Governance, Citizenship, Rights & Obligations article

Contending conceptions of democracy

PAOLA BERNARDINI

The recent wave of violent reactions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to the online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad may be taken as the most recent example of a clash between “contending modernities.”

The US-based moviemaker is sometimes taken to represent the values of “Western democracy” and “free speech,” while the protesters in places such as Libya and Pakistan are taken to represent “extremism” and “illiberalism.” Of course, neither the US-based moviemaker nor the Muslim protesters are necessarily paradigmatic of their wider societies or cultures.  Furthermore, they arguably represent not a clash of “democracy” vs. “extremism” but a clash between rival — and plausible — conceptions of modern democracy.

Contending liberties

On one side, the defenders of largely unrestricted free speech and freedom of expression champion a democratic model that generally refuses to grant special privilege to religion or religious sensibilities. On the other, the religiously offended prefer a democratic model that includes the right of a community to be free from grave insults to its identity and values. Indeed, such a view is in keeping with a robust norm of popular sovereignty — “Vox populi, vox Dei”!

The moviemaker and the rioter thus embrace stereotypical and exaggerated versions of “secular” and “religious” conceptions of democracy. We know that secular approaches, which emphasize free expression, need not be hostile to religious sensibilities, beliefs or practices; just as we know that religions can and do preserve the dignity of sacred figures and sites without recourse to violence or even to censorship.

Beyond clashing civilizations

As some analysts have pointed out, this clash is not simply between Muslims and Christians. The terrain is more complicated.  For example, Coptic Christians in the region compared the release of the movie on Muhammad to that of The “Da Vinci Code,” the 2006 movie that they not only found offensive but which they succeeded in restricting in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. And in the wake of the recent protests a number of Christian leaders — including Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai and four Anglican bishops — have expressed support for international bans on religious defamation and blasphemy. At the same time, of course, dozens of Muslim thinkers have condemned the violent riots as obscurantist and inconsistent with Islam.

Both models of democracy presuppose a different conception of the relationship between religion and the State. But, one may ask, is there something each can learn from the other? Is there a middle ground in which both freedoms of expression, and from sacrilege, can be respected and guaranteed?

We invite responses to these and related questions!

Paola Bernardini is the Associate Director for Research for Contending Modernities. Paola received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy, where she was a Russell Berrie Fellow in Interreligious Studies. Paola’s doctoral thesis was a comparative study of Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s human rights theory and Jacques Maritain’s natural law theory. Her past publications include Natural or Political Man? The Foundation of Human Rights in Martha C. Nussbaum (2009), and Multiculturalism and Adult Dialogue Education (2003). Paola received an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a concentration in human rights and conflict resolution education.

Contending Modernities

2 thoughts on “Contending conceptions of democracy

  1. “And in the wake of the recent protests a number of Christian leaders — including Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai and four Anglican bishops — have expressed support for international bans on religious defamation and blasphemy. …Is there a middle ground in which both freedoms of expression, and from sacrilege, can be respected and guaranteed?”

    I think that before anyone asks for international bans on defamation and blasphemy or guarantees (legal?) of freedom from sacrilege, it is a good idea to be careful what you’re asking for; you might get it. Is the denial that Mohammed is a prophet a form of blasphemy? My guess is some Muslims think so. Is John Hagee, John McCain’s primary spiritual advisor, calling the Pope the AntiChrist ( Or Bob Jones University, the school that W privileged with his announcement of his presidential candidacy in 2000, doing the same) defamation? Even borderline secularists might think so and certainly Catholics should. (Of course if you are Catholic and voted for W in 2000, I leave that confession to be between you and God.) What of the rejection/criticism of Roman Catholic doctrine concerning the miracle of transubstantiation?

    My point is this: most of the accusations regarding sacrilege, defamation, and blasphemy are not likely to be leveled at secularists. They will be leveled at other religions or, if history is any guide, perhaps different demonimations within a specific religious traditions. And what would be the implications for the likes of Richard Dawkins? “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” anyone?

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