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.

Having demonstrated that this relationship is not consistent across national contexts, Chakrabarty, Kaviraj, and Taylor asked whether this inconsistency produces variations in how public space and life are organized, and hence in how religion figures in the public sphere across “multiple modernities.”

In the following chat (conducted over Skype, and edited for your reading pleasure), we discussed several themes that emerged from this course, including the idea that reflexivity might be manifest as a collective, rather than an individual, process; the notion that modernity might be defined, not as increasing agreement upon a defined set of liberal norms, but as a space for contestation over divergent norms; and finally, over the role of religion in each process and across national contexts.

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Ruth: So, I want to kick us off with an observation that Thomas made to me about reflexivity. He wrote in a recent email, “In Western modernity, reflexivity is taken to mean internal procedures of reason, a formulation linked with modernity’s emancipatory aspect and the normative emphasis on individual autonomy and liberty. In class, Chakrabarty suggested a different emphasis, where reflexivity is less an internal cognitive procedure and more about opening spaces of contestation. In other words, a shift from an individual towards a collective way of thinking about reflexivity; towards a reflexive society that sees its agency in the state, and thus a concept of the state that gives greater prominence to its agentive aspects than to its disciplinary, regulatory and monopolistic dimensions.”

I think that one way in which a discussion of individual versus collective reflexivity is helpful is that it forces us to ask where we should be looking for religion, and how we might find different manifestations of religion in political identity-formation and mobilization. It also proposes a different potential relationship between religion and reflexivity, in which religion is not only part of an internal process of reasoning, but also part of a public process of contesting norms. What do you guys make of that?

Grace: Let’s take a moment to connect Chakrabarty’s work to Kaviraj’s argument about the move toward modernity in India. He emphasizes how, in colonial settings, rationality begins shaping communities in new ways that lead to their identities becoming less fuzzy. So, rationality and reflexivity are not merely individualized and internalized processes, but processes that can also take place among collectivities.

Thomas: A more dialogical kind of reflexivity, rather than individual and internal procedures of reason.

Grace: Right, that’s how I see it.

Thomas: And Chakrabarty’s point was not simply that normativities are simultaneously inevitable and discomforting, but that this ambivalence and tension is productive and useful, and therefore valuable in itself. I like this idea, especially because it ties in with Chakrabarty’s more dialogical kind of reflexivity, a reflexivity that opens spaces for contestation and the negotiation of prevailing norms (e.g., heterosexual marriage and heteronormativity in general).

Ruth: How does religion both shape these norms, and also shape communities’ capacities for contesting the normative frameworks of the state or of other social groups? How does the Indian case help us to think about other national cases?

Grace: In my research in the U.S. context (on the New Sanctuary Movement [NSM], an interfaith immigrants rights movement), I’m finding that religion shapes communities’ capacities for contesting the state in ways that differ from the past. So, for example, communities have been forced to become more reflexive about their relationship to the state and to other religious groups. Activists on the religious Left, like those in the NSM, are compelled to make religious identity central to their movement in order to contest the secular state, but also to differentiate themselves from the religious Right (and to offer a non-conservative image of what it means to be religious).

David: It seems to me that there are at least two levels at play. On the one hand, debates internal to religious communities develop over what the boundaries of the community are, what constitutes membership and authority within that community, and then, in the end, what ethical principles should guide policy on issues like marriage. Then, on a distinct but related plane, there are debates external to the religious community regarding the appropriate place of religion in civil society, party politics, judicial institutions, etc.

To link to Grace’s empirical example, as an internal debate goes on within the Christian (Protestant) community, a simultaneous public debate regarding the appropriate place of religion in American public life is also at play.

Ruth: Exactly. And it seems like what David is calling a second level is something that differs across national (and, of course, historical) contexts. Namely, what role can religious communities play in shaping the norms of the state, in the U.S. as compared to India, for example? Is religious “conflict” over norms considered productive or destructive vis-à-vis the overarching goal of promoting liberal democracy in each case?

I was particularly struck by Chakrabarty’s discussion of the role of Indian peasants in the political process. As he explained, the way in which they often “participated” over the years was not through “rational” debate with elites, but rather through rebellion. In some Western states, such disorder would signal a lack of civility, and would not conform to the liberal norms to which those states aspire. But, as Chakrabarty explained, it was the very disorder and chaos of the Indian state that made it “civilized.” That said, in order to accept this argument, one must emend the prevailing (Western) conception of what it means to be civilized. As an alternative, Chakrabarty presented Tagore’s definition, in which civilization is envisioned as a group of human beings with the capacity for reflexive self-criticism. To “civilize” a people is thus to give them the weapons with which to criticize your weapons. In this sense, you can have civilization even with a continual—and often disorderly—crisis of norms. But this may appear contrary to some liberal conceptions of what democracy looks like.

Thomas: Liberalism is the modern European ideal, and, in that vision, a continual crisis of norms is a catastrophe. But the liberal vision was also partly a response to the European wars of religion, and so there’s a particular sensitivity to normative difference and consequently an emphasis on a particularly inflexible arrangement of power for managing difference. Hence laïcité in France. In South Africa, where I come from, liberalism is perceived by many as basically reactionary, a strategy for defending privilege, and the political faultline between liberals and more progressive political actors is evident in their point of intervention in the political process. For liberals, it is in “defending the constitution”; for their critics, it is developing and implementing social policies that will support the poor. The point, though, is that the political process is deeply inflected by a fight about what should be the normative aspirations of post-apartheid South Africa.

Ruth: I think this relates as well to the form that contestation over norms takes, and much of the concern over the role of religion in such contestation concerns the belief that people of faith cannot engage in rational, ordered deliberation over the norms that ought to govern public life. Liberals fear that religious contests would result in violence, and thus seek to remove religion from public spaces. But one question is whether a disorderly process of contesting norms can also be conducive to democracy. In the U.S. context, rioting in the streets, for example, is viewed as a breakdown in the American democratic system, a system that allocates politics to certain places that are governed by certain rules of order. But, historically, disruptive political protest has produced many significant changes in our social and legal framework, including some of our most progressive public policies. So, how these moments are treated is a question for me. Are these forms of political action seen as consistent with the ultimate goal of democracy, or counter to it? And what role has religion played in them historically?

Grace: This is reminiscent of the practice among certain groups in the U.S., in defending protest as a viable mode of politics, of arguing that protest (if not rioting) is democratic. But maybe this still goes against the liberal ideal.

David: I think the reason a classical liberal would be troubled by the peasant rebellion example is the unintentionality of the progress. These weren’t Jeffersonian liberals deciding to refresh the tree of liberty; they were peasants asserting agency through force.

Grace: Maybe it’s not just the unintentionality that’s the problem, but also the element of force? And especially when it’s a matter of an underclass asserting itself by force?

Going back to Ruthie’s point about Chakrabarty’s work, Indian history shows that you can have civilized society with a continual contestation of norms. Do we think this is possible in other settings?

Thomas: Well, the Indian example only works if you change the European meaning of civilized, which is what Tagore had to do to make the argument. That’s a good thing of course, but it makes liberals uncomfortable.

David: To return to Grace’s question, part of what struck me about our discussions of India in particular was the extent to which similar (though not identical) normative debates about the relationship between religious communities and the state are the rule, rather than the exception, in a range of cases that we frequently assume to be more stable than they actually are. Is America a non-denominational Protestant country, or not? Is France, even after the Revolution, the first daughter of the Church? Does Senegal’s development of laïcité, rightly understood, signify a continuation or a rupture with the French colonial experience? Part of the lesson from the Indian case seems to be that unpacking these normative debates is essential, and not only in the “non-Western” cases, but even within the West as well.

Grace: The question seems to be whether Western societies are actually as “settled” as we think they are.

David: It is also interesting to consider how different processes of democratization and secularization may have actually been at loggerheads at times.

Grace: Well, this goes back to the discussion we had about the secularization of France—and the violence and coercion required for secularizing the peasants, and whether that really qualifies as “democratic.”

David: And I suppose that, to take a more contemporary example, you could look at the family law debates in a place like Senegal. The family code was debated hotly after independence, with women’s groups and Muslim authorities disagreeing on a range of issues. The family code is essentially a set of laws that regulates matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. I don’t know of official polling from the time, but I think it’s a safe bet that a purely democratic process would have led to a less liberal code. But things weren’t put to a vote. While a fully liberal process would have required the state to coercively enforce the law over the objections of religious authorities, the end story was messier: a fairly liberal code that isn’t always rigorously enforced.

Ruth: It’s an interesting problematic. What should they have done? What were the alternatives? They could have opened the question up to public debate, held public forums, conducted polls, etc. Or they could have created opportunities for consultation between community leaders and political elites. The alternative being to simply say, “we know best,” and to impose a code that conforms to the elites’ liberal norms, and then to enforce it as best as they can. Which is most “democratic”?

David: Well, I don’t know if I’m comfortable, as an outsider, with the should question, but the empirical observation seems to be that the bundle of modernity (markets, democracy, liberal rights, secularity) actually didn’t all go together.

Grace: Great point.

Ruth: Is there a place where they do all go together?

Thomas: Well, the bundle is the European liberal model. They don’t go together in India either.

Grace: True, but then there are Muslims in France, where, arguably, laïcité is undemocratic.

Thomas: It seems to me there are two kinds of reflexivity on the table—the internal procedures of reason and the more dialogical model we spoke of earlier—and that these produce two kinds of political organization. The individual kind that emphasizes internal procedures of reason tends towards liberal secularism, which sees itself as the best arrangement of competing rights and the most equitable distribution of justice. The more dialogical kind opens space for contestation and public debate about the kinds of values we wish to underpin collective agreements about how we ought to live together—which is perhaps what Senegal should have done. The point is that the former kind seems intent on wishing away religion in the public sphere, whereas a more dialogical kind of reflexivity opens avenues for the kinds of political compromise we need in places like Senegal and France, and India and South Africa.

Grace: That’s great. What a summary!

Ruth: Well, why don’t we wrap things up here? Any closing comments?

Thomas: I think most democracies need a more dialogical approach to escape the cul-de-sac that secular liberalism has backed us into.

Grace: I would add that we should not assume that secularism and democracy are necessary for one another. Rather, they are often in conflict.

Thomas: Good point. But secularism and liberalism go together, right?

David: Perhaps that can be a jumping off point for the next time. The case of Turkey would put that into question, I think.