You are on page 1of 20

Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations


Source: Grey Room, No. 44 (Summer 2011), pp. 7-25
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 13-11-2017 18:42 UTC

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

The MIT Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Grey

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
and Secularism:
Controversial Legacies and
Prospective Interrogations

The conjunction joining the two isms in my title ("Cosmopolitanism

Secularism") might suggest the complementarity of the two notions o
idea that we should try to build - or rebuild - a discourse combining
inition of secularism, even a secularist perspective, with a cosmopoli
perspective. I readily admit that these are positive notions and v
which form part of a civic and democratic understanding of the pol
Simultaneously, I have become aware that their combination is profou
contradictory and have even become convinced that the two notions,
contemporary situation (itself the result of a long history), essen
undermine, destruct, or deconstruct the meaning and stability of each oth
thus putting the validity of their combination into question. This m
referring to them as complementary aspects of the democratic project
ably more difficult, not less. So, in a sense, what I want to do is to m
more complicated to associate cosmopolitanism and secularism wit
single problematic, as many of us might be tempted to do for reasons
might be either affirmative or negative. In particular, I am trying to
against a tendency to which I owe a great many of my civic commitm
a tendency to see cosmopolitanism and secularism as natural compon
of modernity.1
This kind of preoccupation leads me to formulate somewhat convo
questions. For example: suppose that in the conditions of contempora
politics no "cosmopolitan project" can acquire meaning without invol
a "secular" dimension, so that no such thing as "religious cosmopolitan
is thinkable; why, then, does a secular (not to say a "secularist") und
standing of the construction of the cosmopolis add, at least initially,
culties and contradictions to those already contained in the classical
of instituting citizenship at a transnational level or granting it with a
transnational dimension? Why does the explicit characterization
the public sphere as nonreligious or secular, which seemed clear (i

Grey Room 44, Summer 201 1, pp. 6-25. 201 1 Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Tec

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
universally accepted) at the level of the city or the nation, become confus-
ing and possibly self-destructive when we tentatively expand our definition
of the political to the apparently unlimited, nonexclusive space of the
"human world"? How could the obstacles contained in such a representa-
tion - adding utopia to utopia, as it were - nevertheless figure a path toward
discussing the political tasks and the kind of political process involved in
the idea of a cosmopolitical horizon for our societies? Conversely, suppose
that in at least some regions of the world - or perhaps in all but in a singular
way each time - the possibility to ground and implement a secular agenda
in politics, to vindicate secularism in the regulation of social conflicts or
the development of such public services as education, health care, urban-
ism, and so on, no longer existed with out referring to a "cosmopolitan" way
of defining the political. Suppose, alternately, that no viable, consistent,
progressive, or democratic "secularism" can be less than "cosmopolitan,"
so that a secularism defined in purely national terms or subjected to the
mere imperatives of national unity and national security would instantly
become contradictory and self-destructive. Why does such a formula not so
much remove obstacles as create them - or, to put it more cautiously, reveal
them in a manner that precludes immediate, visible solutions?
What I have in mind, in the first instance, is the fact that secularism and
cosmopolitanism, now again hotly debated issues, remain less and less sep-
arable. More than ever, there is a need to discuss each of them in terms of
its interference with the other. However, their conjunction produces a ter-
rible vacillation in almost every apparent certainty we associate with the
"names" secularism and cosmopolitanism - a vacillation so violent that it
may be doubted whether the two terms will survive this trial in a recogniz-
able form. I am tempted simply to borrow the marvelous title of Joan Scott's
seminal book on the constitution of Republican citizenship in French
constitutional history: Only Paradoxes to Offer.2 Scott's formulation aptly
indicates what I have elsewhere suggested is the intrinsic property of the
development of citizenship as a historical institution; namely, its antinomic
character, its capacity to generate internal contradictions and become
self-destructive. I've attempted to associate this idea with the notion that
citizenship, at the same time, has a necessary relation to processes of
democratization but nevertheless remains irreducible to "pure" democracy.
This represents an extreme shortcut, but I would suggest, along these lines,
that cosmopolitanism and secularism are part of a project of democratizing
the accepted forms of "democratic citizenship," a project that cannot be
brushed aside. At the same time, cosmopolitanism and secularism indicate
the limits of the possibility of expanding citizenship in a democratic
manner - limits that, especially in light of the conflictual interdependency

8 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
of cosmopolitanism and secularism, could prove insurmountable. We have
no certainties, no guarantees on this point. And we will have none in the
foreseeable future.
At the risk of seeming terribly parochial or, worse, seeming to demon-
strate the extent to which somebody who claims to work in a critical per-
spective remains, in fact, a-critically subjected to the representations of his
own nation and tradition, I offer an episode from recent French history to
illustrate how I was led to rethink the contradictory articulation of cos-
mopolitanism and secularism. The legal and political controversy over the
wearing of the so-called Islamic veil or hijab by young Muslim girls in
French schools and the state's interdiction in the name of constitutional
secularism is widely known outside France. The widespread critique of the
rationale and the effects of the law - which banned the veil from schools, in
practice forcing girls who wear the hijab to make the alienating choice
either of being stripped of their most personal garment or being expelled
from the public educational system - is itself part of the cosmopolitical
meaning of the event. The quasi-unanimous rejection of the French law -
by conservatives and liberals and by intellectuals, activists, and clerics in
the East and the West - is by itself something French exceptionalism may
well be pleased with because the reaction emphasizes the allegedly unique
relationship between French republicanism and secularism in the eyes of
the French state. Therefore, the reaction flatters the French people's own
cultural narcissism.
The French official word lacit and the usual English translation secu-
larism are not completely equivalent; nor are they totally external to each
other. The aspect of secularism that lacit pushes to the extreme is not the
equal right of religious denominations in the public realm but the separa-
tion of church (and, more generally, religion) from the state or state
functions, including education. This emphasis, whose philosophical roots,
as I've suggested elsewhere, can be traced back to a Hobbesian rather than
a Lockeian conception of the "social contract," does not represent the
only possible form of secularism or its mainstream realization. This varia-
tion, however, is part of the problem rather than an extrinsic element.
We should not be surprised to discover that, although the kind of "extrem-
ism" involved in the discourse and practice o lacit distorts many of the
issues involved in the secularizing process of Western societies, such
extremism also reveals some of the deepest contradictions at stake in a dis-
cussion of "secularism" in general.
I have been dissatisfied with many of the discourses on the case, including
ones from inside and outside the French political tradition. I have strongly
disagreed and I continue to strongly disagree with the French law, in spite

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 9

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
of its apparent peaceful implementation, which has been greatly helped by
the international conjuncture at the time. The Aj;ab-wearing girls and their
families or advisers in France did not want to become instrumentalized by
or assimilated to the fundamentalist preachers or AI Qaeda spokesmen who
loudly supported their resistance from afar. Independent of other circum-
stances, I deny that directing at individuals who are supposed to be the
victims of religious and/or patriarchal oppression an injunction to abide by
the law or leave the public school (which in practice means surrendering
them to the absolute power of the family and in some cases the religious
community) can have the least emancipatory effect or educative function.
The injunction denies those who are subject to it every possibility of expres-
sion, self-determination, and negotiation (or it treats them precisely as sub-
jects, in the old sense of subjection, not as virtual citizens). Insofar as this
conspicuous constraint was intended to impose secular obedience on
Muslim girls, it was also destined to give satisfaction and grant legitimacy
to the racist components of French society. Accordingly, this case seems
to be a clear example of what Gayatri Spivak describes as the scenario of
"white men liberating brown women from the oppression of brown men."
As such, it eloquently testifies to the continuation of colonial relations and
perceptions in the postcolonial era.3
The situation is made less simple, however, by the existence of a counter-
scenario whose exact practical importance must be carefully assessed but
cannot be entirely denied: "brown men protecting brown women from
being liberated by white men" (or white women; many of the schoolteach-
ers who have strongly opposed allowing the veil in their classrooms are
women). This was clearly illustrated when some Muslim associations staged
street demonstrations where girls wearing veils, sometimes mockingly
colored like the Republican flag, protested and marched against the ban
while under the close custody of male Islamic militants who prevented
access to or conversation with them. How to ignore (politically, as well as
ethically) this "other side" of the picture?
Joan Scott has published a book on the French controversy and its
historical roots, Politics of the Veil, in which she describes the continuity
with which the "indigenous woman" (especially the Muslim woman) has
been represented and how this continuity was an integral part of the colo-
nial "orientalist" imaginary and is now part of the dominant view of gender
relations among migrant populations in postcolonial France.4 Her thesis is
hardly disputable. But in the same analysis she seems to endorse the oppo-
sition's argument that the traditional "modesty" of women is a cultural
trait of the Muslim world, one that allows Muslim women to resist the bru-
tal exploitation of the female body and its image in Western modernity,

10 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
as illustrated by commercials and advertisements. And she combines in
a single critical concept of "abstract universalism" capitalist mass con-
sumption, of which the sex industry and gender oppression form a part,
with the typical neutralization (i.e., denial) of anthropological differences
(be they sexual, cultural, or religious) in French republicanism. The result,
in my view, is to disallow a more concrete investigation of the contradic-
tions and to render the very definition of "abstract universalism" abstract
and a-historical.
What I find more satisfactory than reverting to antithetic notions of resis-
tance to cultural imperialism or liberation from culturally oppressive
traditions is to describe a double-bind situation. In the episodes that con-
stituted the conflict over the acceptance or rejection of hijab- wearing girls
in French schools (as in more recent conflicts about the wearing of burkas
in French cities, although the social, legal, and political aspects are not
exactly the same), these female subjects found themselves caught between
the coercive agencies of two rival phallocratie groups (which can, indeed,
include women): one speaking the language of religious traditions and
religious freedom; the other speaking the language of secular education
and the emancipation of women. Yet both of them, in fact, target women's
bodies, making those bodies the stake of their will to power and the repro-
duction of their domination, however unequal politically these forces remain
and however heterogeneous the social realms in which they exercise
their power.
This is where I expect objections to be raised. I know that such a charac-
terization is disputable, and I am eager to have it contested and rectified.
But before offering a reflection on the uses of the categories culture and
religion, which are so insistent in these debates, I want to propose two pre-
liminary conclusions.
The first provisional conclusion is that such seemingly local, even
parochial conflicts are always already cosmopolitical. (With this term,
"cosmo-political," I want to emphasize, successively, the two halves: such
conflicts are cosmo-political, and they are cosmo-political, in the fullest
sense.) They involve the whole world, or crystallize elements arising from
world history and world geography within a specific national microcosm,
which by definition is open and unstable. The more you try to enclose such
a microcosm, the more you destabilize it. This is the case with the social
and institutional tensions one finds in the middle of what we might
call global suburbs (in the manner in which Saskia Sassen speaks of "global
cities"), where migrations and diasporas have increasingly "normalized"
the heterogeneity of cultures and religions, sometimes their clashes, and
always their huge inequalities of power and institutional legitimacy.5

Batibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 1 1

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
Generally speaking, the encounter of local and diasporic cultures is a post-
colonial phenomenon, in a double sense. The encounter continues the
colony, but it also transposes or "translates" it. The encounter, therefore,
transforms the colony, or sometimes reverses it. We ought now, more than
ever, to acknowledge that what shapes the social environment in which we
live, what makes it a "global world" in particular, is the conflictual legacy
of the immediate past, the process of colonization and decolonization.
There is clearly no global society (combining a global civil society and a
global political system of states) that is not the result of a process of "glob-
alization." But the process of globalization, which has been occurring for
several centuries, has not simply been "capitalist" in the abstract sense of
the term - a mere process of commodification and accumulation. It has
been capitalist in the concrete political form of colonization. What is
co&mo-political must therefore also be cosmo-political in that the "politi-
cal" is inseparable from historical and social "conflict." But the debate over
the hijab shows more - if we turn our attention to the necessary interven-
tion of religious discourses, or discourses labeled "religious," and the
"counter-discourse" of lacit and state secularism, which itself has a
tendency to become sacralized; that is, a tendency to appropriate some of
the most typical characteristics of "religious" discourse (not any religious
discourse, but, rather, monotheistic religious discourse; specifically
Christian - and, especially, Pauline - religious discourse).6
My tentative formula here, which I nonetheless want to insist on as
strongly as possible, would be: there is no such thing as a purely "religious
conflict." In today's world, a conflict that pits religious representations and
allegiances against one another, or against their "secular" antithesis, is
always already entirely political. Perhaps that was always the case, but the
modalities have changed, especially since the relativization of national
boundaries and sovereignties and the increasing importance of migrations
made "particularism" - that is, the assignment of religious discourses to the
place of the particular - impossible. Instead, the secular discourse of "pub-
lic reason" came to occupy the place of the universal. What we have to deal
with are conflictual universalities, which may explain why a dichotomy
of the private and the public realms based on the distinction of religious
membership and legal citizenship proves increasingly difficult to project.
A "public" discourse and institution that derives its legitimacy from a
national (and nationalist) tradition is not more universal or universalistic
than a transnational religious discourse. At least its greater degree of uni-
versality cannot be asserted a priori; it must be proved and experienced,
especially in terms of its emancipatory power. Whenever the religious dif-
ference becomes conflictual (and we must always investigate the practical

12 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
circumstances that crystallize the conflict), this conflict is virtually a
cosmopolitical one. This also explains the paradoxical relationship between
the neighboring notions of "cosmo-politics" and "cosmo-politanism." The
reality and visibility of cosmopolitics, as a highly conflictual form of politics,
neither prepares for a cosmopolitan era nor simply destroys its possibility.
Cosmopolitics opens the field to competition between alternative cosmo-
politanisms, themselves conflictual, just as, as I will attempt to show, it
forces us to consider alternative secularisms.
My second provisional conclusion refers to something called "multi-
culturalism," which was among the varieties of "cosmopolitanism" that
seemed likely to be implemented at the institutional level. Multiculturalism
is (or was) both an important and an ambiguous idea. Indeed (and this is
crucial in my view), the term has never been understood in the same way
by all sides. The differences are huge and obvious between a multicultural-
ism based on the idea of mutually external "cultures" - corresponding to
mutually exclusive communities or allegiances, whose coexistence should
be organized in the form of an institutional pluralism whereby the cultural
tradition of the community represents the ultimate framework of socializa-
tion for the individual, her or his point of entry into the public sphere (say
the "multiculturalism" of Charles Taylor) - and a multiculturalism based
on the representation of a continuous process of interference or "hybridiza-
tion" of cultures whereby the adaptive and "translating" capacities of indi-
viduals or groups, in the broad sense, form the ultimate agency of historical
transformation and subjectivization (say the "multiculturalism" of Homi
Bhabha and Stuart Hall). Among the modern, postcolonial nations, the
reception of one or another of these conceptions of "multiculturalism" has
been extremely diverse, depending in particular on the historical imaginary
of each nation's nationalism and exceptionalism. France was one of the
least receptive places, by whichever measure. But, generally speaking, the
so-called return of the religious has produced the dissociation and crisis
of the idea of a "multicultural" cosmopolitical agenda, or cosmopolitanism
as multiculturalism.7 1 am not thinking here - or not only - of nationalist
or exclusivist xenophobic discourses, which - contrary to every historical
lesson - declare the homogeneity of culture within certain sovereign
boundaries to be the condition for the survival of any existing political com-
munity. Rather, I am thinking of discourses that explain to us that the
agenda of a "multicultural constitution" grossly underestimates the vio-
lence of potential conflicts between religious allegiances, precisely because
they are not conflicts among particularisms but are conflicts of rival uni-
versalities. The lesson to be drawn, we are told, is that the multicultural
project tries in vain to relocate on the "cultural" terrain that which should

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 13

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
be treated primarily in terms of a civic diffrend among religious discourses
(if not entirely in theological terms) and therefore treated not so much
in the anthropological language of cultures as in the moral and political
language of "tolerance" or "interfaith dialogue." All the more because, on
the global level, no preestablished "last instance" or "supreme court" regu-
lates this kind of diffrend. So the mediation should come from the partic-
ipants themselves as they see and identify themselves - that is, as "religious

Some contemporary anthropological discourses will reverse the pattern,

I am aware, and invoke the "return of the religious" as an argument against
the very use of the category "religion." This argument has different versions.
One, almost entirely negative or deconstructive, was proposed in a cautious
manner by Jacques Derrida when he submitted that the term religion, with
its Roman and Christian background, is strictly speaking untranslatable and
therefore imposes a Christian stamp on the very claims of recognition that
are raised by non-Christian faiths, such as Judaism and Islam, when they
ask to become recognized as "equals" in the "religious" realm (whose
boundaries are in turn drawn by a "secular" agency that excepts itself
from the confrontation).8 That did not prevent Derrida, all the same, from
picturing the violence of the conflict around the national appropriation of
the city of Jerusalem and its sacred places as not only a colonial phenome-
non but, above all, as an intensification of the rival representations con-
cerning the sites and contents of revelation offered by the three great
Mediterranean monotheisms.
Another formulation, which has quite different sources and intentions,
was put forward by Talal Asad in his essays (including some harsh critiques
of French secularism) on the genealogies of religion and the secular. Asad
argues that "religion" is a purely Christian category used to impose the
domination of the church over practices and creeds that, by themselves, are
not "religious."9 He adds that the dominant notions of secularism have
inherited - should we say, tautologically, "secularized"? - this theological
notion. His argument ought to be taken very seriously if only because it
stresses the fact that there is no process of recognition without an institu-
tional pattern of representation, and there is no representation without a
code of representation, which is either dominant or dominated. The "secu-
lar" - or the antithesis of the secular and the religious (an essential compo-
nent of secularism) - is one such code, a dominant code in certain societies
where it is both institutionally organized and intellectually elaborated, in
particular through the discipline called "history of religions" (various parts
of the world are now debating whether this discipline should be introduced
in educational programs). This is also the question of what Jacques Rancire

14 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
calls le partage du sensible, or the distribution of the perceptible, which
necessarily excludes as it includes, or "totalizes," the world in a compre-
hensive representation. The problem, as we know, comes from the fact that
the "code" for the representation of the differences is not enunciated from
outside, from some absolutely universal or objective theoretical place; it is
enunciated from within the conflict itself. This problem should be related,
of course, to more general democratic issues concerning representation. In
the wake of Edward Said, we have discussed for some time the antithesis of
being represented in a theoretical discourse - in the case of "subalterns" or
simply "the people" - and representing oneself, therefore presenting one-
self in a claim of emancipation that is not only juridical but also discursive
and figurative. This was at the heart of the controversy over "Orientalism,"
a controversy clearly not finished and even now undergoing new develop-
ments in Europe. For example, the highest authorities of the Catholic
Church and some prominent intellectuals have embarked on an effort to
demonstrate the Christian "roots" of European identity and the uniqueness
of Christianity's relationship to "reason."10
But if we take seriously the idea of alternative conceptions of cosmopoli-
tanism - conceptions based on a deconstruction or internal critique of what
has been institutionalized as secularism in the national framework and as
an element of the nation's sovereignty - we will have to consider another
problem, which is the problem of the "code" and the regime of translation
in which the collective historical subjects (re)present themselves to one
another (and for one another) - usually through the mediation of certain
discourses and certain "organic intellectuals." The critique of the "religious
secular code" inherited from Christianity (and, before that, from pre-
Christian Rome) suggested by Asad and others is useful here, but is it suffi-
cient? Is it consistent? Is it not, I cannot help wondering, also aporetic? For
almost inevitably, the critique ends with recourse to the alternative "anthro-
pological" category of culture.11 But the category of "culture" (as well as the
categories of "society" and "politics") is no less Eurocentric and "Western"
than the categories of religion and secularism; it is the product of a dis-
course arising from that great prototype of a power-knowledge apparatus,
the Academy.
Are we then left in a complete circle, which can produce only skepti-
cism? I see, albeit very hesitantly, an alternative possibility, one based not
on a choice between the language of "culture" and the language of "reli-
gion" or a reduction of one term to the other but on a critical use of the
conceptual duality itself in order to identify certain differences, elusive but
crucial, that are at stake in the political conflicts with either "cultural" or
"religious" content. For me this is also a way to reintroduce, or rehabilitate,

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 1 5

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
an old-fashioned category: ideology. I attempt to reintroduce the "Marxist"
category of "ideology" here as a formal and heuristic instrument, not to
reduce everything to ideology and disqualify it but to complicate the
"semantic demarcation" of "culture" and "religion" and also to displace
that demarcation. This is, in fact, a circular movement: I want to see
whether the category of "ideology" can benefit from use as a mediating con-
cept articulating a "cultural" dimension (by which I refer to the pragmatic
but also the imaginary realm of society) and a "religious" dimension (which
I consider essentially symbolic or attached to the collective unconscious). I
also want to see what clarification of debates involving "religion" and
"culture" could arise from their being considered opposite "poles" of ideo-
logical processes. Formally speaking, such a duality is not, I would suggest,
only a logical construction but also a dynamic pattern: "cultural processes"
of generalization, routinization, and hybridization alter and even destroy
over the long run religious models of life, subjectivity, and community,
just as "religious symbols" associated with rituals, beliefs, imperatives,
revelations, myths, and dogmas crystallize cultural differences. Religious
symbolism limits the flexibility of cultures or in some cases ignites their
internal tensions and transforms them into political oppositions. Cultural
habits and imaginaries travel only with people, whereas religious rituals
and symbolisms can be adopted outside their place of origin. You can con-
vert to a belief but not to a culture, which you can only adapt or adapt to
more or less completely.
Reviving a nondogmatic version of the category of ideology would also
be fruitful because such a category maintains a constitutive relationship
with a representation of its own "outside." You cannot speak of ideology
if you believe that ideology is everything. In this sense "culture" and
"religion," or, better put, the "religious dimension" and "cultural aspect" of
ideology do not exhaust the range of causes that account for their own com-
bination. The "equation" would not be on the order of "culture + religion =
ideology" but rather "culture + religion + X = ideology."
What is this X? A Marxist would say that it is "economy"; a Durkheimian
sociologist would say that it is "society" inasmuch as it includes processes
and factors (such as the "division of labor") irreducible to either religion or
culture; a Foucauldian would say X is "power" or "power relations"; a
Weberian would say that it is "domination"; and so on. This consideration
of a supplem en t irreducible to either "culture" or "religion" might be worth
remembering when we discuss political issues that tend to become reduced
either to cultural transformations or to consequences of the action of
religious forces (or to a distorted synthesis of both, such as the "clash of
civilizations"). Indeed, not only do culture and religion not automatically

1 6 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
converge, but their combined effects are always "overdetermined" by
economic-social processes and power relations that are neither cultural nor
religious. This is the "absent cause" that acts on "another scene" and with-
out which culture or religion would perform nothing, or nothing specific.
If we remained with a simple, or "absolute," self-sufficient articulation
of the cultural and the religious, we would ultimately become torn between
the classical discourses of the unilateral reduction either of the "religious"
to the "cultural" or the reverse. Both reductions correspond to grand narra-
tives of our theoretical tradition - narratives from which we keep learning
and which, I admit, encapsulate part of the problem. A strong version of a
reduction of the religious to the cultural can be found in the work of Clifford
Geertz with his definition of "religion" as a cultural system that in a per-
formative manner confers " aura of factuality" upon conceptions of the
" general order of existence" from which motivations derive in human
beings.12 From this point of view, culture is clearly universal and religion
particular - not only because religion as a "system of symbols" is consid-
ered one aspect of culture among others but, perhaps more decisively in the
current conjuncture, because it is at the level of culture and specific cul-
tures that a comparative study of the differences among societies or human
communities can be envisaged and carried on in a meaningful manner.
Cultures, not religions or religious systems, "meet" and influence, attract,
or repel one another through the intermediary of their individual and col-
lective bearers. In this sense culture, for Geertz and his followers, is con-
crete, whereas religion is abstract.
An example of the symmetric reduction - that of the cultural to the reli-
gious - can be drawn from Max Weber's program of a comparative study of
religions.13 Weber not only insists on the fact that religious ethics are
attached to the existence of economic differences and antithetic cultural
"roles"; he strongly suggests that religious "singularities" are ultimately
rooted in irreducible axioms, which represent so many incompatible ways
of dealing with the symbolic relationship between the worldly and the oth-
erworldly; for example, the issues of purity/impurity and redemption/evil
(or "sin"). "Religion," or the religious question, here becomes universalized,
and cultures are historical effects of the adaptation of religious axioms to
historical circumstances.
Following a quasi-Hegelian pattern of dialectical reasoning, I would
argue that each of these antagonistic points of view is "true" - or, rather, is
true in its ega rive relationship to the other. From this I would like to derive
a methodological consequence: we are not certain of the exact meaning of
the categories "culture" and "religion"; yet, paradoxically, even if the terms
of the opposition are not clear and possibly refer to practices and processes

Balibar I Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 1 7

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
that are materially "the same/' we need an ever-more-formal, differential
polarity of the "religious" and the "cultural." Such a polarity should
work as a critical instrument to problematize irreducible notions of "com-
munity" and the incorporation of individuals/subjects into communities,
to establish reciprocities, and to frame collective destinies (social or asocial)
in situations that are always singular. A distinction between the "religious"
and the "cultural" dimensions of ideology in this sense is, in my view,
an instrument against the indiscriminate use of the category "community"
that plagues debates about communitarianism and universalism. The
"community" as such is probably neither religious nor cultural; it
takes shapes against others, in a historical process that is essentially
political, even cosmopolitical, through a combination of cultural and reli-
gious determinations plus X, the "material" processes of economy and
power relations.
This leads me to a final hypothesis (perhaps the most important, in my
eyes, but one that I can hardly do more than indicate here): cultural or reli-
gious determinations undoubtedly have a common "object" or rule upon a
common "materiality," which however is so elusive that they take it or con-
struct it in opposite manners. What is this common "disjunctive" object?
We could say simply that it is "the human." I would attempt to avoid the
tautology looming behind this indeterminate reference by saying that it is
the "anthropological difference" as such, a category I coined some years ago
to indicate differences that are at the same time unavoidable (impossible to
deny) and impossible to locate in a univocal or "final" manner - differences
whose exact location and content remains, for that reason, problematic.
The sexual difference (the masculine and the feminine as pure opposition,
preceding the attribution of gender roles and functions in the family,
whatever its social content, which is always arbitrary) is an obvious exam-
ple of such a difference; it is primordial. Other "differences" include the
normal and the pathological, the human and the inhuman, the mental and
the organism.
We might be tempted to claim, because such "differences" require at the
same time fixation and displacement, normalization and perturbation, that
"culture" is what normalizes or "routinizes" them, as Weber would say, and
"religion" is what destabilizes and sublimates them in a revolutionary or
mystical way.14 However, this is still a mechanistic division of labor and
therefore only an allegorical indication that the opposite tasks cannot be
performed by the same "ideological" systems. Thus, while I try to keep
something from the idea of an essential polarity of the "religious" and the
"cultural," using for this purpose the alternative attempts of anthropologists
and historians at reducing one to the other, my tendency is to push the

1 8 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
Opposition toward a complete (ideal) antagonism, with cultural evolutions,
transformations, "inventions of traditions" on one side and religious
processes or moments of "reform" and "revolution" on the other side. I do
this for political reasons, in particular, because I want to emphasize the role
of religious symbols - however decisive they are in building and sacraliz-
ing cultural hegemonies, structures, and models of power - in "radicaliz-
ing" or pushing to the extremes the anthropological differences and the
corresponding distributions of roles and practices whose normalization is
the essential function of "culture." Pushing to the extremes is sacralizing,
absolutizing, idealizing, sublimating, or, conversely, "in-defining," or
"de-constructing" through mythical representations or mystical notions of
transcendence. I want to suggest that it is crucial (and will continue to be
crucial) for us in the future to observe the coming of religious revolutions
(in the sense of revolutionary transformations of religious traditions them-
selves) which cannot remain without political effects. "Liberation theology"
is one example.15 "Islamic feminism" could be an equally important exam-
ple if it concentrates on its core objective of challenging from the inside the
cultural structures of domination that have since the original revelation or
shortly thereafter been fused with the theological premises of Koranic
monotheism.16 Also crucial will be the observation of the emergence and
development of new religions, which will be "religious" in a new sense of
the term. They might emerge out of the new "culture" created by capitalist
globalization and the extremities that it reveals or reactivates: one thinks,
particularly, of an ecological consciousness that may, and perhaps must,
take the form of a renewed religion ornature - a pantheism or polytheism -
linking "care for life" and community-feeling between "human and
nonhuman animals," but also exploring the enigmas of hybrid "life" or
organic bodies and artificial machines.17
The hypothesis of "new religions" leads me to my last hypothesis, that
of a new "secularism." However, whereas the first hypothesis remains a
conjecture, the second is in my eyes a political and philosophical impera-
tive whose forms and means of realization call for urgent discussion and
The first, and most significant, reason for this urgency is globalization
itself. Or rather it is the combination of globalization with an emerging
awareness of the risks and interests associated with globalization's impact
on the society of "all human beings." In this sense the question of secular-
ism in the global age is not very different from the question of universalism
and universality in the current conjuncture. Can we say that these planetary
risks and interests are "common"? If so, which language will allow us to say
so? This is the great ideological question.

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 19

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
I agree with those who have proposed that we use the term planetarity
instead of cosmopolitanism for the material constraint that, one way or
another, must be formulated in a political language reaching every inhabi-
tant of the planet.18 The idea of a community of interests of human groups
and individuals (and perhaps, beyond them, living individuals) that should
prevail over ruthless competition - in order to avoid mutual destruction -
and create a "civilization" of the postmodern age, in which "communities"
overlap everywhere, sharing and exploiting the same environment, is not
absurd. But it is an idea that must become "universalized" and pass from a
moral, ideal horizon to a reconstruction of the political; in Gramscian
terms, it has to become "common sense." We suspect (and one need not call
oneself a Marxist to suggest this) that the realization of this idea will
become possible only through harsh conflict in which the immediate inter-
ests of the dominant and the dominated will sharply diverge, potentially
leading to extreme violence. The capacity to address these conflicts and, so
to speak, "fight" them in a "civilized" manner does not depend on the emer-
gence of a new religion, even irreligious components of planetarism are not
to be excluded, especially because of the "apocalyptic" dimensions of eco-
logical threats.19 Rather, the capacity to address these conflicts depends on
a new political articulation of socialism, internationalism, multicultural-
ism, and secularism, which I call, after Bruce Robbins, the "secularization
of secularism" - a reflective and self-critical form of what had been called
"secularism" and institutionalized in different ways under that name.20 In a
secularism itself "secularized," states and both national and international
legal systems must play an important role, but they cannot remain the deci-
sive agents. States and legal systems are culturally determined, bound to
reproduce cultural hegemonies or simply to limit them and, even more pro-
foundly, are built on the transformation - the "determinate negations," as
Hegel would say - of theological discourses of sovereignty and authority.
The idea of secularism either as a strict separation of the religious and the
political along the same lines as the division of the private and public
spheres (if this is at all possible) or as equal protection of religious affilia-
tions and practices by the state and the law, which would therefore repre-
sent a "neutral" arbitrator, becomes progressively reintegrated in a religious
framework and desecularized as it takes the form of a state monopoly of
legitimate interpretation of the law. This is pure "Hobbesian political the-
ology," the substitution of the "Mortal God" for the "Immortal One" - and
whether "mortal" and "immortal" are completely separated symbols, at
least in a Christian environment, is not certain.
If problems such as the regulation of identity conflicts, communitarian
hatreds, or simple incommunicability - which threatens a necessary

20 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
"planetarism" of the age of globalization with internal collapse ab initio -
can be resolved with the help and active collaboration of states, suprana-
tional agencies, and new transnational forms of legal rules, but not as a legal
initiative, it still remains to be seen along which lines the processes of cul-
tural communication and neutralization of religious antagonisms or secu-
larization will work. As I have argued elsewhere, what seems to form the
condition of effective multiculturalism - the one that is right now every-
where in danger because of a murderous combination of postcolonial race
discriminations, intense nationalism, and defensive reactions against the
profaning of communitarian traditions - is a relativization and a civiliza-
tion of the figure of the "stranger" that would take him or her away from the
assimilation with an enemy.21 Therefore, effective multiculturalism is also
closely associated with cross-cultural processes of hybridization and mul-
tiple affiliations, which make life uneasy for "diasporic" individuals and
groups - because such processes are linked with the melancholy of exile -
but which form the material condition for the development of translation
processes among distant cultural universes. This is crucial. The neutraliza-
tion of religious conflicts, however, does not work in this manner, because it
is predicated not on social change, transition, and communication, however
difficult they can be, but on incompatibility and choice - what Weber called
a "War of the Gods." (Not every religion has gods, and the "war" is not
necessarily violent; it becomes such only when overdetermined by other
material causes - or when overdetermining them.) Among religious axioms
or creeds a "conflict of universalities" inevitably exists. Translation
processes can occur among religious universes, but these translations
involve precisely the fact that such universes are not purely religious. The
"religious" as such is a point of untranslatability.
I tend, therefore, to believe that the religious conflict that cannot be
solved by legal or statist means - or institutionally displaced in the form of
a conflict between what is particularized as "religion" and what forms
a "civil religion" but bears a different name (e.g., "secularism" or, better,
lacit) - and also cannot be reduced to mere cultural differences, must
be treated as a diffrend.22 That is, it must be formulated as such in the first
place - as an irreconcilable juxtaposition of choices about the human and
the inhuman, the intrinsic divisions of the human, and so on. Then it must
be "mediated" by the introduction of an additional element or discourse,
which cannot be counted as another choice of the same kind (i.e., a new
religion) but must appear "heretic" from the point of view of any and all
religions. Thus, in order for the various religious discourses to become
mutually compatible in the same public space or enter into a "free"
conversation, the introduction or intervention of an additional a-religious

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 21

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
element is needed. Without this element there will be no possibility of
mediating between the opposite religious axiomatics or having their inter-
pretations agree on certain practical rules or moral and social principles.
More profoundly, there would be no discursive space in which their differ-
ences could be presented as such in a comparative manner and presented
to one another in a nonhegemonic manner. But this additional element,
both bringing religions together and assessing their conflict, which I am
tempted to call, after Fredric Jameson, the "vanishing mediator5' of the
conversation between antagonistic religious discourses, must have a para-
doxical character; indeed, it must embody a series of contradictions.23
The additional element is always already there but perhaps unnamed, or
called by the wrong names, and therefore to some extent unrecognizable
or subject to permanent misrecognition. The element is not universal
morality or scientific knowledge or human rights or toleration or cos-
mopolitanism or planetarism or naturalism, although it shares with them
some practical objectives. It is not "atheism" or "agnosticism" or "skepti-
cism," although it certainly involves the same negative dimension (but these
terms each relate the negation exclusively to a particular form of religious
attitude; for example, "atheism" relates to religions with a god but not to
religions without a god). It can be called secularism for historical reasons
but only on the condition of a radical critique of existing institutions and
conceptions of the secular, which are both culturally and politically deter-
mined and remain exclusive.
This element, which I wish to call the "vanishing mediator" of religious
diffrends, can exist only if it comes from inside the religious discourses,
revealing the contradictions within their axiomatics. But it must also
"expropriate" them of their own singularity and disturb their certainty of
being uniquely "true" and "just," while not preventing them from seeking
truth or justice along their own "path." In this sense, the element is essen-
tially heretic or forms the impossible "common heresy" of all the religious
discourses - but in a relation to be determined with each religion's own
specific historical "heretic movements."
Finally, this element is public or performs an essentially "public" func-
tion. However, although it is public and "publicizes" the religious issue, the
vanishing mediator cannot become identified with any legal instance or any
institution that regulates conduct. More generally, it is not a normative
element - it does not express an "imperative" in Kantian language, all the
less so because the normative or imperative element of culture itself bears
the irreducible trace of religious constructions of the human and their
inscription in the soul or the self or in the sacred rituals of prohibition and
prescription. But the element is not essentially or purely "cognitive" either,

22 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
however important it is for any secularism to stress the importance of
knowledge and understanding natural laws. Rather, it is "performative"
and in the first instance performs its own parrhesia, or truth enunciation,
against all theologies and mythologies that exercise power. It is therefore
fairly possible that this element does not really exist, except as a philo-
sophical fiction.

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 23

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to

This paper was first delivered as the Anis Makdisi Memorial Lecture on November 12, 2009,
at the American University of Beirut. It is given here in a slightly revised version, which will
also appear in Arabic. The author expresses his gratitude to the university, the Anis Makdisi
Program in Literature, and especially its current director, Maher Jarrar, for kindly authorizing
its publication here.

1. This tendency can lead some of our contemporaries to challenge the validity of cos-
mopolitanism and secularism, denouncing them for belonging to the hegemonic discourse
used to justify a Eurocentric and European modernization of the world, specifically the
imposition on the rest of the world of Europe's anthropological and constitutional assump-
tions during and after the formal colonial era.
2. Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
3. Spivak's famous description was coined to summarize the spirit of Western scholars
and colonial administrations who transformed the (allegedly traditional) rite of sati
(self-immolation of Hindu widows) into a symbol of the barbarity of customs that the
colonial process had a mission to eradicate. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of
Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1999), 232.
4. Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
5. Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2001).
6. The symmetry between the religious literalism that claims the veil as a Koranic obligation
and the secular "fetishism" of the thing (e.g., French professors who "read" their student's
veils as a "declaration" rejecting their lessons in advance) is striking.
7. In place of "return of the religious," Ashis Nandy uses the phrase "return of the sacred."
See Ashis Nandy, "The Return of the Sacred: The Language of Religion and the Fear of
Democracy in a Post-Secular World" (Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture, Kathmandu, 2007),
8. Jacques Derrida, Surtout pas de journalistes! (Paris: Editions de l'Herne, 2004), 36.
9. Talai Asad, "Trying to Understand French Secularism," in Political Theologies: Public
Religions in a Post-Secular World, ed. Hent de Vries and Lawrence Eugene Sullivan (New
York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 494-526; and Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular:
Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).
10. This idea is enthusiastically endorsed by some critics of "Western domination" in the
non-European world (or, rather, by intellectuals who claim to speak in its name). See Philippe
Buettgen, Alain de Libera, Marwan Rashed, et al., Les Grecs, les Arabes et nous: Enqute sur
l'islamophobie savante (Paris: Fayard, 2009).
11. Asad, though well aware of the traps hidden in the dominant uses of "culture," the
"translation of cultures," and so on, and though a protagonist of their critique, nonetheless
constructs a discourse that must name the stage on which historical transformations and
conflicts take place as a realm of culturally diversified practices and representations.
12. Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in The Interpretation of Cultures

24 Grey Room 44

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to
(New York: Basic Books, 1973), 90.
13. Max Weber, "Considration intermdiaire: Thorie des degrs et des orientations du
refus religieux du monde" (1915), in Sociologie des religions, trans. Jean-Pierre Grossein
(Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 410-60. The text was originally published in German as
"Zwischenbetrachtung: Theorie der Stufen und Richtungen religiser Weltablehnung."
14. See Edward Said on the "revolutionary" character of religion as opposed to its social
and institutional use, in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We
See the Rest of the World (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 57. See also Maxime Rodinson,
"Islam and the Modern Economic Revolution," in Marxism and the Muslim World, trans.
Jean Matthews (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981), which inspired Said.
15. See Michael Lwy, The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (London:
Verso, 1996).
16. See Margot Badran, "Islamic Feminism: What's in a Name?" Al-Ahram Weekly
Online, 17-23 January 2002,; and Margot
Badran, "Exploring Islamic Feminism" (lecture given as part of the Middle East Program,
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 30 November 2000).
17. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York:
Routledge, 1991).
18. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2003).
19. See Slavoj iek, "Unbehagen in der Natur," in In Defense of Lost Causes (London:
Verso, 2008), 420-62.
20. Bruce Robbins, "Said and Secularism," in Edward Said and Jacques Derrida:
Reconstellating Humanism and the Global Hybrid, ed. Mina Karavanta and Nina Morgan
(Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), 140-57.
21. See Etienne Balibar, "Strangers as Enemies: Further Reflections on the Aporias of
Trans-national Citizenship" (paper presented at the Institute on Globalization and the
Human Condition, McMaster University, 2006),
article. jsp?index=RA_Balibar_Strangers.xml.
22. 1 use the term in the sense offered by Lyotard: encounter of heterogeneous phrases.
Jean-Franois Lyotard, Le diffrend (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983); or, in English, The
Diffrend: Phrases in Dispute, ed. Georges Van den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1988).
23. Fredric Jameson, "The Vanishing Mediator, or Max Weber as Storyteller" (1973), in
Syntax of History, vol. 2 of The Ideologies of Theory: Essays, 1971-1986 (London: Routledge,
1988), 3-34.

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations 25

This content downloaded from on Mon, 13 Nov 2017 18:42:28 UTC
All use subject to