An interview with Professor Sara Silvestri

Professor Sara Silvestri, Senior Lecturer at the City, University of London, and Bye-Fellow at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, was invited to the 2nd Interdisciplinary Global Governance Symposium, which took place in Villa Mondragone, Frascati, on the 11th of July. Being welcomed to elaborate on the theme of Boundaries, Prof. Silvestri focused on WhatsApp Image 2018-08-07 at 1.32.14 PMtwo main topics, politics and religion, and the ways in which the two intertwine, influencing each other; in particular, how religious identities, symbols and political theologies impact global governance, introducing the audience to the concept of Political Theology.
This interview mainly focuses on her educational background, considerations and opinions over wider and current matters, asking on some of her fields of research which were not mentioned during the symposium.

Talking about your educational background, which you said yourself during your speech was quite unusual and curious, what pushed you to pursue this kind of research and how did the recent past events justify your choices?

I studied in Rome, La Sapienza, at the Faculty of Humanities, specializing in Literature and History.
During the years of the university, I specialized in journalism as well. I did journalistic practice and I finally took the patent as a freelance journalist. In those years I was increasingly interested in current issues and as a journalist, I was following issues on migration, interreligious dialogue, all sorts of matters that regarded current issues which also involved questions of religious identity and immigration.
At the end of my studies at La Sapienza, after a period of working experience abroad, I decided I wanted to specialize in European policies, with a focus on immigration processes. Therefore, I did my Master in Cambridge.
Actually my very own interest, beyond the topic of migration in general, was the questions over the treatment of Muslims in Europe and their mobilization at the European level in policies of integration, nothing to do with terrorism.
So I submitted my application for the Ph.D., which was then accepted in the summer of 2000 by the Department of Political Science of Cambridge. The board of professors did accept my application, surprisingly though. Instead of studying migration in Europe for example, I wanted to focus on the role of one particular religious community in Europe and public policies answers over the Muslim community. It was an entirely new kind of research for the department, which was however welcomed with interest.
After 9/11 my research received great attention and gained visibility. In fact, after my Ph.D. I obtained a postdoc in Cambridge, so to pursue my studies over Muslim integration in Europe.
In the following years, I published various papers on the Islam, especially on Muslim women. Recently my interest has instead re-centered on the relationship of politics and religion in general: how to think about the role of religious identities at the political level, considering also the ways in which individuals and organizations which are driven by religious values do mobilize politics and act upon it.
I am currently teaching a general course on religion and politics, and the role religion can have in political transformations. My current project of research concerns the mobilization of Christian groups, including the Catholic Church, in the answer to current migration crisis.

This may be a little of a provocative question, but to come back to one of the Symposium themes, Boundaries, couldn’t we talk about religion as something that creates and puts up limits between different cultures and people? As in Europe we are more and more witnessing this attitude of closure…

To begin with my answer I want to stress the fact that in my opinion Religion cannot be considered as a fixed entity, and it cannot be understood in a simplistic way, as its very concept is built on multiple levels : we could be talking at the level of religious scripts, the role of religious leaders, the role of the community, the interpretation of religious texts in the historical context, there is the philosophy and the political philosophy which derives from it…
For me, it makes no great sense to say “the religion”. In my opinion, it is about choosing what aspect of it we want to highlight.

….Maybe we want to focus on the institutionalized side of religion?

I believe that even at the institutionalized level there are multiple layers, even trends which are in competition among them. Or even if we look, for example, in the Catholic world as in Italy, we see how visions on society and politics can greatly differ. The supporters of “Azione Cattolica” have greater leftist attitudes compared to the ones of  “Comunione e Liberazione”. These are both formations of religious groups, more or less institutionalized and visible in society, different but both answering the credo of Christian Catholics.
So, I do not think that it is accurate to say that it exists a Catholic vision on this matter, as in between the Catholic realm differences do exist.
For what concerns the so long perceived and discussed tension among Christian and secular culture or among Christian, secular and Muslim cultures, it is thought that there must necessarily be a contraposition: that secular and Christian cultures can coexist, but when it comes to Islam none of them can fit it.
I do not have data on this matter or scientific numbers that could verify what am I saying. As a matter of fact, most of this incompatibility I am arguing on it is based on perceptions and not on the reality of facts. Also, most of the tensions that seem visible and attributable to Islam can actually be linked to processes of integration which do not work well. Which segments of society are involved in these processes? Migrants, having perhaps lower levels of education, who are not able to present themselves in a proper way, nor their religion and tradition in a critical and sophisticated way. So, in this case, it is often socio-economic factors that do define questions and problematics, more than religious ideology.
Obviously, in all sorts of religious traditions, there have been personalities who have tried to manipulate religious discourse so to achieve power. It was and still is easier for them to mobilize the masses and people not necessarily educated in the name of religion. Sometimes this is easier, as it can happen that, no other political alternative was given to this people, easily falling in the hands of those who present Islam as a mean to establish of personal identity. If, on the other hand, an alternative way of political participation in civil society was proposed and made accessible, only then maybe the attention from “easy answers” could be drawn off.

…as for example the Molenbeek neighborhood?

These are questions linked to an issue that falls in the realm of social services. For example, many of the terrorists that waged actions in Belgium, France and Germany were already part of the criminality. Yes, they are coming from immigrant families, they are Muslims as they presented themselves in this way and presented their actions under that name, let’s accept all of this. But I do think that the attractiveness of violence must not be traced back to the Islam or the fact of being an immigrant. As far as I am concerned this attractiveness derives from the fact that these people were already part of the criminal world, a kind of “typical path”.
There is a study in the UK entitled Criminal Pasts, Terrorists Future and it provided the scientific evidence that being Muslim is not a fact that determine if you become a terrorist or not, or the fact of being a migrant. On the other hand, the fact of having been previously involved in criminal activities does engage in such a process.
What I am saying is that there are certain social problems that would exist even if Muslim people would not live in Europe. Criminality exists in any case, everywhere, so I think it is counterproductive to focus and denounce everything as Islamic terrorism.
Violence, criminality, the lack of structures for mental illness, these problematics do exist in our European society, and therefore by not having a certain type of infrastructures or policies to tackle these issues do increase a certain type of risks.

Let’s talk a bit about one of the most debated issues about Muslims in Europe: the principle of the secularity of the State and the use of the Muslim headscarf. What is your view on policies that restrict the visibility of religious symbols?

The debate over the Muslim headscarf, both the hijab and the burqa, is essentially linked to an existing tension over the principle of liberty. On one side we have freedom of religion and, on the other side, we have freedom of expression. This shows how much it is difficult to balance these two different layers of liberty and how sometimes allowing a certain kind of liberty (as wearing religious symbols) can be seen as an attack against secularism. Moreover, it could be considered offensive for the ones who believe that religion should not be visible nor interfere with public life.
On the other hand, agreeing with this part of society would represent an insult towards those who judge the expression of religious freedom through symbols (as the hijab, the bears, the Kippah, the Cross) to be very important.
Some years ago it used to exist a great variety of different approaches to the burqa issue by European countries. Every State’s political culture, history and constitution used to have great importance in determining what kind of public response was provided. Now, instead, I see some kind of homogenization around public policies, with most of the countries falling into line about banning the burqa. Quite a few countries followed France’s position, which is the same as Belgium’s. Germany and the Netherlands do not have an official national stance on it, even though at the regional level authorities proved to be against the burqa. In Italy, most debates happened at the level of municipalities in the Northern regions.
This homogenization basically happened on the basis of two (controversial) ideas.
The first one is the public security principle. Based on the fact that around 2005 there were cases of terrorists wearing the burqa to look like women, people started to think that it would not be safe to allow women to wear large clothes that could easily hide weapons. Honestly I think that it is redundant, considering all the scan and detector instruments that we now have and the great variety of existing weapons, but nevertheless this idea remains acceptable.
The second idea, widely spread and shared, is linked to the concept of the burqa (or hijab) as an instrument of women’ oppression. I strongly disagree with this view. Speaking about on field studies, there is no proof that women who wear the hijab are less independent than others, do not have access to studies or live in conditions of oppression inside their families. An intense debate about theories exists among Muslim feminists who try to overturn the Western feminist argument: they argue that feminism was developed on the basis of woman’s emancipation, but with a disparity in power. Western women presented themselves as defenders of women’ values worldwide, therefore placing women who are immigrant or belong to a religious minority in a position of inferiority. Right now, the feminism movement inside Muslim communities (which is very heterogeneous) is trying to take the feminism language back and to express a message about emancipation through the hijab. This allows women to take their religious and feminine identity back and to fight both the secular society that is hostile to Islam and their own religion’s conservatives who try to use the burqa as a tool of oppression.
This movement is very interesting as these Muslim women hold great religious knowledge, they study carefully in order to reply in an elaborated and sophisticated way both to the secular society and to the religious leaders. They stand for their identity and independence inside the community, this is why I found this theme to be very interesting. This is indeed one of my research areas.
Even if the phenomenon is not widespread in Italy, in the UK there is plenty of Muslim women who hold high-profile jobs, who are professionals, who teach at the university or are involved in politics. Some of these women wear the hijab, some do not: this is because they had the chance to present themselves by keeping their religious identity. They were provided with a way to flourish, to fulfill their desires because they were given access to education, civil society and politics.
On the other hand, if you are an immigrant who does not have the appropriate documents and you are waiting for your residence permit, you are not even encouraged to engage. I had conversations with some Moroccan girls who used to tell me: <<I am waiting for my documents, what is the point of protesting in the street if then cops detain me and I do not have my ID?>>
This whole environment freezes also a lot of children of Moroccan origins. Even though these kids are born in Italy they cannot have the Italian citizenship until they come of age.
Laws are blocking the integration process. You can not attack the people “who do not want to integrate with the society” if you do not give them the legal tools to do so.

Can we talk about this Muslim feminist movement as something that developed through Muslim women living in Western countries in the first place, or is this a process that has deeper roots in history?

It all started in Egypt at the beginning of the XX century, when there were a lot of fierce women in Iran too. The problem here is that most of the debate on Islam in Europe is presented and elaborated in a monolithic way. Nobody ever highlights the different points of view that exist and reveal great vigor and heterogeneity.

During the Symposium you mentioned this exciting concept of political theology. You also said that you are working to stress the importance of the topic at the academic level. Can you elaborate a bit on that? It could be useful also to students who would like to pursue this kind of studies.

I am trying to establish a bridge between two disciplines: international relations and political theology.
The core of this work is to find out theological elements from various religions that allow a dialogue between the Global Order and Global Governance concept (developed in the Western liberal world) and the practical level of local communities (a typical political theology approach).
I am trying to prove that there can be a harmony between the two and that the purpose of religious groups and of faith-based transnational movements, which are more or less organized, it is not to establish a theocracy. A the end of the day, they just want to promote social justice in the world according to religious values. Unfortunately, in the history of religions, there have been a lot of efforts by some leaders or groups to annihilate individual independence and people’ consciousness by strictly following gospels. But now there is great vitality at the civil society level as well, where religious identity and values are visible, tangible. These principles do not consist of obliging somebody to convert, but they have the practical aim of translating religious values, which are frequently linked to concepts of peace and social justice, into everyday life.
It is impossible to work in this field without being involved in politics, therefore these religious groups end up engaging in various political activities. The common effort is to translate religious values into everyday life and in order to do so, they have to collaborate and interfere or criticize political choices.

Early in the Symposium, you spoke about Pope Francesco’s involvement in various political issues, especially those linked to social justice like immigration, etc. One point that really interested us is what you said about believers’ political life: by living their everyday life according to religious values, they are actually involved in the political life.
An idea came to our minds: in Italian politics now there are some parties that on one hand advocate for policies that go against certain Christian values, while on the other hand they still proudly consider themselves as Catholics and take advantage of their religious identity to gain votes.
Besides that, when the Pope publicly spoke about immigration he faced harsh criticism from the clergy and part of Christian society as if he should not get involved in these matters. What is your thought about this situation?

I do not think Pope Francesco did anything innovative: he just took inspiration from the Gospel and the documents of the II Vatican Council about Catholic social doctrine. He showed that if anyone wants to live accordingly to what is written in the Gospel, it is obvious that he/she should be open and welcoming towards immigration.
I think that he faced criticism because his message, together with Catholic organizations’ social operators’ actions, is perceived as pietism. Behind his words, instead, there is a very strong theoric thought that justifies the care towards immigrants, which is directly linked to the concept of man and social justice.
Christian thought does not divide people according to social classes, ethnic or cultural origins: it only says to follow Jesus’ example and to live our lives with honesty and responsibility.
This dimension has not been understood and it is often deliberately neglected because there is no will nor the ability to think about the common good. I think the immigration issue in Italy is linked to the fact that right now society is disorganized and the political system has not been to develop common good policies. Therefore, whatever is being done in favor of immigrants is perceived as an exception.
But, and this is what the Pope proposes, society should be back to focus on the individual and it needs to realign its priorities. This realignment includes care towards immigrants, as well as towards the poor, the elderly, families and people’ working conditions. His argument is not only about immigrants, it is about putting human dignity back on top of our social and political priorities. However, politicians do not have the skills nor the tools to make this change happen and therefore they focus their attention only on immigration arguments, by presenting it as something negative, as if we are talking about taking something away from citizens and giving it to the immigrants.

 

 

Tommaso Subioli and Elisa Felici.

 

Image source: http://thebelltowers.com/2014/03/04/politics-versus-religion-the-distinction-grows-as-does-the-need-to-respond-to-it/

Leave a Reply