The Role of Soft Religions in Democratization

Amitai Etzioni
Professor of Sociology, George Washington University and Director of the Communitarian Network

Date: March 19, 2004

Event Recap

On March 19th, the Boisi Center invited Amitai Etzioni, University Professor of Sociology at George Washington University, former President of the American Sociological Association, founding President of the International Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, and Founder and Director of the Communitarian Network, to speak on campus.

Etzioni spoke broadly on the communitarian perspective, which developed in the late 1980’s into a formal institution concerned with the breakdown in the moral fabric of society. Attributing this condition to an excessive emphasis on individualism in the public sphere, the communitarian perspective recognizes the need for a social philosophy that both protects individual rights and attends to corresponding responsibilities to the community. Transcending the stalemate between left and right, this new "responsive communitarian" philosophy articulates a middle way between the politics of radical individualism and excessive statism.

Etzioni argued that today transnational corporations, INGOs, NGOs, and terrorist networks such as al Qaeda, have created global networks that are superimposed over the old nation-state system. Because these networks span national boundaries and affect events within them, one of the important unanswered questions we face today is how to hold them accountable.

Etzioni also addressed issues related to the globalization of human values and religious conflict. He argued that the rights governing the global system today are primarily western ones: universal values, human rights, democracy and free markets. He argued that the message this sends to the East is that “you have nothing to contribute to this” and precludes whole societies from engaging in conversation. He pointed out that from the Islamic perspective, Americans respect “goods not Gods,”…“we abuse women… we use them to sell cars,” and that “we are afraid of death because we have no purpose in life.”

Drawing from the example of Afghanistan, he argued that under the Taliban, social order was coerced. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has taken away the social coercion and essentially told them to “go and be free.” Etzioni argued that “there needs to be something in between” and that there needs to be a balance between order and autonomy.