The Public Humanist

Religion and Democracy 2: ESTABLISHING Identity -- to VEIL or UNVEIL religious solidarity?

I enjoyed my UMass colleague Dan Gordon’s take on religion and democracy with particular respect to Muslim women’s head coverings. Dan’s points also provide good opportunity to look at the issues he raises from two inter-related standpoints that complement his, (1) the other side of the American constitutional language and (2) one basic Middle Eastern position on national identity and religion.

In terms of (1), the US Constitutional relationship between church and state is defined by two competing clauses of the First Amendment, which state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The basic story here is the Supreme Court’s efforts to interpret what these two clauses mean in response to social pressures and changes. The federal government can not endorse or favor a particular religion, according to the Establishment Clause. This has been understood by judges to require the separation of church and state. Yet government must also not get in the way of people’s ability to practice their religion, as Dan describes flows out of the Free Exercise clause.

It doesn’t take a trained lawyer to see that these broad ideas may be in tension. How does a political system ruling over people of diverse (mostly) religious and (some) non-religious affiliations allow varied religious practices, while neither privileging some nor losing the capacity to enforce uniform laws? This balancing act is further complicated by another fact of American Constitutional law – different parts of the First Amendment, with resulting different legal rules, govern religious practices and free speech.

Dan elaborates this point, concerned that American society may privilege religious behavior in ways that it does not do with respect to secular ideas, which raises concerns about democracy. Like him, I find such concerns salient in today’s US, where rigid doctrines and inflated discourse sometimes crowd out more subtle perspectives in the media and politics. Yet, it is also worth noting that the US Supreme Court has been willing in the past to grant values not clearly grounded in recognized religious institutions similar weight to religious principles in justifying exceptions to federal laws.

In any case, what makes the US historically unusual and influential with respect to religion and politics is the Establishment clause. Jefferson and the other framers of the Bill of Rights explicitly rejected a model of a political system with an official religion, even though they most likely assumed that most people practiced religion. Although many Americans today take as an article of faith (!) the principle of the separation of church and state, this principle distinguished the US from most other countries at its origins. It continues to be at odds with the practices and views of people in many other societies, including some countries with majority Muslim populations.

It’s definitely a strange experience for an American to live in a society with an official, established religion. In Qatar last year, I was unable to practice my own religion openly, and found myself forced to be in synch with the rites and rhythms of local Muslims. During the fasting month of Ramadan, which is in progress as I write, not only were restaurants and grocery stores closed during the daylight hours of prescribed fasting. I could find myself stopped by the police if I drank water or had a snack in my car while stuck in the congested traffic so typical of Doha. While Qatar’s government fosters interfaith dialogue, and tries to accommodate non-Muslims, the particular local form of Islam is endorsed as the norm. Mosque and state are not separate.

If life in a place with a strongly established religion was a change from what I know in Massachusetts, it also had its appeal, such as the beauty of the call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of the mosques in my neighborhood. Yet, whatever its pluses, a government enforcing an established religion highlights a central point of Dan Gordon’s post – there can be no democracy without some limits on what religious persons desire.

Yet most of my Qatari friends would take issue with this exact point. Indeed, my bright Qatari political theory students last year claimed quite strongly that Islam as the established state religion was democratic in that it represented precisely what the vast majority of Qatari citizens wanted. Of course, this does not resolve the issue, for minority rights are a critical part of any democratic theory. Although religious rights seem like a less pressing issue in a place like Qatar where nearly all natives share the same faith and practices, a society such as the US (or contemporary England) where there is no clearly dominant religious group will face much more obvious issues with democratic legitimacy if a particular religion is endorsed.

Yet here’s where I think things get really complex, and where we come back to head scarves. All states establish or encourage majority identities, part of what my colleague describes as the sense of solidarity in France that head scarves might seem to threaten. Without trivializing the genuine democratic challenges posed by a dominant religion, I think it important to highlight thatcontending governments’ and citizens’ ideas about how to build social solidarity are an important reason that feelings about head scarves can play out so differently in the West and the Middle East. Where it’s easy for me or Dan to see French society trying to maintain unity around an idea of shared citizenship, my Qatari students may view the same thing as elevating an artificial secular construct above a symbol that is more common to their own sense of social solidarity.

I consider Turkey an even more interesting example. Here, the government’s head scarf ban, depending on your perspective, can look like a defensive effort to protect a fragile and recent constructed secular identity against the democratic will, instead of a basic cornerstone for contemporary national citizenship. Indeed, with the recent twin 2007 electoral victories of the Islamist JDP (Justice and Development Party), Turkey is considering rewriting its constitution to remove the head scarf ban.

In short, if my colleague invites us to think about how some minority religious rights may seem anti-democratic, I think we should also ponder how democratic or other forms of popular will may take differing views about providing equal protection for minority religious rights. I personally am most comfortable living under a government that stays clear of establishing or endorsing a particular religion. But the fact that people in some other societies have strong views to the contrary is one of the big reasons that a ban on head scarves in Western countries can evoke conflict over whether it serves to protect people’s solidarity as national citizens or, instead, demeans their shared identity as members of a community of believers.

In a contemporary, globalizing world where the cracks in notions of national identityand democratic citizenship are increasingly evident, efforts to veil the salience of religious solidarity and conflict are bound to occur, whether these take the form of covering up explicit popular discussions of church and state (as Dan says occurs in the US), covering up the practices of significant religious minorities (as in France), or covering up one's hair (as in many Islamic countries).

-- Prof. David Mednicoff, University of Massachusetts -- Amherst

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