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Governance, Citizenship, Rights & Obligations

Under the broad rubric of religion in public life, this group will explore the challenge of constructing and participating in local, national, and global communities in an era of deepening pluralism. Working within deeply rooted and time-honored traditions, Muslim, Catholic, and secular leaders and institutions have both initiated and responded to the distinctive norms and practices of religious freedom, democracy, pluralism, and human rights. Differing religious and secular conceptions of such norms and practices yield an ongoing debate about how to construct the public sphere, how to balance commitments to an overarching religious community with the obligations of national citizenship, and the patterns of interaction between religious and secular law, jurisprudence, and spheres of authority.


“[T]he events of the last two weeks…speak to the need for all of us to honestly address the tensions between the West and the Arab World…” Those words were spoken by President Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2012. Indeed, all the events swirling around a crude video insulting the Prophet Muhammad demand an honest conversation about the tensions between the West and the predominantly Muslim cultures of the Arab World — not to mention Muslim cultures beyond the Arab World. A logical forum for such a conversation is Contending Modernities. And the ideal host for such a conversation is Dr. Paola Bernardini, the new Associate Director for Research for Contending Modernities.


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.” Arguably, though, they represent not a clash of “democracy” vs. “extremism” but a clash between rival conceptions of democracy.


In April, Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan came out with an article in the Journal of Democracy on “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations.” If the article is right, Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists are participating in an encouraging pattern of political cooperation that bodes well for the country’s democratic development. There is good reason to be hopeful about the relevance of an emerging “Tunisian model” of secular-Islamist negotiation, not only for Tunisia’s future but for all those countries affected by the Arab Spring. Yet there is also reason for caution.


Although the ongoing healthcare wars between Democrats and Republicans have been raging for some time now, the recent HHS mandate has ignited a more direct and particular conflict. Whereas the former was and is primarily political, the latter seems to be cultural. Regardless of what we call it, this recent battle in the healthcare wars amplifies a longstanding tension between secular/American and religious/Catholic cultures and worldviews.

The Ennahda Effect?


Tunisia’s Islamist-oriented political party, Ennahda, appears to have won more than 40% of the popular vote in constitutional assembly elections on October 30th, the first elections since protests there ignited the Arab Spring last January. In the first days following popular revolutions in Tunisia and then Egypt, commentators emphasized their non-religious nature and the central role that ideologically neutral, social-media-toting youths played in toppling authoritarian governments. So the impressive, outright electoral victory of a major, religious political party in “secular” Tunisia should give pause for reflection.


When the Arab Spring began earlier this year, first in Tunis and then in Egypt, many in the West felt sympathetic. But other people saw a risk: What if the Arab Spring midwifed a series of Islamist dictatorships? The deposed dictators of Tunis and Egypt were unmistakably authoritarian, but they were also secular. What if Islamists took advantage of democracy to establish their own dictatorships? What if these “bad guys,” as Donald Rumsfeld reportedly put it in a recent meeting in Washington, emerged triumphant?


Pakistan’s polity today does not reflect the ideals set by her founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, outlining a pluralistic democracy and religious freedom. But the undying spirit of the Pakistani people and their enduring commitment to true democracy—which braved executions, imprisonments, flogging and torture to oppose and defeat four despotic military regimes in 60 years—demonstrate that a new Pakistan can be built.