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July 01, 2006

Religious Pluralism in an Undecidedly Secular World

by Rosalind I. J. Hackett

Although civilizational clashes and religious extremism are the current staples of news coverage in the mass media globally, the growth of religious pluralism and secularism—and the tensions created by them—are more likely to stir up heated debate at the national and local levels. Religious organizations the world over are competing more aggressively than ever for space and voice in today’s rapidly changing public spheres.

This development was well evidenced at a recent conference in Romania on the religious history of Europe and Asia. The Romanian president, Traian Basescu, whose government had the wisdom to support this regional gathering of scholars of religion, took pains to emphasize his country’s policy of freedom of expression and of religion and his belief and noninterference in religious debates.

Yet the U.S. State Department’s September 2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom details the ongoing low-level discrimination experienced by minority religious groups in Romania, primarily in connection with registration, land use, and permission to proselytize. The report implies that this unequal treatment of religious minorities can be attributed in part to historical hangovers from the country’s Communist past and to bureaucratic mismanagement, and also to a privileging of majoritarian religious identity.

Managing Religious Difference

If religious discrimination in Romania has not been eliminated, it at least is recognized. In other countries, the role of state actors in managing new religious diversity can be far less equitable. In fact, the free exercise of religious belief and practice can be subjected to egregious restrictions—whether it is the government’s repression of the Falun Gong movement in China or the Hindu nationalists’ persecution of Muslims and Christians in India. We should not forget the initiatives of some European governments, including those of Belgium, Austria, France, and Germany, to limit the activities of sects or cults and other nonconventional religious groups or to restrict the wearing of religious symbols, such as Muslim headscarves.

Scholar James T. Richardson in his 2004 book, Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe, and entities such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are among the individuals and organizations that have highlighted regulation and recognition of religion and religious practices as factors central to the changing patterns of coexistence both between religions and between religions and the state.

Because the majority of states worldwide are signatories to international human rights documents that promote and protect the freedom of religion and belief and, for the most part, have incorporated these norms into their modern constitutions, legal forms of discrimination or exclusion as a way of managing religious difference are a less viable option now than they used to be (although threats to public order and security are still invoked in some settings). The legal route may be unworkable for other reasons. Groups or individuals seeking to challenge their marginalization may face unreliable legal systems or absence of jurisprudence on religious matters.

Media as the New Interface

As a result, modern mass media have emerged as a significant—and on occasion, the primary—interface available for the negotiation of religious identities, symbols, and the social functioning of religious communities. The influence of stereotypical portrayals of religious groups on the perceptions and actions of government officials, let alone members of the wider public, is well documented.

Upon arriving in the United States in September, former Iranian President Khatami wasted no time in attacking what he called “media Islam” in the Western popular press. Accusations of Islamophobia derive largely from complaints about the mass-mediated circulation of negative representations of Islam, whether in national or global contexts, in cartoons, or in medieval texts.

In a similar vein, state and nonstate actors can deprive religious actors of the right to serve their own communities and represent themselves to a wider public through mass-mediated forms of religious expression. For example, in Nigeria, Christians living in the predominantly Muslim northern states are frequently denied access to the airwaves. In South Africa and Ghana, traditional religious practitioners complain that the “Christian gatekeepers” of many of the media outlets inhibit their public participation by demonizing them in mainstream programming and charging prohibitive fees for groups to purchase broadcast time.

In such instances, the media are more than barometers for new patterns of religious pluralization and coexistence around the world; they actively determine public attitudes of religious tolerance or intolerance. They also factorinto growing debates about the actual role of religion (and, by the same token, what counts as true or false religion) in the public spheres of modern states. These debates frequently center on the issue of secularism, a concept much misunderstood as a threat to religion.

Ironically, as many modern states seek to disengage from former ties with religious monopolies and promote new pluralist and secularist democracies, they encounter new forms of religious resurgence and resistance.

Sociologist Jose Casanova, in his landmark text, Public Religions in the Modern World (2004), argues that since the 1980s many religious groups have been making their way, sometimes forcefully, out of the private and into the public spheres of modern societies. Many would link this return of religion to political and economic frustrations. In other words, the universalization of rights talk, and the creation of concomitant expectations that states and religious authorities will meet the needs of their citizens and members in rapidly changing societies, have not resulted in improved living conditions—or a realization of these expectations—for much of the world’s population.

At the same time, the global forces of late capitalism, in conjunction with the current information and communications revolution, have helped increase the visibility of local and transnational religious organizations in many a secular state. With the trend toward media deregulation and privatization, religious groups now can purchase airtime or even the television and radio licenses that permit them to create and widely broadcast their messages themselves. In many African and South American countries today, for example, Christian evangelical and Pentecostal groups are taking full advantage of this newfound medium of expression and dissemination.

While the notion of a religious free market appeals to many, others question the enclave cultures that one would foster (that is, why should or would listeners turn to public service broadcasting when their favorite channel’s programming reflects their personal religious affiliation?) and the imbalance that results from specific religious groups’ domination of the airwaves, whether from economic or political privilege. Such dominance can generate resentment among other, less privileged religious communities, along with advocates of a less public role for religion, all of whom feel that they are losing out in the new competitive marketplace of the state.

Rethinking Secularism

With the media’s tendency to sensationalize and polarize positions in many instances, it is not surprising that divisions between religious orientations, as well as between secularist and religious perspectives, are perceived as more marked now than in the past. Yet this development is in contradistinction to current and recent academic debates about the meaning and saliency of secularism in the face of major demographic shifts, societal restructuring, and changing subjectivities.

Talal Asad, in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003), challenges the notion of religion and secularism as competing ideologies. In his examination of how the secular was thought about in colonial Egypt, he finds that reconfigurations of law, religion, and ethics created new social spaces in which “secularism” could grow. One of his most important conclusions is that a “secular state is not one characterized by religious indifference, or rational ethics—or political toleration. It is a complex arrangement of legal reasoning, moral practice, and political authority. This arrangement is not the simple outcome of the struggle of secular reason against the despotism of religious authority.” Id. at 255.

Historian Nikki Keddie’s comparison, in a special issue of Daedalus (2003) on “Secularism and Its Discontents,” of the rise and fall of secular and religious politics in various parts of the world discusses contextual factors that influence these trends. For example, Muslim countries have negative views of secularism because they associate it with autocratic rule and Western influence. She notes that contemporary India, by contrast, has produced what is probably the largest body of writing in the modern world debating the merits of secularism. With the controversial efforts of the present Indian government and the ruling party to promote Hindu nationalism to the detriment of religious minorities, numerous observers have advocated the need to move beyond current understandings of secularism in order to protect minority interests effectively.

This questioning of the Western European secularist paradigm in several postcolonial states such as India and Nigeria is echoed by several American scholars.

In Why I Am Not a Secularist (1999), distinguished political theorist William E. Connolly argues that secularism, although admirable in its pursuit of freedom and diversity, too often undercuts those goals through its narrow and intolerant understandings of public reason. Secularism, in his view, has failed to recognize the complexity of public views because it has excluded religious and theistic viewpoints. In doing so, he claims, it has ignored an opportunity to create public consensus.

Yale law professor Stephen Carter contends in his book, God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (2000), that there would have been no movement for abolitionism, workers’ rights, or civil rights without religious activism.

Philosopher and ethicist Jeffrey Stout’s influential publication, Democracy and Tradition (2003), calls for a more appropriate place for religion in a multicultural democratic context.

Many other parts of the world also would benefit from being exposed to these efforts to reconfigure the place of religious belief and practice in the public sphere and to offer more nuanced interpretations of secularism. Among Nigerian Christians and Muslims, for example, the concept of secularism has been a bone of contention for the last three decades.

As constitutional legal scholar Cole Durham has shown, separation of religion and state is no guarantee of free exercise of religion and belief; in fact, established religions sometimes can be more accommodating of minority groups. Norway, where the state-funded Lutheran Church has been proactive in recognizing the rights of Muslims and humanists in the educational system, presents a case in point.

Abdullahi an-Na’im, who has written extensively on Islam and human rights, argues persuasively for a more synergistic approach to the relationship between religion, secularism, and human rights. In an interview in the September 11, 2006, New Yorker, he remarks, “I need a secular state to be a Muslim. . . . If I don’t have the freedom to disbelieve, I cannot believe.” Id. at 69.

Renowned religion analyst Martin Marty has even proposed a new paradigm, namely “religio-secular world,” to represent these changing global dynamics.

New Media, New Conflicts?

In his latest work, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah addresses the challenges of our greater interconnectedness but increasing fractiousness. For him, neutrality in a liberal democracy must entail equal respect and a conversation across lines of difference. Clearly, the modern media play a significant role in mediating these critical questions of sociocultural identity and the public and private roles of religion. Although state acts are naturally the primary concern in this connection because of states’ obligation to protect the constitutional and human rights of individuals and groups, these acts can be undermined all too easily by mass-mediated erasure of identities, as well as by outright hate speech or unfair broadcasting practices. In effect, media liberalization can lead to new forms of illiberalism.

In fact, the media sector arguably is becoming as important as, if not more important than, the education sector in managing diversity and nurturing civil society values. As demonstrated by the global backlash early in 2006 to the Danish cartoons and the Pope’s citation of a historical text passage pertaining to Muslims, the media have the power to amplify and exacerbate inequities (perceived or real) with sometimes deadly consequences. Yet it would seem that in many countries, notably in emerging democracies, there is more effective monitoring of educational institutions than of print and electronic media. Perhaps this situation is not surprising given the explosion of new media technologies, especially the rapid growth of local FM and shortwave radio stations, and the proliferation of video-film production, in many parts of the developing world. These small-scale media can escape the scrutiny of national broadcasting commissions, which often are ill-equipped or ineffectively trained to deal with media diversification and convergence.

Harnessing Media Power to Create Religious Tolerance

In many countries, local and international agencies have begun work to improve media professionalism with better training and education in media rights and responsibilities. Regrettably, the training often omits religion because it is so controversial or becomes conflated problematically with ethnicity. The converse problem is that those engaged in religious peace-building neglect or trivialize the role of the media. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights’revised resolution on Combating Defamation of Religions, E/CN.4/2004/L.5 April 13, 2004, provides ample evidence that the media have played an increasing role in incitements to acts of violence and discrimination on religious grounds.

Finding the means to transcend earlier perceptions of the media solely as vehicles of ideology or cultural impoverishment and the means to recognize the power of the new media to imagine and construct new, shared worlds is vital to ensuring that the media enhance—rather than undermine— religious tolerance.

South Africa provides a good example of how a semipublic broadcasting authority can revamp its religious broadcasting system from one that entrenched discrimination to one that promotes cultural diversity as a national value.

Clearly, generating new forms of what scholars such as Appiah prefer to call “cosmopolitanism” requires a team effort. It therefore behooves us to play our humble parts, whether as religious or political leaders, educators, lawyers, media professionals, human rights activists, or simple laypersons, and whether as members of majoritarian or minoritarian groups, to ensure that the call for more public expressions of religion in our ever-diversifying societies produces the most informed and equitable response possible.

As published in Human Rights, Summer 2006, Volume 33, Number 3, p.21-24.

Rosalind I. J. Hackett

Rosalind I. J. Hackett is a distinguished professor in the humanities and professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She also serves as president of the International Association for the History of Religions.