Emergent Modes of Pluralism: An Open Site in Italy

Published May 14, 2018 by Dr Valeria Fabretti

Italy, Catholic, Religious Diversity, Religion, Islam, Emergent Religious Pluralism(s)

Valeria Fabretti reflects on her participation at the Woolf Institute international conference Emerging Religious Pluralism(s) and on the case of the responses to religious diversity in Italy.

On 17 and 18 April 2018, the conference Emergent Religious Pluralism(s) took place at the Woolf Institute. A lively and stimulating confrontation in which scholars from different fields of study contributed to a multifaceted representation of pluralism inflected in the plural, as a range of responses to the issues raised by religious diversity in different geographical, political and cultural contexts. A precious opportunity, for me, to draw useful suggestions to better understand the space of religions in Italian society.

The photograph shows a symbolic Friday prayer organised in front of the Colosseum, in Rome, by some Islamic groups as a peaceful protest against the closure of irregular mosques and to promote the recognition of the right to worship (21 October 2016). 

Italy is still perceived as a Catholic country, only partially touched by secularisation, yet the religious composition of the population is undergoing a deep and rapid change. That is the result of the diversification within the Christian (and Catholic) world and of individual forms of spirituality and the growing presence of "other religions", mostly brought in by global migrations. Lacking systematic and reliable data, it is estimated that such diversification touches 3.5% Italian citizens, but that percentage rises to 9.7% if we consider, more broadly, those living in Italy. A large share of Islam and Orthodoxy is counted from Eastern Europe, a robust Protestantism (Pentecostalism and Baptism) from Asia and Africa, and a not negligible amount - being Italy only recently a migrant-receiving country - of oriental religions.

One can easily detect an overall social awareness about this changing scenario. However, if one looks at the extent to which this plurality receives a proper recognition within the public and social life, we have to admit that pluralism definitely falls short from being a common frame in Italy, as we define it a response to diversity based on the assumption of integration of minorities and their equal recognition.

Case study analysis makes evident how cultural disposition towards religion and religious diversity is still ambiguous and problematic from the perspective of institutional actors and stakeholders. Based on my fieldwork, examples range from many schoolteachers' hesitation or unpreparedness to handle with the religious identity of their students, to prison personnel's reluctance to ask convicts about their religious allegiances, which in turn precludes providing them with adequate religious assistance. Furthermore, if we consider the institutional provision of services necessary to this new multi-religious scenario, we find, for instance, that a plural and objective teaching about religions in public school is lacking. We also encounter a severe limitation of prayer rooms and places of worship for the different traditions, either in prisons and in hospitals, or in most parts even of large and highly multi-ethnic urban areas.

This grim picture is even worsened by the apparently irresistible growth of social forms of closure and hatred, such as xenophobia and Islamophobia, as it seems to be happening in Western societies at large.

In light of this, I would say that in Italy the ideal of religious pluralism is rather an "unripe fruit". Potentially, it can grow, together with the fulfillment of the change in religious composition of population, which is still at its beginning, and with the increase in awareness of political and public opinion about the role of religions in secular – or post-secular – societies, Italy included. However, it could also be rejected before it gets ripe – and that seems the most likely possibility to come true at the present stage.

Dealing with the case of a Country still in need of developing a sound "culture of pluralism" of its own, I have found particularly inspiring the current debate about the plurality of pluralisms, which was touched in its many facets in the Conference at the Woolf Institute. More specifically, a broad concern that emerged during the meeting must be given the right relevance. It regards the risk of imposing univocal and abstract interpretations of pluralism, which are more compatible with national (and transnational) forms of power and authorities than with local actors' meanings and actual experiences. In other terms, a risk of a pluralism made of top-down discourses and messages that neutralises the uncomfortable dimension of diversity, as it often is with those interreligious dialogue initiatives that frame the agenda on too vast visions and unrealistic goals, or seek communalities instead of handling with conflicts.

The direction is therefore to feed the intensification of a mature culture of pluralism with the signs of tension and change from the ground, a strategy that might turn vital for the Italian case. It is a matter, for instance, to discern with attention and care, as some researchers have now began to do, the multiple pathways which second generations are tracing in rethinking their religious traditions, their integration in the wider society and the dialogue within and across their communities.

This article is written by Dr Valeria Fabretti, Woolf Institute Visiting Scholar in April 2018 and researcher at the Centre for Religious Studies of the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento (Italy). Her research interests include: the relation between the secular and the religious in modern societies and the accommodation of cultural and religious diversity in public institutions and urban spaces.

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