Tradition is always an added value. Passed on from generation to generation, it is every community’s legacy, a way to guarantee its continuity. Neither people nor civilisations can be imagined without this connection to history, to the past.
For many years you have been involved with nations and societies in Asia. How are traditions, especially religious traditions, experienced in that continent?
I think it is fair to say that for many Asian peoples traditions have become rigidified. This is happening in a few Muslim societies but also in other religions. For instance, there are some ways of passing on Buddhist or Hindu beliefs that have become, in a certain sense, ossified. In these religious communities some of the things one must do or some of moral values one must follow are passed on in ways that are cut off from real life. Generally, very often this leads young people to assume a critical stance towards them; they start to view them more like deadwood rather than as a resource. In Iran for example many young people exactly because they see a narrow-minded tradition imposed on them become de facto atheists. Badly shaken by secularism, the same is happening in India to Hinduism. Here traditions are repudiated in favour of new values like one’s career, city living, and individualism. In the end the problem that has not been solved is the relationship between religion and modernity. In fact, lest we forget secularism has undermined the Christian tradition as well. In fact many Christians who live in villages, when they move to the city, especially the big cities of China, India and the Middle East, have a hard time living according to their tradition. And when a tradition starts to fade as a way to communicate life, it becomes hard to come together with other religions.
If so, can we draw a parallel between the secularised societies of Europe and some Asian nations?
All religious traditions are facing a rapid process of secularisation, whose culture and lifestyle are in principle hostile to faith and religion. This is why it is especially young people who experience a break between the tradition that is passed onto them and the values that attract them, like career, pragmatism, money or an individualistic way of life. Often in an urban and modern environment they choose the latter instead of trying to live according to their religious tradition.
The opposite danger is that of embracing a tradition even when it is proposed in an almost sclerotic form like fundamentalism. Which countries in Asia are in danger of drifting in this direction?
I think this danger exists in many societies. One example is Saudi Arabia where the ban on the public expression of all religions except Sunni Islam prevents people from measuring themselves to other groups. Another example is that of some Indian States like Orissa where we have seen terrible violence inflicted on Christians by Hindu communities who refuse aprioristically to accept their testimony. They do not accept what one might describe as the transformational character of Christianity towards modern society.
During the meeting of the Oasis Scientific Committee participants also talked about the cultural interpretation of tradition, which is the capacity of reading the latter in the light of our own historical context. In your view is this a viable path for Asian nations?
I think it is necessary. It is impossible to communicate one’s tradition and faith without going through culture. The problem is that a fundamentalist approach ends up “freezing” into a rigid pattern the values of a tradition and culture instead of proposing them in an ongoing comparison to what people want.
In your opinion what is the way out of this situation?
I think we must work at two levels. The first one is to enhance the value of education and promote independent schools for Muslims in Europe and Christians in Muslim countries. On this Christians and Muslims can work together.
The other thing is the challenge of secularism to believers of all religions. There are many issues, like the value of family or the value of life on which Christians and Muslims and other religions can find a lot of common ground. But for Christians and Muslims to work together they must first of all renounce violence.
* Interview care of Michele Cisco