In the last 30 years, culture and religion have come to play more explicit and, at times, potent and divisive roles in politics, even as globalisation is changing the very nature of culture, religion and politics. In the immediate worlds we inhabit, this produces sudden, unpredictable explosions and dynamic shifts in a profoundly inconsistent and mobile fashion. We never know exactly where and how our world – the things, places, people that we feel we know – and that larger world that we do not know (yet are told we share collectively) are going to go to work on one another. When we do see and know it, we often lack the words and concepts to get at the heart of what is happening beyond the fact that we are caught in some swirl that is variously as alluring as it can be atrocious.
In this column, I want to talk through these processes from a perspective deeply embedded in my own location – Amsterdam – while understanding that location as itself deeply enfolded in (and enfolding) the world within it. The city of Amsterdam, for all its small size, claims after all to be the most nationally diverse city in the world. At the same time, other elements in the Netherlands are engaged in a process of drastic withdrawal from the world. This tension – between dynamic plurality and yearnings for cultural purity and preservation – is not specific to European cities or cultures, but is to be found, in politicized form, in all four corners of the world today.
My attempt, then, will be to work outwards from this little floating city in this rich mini-country, and to think through not only how it is being changed in ways it itself has trouble grasping, but how these changes (and this bewilderment) are the very things that link it to the world, and the world to us.
My interest in this topic springs both from my personal and professional lives. Since childhood I have lived between multiple languages and cultures, while my intellect has been as shaped by religious as by secular sensibilities. The questions this raises – in contexts where culture, religion and scholarship are sharply politicized – has driven my academic pursuits. Over the years, I have examined the place of Catholics, Muslims, racial and sexual minorities in the public domain, as well as the relation between critical religion and critical secularism. Each time, what becomes clear is the fact that the narratives we have today for how to make our pluriform world work in a just fashion are not nearly as potent in the political domain as they can at times be seductive in the ethical, aesthetic and intellectual domains. How do we go from imagining a just pluralism to enacting it, in such a way that we persuade not only those who agree with us, but also those deeply attached to keeping their particular place, culture, and habitus as it (never) was? Given how amenable democracy is to a politics of fear, exclusion and autocracy, what are the most productive ways in which to critique, perhaps even to repudiate, democracy and what the ways in which to celebrate it? What possibilities are there for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps enough to imagine alternatives beyond our own horizons?
Markha Valenta holds appointments in the departments of history at the University of Amsterdam and of culture studies at the University of Tilburg. Her current work concerns the politics of religious diversity in relation to global urbanism, multiculturalism and secular democracy. In addition, she has worked with the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy and the Dutch Labor Party, as well as being a consultant for diverse government ministries, committees and institutions of higher education.