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For a democratic governance of religious diversity

Développement et Civilisations, September 2010, n°386

By Antoine Sondag(1)

Antoine Sondag’s article: "For a democratic governance of religious diversity"
Counterpoint: "The European model in the Asian challenge"
The 8th Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) and the ASEM


by Richard Werly

The shadow of faith

The question will no doubt be quickly dispelled through the usual consensual press releases. During the Asia-Europe summit (www.asem.org) held in Brussels at the beginning of October, the 46 countries represented will all commit to defending religious diversity and promoting the freedom of worship in the forefront of human rights. The European Union, ready as always to give its lessons, will be pleased with this joint call. Emerging Asian countries, the new centre of the world, will leave the summit satisfied, with the bottom of the problem barely touched.

For there is indeed a problem: that of the break-up of religious communities called to coexist in modern societies of immigration and free movement of persons. Break-up between supporters of a funda-mentalism withdrawn into its traditions, or on the contrary, of a religion open to modernity. Break-up between believers just arriving from their country of origin or zealots of the second generation. This applies to Islam. But also, let us dare write it, to Christian Churches. The light of Faith, that makes us respect the other, has not got rid of its shadow, far from it. Yet it is this too which our governments must deal with.

The issue therefore is quite political. The governance of religious diversity, to which the Lebret-Irfed Center will devote a workshop at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum during the officials’ summit, is now a democratic imperative as urgent as the struggle against social inequalities. Rules should be rethought as the erstwhile secular model goes through difficulties. Reflection needs to be done. In all frankness. This debate, from Asia to Europe, can be very promising. Help us to stimulate it!

For a democratic governance of religious diversity

By Antoine Sondag

The cohabitation of religious communities is a daily challenge for European and Asian governments meeting in Brussels for the Asia-Europe summit. The Lebret-Irfed Center, member of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, is organizing a workshop on religious diversity. How to assume it? How to achieve a strategy towards our ultimate goal: manage to live together?

Religion-based political movements —it is enough to pronounce these words for the average European to think immediately of “Islam”, flare up in a debate about the Muslim religion and its ability to adapt itself in or to Europe, or about the links between the state and religious communities… Thus, it is important to step back, put things in perspective and keep sense.

The lines that follow have no other ambition but to underline some paradoxes of this debate in order to help the reader to take into account the weight of stereotypes and thus deconstruct them better, and to develop a way of understanding that is intercultural, an essential precondition to “living together”. The mixture between religion and politics and the existence of denominational political movements are not the privilege or exclusivity of the Islamic or Arabic world. I would like to start from this very ordinary statement and move towards drawing some conclusions.

First remark: Today, one speaks a lot about the difficulty in the Islamic world to separate politics from religion. We are told that Islam is both religion and civilization. That the separation of the church from the state is an invention of the West. Some people even say that it is an indirect consequence of the influence of Christianity (“Render to God the things that are God’s and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”).

The crucial role of Christian democracy

In most European countries however, political religion-based movements do exist. Christian democratic parties, but also trade unions and a multitude of denominational associations working on various types of social issues, such as insurances, mutual insurances, sports, leisure, education, health, social services, etc.

A short historical review. Many Christian democratic parties were created at the end of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20thcentury with the objective of their denominational defense, and of the Catholic community in general. After 1945, these parties played a decisive role in the rebuilding of Europe. Not only in terms of material reconstruction, but also of political reconstruction following the damages caused by Nazism and the fascist ideologies. It could be said that these parties were educators of democracy for certain populations that had never been truly democratic. A new period of “prosperity” of these parties took place after the fall of the Soviet Empire. The Christian democratic parties were created in almost all states that had put an end to the one-party system in order to adopt the multiparty system and benefit from a “European kind” of prosperity and democracy.

Today, these Christian democratic parties exist in almost all countries and are relatively important. They abandoned the Catholic defense aspect of their origin, became ecumenical and now regroup all Christian denominations. Their ideology places them at the center-right, between conservatism and social democracy. In general, they are rooted in the peasantry and the middle-class. If one were to evaluate their actions during the last sixty years, one could say that they contributed to modernizing the economy and the society after the disasters of the World War. Having a particular concern over international relations, these parties avoided Europe’s falling again into the nationalism or xenophobia that had caused so much damage since 1914.

Their universalism is rooted in the Christian values of universal brotherhood. That is why these parties have been very active in the European reconstruction, in the effort to find a way of living together, by renouncing violence and looking for unarmed ways of solving differences, by promoting the rule of law, the market economy and the democratic system. Their main achievements were the European Union (27 member countries) and the European Council (47, among them Russia and Turkey) with its highly sophisticated system of human rights protection (European Court of Human Rights).

Europe, the land of religion-based movements

Obviously, one cannot say that what has been realized in Europe during the last 60 years is only due to the actions of the Christian democratic parties. Mention must also be done of the contribution of the other political or ideological forces… Neither should one think simplistically that the Christians have always been active or voted only for Christian democratic parties.

Whatever these points may be, highly studied by the political analysts, we can keep in mind that religion-based political movements have been and remain numerous in Europe. Their role has been important and even decisive in the reconstruction of different states in the continent, in the modernization of countries ruined by war or Soviet domination, in the democratization of oftentimes traditional societies and finally, in the “unification of the continent”. And this process is not over. These Christian democratic parties continue to play an important role, not only in Germany or in Austria, but also in many of the most secularized countries, —if we understand here by secular, the societies which have a big proportion of persons not having an explicitly religious activity nor belonging to a religious community.

Second remark: on religious freedom. It is a generally accepted idea that European countries respect the freedoms of conscience and of religion, as well as the freedom of not belonging to any religion or of changing one’s religion. These freedoms are guaranteed by the constitutions of various states and are confirmed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The non-Europeans are evidently less enthusiastic about the state of religious freedom in Europe. It is not rare that certain Muslims, out of or in Europe, think that religious freedom exists clearly in Europe for Christians and the agnostics, but more doubtfully for Muslims: since the prohibition of minarets in Switzerland, the Islamophobic movements in several countries, the prohibition of the veil in schools and perhaps the burqa in the streets of France and elsewhere, the difficulties of practicing certain Muslim rites in a European society… that is not Muslim (the issue of meat, halal meals, places and times of worship, Ramadan, etc.). Briefly, Europeans have a good image concerning religious freedom in their continent and look down on the numerous countries where religious minorities are discriminated. But, outside Europe, this enthusiasm is not always shared!

It is necessary to underline this paradox: the respect of religious freedom does not necessitate having a secular state or a strict separation between the state and the churches. There are several countries in Europe that are not secular: in the United Kingdom the queen-chief of state, is at the same time the head of the Church of England. The same goes for Denmark and Norway. In other countries, religions may have the status of being a public right at least for certain recognized religions, (as, for example, Islam in Austria). In other countries, a more or less strict system of separation exists.

Church-State: the big misunderstanding

It is thus difficult to draw definite conclusions from the various complex situations concerning the status of religions in Europe. The freedoms of conscience, of religion, of changing one’s religion, the practice of worship… are guaranteed by the general scheme pertaining to liberties in a liberal and democratic state, that must also protect the minorities. There is no special status necessarily for religions. But it can also happen that the national legislation envisages a special status for this or that religion or denomination. The secular state is not a prerequisite for guaranteeing the respect for religious freedom. Some of the most liberal European states, where individual liberties are best guaranteed, are not secular. At certain times too, they established this or that denomination as the official or state religion.

Third remark: The system of separation between the state and the church, for example the French system, cannot be made as a model that can be transposed as such in any state or society in the world. There is a lot of idealism and historical ignorance in so transforming “French-style secularism” in an ideal system typical of Church-State relations. It is easily forgotten that this system, inaugurated in 1905 by a famous law, has been the object, during its first century of existence, of multiple conflicts, adjustments and modifications. The current system of the French-style secularism, whether or not it is designated as open secularism, is the fruit of conflicts and agreements. It is strongly rooted in French history. It is not transposable. In the places where it was transposed, it was betrayed and did not guarantee at all the freedom neither of the state, nor of “the Church” or religious communities: in Turkey, in Syria… Who would claim that in Turkey the authorities of Islam are safe from state interference? The rector of the Al Azar University of Cairo would be better listened to within the international Muslim community if his designation was done through religion rather than by the leaders of the Egyptian state.

Fourth remark: There is a big mis-understanding when talking about the separation of church and state. Does it deal with protecting the state from the intrusion of the Church? Or, is it a question of protecting the Church from the state’s interference in its internal affairs? To illustrate this misunderstanding, it is sufficient to compare France with the United States. Here we have two countries having a secular constitution, a strict juridical system of church-state separation, a secular system inscribed in the political tradition and in its public institutions. But, in France, it historically meant allowing the state to establish its autonomy by limiting the influence of the Catholic Church. While in the United States, it meant offering religious communities, particularly to the dissident ones, a space where they could live out their religious identity without interference from a denominational state. A secular regime to prevent the state from interfering in the affairs of the churches.

The secular system is never a homogeneous system, an institutional or juridical model which can be proposed “all included”. It is always a matter of historical construction marked by the unknown factors of political life, rooted in a singular history and a particular context. Each country has found a system that is most satisfactory for itself. We can say that the different systems practiced in Europe generally respect the freedoms of conscience, religion and worship. But, it should be added that in Europe these liberties are globally respected due particularly to a national and international system of juridical protection.

European realities are therefore quite differentiated. There is no unique, perfect, “democratic” model of church-state relations. This quite nuanced situation does not prevent fairly simplistic discourses about politics and religion. We are told, that in countries where the majority are Muslims, a secular system should be established so that religious freedom would be guaranteed, particularly for the religious minorities. And many of course think here of Christian minorities in Muslim countries. When in fact secularism often legitimized authoritarianism.

The secular system is in fact historically determined. There is no magical formula that could protect the freedom of religion or worship. French-style secularism has big merits in the French context. It would be a mistake to think that it is of universal form, that it can be transposed as such, without taking into account particular historical contexts. Yet, this secular regime was imposed in certain Muslim majority countries. They did give birth to republican regimes, but rarely to democratic ones. Let us take a few examples: A certain number of countries with Muslim majority were “modernized” by authoritarian regimes. This modernization implied that state actions would not be limited by religious authorities. And this is why, quite often, these modernizing regimes had to struggle against conservative forces often linked to religious traditions. This modernization consisted in creating or erecting a state and a nation, in the European sense of the word. We can cite here the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq (under Saddam Hussein), Iran under the Shah, and likewise, Pakistan. In general, these secular systems have lost their popular support due to this authoritarianism and/or corruption. In general, these authoritarian regimes have stopped the birth of a dynamic civil society. Here we can note the gap between a republican system and a democratic one, between secularism and democracy.

Living together as equals in dignity

Today, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law is no longer confused with the promotion of a secular state or with the separation between religion and politics. The respect for minorities, the establishment of a democratic society, that is, a society of free expression and debate, of respect for other people, of learning how to “live together” —all this presupposes a culture of human rights. This is what was underlined by the Council of Europe when it published its white paper on intercultural dialogue entitled: “Living together as equals in dignity” (www.coe.int/dialogue). The democratic management of the growing cultural diversity in European states has become a priority. How to answer to the issue of diversity? How to manage ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity? How to think of the future?

The solution of the Council of Europe, comprising 47 European States from the Atlantic to Vladivostok, can be summarized as follows: the promotion of cultural and religious diversity can only be done on the basis of so-called “European” values, meaning, the promotion of the rule of law, the respect of the rights of the human person, the promotion of democracy and the development of societies based on solidarity. Living together in pluralist societies by the fact of their ethnic or religious composition is only possible if certain conditions are respected: human rights, democracy, primacy of he law, equality and dignity, and mutual respect of all and of all minorities, equality between the sexes… Only then can one engage into an intercultural approach that will bring down the barriers that prevent dialogue. These are the bases of what is called the democratic governance of cultural or religious diversity.

References used:

  • J.P. Willaime, Europe et religions, Paris, Fayard, 2004, 376 p.
  • Pierre-Jean Luizard, Laïcités autoritaires en terres d’Islam, Fayard, 2008, 284 p.
  • J. F. Bayard, L’Islam républicain, Ankara, Téhéran, Dakar, Albin Michel, 2010, 430 p.
  • Abdelwahab Meddeb, Pari de civilisation, Paris, Le Seuil, 2009, 220 p.


by Budi Tjahjono(2)

The European model in the Asian challenge

I find the article of Fr. Antoine Sondag “For a democratic governance of religious diversity” very stimulating for a reflection. I would like to contribute my views, as a non-European living in Europe, to enrich the discussion. In his article Fr. Sondag uses several examples to deconstruct the stereotype against religious based political movements in order to better engage in the intercultural understanding as a precondition to live together. In the conclusion of the first example, Fr. Sondag underlines that the Christian Democrat parties, as an example of faith based political party,  still play very important roles in several countries in Europe today. While agreeing with his explanation, this reality might have different nature with the faith based political parties in the countries outside Europe. The political agenda of those parties, often is build based on the objective to establish a nation based on strict and one sided interpretation of a religious law or understanding, with a limited or even without a space for public debate.  The using of religious teaching as the base of the ideological values for political parties is acceptable with the condition of providing rooms to confront differences in a democratic ways, but not at the cost of depriving the expressions of other political views. This makes the difference with the Christian Democrats in Europe which, as Fr. Sondag says, defend rules of law… and democratic regime. The experience in Europe has given the faith based political movements a maturity to put the interests of the nations ahead of their religious agenda.  In the second example, I agree that the guarantee of the freedom of religion and belief does not necessarily needs a secular state. This constitution in the European countries assure the enjoyment of this right as part of the individual rights. Despite the polemics on Burqa, construction of minaret, practise of religious rites, etc, Europe has succeeded in providing a platform of dialogue and discussion where different opinions and views can be confronted publicly. However, the situation can be completely different in several countries outside Europe. It is not unexceptional to find that the religious minorities in those countries are still considered apart from the mainstream religions, thus, they cannot enjoy the same rights. Although the constitution might put the provision on the freedom of religion and belief, the governments as the duty bearer, instead of becoming the guarantee for justice, often use the religious issues as trade-off for their political interests. The example of Ahmadiyah, in Pakistan or Indonesia, and the Baha’i in Iran show that the religious freedom is limited only according to interpretation of the dominant-mainstream religion or the political prescription of the ruling government. The opposition to their understanding will be considered as against the government, thus subject to political reprisal. I can’t agree more on the third and fourth examples that there is no one size fits all. Each country has its own political, sociological and historical context regarding the relation between the religious institutions and the State. Often, the relation is also developing according to specific dynamic in the society. Fr. Sondag has given good comparison between France and USA. In his conclusion, Fr. Sondag puts « respect of human rights, democracy, rules of law, equal dignity and mutual respect toward minority, gender equality … » as the conditions to live together in a pluralistic society, in Europe and… elsewhere. The understanding of those values should be done through on going discussions among all stake holders within the society and among nations, to build a common ground and to avoid the “relativisation” of their meaning and significance. I think it is the challenge today. Indeed it takes time and efforts for people coming from different religious and cultural background either in their home countries on the host countries, to have a common understanding of human rights, rules of law, respect, gender equality…  It is very important that everyone can find themselves on those values in order to own and eventually to defend them….regardless their religious, ethnicity or political views.

The 8th Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) and the ASEM

Around 200 representatives of associations, NGOs and trade unions from the Euro-Asian continent will be meeting from 2nd to 5th October in the IHECS (Brussels) for the 8th Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF). This forum is meeting at the same time as the official summit of all the Asian European head of States (Asia-Europe Meeting or ASEM) which currently includes 48 partners of which 46 member States(3). While the summit will focus on “Get a better wellbeing and a better dignity for all citizens”, the AEPF calls to “Face and undermine the power of multinational corporations to build States citizens” through workshops, free spaces as well as political dialogues with members of the Commission and the European Parliament. The Forum will offer a rare opportunity for debates, testimonials and joint work around global or local issues: decent work and social protection, food sove-reignty, climate change, trade and investments (free trade agreements and economic cooperation), peace and security. In this context, the Lebret-Irfed Center along with its partners will organize a workshop on “religious diversity, laicism, citizenship and democracy”, a key issue in many countries of our two regions. Public working evenings will also be organized dealing with the financial crisis and its alternatives, in continuity with exchanges that began during the last Forum in Peking (2008). This 8th Forum, that will be carried out in English, is co-organized by the CND, a platform comprising more than one hundred NGOs and Belgian trade unions, and the International Organization Committee (AEPF-IOC) of which the Lebret-Irfed Center is a member.

For more information on ASEM:


[1] - * Antoine Sondag, born in 1948, is a priest and the head of  “international Studies and Research” for the Secours Catholique. He is the former general secretary of Justice et Paix-France (Conference of the Bishops of  France). His latest book is “La Solidarité, chemin de spiritualité” (Salvator). Contact : asondag57@yahoo.fr.

[2] - Budi Tjahjono is Indonesian, general secretary of the international Catholic Centre of Geneva (www.ccig-iccg.org). Contact: ccig@bluewin.ch

[3] - Russia, Australia, and New Zealand are part of ASEM since 2010 and form the “third group”.

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