Contending Modernities

Public Ethics and Citizenship in Plural Societies


Although the challenge of migration and multicultural citizenship is general in today’s world, this project highlights and compares the efforts of Muslim, Catholic, and secular leaders and citizens in five Western cities to respond to the challenge of pluralism and citizenship in societies with significant Muslim and Catholic, as well as secularist, populations.  In so doing, the research examines the implications of migration and the new pluralism for these three ethico-religious traditions, and highlights the lessons of their experience for other countries and ethical traditions. 

Robert Hefner, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, and Director of the university’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, is supervising a comparative study the following five sites: 

Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Long known for its traditions of tolerance, the modern Netherlands evolved a distinctive system of social and religious governance organized around, not just the classically liberal values of individual autonomy and equality, but group rights and communal representation. In recent years, the Netherlands like much of Western Europe has also experienced substantial Muslim migration. Attempts to afford Islam the same guaranteed rights and representation as Protestantism and Catholicism have been challenged and curtailed. The secularist movement has challenged the earlier Dutch variety of multicultural citizenship, and challenged the place, not just of Islam, but also of Protestantism and Catholicism in the public square.

London, United Kingdom: Citizenship and public life in the UK have historically been organized around the prominence of an established church, and thus “public religion”. Over the course of the twentieth century, the UK experienced a process of secularization and “de-Christianization” among the most pronounced in all of Western Europe. During these same years, the UK experienced an influx of Muslim migrants, largely from South Asia. Although as a group Muslims vary in doctrine, organization, and piety, the observant wing of the UK’s Muslim community is more traditionalist and “politicized” in outlook than its counterparts in most of continental Europe.  The salience of the Muslim presence combined with the depth of the UK’s secularization process and the strength of its liberal citizen traditions have combined to make the UK one of the most important sites of debate and experimentation with regard to religion and pluralist citizenship. 

Los Angeles, California: One of the most important regions of Hispanic and Catholic influence in the USA, Los Angeles also has a large and diverse Muslim community, which includes both actively observant Muslims from South Asia and the Middle East and vehemently secular Muslims from Iran.  The long historic presence of Hispanic residents, the diversity of the Muslim community, the public activism of the Catholic Church, and the scale of the continuing migratory influx all make Los Angeles an ideal site for research.

Montreal, Canada: Located in the historical heartland of Catholic Canada, Montreal is today a vigorously multi-cultural and multi-religious city. The city’s religious and public-ethical face has been transformed by an influx of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern immigrants, as well as a process of secularization that, since the 1970s, has greatly challenged the historical prominence of the Catholic Church. The terms of the public debate on the implications of the new migration and plurality for Canadian identity, and the underlying ideals of citizenship to which it refers, have been interestingly different from those surrounding questions of citizenship and Islam in the United States.

Paris, France: Home to one the largest North-African Arab populations in Europe, Paris is a site of unusually intensive debates and initiatives on the part of Catholic, Muslim, and secular-laicist intent on promoting old or new practices and discourses of citizenship. The debate over the proper balance of laicist secularity, religious pluralism, and public religiosity has greatly intensified in recent years, as a result of continuing Muslim migration, a more observant Muslim public, and a rightist reaction against Muslims. 

The sites for this research project are deliberately varied. Although all five cities are heirs to a Western and “liberal” tradition, they vary significantly in terms of demography and in terms of the diversity and influence of rival discourses of public ethics and citizenship. The project does not assume that the dominant ethical and citizen discourse in any among these societies is determined by “religion” or “secularism” in any singular or exhaustive sense.  A key aim of this project is to highlight the ethical diversity within, and overlaps and accommodation between, each of the three ethico-religious traditions in the face of migration and an increasingly pluralized citizenship experience.