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Middle East and Africa

In the New that Advances, the Eternal Question

Where is the Middle East going? The question imposes itself and bounces back and forth unceasingly in the mass media. If we do not want only the flow of images, often confused news, or somebody’s temperament, in the multiple gradations of optimism and pessimism, to determine the answer, it is very clear that a long journey awaits us, of analysis and sharing but also of witness and action. Oasis, indeed, does not want to withdraw from the demanding task of decoding the current season of change.

Work and Freedom

 

 

While the temporal distance that separates us from the first disorders in Tunisia grows, the feeling of surprise at what I have called the ‘unforeseen in North Africa’ does not diminish. Unforeseen not only for a majority of scholars but also, if we are not deceived, for the populations themselves who were the protagonists of the revolts, and certainly for European societies which were not rarely fixed within visions of little range. Like every unforeseen event, it contains numerous elements of disquiet, which should be emphasised with a healthy realism, but it constitutes first of all an appeal that the Lord addresses to our freedom.

 

 

In the uprisings of North Africa, hitherto the subject of the economy and social rights has been of great relevance. The revolts broke out in contexts of deprivation, amongst young people, and one of the recurrent requests has been employment. The effect on European societies, which were also troubled by this crisis, was almost immediate, with a new intensification of migratory flows, accompanied by tensions. Many analysts, however, are of the opinion that the shock wave is still to come. Behind the Maghreb, indeed, press the populations of sub-Saharan Africa, who are quite often in unbearable conditions of life. A survey of the horizon which is minimally honest and realistic thus excludes the idea that we can continue with the present economic system. This is not only an ethical question, as can often be heard repeated in certain circles, above all if by ethics one means a shallow post eventum operation of ‘maquillage’. This is, in truth, a practical impossibility. And it is no accident that the Holy Father thought it necessary to dedicate an encyclical to drawing up a new economic logic. We should equally not underestimate how the physical shift of migrants will make it increasingly inevitable in Europe that we will speak about an authentic mestizaje. This category – and this is something which today we must acknowledge – had a certain provocative and prophetic charge, not least because it allowed the perception of the existence of a growing variety within the Islamic world, and was born, as is known, in the form of a metaphor made precise by a primary reference to ‘culture and civilisation’. But demography suggests that this phenomenon could also acquire very ¬concrete features and, as history reminds us, ones that are somewhat painful.

 

 

Together with the relevance of the economic theme, a strong request expressed itself for greater individual freedoms and a more effective control of the apparatuses of the state. This core of demands often referred to the concept of ‘human dignity’. A request to reorganise the public space in a more pluralist and liberal way, capable of tolerating a higher level of internal differentiation, was advanced by some sectors of society. Some demands seem to remind us of the historical pathway taken by Europe in relation to secularity, but there are also notable differences: the question of the relations between Church and state is raised, for example, in totally new ways (hence, among other things, the idea of ‘clericalising’ Islam, as various European States are trying to do, could turn out to be anachronistic). Emphasis seems to be put first and foremost on the public space as a setting for a freer dialogue between different positions, within the Muslim religious field as well, while the criticism of religious conceptions in themselves which, as is known, is at the origin of by no means little confusion about secularity, does not appear to find great echo. If by the ‘new secularity’ we mean, as I have specified in the past, [1] the search for a criterion by which to regulate the space of possible coexistence, then this subject is present and relevant in the revolutions of North Africa as well, beyond the name that will be used. And perhaps the emphasis on the openness of the public space makes the term ‘civism’, madaniyya, the most suitable. Whatever the case, the terminological question is not the first urgency: there comes to mind the invitation of Husserl to return to ‘things ¬themselves’.

 

 

It is also for this reason that to lay stress, instead, on ‘secularity’, transforming it from a European historical experience (which has been variously interpreted and not without contradictions) into an absolute category of the spirit whose manifestation (finally) is awaited in non-European civilisations as well, does not seem to be a particularly promising or effective pathway at a cognitive level. It should not be forgotten, in fact, that the self-portrayal of a number of states of the Middle East as ‘journeying towards secularity’, together with a rhetoric of reforms, has often been used to mask authoritarian drifts. Paradoxically, the facts of North Africa demonstrate, in addition to a thousand other things, that the stress placed upon the need for a new secularity or upon positive secularity (to which Benedict XVI has dedicated more than one address) is not a verbal stratagem thought up by some people in order to avoid speaking about secularity tout court, but a need imposed by the facts.

 

 

Revolts or Revolutions?

 

The two ingredients that I have referred to, namely economic demands and the request for greater individual rights, led to a concatenation of revolts which we cannot as yet say has ended. Are they also revolutions? Augusto del Noce, the great Italian philosopher of the second part of the twentieth century, in his Il problema dell’ateismo (‘The Problem of Atheism’) has an illuminating observation here, even though it was made in a context different from ours, namely in the contrast between the Marxist revolution and the surrealist revolt: ‘The moment of pure revolt dissociates itself from the idea of revolution, because to the latter is essential the idea of truth’.[2] The movements of North Africa were born as revolts of an economic character. If they became – at least for some sections of their respective societies – revolutions, this is because they brought into play a certain idea of man. If they want to continue to be revolutions, it is this very idea that they must explore.

 

 

In the Middle East the question about what kind of man the man of the third millennium wants to be has rung out forcefully. This is the same question which in different forms is increasingly powerfully shaking Western societies. In reality, however, although the question is clear, the answer is not yet well defined. Let us think for example of what would happen if the economic situation of Tunisia and Egypt continued to be very negative: the need for order and stability would absolutely come to the fore to the disadvantage of the discourse of freedoms. Furthermore, while in Egypt the oppositions between communities, or oppositions presented as such, caused an increasing number of victims, until the unacceptable incidents of the autumn, countries with a very marked internal variety such as Syria have been openly experiencing the climate of a civil war. The protest movements are not exempted from the risk of being exploited by fundamentalists or demagogues and probably not everything was born so innocently as some of the mass media would have us believe. Lastly, we cannot ¬forget that in other parts of the world with Muslim majorities (I am thinking here of ¬Pakistan but also of the martyred Iraq), things seem to be moving in a totally ¬different direction. The spaces of freedom, just as they open can also close and we must distinguish between long-term prospects and immediate consequences. It would really be a sad paradox (to avoid which the international community must act in every way possible) if revolts carried out in the name of freedom ended up with the cancellation of those concrete experiences of positively adopted pluralism – the eastern Christian communities.

 

 

Despite everything, these phenomena of insurrection constitute a point of no-return, a watershed that is certainly more marked compared to the European 1989 and the recent movements of the ‘indignant’. The new media have played a role in this change, albeit a role that has often been exaggerated, whereas the influence of finance and the army has been generally underestimated. However, the central aspect remains the pluralisation of society induced by the insurrections; it is very important that this phenomenon is addressed respecting the pathway of each party, but the phenomenon exists. In a context of greater differentiation it will be necessary to find suitable reasons for a more secure foundation for personal freedom, and here religious freedom appears to be the litmus test, given that the invoked dignity of the person finds in it its ultimate foundation: otherwise it would run the risk of being reduced to a flatus vocis, a mere verbal expression. Not necessarily contradictory in relation to such a need, and indeed comprehensible as regards its motivations, is the emphasis on the rights of the individual. However, the experience of the West has demonstrated that by this route one can also arrive at a tragedy. A crisis of education and of generation, an identity that does not want to have connections: this is the fatal illness of our society. Here we have the warning that should come from the West.

 

 

The question from which we began takes on, therefore, a new and more incisive formulation: not so much where is the Middle East going but the Middle East through whom? The answer, in fact, will be played out first and foremost at the level of subjects who will lead the change.

 

 

The Practical Good of Being-Together

 

If the idea of man will determine the form that the demand for pluralism will take in the Middle East, to the point of the possibility of its tragic overturning, which proposal is able to advance the Christian faith? Does it have something specific to say? In attempting to answer this question, I inevitably shift the centre of our attention from the reality of the Middle East to the context of plural European societies which, indeed, is specific to me. Whether these reflections can also be applied elsewhere (to a certain extent I believe that this is the case) is one of the impassioned reasons why Oasis exists.

 

 

Benedict XVI, during his recent visit to Aquileia and Venice in may 2011, had occasion to state, echoing the words of the ancient Letter to Diognetus: ‘Do not deny anything of the Gospel in which you believe, but live in the midst of others with sympathy, communicating by your very way of life that humanism which is rooted in Christianity, in order to build together with all people of good will a “city” which is more human, more just and more supportive'. [3] After the drama of atheistic humanism (De Lubac), the Holy Father thus exhorts us to rediscover a Christian humanism in which finds space, as its intrinsic and not seasonal dimension (once again the words of Benedict XVI), openness to other religions and to men of good will. This is a major challenge which still awaits to be suitably addressed and which embraces various aspects, from the theological, anthropological and cultural dimensions to the more strictly political dimension, to which I intend to confine myself.

 

 

And specifically at the strictly political level, in some past works I have stressed, in order to identify the criterion for possible coexistence in a plural society, the political-practical value of being-together.[4] In this way my exhortation was to recognise that, if as Christians we truly believe in a Father who guides history while awaiting us in His home (‘the tent of God with men’ of Ap 21:3), we cannot consider as extraneous to His design the condition of unprecedented plurality that we are experiencing nowadays. I am still convinced that this simple observation has enormous practical and psychological consequences and already allows us to see in a completely different way the problem of migrants in the West, or, in the East, the meaning of a minority Christian presence.

 

 

However, some dialogues and contributions [5] have led me to consider the possibility that this principle, founded on the recognition of being in society as a political good, can be adopted as a sufficient criterion to underpin in a suitable way a public space in a context of unprecedented plurality (not, that is to say, a context in which, as has been the case hitherto with Europe, some tacitly admitted Christian ethical assumption have acted to contain possible conflicts).[6] The principle of being together, or if one prefers of communication between subjects, although open to different speculative or doctrinal underpinnings, brings with it certain contents at the level of values.[7] Indeed, it excludes conceptions of a terroristic or separatist character because they contradict the criterion of political communication; it pre-supposes the freedom of participation, demands equality and places justice as conditions of realisation. It admits variations in realisations but within a certain limit. The eastern bishops have reflected a great deal on the notion of ‘conviviality’, most recently at the Special Assembly of the synod of Bishops for the Middle East. Could the political analysis that I have here just touched upon be understood as an examination of this practical experience, which amidst so many difficulties and persecutions has never ceased to be present?

 

 

We should certainly examine with great attention the question of whether the ‘communicative’ principle of being-together in itself is sufficient to avoid relativistic negative tendencies. Whatever the case, men of religion should place in their narration aiming at mutual recognition between the actors that inhabit plural society a consideration of the dignity of the human person created in ‘the image and likeness of God’ (cf. Gen 1:27) or the ‘vice-regent of God on earth’ (Qur’an 2:30). This at least seems to be the opinion of St. Augustine who, paraphrasing in a brilliant way that gospel principle ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s’ (Mt 22:21; cf. Mk 12:17 and Lk 20:25), adds: ‘Render unto Caesar his monetary image and unto God the human person, created in His image’.[8] One the other hand one could reply that ‘the intrinsic and irreducible dignity of the human subject is to be found with more certainty and pertinence within his historical-social action as his condition of possibility’[9] because the act of communication implies the encounter of free and personal subjects.

 

 

In handing over to everyone the task of exploring the good reasons for a life in common, without which the tribulations of Euro-Atlantic and North African societies will remain exposed to every type of negative tendency, it seems to me to be necessary to remember, as we have done on so many other occasions, the ineluctable horizon of the work that awaits us. It can only involve witness.

 

 

Over these years, thanks to Oasis, we have had the good fortune to encounter a number of extraordinary figures. I would like to cite just two: H.E. Msgr. Luigi Padovese, who was tragically murdered in Turkey, and the Pakistani minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, that great champion, together with the Muslim governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, of the fight against the unjust law on blasphemy. May their example stimulate Christians and all men of good will to not step back in the construction of a good personal and communitarian life! This is our historic task. We owe it to ourselves and somewhat to them as well.

 

 

____________________________________

 

 

[1] Angelo Scola, Una nuova laicità. Temi per una società plurale (Marsilio, Venice, 2007), pp. 15-45.

 

 

[2] Augusto del Noce, Il problema dell' ateismo (Il Mulino, Bologna, 2010, first edition 1964), p. 100.

 

 

[3] Benedict XVI, ‘Address to the Assembly of the Second Meeting of Aquileia’, Basilica of Aquileia, 7 May 2011.

 

 

[4] Cf. Jacques Maritain, ‘Les possibilités de coopération dans un monde divisé’in Œuvres 1940-1963 (Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1979), pp. 435-450.

 

 

[5] Cf. Francesco Botturi,‘Pluralismo sociale e virtù politica’, Hermeneutica 1 (2002), 1-33, and more recently my Buone ragioni per la vita in comune (Mondadori, Milan, 2010), pp. 11-14.

 

 

[6] On this ‘disloyalty of modern times’cf. Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, (Sheed & Ward,Lanham MD, 1957).

 

 

[7] Historically this thesis found a great defender in the figure of the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, the theoriser of ‘natural communication’: cf. P. Gomarasca,Meticciato, convivenza o confusione? (Marcianum Press, Venice, 2009), pp. 73-78. The whole of the subject of relational reason, developed by Pierpaolo Donati in particular in the volume Oltre il multiculturalismo (Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2008), appreciates the communicative dimension as a possible solution to intercultural conflicts.

 

 

[8] Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 94, 2.

 

 

[9] Francesco Botturi, ‘Secolarizzazione e laicità’, in P. Donati (ed.), Laicità: la ricerca dell’universale

 

nelle differenze
(Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008), pp. 295-337.

 

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