Akeel Bilgrami’s “Secularism: Its Content and Context” is both fascinating and wide-ranging. Articulated as a response to Charles Taylor’s recent call for a redefinition of secularism, the examination pursues three objectives, each of which carries an important weight of its own: (1) to define the concept of secularism in terms that are internally cohesive while sensitive to historical change; (2) to show how secularism may not (and, indeed, need not) apply in all contexts and at all times; and (3) to show that in contexts where secularism does apply, it entails a lexical ordering which prioritizes political ideals in the case of a conflict between the demands of the polity as a whole and the demands of one or more religion(s).

The issue I would like to raise relates mainly to the third objective. Whether or not one agrees with the notion of an internally cohesive concept of secularism—and whether or not one agrees that this concept is more limited than we have come to think it is—one might still ask if secularism should assert itself through a lexical ordering like the one envisioned by Bilgrami. Will a prioritization of political ideals seem fair to members of a secular society, and, perhaps more importantly, does it capture the challenges that face the kind of democracies we currently characterize as governed by secularism? My suspicion is that the answer is no as long as we don’t supplement the theory of secularism with a more robust account of what Bilgrami refers to as “political sociology” and the “democratization of communities.” Although Bilgrami is right to suggest that these domains of research are central to the politics of secularism, I suspect that they lead us in a different direction than the one anticipated by his argument. Rather than securing the normative foundation for the lexical ordering of political ideals, the domains identified by Bilgrami encourage us to supplement his emphasis on justification and reason-giving with something else: a cultivation and affirmation of the plurality that subsists within experience itself.

Elsewhere I have suggested that the best way to consider the politics of secularism is by examining it in relation to cases such as the Danish cartoon controversy. Bilgrami favors a similar approach, using the Salman Rushdie case to illustrate why a secular society committed to the ideal of free speech should not censor books like the Satanic Verses, even if it means exposing some but not all religions to the threat, not to mention harm, of blasphemy. If I understand Bilgrami correctly, the argument for this ordering is that secularism is best defined as a political doctrine, which doesn’t seek to undermine practices of belief and faith, but nonetheless must take an adversarial stance vis-à-vis religion in the realm of the polity (what others might call the “public”). It is, Bilgrami suggests, part of secularism’s conceptual nature to put its own ideals first in the polity. Moreover, since the ideals in question are embedded in the reasons that justify secularism (more about that later), the ideals are in an important sense always already shared by the various members of the polity. For a person who accepts secularism, it would quite possibly be inconsistent to cherish its conceptual meaning and, upon further reflection, not think that its political ideals should be prioritized in the case of a conflict between secularism and a religious practice.

On my reading of it, the Danish cartoon controversy challenges this argument in a number of important ways. Most obvious perhaps is that although the controversy initially was characterized by a plurality of expressions and identities, it gradually grew into a stark opposition between two parties, each of which did not contest the right to free speech, but nonetheless interpreted it in radically different ways. The cartoon controversy suggests in other words that a lexical ordering like the one envisioned by Bilgrami does not always or necessarily generate the kind of normative consistency his conceptualization of secularism hopes to achieve. Quite simply, there might be too many ways of interpreting the right to free speech to make the ordering seem compelling, not to mention legitimate, to all the affected parties. This point was evident in the Danish cartoon controversy: whereas the majority of ethnic Danes did not see an inconsistency between their privileged position and the right to ridicule a religious minority, the majority of Muslims claimed the exact opposite in their defense of the need for censoring expressions of blasphemy.

Unless we are satisfied with secularism being a form of decisionism, or another name for majority rule, the challenge thus seems to be one of supplementing the lexical ordering of political ideals with a fuller account of how communities and individuals might open themselves up to contestation, and how such opening in turn might inform the way they change and develop over time (and how even their conception of secularism might change over time). Acknowledging this challenge, Bilgrami points to two sets of resources: (a) a focus on “internal reasons” understood as reasons that can motivate an overlapping consensus without disavowing the “moral psychologies” of individuals or communities; and (b) a reading of Hegel that focuses in particular on the “idea that Reason…does its work in a human subject by bringing about changes of value via deliberation on her part to overcome internal conflicts among values.”

While both resources enrich our conception of secularism, I wonder whether they answer the challenges that face the kind of societies we currently think of as governed by that concept. First of all, it is not obvious that an overlapping consensus will emerge from exploiting the conflicts and tensions that characterize the internal reasons motivating an individual’s or group’s commitment to the political ideals associated with secularism. As the Danish cartoon controversy suggests, there may be contextual forces that foreclose such exploitation, and/or there may be too much of a gap between the various internal reasons that underpin how different constituents motivate their commitment to ideals such as free speech. At the same time, it is not clear what the Hegelian conception of history and subjectivity accomplishes in terms of including a plurality of viewpoints, especially since Bilgrami acknowledges that we have no reason to believe that it necessarily leads to an overlapping consensus among internal reasons. The idea here seems to be that the Hegelian conception of history and subjectivity, rather than simply being a philosophical argument, also is an “evaluative stance,” which in the case of secularism takes up the values of “humanism” and “inclusiveness.” But this begs the question: Why reserve humanism and inclusiveness for secularism? Why, in the name of both religious and secular pluralism, insist on a set of values that invoke a sameness as general and as abstract as the “human”? Does such an appeal not run the risk of either disavowing the conditions of possibility for acting politically, representing a doctrine which is both empty and apolitical, or being so contentious that it undermines its own invitation to deliberation across the differences within any given society?

I raise these questions, not to suggest that one should avoid taking a stance, but to suggest that to take a stance with regard to pluralism means something else. Whether one sees oneself as a secularist or as a believer—whether one proceeds in a philosophical or an activist mode—to take a stance with regard to pluralism is to channel the plurality that subsists within all experiences, and to enable its shining-forth even more powerfully than if one did not take a stance. The pluralist’s stance, we might say, is to immerse oneself in a plurality that includes the “one” as well as the “many.”

To illustrate what I mean by this, consider here an alternative dialectic based on what Merleau-Ponty calls the “tolerance of the incomplete,” which he develops by suggesting that the “accomplished work is…not the work which exists in itself like a thing, but the work which reaches its viewer and invites him to take up the gesture which created it.” While the dialectic invoked here speaks to Bilgrami’s interest in political sociology and democratization of communities, it changes our approach because it has a different starting-point than the one envisioned by Bilgrami: rather than beginning with the issue of how to order political ideals, Merleau-Ponty’s dialectic begins in the midst of lived experience, where perceptions, judgments, and ideals have not yet reached the threshold of conceptual clarity, and where experience itself is so open-ended that it appears as a plurality of possibilities and outcomes. “Tolerance of the incomplete” is a way of maintaining this experience of plurality, affirming the incompleteness of one’s own expressions in order to allow for other expressions to emerge. The idea is to “take up the gesture,” and to engage it pluralistically without believing that it ever can or should be completed, or subjected to lexical ordering.

There are both theoretical and pragmatic reasons to consider this dialectical approach to the politics of secularism. Most attractively, the approach replaces the invocation of abstract universals such as “humanism” with an avowedly political approach to reason-giving, leading to what we might call “sensorial reasoning.” Sensorial reasoning gives reasons that resonate with the context to which they apply, and that stress the plurality of experience itself.” Pragmatically, the dialectic approach envisioned by Merleau-Ponty alerts us to the importance of maintaining the inherent plurality in all experiences, and to develop ways of seeing and feeling that augment this sense of inherent plurality. In this regard, as I argue elsewhere, the Danish cartoon controversy has some unsung heroes: a subset of cartoonists who turned the invitation to ridicule a religious minority into a reason to challenge their sponsor (i.e., the editors of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten). Several of the cartoons made fun of the idea of mocking Mohammad rather than yield to it, and they even explored the reasons why one would want to encourage such mockery in the context of nationalism, ignorance, and xenophobia. Taking a pluralistic stance, bracketing the need for a lexical ordering of political ideals, these cartoonists were thus among the few who saw the controversy as a reason to rethink secularism rather than insist on its unchanging requirements. That is why, in my view, they ably represent the prospect of a new politics of tolerance and citizenship in the 21st century.

I conclude by noting that a new politics of tolerance and citizenship may not sit easily with secularism as it is defined by Bilgrami. Does this mean that the outcome is not a form of secularism? The answer to this question will vary, depending on whether one thinks that secularism is less cohesive as a concept than Bilgrami argues it is, or whether one thinks that we have moved into an age of post-secularism.

An earlier version of this essay was delivered at a panel on Akeel Bilgrami’s paper organized by the Center for Global Culture and Communication at Northwestern University’s School of Communication, October 21, 2011.—ed.