Casanova: Religions and Cycles of Violence and Peace
5 October 2017

This text is a transcription of a conversation between Giancarlo Bosetti and Josè Casanova. Please do not quote or reproduce without the permission of the author and of Reset DOC.

The subject of violence in relation to the sacred texts, and the way religions develop a more or less peaceful or belligerent attitude, is the focus of the conference Exiting Violence: The Role of Religion From Texts to Theories.

This conference, that will be held in Trento at the Bruno Kessler Foundation from the 10th to the 12th of October 2017, is organised by Reset DOC in partnership with Bruno Kessler Foundation and Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs – George Washington University.

BOSETTI: We can start from violence and its presence in the Holy Texts. Some people say that insisting on the violence of the Bible is typical of antisemitism as much as doing the same about the violence in the Qu’ran is typical of Islamophobia. But this is not the case: there are many things there as human sacrifice or lapidation that our mind cannot today accept.

CASANOVA: Yes, absolutely. When it comes to the Bible, I think it’s necessary to differentiate the texts which are before the Babylonian exile and those that come after. There is no doubt that the God of Israel was a monolatric God, that sacralized the violence of Israel against other people in the settlement of the promised land in the fight with other people. This was monolatry, not monotheism. This was the God of Israel, not that of all of humanity or that of history. After the Babylonian exile, in what we could call the Axial age, (defining and distinguishing preaxial and postaxial religions) the prophets do not sacralize anymore violence: on the contrary, the God of history now uses the empire to punish its own people for breaking the covenant. Thus, the violence of Israel is not sacralized anymore.

All tribal cultures and kingdom cultures sacralized violence – the violence of my group against the other. This is universal. What axial religions bring is precisely the desacralization of violence; the king is not sacred, his violence is not sacred and, so, the prophetic critique of violence, along with the end of sacrifice, was brought about in human history by the emergence of axial religions. We have to distinguish between the (Durkheimian) social sacred that sacralizes violence on one hand and transcendent religions which criticize some forms of violence on the other hand.

Now, it is true that these axial religions fail everywhere: Buddhism disappeared from India, Confucianism was basically forgotten about and only reemerged several centuries later, Jesus was basically defeated and only three hundred years later Christianity become the religion of the empire. Thereafter, axial religions are also used to sacralize state power. I think we can basically argue that this is a constant in history, all the way up to the modern age.

We can then talk about religious texts as consisting of a mix of what could be called sacralization of the violence of one group against another and those texts which precisely expound the prophetic critique of violence, the promise of peace and especially the end of sacrifice. Here we can enter into the theories of René Girard but basically also of all the theories which are key in the Axial age, the end of sacrifice and the critique of violent sacrifice either of animals and certainly of persons. Here we have Girard’s theology of the scapegoat, the notion of the sacrifice of the cross. At the very least we have to make the distinctions between the sacred texts and how they have been interpreted throughout history.

B: There are many partisan and furious websites across which many people of all religions, as well as atheists, demonstrate their disgust for the violence in the Scriptures. This is a very common and trivial attitude in the web, but you cannot deny they have a point: the lists of bloody and cruel episodes in the Bible, in the Qu’ran, with its “sword-verses”, is endless. To see for yourself, all you have to do is to google violence-God-Bible-Qu’ran. And you’ll see.

C: Regarding this point, I think the best response comes from Pope Francis, in his speech to the US Congress when he said “No religion is immune to forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism”. No religion is immune including Christianity and Catholicism. I come from a country, Catholic Spain, in which violence and religion have historically been intimately connected. Of course, we’ve had the crusades in the Middle Ages, the inquisition, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, we’ve had the conquest of the Americas and the evangelization by force and we’ve had, in modern history, three civil wars in which, in each of them, the Catholic Church was heavily involved.

There is no way in which one can say that religion has not been a source of violence. But it’s not exclusively religion – it is religion when connected to a state power. Therefore, in relation to the modern world, in which the modern state now claims the monopoly of legitimate violence, the question is: when will a critique of this state violence appear? And I think we have to analyse history in waves: even in the West, from the 1890s to the 1910s we have the sacralisation of anarchist violence, think of the key text by Sorel, Reflections on Violence; in the 30s we have communist and fascist violence legitimated by secular ideologies; in the 60s we have the red brigades, the IRA, ETA, the guerilla priests in Colombia, the Catholic montoneros in Argentina, throughout the 60s you have explosions of violence connected not only to communist radical ideologies but also to Catholic radical ideologies.

So, to me, the question is: why do we now have the growth of Muslim terrorism under conditions of globalization, in which Islam appears to legitimate violence against what they consider to be a global order which uses violence against them? We have to put all of these processes in context and not assume that it is religion that produces violence in general but rather take into account the particular context: which particular religion legitimates which particular form of violence, at which historical moment.

You brought up a quotation by Pope Francis which was very appropriate. And look what he said in Cairo: «for all our need of the Absolute, it is essential that we reject any “absolutizing” that would justify violence. For violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression. As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute.» He made a connection between violence and absolutism, which could be defined as exclusivism or fundamentalism, in defending one’s own faith.

I have the text in front of me and he says “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and atrocities committed even in the name of God or religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion, by ideological extremism, this means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind”. It is this notion: religion has not the monopoly, nor does secularism. Every ideology has the possibility of legitimizing and sacralizing some forms of violence. Under secular violence, of course, we know that, under modern conditions, it is the state which monopolizes violence and therefore sacralizes it. Think of World War I, millions of European youths were basically sacrificed at the altar of nationalism; for what? France and Germany were basically at war for seventy years, war after war. Then came the ideology of the thirties, the gulags, the holocaust and the Armenian genocide so indeed the twentieth century has been the most violent, barbaric century in the history of humanity and most of this violence has not been committed in the name of religion. It doesn’t mean that we simply have to understand why new violence is committed in the name of religion – yes, we have to understand it but we have to see it in its comparative context and see how those waves in history can change.

The notion of requesting people to avoid excesses when defending one’s religion too “loudly”, as to avoid being discourteous and provocative, was certainly already present in the third century before Christ, in the edicts of Ashoka, the Indian emperor of Maurya, as you well know.

We could also quote Dalai Lama, as we have done with Pope Francis, as he has said many similar things. It may be worth remarking that Ashoka before those edicts converted from Hinduism to Buddhism. Is Buddhism, therefore, a candidate for being recognized as the ‘best’ or ‘most peaceful’ religion? This would certainly be debatable following what happened during the last few weeks: the waves of Buddhist terror against the Muslim minority of Rohingya.

Well of course, Buddhism, as we came to see, was put in the service of Buddhist kingdoms and those were as bloody as any other kingdom. We have, of course, the historical case of Japanese Buddhist military monks. Just as you have military orders in the West, we’ve have Buddhist military monks which become violent through the religious and feudal wars in Japan. Of course, we also know about Sri Lankan nationalism, Buddhism against Hindus, Sinhalese Buddhism which was basically nationalist. So the question is, once again, when does religion promotes the sacralization of state, of the nation and of my people, of my community against others?

And yes – this is fundamental – this is a temptation. One could say that this temptation is built into humanity, it is therefore part of all societies in history but, essentially, the presence of a religion remains one of the first signs of hope to look for in a society when seeking a kingdom of peace. This is why all axial religions offer to each other when they greet each other, “Shalom”, “Salam”, “Peace”, this is something which is there also as a permanent possibility. The question here is how to draw on those traditions, whether religious or secular, towards the common goal of peacemaking? For me, one of the most interesting issues is in regard to the paths within the catholic tradition in the last fifty years. From Catholic just war theory, the notion that some wars may be justified for whatever reason, to the goal of peacemaking as a new paradigm. So basically, so what we are observing is not pacifism but active peacemaking, as is evident  in the role of religious groups, such as Comunità di Sant’Egidio which are very active in working towards peacemaking in conditions of religious civil wars, whether it is in Colombia, Africa, Mindanao. So how do we find those resources towards peace within each religious tradition, precisely towards peacemaking rather than the possibility of sacralizing violence? Both of those are historical possibilities. The question therefore is under which condition is the possibility of peacemaking greater than the one of sacralizing violence?

Before we get to that point, can we better define the question of whether violence lies in the very origins of religion.

It is at the origins of society. Here one can draw upon  Durkheim’s theory of religion as the social sacred, it is not religion per se. It is the social sacred which is the origin of violence.

In regard to violence and religion in history, let’s try to clarify one precise point: we tend to imagine (or desire) a process towards an improvement of things, but is violence present at the origins of human history and are those origins followed by a more civil attitude? Is there some kind of chronological order?

I’m not going to make such generalizations. There are moments in the history of Christianity where its peacemaking potential was strong but then comes Constantine. For me, it is the combination of religion and power structures that is key. Look, in Iberia you had la Convivencia, the three Abrahamic religions living together in relative peace and this  happened in Muslim as well as in Christian kingdoms but then you have the emergence of the modern confessional Catholic state, with the Catholic kings, and you get ethno-religious cleansing, the need to expel Jews and Muslims from Spain in order to create a religiously homogeneous  population. This process of ethno-religious cleansing repeats itself with modern state formation across continental Europe. How do you think you can get a homogeneous Protestant north and a homogeneous Catholic south? Only by expelling the other. The Catholic minority is expelled from the north, the Protestant minority is expelled from the south and Jews and Christian sectarian minorities are expelled from both, in-between, we have three societies which are bi-confessional and thus cannot fully exterminate each other. Holland, Switzerland and Germany organize themselves territorially also into confessional religiously homgeneous “pillars”, “Laender” or “cantons.”

Ethno-religious cleansing has been at the origin of the modern state and every time the Westphalian model has been globalized, you’ve had ethno-religious cleansing. At the end of every empire, at the end of the Ottoman empire, at the end of the Russian empire, at the end of the British empire, every state formation process has been accompanied, in modern history, by ethno-religious violence. So, again, we have to understand that the cyclical process is proportional to the relation between religion and secular power. Of course, we had the Enlightenment, which was supposed to offer a model for secular peace, but look at what happened – the transference of millenarian tradition into secular millenarianism, the Jacobian revolution, basically, to use violence to end all violence, and the Bolshevik violence, and so on and so forth.

I don’t think we have one single trajectory. We have cycles of different types of fusion between religion or millenarian secular ideologies which sacralize violence and different types of power structure, different types of state and different types of polities. So, we have to simply carefully study history in all its complexity so as to learn from it. It would be very nice if we could see us moving towards peace, this is not the case, but we are also not necessarily moving towards more violence. It simply depends on the contextual conditions; there is no alternative to a serious comparative historical analysis to understand why things happen under certain conditions.

We are not authorized to see the walk of history, as the philosophers of the Lumiéres used to, as one directed towards a peaceful future, with increasingly peaceful religions, if not with the complete disappearance of religions, and a reduction of violence. There is no authorized vision, there is no historical evidence pointing to a chronological framework in the direction of progress.

No, I think that we need to see that we are under a new global age and that this is a radical transformation of the old Westphalian model which was translated into the bipolar Cold War of the postwar era and now we are entering a state of disorder in the sense that we have no idea what global order is going to emerge. In such transitional periods you have all kinds of possibilities for different types of authoritarian regimes to impose violence on their own people, but also, and this is what is new, the  emergence of transnational global actors bringing jihadist violence throughout the world. This is a new situation, you had anarchism at the end of the nineteenth century but they could only act ultimately within local societies.

What is new is this threat of global terror under conditions of globalization – this is really what is radically new under our new conditions and we have to understand it as such – a totally new condition, not in terms of the religions’ past but really as that of globalization that create this possibility of transnational terror opposed to what they now consider to be an illegitimate global order. This is the reality today.

We have jihadism against globalism. We have a lot of critiques of globalism, even in the US. When you have the President of the US who appears to want to go  back to a mercantilist era in which each nation competes with every other, we return to focus on the balance of powers. When you have a power like Putin in Europe, who is basically willing to move the borders by force and thus defy the Helsinki agreement which established the end of such territorial wars between different European estates, we have the possibility of starting all over again national wars within Europe. So, we are under the very uncertain conditions of a transitional global disorder and we don’t know exactly how it is to be transformed into a more positive, peaceful order. We don’t know and certainly things don’t look very optimistic for the near future.

We come now to one crucial point: if peace or war, even when religiously justified or boosted by religions, depend on social and political variables, can this be said in the same measure for every religion? Is there any difference in the way that any of these political factors are operating on different religions?

I think that there is a way in which, for instance, Catholicism today has had a big transformation. What was possible in the sixties – the IRA defended violence in Ireland or, say, the guerilla priests in Colombia or even the possibility of revolutionary violence was defended by progressives, religious or not – I think this would be very difficult today within the Catholic tradition. Things could change. It’s not that Catholicism is better but it has implicitly, through reflection, come to be able to free itself from national Catholicism and to adopt a transnational attitude. After all, Catholics were crucial in starting the European Union, it was Christian democracy which basically tried to put an end to the three-hundred years of war between Protestants and Catholics by creating a Christian Democratic party where Catholics and Protestants could be together and by ending the seventy-year war between France and Germany. This was the beginning of the EU, at first no single Protestant country wanted to join, no nationalist Gaullist party either and so it was by and large a Christian Democratic process but then, regardless of this, you still have the violence of Catholicism in the sixties.

My point is: if the transformation from the sacralization of violence to the rejection of any and all forms of violence can happen within the Catholic tradition, it can happen within all religious traditions. The question is: under which conditions, then, do you have the transformation within the religious tradition in which the voices for peacemaking are able to basically overpower the voices that sacralize violence? This is an open question, I don’t know how to answer it. Today, as we know, the real elephant in the room is Islam. Of course, we have also Hindu nationalism and now we have other religious violence stemming from Buddhism in Myanmar but, really, on the global stage, the really fundamental question is, obviously, Islam.

As you know, there is a very common way to say against Islam: not all Muslims of course are terrorists but the big majority of terrorist acts are done by Muslim people.

I wouldn’t share that simple perspective, because the majority of victims of Muslim terrorists are Muslim. It’s true that today there is a lot of internal conflict – Muslim against Muslim, Sunni against Shi’ite and majorities against minorities, whether Ahmadiyya  or Baha’is, who are considered heretics – but this is all part of the old tradition of Christianity. So, I think that Islam is going through a fundamental crisis – we could call it “aggiornamento”, as in Catholicism – but this “aggiornamento” (the Italian world often used to describe the renewal produced by the Vatican Council II, NdR) has no central organization, like the Vatican, nor centralized hierarchy but, instead, it seems to move in opposite directions. Therefore, you have today in Islam both feminist currents and radically misogynistic violence against women, you have pacifist currents and extremely jihadist violence. It is to a certain extent an internal conflict and tension within the Muslim tradition and, ultimately, I think that our task is to see how the potential for peace and universal justice, which is also part of the Muslim religious tradition, gains the upper hand over the other.

I was fortunate myself, personally. My first encounter with Islam was through Sisters in Islam in Malaysia, the feminist group that invited me. Therefore, my first view of Islam was a positive one because it was an encounter with Muslim feminists. It’s as if your first encounter with Catholicism is not with the Vatican, the Curia, but with liberation theologians. Even within Catholicism, in the Vatican too, you have serious conflict between two different factions of it. For a moment, with Pope Francis, it looked as though it would be unified but now you see some tension arising within Catholicism itself concerning the direction it should go in. There is no, if you wish, particular tradition which is immune to the possibility of radicalization in the wrong direction.

Many partisan opponents of Islam are commonly pointing their finger at Shari’a as responsible for attitudes incompatible with modernity, but in a more subtle and articulated way also important analysts like, for instance, the Moroccan Abdou Filali Ansary, stated that, in Islam, what is unresolved is the problem of legitimation, because the Shari’a created an ambiguous situation between power and religion that is more difficult to resolve here than in other traditions?

Well to a certain extent this is true. The problem of the fusion of Islam with state power is similar everywhere, as with other religions, but here modern Muslim states were never fully legitimated. There were attempts to create Muslim nationalisms in the name of Islam but they failed for whichever reason and so there has been a rejection of the notion of secularist states in many Muslim societies. The Sharia actually was not an issue in the making of some of the first constitutions in countries like Iran and Pakistan at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century. It has become a central issue for many policies even in Indonesia which was relatively open and tolerant within tendencies towards radicalization of the more aggressive forms of Islam. It is a problem because the potential for tradition to be interpreted differently is there, so the only alternative is for Muslims themselves to find other sources and other ways of reading the same tradition.

I think we have to be patient by bearing in mind how the anarchist wave had lasted thirty years and then disappeared. The Marxist wave of violence in the sixties lasted perhaps fifteen to twenty years and then disappeared. We don’t know how long this cycle of violence will last. It was not there fifty years ago and so it has emerged in the last fifty years and we don’t know how long it will last but we know that there have been many other times in the history of Islam in which it was not used to legitimate violence – on the contrary. So, we simply have to try and work on precisely these contradictions in the Muslim traditions and see how we can have the most positive possible Muslim interpretation for our global order.

What about the theory which has had a certain success amongst some intellectuals, such as Adonis or Peter Sloterdijk, to name but a few, that the violence is only to be accredited to monotheistic religions and not to polytheism?

I don’t believe in that because, as I’ve pointed out, look at Hinduism and Buddhism. No religion is immune. Tribal religions can be extremely bloody. Think of the Syrian-Babylonian empires. This is simply not true. It may be so that under the conditions of polytheism in the past there was much greater tolerance for diversity but this only works so long as you don’t have a modernist state and then, even against the modernist state, you have the possibility of religious nationalism as you see in India. India has historically been one of the places, not only for polytheism but for religious diversity and toleration – Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists – we see what happened under partition, once you have nationalism you have the mobilization of religion but not there. Hindus and Muslims have been coexisting fairly peacefully for centuries but then comes the possibility of nation building and state formation and you have terrible bloody massacres between them. Today, again, Hindu nationalism leads to radical intolerance towards those religions they consider not to be religions of India: Islam, Christianity, etc.

I wouldn’t particularly try to accredit this to either monotheism itself or to polytheism itself. They have both been sources of violence and both have been resources for acceptance and toleration. Historically, and here I reference a thesis of Jan Assmann, the emergence of monotheism was linked to the distinction between the true religion and the false religions, between the true Gods and the idols, the false gods, and this led to a violence against other religions.

In this respect yes, monotheism introduced a particular form of violence against idolatry, against heretics and the notion of orthodoxy which also emerges, unfortunately, with axial religions. Now the whole debate between different versions of the true religions has reemerged. We must make sure to look at it historically not as either one or the other but as which kind of monotheism or polytheism under which kind of particular historical conditions.

I remember when I was in Berlin and there was an attempt to do a rendition of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, in which the regiseur was going to present the decapitation of the founders of all religions: cutting the head of Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed to symbolically show that if you get rid of religion, you will get rid of violence. Of course, this itself provoked Muslim violence and is also a very naive view of history. I don’t think we can make clear-cut distinctions between polytheism and monotheism In principle, of course, monotheism may be more absolutist and therefore can be less tolerant, this has been the case historically, but today we see how Christian monotheism accepts the concept of religious pluralism.

Today it is no longer the case that religions or doctrines have rights but it is people, and particularly individuals, who have rights and once you have the principle of religious freedoms, which is basically a right of individuals and not of religions, then of course these are the conditions for religious pluralism everywhere: secular states which protect the right of religious pluralism for each citizen and, therefore, doesn’t privilege one religion over another, and  protects the dignity of each and all persons.

This is the promise of the globalization of human rights which will introduce the principle of religious freedom, the rights of each person. This is probably the best hope for the future: for this principle to serve as a way to institutionalize the conditions for religious dialogue and pluralism all over the world. This has happened under the conditions of Christian transformation in the West, we hope that it will happen also in other conditions.

Look at Latin America – a story that is not often told – in one single generation Latin American countries have gone from being monopolist Catholic countries to being deeply-religious pluralist countries without violence. As we know, this transformation resulting in the loss of Catholic hegemony throughout Latin America has happened without violence. This is a very positive story which we should also look at as a hopeful sign that this is also possible within the Muslim world because, after all, the Catholic church, almost for two millennia since Constantine, had accepted the notion of an established Catholicism and the Catholic state as the model, as the true Catholic polity.  There has been a radical transformation within Catholicism and I am convinced therefore that such a transformation is possible within  all religious traditions.

 The process of secularization has been the main theme at which you have committed so much of your world renown work. Is that a good candidate to bring peace among religions and people? Can it be identified with a general trend towards a more peaceful world?

 Well, there are, as you know, two types of secularism. One type is secularism for the sake of the protection of religious pluralism and this is of course the model of the US and has also been incorporated in some Muslims countries such as Senegal or Indonesia. There was a moment in which it looked like it would also be implemented in Turkey, as you know our friend Massimo Rosati wrote a book about Turkey, as a postsecular society – postsecular in the sense that Habermas used the term – one which is open to pluralism. (That book is The Making of a Postsecular Society. A Durkheimian Approach to Memory, Pluralism and Religion in Turkey, Routledge, 2015 NdR).

There are, however, other secularisms such as that of radical laicité or, rather, anti-religious secularism, this is the secularism of the communist revolutions and to a certain extent the secularism of the Jacobin revolution and this, of course, offers no hope for a more peaceful world, but secularist repression of religion will only provoke religious counter-violence.

I think that there are three principles which have to come together: The neutral state which does not privilege any one religion over another and gives free exercise to all religions and protects the religious freedoms of its citizens. If secularism can be institutionalized then there can be a greater hope for peace in the world. However, this must be accompanied by the recognition of religious pluralism to give up the idea of cosmopolitan universalist ideology – the idea of one single cosmopolitan ideology, one single universal religion, one single universal principle. We must accept that humans are irremediably plural and so the recognition of religious pluralism, besides the recognition of the secular state and besides the recognition of the freedom of the individual person, of the individual conscience, we need to recognize religious pluralism as an irremediable fact of human plurality and, only when we accept that, we can also enter the process of serious interreligious dialogue.

These are the principles, the neutral state that doesn’t favor any one religion and protects the right of citizens, the principle of religious freedom as a fundamental sacred principle and the recognition of religious pluralism. If we have these three principles and if we can call these secularisms, then indeed this is the kind of secularism that could be an institutional support for a more peaceful global order. But, how to institutionalize it? Here the religions have to play a crucial role in recognizing each other.

We are coming up to our next conference in Trento which has been in engaged in a research project to be used as the launch pad of a project to be developed over two years (ending in Washington, in 2018). Its focus will be on big questions such as these: are there any key elements to the process of religious detachment from violence? If religions in themselves don’t offer a full explanation for violent and conflictual or nonviolent and peaceful outcomes of political and social events, what key factors are able to explain the course of things? Can certain features of every faith provide a solution? Or perhaps certain aspects of political life? How about the role of leaders – are figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or Mandela the real game changers in the balance between peace and war?

Well, they are, yes but, you see, Gandhi himself was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist. Martin Luther King, with his civil disobedience, represented a form of social justice with non-violent resistance. This is the great contribution of the twentieth-century. We have our own saints: Gandhi, MLK, Mandela – those are the saints of this movement. We have examples of how, under conditions of tremendous injustice, of tremendous oppression you have prophetic voices against injustice, against oppression, often using methods of nonviolent resistance. This is obviously the fundamental principle.

But there is not only the issue of leadership, there are resources within religious tradition towards peacemaking under the conditions of civil war. Again, we have experienced this in the twentieth century, the Quakers have done it, the Comunità of Sant’Egidio are doing it, so basically there are religious groups that take peacemaking as their mission. This is not pacifism but really working to achieve conditions of social justice which precisely work towards socioeconomic, sociopolitical conditions in which injustice, one of the sources of violence, is ameliorated. We have examples from the twentieth century that we can use. What we must do is notice the examples which can be found in, say, Nigeria, of Christian ministers, Catholic priests and Muslim Imams that had once been fighting with one another but which now go together when preaching nonviolence and peace in Nigeria in different communities. We have to find the resources we have within the traditions of the twentieth-century against the other traditions which sacralize violence, even in the name of social justice. So, the important thing is to desacralize violence and by this I mean, that pacifism alone cannot be a solution if it is not linked also to a tradition of struggle for social justice.

Back to religion. Can we give a thought to the myth of Babel. It is about the damnation of human diversity. God punishing humans for attempting to reach heaven.

Well, these are mythical narratives that we use, the question is which ones do we use and when? They are always ambiguous and multivalent and every myth can be interpreted differently, even narrative myths. But yes, we do need those myths that emphasize peacemaking and social justice and recognition of diversity rather than homogenization, expulsion and rejection of the other and ethno-religious cleansing and so on.

In Europe it’s very clear, we have to find a way to recognize how every European state is based on the principle “cuius regio, eius religio”, based on the principle of ethno-religious/political homogeneity and getting rid of the other. This was the way in which every European state was constructed and then this model was globalized throughout the world. We have to look for sources of narratives pointing towards the possibility of diverse societies, multi-religious/ethnic pluralism which can be simply a possibility of organizing societies on the base of diversity. In our global context this is inevitable, we can no longer have any pure, homogeneous societies. It is impossible for all kinds of reasons and the question thus becomes how do we construct helpful narratives?

I come from Spain. We Spaniards didn’t ask for permission to go and conquest the whole world and in the nineteenth century, when we became a poor country, we sent immigrants all over the world and in the 1960s, poor immigrants fled to every European country looking for work. Of course, Italy has also been an emigrant society, dispersing people all over the world and you have the Scalabrini brothers which originally formed an order to help Italian immigrants, but now is one of the most important orders helping immigrants and refugees everywhere. These are the kinds of stories we have to tell to transmit solidarity amongst our own and then towards all people.

We all have been, if you wish, refugees one time or another, we’ve all been immigrants, so the question is how do we tell the stories in a way that detaches us personally because we could realize that today is your turn but tomorrow might be mine. We need to develop universalistic principles which are valid for all.

By the way, the damnation of Babel was one directed toward the plurality of languages, not of religions. Diversity in language can be even more difficult to overcome than that of religion – take the Catalans for example.

Exactly. My good friend Ari Zolberg who worked on immigration and refugees his whole life wrote an essay called ‘Why Islam is like Spanish’. The US accepts multi religious pluralism but cannot accept Spanish, cannot accept two languages. It passes amendments to prohibit Spanish as a second language so it makes English the established language of every state in the US. In Europe we have no problem with multilingualism but we have greater problems with accepting religious pluralism.

You mentioned the case of Catalonia, for me it’s one of the cases of the forms of nationalism which were very open, very tolerant, very cosmopolitan – it was really an admirable form of nationalism. It wasn’t really exclusive and it was really all inclusive. Unfortunately, in the last years there has been a kind of closing of the Catalan nationalist worldview, and it has become more exclusivist, self-centred, self-engrossed and unfortunately, I think, a narrowing of the dimensions of Catalan nationalism. We now have to entertain with horror the possibility of actual violence in Spain, in the next few weeks directed against these mobilizations, given the very politically unwise ways in which the central government has responded in its formalistic defense of constitutional principles and the rule of law or the general lack of political response on the part of lack sectors of Catalan and Spanish societies which should be promoting negotiation and dialogue. We are in a spiral that can get out of hand, in which something that was unthinkable ten years ago could become a possibility in Spain.

Again, we must be aware of the possibility of fragmentation between the in-group against the out-group which could lead down a spiral of non-recognition, exclusion and, ultimately, of violence. We have to be humble and realize that this is something that is indeed within our, not genes, but our human social dynamics.

Credit: Remy Gabalda / AFP