In the United States, the Middle East is almost always presented as a problem to be solved—most significantly, the problem of religious extremism and conflict. Popular explanations of such conflict turn on supposedly deep-seated cultural attributes within Arab societies and often tied to the nature of Islam. But even for those that avoid this essentializing turn, virtually all commentators take for granted the proposed solution: generate ever-more secular political practices. In other words, what the region needs are governing institutions that treat individuals of all religious backgrounds as civic equals and thus reduce confessional difference to a matter purely of private (and legally protected) choice.
Posts Tagged ‘democracy’
Today marks the first anniversary of the self-immolation of a young street seller in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. How is Tunisia doing one year on?
According to Jean Daniel, the French commentator and founder of Novel Observateur, in his “Islamism’s New Clothes” article in the December 22, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books, the answer is: very badly. In his view, the recent elections in Tunisia amount to a “counter-revolution.” It would appear from what he says that the elections could only count as a revolution if they had followed the script of a French model of 1905 laïcité –the most religiously “unfriendly” form of secularism of any West European democracy. Such a model, in a more extreme form, was imposed by the state in the authoritarian secularism under Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia without free elections from Independence in 1956 until the Arab Spring.
Having witnessed, and written about, over fifteen efforts at democratic transitions and having visited Tunisia three times since the start of the Arab Spring, I would argue the opposite: A much more appropriate description of the political situation in Tunisia is to call it the Arab Spring’s first completed democratic transition.
I agree with Kahn (and with Schmitt) about the fact that political theory should leave room for decision and exception. But to me, the main question is: to what extent? Are there no principles that admit no exception? When I read Kahn, as when I read Schmitt, I don’t seem to encounter any such principles—anything like what Habermas thematized in Law and Morality as “indisponibility,” that is, rights that are not at the disposal of the sovereign. Can the sovereign decide that torture is a legitimate practice? The answer, to me, should be no without exception.
In liberal theory, essence is privileged over existence, reason over will, and endless discussion over decision. In political theology, things stand the other way around: existence, will, and decision have primacy over essence, reason, and endless discussion. If Kahn, like Schmitt, is right to criticize liberalism (albeit for the wrong reason), this does not mean that the either/or logic he seems to employ (either liberal theory or political theology) ought to be accepted at face value. An alternative to this either/or comes from the perspective (and practice) of the common, which maintains the decision as singular but rejects it as sovereign.
My claim and concern is not only that Kahn is captured by Schmitt’s particular view of political theology as a disclosure of the sacred in modernity, but also that he de-politicizes culture by imagining it as consensual, while he also disowns the positioning and perspective that drive his “description” (as if from nowhere) of a foundational “imaginary” defining (indeed sacralizing) national identity. What premises constitute his avowedly Schmittian, but also “American,” position? And how do the blind spots of this position—what it implicitly disavows, excludes, or fails to acknowledge—reemerge into the theoretical framework that Kahn elaborates?
What are the chances of successful democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt? I have just returned from both countries where many democratic activists shared notes with me about their situation, comparing it with the more than twenty successful and failed democratic transition attempts that I have observed throughout the world and written about.
At Patheos, philosopher Roger Gottlieb discusses why “spirituality” is a necessary supplement to democracy.
In the SSRC’s Transformations of the Public Sphere essay forum, Seyla Benhabib considers the recent and ongoing uprisings in the Arab world as a novel hybridization of Muslim and modern politics, suggesting that it “is altogether possible that these young revolutionaries who stunned the world with their ingenuity, discipline, tenaciousness and courage will also teach us some new lessons about religion and the public square, democracy and faith . . . .”
Marc Lynch responds to protests across the Arab world.
Over at Boston Review, Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has written a lengthy article considering the rise of Christian (Catholic) Democratic parties in Western Europe and the Christian socialism of Jacques Maritain that had gained political traction in the middle years of the last century. He considers whether this history, largely unrecognized in the United States, bares any lessons for the prospects of overtly religious political parties—like the AKP in Turkey—in liberal democracies.
In The New York Times, Jürgen Habermas discusses the current political situation in Germany and the general challenge to liberal democracy enfolded in attempts to define and defend a national culture.
At the end of our last post (an extension of our discussions at the IWM Summer School in Cortona), we asked whether secularism and liberalism in fact always go together, as is often supposed. In our second round of Skype conversations, we began to address this question by discussing a related one: to what degree are liberalism and privatized religion necessary for democracy? This discussion was inspired by our IWM course on “Religion and Democracy,” taught by José Casanova and Marcin Krol, which drew on examples of democratic societies to examine the variety of roles that public religion and liberalism, respectively, play in enhancing or inhibiting democratic life.
Since our previous dispatch from the IWM Summer School in Cortona, we have settled back into our real lives in London, New York, and Washington, DC, respectively. But the discussions inspired by the summer school have continued—over email and group chats—and we wanted to share with you one recent exchange that followed from our course on “Religion and Multiple Modernities,” taught by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sudipta Kaviraj, and Charles Taylor. The course drew on examples from European and Indian history that prompted us to think about the relation between modernity (a concept that itself was called into question) and secularism.