Chapter 30

Silvio Ferrari

I would like to start my contribution by telling you about an episode which took place in Milan in November 2009. Like other European cities, a demonstration was held in Milan against the Israeli military intervention in Gaza: a few thousand demonstrators, mainly Arabs, marched through the streets, shouting slogans against Israel and the United States and burning a few flags of these countries. At the end of the procession, the demonstrators met up in the square in front of the Cathedral where they knelt down facing Mecca and prayed: for a short while the square where the most important Catholic Church in Milan stands was turned into a great open-air mosque. A few days later the Home Affairs Minister announced the issuance of a directive aimed at preventing a repeat of these events.

As it was easy to foresee, this event aroused a great deal of controversy. It concerned two principal issues: the fact that a political protest demonstration concluded with a prayer and the fact that a symbolic place of Catholicism was transformed (albeit briefly) into the place of worship of another religion. These two facts seem to me to be emblematic of two new dimensions that characterize the religious phenomenon in contemporary society: the increased presence of religion in the public space on the one hand and, on the other, the plurality of religions that have settled in regions of the world which were traditionally inhabited by only one. The third fact, the prohibition announced by the Home Affairs Minister, testifies to the embarrassment that is felt in many parts of Europe when dealing with these new expressions of religious faith.

These three facts define the perimeter within which most of the contemporary public debate takes place on the relationship between law and religion. The separation between religion and politics was a fundamental element for the building of modernity and the renewed connection between these two elements is interpreted as a return to the past, or a leap forward towards an uncertain post-modernity, or even as the signal that – for the first time after five centuries – a non-Western and above all non-European form of modernity is taking shape.1 The growth of religious pluralism (the second of the facts evoked by the Milan demonstration) is to a large extent the product of immigration2 and it intermingles and often overlaps with an ethnic and cultural plurality. This overlap charges the religious manifestations with different and complex meanings, as is well indicated by the question of religious symbols: the simple fact of wearing a symbol of one’s religion – a veil, a cross, a turban – is perceived as an expression of antagonism founded on the difference of sex, culture, ethnic group, political militancy. The difference in religion thus becomes a component of broader conflicts, providing a strong justification to ideals and interests which, without the reference to God’s will, would not have the same mobilizing capacity.3 The policy of prohibition that the European countries are tempted to follow – prohibition to wear religious symbols to school or that of holding religious demonstrations in some public places – indicates the incapacity of including the plurality of the religions and their presence in the public space in a social project that respects the rules of freedom and democracy.

In this situation it is perfectly normal for Europeans to look around. They want to understand how the experience of other continents and other countries, which have a long and rich tradition of plurality and public presence of religions, can provide useful hints for renewing legal categories and instruments that have become inadequate. But the panorama we see beyond the borders of Europe is not a reassuring one. The new public importance of religions has not in effect created a more peaceful world and it has not facilitated the resolution of conflicts, neither at the international level nor within the borders of each State. There is no doubt that many of the conflicts of recent decades depend on the end of the international bipolar system: it is easy to observe, however, that the religions have not been able to play a pacifying role either in the Balkan wars or in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, or in those that emerged in some Asian and African countries. Indeed, in many cases they worked as catalysers of the most radical pressures, reducing the room for mediation and negotiation by politics and diplomacy.4

The first people to be answerable for this state of affairs are – and I say this with regret and a sense of joint responsibility – the men of religion, who have not been able to make good use of the new authority at their disposal. The ecumenical dialogue among the religions has not progressed, the awareness that to affirm the truth of one religion does not deny the liberty to follow another has hardly increased, the efforts to outline a common ethic among different religions has not had much success: the sluggishness and at times the steps backwards of the theological reflection on these fundamental junctions have left the religions at the mercy of the forces that intend to exploit their influence for political, economic, mass media or other purposes.

There is, however, a second responsibility that is characteristic of men of science, namely ourselves. Our models of analysis and governance appear to be inadequate and they are not able to interpret or, even less, direct the transformations that are taking place before our eyes. In particular the traditional mechanisms of regulation of the relations between the State and religions have become obsolete. Everywhere in Europe, the States that draw their inspiration from secularism and Church–State separation encounter increasing difficulties in regulating the public presence of religious groups; those characterized by religious models – from the State Church to dominant religion – have difficulty in governing the plurality of religions present in their territory.5

The points where the inadequacy of the interpretative models is most clearly shown can be indicated by resorting to three antinomies.

The first contrasts citizenship and belonging.6 In the conception that sustains the national State, citizenship is not just a question of rights and duties but also – and perhaps first of all – the product of founding myths, of common narratives, of shared values that make the citizen the member of a community. This concept of citizenship is put to the test by the great migratory movements that permanently introduce into a country groups of people with different cultures, traditions and lifestyles from those of the autochthonous community. A difference of this importance is perceived as a threat to social cohesion and it therefore raises a question: to become a citizen is it enough to respect the laws or is it necessary to share the values? Does being a good citizen mean not to commit crimes, or to recognize oneself in the country’s history, develop a sense of belonging and of solidarity? And if the answer lies in the latter direction, how is it possible to create a national identity that is not born from the ashes of particular memberships but which includes them and is able to utilize them as material for the building of a common home? A reflection on the experience of countries capable of forging a nation from a series of immigrations – the United States for example,7

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