[Thank you to Nilüfer Göle and Michael Sandel for leading the discussion that inspired this post, and for lending us the images that accompany it. Göle is leading a research project on European Public Islam, funded by a grant from the European Research Council.]

Ruthie, Grace and David here, reporting live from the IWM International Summer School in Philosophy and Politics in Cortona, Italy. We are here with forty graduate students and post-docs and an inspiring group of faculty from over twenty countries to explore a range of issues related to religion in public life. And over the next two weeks, we look forward to sharing some of our discussions with the readers of The Immanent Frame.

Today we would like to talk about an issue we discussed in the first session of our course on “The Role of Faith in Public Discourse,” taught by Nilüfer Göle and Michael Sandel. This course draws on a variety of empirical examples—from the construction of minarets in Switzerland to same sex marriage debates in the U.S. to Islamic veiling across national contexts—as opportunities for us to think about what types of reasons, including religious reasons, are considered legitimate in public discourse, and why. By situating the idea of the public sphere in physical space using real life cases, the course forces us to interrogate the ways in which the virtual public sphere has spatial qualities that include the landscape as well as the soundscape. This reminds us that any discussion of public discourse must be accompanied by talk about the role of visual (and perhaps aural) dimensions of public presence and absence.

Yesterday, our conversation centered on public debates about the construction of minarets, mosques, and crosses in Turkey, Europe, and the United States. Together, the group settled on some guiding questions regarding debates over faith in public discourse: When do symbols become visible as religious in public, as opposed to private, settings? How do we distinguish between symbols that are cultural and those that are religious, and that may therefore threaten laws against religious establishment? In order to address these questions, Göle and Sandel presented several empirical examples.

The first set of examples involved public debates over the construction of mosques and minarets in Europe. While the recent case in Switzerland has been recognized as a turning point in these debates, similar battles have been waged in France and Germany. The issue in question, which Göle discusses in depth in a recent post for The Immanent Frame, is whether Muslim communities should be allowed to construct mosques and minarets that have been deemed intrusive to the visual landscape.

Although decisions as to whether or not they should be allowed have varied across cases, the questions that are raised by the debates themselves concern why certain symbols become visible, and are seen as inappropriate, at certain historical moments. Göle argued that decisions concerning which mosques and minarets are seen as acceptable have been based on a variety of factors, including the ethnicity of the Muslim community that is funding and building the structure (and perhaps even their purposes for doing so), the language in which sermons will be conducted, and the actual physical architecture of the building. These metrics help citizens to determine whether the symbol should be thought about as religious or cultural. The presumption is that cultural symbols are acceptable, while religious ones are not.

Cases involving the construction of mosques and minarets in Europe are invariably rooted in larger fears about the growing visibility of Islam within secular states. Göle suggested that much of the public debate has been the product of a politics of fear. To promote popular support for a referendum (recently passed), banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland, a political group circulated posters portraying minarets as symbolic missiles invading the national identity of Switzerland.

Sandel then posed the provocative question: If the ban on minarets was rooted primarily in these politics of fear, is that a legitimate justification? He then presented two cases involving the public display of crosses. In one example, Italian public schools were challenged by the European Court of Human Rights for displaying crucifixes in their classrooms. In a very different context, the Supreme Court recently decided a case involving a lone cross erected by a veterans’ organization in the Mojave Desert in California. Are either of these public displays appropriate?

After polling the group, it became evident that people felt differently about each case. The discussion further revealed that some seemed to apply different criteria to judge different contexts, while others sought to articulate a universal principle that could be applied in every setting. The more universal principles that people suggested  included the criteria of whether the symbol was displayed in public or private; whether the symbol itself was seen as religious or cultural; and whether the state applied a neutrality principle in deciding whether different religious groups would be allowed to display their own symbols in the same space. Those seeking to move beyond universal principles reminded the group of the necessity of breaking from these principled standards, noting that many symbols are rooted in long national histories and group memories and meanings that serve positive or negative functions for democratic societies depending on the context. While the symbols might be read by some as cultural and benign, among other groups they might trigger memories of religious persecution and fear. For this reason, we ought to examine each case in its national and historical context.

As always in such discussions, many questions were left unresolved. Indeed, several new ones emerged. Given the common move to distinguish between religious and cultural symbols in these debates, we must ask why one category is deemed more appropriate than the other, and whether this varies by national context. By asking whether the symbol occupies public or private space, we raise questions about what counts as the public and to whom the public belongs. Finally, if endorsing a state stance of neutrality toward religion, we must ask about its substantive meaning, and whether it is more possible in some states than others. Indeed, it is possible that a policy of neutrality forces some countries to forget national histories and memories that might otherwise be resources for promoting democratic goals.

We hope to continue the discussion in this space by encouraging readers to chime in below if they would like to add their own comments.