Global Migration & the New Cosmopolitanism article

The new western plurality and citizen co-existence


Two developments over the past generation have presented serious challenges to the ideals and practice of Western citizenship. The first has been an unprecedented expansion of migration to Western countries, including that from Muslim societies and the broader global south. It goes without saying that the migratory vectors of our age pass not just from south to north, but across countries of the developing world. But the late-modern march of humanity to Western lands is of such a scale and complexity that it has raised questions about existing models of pluralist citizenship—a challenge which has been exacerbated by its cultural timing. In the aftermath of the great secularist surges of the 1960s and 1970s, most Western European and North American countries had reached a new consensus on the place of religion in public life. But many new immigrants brought with them, or discovered in their new homelands, different ideas as to how and where to be religiously observant.

Resurgence of religion

The second development that moved questions of religion, ethics, and citizenship to the center of public discussion in the West has been the global revitalization in religion since the 1970s. In phenomena as diverse as Hindu nationalism, Islamic resurgence, Pentecostal conversion, and America’s culture wars, these developments showed that contemporary religions have not merely weathered the secularizing challenges of the age, but, as Jose Casanova and others have long argued, reasserted themselves as public religions. In presenting their faith as of public relevance, religious adherents have come squarely into conflict with assertively secularist models of citizenship and civility ascendant in many parts of Western Europe (but much less decisively in North America) since the 1960s.

Together these two developments have raised deep questions about received values and practices of pluralist co-existence in Western societies. At times the resulting controversies have led to non-violent but heated “culture wars” over questions of public values and co-existence. At other times, as in London in July 2005, in Oslo in June 2011, in January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, and most recently with the attacks on Paris in November, the culture wars have spilled into acts of real physical violence. Whatever the precise sequence of events, as the British political philosopher Tariq Modood observed in Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, these developments have put in question received Western models of liberal citizenship. The fact that the pace of immigration and the growing plurality of Western societies show no sign of diminishing soon suggests that the question of just what is required, public-ethically speaking, for pluralist co-existence is likely to remain at the heart of debates in Western societies for some years to come.

Paris, Amsterdam, Montreal, Los Angeles

It is against this backdrop that the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) at Boston University undertook 16 months of field research on migration, the new plurality, and pluralist co-existence in metropolitan Paris, Amsterdam, Montreal, and Los Angeles, as part of the University of Notre Dame’s Contending Modernities initiative. These four cities were selected for three reasons. The first is that the nations of which they are part are heirs to quite different regimes of secular-liberal governance, vividly demonstrating that the “liberal” West is heir to, not one, but as Alfred Stepan put it a few years back, “multiple secularisms.” The variation across cities also reminds us that, to borrow a Stepan phrase once again, patterns of state-religion-society relations in these settings “are best seen as conjunctural, socially constructed, political arrangements, rather than as fixed normative models” (p.114).

The second reason for choosing these cities is that the main religious traditions to which each of the surrounding societies is heir are today undergoing great changes, not least as a result of the precipitous decline and repositioning of once-dominant faith-traditions (with the notable exception of the United States). The third reason for our choice is related to this second: all four cities happen to be sites of innovation by actors aiming to rework received traditions in such a way as to respond to the deep plurality of the age.

Catholic, Muslim, Secular

Although the challenge of pluralist coexistence is today being felt by all ethico-religious communities in Western societies, our project focused on three: Muslims, Catholics, and a loose assortment of groupings that we have referred to (while recognizing the polymorphous diversity the phrase hides) ethical “secularists.” The focus is directly inspired by the tri-civilizational comparison highlighted by the Contending Modernities research and education initiative. In the case of our New Western Plurality project, however, the focus was also intended to make comparisons across countries manageable by limiting the range of ethical groupings and traditions studied.

Our research on these three ethical traditions was never meant to imply that they are or will be the most decisive for the future of pluralist co-existence in these lands. Indeed, over the course of the research we were regularly reminded of the scale of the ethical and epistemological challenges all three traditions face. Many Muslims, indeed probably the majority in Amsterdam and Paris, rarely if ever go to mosque, and many have an at best cultural rather than explicit normative identification with Islamic traditions. The much-discussed fragmentation of authority in late-modern Muslim communities has also diminished any confidence some might have that Muslim intellectuals and leaders ideas on pluralism will be easily embraced by a broader Muslim public.

In both its scale and varieties of affiliation, the Catholic community is even more complicated than the Muslim. In the Netherlands and Quebec, if not in the United States (where Church membership in cities like Los Angeles has been buoyed by Hispanic immigration and the continuing resilience of religion in public life generally), the Church over the past forty years has been so severely shaken by dwindling parish membership as to force the hierarchy into crisis-management mode. As one advisor to the Netherlands bishops told me in September 2014, “the bishops are so busy with school closures, dwindling finances, and membership disaffiliation that most have little time to devote to the debates about pluralist citizenship raging in the society around them.” Notwithstanding these challenges, the Catholic hierarchy in all four societies has devoted special staff and resources to inter-faith initiatives. Indeed, some of the most thoughtful Christian spokespersons we encountered over the course of our research were people like Father Christophe Roucou, director of the French Church’s Service nationale pour les relations avec l’Islam. While the voice of figures like Pere Roucou commands respect in inter-faith circles, however, there is no certain transference of that influence out into the broader population of “cultural” Catholics. Some of the latter maintain what British sociologist Grace Davie has called (speaking of many varieties of European Christians) a “vicarious” identification with Christianity, “believing without belonging.”  Others belong without much believing – taking their cues from popular pundits and politicians as much or even more than Church spokespersons.

So our focus on Catholics, Muslims, and ethical secularists was not premised on the assumption that intellectuals and leaders in the organized wings of these communities exert a determinant influence on popular ethical opinion. Our premise was simpler: we felt, and research confirmed, that looking at leaders and initiatives in and around these groups could provide a useful perch from which to observe ongoing ethical debates over how to live together in the new Western plurality, at a time when many citizens regard received models of liberal and/or multicultural citizenship with unease, uncertainty, or outright skepticism.

From normative work to public reasoning

Armed with this research imperative, during the early months of our project we trained our attention on the normative work being done by community leaders and public intellectuals engaging the new plurality in creative and hopeful ways. We were also interested in the obstacles and opposition that the proponents of ethical pluralism encountered, both from within and outside their respective communities. We were particularly curious to see how these actors might be drawing on elements in their own ethical traditions to devise new ideas and practices for pluralist co-existence.

In this phase of our project, our approach drew on that developed by the anthropologist John Bowen, in his pioneering Can Islam be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State. Several years back Bowen set out to explore the “public reasoning” of Muslim teachers and intellectuals in France, looking to their own Islamic heritage for ethical guides to living in new European homelands. Like Bowen, we were convinced that, even in an era of irreverent postmodernism, some among the citizenry look to received ethical traditions to grapple with contemporary moral problems.

The complexity of this research ambition quickly became apparent, however. One problem was that so much of the sound and fury of public ethical turbulence in the cities we were studying emanated from actors outside of and little concerned with these ethical traditions. Drawing as our project did on prior research on the politics of public spheres, we had expected as much. What we hadn’t fully anticipated was just how effective populist actors and media could be in sidelining thoughtful public discussion and, in so doing, changing the terms of public debate on topics as varied as Muslim women’s headscarves, core values courses, or, most generally, what it means to be French, Dutch, Quebecois, or American.

Focal events

Rather then limiting our research focus to public figures with polished discursive skills, then, we extended it to examine what we called “focal events” which brought a broad variety of actors and voices into public ethical contention. In the public controversies surrounding “Black Pete” in the Netherlands, the laicist and broadly anti-Islamic “Charter of Values” in Quebec in 2013-2014, and the rise of the National Front in French national and EU elections—each of which are discussed in the essays that will follow—we looked not just at the admirable efforts of high-minded pluralists, but statements and actions of protagonists more interested in “winning” than developing a coherent or faithful ethical discourse. Although often overlooked in discussions of ethics and modern public spheres, this “un-Habermasian” politics of positioning and media caricature is a key influence on late-modern ethical life.

At the beginning of our project we had not intended to make Islam or Muslims a pivotal point of research reference more central than any other. However, during the middle months of our research in late 2013 and 2014, questions related to Muslims and Western citizenship surged to the fore. International events were of course part of this: the dark terrorist attacks of the early 2000s had given way in 2011 to the bright hopes of the Arab spring, only to be clouded again by developments in Syria and Iraq, not least the gruesome post-modern mediatrics of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and the Levant.

But other events closer to our four cities also drove ostensibly Muslim issues to the fore, even if, as our research recognized, the issues always had as much or more to do with a some imagined national subjectivity than it did Muslims or Islam as such. The proposal for a starkly laicist “Charter of Values in Quebec,” put forth by leaders of the Parti Quebecois in late 2013 caught Canadian Muslims and Quebec pluralists by surprise, and set off a half-year debate on the place of religion in general and Islam in particular in Quebec society. Opposition to gay marriage and the “Marriage for All” legislation in France created an implicit if uneasy alliance between some segments of the Catholic and Muslim communities. For some non-Muslim French, the apparent alliance of conservative Catholics and Muslims only confirmed their conviction that Muslims did not share properly modern republican values. (In actual fact the Muslim community was divided on the gay marriage issue, some feeling that the issue risked alienating longstanding allies). In the Netherlands, too, the rise of overtly anti-Islamic parties on the right and requirements that immigrants master Dutch language and “core values and norms” have kept Muslims and Islam at the center of citizenship debates. Each of these case studies is explored in the following blog posts from Azeddine Hmimssa, Carol Ferara and Ahmet Yukleyen.

A new spirit of cooperation and solidarity

Although some might have expected Islamic issues to loom even larger in the still- “post-9/11” United States, Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu and I were regularly reminded that the situation is not quite so simple. Ahmet spent a year in Los Angeles, and an additional six months research in San Francisco and Boston. As I followed him to some of his research sites, meeting with Muslim, Catholic, and other public intellectuals and community leaders, both of us were struck by the quiet purposiveness and optimism of intellectuals and leaders in the Muslim community. Certainly, many people, both Muslim and non-Muslims, spoke of the pain and anxiety experienced by many American Muslims in the months the followed the 9/11 attacks. But many too spoke of a new spirit of cooperation and solidarity. Indeed, Ahmet encountered many Muslim Americans who spoke of a veritable civic renaissance among American Muslims since the middle 2000s, particularly in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, where Muslim demographics and institutions are of such a scale to allow for a synergy across Muslim worship, educational, and civil-rights organizations.

There are other conjunctural peculiarities to the American scene that make the situation of American Muslims hopeful and dynamic. One is a perception that personal religiosity in the public sphere finds easier acceptance than in some parts of Europe – a perception that, interestingly enough, was also voiced by young hijabi women we met in Amsterdam and Paris, some of whom expressed interest in emigrating to the U.S. for just that reason. But there is another historical circumstance that makes the American Muslim situation distinctive. As African-American Muslim scholars like Sherman A. Jackson points out (see his moving Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection), thirty percent of American Muslims are African-American, and, although their interactions with Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants have not always gone smoothly, they have nonetheless created rich moral synergies. Immigrant Muslims learned civil-rights skills from their African American brothers and sisters. They also learned of the importance of building broad social alliances and new educational institutions for community betterment. Perhaps no institution embodies this history more profoundly than the recently established Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, the first Muslim-based liberal arts college in the U.S. Zaytuna was founded by an alliance that included African American Muslim preachers, Euro-American converts to Islam (including the gifted Shaykh Hamza Yusuf), and Muslim intellectuals from the South Asian and Middle Eastern-descended Muslim community. Combining an appreciation for classical Islamic jurisprudence with Islamic spirituality and civil-rights idealism, Zaytuna is a striking example of what makes the American Muslim experience of deep cultural interest for the global Muslim ummat.

Living together in ethical difference

By way of conclusion, and to respond to questions that the other researchers and I have regularly been asked, I offer a few preliminary reflections on what our project might say about living together in the deep ethical different that marks the new Western plurality.

Our study began against the backdrop of a broad body of research that had dispelled the confidence once widespread in policy circles that formal democratic institutions alone are sufficient to “make democracy work” (to borrow Robert Putnam’s much-used phrase) under conditions of growing religious and ethical pluralism. Contrary to the hopes of policy makers in the 1980s and 1990s, even a vibrant “civil society” or network of civic associations cannot guarantee a tolerant and inclusive citizenry.

In speaking of Muslim integration in the contemporary West, Jonathan Laurence’s panoramic book, The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims: The State’s Role in Minority Integration suggests (referring in particular to Europe) that the cultural integration of Muslims can be managed easily enough, if it is carried out on the model of corporatist accommodations devised a century ago between governing elites and representatives of the Jewish community. Laurence is right to emphasize the state’s crucial role in any sustainable civic integration. However, our research suggests that corporate deals by themselves will never be enough to make a new pluralism work; it’s also important to bring society back in (a point with which Laurence, a consultant to the project in its early stages, would no doubt agree).

Changing aspirations: From citizenship to social recognition

Several things make the new Western plurality a more daunting ethical challenge than that of a century ago. Some of the new, religiously observant citizens are today less willing to make the life-style and religious concessions that Catholic and Jewish minorities may have been willing to make three or four generations earlier.   As Tariq Modood has pointed out, drawing on Charles Taylor’s early work, most of the new citizens aspire not merely to formal citizenship, but to a publicly expansive social recognition. Yet, as we all know, in some Western countries a significant portion of the long-resident population is reconsidering just how much of the new multicultural plurality they are willing to put up with, not least with regards to Muslims. Headscarved teachers in some lander in Germany, minarets in Switzerland, hijabs, niqabs, and any variety of “ostensible” religiosity in public institutions in France – these are, it seems, a multicultural bridge too far for some Europeans.  However offensive some populist players in the anti-accommodative camp may sound, the disagreement over what common values and cultural practices are needed for sustainable pluralism is a serious one, and practicable answers will not be simple.

Inevitably, however, we circle back to the same questions: Who is to say what values will figure among those to be shared? And who has the right and capacity to nurture them? Recognizing the limitations of his 1994 model for “making democracy work,” the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has said that one key lies in nurturing “bridging” as well as “bonding” civic associations. That sounds sociologically appealing, and it resonates with the proposals made by scholars in the field of peace studies who say that the key to making plurality work is for people from diverse ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds to put aside their intellectual reservations and join with people of diverse backgrounds in local campaigns of community organizing and betterment.   Our research confirms that interfaith collaborations are helpful, and may well be transformative of some individuals. But a nagging question remains: What is to be done with the overwhelming majority people who have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to participate in what David Barclay has aptly called “political friendships?”

Building the new Western pluralism

In the end, I believe, the evidence suggests that there is no single key to pluralist civility. What is needed instead is a virtuous circle of serious normative work, high-minded civic associations, and state agencies collaborating in the creation and public performance of a new pluralist consensus. Fine words, but what might that mean? First of all, rather than a single pluralist pathway in all cities or countries, there will and must be many. To put the matter differently, the proponents of pluralist co-existence have no choice but to begin with the resources at hand, and hope that the moral message and practices they promote can slowly be extended to other social fields. In some instances, it makes sense to begin locally, with small groups of inter-religious/ethical dialogue and organization. But if these local groups are not to be swept aside by populist bullies, they must also look more widely. In particular, they must devise ways to scale up collaborations across the state-society divide, promoting pluralism-friendly messages in schools, the media, and the marketplace. Where the social imaginaries of local communities are religious, the promotion of pluralist practices will also require the participation of religious leaders and intellectuals, able to legitimate general models of pluralist co-existence in tradition-specific terms.

The idea that there is no single institutional key to achieving pluralist civility may strike some readers as a spare or pessimistic conclusion indeed. The conclusion is modest but it offers not a counsel of pessimism but a message of practical hope. Modern societies are made up of diverse social fields and history shows that pluralist progress in one field can be easily reversed by uncivil bigotry in another. The challenge for the proponents of pluralist civility, then, is to devise ways to slowly extend inclusive practices and ethics from one sphere into others, both in society and across the state-society divide. Along the way there will be obstacles and set backs, as well as whirlpools and eddies of anti-pluralist froth. But that too is the new plurality: there is and never will be any blissfully multicultural end to history. But to recognize this fact is not to succumb to pessimism but to find a practical path toward hope. Building the new Western pluralism work is not a distant dream. The work begins in the here and now, and in as many fields as pluralist-minded actors are able. This, our research would suggest, is the only way forward, and the march has long since begun.

Robert W. Hefner is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University.  He has done research on religion and plurality in Southeast Asia since the late 1970s, and has been involved in projects on the comparative study of Christians, Muslims, and civic-pluralist co-existence in Western and Asian societies since the 1990s.  His most recent books include Pentecostalism in the 21st Century (2012) and Sharia Politics: Law and Society in the Modern Muslim World (2011).




Contending Modernities

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.