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Beyond the Secular State? Secularism, Empire, and Hegemony

posted by Mohamed Amer-Meziane and Etienne Balibar

ICLS | Columbia UniversityMonday, November 14, 6:15 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
403 Jerome Greene Hall, Columbia University

A number of recent critiques have argued that secularism is more exclusionary than emancipative. French secularism (laïcité) and its current relation to Muslims is widely considered as the paradigmatic example. But secularists often claim that such exclusions are not “really secular” and distort the truth of secularism. Their claim is given credit by the attacks against the idea of secularization emanating from “fundamentalist” religious discourses, some of which are violent indeed. However, seen from outside the Eurocentric West, this defense of secularism would be more convincing if secularists displayed a greater capacity at criticizing their own tradition.

Three orders of questions regarding secularism—genealogical, philosophical, and political—will be envisaged during an upcoming public debate at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS) at Columbia University. Talal Asad, Mohamed Amer-Meziane, and Etienne Balibar will be speaking on these questions in the conversation titled, “Beyond the Secular State? Secularism, Empire, Hegemony.”

These questions emerged from a debate that took place at Pantheon-Sorbonne University in January, after the publication of a dossier titled “Décoloniser la laïcité?” (“Decolonizing secularism?”) in the journal multitides. This debate continued among scholars in both private and public, eventually taking a written form—a paper we authored which was sent to Talal Asad, who agreed to take part in this public debate on November 14.

First, we will examine secularism’s hegemonies and exclusionary forms: To what extent is French secularism structured by France’s colonial relation to Islam and Muslims? And to what degree is this form of secularism secretly theological?

Second, we will reflect about normative implications of the critique of secularism: If secularism is hegemonic, should one dismiss secularism, or redefine it? What would it mean to “de-Christianize” or “decolonize” secularism? And if there does exist a “complicity” between certain specific religious traditions and Western secularism (deriving from the Enlightenment), in what way can this system be dialectically transformed—through inventing a “new secularism” or thinking “beyond good and evil” (i.e. inventing their common other)?

These questions lead to the political realm, in terms of present and future institutions—particularly the question of the nation state. Indeed, most critiques analyze secularism’s contradictions as characteristics of the secular state, inherited from its imperial past and built into its constitution. And most defenses emphasize questions of rights and ideals of emancipation. Should secularism, therefore, make sense beyond the modern state in order to become fully emancipative and self-critical?  Or is it primarily a matter of deconstructing the hegemonic articulation of law, power, and exclusion in its historical figures?

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