06/20/2013, 00.00
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Oasis: a "shared grammar" for Islam and Christianity in the face of secularism

by Bernardo Cervellera
Secularisation is underway in the Islamic world that is not driven by Western anti-religious ideologies. In Iran, civil society, especially young people and women, is putting pressure on the ayatollahs for greater space and rights. In Morocco, the separation of state and religion is gaining ground even among Islamist parties. In Saudi Arabia, the alliance of Wahhabism and consumerism is society's worst enemy. At the end, Card Scola sums up the meeting.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Despite the ayatollahs, the chador and violent sermons in mosques, "Iran is the most secular Islamic country", thanks to women and young people (pictured); it is changing from within, undermining the way the West sees it, as a nation ruled by an Islamic theocracy.

This is one of the revelations that emerged on the second day of the annual meeting of the Scientific Committee of Oasis, the journal founded by Card Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan. The topic of the Committee's tenth gathering was 'On a tightrope: Christians and Muslims between Secularism and Ideology'.

On Monday, the meeting was centred on historical and philosophical analyses of the end of secularism in the West. The next day, in Milan University's Napoleonic Hall, various Muslim scholars looked at secularisation in their countries, with many surprises.

As mentioned, the first revelation was about Iran and its society, changing not as a result of the embargo and sanctions or the political self-restraint by the country's ayatollahs, but out of a quest for rights and dignity by ordinary Iranians, first and foremost young people and women. And the latter include not only young men in jeans and women in pants, but also men with bears and women with covered heads, this according to Ramin Jahanbegloo, a Canadian-based Iranian scholar, who is associate professor of political science at York University in Toronto (Canada).

Those who are pushing for a secular vision of society are mostly young people (60 per cent of Iran's population), often clashing with the Revolutionary Guards as they try to rekindle an Iranian identity that is not latched to the political Shiism espoused by Khomeinist theologians.

These young people are not however against religion (as Western secularists might think), but want to preserve the personal dimension of religion whilst getting Islamic totalitarianism to back off. The same is true for women, whether Islamic or secular, they want greater respect and space in society, working together and publicly debating their needs.

For Jahanbegloo, "Iranian actors in civil society no longer recognise themselves in a strong ideological secularism, but express instead critical views about anti-democratic and authoritarian aspects of Iran's theocratic politics and traditions" without questioning the country's religious roots. This entails a dialogue between religions and secularism in Iran, which is what Benedict XVI often proposed for the West, in Regensburg and elsewhere.

In Morocco too, we see a move towards secularisation that is not constrained by anti-religious ideological burdens, but is based on individual rights and local cultural traditions as the criteria to evaluate both a risky secularism and fundamentalist Islamism.

Prof Rachik Hassan, from Casablanca's Hassan II University, outlined a shift towards the separation of state and religion in Morocco's constitution, whereby the king's role as 'defender of the faithful' is separated from that of head of state. Of equal importance is the emergence in 1990 of the Justice and Development Party, which retains a fundamentalist outlook, whilst accepting the country's political institutions and the need to fight Islamic terrorism.

And there is more to the list of astonishing revelations that go against the grain to which Westerners are accustomed that equate secularism to freedom and Islam to obscurantism.

Among those present, Sami Angawi noted how Wahhabi Islam and Western consumerism are ruining many of his country's traditional religious sites. An architect from the region of Hejaz (Saudi Arabia), Angawi has worked on the preservation of its architectural heritage. Sadly for him, in Saudi Arabia "the balance is broken", especially in Makkah under the weight of the bulldozer and "pagan" (kafir) consumerism.

The Kaaba, the holy stone, is surrounded by the "worst of the heathen world", like Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Paris Hilton's fashion houses, whilst bulldozers demolish fountains once deemed holy or the tomb of the fifth son of Muhammad, all in the name of economic development.

By way of summary, Card Scola concluded the meeting, noting that Eastern and Western thinkers were developing a "shared grammar", one that transcended certain ideological schemata, in order to give religion a place other than the marginal one to which Western secularism and warmongering political Islam would condemn it.

For the founder of the Oasis journal, it is important for each of the two communities to keep its identity alive (not tarnished or relativised, as proposed in Europe), keeping in mind that ecumenical dialogue is also part of that identity.

To avoid exclusion from society, Christians and Muslims must rely first and foremost on their faith to meet the challenges of life, in the family or joblessness, which call for answers that are greater and more effective than 'technical' (or secular) ones. This way, there can be hope for the world and for people sharing life together.

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