Paths to a multicultural modernity

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An interview with Roberto Toscano, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC and former Ambassador of Italy to India and Iran by Nicola Missaglia, ResetDoc, Rome.


Can you help us understand how we can better fight against fundamentalism as a global problem, from India to US, from Iran and Pakistan to Europe? Things are going in the opposite direction of what are the hopes of people who believe in dialogue, comprehension, openness to the other. What’s your reaction as someone committed to promoting intercultural dialogue?

I do not want to start by ‘nit-picking’, but perhaps the first thing we should do is to address definitions, as Confucius advised us to do (‘If you want to ensure peace in the kingdom, take good care of definitions’). Fundamentalism, of course, is a term that has entered common usage on a global scale, but at the same time can be misleading, insofar as it refers to a sort of return to the roots, to foundations, in terms of religious belief and cultural identity. Were it so, that is, were we facing a sort of regressive delusion, we could be far more optimistic than we are today. We are, on the contrary, facing a political trend that despite appearances is not backward looking, but proposes a different kind of modernity, a non-pluralistic modernity, an integriste modernity (to use the hardly translatable French term), and I would also add a non-liberal concept of democracy, in which believers, and not citizens, are the protagonists. What is being challenged is the concept that there are different, autonomous realms of human activity and identity that cannot be unified under a single governing principle, in this case religious belief.


Did the economic crisis affect the way America feels about its deep multicultural identity?

America’s multicultural identity has deep roots, and is an essential component of American ideology. The election of Barack Obama (the son of a WASP mother and an African, and Muslim, father) to the Presidency has been a very remarkable confirmation. And yet this is not the entire story. Multiculturalism is both a fact and an ideology, and yet it has never been universally accepted. An important component of anti-Obama right-wing extremism (the ‘so called’ Tea Party) can be attributed not only to a rejection of his politics (absurdly by being widely defined as ‘socialist’), but also to race and religion (the ‘Hussein’ in his name is perceived as confirming the worst suspicion that he may not be a Christian). The economic crisis does not seem to have a direct impact on multicultural identity, yet it increases tension and the chances of a ‘zero-sum approach’ in relations between different groups. The fact is that since American ideology is reluctant to recognize the dimension of class, problems tend to be arbitrarily classified in terms of race and culture.


What does secularism – constitutional and ideological secularism – mean in a context of spiritual and religious multiplicity like in India? And what does (should) secularism mean in today’s Europe? Religion plays a major role in America’s public life and discourse; does this affect the way religious and ethnic minorities are perceived and integrated in US society? To what extent can we compare this to what happens in old, strictly secular Europe?

The same word, secularism, can mean very different things in different cultures and in light of different historical experiences. In India as well as in the United States, secularism is a strictly political-constitutional principle which not only is not opposed to religious belief, but is fully in harmony with it. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was suspected by his opponents, insofar as he was Catholic, as not giving enough guarantees of secularism. But post his election in the US, religious belief is no longer considered a problem for someone running for public office, even in the case of ‘non-mainstream’ Christian denominations (it is possible that the Republican candidate in the next presidential race could be Romney, a Mormon). Yet, one can be sure that the US will not have a Muslim president, nor a Muslim presidential candidate, and one could add that the likelihood of a Jewish president is also scarcely credible. Christianity seems to be a prerequisite, making American secularism a somewhat peculiar (and limited) concept. More than that, and extending the scope beyond the presidency to all public office, all candidates are obliged to be very vocal about their belief in God: an avowed atheist is certainly non-eligible in the United States.

India, a country where secularism and belief are not incompatible, is much more open, much more consistently secular. It recently had a Muslim president, and now has a Sikh prime minister and the leader of the main political party, the Congress, who grew up as a Christian and most probably still is, though in a discreet way. (It has to be said, here that the problem for Sonia Gandhi is not her religion, but her foreign origin).

In Europe, secularism tends to be identified with a lack of religious belief (atheism or agnosticism). In Italy, for instance, when a non-believer is asked about his faith, or lack of it, it is most likely that he will reply that he is laico (secular). I believe this is very negative, insofar as a secular body politic can survive and secularism can be an aspect of liberal democracy only if it comprises both kinds of secular-oriented citizens: secular believers and secular non-believers.

It is not difficult to understand the reason for this phenomenon: basically the fact that a secular nation state has been the difficult product of extended struggles against Church integrisme, and its rejection, up until late 19th century (see several papal encyclicals), of principles such as the freedom of conscience, religious pluralism, democracy and liberalism.

Today, however, the main problem with secularism does not concern Christianity (including Catholic Christianity), but Islam. The Muslim faith seems to be least compatible with a secular approach to the state, and seems to be more integriste than Catholicism ever was. Despite difficulties, I believe that this assessment draws on several factors. First, the more radical interpretations of Islam are more vocal and more worrisome, given their potential for intolerance and even violence. Second, throughout the Muslim world, reformist and ‘modernist’ interpretations of Islam are often the target of repression. Third, western interpretations of Islam are often the product of a combination of ignorance, essentialism as also bad faith, since it is easy to fight an enemy if we manage to depict him with caricatured, extreme, threatening features.

There is a lot of interesting work being done today (by Muslims and non-Muslims) on the possibility of finding compatibility between Islam and some version of secularism (definitely, an ‘American’ or, even better, ‘Indian’ – and not European – version of secularism: i.e. secularism cum religious belief). Even for Islam one should reject as logically – and philologically – wrong the equation of secularism with atheism. One should correct the bad translation of the term laique that was given in 19th century Turkey: la-dini , i.e. non-religious.


Do you think that secularism constitutes an antidote to fundamentalism? What does the Indian experience tell us about that? And America’s experience?

Secularism indeed constitutes an antidote to fundamentalism, but with a very important precondition: liberal democracy. But that’s where the problem lies. In a democratic society religions can express themselves, compete and, very important, develop according to new historical situations and new human needs. Nobody can seriously deny that all human beliefs and institutions have changed through time. The only thing that prevents change, adaptation and evolution is repression. If Muslims could live in free, democratic states, there is no doubt that Islam would experience the same process of evolution and harmonization with modernity that, say, Catholicism – though reluctantly – went through. What America, Europe and India have in common is the space that democracy creates for religion, without letting religion take over politics (but also without letting politics take over religion: an equally pernicious hypothesis).


To what extent can modern democracy ‘survive’ multiculturalism, religious diversity, globalization? Are there any existing democratic ‘models’ – different from the European one – from which there is something useful to learn for Europe? You have been ambassador to India… and you have a deep knowledge of the United States.

I will have to correct you: the question is not whether modern democracy will ‘survive’ multiculturalism, religious diversity and globalization. Rather, it will survive only with multiculturalism, religious diversity and globalization. People move across the globe more than ever, and the idea of culturally and religiously homogeneous societies is merely a reactionary utopia. Not recognizing diversity can lead only to expulsion or disenfranchisement of those who are different: ethnic cleansing or apartheid (if not the horrendous alternative of genocide). Thus, democracy demands not only the recognition of the fact of multiculturalism, but the political project of interculturalism, i.e. the constant dialogue and exchange between diversities. Identities, as Emmanuel Levinas taught us, are shaped not in isolation but in constant relationship with the Other, who not only has to be tolerated (toleration is a minimal, cold virtue), but respected as also appreciated as a source of positive diversity and as a condition for our own growth as human beings and societies.

As for democratic models, let me reverse here a quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where he writes: ‘All happy families are happy in the same way, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.’ As for democracy, I would say instead: ‘All non-democracies tend to resemble each other, all democracies are democratic in their own way.’ We should, of course, be wary of adjectives added to the term ‘democracy’ (adjectives that tend to undermine the substantive), and yet democracy allows each people to express their own history, culture, anthropology even. Conversely, having lived and worked as a diplomat in non-democratic regimes (Pinochet’s Chile, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Ahmadinejad’s Iran), I can assure you that I was deeply struck by a number of political and even aesthetic similarities among theoretically opposed regimes.


It is clear that most European democracies are experiencing some difficulty in adapting to actual conditions of multiculturalism and religious diversity. Minorities are demanding public recognition of their cultural identity, of their faith and of their practices (e.g. the veil, building of mosques etc.). Why these difficulties? Why increasing xenophobia, violence? And why more and more political restrictions and discourses that sometimes deny Europe’s cultural and constitutional liberal values? To what extent is the United States experiencing a situation which is slightly different from the European one?

It is true that in Europe we are witnessing a disturbing regression. We thought that after centuries of difficult struggles for liberty and democracy, we had become irreversibly pluralistic, or at least tolerant. Well, what we see today is the growth of xenophobia and increasing political success of extreme right-wing parties whose main appeal is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-difference. One could say that the end of the Cold War eliminated a strong element of western cohesion. While that may be partly true, there are other factors such as the rapid increase of immigration. Here, too, one has to be discriminating. In some countries, such as Italy, the loss of homogeneity is recent, and accelerating. A few decades ago Italy was a country of emigration, now it is of immigration. I hear that in my own elementary school, in Parma, Northern Italy (traditionally a very homogeneous society), 25 per cent of the pupils are children of immigrants. This is not true, however, of the UK and France, and not even Germany, which have experienced massive immigration – due to colonial history or the massive arrival, after World War II, of ‘guest workers’ – for a long time.

So, what is causing the tension, the deviation from our ‘European values’? Economic difficulties have a lot to do with it. When things are bad, it is easy to blame the Other, the foreigner. But I believe that what is happening today has a lot to do with fear. Fear of terrorism (a phenomenon that, of course, has not been invented by media, but which has been dramatized far beyond its real danger for political reasons: fear pays, fear produces cohesion), but also fear of a loss of identity. Globalization has created a sense of ‘agoraphobia’, i.e. the fear of the open space in which theoretically we are free to compete and realize all our dreams, but where we actually feel ill-equipped, lost, and losers, especially at a stage in which the shock absorbers supplied by the welfare state are being reduced and made uncertain. Paradoxically, the more we are thrown into an open space, the more we want to rebuild walls, smaller identities, closer solidarities with ‘our own people’, and unfortunately this often comes together with contempt and fear of those who are not ‘our own’.

America is different, insofar as the process of integration of minorities and immigrants has been more thorough, and especially since it is founded on a strong concept of common citizenship and on an ‘American dream’ which has (I would say miraculously) survived economic crises, real and growing inequalities, socio-economic injustice, and racial discrimination that has been sharply reduced but not totally eliminated. And finally religion, or rather religiousness (plural), has also a lot to do with this cohesion, together with a sense of local community still capable of eliciting active participation and identification.

The citizen is not, and cannot be, the single-culture, assimilated citoyen of French political culture. Yet, without the citizen and without the recognition of common citizenship, there will be no way of making difference (cultural, religious) compatible with living together in the same society without hostility but instead within democratic institutions and intercultural mode.