“We develop in multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. To say this is to state the obvious. There is no religiously homogeneous society.” Akeel Bilgrami has invited commentary on his recent working paper about the nature and relevance of secularism in which he advances a central thesis that begins with the conditional phrase, “Should we be living in a religiously plural society.” In this post, I offer a response to his thesis convinced, like Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, author of the quotation with which I began, that there is no such thing as a modern religious monoculture. As president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the apparatus of the Catholic Church established after Vatican II to serve as the site of engagement with the followers of other religious traditions, Jean-Louis Tauran has something of a professional commitment to pluralism as an ontological category. Tauran gave his 2008 speech on the necessity of cultivating channels of interreligious dialogue at a time when the stock of interreligious dialogue was clearly on the rise. Controversies like those sparked by the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of 2005 and Pope Benedict XVI’s September 2006 lecture on faith and reason, which offended many Muslims by seeming to endorse misleading criticism of Islam, led to a surge in post-9/11 interfaith initiatives. In response to the misunderstandings that informed the Pope’s lecture, 138 global Muslim leaders published “A Common Word Between Us and You” in October 2007, an open letter calling for a common ground of understanding and peace between Muslims and Christians, a period that also saw the launch of Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation and Cardinal Tauran’s initiatives to train clergy for interreligious dialogue in a pluralist world, both in 2008. Global modernity, it is clear, neither presages the necessary rise of a homogeneous consumer culture nor an inevitable decline in the vitality and variety of religious engagement.

Routing my response through a close reading of Bilgrami’s secularism thesis, I aim to achieve a few interrelated goals: first, by examining a few worldly and literary examples, to problematize the concept of religious homogeneity that constitutes the tacit alternative to pluralism in Bilgrami’s essay. Second, I try to suggest both that the world is more plural than we often take it to be and, more controversially, that in terms of religion, all societies manifest deep and significant internal pluralism—a form of diversity at least as important as inter-religious differences. Finally, I try to clarify the shift in Bilgrami’s thesis from individual subjects and objects—the “we” of Bilgrami’s proviso—to corporate and conceptual ones, a slippage symptomatic of the way Bilgrami describes the kinds of things religion and pluralism are.

“The ‘qualifier’ that (S) opens with,” writes Bilgrami, “is there to point out that secularism is a doctrine that may be relevant even in societies where there is no religious plurality” (emphasis added). We can imagine possible worlds (utopian and dystopian) that display the technical characteristics of capitalist global modernity, and might, in a superficial sense, qualify as being religiously homogeneous. The scholarly literature on ethnoreligious monocultures, a term adopted by sociologists from modern agribusiness, disputes their supposed advantages and disadvantages, but generally accepts their existence. Most examples of homogenous societies, however, are located problematically in the distant historical past (thus apt to be tinted by nostalgia, as are many yearnings for the apparent security of naïve belief), or amidst uncontacted, preliterate rainforest tribes—they are not societies in which “we” might be living, let alone ones that have written constitutions and “stated fundamental rights.” As with nostalgic yearnings for the pleasures of an enchanted world, we would do well to regard most claims about religious monocultures as the likely product of projective fantasy. As Bilgrami himself acknowledges, even ostensible religious monocultures will eventually fracture through internal sectarian conflict. History, meanwhile, makes it clear that in nations appearing (or claiming) to be religiously homogeneous, people are very likely living in tyranny or its recent shadow. As with total consensus on any major issue, a great deal of bloodshed or repression is the likely cause and cost of a religious monoculture.

One of the main problems with monocultures is that frequently invoked contemporary examples—like Japan, a nation whose high degree of ethnic and linguistic homogeneity is often remarked upon by Japanese and visitors alike—turn out to be more diverse upon closer inspection. Indigenous groups like the Ainu, whose histories resemble that of some Native American tribes, have long inhabited the islands of the Japanese archipelago. Readers of Haruki Murakami’s recent novel IQ84 may recall the extended account of Ainu village life on Sakhalin and Hokkaido the protagonist reads aloud in an interpolated tale from a Japanese translation of a story by Anton Chekhov, or his descriptions of Ainu villages on the northern Island of Hokkaido in A Wild Sheep Chase. Far more significant in numeric terms, the population of Korean Japanese, often called zai-nichi, constitute an undocumented minority numbering perhaps several million living as an underclass with problematic citizenship status, a reminder that Japanese ethnic homogeneity is part of the machinery of social hierarchy. Large non-citizen laborer populations of industrial and post-industrial nations clearly should be—but most often are not—recognized in data on ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity.

When James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus collects his teacher’s wages at the end of book two of Ulysses, he endures a lecture on Anglo-Irish history, fiscal responsibility, and the Jews from his headmaster, who chases after him to offer the following coup de grâce on the question of Irish religious homogeneity:

Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews [sic]. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

Even if Deasy is convinced, erroneously of course, that Ireland is a uniformly Christian society, the long history of “the Troubles” should immediately emphasize the important denominational differences occluded by the category of “Christian.” As political scientist James Fearon emphasizes, “it rapidly becomes clear that one must make all manner of borderline-arbitrary decisions” in the process of ethnic categorization; “constructivist or instrumentalist arguments about the contingent, fuzzy, and situational character of ethnicity seem amply supported” by the character of taxonomic decisions. If ethnic and linguistic monocultures are always already problematic, claims about religious homogeneity are further complicated by the nature of religious belonging. Even in a hypothetical society where 100% of the population might name the same group when asked to state their religion—answering “Christian” or “Muslim” to the question marked “religion” in a Pew Research Center survey, for instance—individuals within the society will differ widely in the intensity, sites, and modalities that define their experience of religion.

Before I get deeper into what is at stake in the proviso through which Bilgrami seeks to limit secularism’s problematic claims to universality, I want to summarize a few of the key points along the fast-paced itinerary of his argument. As an effort to nail down the slippery terminology of the secular and its various cognates, Bilgrami’s essay represents an incisive intervention in the critical study of secularity. While Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age dismantles oppositional conceptions of religion and secularity, Bilgrami aims to restore secularism’s oppositionality but limit its applicability. He asserts that there are three “invariant forms” characteristic of secularism as a political stance: first, that secularism is a structural relationship or an attitude toward religion rather than a thing in itself; second, that secularism is a political doctrine about, but not against, religion; and third, that secularism is not a good in and of itself. For Bilgrami, secularism simply isn’t justifiable on rational grounds: “there are no…secure universal grounds on which one can base one’s argument for secularism.” What’s more, he warns, secularism “is only a good in some contexts, and therefore not always to be embraced even in temporal modernity.”

Each of these points is contentious in its own right; by defining secularism in opposition to religion (secularism has for him only “parasitic meaning”) Bilgrami charts a course that departs from recent trends in the field, represented by Talal Asad and Taylor, both of whom conceive of secularism as a complex, historically specific set of ideologies and disciplines rather than in opposition to religion. Asad in particular has aimed to uncover the various ways secularism operates as a set of disciplinary and disciplining practices that produce and police the modern category of religion. Narrowing his focus to legitimating state secularism, Bilgrami’s thesis reads:

Should we be living in a religiously plural society, secularism requires that all religions should have the privilege of free exercise and be evenhandedly treated except when a religion’s practices are inconsistent with the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments) in which case there is a lexical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first. (Italics his)

The concept of lexical ordering—a final propositional jab in a series of subordinate clauses—is Bilgrami’s attempt to offer a principle for adjudicating questions of moral priority, here by ranking religious practices lower than those that result from those of a polity’s ideals. Put more simply, lexical ordering is the process by which we weigh competing goods. For Bilgrami, the way to reassert secularism’s ethical mandate, despite its relativism, is not to redefine it, as Taylor and others have suggested, but to assert the importance of respecting a particular group’s vision of its own ideals, which can be, at least according to Bilgrami, articulated without reference to religion.

One of the strengths Bilgrami identifies in his argument is the way it helps him to negotiate several hot-button issues in what he calls “the present cold war being waged against ‘Islam.’” Quoting Taylor’s concern that secularists might misguidedly, to Taylor’s mind, “attack ‘Islam’ for instance for female genital mutilation [FGM], and for honor killings,” Bilgrami defends his version of the thesis (S) on the grounds that “when female genital mutilation or honour killings are identified as practices to be placed second in the lexical ordering, [i.e. to be objected to] Islam, as a generality, is not ‘under attack.’ Rather, the claim is entirely conditional: If there be a claim by those by those who practice them that these practices owe to a religion and if that claim is correct,” and so on. Lexical ordering allows Bilgrami to avoid being charged with attacking religion without adopting a position of neutrality towards its claims. Though neither Taylor nor Bilgrami intend it as such, female genital mutilation offers a good example of the internal diversity and syncretism of all religious traditions and of the difficulties one encounters when attempting to define what constitutes a religious practice. In Egypt, where over 99% of the population identifies as ethnical Egyptian and 94% as Sunni Muslim (a statistic growing higher, I fear, given recent violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians) the U.S. Department of State reports that female genital mutilation is “nearly universal among women of reproductive age.” This is a sobering and distressing statistic, but FGM, which is practiced extensively across Africa and the Middle East, is not “Islamic” in origin; it seems to have originated in Ancient Egypt long before the rise of Islam. The prevalence of FGM in North Africa and its relative rarity in many Asian Muslim communities underscores the complex processes of local accommodation and syncretistic cultural absorption attendant to Islam’s globalization and indigenization.

It is rare point of agreement between Euro-American academics and practicing Muslims that, relative to other religions, Islam is a total way of life; similarly, both groups acknowledge the singular importance of the ummah. Even admitting that mainstream Islamic traditions place more emphasis on ritual observance than their contemporary Christian counterparts, the notion of a homogeneous “Islamic world” is, of course, highly problematic. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious and Public Life’s 2009 analysis of global Muslim populations, Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Tunisia, Western Sahara, and Yemen all report that Muslims constitute over 99% of the population, but to assume that the result of even this high degree of apparent religious uniformity is a meaningful religious monoculture would be to fall victim to what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adiche calls “the danger of a single story.” In her 2009 TED talk, Adiche critiques the powers that reduce a society’s pluralism to a single story, as European stories forged Africa as “a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness.” For Adiche, the problem is not that stereotypes are untrue but that they “flatten [our] experience and overlook the many other stories that inform” our sense of self and that they blind us to the importance of internal diversity.

One way to clarify the deeper philosophical issue at stake here is by appealing to Hannah Arendt’s theory of action, in which plurality and freedom are ontological conditions on which any meaningful concept of agency must be predicated. For Arendt, the ability to act, to introduce something new and unexpected into the world, can only arise in a condition of pluralism. In a famous passage at the beginning of The Human Condition, Arendt describes the human condition as one of plurality owing “to the fact that men, not Man, live on earth and inhabit the world…this plurality is specifically the conditionnot only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam—of all political life.” By linking action to freedom and freedom to plurality Arendt means to emphasize that the capacity to introduce novelty into the world depends upon a quality of openness antithetical to a monoculture. On a practical level, as we adopt increasingly flexible and, as Amartya Sen calls them, “robustly plural” senses of our own identity based on multiple, overlapping, and shifting modes of belonging, the purely hypothetical nature of a religious monoculture becomes increasingly apparent.

Because modern world religions aggregate individuals often lacking other common bonds in custom, language, or ethnicity, it seems particularly problematic that the grammatical object of Bilgrami’s thesis (S) becomes “religion” itself: “[Secularism] requires that all religions should have the privilege of free exercise and be treated evenhandedly” (emphasis added). Why are “religions” as such, and not “religious individuals,” the agents bearing the “privilege” (not the right?) to free exercise? Returning to the example of Japan provides clarification on what is at stake here. It is important to note that Japan’s high degree of ethnic and linguistic homogeneity does not correlate to religious uniformity. Indeed, in addition to its Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian communities, the modern period has seen the explosive growth of new religious movements in Japan and a rise in multiple religious affiliations (self-reported membership in religious groups totals nearly twice the nation’s population). There are almost two hundred thousand religious organizations registered under Japan’s 1951 Religious Judicial Persons Law, which secures corporate legal personhood and various tax benefits for registered religious movements, but also entangles religious organizations with state power. Murakami’s Underground examines the legacy of the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo, Japan’s most notorious new religious movement, a trope that reemerges in the alter-reality of IQ84 as the cultish Sakigake organization, a messianic new religious movement with a charismatic leader, a heavily armed military compound, and an elaborate network of political and economic influence. IQ84’s dystopian possible world highlights (and sensationalizes) the danger of a system where rights accrue to religions rather than to individuals. Sakigake’s mysterious “Leader” raises the question of who speaks for a religion. When an elected official in a democratic government speaks on behalf of a community, her legitimacy and sovereignty is contingent upon the consent of the governed, at least in liberal political thought. The question of who speaks for a religion, by what right and chosen by whom, is another matter; before granting Bilgrami’s claim that religions should have rights, we need to think more about the processes and systems that legitimate those who speak for a religion.

In a relatively recent essay in Critical InquiryOccidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on The Enlightenment and Enchantment,” the subject of a heated exchange on the popular blog Three Quarks Daily, Bilgrami makes some very confident claims about what “ordinary Muslim people” think and feel. Bilgrami writes:

Ordinary Muslims on the street are clear and perfectly precise about what they claim and want: that they are fighting back against centuries of colonial subjugation; that they want the military and corporate presence of the West (primarily the United States), which continues that subjugation in new and more subtle forms, out of their lands; that they want a just solution for the colonized, brutalized Palestinian people; that they want an end to the cynical support by the west…of corrupt regimes in their midst…that they will retaliate (or not speak out against those who retaliate) with an endless cycle of violence unless there is an end to…endless state-terrorist actions.

I am in no personal position to dispute the accuracy of this list, but I am struck by the relative confidence with which Bilgrami takes the pulse of the Muslim street. In his working paper on secularism he makes a strikingly similar claim: “The right thing to do is not to ask that secularism be redefined but to demand that one should drop talk of secularism and focus instead on trying to improve matters on what is really at stake [in relationships with the Muslim world]: the effects of a colonial past, a commercially exploitative present, unjust wars and embargoes, racial discrimination against migrants in Europe, and so on.” I see at least two issues at stake here. The first is practical: for Bilgrami, the “right thing to do” centers on addressing violations perpetrated by Euro-Americans in the name of secularism against Muslims. One thing made clear by the slogans and demands of the Arab Spring, however, is that its supporters are motivated by issues like government injustice, economic decline, and restrictions on basic freedoms—a list more in line with the demands and deficits identified by recent UN reports on human development in the Muslim world. The second is more philosophical: I am wary of confident generalization about the Arab street (or even about people down the street, for that matter). The kind of clean distinctions between politics and religion, public and private implicit in the idea of lexical ordering are likely to be available only to those who are already secular.

Mindful of the fact that a course on modal logic was the reason I changed my undergraduate major from philosophy to English, I conclude with an amendment to Bilgrami’s thesis, which incorporates the revisions to (S) that might follow if my critique of modern religious monocultures is convincing, in a thought-experiment I call (SN):

Should we be living in a religiously plural society, s Secularism requires that all religious people religions should have the privilege of free exercise and be evenhandedly treated except when a religion’s religious person’s practices are inconsistent with the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals, often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments) in which case there is a lexical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first.