The relationship between religion and public education has been fraught with misunderstanding, confusion, tension, and hostility. Perhaps more so than other forms of identity, for many, religion evokes a strong sense of exclusivity. Unlike other forms of identity, for many, particularly the religiously orthodox, religious identity is based on a belief in absolute truth. And for some of the orthodox, adherence to this truth is central to their salvation. Further, unlike cultural identity, religion is oftentimes exclusive in its fundamental claims and assertions. In short, matters of religious faith are indeed high stakes. Yet its treatment in public schools is, for the most part, relatively scant. Some of this is because of uncertainty among educators as to what the law permits, and for others it is uncertainty of its rightful place in democratic pluralistic schools.
Giuseppe Bertagna and Francesco Magni
The early 21st century is an age in which freedoms seem to expand continuously and without limits; in addition to the traditional market freedoms, there is freedom of choice related to gender, to sex, to family, to health, to life and to end of life—to name just a few domains that have embraced the ethos of individual freedom. Nonetheless, in this context of growing freedom for everybody, there is a particular freedom whose “domain” has been limited, especially in Italy: the freedom of choice related to school and education. The constraints placed upon freedom of educational choice defaults, perhaps unintentionally, to a standard orthodoxy enforced by the state and its supposedly omniscient bureaucracy. What is meant by “school choice”? It means the freedom to choose the school, the teachers, the educators, the experiences, and the educational pathways that one supposes best for one’s children, without incurring legal and economic penalties. It also means accepting that the government may regulate the system of state and non-state schools (i.e., it sets out the rules and main goals in terms of the learning and educational values with which teaching institutions should comply). Yet, to balance this, the government, except in cases of exceptional and regulated substitution according to the subsidiarity principle, may not ordinarily manage the organization and functioning of state schools and—more evidently—of non-state schools through a centralized governmental administration. These activities should be left to the individual responsibility of schools, families, companies, private investors, and the institutions of civil society. Last but not least, “school choice” means that the government bears the key responsibility of checking that schools comply with the established rules and values, and that students receive a satisfactory education, and of then making the results of those checks transparent and available for the public. This way, the government can give families very useful information that equips them to make their school choice responsibly.
Liberal democracies have convinced themselves that persistent attempts to regulate the dress codes of Muslim women are driven by a democratic imperative toward their “emancipation.” They have convinced themselves that the imposition of integration is in the best interest of a democratic society. As a result, Muslim women, or more specifically, their dress codes, have become the reluctant centerpieces of a debate that has much less to do with democratic preservation than it has to do with an overt, systemic discrimination against a particular group. By taking into account the ensuing tensions and controversies that perceivably exist between liberal democracies and Muslim women, there are certain questions worth considering. On the one hand, is the concern of Muslim women, who are seemingly viewed and treated as a homogenous group. Who are they? What informs their Muslim identities and practices? On the other hand, is the matter of liberal democracies, which, through their actions of trying to regulate the dress code of Muslim women in the public sphere, have brought into contestation notions of democratic principles and practices. Why have liberal democracies chosen to respond to Muslim women in the way that they have? What is it about the dress code of Muslim women, which presents such an aversion or undermining of liberal democracies? It would seem, and as will be discussed in this article, that what liberal democracies perceivably know about Muslim women might in fact not be how they (Muslim women) conceive of themselves. That is, unlike the perceptions created by liberal democracies, Muslim women might not necessarily interpret their particular dress codes as being irreconcilable with what it means to be and act in a democracy. In turn, while the interest of the ensuing discussion is on the treatment of Muslim women by liberal democracies, the implications of this discussion might not be limited to one group identity; instead, there are necessary questions and concerns about how liberal democracies respond to and reconcile with pluralist forms of being.
Scholars in diverse democratic societies have theorized tolerance in various ways. Classical liberal tolerance can best be understood as non-interference with forms of behavior or expression one finds objectionable. It has been criticized for being too permissive of hate speech and not demanding enough as a theoretical guide to civic education. Alternatively, robust respect is characterized by open-mindedness and respect for diversity. Critics have suggested that it is too relativistic and overly ambitious as a guide to civic education. Discriminating (in)tolerance suggests that tolerance should only be extended to individuals and groups who support the advancement of egalitarian politics and the interests of historically marginalized groups. It has been criticized for being overly authoritarian and dogmatic. Mutuality emphasizes reciprocity and sustained engagement across difference. Critics argue that it is not revolutionary enough to address past injustices and persistent inequality.