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What can Europe and the MENA region learn from each other with regard to the governance of religious diversity?

I think it’s very useful to take a comparative approach to the study of religion and state in North Africa versus southern Europe. And doing so helps us to understand the different institutional histories, different institutional memories, and also different institutional possibilities for the positive relationship between religion and state, in which they can work together in a more cooperative, collaborative partnership. We tend to think in Europe that there is some sort of thing called a secular state which is the best way to govern religion and state. And oftentimes, we do that to the exclusion of very diverse histories of religion state and religious– public religious state cooperation within Europe.
Taking a look at the institutional histories of places like North Africa helps, in some ways, recover some of that historical memory and helps to begin to see some of the ways in which religious actors and religious institutions are governed differently and positively that don’t– they don’t enter into the category of secularism or laïcité. Recent scholarship on this has come up with a number of different terms to try to articulate out these non-secular, non laïcité freedom and rights supporting religion state relationships. Words like public religion, post secularism, or in North Africa, sometimes we refer to post Islamism are ways to try to capture this growing sensibility and memory of employing and fostering these positive relationships.
One, for my own work, a very important example is in the interreligious dialogue of regimes which, in some ways, are built on this other type of memories. And in which we see an explicit and formal relationship between the state and religious organisations which try to contribute to common humanitarian goods. Now in places in North Africa, if we look at places like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, we see a long history and a normalised history, even within a democratic framework, of a state which governs very explicitly the religious field. Including through the formation of religious ministers of imams, including through guidance for the way in which sermons should be, including through the very close administration of religious houses of worship.
Some of this, and this is the comparison of what North Africa has to learn from Europe, some of this has been to the detriment of religious freedom. This is widely studied and widely commented upon. But in many ways, it has also– it has benefits or it has ways in which it has worked well or could work well, and which reminds us of ways in which countries in southern Europe, including places like Italy, have cooperated in similar ways or a place like England.
So I think a growing number of scholars and a growing number of good practises, including sometimes the success stories of interreligious dialogue, seem to help us– help indicate that big normative projects which we tend to like in Europe like freedom, like inclusive citizenship, like protection for religious minorities, can be supported and embedded within non-secular religion state relations.
Inter-religious dialogue is a vast and growing subject of interest for scholars, but also for people of different religious faith traditions. Interreligious dialogue is something that’s new within the experience of the great big world traditions like Islam, like Christianity, like Hinduism. And we can think about inter-religious dialogue in many different ways from– and it’s oftentimes categorised in many different ways from dialogue of life and dialogue of people living together on a daily basis, or theological dialogue. But one of the more interesting growth in the field of inter-religious dialogue is the governmental sponsorship of religious dialogue initiatives and the use of interreligious dialogue initiatives as a way to deal with questions of religious pluralism.
Within North Africa, and again, this is one very helpful way to sort of decenter narratives of religion state relations– ways in which religion and state can be in cooperation or be tension or be co-opted or clashed, is to recognise that probably some of the most important inter-religious dialogue, declarations, and initiatives over the last 15 years have come– have been born, initiated, and matured within North Africa and the Middle East.
Three of the most important– one group of initiatives that come from Jordan, the 2005 Amman Message, and the Common Word message, and then particularly, in 2016, the Marrakesh Declaration– which was in Morocco– which brought together a very important group of very broad– wide ranging, diverse group of religious scholars and religious leaders. Including– and this is very interesting– what we might call faith-based leaders, who have religious credibility as spiritual leaders, but also state-appointed religious leaders. So we have ministries of religion in many of these North African states who have ministers of religion within those states, but also important theologians and grand muftis.
So a very wide broad groups who then made a very strong, very theologically rich declaration in favour of religious minorities, pluralism, equality, and what is increasingly referred to as inclusive citizenship. This has an immense impact, or it has a potential immense impact on the consensus in favour of, and the religious narrative in favour of citizenship and religious freedom and protection of religious minorities in North Africa and the Middle East. But it also has an interesting impact on the way in which religious authorities are in partnership with the states. So through these declarations, over time, we also see the increasing institutionalisation of relations between the state and religious authorities. And that also has had a parallel development within Europe.
Through interreligious dialogue initiatives– including those that are sponsored formally by intergovernmental organisations, and by the EU, by the UN, by single states– these are ways in which, for a number of reasons, some of humanitarian goals, like alleviating world poverty– some are very much security-driven because of questions about religious extremism where there were not formal institutionalised partnerships between religious authorities and state authorities. Now, inter-religious dialogue gives sort of a formalised sphere where those conversations can take place. There are lots of tensions and interesting problems which we could raise about that, whether or not those are appropriate necessarily relationships, whether or not this is a way in which either religious authorities or political authorities can instrumentalize each other through the process.
But on the other hand, it also has a pretty clear normative sort of framework in which religious authorities are seeking to partner with political authorities for the development of political and human development of their societies. And within, again, an atmosphere of dialogue where there is, again, a normative entry point in which these religious leaders, as inter-religious dialogue leaders, are interested in knowing and creating more harmonious inter-religious relations.

Michael Driessen looks at how different countries in Europe and in the MENA region manage religious diversity and outlines what they can learn from each other in terms of inter-religious dialogue.

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Governing Religion: Global Challenges and Comparative Approaches

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