Religions and the
Panel discussion September 21, 2008
as part of the European Social Forum, Malmö, Sweden
Organized by the Church of Sweden in Malmö, International Movement We Are Church, European Network Church on the Move and Attac Sweden.
Helena Tagesson (S), Mattias Gardell (S), Aki Nawaz (UK), Vittorio Bellavite (IT).
Moderated by Anthony Fiscella (S)
Anthony Fiscella welcomes the panel and the audience and asks each person on the panel to introduce themselves and explain why they feel that this issue is important and what they mean by “religion” and “global justice”.
Helena Tagesson: I’ve been active for quite a few years in the global justice movement. I was international coordinator for Attac Sweden for some years and now I work with Cogito which is a green think-tank. I’m also a Buddhist and I have studied with the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I am a member of the Order of Interbeing of Engaged Buddhism. What has inspired me to join this community of spiritual practice is largely the stories of how people were able to keep up their practice of social transformation under conditions that were absolutely extreme in terms of the ongoing American war. These were people who drew on spiritual resources to keep steadfast for movements of peace and democracy and rural development under conditions that would have made most of us give up ages ago.
I think there is a lot of things that religious practice can offer us. But I think it is very difficult to talk about religion in general just like it is difficult to talk about politics in general. There are specific elements within in specific traditions that can be helpful to us. Religious movements have aligned themselves with power throughout the ages just as religious movements have aligned themselves with popular struggles for sovereignty and emancipation.
What I think Buddhism has given me is the training to be present, to one thing at a time in our daily lives. How do we stay aware of what is going on inside of us and around us in situations that may be stressful and full of conflict. Through meditation we learn to cultivate an ability to be precise about our own motivations, with what other people are saying, to be fully present for our work. It helps us regain our energy when we’re exhausted. It helps us enjoy what we’re doing. As activists we are often bordering on burning out so we need to find these ways to take care of ourselves.
Another thing that spiritual practice has given me is that I’ve come to see that the things that I struggle to transform in the world around me are in me as well. A system gone mad on greed, aggression, and ignorance of reality –––it’s all inside of us too so if we’re involved in social change we need to be able to relate to that to transform ourselves as well. It doesn’t happen by itself. It’s also an opening to compassion and enables us to look at our so-called enemies as humans too.
Mattias Gardell: I’ve written about the Nation of Islam as a religion of African-American resistance in the US, I’ve studied the political landscape of Islam and particularly the Islamic theology of liberation for democracy, human rights, pluralism that are being stigmatized as dangerous terrorists by the powers in the West. I’ve recently completed a book about the return of torture and the way that islamophobia is part of the liberal ideology of torture. So to me, religion represents a great many things. And I should mention that I’m not only studying religion in those terms where it leads to human desire for emancipation and liberation but also links with oppression. I studied for two years the religious dimensions of the White Power scene in the US. I’m far more comfortable speaking as a researcher on religion and politics than as an activist and a religious practitioner which is what I was called here to speak about. I usually call myself a pagan or a heathen and I dance my religion with a group of practicing heathens but we don’t talk too much about it. We don’t have a web page. We don’t write a lot of long texts. We don’t talk bout what this religion means to me. And we really don’t want anyone to join us. [laughter] Paganism is a path of exploration, a religious practice. It’s not a longing for pre-modern spirituality, or the Nordic gods or anything like that. But because of the context it’s a post-modern religion. It’s a sort of spiritual anarchism. And when it is translated into political philosophy at least with the group that I dance with it becomes close to what’s happening in the American Indian movements today and their struggle for liberation or even strands of political Islam. If you don’t obey anyone but God you find anarchism. So that’s about the same standpoint. As far as why this is important I agree with Helena. I see religion as a field of discourse and practice that starts with the idea of the divine. The idea of secularism linked with democracy was a very short and not so significant part of European history. God didn’t die. People kept to their faith and it kept transforming. It’s therefore important to discuss religion in both its oppressive and liberational aspects. When I talk about global justice I tend to be very Jeffersonian and minimalistic. I don’t think we should strive for the Unity of mankind. I think that the idea of the unity of mankind is overrated and very dangerous. We can never agree on too many things but we should try to agree on the basics: everyone’s right to life, to the pursuit of happiness, water, food, shelter, to explore life in its various paths without oppressive structures.
Aki Nawaz: I was born in Pakistan and dragged across to England at the age of three and grew up in the infamous city of Bradford which is know to some people as Little Pakistan. I was raised in a liberal but disciplined Muslim family. We went through all the politics of racism, physical attacks, apologizing for what we were, who we were, what we ate, our names ––this was back in the 60s as the first diaspora was coming across. Though we had very interesting lives in terms of what was happening around us. I was quite a nice school kid until I was fifteen and I rebelled. I went to see the Sex Pistols and became a punk rocker. My parents and family were shocked and wanted me to see psychological help. But for me I saw punk as more as a philosophy than a trend. From within that zone, I learned how to relate to many kinds of people, many schools of thought from Maoists to tree-worshippers. I used music as a learning code as well and how it related to struggle. We were involved with anti-racist struggles and we fought back against the perpetrators of racist violence. I went to New York in the late 80s and hooked up with the Nation of Islam and I could relate to their struggle. It was easier for me to communicate with them and relate to that then people from India and Pakistan. I went back to England and started a record label, Nation Records. We were sick of being submissive We were expected to be Gandhi, passive on our knees. So we became a political platform and provoked as much as we were provoked. With the Salman Rushdie thing I could see the pain of my parents with this thing not being addressed
I did an album a few years ago for which a few British MPs wanted me arrested. For being black as a target, being Asian as a target, then being Pakistani as a target, then being a Muslim as a target, I’ve had a great life as being a target. But I don’t see myself as a victim. I see the ignorance and arrogance ––Western society has become so consumed by its own arrogance.
I love my religion and I’ve seen many different dynamics and different layers. I’ve wanted to engage with people who are seen to be dangerous or going to areas of the world which are seen to be dangerous. I wanted to go there and see who these people are and break down the propaganda about them. Or see them in the real light of their context. We tend to forget how important context is.
I went to South Africa recognize that the struggle against apartheid is also my struggle. It doesn’t matter whether someone is Muslim or not. All of these struggles are my struggle.
But the left is not part of my struggle anymore. Parts of the left are trying to re-engage with it but a lot more needs to be done. I’ve always thought religion is global justice. It doesn’t make sense to me to separate religion and politics. Any of the prophets, Jesus, Moses etc. ––they were all fighting against injustice. I think we need to dialogue, discuss, and move forward.
Vittorio Bellavite: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m particularly happy to be here at this panel organized by the Catholic movement and the Lutheran Church of Malmö. It gladdens me that it is organized by Catholics and Protestants as friends. I represent two networks within the Catholic Church. One of them aims to reform the Catholic Church and the other works for secularism and intercultural relationship. I am not a priest ( I have four children). I represent the secular part of the Catholic world. We’ve organized discussions at all of every European Social Forum from Paris to Athens discussing subjects from the EU Constitution to humanism to Islam (with Pax Christi, Iglesia de base of Madrid, with Tariq Ramadan, Juan Josè Tamayo, Giulio Girardi, the ortodoxe bishop Athanasios Hatzopoulos and many others).
If we look at the last five centuries we can see that the Catholic Church and the Popes were oftenopposing justice and peace. Nevertheless, toward the end of the last century there was the Second Vatican Council and this was the reform of the Church and the creation of the conditions for the Church to get engaged in working for justice and peace. This was a very positive event especially seeing as how the last century was characterized by a lot of wars.
Since the council the history of the Church has changed. So within the Church there is an internal clash especially about global justice. One side is supporting capitalism and unequal relationships and the other side is against it and aims to change those relationships. One side accepts the war in Iraq. The other side does not. The former Pope was against the war whereas the new one, Pope Ratzinger, is actually accepting it. So we can see there are contradictions and clashes within the Church.
Before I conclude I’d like to add four points where I believe the Catholic religion can be a revolutionary element.
1. The position of liberation theology in South America. I’m happy to see that a liberation theologist and bishop has now been elected president in Paraguay (Fernando Lugo).
2 Hans Küng has been doing some important research about the common ethics of all religions. He is a dissident
3 I was in Nairobi for the World Social Forum. I could see that there were missions in the slums organized with the local people organizing solidarity marches.
4 The last point, the most important one is about the World Social Forum. It was co-organized by Brazilian Christians together with French activists. This is why Christians took part in these forums. Nevertheless, I have to make a complaint. In Europe there are very important issues such as the relationship between religion and immigration; or religion and the future of the human heart and so on. These issues are not being discussed at the ESF. This panel is the only one that is dealing with those issues. The only ones that have dealt with these issues at previous ESFs are the ones that we ourselves organized. The European Social Forum does not leave much place for these kinds of discussions and this is what it is all about.
Pause: The audience discuss amongst themselves why this issue is important and/or specific topics raised by the speakers.
Anthony Fiscella re-convenes the panel and begins with one minute of silence.
Following that the audience begins to step up to the microphone to ask questions to the panel.
A selection from some of the questions and answers:
First speaker raises the question about how religion can tend toward fundamentalism.
Helena answers that while it may be but notes that some of the most oppressive fascist systems on this planet have been secular or even atheist. So there is no correlation. People say religion and politics can dangerous but so can politics without religion. We cannot idealize religion but it’s not necessarily dangerous. We need to be more specific when we talk about it.
Mattias answers that there is no way to separate religion from politics, that religion is politics. Even an individualist religious stance is a political stance. The ideal of separation between the two grew in the West but if you look at Egypt you can see that the religious groups are the ones pressing for liberation and human rights. But you’re right, it is dangerous. The moment we adopt more not-so-dangerous political standpoints, I think we can give up. I think it is time to become more dangerous.
Aki asks if the problem is religion or if it is just human error. I think it’s us as human beings. And usually the person doing the oppression is in a uniform or a business suit. They’re not running a mosque. So the question to me seems like a Western approach to religions and I think we need to move beyond that. That’s not to say that religion doesn’t have faults.
Vittorio says that this is true and that so much atrocity has been committed the name of civilization or the Christian religion. Yes, there are risk but there are also opportunities. We want to stop the creation of the fundamentalist state as we have in fact but we also want to stop states from restricting religious liberties.
Mattias adds that religion doesn’t have any agency. People do it. The Quran, the Bible
Anthony asks if the distinction between secular politics and religious politics is the concept of absolute truth and the idea in religion that one has found absolute truths is a trait that can make religion more dangerous than secular politics.
Mattias answers that the basic dividing line does not go between secular and religion. Even secular scientists can believe that they have found an absolute truth. The line is between those who remain agnostic and those who believe they have found the truth. We should also understand atheism as another religious idea.
Aki says that everything is not as clear as we think it is. He says he has spoken with people who believe they have the truth, people whom we’d call fundamentalists. He says that after they have gone on for 20 or forty minutes and gotten their ideology out and they’ve calmed down, he’s discovered that there’s space for dialogue. “I don’t mind sitting down with people I don’t agree with. I want to give them time. I don’t want to judge them too quick.”
Question about religious states –– women have less rights in states where religion has more power. So why would your religious states look differently?
Question about religious identity politics and why don’t we just agree that it can be important to be spiritually aware without identifying as Christian, Buddhist, etc.
Question about how the left criticizes religion as an opiate of the masses.
Statement by audience member about Buddhism in Sri Lanka and about how brutal it is there.
Helena responds to the point about religion and violence and agrees that even Buddhism can be used violently. Whatever a person’s ideology or view is, it can be used in that way.
Why we can’t just call ourselves spiritual is because religions offer us specific traditions and tools. We are trained within our order to not be attached to a religious identity. We are taught that these are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for. But these traditions offer opportunities for a deeper awareness of ourselves as well as tools for communicating better with each other. We need these deeper processes that cannot be accessed just by a general spiritual awareness.
Mattias recognizes that there are problems with certain religious governments such as Iran or the USA but notes that these groups do not represent all Muslims or all Christians. There’s religious feminists in both religions for example. Even in the secular West women’s rights is historically a new development. So it is not that simple. And the American revolutionaries learned a lot about democracy from Native Americans such as the Iroquois.
Aki: “When I read the Quran and think about women’s position I wonder how we as Muslims have got it so wrong.” The Western perception of Buddhism is that it is this sort of happy clappy religion but it isn’t. The Quran tells me to respect people of other religions. Even if Mattias here is a pagan, he is a person of faith, just like the Native Americans.
Vittorio says that religion expresses an ambivalence and manifests both freedom and oppression. He praises the Dalai Lama and notes that for any Christian all religions are a way of reaching God.
Question from the audience about people finding their own worth through identity but recognizes that identity politics can be dangerous so how can we distinguish between the constructive side and the identity politics that lead to nationalism.
Question about how are religious movements responding to the environmental crisis in terms of concrete action.
Question about how things like achievements with things like contraception and abortion were reached by putting religious ideas into question.
Vittorio: If there is no commitment to change then a Christian is not following the gospel.
Aki: I don’t know if there is anything wrong with identity politics. It’s not just about “my” culture. Any community against injustice is part of my struggle. I just wish more people were part of my struggle. When I was in the Amazon in Brazil and the tourists had gone the local Indians shouted “Viva Osama bin Laden!” and these people were not Muslims.
Mattias notes that contraception has been going on for thousands of years. It was only a certain group of religious people in the last century or two who opposed contraception ––not all religious people. As for queer politics, some religions even celebrate things like homosexuality or transvestites such as some Native American religions or paganism. When it comes to the environment, it has been shocking to some people that we are about to kill the planet but now it is unifying people across religious boundaries today. If religious dialogue excludes the talk about the nature of God and talks instead about God’s will, such as ‘we shouldn’t kill each other’, ‘shouldn’t have gender oppression’, ‘shouldn’t kill the planet’, we can unite on these things.
Helena says that the Buddhism tradition stresses that identity is not something solid that stays the same all the time but that it is part of relationships to the universe. So Buddhist practice is about transcending identity. But in order to transcend identity you need to have one. We tend to think that identity politics is something that people far away do. But white middle class politics is very much about identity politics, affirming ourselves as good people doing good stuff in the world. This is dangerous. We need let it go and embrace something larger.
Regarding work around the environmental question, I see it happening in my own tradition. In big ways and small ways. Big panels on climate change from a Buddhist perspective, policy formulation, and mobilizations. And in all our centers going vegan and converting to solar power and stuff like that. We don’t need the will of God to talk about it. We talk about interdependence, a basic Buddhist message. Now it’s being read in order to support the environment. Lastly, we need to cultivate change within ourselves to see what needs to be done and to work with that. Not only religious scriptures can be read differently. As my teacher has pointed out, there is a lot of spirituality in Marx’s writings. So we can read that differently too.
Anthony sums up some of the common threads from what had been said on the panel and closes the session.