Ethics in the Muslim Public Sphere Seminar Series, 2008-2009

Ethics in the Muslim Public Sphere

  • Speaker: Professor Armando Salvatore University of Naples
  • Date: Thursday, 27 November 2008 at 4:00 pm March 2009

Understanding Contemporary Conflict in Ethical Terms

  • Speaker: Professor Mervyn Frost
  • Date: Tuesday, 24 March 2009 at 3 pm June 2009

The Ethics of Reform: Justice and Love in Contemporary Islam

  • Speaker: Omid Safi
  • Date: Friday, 19 June 2009 at 3.30 pm
Welcome to the first in this new series of lectures, ‘Talking Ethics’. The series title might suggest all talk and no action. But the two are in fact tightly bound.

I recall the story of the preacher who warns his congregation about the perils of greed, and gets an enthusiastic man to respond, ‘Amen, Brother’. The priest moves on to the virtue of charity – and receives another loud ‘amen’. Finally, he takes on adultery and the man leaps up with a wagging finger, ‘Now you’ve stopped preaching and started meddling!’

The line between word and action is only one of many fine lines that come up in exploring ethics.

Whether it is biomedical or environmental or political ethics, there are often thin and porous divisions between capability, profit and propriety, whether religious or secular.

Further, the lines are not fixed but shifting, depending on the prevailing state of knowledge and our shared sense of what is appropriate.

This is surely true even of the ethics of human rights, which we tend to think of as deeply embedded in our collective expectations and national constitutions.

Freedom of religion, for example, is an old principle, one that Muslim jurists have affirmed as a clear Qur’anic warrant. ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’, says Sura 2:256. The idea of ‘compulsion’ captures the ethical essence of this freedom, which values autonomy and choice. In 1948, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed in Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes … freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

But we have yet to agree on its scope. The law in France, Germany and Turkey will not allow the wearing of a religious headscarf in public schools, on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of secular and religious purpose. This interpretation is rejected by other secular democracies like Britain, Canada and the United States. We ask the courts to break the impasse, but how far does this capture the public’s sense of what is legitimate?

Consider the 2005 publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and then other media, of cartoons which politically lampooned the Prophet Muhammad. European national laws protected this assault on the ethical space of a minority faith on grounds of free expression.

Yet a Gallup survey in Britain and France found that the majority of people in both countries considered the publication of the cartoons not to be a legitimate expression of free speech i. Like the chief rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, who found the publication of the cartoons to advance ‘humiliation’ rather than any useful cause of liberty ii, the public was holding the law accountable to ethical standards – which after all give legitimacy to the law in matters of human rights.

Clearly, we have fundamental issues here about the weight to be attached to the ‘sense of the public’ in defining the ‘good’ in civic culture and democratic decision-making. How do we ensure that public opinion is informed and inclusive? What about the hard reality that governments and the corporate media seek to mould public opinion to suit their purposes – what has been called ‘manufacturing consent’? iii

Today’s lecture will look specifically at the ethics of the public sphere in Muslim settings, where issues of citizenship and the public good – maslaha - and expressive freedom come out of an historical experience that is not the same as the Euro-American.

Certainly there are many overlaps, but also important differences.

And our speaker has been grappling with these in his work for more than a decade.

Armando Salvatore is Associate Professor of Sociology of Culture and Communication at the School of Arab-Islamic and Mediterranean Studies, University of Naples –L’Orientale. He is also a Heisenberg Scholar at the University of Humboldt in Berlin. Professor Salvatore’s work is about the sociology, politics and practice of religious traditions and secular formations in comparative perspective. He puts the investigation of social and political phenomena in the Islamic world in the wider setting of developments in Europe and East Asia.

His many books include The Public Sphere: Liberal Modernity, Catholicism, Islam (2007), and the edited volume Public Islam and the Common Good (2004). He is also editorial co-ordinator of the textbook project on Islam and Modernity sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden.


[i] Cited in Who Speaks for Islam?, ed. John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed (New York, 2007), p. 144.

[ii] Cited in Ibrahim Barzak, ‘Protests over Prophet Muhammad cartoons escalate in Islamic world’, Associated Press (2 February 2006).

[iii] Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York, 1988).

The ‘public sphere’ rests on the idea of acting, arguing and deliberating in common, in ways that are legitimated through the ethics of how collective interest is pursued. Activity in the public sphere requires a fair degree of transparency of communication among the actors involved.

It is true that the idea of the public sphere is culturally embedded across various civilisations. The way a sense of the public contributes to social life depends on how the ‘common good’ is defined, on what are considered to be ‘equitable solutions’ to collective problems, on a society’s shifting boundaries of inclusion and exclusion – and on the capacity of states to control or repress the dynamics of autonomous public discourse.

By recognising these key elements, we open the door to a comparative survey of the emergence and workings of public spheres outside those of Western modernity.

With specific regard to the Muslim public sphere, its emergence is marked historically by the moments when reformers from several parts of the Muslim world started to draw on the legacy of earlier scholars to institute a view of a Muslim ethics of citizenship, via new media of public communication. These new media were, in the first instance, newspapers and periodicals in the late 19th century. Later examples of public spheres – right through the present day – have drawn upon that seminal experience.

This talk will begin by addressing the vocabulary of the public sphere and associated key concepts both traditional and modern, both in the Western historic experience and in the heritage of the Muslim world. We will then inquire into how the ethics of the public sphere of Muslim reformers, past and present, has played itself out.