Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations

ÉTIENNE BALIBAR The conjunction joining the two isms in my title (“Cosmopolitanism and Secularism”) might suggest the complementarity of the two notions or the idea that we should try to build—or rebuild—a discourse combining a definition of secularism, even a secularist perspective, with a cosmopolitan perspective. I readily admit that these are positive notions and values, which form part of a civic and democratic understanding of the political. Simultaneously, I have become aware that their combination is profoundly contradictory and have even become convinced that the two notions, in the contemporary situation (itself the result of a long history), essentially undermine, destruct, or deconstruct the meaning and stability of each other, thus putting the validity of their combination into question. This makes referring to them as complementary aspects of the democratic project probably more difficult, not less. So, in a sense, what I want to do is to make it more complicated to associate cosmopolitanism and secularism within a single problematic, as many of us might be tempted to do for reasons that might be either affirmative or negative. In particular, I am trying to work against a tendency to which I owe a great many of my civic commitments: a tendency to see cosmopolitanism and secularism as natural components of modernity.1 This kind of preoccupation leads me to formulate somewhat convoluted questions. For example: suppose that in the conditions of contemporary politics no “cosmopolitan project” can acquire meaning without involving a “secular” dimension, so that no such thing as “religious cosmopolitanism” is thinkable; why, then, does a secular (not to say a “secularist”) understanding of the construction of the cosmopolis add, at least initially, difficulties and contradictions to those already contained in the classical idea of instituting citizenship at a transnational level or granting it with a new transnational dimension? Why does the explicit characterization of the public sphere as nonreligious or secular, which seemed clear (if not

Grey Room 44, Summer 2011, pp. 6–25. © 2011 Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology


universally accepted) at the level of the city or the nation, become confusing 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 representation—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, urbanism, and so on, no longer existed without 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 separable. 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 terrible 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 recognizable 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


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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 demonstrate the extent to which somebody who claims to work in a critical perspective 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 cosmopolitanism 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 laïcité and the usual English translation secularism are not completely equivalent; nor are they totally external to each other. The aspect of secularism that laïcité pushes to the extreme is not the equal right of religious denominations in the public realm but the separation 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 variation, however, is part of the problem rather than an extrinsic element. We should not be surprised to discover that, although the kind of “extremism” involved in the discourse and practice of laïcité 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 discussion 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


of its apparent peaceful implementation, which has been greatly helped by the international conjuncture at the time. The hijab-wearing girls and their families or advisers in France did not want to become instrumentalized by or assimilated to the fundamentalist preachers or Al Qaeda spokesmen who loudly supported their resistance from afar. Independent of other circumstances, 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 expression, self-determination, and negotiation (or it treats them precisely as subjects, 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 counterscenario 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 schoolteachers 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 colonial “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 opposition’s argument that the traditional “modesty” of women is a cultural trait of the Muslim world, one that allows Muslim women to resist the brutal exploitation of the female body and its image in Western modernity,


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as illustrated by commercials and advertisements. And she combines in a single critical concept of “abstract universalism” capitalist mass consumption, 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 contradictions and to render the very definition of “abstract universalism” abstract and a-historical. What I find more satisfactory than reverting to antithetic notions of resistance to cultural imperialism or liberation from culturally oppressive traditions is to describe a double-bind situation. In the episodes that constituted 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 phallocratic 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 reproduction 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 characterization 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 preliminary 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

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations


Generally speaking, the encounter of local and diasporic cultures is a postcolonial 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 “globalization.” 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 cosmo-political must therefore also be cosmo-political in that the “political” is inseparable from historical and social “conflict.” But the debate over the hijab shows more—if we turn our attention to the necessary intervention of religious discourses, or discourses labeled “religious,” and the “counter-discourse” of laïcité 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 “public 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 universality cannot be asserted a priori; it must be proved and experienced, especially in terms of its emancipatory power. Whenever the religious difference becomes conflictual (and we must always investigate the practical


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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 cosmopolitanisms, 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 “multiculturalism,” 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 multiculturalism 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 socialization 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 “hybridization” of cultures whereby the adaptive and “translating” capacities of individuals 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 I 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 community. Rather, I am thinking of discourses that explain to us that the agenda of a “multicultural constitution” grossly underestimates the violence of potential conflicts between religious allegiances, precisely because they are not conflicts among particularisms but are conflicts of rival universalities. 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


be treated primarily in terms of a civic differend 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” regulates this kind of differend. So the mediation should come from the participants themselves as they see and identify themselves—that is, as “religious communities.” 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 phenomenon but, above all, as an intensification of the rival representations concerning 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 institutional pattern of representation, and there is no representation without a code of representation, which is either dominant or dominated. The “secular”—or the antithesis of the secular and the religious (an essential component 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 Rancière


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calls le partage du sensible, or the distribution of the perceptible, which necessarily excludes as it includes, or “totalizes,” the world in a comprehensive 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 oneself 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 developments 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 cosmopolitanism—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 preChristian Rome) suggested by Asad and others is useful here, but is it sufficient? Is it consistent? Is it not, I cannot help wondering, also aporetic? For almost inevitably, the critique ends with recourse to the alternative “anthropological” 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 discourse arising from that great prototype of a power-knowledge apparatus, the Academy. Are we then left in a complete circle, which can produce only skepticism? I see, albeit very hesitantly, an alternative possibility, one based not on a choice between the language of “culture” and the language of “religion” 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


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 concept 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 ideological 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 convert 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 combination. 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 supplement 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


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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 without 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 narratives 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 performative manner confers “an 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 considered one aspect of culture among others but, perhaps more decisively in the current conjuncture, because it is at the level of culture and specific cultures 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 collective bearers. In this sense culture, for Geertz and his followers, is concrete, whereas religion is abstract. An example of the symmetric reduction—that of the cultural to the religious—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 otherworldly; 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 negative 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 | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations


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 “community” 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 religious 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 religious determinations undoubtedly have a common “object” or rule upon a common “materiality,” which however is so elusive that they take it or construct 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 example 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


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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 sacralizing cultural hegemonies, structures, and models of power—in “radicalizing” 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 themselves) which cannot remain without political effects. “Liberation theology” is one example.15 “Islamic feminism” could be an equally important example 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 of nature—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 imperative whose forms and means of realization call for urgent discussion and elaboration. 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 secularism 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


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 inhabitant 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 interests 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 emergence of a new religion, even if religious components of planetarism are not to be excluded, especially because of the “apocalyptic” dimensions of ecological threats.19 Rather, the capacity to address these conflicts depends on a new political articulation of socialism, internationalism, multiculturalism, 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 decisive agents. States and legal systems are culturally determined, bound to reproduce cultural hegemonies or simply to limit them and, even more profoundly, 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 affiliations and practices by the state and the law, which would therefore represent 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 theology,” 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


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“planetarism” of the age of globalization with internal collapse ab initio— can be resolved with the help and active collaboration of states, supranational 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 cultural communication and neutralization of religious antagonisms or secularization will work. As I have argued elsewhere, what seems to form the condition of effective multiculturalism—the one that is right now everywhere 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 civilization 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 multiple 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 neutralization 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, laïcité )—and also cannot be reduced to mere cultural differences, must be treated as a differend.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


element is needed. Without this element there will be no possibility of mediating between the opposite religious axiomatics or having their interpretations agree on certain practical rules or moral and social principles. More profoundly, there would be no discursive space in which their differences 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 mediator” of the conversation between antagonistic religious discourses, must have a paradoxical 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 cosmopolitanism or planetarism or naturalism, although it shares with them some practical objectives. It is not “atheism” or “agnosticism” or “skepticism,” 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 determined and remain exclusive. This element, which I wish to call the “vanishing mediator” of religious differends, 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 essentially 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” function. 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,


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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 philosophical fiction.

Balibar | Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations



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 cosmopolitanism 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 assumptions 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, 2007). 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: Éditions de l’Herne, 2004), 36. 9. Talal 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: Enquête 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


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(New York: Basic Books, 1973), 90. 13. Max Weber, “Considération intermédiaire: Théorie des degrés 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 religiöser 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 Löwy, 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 Žižek, “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 Étienne 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. I use the term in the sense offered by Lyotard: encounter of heterogeneous phrases. Jean-François Lyotard, Le différend (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983); or, in English, The Differend: 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


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