What is the problem with religion? Towards a Mediterranean dialogue

Written by Kathryn Carlson on . Posted in Current features, Features

In a September event held in Florence’s Palazzo Medici Riccardi, leading figures from religion, government, diplomacy and academia met for a panel discussion on the problems faced – or perhaps caused – by contemporary religion in Europe. The roundtable took place as part of the Mediterranean Dialogues series organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. The dialogue series is aimed at promoting a positive dialogue on Mediterranean issues. In a bilingual event with simultaneous translation, the audience heard a panel of experts discuss the diverse issues causing conflict in modern religion, and how these issues may be remedied in the future.

What's the Problem with Religion?

What’s the Problem with Religion?

Panelists included: Saywan Barzani, the former Ambassador of Iraq to Italy; Archbishop Giuseppe Betori, the Archbishop of Florence; Imam Izzeddin Elzir, the Vice President of the Florence School of Advanced Studies for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (FSD) and Imam of Florence; Pasquale Ferrara, the Ambassador of Italy to Algeria; Rabbi Joseph Levi, the President of FSD and former Chief Rabbi of Florence; and EUI Professor Olivier Roy.

The panel was moderated by Miguel Poiares Maduro, the director of EUI’s School of Transnational Governance, with a keynote speech by Hon. Emanuela Del Re, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Welcoming remarks were also given by the President of the EUI, Renaud Dehousse, the Executive Vice President and Director of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Paolo Magri, and the Deputy Mayor and City Councillor for University, Research and Youth Policy at the Comune di Firenze, Cristina Giachi.

Anarchy in the name of freedom

The contemporary misuse of religion to incite violence and even war is a practice the panelists unanimously decried. Saywan Barzani, the former Ambassador of Iraq to Italy, discussed the usage of Islam in the Middle East to wage war, beginning with the Soviet-Afghan war and the Iranian revolution of 1979.  The US government “exploited religion to justify war”, Ambassador Barzani argued, when it called for a jihad against Soviet soldiers by the Afghan troops. This strategy of using Islam as an ideology to wage war has continued ever since, most recently in Syria, he stated, reminding the audience that Islam has existed for 14 centuries, but radical violent Islamism only for the past 30 to 40 years.

Imam Izzeddin Elzir, the Imam of Florence and Vice President of FSD, agreed with Ambassador Barzani’s argument, denouncing the exploitation of religious communities to stoke violence. He called this “anarchy in the name of freedom”, an irresponsible form of violence controlled by malignant entities who use religion as a rallying cause. Ambassador Barzani pointed out that most victims of terrorism are Muslim themselves. This exploitation of religious ideals, he argued, is “80 per cent of the problem” in modern conflict. Olivier Roy, an EUI professor and expert in the field of Islamic radicalization, suggested that the “process of bringing back spirituality” could counter this violence in a positive way. “The role of religion is up to the believers”, he stated, arguing that spirituality – “now in the hands of radicals” – could be taken back by ordinary believers.

“Believing, belonging, behaving”

Another issue on the table was the oversimplification and generalisation of religion in modern discourse. In her keynote speech, Hon. Emanuela Del Re, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made a “call to responsibility” on the part of modern religious believers. “There is a tendency to simplify”, she stated, “but complexity must be key. Religion must be problematic, it must make people think critically. If it doesn’t raise issues, it’s the end of religion.” Citing the example of young Muslim atheists (who do not believe in the Muslim faith but remain part of the community and culture) as an overlooked nuance in religious communities, Hon. Del Re called for a greater complexity in the way we conceptualise and talk about religion today. Thinking critically, she argued, is an essential and often neglected part of modern religious discourse, while generalisations can cause myriad issues.

Pasquale Ferrara, the Ambassador of Italy to Algeria, echoed Hon. Del Re’s sentiment about oversimplification. “Religion is not simple”, he said. “It is multidimensional; it is believing…belonging…behaving”. When we think about religion, Ambassador Ferrara argued, we must think about all aspects of religious identity and thought, resisting the urge to simplify, especially with relation to geopolitics. “Modernity and westernisation are two different things”, he stated. “When we think about religion, we need to be less Eurocentric, to be postcolonial in our thought”. When we neglect the complex issues of causation and different geographical identities in favour of an archaic, narrow view of religion, Ambassador Ferrara argued, oversimplification becomes dangerous.

“If you ban the veil, you should ban the cassock”

The conflict between the public and private spheres was highlighted as an issue in modern religion. Professor Oliver Roy challenged our perception that in a modern secular society, religion should be confined to private spaces, drawing attention to a double standard in our perception of the public and private religious practice. “If you ban the veil, you should ban the cassock”, he stated, underlining the dichotomy between public and private implicit in both garments, and our Eurocentric double standard in our attitudes towards them. “By pushing religion to the private sphere, we attack the freedom of religion.”

The Archbishop of Florence, Giuseppe Betori, called the increasing divisions between private religion and secular public society in Europe a “polite persecution of religious people”. Attacking the perception of a conflict between religion and democracy, he called for an increased respect for religion in the public sphere, and a gratitude for the achievements of religion in history: “If we had to start at the Enlightenment, we would have to demolish Florence”. The Archbishop also rallied against social media and the press as oppressors of religion, calling for people to be “freed from internet dependency”. While both the Archbishop and Professor Roy called for an increased respect for religious practices in a secular society, Archbishop Betori was particularly critical of the so-called suppression of religion by the state.

“The city of La Pira, but also the city of others”

Imam Elzir spoke extensively on the evolution which, in his view, modern religion must undergo. Anarchy in the name of freedom is not progress, he argued. “Freedom comes from responsibility and accountability. We can’t be hostages to the past – freedom should go beyond history.” Referring to the prophet Muhammed’s teaching that religion and faith should be renewed every century to reflect the changes in life and the times, the Imam called renewal “part of the DNA of religion”.

Echoing Mr Ferrara’s rejection of Eurocentrism, the Imam called for increased education to allow religion to develop. “Knowledge without reason is not a religion”, he said, arguing that an archaic, oversimplified version of religion is often the version adopted by fanatics towards violence. He then added that education is the key to developing modern religious thought to be in tune with the times, and to counter fanaticism. Joseph Levi, the former Chief Rabbi of Florence and the President of FSD, said that Florence is “the city of La Pira but also the city of others”, arguing that the city can be an arena for change and progress just as much as it is a home of tradition and history. This progress, he said, is key to solving contemporary problems with religion.

“Religion can be a wall, an act of violence, or a bridge”

In his address, EUI President Renaud Dehousse called for an exchange of views between different parties, in line with the true mission of universities: “We should not simply be producing knowledge, but also be fostering dialogue”. The Deputy Mayor of Florence Cristina Giachi added that specific tools are needed to allow an exchange of ideas and a focus on dialogue. Cultural tools and spaces, she said, are necessary to create a dialogue for progress, and to promote a civic life which is rewarding for everyone. Deputy Mayor Giachi added that the future is hopeful, because religion in itself is rich with possibilities for dialogue.

Ambassador Barzani echoed this call for congress between different people, citing Italy’s positive role on an international level through diplomacy and the UN. Imam Elzir added to this sense of the positive role of religion in discourse with his assertion that “religion can be a wall, an act of violence, or a bridge”. Rabbi Levi added that we “become richer by listening to the experiences of others…we can’t see the future – but through respect, friendship, and love we will develop through true humanity”.


Tags: , ,