Community Organizing, Migration, and the New Cosmopolitanism

London is an ideal site to investigate new forms of civic identity, citizenship and civil society. Central to the emerging multicultural cosmopolitanism are people of faith, whose religious identity and commitments—not least their understanding of what constitutes a just and humane society— informs their interaction with one another and with secular actors and institutions. Working in collaboration, and in other cases in competition, Christians, Muslims (as well as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, and Hindus), civic and business leaders, and political action groups are working to build community, gain representation and shape local and national democracy.

The various Global Migration projects unfolding in London are coordinated by Professor Vincent D. Rougeau, Dean of the Boston College Law School, in conjunction with Rev. Angus Ritchie, director of London’s Contextual Theology Centre.  

How do migrant communities with diverse religious and cultural identities shape a common life?  Professor Vincent D. Rougeau has argued for the possibility of a “new cosmopolitanism,” rooted in a faith and culture and also committed to the dignity of all human beings — and, in consequence, willing to work with neighbors of other faiths and cultures to negotiate and pursue a shared vision of the common good. Applying this vision to his own faith and context, Rougeau writes that a “Catholic cosmopolitan” will be “a loyal citizen” who is also rooted in a faith tradition that knows no political boundaries and is committed to the dignity of all human beings. The Catholic cosmopolitan should approach American society from a position of critical distance, and this means assessing American social, economic, and political life as a Christian first.

The east London project considers the relevance of such a “cosmopolitan” vision to migrant communities in the local context.  Catholic and Muslim migrants have historically both been treated with some suspicion in the UK — in part because their faith involves loyalties that reach beyond the nation-state, to an avowedly international Church or Ummah. The experience of Catholic and Muslim engagement in broad-based community organizing runs counter to such suspicions.

Community organizing harnesses precisely the “problematic” quality of these faiths — above all their loyalty to a truth that transcends the nation-state, and a “critical distance” from the status quo — as a means of working for justice in the local area. Many other forms of political engagement treat religious truth-claims as a problem, demanding, for example, that citizens frame all political demands and arguments in ways that make no reference to such “dogmas.” This move looks deceptively neutral.  In fact, it effectively silences those for whom religious faith is inseparable from wider moral and political commitments. By contrast, community organizing offers a way in which divergent ethical and spiritual worldviews — including Catholic, Muslim and secular — can be more fully expressed.

In the context of community organizing, there is an “agreement to disagree” on more contentious and divisive issues.  It is hoped that the very process of building solidarity and trust through common action can lead on to a more constructive and peaceable conversation on these contentious issues. Contending Modernities is researching the motivations for Christian, Muslim and secular engagement in community organizing, and the way these different worldviews negotiate the basis of a common life.