The Surprise of a Common Ground

Ambassadors Agree That a New Model of Secularization Is Emerging

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, March 31, 2010 ( The city of Rome has long been a crossroads of cultural and religious dialogue, frequently under the patronage of the Holy See over the last two millennia.

It is the only city in the world that welcomes two ambassadors from each foreign country, one accredited to the Italian state and the other to Vatican City State, or more accurately, to the Holy See. The ambassadors to the Holy See possess a unique mandate — to discover and develop areas of common ground and collaboration not concerning commerce and trade, but rather in the realm of ethics, service, and culture.

The ambassadors to the Holy See from Egypt, Turkey and the United States took up that task earlier this month in a conference dedicated to one of the more pressing and polemic political issues today — the relationship between Islam, Christianity and civic life.

Hosted by the Italian Catholic magazine 30 Giorni, in collaboration with the three embassies, the ambassadors shared their reflections at a hall within the Italian Senate, an appropriate location for a presentation entitled “The Surprise of Common Ground: Christians and Muslims in Front of the Civil Powers.”

A professor of political philosophy, Fred Dallmayr from the University of Notre Dame, opened the conference with a commentary on the two derailments for faith — the temptation to retreat from the world or privatization, and assimilation with the world.

The U.S. Constitution attempts to prevent these two extremes through the principles of no establishment of an official state religion, and no restriction of religious freedom. No one religion is the official religion in the United States, and as such all must obey the law of the land, the professor argued. Any religion should resist the temptation to withdraw from civic life, but it must also avoid the temptation to impose.

Shaping force

Ambassador Lamia Mekhemar of Egypt began the discussion with the observation that religion has once again become a powerful shaping force in politics at both the national and international levels, due to various historical developments that have renewed the debate over the place of religion in the political sphere and “put the principle of secularism to the test.”

The new question, Ambassador Mekhemar proposed, is whether the model of secularism adopted by many countries is still valid today? The inaccurate equation of secularism with atheism has led some believers to repudiate the concept altogether, whereas a correct understanding of secularism allows for freedom of worship according to the conscience of each individual, so long as the form of worship does not negatively affect public life. Secularism, the ambassador argued, includes all faiths all working toward the common good.  

In the context of Egypt, she said the challenge is how to make the secular model of government survive a possible takeover by “rampant religious hegemony.” The goal, then, is to promote a secular model that functions as a common platform where the collective aim is the public interest. Religion should neither be considered the “sole reservoir of morality” nor a “direct source of legislation,” but rather a source for, and contribution to, legislation, as it always has been in all legal systems.

Ambassador Mekhemar said a new model of secularism should accommodate the aspirations of religious groups while, at the same time, rigorously protecting basic freedoms, human rights, and the legal system.

American experiment

The American experiment with secularism was addressed by Miguel Diaz, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Religion, he said, was the cause of culture, not a product of it and no nation can afford to bypass the importance it plays in society.

In the United States, secularism has not resulted in a decrease of faith, the ambassador noted, nor has it resulted in lessening the contribution of faith to the social order. Faith should bring a diverse people together in service, whether it be fighting malaria in Africa or earthquake relief in Haiti. Religious radicalism, however, hinders this interfaith cooperation.

“Progress,” the Ambassador quoted President Barack Obama from his speech at Al Azhar theological university in Cairo, “does not come when we demonize enemies. […] It comes when we look into the eyes of the other and see the face of God.”

Ambassador Kenan Gursoy of Turkey, a professor of philosophy, dwelt upon the need to be aware of one’s own identity and beliefs and that to understand one’s religious identity is only possible in a situation of coexistence with others of different faiths. To live with the other, we must understand what is essential and what is transitory, and recognize that universal ethical values do exist.

As Muslims, the ambassador said, “we must create a philosophical language to explain who we are and our responsibilities — not in an abstract way but with reference to universal ethics and to the other, to common ground.” Common ground, he explained, does not mean sameness, but rather communication in pursuit of the common good.

Religious literacy

Professor Scott Appleby of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs offered the final presentation of the conference, announcing the recent publication of a report on “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” The report translated the day’s discussion into pragmatic proposals to the U.S. government concerning how and why religion should be given a greater voice in the domestic and international political conversation.

In the past, the U.S. government has addressed religion only as it is related to counterterrorism, Appleby said, but this report calls for a rethinking: a “religious literacy” program across several government agencies, not only the service sector, in order to understand and respond to the existence and role of religion in the “real world.” Religiosity is growing and changing because of globalization, Appleby explained, and old approaches are inadequate.

Echoing this insight, Cardinal Georges Marie Cottier, the retired theologian of the Pontifical Household, summarized the themes of the conference at its conclusion, observing that the old attitude in political circles that God and religion do not really exist simply does not work.

We are on the threshold of a new era, he said: Ideas or approaches that worked before no longer work today because society has changed due to globalization, and this has exposed a lack of solidarity. What has changed for the better is a recent discovery of fraternity from a recognition of the common elements in monotheistic traditions, which are the transcendence of God and the individual’s private relationship with God.

Peace between peoples, the cardinal concluded, is never achieved through violent means, but always through dialogue and mutual contribution.

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