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When I moved to America, I finally got to see firsthand what was meant by a society that was ‘secular’ and ‘plural’. It meant that there was no religion tied to the nation, which was considered a ‘national religion.’ No religion occupied the center in America, but rather, all religions were the center, with no single religion taking up the dominant or subsidiary position. Religious identity of an individual — whether one chose to be religious or not, and in what form one chose to express one's faith — was to be respected as an individual right and choice.

I also noticed what was considered the major public holidays in America were all civic, with no religious connotations. They celebrated historical junctions of progress in the civic values of equality, freedom or justice — such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, but none of them celebrated a particular ethnicity, culture or religion.

‘But isn’t America a Christian nation? How come all American presidents say, ‘God bless you’?, a friend asked me. It was true that American presidents would routinely say, ‘god bless you’ at the end of their speeches, but the ‘god’ they referred to didn’t connote a god from any single religion, but it was a way of blessing the public, and Americans, whether one believed in god or not, understood what was meant by it.

This was a contrast to European nations, where there was clearly a religion — namely Christian or Catholic — that was inextricably tied to the culture, history and identity of the nation, even when a European nation declared itself as a ‘secular nation’ and when, in fact, its population was predominantly secular.

As much as I appreciated being steeped in the Christmas spirit, with Christmas markets warming up cold and grey winters and church bells chiming across the neighborhoods in Europe, I wondered as a Jewish or Muslim kid growing up in Europe, he or she wouldn’t feel marginalized in a predominantly Christian or Catholic environment, even when the society was, in fact, tolerant towards other religions. When I was speaking to an Irishman living in Berlin, he was proud of Ireland having been so hospitable towards taking in Syrian refugees, but expressed his concern for how they would actually be integrated into Irish society, given Irish culture was so inextricably Catholic.

For European societies with a growing diversity, becoming a plural society didn’t mean that now they had to add holidays that represented each ethnicity or religion with a growing presence, or overhaul all of their holidays to make them civic, or to retreat public celebration of Christian or Catholic holidays into people’s homes. It didn’t mean that they had to now give up their ‘Christian culture’ or ‘decenter’ Christian religion to make all religions the center.

Rather, it meant that religion so intricately bound up with the culture and identity of the nation is not used to make those of other faiths feel excluded or marginalized, but make the strong framework of culture tied to the religion something that everybody could connect with and become part of as a cultural institution to cherish, appreciate and honor — in its spirit and temperament — while respecting the individual choice and right to practice and express their own faith, all within the framework, not outside of it. It was extending the canopy of culture to include all, rather than retracting the canopy of culture to exclude those who were different.

What comes to my mind is the ‘culturally religious, but not religious’ — the concept I encountered while visiting Turkey back in 2007. Before arrival, I vaguely expected Turkey to be a religious society. But upon arriving in Istanbul, I was surprised to learn that Turkey, at least then, was not a religious society, but a secular and modern society, with religious elements expressly integrated into its culture.

I learned that wearing of headscarves was banned in public institutions, and many carried a photo of Ataturk, the national hero, in their wallets as the symbol of modernization and secularization of Turkey. There were calls for prayers reverberating from the minarets of temples throughout the city, but this didn’t mean that the society was religious. It was the culturally religious elements seamlessly and expressively integrated into the modern and secular way of life.

It was the first society I ever encountered that was considered secular, but whose culture was steeped in and intricately tied up with a religion, the result of which was enormously rich and vibrant culture, the spirit and temperament of which everyone could appreciate and feel connected to, regardless of one’s faith or background.

It was one thing for a society to claim its affiliation with one religion and declare that other religions had no place in their society. And it was another thing for a society to claim its affiliation with one religion while extending ‘tolerance’ for other religions. But it was yet another thing for a society to be ‘culturally religious’ — that religious elements were expressively integrated into their culture — and everyone, regardless of which religion, had a choice to practice and express their own faith all within the framework of a culturally religious society.

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