[Editor's note: Italian journalist and Vatican commentator Sandro Magister translated and published this edited version of Vittorio E. Parsi's article on his website, Chiesa (see related link). The original article was published in the magazine of the Catholic University of Milan, "Vita & Pensiero."]
Relations between the West and Islam are not at all in a peaceful phase... If we, as Westerners, do not equip ourselves conceptually to understand the difficulties, the mentality, and the expectations of our neighbors, and in a truly rapid fashion, then war will end up being the instrument to which we will make ever-growing recourse, perhaps calling it by other names and continuing to revile it. In order for this not to happen, it is paramount that the field be cleared of those illusions that have too often turned into a sterile dialogue the debate on how to confront the question of the democratization of the Islamic world...
I believe that secularization is one of the categories that we must accept as having, not universal, but limited historical relevance.
It is beyond question that, in the West, secularization was the central solution through which passed the internal pacification of individual political systems and the reduction of the rate of violence within the European political system in general. Significantly, the origin of the international political system is traced back to 1648 and the peace of Westphalia, which put an end to the Thirty Years War. That peace concluded the last and very bloody conflict for hegemony in the West conducted in the name (or with the instrument) of religious uniformity.
With that, the process of secularization in the West—the progressive marginalization of religion and of its hierarchies in the field of politics—had crossed the point of no return. Just as within the political community unity could no longer be threatened in the name of religious diversity, so among political communities religious 'cleavage' could no longer be taken up as a legitimate motive for reciprocal hostility.
In the face of problems not fully addressed by philosophy, only religion is able to offer responses that are timeless.
The recognition of the state also came through secularization. The full sovereignty of the state could not tolerate that others should assume the authority to limit its legitimacy, not even in the name of transcendent authorities. In Hobbes' phrase, for a new mortal God to live, another must die. And I believe there are few doubts about the fact that the 17th-century state is as close as can be imagined to an absolute and almost "secularly religious" form of power...
This is the Western experience, which links in an indivisible manner secularization, modernization, and the state. Its having been able to construct this incredible artifice of the modern sovereign state has conferred on the West that extraordinary advantage that is at the root of its violent and astonishing success in its contact with other forms of political organization. In the 1600's the West began its expansionist march into the world, annihilating the other political forms it confronted.
The inversion of the trend as regards the Muslim world also dates from that era. Until then the Ottoman empire, or rather its most consequential political expression, was still expanding its territory, but from the end of the 1600's it began its progressive retreat from the heart of Europe. The defeat of the Turkish forces that besieged Vienna, on September 11, 1683, and the victory of the Habsburg forces commanded by Eugenio di Savoia, on September 11, 1697, marked a reversal that would be completed only with the destruction of the Ottoman empire more than two hundred years later.
This is the first myth regarding the relationship between the West and secularization that must be debunked. In reality, at the moment in which this new "collective we" is recognized, a boundary is fixed beyond which is grouped an "other than we" which is ever more irreconcilably different. While in the West provisions are made to regulate, limit, and relativize conflict, everything that is excluded from this new system is left in the realm of absolute strife. And the international political system does nothing other than take the place of the "Christiana Respublica."
Secularization simply dispossessed the masses and middle ranks of Muslim countries of a traditional form of identity, without being able to replace it with something else.
There is no trace of any "multiculturalism" in the fabric of institutions and laws that the West designs to hold the world together. As little as it might please us, after the peoples' struggle against colonialism (from the 1940's-'50's) and the struggle for racial equality and economic justice (in the '70's and '80's) we have now entered a third phase, that of the struggle for cultural liberation from Western domination and for the reaffirmation of autonomous civilizations and cultures.
Islam is one of these. And the struggle against the institutions and geography with which we Westerners designed the world, beginning from 1648, relates to this third wave. When we ask ourselves why fundamentalism makes so many proselytes, we should not forget that it is also the fruit of the frustrations that the Muslim world suffers whenever its scandalous under-representation in any international institution of any influence is demonstrated.
This is an overarching problem that regards all of the countries of the so-called South of the world, but which is particularly noticed by the Muslims. If we consider only the United Nations, a certain fact becomes worth noticing. During the Cold War, the principal fracture of the planet - between East and West—was represented within the security council, which thus became a meeting place for the release of tensions and the development of a concrete culture of dialogue and mutual trust even between irreconcilable enemies, as the free world and the communist world were at the time. Today, instead, relations between the North and the South, and between the West and Muslim countries, if they are systematically left to their present course or are confined to meaningless institutions, risk progressively turning into conflicts and confrontations.
There is also a "domestic" myth of secularization, one entirely contained within the West, which must be unmasked.
In the experience of the West, secularization does not only permit the recognition of the state and modernization. It also represents the obligatory prerequisite for the development of two other formidable political categories that have challenged the state, transformed it profoundly, and, in the long run, made it even more stable: the nation and democracy.
In spite of the fact that all three of these concepts—state, nation, and democracy—have fascinated, at one time or another, almost all the élite Muslim reformers, it is difficult not to acknowledge the failure of their reception in the Islamic world.
If the principal justification for secularization lies in considering it the obligatory passage for the development of the democratic national state, then in the eyes of the Muslim world the result might not be worth the sacrifice. Unfortunately, in fact, the secular state, the nation, and democracy have all been variously tried, even if in maladroit versions, by Muslim societies, and have been shown to be so prone to failure that they have become hardly at all attractive if their obligatory price is the clear division between politics and religion. In a Muslim society in which religion is seen as the principal instrument by which an individual identifies himself, it is unrealistic to imagine that secularization can have any chance of success. Or even that it can be so much as proposed.
Secularization is one of the categories that we must accept as having, not universal, but limited historical relevance.
The path of secularization—even though it was enthusiastically followed by the Arab reformist and revolutionary élite during the 1950's and '60's—met with almost a total lack of success precisely because it was accompanied by a modernization of Western origin incapable of growing deep within Muslim societies. In fact, secularization simply dispossessed the masses and middle ranks of Muslim countries of a traditional form of identity, without being able to replace it with something else.
It is precisely the identity crisis of Muslim societies which is now putting at risk the world order and the peacefulness of an international political system that in any case remains extremely West-centered. And it is the factor of identity in this crisis—which was also generated by the terrible political and economic performance following independence and socialist revolutions—which has made it so difficult to handle the Islamic question.
In reality, in order to seek a sort of Islamic path to democracy, the finding of which seems now more crucial than ever, we must look with greater detachment at the relationship between democracy and secularization.
Finding the "passage to the Southeast" for democracy is a task for which we must all equip ourselves, without haughtiness and in the common interest.
The only alternative to exporting democracy through war is that of elaborating new forms of democratic expression that can use profitably the characteristics of Muslim society, instead of quarreling with or denying them, perhaps by Westernizing them. If we can find a solution to the relationship between politics and religion different from that which the Western tradition has used until now, we will render the greatest possible service to democracy and peace.
But there's another factor that should prompt us to reconsider with less arrogance the relationship between politics and religion. It is the resurgence at a global level, even in the West, of the religious question.
In reality, we could speak today of a de-secularization of society, if we consider to what extent religion is recognized as a key factor in national, transnational, and international relations. I personally hold that, as our technological capabilities gradually attain goals that were once unthinkable in human history (one thinks of genetic engineering, or the possibilities offered by artificial procreation), at the same time there will be a widening of the space granted to religious discourse, even in the most secularized societies.
We Westerners should stop asking ourselves whether Islam is compatible with Western civilization, ignoring past and present exchanges and continued cross-fertilization.
In the face of problems not fully addressed by philosophy, only religion is able to offer responses that are timeless, and thus always valid for all who decide to trust in them. Where should a reasonable boundary be set between politics and religion, when the decisions of a political assembly must determine what is just and lawful in such delicate areas? How is it thinkable to preclude from a form of human reflection exercised for so long as religious reflection has been the possibility of making a contribution when we must decide in conscience that to which we still cannot assign a sure value judgment? Will we be able to do without religion when our technical capabilities far exceed our ethical ones?
This global resurgence of religion is particularly evident in international politics. Religion, nationalism, and ethnicity have proven to be lasting sources of identity and conflict.
But the events of recent decades should induce us to make at least two considerations.
The first is that, in the West, we gave these dimensions of the political struggle up for dead a bit too quickly and a bit too definitively. If we want to continue to be able to construct a political discourse that is not simply frozen within Western historical experience, we must have the courage to consider that the irreligious "postmodernism" of politics is more an intellectual temptation than a universal reality.
The second consideration takes into account how relativizing the ethical bearing of the state, especially in Europe, makes room for a new articulation of the relationship between politics and religion...
We Westerners should stop asking ourselves whether Islam is compatible with Western civilization, ignoring past and present exchanges and continued cross-fertilization. Whether we are more or less aware of the fact, asking ourselves such a question implies... that we have arbitrarily taken an abstract idea of Western civilization as the universal norm. And that's not all. Such a pretense is also based upon the mistaken idea that civilizations are mutually exclusive and opposed, when in reality civilizations and cultures mingle, intersect, and have differences and similarities.
In this respect for cultural differences we should never forget that there is a universal aspiration for democracy, or at least for freedom.
But in this respect for cultural differences we should never forget that there is a universal aspiration for democracy, or at least for freedom. Even more than the analysis of doctrines and experiences throughout time and space, good sense alone should make us affirm that, insofar as he is a reasonable and reasoning being, man aspires to be free. If there is one thing that joins the path of humanity beneath all of its variations, it is precisely this incessant human attempt to remove oneself, although in different ways, from another's control in the name of one's own freedom.
Certainly, the democratic doctrine—that is, the political idea that sees in government by the greatest number the preferable form of political organization—has not always been the most popular among intellectuals, governors, and even the governed. And there is no doubt that, in the form most familiar to us—that which joins the principle of the majority with respect for the minority—it is only now finding a sure foothold.
But on the other hand, its pervasive diffusion through various eras and civilizations—and the alternations in its fortunes, which have been just as pervasive—discredit immediately whoever would wish to see the West as the only depository of the value of democracy.