Religious Norms in the Public Sphere (RPS)

From the ban on minarets in Switzerland to the question of crucifixes in public schools in Italy and the English High Court ruling on Jewish identity in the case of admission to an orthodox Jewish high school, the sacred has emerged into secular democratic politics. The RPS international scholarly network will analyze the call by people of all faiths for greater recognition of religious norms by governments, legislatures, and schools.It is a joint initiative of iGov and the Robert Schuman Center.

It has been made possible thanks to the support of the Partner University Fund, the Carnegie Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.

The issue of Muslim integration in the West has become much more pressing over the last decade. This increasing visibility has had two simultaneous but contradictory effects. While it has led to a polarized debate between adherents of the “clash of civilization” thesis and their opponents, it has also raised interest about Islam and religion among the general public. Muslims’ presence in the West has resulted in an unexpectedly large number of issues that have been addressed differently in different nations, according to the particularity of the culture and history of each national context.  For example, while the Islamic headscarf been the center of debate in the public sphere in France since 1989, in the U.K. the discussion has centered primarily on the role of Islamic tribunals in shaping family law.

Despite the differences between the ways in which Western governments have approached Muslims’ identities and needs, a common awareness has developed over the years on the necessity to take these issues seriously.  President Obama’s address to Muslims around the world in Cairo, last spring is a significant illustration in the general policy shift towards a more inclusive view of Islam in secular-liberal policy. These efforts have been complicated, however, by the difficulty in distinguishing between cultural and ethnic integration, on the one hand, and integration of religious norms (including Islamic norms) into Western politics and society, on the other. Governments, social institutions and even the public opinion in the West have had great difficulty accepting the demand among many Muslims in the West to be considered as a faith community, not an ethnic minority, and as a result have regularly implemented policies that fail to acknowledge the distinction.

For example, second and third generation Muslims in the West tend to dissociate themselves from the cultures of their parents: they adopt western languages and many social and cultural patterns of the West. Most of them consider themselves as Western citizens. The believers and born-again among these new generations have increasingly recast Islam as a “pure religion” and built faith communities based on voluntary and free individual commitments. This acculturation of Islam is enforced by the phenomenon of conversions in both directions, and by secularization, which isolates religion from the surrounding culture. This trend manifests itself in a spectrum of new theological positions, from “liberal” reformed Islam to neo-fundamentalist rejection of political and cultural compromise.

While many studies have documented the question of Islam and secular liberalism, previous studies have offered only a fragmentary vision of this complex issue, as well as the way it is a facet in a larger set of questions about the relation of religion to liberal democratic politics.  The originality of this project is threefold:

  1. It offers a unique opportunity to assemble the expertise of scholars working within different disciplines, countries, and universities and thus to propose a more comprehensive view of the issue at hand.

  2. Most studies of the interaction between religious norms and the secular public space rely on the distinction between the West and the ‘Muslim world.” This project, by contrast, is based on the assumption that Islam should be approached from the perspective of globalization, and the decoupling of religions and culture entailed in globalization. Instead of taking for granted the opposition between Islam and the West, scholars involved in this project are interested in questioning the relevance of this division and showing, for example, the similarity of debates that take place among Muslims based in Birmingham and those in Cairo, among Jews in England, or Christians in the United States.

  3. Most existing studies assume that there exists a fixed body of religious values, norms and traditions, which are either at odds or compatible with secular principles.  This project, on the contrary, proposes that the study of norms—religious or secular—is inseparable from the study of the very specific context in which these norms are produced, in other words that norms are not simple theories, but practices. This is why the project insists on gathering not only scholars studying the question of Islamic norms in the public sphere at the level of principles and theories (what is meant by notions such as public reason, public religion etc.) but also scholars who offer detailed sociological and ethnographical accounts of specific contexts in which norms emerge (study of trials, of media etc.).

Confronted with this resurgence of new religious movements, Western societies have adopted different strategies to format them into a common paradigm. Different countries have used alternate standards to define what acceptable religious practices should be. This formatting effect might be done wither under an interventionists pattern of state control (France) or under the principles of a general right to the freedom of religion (USA) or according to the tenets of multiculturalism (Canada), but in all the cases it has had a comparable effect of aligning the new and minority religions under a common national paradigm.

We will study how courts, lawmakers, and social workers contribute to this formatting. But we will also analyze how public debate, widely publicized polemics – such as the ban of minarets in Switzerland – media campaigns, and academic expertise contribute to produce specific paradigms.  Local actors, including Muslim imams and political activists, also play a role in either trying to resist social pressure or to accommodate their religious practices to these pressures. Liberal societies confronted alternate systems of thinking cannot force religions to reform or to become liberal, due to the principle of freedom of religion. However liberal societies have often intervened to regulate the public sphere, and even when accepting new practices outside the mainstream, these societies nonetheless play a powerful role in shaping and constraining religions into a formal and acceptable paradigm of what a religion should be.

The Network on Religious Norms in the Public Sphere (RPS) will explore these paradigms in different contexts and work on the following issues, among others:

  • Are there common patterns for integrating the personal practice of religion into public life?

  • Who are the actors in this integration and what impact do they have on public policies?

  • What do we mean by the term “Public Religion?” Is it a theological reform or just a recasting of religiosity?

  • How are the changes taking place in Western societies reflected in other traditionally religious societies?

  • How should we think of religion in the public sphere, in a secularized and pluralist environment?

  • How do Western courts or administrative decisions (e.g., appointing Religious chaplains) contribute to shape the notion of “Western Religion?”

  • How do national norms of citizenship and national norms regarding the relationship between religion and the state shape the adoption of different approaches to this issue?

  • How is the integration of religion into public life understood differently across national contexts? Is this understood as a matter of liberty? Of equality? Of some other norm?

  • What is the relationship between religion and culture? How does this relationship vary across the major religious traditions? What is distinctive about religion as a discourse of identity?

Policy makers and the public will greatly benefit from the work of an international and interdisciplinary network of leading scholars who can answer these key questions about Islam in the public sphere and promote research-based policy and public education about this complex and nuanced issue.

The transatlantic collaboration between UC Berkeley and the Robert Schuman Center provide ideal dual anchors for this network: each is itself a vibrant internationally pre-eminent and interdisciplinary research community; taken together scholars at both institutions can leverage their existing connections together scholars to create a truly global research project on a truly global set of issues. The Kadish Center for Law, Morality, and Public Affairs, at Berkeley’s Law School, provides already a focal point for scholars who work across the social and humanistic disciplines, and bridge both policy and theoretical research.  Moreover, the scholars at both institutions enjoy important connections to influential politicians, journalists, think-tanks and foundations that have shown an interest in the topic. 

For more information please visit: rps.berkeley.edu