- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Kent R. Hill, assistant administrator of the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), recently interviewed Adam Seligman, a professor at Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. Their conversation is reprinted with permission.

Question: Some scholars have argued that Western government officials have often significantly underestimated the importance of religion in international relations and have not interacted in effective ways with religious communities. Do you agree, and if so, why is it very difficult for many people in the West to “take religion seriously” in the public realm?

Answer: Religion, in most Western societies, is a private matter, not a public one. Disestablishment [freedom of choice among beliefs and lack of privileges for any particular church] is the rule, not the exception.

Western Europe is, in many ways, the secular anomaly in a world of people with overwhelming religious commitments, and I include here the U.S.A. There is little in the most recent experiences of such officials in their own countries to sensitize them to the role of religion in other lands and among other people.

Moreover, to take religion seriously would mean … accepting something less than the unity of humankind. It would entail a recognition that different people may have different motives, different terms of meaning, a different calculus of identity and action.

Q: You asserted in a presentation to USAID that it is not possible to “export” democracy from the West to nondemocratic countries, and yet you clearly support tolerance and civil society abroad as hallmarks of a full democracy. How do you propose that we promote democracy in settings where there are strong religious communities?

A: I believe that what we were discussing was less the rather nebulous concept of Western democracy and more the particularities of American civic culture.

Democracy can, of course, be understood in many different ways. … I would prefer, however, to address the issue of American civil culture, which I do maintain, cannot be exported.

The particular American terms of civic culture — what some would call its civil society — include a secularized public sphere, the privatization of religion, the notion of the individual as morally autonomous … and, in essence, the liberal idea of a politics of rights rather than of “the good.”

It is the above, as the uniquely American terms of civic culture that are, I claim, not exportable. The reasons, I believe, are rooted in the particularities of American history … the uniquely religious arguments of separation and disestablishment that defined political culture at the founding of our country.

These are what we cannot export.

Certain forms of the Protestant faith have what the great sociologist Max Weber would have termed an “elective affinity” with church-state separation and the principle of disestablishment.

But that is not an argument for wanting the whole world to share in those religious assumptions that support this political option.

What is necessary is the rather long and laborious work of making similar arguments — similar mind you, not identical — from within the grammar of other religious traditions.

Where the understandings of the workings of salvation are public and not, as in American Protestantism, private; it is necessary to develop other arguments for the respect of personal dignity, the protection of personal freedoms, and social and political enfranchisement.

These can and are being developed. Slowly, hesitantly and with much back and forth, much negotiation and not a few mistakes. It is important, however, to support such efforts and recognize that the arguments that will be adduced to support minority “rights” in Israel or Iran for that matter may end up being of a very different nature than those developed, say, in the Netherlands.

Q: Clearly, you believe that there are within Judaism, Islam and Christianity, as well as within other religions, sacred texts and traditions that can be used to support “tolerance.” But how do you encourage these religious communities to deal with other texts and traditions that do not support tolerance?

A: There is little doubt that every tradition and every sacred text or corpus contains both passages and perspectives that encourage tolerance and mutual acceptance and those that encourage hatred, intolerance and denial of the other.

This is why the Tolerance Project [at Boston University] has never been about “cherry-picking” the textual traditions for quotes to support this, that or the other position. This is an easy, but pointless exercise. For one can find exactly what one wants in all traditions.

The more serious issue is to sensitize people to the meta-principles that organize and frame much of their own religious traditions and which may, in fact, stand in contrast and contradiction to specific texts or quotes that the priest, rabbi, imam or minister may adduce to support or criticize this, that or the other topical political issue.

Here, perhaps, I should add that the premise of most interreligious dialogue groups is learning about the other.

While this is no doubt crucial, our goal is to learn about one’s own tradition through meetings with the other and, indeed, through wrestling with the texts — often difficult and troubling texts — of one’s own tradition.

The brief answer to your question then is that these texts and traditions must be grappled with, wrestled with — not swept under the rug and denied.

We must be honest with ourselves and honest with others, subject our own beliefs and histories and commitments to the light of reasoned reflection, in a community of diverse opinions and practices.

And lest this is claimed unpractical, I will say this is precisely what is done with Muslim, Christian and Jewish schoolteachers in the programs we work with in Israel.

Q: Can you provide some practical examples of how the Tolerance Project has successfully worked with religious communities to support tolerance?

A: Perhaps our most successful projects have been in the field of curricula development and its implementation.

In Israel, we have worked closely with educators and others connected to Yesodot Center for Torah and Democracy and the Prophetic Traditional Helpers Association to develop curricula to teach tolerance to religious students, in religious schools from religious texts and principles.

Developed over three years through the collaborative efforts of deeply observant Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze, the curricula is currently being tested in two pilot projects.

A similar curricula project developed in Bosnia-Herzegovina is currently being readied for a pilot in that country.

At the same time, for two years now, through the International Summer School for Religion and Public Life, we have brought together educators, religious leaders, journalists, academics and policy-makers from over a dozen countries to discuss the complicated and not always peaceful manner in which religious beliefs and commitments influence the public sphere in different parts of the world.

These meetings have been intense intellectual as well emotional encounters that in some cases have resulted in new projects and initiatives on the return of the school fellows to their home countries.

In one case, Jewish and Muslim fellows from Israel were so influenced by the school that, on their return, they instituted a program of having [religious] Jewish and Arab [Muslim and Christian] high-school teachers develop joint programs between their respective high schools.

In another case, a joint Hebrew-Arabic radio program is being initiated. Muslim fellows have, partially in response to the summer program, organized politically and established a series of networks and frameworks for meeting with and joining Jewish and Christian colleagues, organized conferences and workshops.

Q: Although the Tolerance Project emphasizes helping religious communities explore religious and cultural reasons for supporting civil society, pluralism and democracy, should we not also encourage religious communities and individuals abroad to consider the affirmations of the United Nations charter for human rights, though it makes no claim to having a transcendent religious warrant for its affirmations?

A: I believe that the question is not so much if we should encourage religious communities and individuals to accept the United Nations charter for human rights or any of the other multitude of international covenants or conventions on civil, political and human rights.

The question is rather how do we articulate the reasons for such acceptance. The real issue is how we attempt to legitimize such acceptance. What are the sets of arguments and proofs we advance to argue such acceptance?

To many religious communities in many parts of the world, these covenants and conventions are not self-standing. They do not legitimize themselves. Arguments for rights that are devoid of a transcendent dimension, that are predicated solely on the philosophical armature of the morally autonomous individual and inherent rights are, in many parts of the world, insufficient.

It is, therefore, necessary to adduce a set of arguments that are rooted in the deep grammar of particular cultures and civilizations, cultures and civilizations that have strong religious components, in order to bring about a substantive acceptance of the principles behind such documents as the U.N. Charter.

Take, for example, the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where 16 different international human rights agreements have been incorporated into Bosnian law.

Their incorporation into Bosnian law does not by itself guarantee their role in the development of a culture of civil society, pluralism and democracy.

For this, they must be integrated into the regnant understandings of the polity, society, terms of identity, and collective and individual meaning.

The point is that such definitions and understandings of society are there and must be addressed, not ignored.

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