Theorizing Modernities article

From London to Rome: Changing the Conversation about Religion




The conference “Making Democracy One’s Own: Muslim, Catholic and Secular Perspectives in Dialogue on Democracy, Development, and Peace,” held in Rome from May 30 to June 1, 2016, sought to theorize and, where advisable, nurture and strengthen the positive relationship between religion and democracy. Under consideration were the possibilities for inter-cultural and inter-religious engagement, collaboration, and productive contentions as they pertain to deepening democratic virtues and practices. Secular actors and institutions also partner in this undertaking.

This was the second in a series conferences dedicated to “Changing the Conversation about Religion,” with each intending to tackle various interconnected facets of this ambitious task.

The first conference, “Changing the Conversation about Religion: Partnerships for Global Development,” held in London on November 12-13, 2015, focused on how religious actors and institutions, with their various interpretive and intra-religious complexities and contestations, are pertinent for the tasks of development. It became clear in the course of the dialogue that religious actors— who are already engaged, and have for decades been engaged, in accompanying, educating and providing health care for the poor—might begin by challenging the premises underpinning secular paradigms of development, not least the assumption that economic growth alone is the solution or even the primary model for advancing and evaluating human flourishing and social stability. The themes that emerged in our structured conversations in London are germane to the scope of the present discussion. We would like to highlight a few of these themes.

First, in a public roundtable culminating the conference at the Royal Horseguards Hotel in London, Turkish novelist and scholar Elif Şafak stressed that inter-religious collaboration, engagement, and action already unfold in a highly intercultural and global context, where the operative descriptive words are porousness and hybridity. In this milieu, religions are invited and, indeed, expected to give priority to the fluid, growing aspects of the tradition, rather than insist on its boundedness and ‘purity.’ Şafak herself works energetically within her own tradition to transform sociopolitical and cultural norms organically from within and yet also through engagement with other norms, including those associated with the “secular” as a discursive tradition.

This focus on the vulnerability of hard-and-fast claims about supposedly stable and even unchanging religious or ethnic and national identities in light of the undeniable fluidity of modern subjectivities and self-understandings informed our conceptualization of “Making Democracy One’s Own.”

Indeed, among the various interlocutors in Rome a central question was the degree to which a modern religious movement’s awareness of the theological, philosophical, and historically embodied depth of its host religious tradition is relevant, if at all, to how we understand the ways such a movement draws on the tradition for political or ideological purposes. Conversely, to what degree do violent manifestations of religiosity (as in the case of Da’esh, or ISIS) constitute a departure from “authentic” conceptions of tradition?

The tension raised by this question became evident in an exchange among panelists in a semi-public event on May 31, 2016 in the library of the Italian Senate. Graeme Wood of The Atlantic firmly defended the thesis of his widely circulated article, which argued that Da’esh’s theological imagination is indeed Islamic and needs to be analyzed as such. On the other hand, Fabio Petito, from the University of Sussex and a co-convener of the conference, resisted classifying Da’esh as “very Islamic.”

This debate drew in interlocutors who urged attention to the role of explanatory frameworks that focus on the material and economic context that provided fertile soil for Da’esh, as well as those that point to the relevance of enduring legacies of missionary work, colonialism, neo-colonialism, neoliberalism, and geopolitics to understanding the rise and spread of such extremist movements. Shaun Casey, from the US Department of State, underscored that “religion is always embedded in specific and complex contexts.” “Without this principle,” Casey continued, “policy makers can all too easily reduce religion to stereotypes in the CVE [countering violent extremism] space.” Katherine Marshall, from Georgetown University, likewise foregrounded the urgency of pondering the interconnections between under-development and religious extremism. She posed a related question: How might interreligious work and engagement be productive for the goals of peace and development?

Our conversations in Rome underscored why it matters that we think clearly, taking into account the history and other relevant contexts of a given case, about how religions align or intersect with political formations. They also pointed to the need to engage in analysis of the debates within religious communities, which reveal the historically embedded and embodied nature of religiosity and the porousness and fluidity of identities.  This recognition foregrounds the need for interdisciplinarity in approaching the question of inter- and intra-religious action or “diapraxis”.

Critically, the subtitle of our conference “Muslim, Catholic and Secular Perspectives in Dialogues on Democracy, Development & Peace” linked the discussion of religion and democracy to the earlier and interconnected questions of development and peace. Şafak’s stressing of fluidity presents the need to consider the humanities and the realm of cultural and artistic production as sites of contention and transformation. These sites resist the risk posed by interreligious or inter-traditional work that, while emphasizing collaboration across traditions, may also contribute to reinforcing elitist, official, male-centric interpretations of religious traditions—given that many if not all interreligious dialogue is conducted by male religious leaders. Indeed, the word “secular” in the subtitle intentionally suggests the need to open up the discussion to the many voices emerging from a condition of (deep) pluralism. We also intended to pay attention to the complex ways in which both secular and religious forces construct and reproduce political identities, practices, and structures. Şafak’s words, therefore, remind us to interpret and contend with modernity, secularity, and the problems at hand of democracy, religious extremism, and underdevelopment as well as security and peacebuilding in ways that take into account historical fluidity, the patterns and resources of change, innovation, and reform within religious traditions. Finally, we recognize that intra-traditional work is already in conversation with secular and other inter-cultural and inter-traditional forces.

The second thread in our conversation in London focused on the convergences between the objectives of peacebuilding and conflict transformation and the development agenda. Unfortunately, within the bureaucracy of the U.N., the two foci of security/peacebuilding, on the one hand, and development, on the other, were long isolated one from another. However, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) signal an important departure from this problematic bracketing of conflict analysis and peacebuilding mechanisms and the capacity of development efforts to alleviate extreme poverty as well as to achieve broader systemic societal and political changes. Religion and religious actors are instrumental in both the development and peacebuilding arenas, and there is a need for collaboration and cross-fertilization among those interlocutors and actors. The World Bank discovered religion some years ago, and its engagement with religion has become increasingly more nuanced. However, the broader discussion of religion and development offers challenges to the World Bank’s instrumental approach to religion and religious actors, a critique that is carried forward to the explicit incorporation of religious engagement as a dimension of the making of American foreign policy.

The challenge of using religion as an instrument of foreign policy (or any other political goal) and, with it, the crucial question of who gets empowered through various partnerships and granting agencies is one of great importance. Among other things, this kind of power dynamic affects the possibility of intra-tradition contestation, reform, innovation, and change. These concerns about instrumentalizing religion and thereby empowering some people while marginalizing or deepening the marginalization of others, bear heavily upon the possibilities of “structures of dialogue and collaboration within and across religious traditions,” as the concept note for “Making Democracy One’s Own” promises. These are issues that Casey highlighted in his address at the library of the Italian Senate. As the Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, he identified guidelines for engaging religious institutions, actors, and communities in ways that avoid instrumentalization.

These concerns are, of course, intricately related to the questions of history, historical memories, and geopolitics. In London, the examination of development’s intersection with peacebuilding and religion kept returning to the lingering consequences of colonialism, missionary expansion, and neoliberalism, as well as the realities of geopolitics.  This web of historical factors overshadows contemporary development efforts—as Cecelia Lynch demonstrates. This kind of historical lens challenges the inclination to shift to ahistorical and culturalist arguments when discussing religion and religious communities.

Also in London, the emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi —a man with a complicated profile as an outspoken critic of corruption—adamantly contested what he perceived as the imposition of LGBTQI rights as strings attached to aid. Likewise, he vividly drew our attention to the interconnections between corruption, poverty, sociocultural and political marginalization, and the emergence of Boko Haram. In other words, the case of the rise of Boko Haram stresses the importance of our subtitle, threading together development, democracy, and peace as well as inter-cultural, inter-traditional engagement.

The emir opposed homosexuality as non-Muslim, while recognizing the empirical reality that homosexuality is not a western invention, though its acceptability is currently promoted by the west. However, other voices in our conversation in London precisely stressed the need to tackle the issue of gender as foremost. Here the focus was not so much on homosexuality but on women and girls and their education, empowerment, protection, and inclusion in change processes. With respect to this site of contention, two of our key interlocutors in London, Katherine Marshall and Emma Tomalin, also joined us in Rome and continued to deepen those connections. The feminist thread of the discussion in London underscored the need to overcome the assumption that feminism is not religious. There is a concern that the previously mentioned empowering of certain religious actors over others (with an understanding that official religious leaders are mostly men) can contribute to further marginalizing girls and women and violating their rights, preventing their opportunities to live fully to their capabilities (à la Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach).

Ziba Mir-Hosseini (one of the founders of Mussawah, a global movement for equality in the Muslim family), in particular, exemplifies the possibility of working deeply within the tradition in order to illumine its feminist potentialities. Mir-Husseini’s participation in London enhanced the relevance of feminist religious hermeneutics in a robust conceptualization of development.

This mode of engagement is likewise relevant to the discussion of “Making Democracy One’s Own”. If our discussion does not bring to the fore feminist lenses (including in the examination of feminist critiques and reframing of normative political theory) then it will be in tension with the demands of development and peacebuilding understood as the pursuit of security and sociocultural and political justice. In other words, to speak across and within traditions is not an invitation for reifying certain narratives, structures, and resources. Neither is it an invitation to establish a certain interpretation of religiosity as normatively superior to “secular” foundations.

Instead, it is an opportunity to offer a robust account of normative pluralism and the possibilities of dialogue and collaboration, sensitive to the traps of ahistorical culturalist narratives as well as the central relevance of intra-tradition interrogation in explicating the connections between religious extremism, insecurity, corruption, and “under-development.”  Indeed, “Making Democracy One’s Own” constitutes a discussion that needs to be fundamentally sensitive to gender if by “democracy” we do not simply revert back to theorizing the citizen as a male. Religious hermeneutics is highly relevant to such a gender sensitive contestations. All these issues emerged to the fore in various threads of our conversation in Rome in June 2016.  A fuller report is forthcoming.


Atalia Omer
 Atalia Omer is Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Politics (2008) from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research focuses on Israel/Palestine; religion, violence, and peacebuilding; as well as theories and methods in the study of religion. Omer was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2017, resulting in Decolonizing Religion and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2023). Among other publications, Omer is the author of When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians (University of Chicago Press, 2019). She is also a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

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