‘Secularism has become another religion’ – Etienne Balibar

[French Marxist philosopher, Étienne Balibar was in Delhi recently, where he delivered a series of lectures. A former student of Louis Althusser, Balibar has over the last few decades, worked towards the articulation of a critical Marxism – one that is at once liberated from the shibboleths of old modernist certainties and yet does not give up on the idea of a possible emancipatory project of a world beyond capitalism. Balibar’ later philosophical work has been more and more engaged with the contemporary political problems of France and Europe.

Balibar is critical of hardline French secularists for their xenophobic intolerance of issues concerning French citizens of Arab and African descent. In the 2007 French presidential election, he was among the two hundred intellectuals who expressed support for the candidature of Marie-Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party. Professor Emeritus of Moral and Political Philosophy at Université de Paris X – Nanterre, and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, Balibar gave a series of lectures in New Delhi last week. S. Anand of Tehelka joins Nivedita Menon, Reader in Political Science at the University of Delhi, and Aditya Nigam, Fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, in discussing with Balibar the overlap of racism, Islamophobia and secularism in a global context. The interview is published in the current issue of TEHELKA.]


Menon: You have written about the race riots in 2005 in the French banlieues, the suburbs, as a ‘revolt of the excluded’ and have linked it to the contradictions of globalisation. What were the dynamics of these riots?

Balibar: I am surprised these events provoke such curiosity in places as far away as Chicago and New Delhi since I think these riots were extremely banal in the sense that they are a type of urban disorder that has repeatedly taken place all over the world for a long period, owing to similar issues of “difference”. Perhaps the French were exceptional in thinking that the typical effects of the redistribution of populations created by globalisation, involving race and class factors, would not affect France. There’s also been extreme reluctance on the part of French commentators, not only of the Right but also the Left, to use race and racial categories.

In France we have been trained to understand politics – whether secular ideologies, parliamentary politics, or social movements and campaigns – in universalistic terms. I don’t say this tradition is completely over, that there’s nothing left of it. But this tradition has been forced to reckon with the wrongs of French colonialism. The French citizens of African descent, the inner-city youth, formed a group in February 2005 calling themselves Indigènes de la RépubliqueNatives of the Republic. They were the children and grandchildren of colonialism, French-born youths of Arab and African extraction, who viewed the consequences of colonialism as anything but positive. This nomenclature is ironic since the word ‘native’ was used in the colonies to refer to the subject-race while the French referred to themselves as citizens. By claiming to be “natives” of the “republic”, they are underlining the fact that the colony is now inside the republic – the neighbourhoods where the French Muslims are like colonial enclaves.

Natives of the Republic assert their “difference” against a perspective based on civic and national integration. But the French Interior Minister [Nicolas] Sarkozy, now the president, saw Islam as a challenge to French citizenship.

But these youth do still have faith in French democracy. For instance, when a group of rap artistes and others made a public intervention urging the rioters to re-direct their legitimate anger by registering as voters, I thought it was a naive suggestion. But in fact they did register in large numbers, and in the recent elections, the Left won massive majorities in the violence-affected banlieues.

Anand: Did the violence during the ‘riots’ justify the kind of global attention it received?

Balibar: These are events that somehow illustrate the very different conditions in which politics is taking place in the contemporary world. The youngsters involved in the three-week ‘uprising’ (a term the French intelligentsia is loathe to use), fought against their relegation to territories where republican equality did not reach – they did not contest the principles of French citizenship. They claimed their legitimate place within it. In this sense it was a revolt of the excluded, if not a ‘molecular civil war’. It is necessary first of all to ask whether this violence was spontaneous or, to the contrary, provoked, even deliberately planned.

Menon: You have written about the media as “passive organizers” of social movements. In India too, the mainstream media has the monopoly over representing events in the public arena, thus shaping public perceptions of events as well sometimes, the events themselves. What was the role of the media during these events in France?

Yes, I have said that the media play the role of the passive organiser. The riots, the burning of cars, was magnified in the media. Contrary to what television coverage suggested, this highly spectacular violence remained relatively limited in terms of its destruction and victims: three dead (including the two youths whose indirect murder by the police started the riots), but very few attacks on persons. Instead, consumer items and symbolic places were destroyed. The other aspect of this is the fact that neighbourhoods “competed” to produce spectacles that would attract the media. This spectacular character marks the advent of a new age in which the means of mass communication acquire the role of passive organizers of social movements.

Nigam: Moving to the head-scarf controversy, we in India brought up on the tradition of Indian secularism find the French response strikingly odd. The first serious existential crisis for French secularism seemed to have been caused in 1989 by an image, not of a ‘militant’ armed with a machine gun, but of three girls going to school with head-scarves! That image shook the foundations of the French republic. You have talked of dissonances within French laïcité. French laïcité from our vantage point appears to be republican universalism of the purest kind. Indian secularism is a more contingent formation of different kinds of contestations…

Balibar: Laïcité is very French in one sense. I have to perform an internal critique or deconstruction of French laïcité, our secularist tradition, within which I was completely educated. I spent years in the Communist Party and contributed to the development of a certain brand of critical Marxism up to now. But it is important to state that I am not becoming an enemy of secularism. I believe that contemporary politics more than ever badly needs a secularist point of view, but this will be possible only if certain political, administrative and philosophical elements of secularism/ laïcité are criticised to the root. So I find myself fighting on two frontlines simultaneously. The 1905 laïcité law, framing the separation between the political and the religious in France, has itself become a religion. French laicite is an extreme form whose equivalents are to be found in two other places, inflected by local and national histories – Turkey and Mexico. Here a certain form of positivistic philosophy – a conception of reason and science, associated with an educational programme as the Number One function of the state – has been presented as some sort of a civic weapon against religious influences in politics and society. This owes a lot of course, to a very centralised political system, drawing from both the French monarchy and French Catholicism -both very centralised, autocratic, political and dominant.… I have been starting in the last few years to try and trace a genealogy of many different secularist models in classical European philosophy… It occurred to me that the French model of laïcité is a profoundly Hobbesian model. If you read the last part of the Leviathan, which nobody reads, which is called ‘Of the Kingdom of Darkness’, we see that the Kingdom of Darkness that is an apocalyptic formula borrowed from Christian theology, in fact designates the Catholic Church. So this is an incredible provocation. The Catholic Church as the Devil’s Kingdom. Against that powerful system of religious superstition Hobbes wanted the state to be the authoritarian educator and instructor of the people. This version was not adopted in Britain and other places where a different sort of compromise was found between faith and law or rationality. But to some extent, this [legacy] is haunting the French model…

Nigam: Can you give us illustrative instances of how this debate unfolds?

Balibar: Take the question of the construction of mosques in France. You have two politically over-determined camps within French laïcité. The hardliners of the French laïcité, which I call a secular religion in a sense, say: ‘What? Building mosques? You are going to educate the new generation of French citizens to have a religious denomination, help a powerful clerical organisation (they are not even mentioning terrorism etc)?”

Then there’s the other tradition that I call the liberal one, it’s not by chance that you find many protestant philosophers and lawyers on that side, and they say, ‘Look laïcité was [realised] after one century of fierce struggles between the church and the state, the Left and the Right. This was based on the liberal compromise – it was not the suppression of religion as a public institution – it was a clear cut separation of church and state. It was also a recognition of the distinct function of churches and religious communities in many respects. Nothing like the North American way, as pushed again by (George) Bush, to hand over some forms of social welfare to religious communities; but also nothing like the complete privatisation of religion. So why do we deny Muslims the rights that had been granted to other religious denominations in the past, if not for racial Eurocentric reasons?”

I am more on the liberal side. There are many reasons why young people in the neighbourhoods return to more active forms of religious participation. It is an inevitable reaction to the kind of demonisation and isolation they feel. People need communities.

Anand: In a context of global Islamophobia, are ‘militancy’ and ‘terrorism’ factors for this French overreaction?

Balibar: I think terrorism or militant Islamism are marginal in France right now. But even if you think there’s something dangerous, the solution is certainly not discrimination, banning Islam from the French public sphere. Because this would produce exactly the opposite effect. I strongly believe in the necessity for individuals to be free to have the possibility of choice with respect to religious creeds. Paradoxically, what we need is a correction, a rectification of the anti-Muslim prejudices, a public policy of recognition and bestowing an honourable status on Islam to help individuals, especially young individuals, liberate themselves from traditionalist, archaic forms of religious expression.

Menon: You have talked about contradictions within the community of French citizens of African descent, where they are themselves oppressed but there is oppression within the community, particularly of women. How did progressive French commentators, especially feminists, engage with this issue?

Balibar: It’s a very sensitive issue and is complicated because it is totally instrumentalised on both sides. My position was, there was no reason why public schools in France should not accept girls wearing the veil. There was a very limited number of them to begin with. What I found most extraordinary was the reaction from French women professors, strongly secularist. They said things like: ‘I cannot teach in a class where a girl wears a veil, which practically means that she does not want to listen to what I am saying. Her ears are closed.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? Her ears are not closed. She is wearing a veil but the sound can reach her ears. And if you want her, in the end, to get a critical perspective with respect to tradition, gender relations, Islam, the solution is not sending her back to her family, where she will be subjected to the authority of her father, imams etc. Have her in the class and make her learn something. But you do have to draw the line too. For example you should not accept it when a student refuses to take certain classes, or discuss certain texts or read certain books. That she wears her headscarf while you are teaching Voltaire—that’s a very productive contradiction. These girls have many different reasons for wanting to wear the veil; sociologists have extensively studied that. In fact they are not always following their family’s orders; in many cases they are reacting against their own families…

Anand: It is the young who seem to be taking to religion…

Balibar: There are many reasons why they want to wear their veils. Now that they have become a national issue it’s like they are hostage to two camps… the Muslim girls are in the middle of a fierce battle between two phallocratic camps. On the one side you have the community; on the other side you have the French secularists, including women teachers, who in fact want to appropriate the bodies of these veiled young women; it is an issue of who will have their grip on these young female bodies.

Anand: World over, religions with a claim to universality—Islam, Christianity, Buddhism—have aimed at establishing, at least theoretically, equality. They set out to suppress/ neutralize natural and social differences. However, in the case of what has come to be called Hinduism, we do not see this at all. In fact, it seeks to maintain and perpetuate differences through the caste system. Have you considered this?

Balibar: I’m just on the threshold of trying to reflect on these issues. What I am trying to learn more about now is about the relevance of the very category of religion. I have my doubts about the significance of religion in today’s political discourse. I fear this can be a very western—I am wondering if the category of “religion” itself is not part of what Edward Said called Orientalism. I do not want of course brush aside religions like Hinduism or Buddhism and limit the validity of the category of religion to the western examples of Christianity and Islam. I would rather try and learn something from non-European situations to relativise our notions of religious differences.

Anand: In India, the more definitive critique of modernity and secularism has come from neo-Gandhians led by Ashis Nandy; Gandhi who attached a lot of significance to religion. Are you familiar with Gandhi?

Balibar: I in fact wrote an article some years ago on Lenin and Gandhi. I am of course aware of the extremely superficial character of my observations. It was not about secularism but more about so-called non-violent strategies of mobilisation. I must confess I have a fascination for Gandhi but that’s banal, as it is among most westerners. It has to do with the idea that revolutionary violence could produce negative effects for social struggle movements. The Leninist way never really presented violence as the only revolutionary way, but adopted the strategy of a quasi-revolutionary civil war …they never realised that dictatorship and the use of a repressive state, and civil war as a revolutionary instrument could destroy the revolution from the inside. This in a sense leads you to asking questions about non-violent means of effecting transformation. And here Gandhi becomes an inevitable figure because during more or less the same historical period he was inspiring and leading a nation in a different way. Whereas the Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat became at some point a dictatorship over the proletariat, the Gandhian mobilisation, using satyagraha and ahimsa, proved that another kind of transformative politics against colonial domination is possible which would not internally dismantle itself eventually.

3 thoughts on “‘Secularism has become another religion’ – Etienne Balibar”

  1. I am all for the French interpretation of securalism or Laïcité. Religion should not have a role in the public sphere. It ravaged Europe for too long and it is time to reinforce the lesson that it should be strictly separated from the state.
    Since there is no consensus on whether wearing the burqa is an Islamic obligation or not, even among the Islamic scholars, it is foolish to say that the burqa is a religious right. Proponents who fight for the right of Muslim women in the West to wear a veil come off as hollow rebels who are ignoring the plight of thousands of other Muslim women in the not so free Islamic world who either wear it out of coercion or brainwashing. By demanding the face veil (all other forms of covering including the hijab are legal in France), they are doing a major injustice to these other neglected Muslim women who don’t have as big a voice as they have in the West. I find the whole burqa debate ridiculous!


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