitor what happens to Christian communities in predominantly Muslim countries—claiming the right to worship freely cannot hide the fact that such a public display perverts its religious nature and forces it into a political box.


It is plain for all to see that Muslim prayers are not the same as Christian prayers, not only in formal terms but also conceptually. The connection to politics is much stronger, and this is the case today as it was in the past. Current tensions are also to be taken into consideration since confrontation has almost become institutionalised by events in Gaza.


However, even if the public arena is not neutral, no one has the right to monopolise it. It must, especially in plural societies, be open to participant's mutual recognition for the practical reason that being together comes before and is the foundation of civil coexistence; as long as a nation's most important traditions are respected.


If we recall the classical dichotomy of Islamic Law, civil society's space can neither be the 'House of Islam' or that of any other established religion, nor the 'House of War' between factions fighting each other, but must be instead a "House of Witness" as some European Muslim thinkers have began to argue. Indeed this task cannot be left to chance, nor can it ever be viewed as done, over once and for all.


Oasis Centre - Studium Generale Marcianum