Interfaith Dialogue Against Political Polarization: Prof. Michael Driessen

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Professor Michael Driessen

Professor Michael Driessen

Michael Driessen is Associate Professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University where he also co-directs the University’s Interfaith Initiative. Professor Driessen’s research focuses on the role of public religions in Catholic and Muslim societies. His latest book is Religion and Democratization: Framing Religious and Political Identities in Muslim and Catholic Societies (Oxford UP, 2014). He collaborates frequently with the Lebanese Interfaith Foundation, Adyan

Political polarization is at an all-time high, both in the US and in Europe. Why has it increased so much in recent years?
There are many reasons for the increase of political polarization in the US and Europe today, including the collapse of mass-based political parties, growing levels of social inequality, the new structure of our communications systems, the thinning out of collective political cultures, and the rise of deep political and religious pluralism. I do believe that dialogue has an important part to play in all of this, especially with respect to these last two reasons. In my research, for example, I find that individuals who participate in interreligious dialogue tend to experience a more deeply rooted social identity and a heightened desire to work for the collective good. At the grassroots level, I think that dialogue can function as an essential form of democratic political formation, one which builds up social capital and existential rootedness.

What are the advantages of majoring in political science or international affairs today?
We are living through a period of global uncertainty, with multiple, connected crises challenging the international system. Finding our way out of this situation will require a whole lot of effort from well-trained, ethically sound, competent, highly motivated human beings who understand the complexities of global politics, are attuned to the suffering of the many who are crushed by these politics, and are capable of devoting their lives to public service. I would like to think that majoring in political science and international affairs can help out in this respect.

What is your teaching philosophy?
At a critical moment in my life, when I was a wild, sloppy mess of a kid, some truly great teachers got a hold of me and set me on the path towards truth, goodness, and beauty. I suppose my teaching is a way for me to continue to participate in that redemptive experience. My goal is to introduce students to the big questions about power, culture, poverty, war, economics, religion, and peace. And my philosophy is to convince students to work very hard to understand these questions, chiefly through the impact of enthusiasm, excitement, love and really good powerpoint presentations.

Tell us about your book Religion and Democratization: Framing Political and Religious Identities in Muslim and Catholic Societies (2014, Oxford University Press).
This book came out of my Ph.D. dissertation work and compared the political ideas and experience of Christian Democracy in Europe with the emerging tradition of Muslim Democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. The book explores the relationship between religion and democracy through these two experiences and is based on fieldwork I conducted primarily in Italy and Algeria.

What research projects are you currently working on?
I am writing a new book right now on the global politics of interreligious dialogue. I am interested in the massive growth of state-sponsored initiatives of interreligious dialogue. I interpret these initiatives as concrete examples of the re-institutionalization of religious authority in global politics. My project tries to understand the political meaning of this re-institutionalization and does that through a socio-political analysis of participants in interreligious dialogue across different interfaith sites in the Middle East. I have spent the last several years doing field work for the book in Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Qatar.

Max Weber argued that in the West, the spread of Enlightenment and rationalism would have exacerbated religious adherence. Émile Durkheim suggested that industrialization would challenge religion and shrink the sense of community and consolation it provides. Have such predictions come true, in your opinion?
Ahhhhh! This feels very much like a trick question from one of my own exams! I consider both Weber and Durkheim to be great thinkers who launched incredible and prescient analyses of the transformation of the “religious” in their days. Whatever we identified as the religious in the 1800s underwent a dramatic transformation over the next century, and was spurred on by processes of modernization. In this sense, the advent of political and religious choice and the individualization and personalization of life paths certainly operated in the direction expected by Weber and Durkheim. I think what they did not anticipate, however, was the incredible capacity of the religious to adapt to these circumstances and to produce the new forms of both private religious practice and public religious action that we see nowadays. I think most sociologists working 50 years ago would be shocked by the intensity and breadth of public religion today.

Tell us about your work with the Lebanese Interfaith Foundation, Adyan.
I have worked closely with Adyan over the last few years on a program they have developed to train young civic, social, religious, and political leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa in what they call “interreligious leadership.” In that capacity, I have helped design and teach courses for the foundation on “Religion and Extremism” and “Islam and Peacebuilding,” and worked on several conferences for them in Lebanon. It has been deeply gratifying to teach these courses and to continue a sustained conversation with some of these young leaders who are pouring out their entire life forces to work for peace in places like Syria and Yemen.