Friday, February 16, 2007

Fundamentalism and republican citizenship

Fundamentalism and republican citizenship
In a remarkable reformulation of his original concept of communicative action, Habermas’s writing on multiculturalism makes the inclusion of the cultural ‘other’ central to the project of democratic society.4 Given the globalizing tendencies inherent in modern society, he argues, contemporary democracies can no longer define criteria of belonging in terms of ethnicity or cultural homogeneity.5 In these inevitably plural societies, criteria for citizenship must be tied to the acceptance of a political framework, defined by the constitution, rather than by the prerogatives of majority culture. In this reorientation from the culturally defined nation-state to a ‘republican’ state, Habermas argues, ‘the majority culture must detach itself from its fusion with the general political culture in which all citizens share equally; otherwise it dictates the parameters of political discourses from the outset’.6 The emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II, he suggests, is an example of such a democratic framework. Habermas argues that in the postwar period a patriotic commitment to Germany’s democratic constitution has replaced notions of nationality based on shared ethnic origins or a set of norms and values. In this perspective of constitutional patriotism, the inclusion of other cultural traditions in the national framework is both imperative and possible. Imperative because, in the context of Habermasian discourse ethics, any truth claim that does not open itself to the challenge of all competing claims within a discursive community automatically loses its legitimacy. Possible because once the identity of a political community is detached from a particular cultural tradition, the bond of a shared political culture is strong enough to hold society together. By differentiating the realm of ‘general political culture’ from that of the various cultural traditions from which individual citizens draw their norms and values, Habermas gains a dynamic model of a political community in which the basic rules that govern the community can change over time. This community is shaped not so much in direct negotiations between different cultural traditions but as the result of partially shared, if differently interpreted and discursively mediated, experiences.

Despite the persistent social marginalization that continues to plague many Muslim communities across Europe, and despite occasional acts of violence in the name of Islam, there are clear signs of such a process. José Casanova has called this development that has made Muslim communities and organizations increasingly active players in Europe’s civil society a Muslim aggiornamento.7 On the whole, mature multiculturalist democracy theories, such as Habermas’s or Seyla Benhabib’s,8 are well suited to describe the trajectory of many sections of Europe’s new Muslim minority. There is, however, an important ambivalence in the Habermasian model when applied to the relationship of European majority society to religious Muslims. Even though his model is in principle open to the inclusion of other cultural traditions, Habermas leaves no doubt that there are definitive limits to their inclusion in the European (or any other democratic) framework: ‘integration’, Habermas writes, ‘does not extend to fundamentalist immigrant cultures’ (my emphasis).9 In so far as this simply means that no democratic society can work if some of its members refuse to participate in a dialogue over crucial controversial issues, it may be a necessary and uncontroversial caveat.

The concept of fundamentalism, however, does more work in this context than is initially apparent. A closer look at Habermas’s historical reconstruction of modern society shows that it is central to his dramatic historical narrative of modernization. Philosophically, of course, Habermas’s critique of fundamentalism derives from Kant’s critique of religious orthodoxy, understood as the rationally unjustifiable foreclosure of critical inquiry and debate. But Habermas explicitly ties this philosophical critique to the Durkheimian model of the historical transition from traditional to modern society. In Postmetaphysical Thinking, for instance, he argues that the totalizing metaphysical world-views of traditional society (where religious orthodoxies apparently held sway) disintegrated in the complexities of modern society and gave way to ‘decentralized’ modern world-views.10 These decentralized world-views became, in turn, the precondition for the emergence of civil society and, eventually, democracy and republican citizenship. It is obvious, then, that in this scheme the charge of fundamentalism carries a political denunciation that could hardly be more serious. It marks the addressee as categorically incompatible with membership in democratic society. And yet, fundamentalism remains here largely an abstraction. In not only the Habermasian œuvre but also in much public commentary, it does not (or does only superficially) derive from the critical analysis of actual Muslim concerns and social projects, but emerges as the theoretical backdrop against which the ‘unfinished project of modernity’ and its emancipatory potential can be elaborated.

This problematic conception of fundamentalism is tied to another ambivalence in Habermas’s republican model of democratic citizenship: the distinction between the ‘cultural’ and the ‘political’. Habermas is arguably over-sanguine about the ease with which a shared political culture can be shorn of particular cultural traditions, given that this includes a whole legacy of political values and historical narratives that have shaped the understanding of democracy and indeed politics itself. His own genealogy of democratic society is a case in point. For many religious Muslims in Europe and elsewhere, the reconstruction of their ‘arrival’ in modern (and now increasingly liberal democratic) society differs from mainstream European narratives. Crucially, their narratives hinge not on the rejection of revealed religion and orthodoxy but on a continuing reinterpretation of their place in society. In my own work on contemporary Turkish Islam and its transformation since the 1960s, I am continually struck by the growing openness and attraction to democratic and pluralist notions of society in many Muslim cemaats, and at the same time by their continuing commitment to an orthodox (in the eyes of their secularist critics: fundamentalist) understanding of Islam.11 What we have here is an apparent paradox. There seems to be an increasing convergence between many religious Muslims’ attitude toward democracy and civil society and those dominant in European publics. And yet this does not mean that religious Muslims in fact understand this Muslim aggiornamento in terms easily reconcilable with the historical narrative so central to Habermas’s conception of republican citizenship. This is not to dismiss the model of republican citizenship as such, but simply to point out that new cultural traditions may not quite as easily be incorporated into European political culture(s) as Habermas seems to suggest.

It is no doubt legitimate when Habermas and others ‘draw a line’ between what they see as admissible and what for them is beyond the pale of democratic society. To make ‘fundamentalism’ the dominant term in the public debate, however, is unhelpful. It suggests that we know in principle all that needs to be known about religious Muslims in Europe, in the absence of any real engagement with the concerns and aspirations of communities that have often come to embrace democratic society along different historical trajectories. It becomes crassly tendentious when, as for instance in André Glucksmann’s commentary on the cartoon affair, the apparent modernity–tradition hiatus between the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ is the excuse for a verbosely self-satisfied secular­ism caught up as much in dubious metaphysical certainties as the discourse of any Muslim ‘fundamentalist’.12

Undoubtedly, the encounter of European societies with their increasingly self-confident Muslim minorities is beset with serious conflicts and hard processes of adjustment. As the controversy over the Danish cartoons highlights, what makes this process of integration particularly difficult and unwieldy is that it takes place amidst two powerful and often converging claims that the Islamic tradition and liberal democratic society are mutually exclusive. The wholesale condemnation of Denmark or the West by sections of the Muslim movement shows that Islam can provide powerful ammunition in polarizing the debate. But so do European discourses that use distorted representations of Islam as the foil against a bogus ‘European culture’. For those on the Left, the challenge is not to be drawn into these false oppositions.

Amid the current excitement it should be remembered that the frictions that today accompany the process of integrating religious Muslims into European society are by no means without precedent. What is European history other than a long and arduous process of integrating diverse ethnic groups, countless waves of migrants, political projects and religious traditions? It is a history as ripe with successes as with ongoing tensions and, let us not forget, with ugly and sometimes genocidal policies against demonized minorities. Much would be won if rather than seeing in the encounter of Europe with Muslim communities a clash of civilizations or a confrontation with Europe’s own less enlightened past, we could see it simply as a new chapter in the European history of integrating new social projects. Raymond Williams developed the model of a society in which different social projects – most importantly those of the bourgeoisie and the working class, but also a number of residual and emerging projects – competed with one another for hegemony. The cast in the current drama may have changed. Perhaps it is now Habermas’s republican notion of society that is solidly entrenched as the dominant social project in Europe, while Christianity, socialism, neoliberalism and, of course, numerous nationalist movements compete as secondary, perhaps residual, projects partially incorporated into the overall republican framework. Muslim movements are not yet part of this hegemonic configuration, and what is currently at stake is whether they will be in the future.

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