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Religion, Culture And Nationalism: Sabrina Lei’s Philosophical Exploration – OpEd

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Many assume that religion and politics are antagonistic realms of human engagement, and hence theological and political standpoints are seen as competing, if not conflicting, discourses. When religion becomes an ideology and enters the political arena, it engenders new discourses of power. The last century, as well as the present one, witnessed how religion has made inroads into the realm of politics, with all its attendant implications. But debating the theological and the political as antagonistic forces may impede us from comprehending the astonishing ways in which they interact and inform each other.

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This is a critical subject of studies in different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Philosophers and political thinkers have also addressed these issues of religion and politics from different vantage points. Though the core values of religion may foster tolerance, reciprocity, and harmony, our life-world experiences have shown some trends operating in opposite ways.  Where do we now find reciprocity and tolerance amid the growing uncertainties engendered by radical nationalism and cultural homogenisation? Reciprocity is, by and large, a social philosophy, a social ethic, and a way of beholding the world. At its core is tolerance, and it can connect and reconnect individuals and groups to and within a society, and the reciprocal exchange of culture constitutes the quintessence of all successful societies.  

Italian philosopher Sabrina Lei attempts to explore the contours of reciprocity and tolerance through her writings, translations and lectures. While speaking on the theme “Religion, Cultural and Nationalism” at a programme arranged by Vakkom Moulavi Memorial and Research Centre (VMMRC), Kerala in association with the Institute for Global South Studies and Research (IGSSR), Lei said that “an “essential part of the identity of a nation, an individual of collective being, is constituted both by religion and culture. Even when theoretically these two notions could be studied and considered separately, in reality, and in the praxis of human life and civilizations, they seem to be very much closely interrelated.” “Religion is part of a culture and, at the same time, culture is both moulded and shaped by religion. However, the relation between culture and religion is very sensitive and quite problematic, if closely examined. Historically speaking, culture is influenced by a given religion, but religion, if intended only as part of the culture risks to be misunderstood.”

According to Lei, “religion, intended as a transcendent revelation, through which humanity is given a set of values and laws to be followed, in order to develop goodness and morality, should be considered by definition both inside and outside historical development. As a pure revelation, religion is above and beyond history, and it is a moment of separation or crisis between the past and the future of humanity. This is the reason why at the beginning of a new course of human history, in ancient times, there had been a religious revelation, as if an eruption from above history. Religion, however, is also inside human development, when it becomes part of human life,” she added. 

However, Lei would further argue that “religion, in the first sense (namely, when it is considered above and beyond history), is not part of a culture (and most of the time it comes across as against a given culture at the time of its revelation), but in the second sense (when it becomes part of human life), it is part of a culture. Unfortunately, religion is always under the risk of being assimilated by a culture. In order to be a source of constant positive inspiration in human life leading humanity towards goodness and morality, it becomes another aspect of identity and assumes a static and ahistorical feature.”

Lei stressed that “religion, as part of the identity of an individual, group or civilization, should be inclusive and open to historical development; otherwise, it will lose, in the long run, the capacity to inspire the real and positive change in the society.” “Culture and religion could be interpreted as part of the identity politics and as a means to strengthen the notion of radical nationalism. Culture and religion, in other words, could be adopted by radical nationalism as a means to strengthen, spread, and sustain the notion of identity previously explained.” 

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Lei said that the identity of a nation, as well as of an individual, “is never monolithic or static, but it is actually the outcome of an historical process of exchange, compromise and growth.” She said that “the systematic negation of change and historical development is a feature of classical metaphysical Greek thought, which interpreted sameness and identity as real, and change and otherness not only as unreal, but also as negative notions and symptoms of decadence.” 

According to Lei, in our times, the term identity is widely used in relation to the notion of ‘identity politics’, a concept extremely complex and dangerous from the political point of view. Some contemporary thinkers, both in the West and the East, use the notion of identity “in an extremely uncritical way, maybe in some cases without being completely aware of its danger and pitfalls.” In sum, the notion of identity politics, as she pointed out, “is at the same time a product and a reaction to the notion of radical nationalism.” 

Speaking on the subject further, Lei said that “between identity and difference, or between sameness and otherness, according to the perspective of radical nationalism or extreme forms of identity politics, the relation is always violent or rooted in violence.” She says: “The relation could be considered or named as ‘violent’ when the identity is identified with something universal, ahistorical (out of historical development) and as foundational. Instead, the difference or otherness should be read as its opposite: particular, historical (in the historical development as an accident), and contingent.” 

Lei said that “according to a paradigm of historical evolution, which we could define as violent, the particular and the difference should be reduced to the unity of the identity by necessity.” Thus, as this identitarian paradigm insists, “the history of a civilization or a nation has reached the peak of its maximum level of development, when what is particular or contingent, namely the different, ceased to be something to be assimilated and become an element of disturbance to be eliminated.” She reminds that “by definition, then, difference becomes a threat to the stability of a given nation or civilization. This attitude, which is by itself a clear symptom of weakness and degeneration, has as its necessary outcome the rejection of dialogue, the absence of any exchange and the resistance toward the historical development.”

She proceeds: “History, consequentially, is re-interpreted, re-written and re-read according to this paradigm, which actually leads from both social and political point of views to a clash which seems to be inevitable. Instead, a true political praxis should be related to an ethical choice, which is, at the same time, a choice of freedom and a choice of responsibility. An ethical choice, before being a collective choice, or a communal choice, is and should be first of all an individual choice, an act of personal responsibility.”

Speaking on the notion of radical nationalism, Lei said that Karl Popper interpreted it as ‘tribalism.’ The passage from the Open Society and Its Enemies runs as follows: 

Tribalism, namely, the emphasis on the supreme importance of the tribe without which the individual is nothing at all, is an element which we shall find in many forms of historicist theories. Other forms which are no longer tribalist may still retain an element of collectivism; they may still emphasize the significance of some group or collective—for example, a class—without which the individual is nothing at all.

Lei thus argues that “the tribalistic concept of human society could be rooted in the notion of a collective entity, in which every form of difference is disregarded and systematically deleted in different ways. The tribalistic society is a society where every individual loses their individualities due to a static concept of social dynamics and interactions.” “In other words, every individual in the tribalistic society knows their own place and could not escape from it. At the centre of a tribalistic society there is always a collective entity endowed with static features. The term ‘tribalistic’ however, should not make us think about a primordial or primitive form of society; it is rather a kind of society rooted in a narrow and static conception of identity. A tribalistic society is not a matter of the past, when human ways of life and civilizations was less complicated, but it has been a reality (a degenerated reality indeed) during the era of Western totalitarian regimes and could be again an outcome of a series of unfortunate human choices. 

She says that a passage from Origin of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, clearly registers the danger explained above: Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.

According to Lei, “the rise of radical nationalism is in most of the cases an answer to an internal crisis of a community or a nation, but this answer—extremely dangerous–depersonalises and, consequently deresponsibilises the individual as a person endowed with the capacity of thinking and choosing.” 

Radical Nationalism is totally against multiculturalism 

The term ‘multiculturalism’ implies the presence of two or more cultures inside a space which could be national, geographic, political and social. Lei says that “multiculturalism, at the national or geographical level indicates the presence of different cultures inside a space geographically circumscribed, which could be or not also politically organized. Instead, at both the political and social levels, multiculturalism is related to the impact of different cultures on the political and social spheres.” All these distinctions, however, could be brought into a central issue widely discussed today, that is, how is it possible, and if at all it is possible, that a multi-religious or multi-cultural society could reach the political unity? The main question: is multiculturalism a threat to the identity of a nation? This question raises other two fundamental issues, already discussed before:

1.  Is identity monolithic?

2. The historical identity interpreted, is it possible to think it as a closed process, finished and completed for once and all?

The answer to these two questions is negative, and it involves the notions of identity and differences interpreted not in an oppositional relation but as complementary. In other words, identity is meaningful only in relation to the difference and the difference could be understood properly only in relation to identity.” “In other words, identity is inside the difference and difference is inside the identity. This means that in their semantic and dialogic relation these two terms could not be separated. Their relation stands on a series of paradigms which could not be reduced to a rational speculation, but are the outcome of a political and ethical choice.” Lei says that “the grammar of the language is first of all an ethical act before being political.”   

Ambassador K.P. Fabian who chaired the session said that an essential part of a culture is “its respect for other cultures. However much one respects Indian culture and cannot respect other cultures, it definitely sends the wrong message and gives room for wrong notions and understanding. Even identities need not clash among themselves, though each identity has its constituency.” Warning the dangerous trends in patriotism, Fabian said that “one would love his/her country, but it should not be worship, which we do only toward the Almighty. The very word religion has not been understood correctly and carefully. Even textbooks are generating confusing meanings and interpretations,” Fabian said. 

Sabrina Lei is currently Director of Rome-based Tawasul International Centre for Publishing, Research and Dialogue, Lei has been engaged in inter-faith dialogues and campaigns for peace and harmony for quite a long time. One of her major areas of pursuits is translation of classics and works of immense value from different cultures. Her Italian translation of Sree Narayana Guru’s Atmopadesa Satakam is one of her latest editions. Lei had already done translations of Selected Upanishads, works by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Muhammad Iqbal, Yusuf Ali’s classic 1934 English Quran translation and over 50 other classics, poems, novels from South Asia and the Arab world. 

Sabrina Lei and Ambassador K.P. Fabian are also on the International Board of Global South Colloquy, the platform of the IGSSR. 

Prof P.K. Michel Tharakan, Chairman., Kerala Council for Historical Research, Canadian Sociologist Prof Joseph Tharamangalam, Dr Ravi Raman, Member of Kerala State Planning Board, Sameer Muneer, Prof M. Thahir, Sabin Iqbal and others participated. Honorary Chairman of IGSSR welcomed and Mrs. Shaheen Nadeem (VMMRC) concluded the session attended by scholars from Italy, United States, Canada, UAE, Oman, Maldives, and India. 

The author is ICSSR Senior Fellow and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for ‘Global South Colloquy.’ He can be contacted at [email protected]

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