Religion & Culture
Key Writings of Political Philosopher Seyla Benhabib in
The Rights of Others and The Claims of Culture
Subjects such as sovereignty and state centrism, cultural-religious views, and political membership are crucial elements that shape principles of human rights in a continuum manner. As they are commonly depicted in an us-versus-them-binary opposition, this opposition flows, on the one side, from the right of self-determination statehood and polity practices to, on the other side, commitments toward emerging norms of cosmopolitan justice. In her books The Rights of Others and The Claims of Culture, political philosopher Seyla Benhabib evaluates contradictions to what constitutes as “moral” within the universal-rights paradigm, the utopian aspects of legal claims – and the very process of questioning, as well as “the philosophical strategy within the right of hospitality.” Additionally, when attempting to underline the ever-changing categories of “universal rights” since its emergence in 1948, she features the contradictions between the political universalism and “the inclusionary moral principles deeply linked to the universal human rights” model. Benhabib presents a well-defined and strongly argued universalist position from the democratic field that claims to integrate model views of multiculturalism, where the subject of religion plays a big role. She insists on setting distinctions between what constitutes “moral” in the juridico-civil sense of the term per se, while also standing “against radical untranslatability.” At the same time, she cleverly stresses the contradictions of the normative commitment of liberal democracies and questions the status of “rights” within discourses theory of ethics. This essay will first highlight Benhabib’s examination of the boundaries of political community and political memberships that define “the other” found in The Rights of Others, as well as her position on the “reductionist sociology of culture” found in The Claims of Culture. Secondly, this essay will attempt to evaluate how the role of religion plays within Benhabib’s key philosophical thesis. In other words, I propose to highlight Benhabib’s core (or essence) thesis that questions the claims of moral universalism against ethical particularism and the dangers of reducing cultural and religious identities. I will also consider how the assessment she offers in both works can be used to draw conclusions within the religious sphere, especially when claims of religious identity is universalized.
One of the core issues Benhabib outlines in The Rights of Others is the moral-ethical differentiation of the “exclusionary citizenship and membership practices of specific cultural, religious, and ethnic communities” by emphasizing contradictions, including the irresolvable ones, as well as stressing the policies regarding access to inclusivity (i.e. citizenship or permanent residency): “[they] ought not to be viewed as unilateral acts of self-determination, but rather must be seen as decisions with multilateral consequences that influence other communities.” I stand by Benhabib’s queries on what constitutes “just membership” from an established democratic community, which entails that “the alien [the outsider or the other] must fulfill certain conditions” in order to integrate a community of “rights.” Stressed differently, she emphasizes an established political structure that uses a universal view of the democratic system to conceive boundaries in the name of internal safety or conditional memberships; as the state has the monopoly of safety, it has the capacity to decide who can become resident or not. Benhabib stresses that this political system, deeply embedded within “the Westphalian model” is the same one that feeds and establishes its authority as some sort of default-supreme model. From the first lines of The Rights of Others, Benhabib shows the outright contradictions between the binary discourse of human rights and states’ claims of sovereignty. More so, when the latter has the upper hand over who gets in or out of its territory, it assumes a dichotomy I call “the small-print dilemma of the pre-conditions.” Nevertheless, my concern does not linger in the particular but in the universal view of the us-versus-them speech, which sustains those in power to uphold control. In other words, the biases behind those who apply generalized classifications (as a universal abstract) that ultimately places a blanket over an entire group viewed as a homogenous community. According to Benhabib, neither the rights of the alien to naturalization, nor the justifications from the state for denaturalization, can be considered sovereign principles alone. Benhabib’s reflections are closely embedded in Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, [which] should be guaranteed by humanity itself.” Like Emmanuel Kant, says Benhabib, Arendt reflects on the inherent conflicts of the centrist view of the state and complexity of international relations from a cosmopolitan point. In short, we encounter the same tension-filled construction where, above all, there is a universalist moral claim that sets “an obligation [where] everyone owes to each other as human beings.” Benhabib goes further and argues that Arendt, and Kant to the same extent, does not conclusively provide a clear solution to the “right to have rights.” However, and beyond that conclusion, Benhabib’s argument focuses on the incorporation of “citizenship claims into a universal human rights regime.” She rejects the idea of the republican sovereignty that assumes the territorial control as a sovereign privilege by proposing instead the idea of “cosmopolitan rights where creates a network of obligations around sovereignty.”
To support Benhabib’s thesis, let us examine the use of the self-imposed right by a state to denaturalize citizens, whose “actions create categories such as refugees, minorities, stateless and displaced persons.” In other terms, categories of human beings come as a result of the actions of the nation-state and not as a self-inflicted act. More clearly, one becomes a refugee as a result of persecution, removal of identity, or “driven away from one’s homeland”perpetrated from the state power. Here is where we find a direct link between the displacement of people and the state discourse of self-autonomy that feeds itself under a self-inflicted power. What is one of the most effective instruments to control a targeted population? The answer is simple: the removal of citizenship. Once the citizen’s status is removed as such, they are without protection and -as an extension- without any safety. Benhabib cleverly uses Arendt’s notes on “the right to have rights” because as a Jew, Arendt experienced it personally during WWII. The use of denaturalization by a state is one of the most effective maneuvers to successfully control a targeted population (e.g., Jewish community in Germany or Muslims in Algeria); the removal of citizenship opens doors for the state to expel, ostracise, and/or control individuals or communities under the premise of its own rights as a sovereign. The refugees, the paperless human beings, are casted away from their sense of belonging, and seeking asylum is the next dilemma to face:
Man [human beings] can act and change a common world, together with his [their] equals and only with equals, but we are not equal until we become equals as members of a group on the strength of our decisions to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights. (Origins: Arendt, 301).
Benhabib is accurate when she underlines that Arendt is advocating the civil instead of the ethnic idea of belonging. This raises further queries Benhabib extensively addresses throughout The Rights of Others, as well as in The Claims of Culture, including the holistic understanding of peoples as the carriers of a coherent and unbiased moral world view, or in my own words, the oversimplification of entire communities under a homogeneous view.
Benhabib emphasizes that a group or community consociates in mutual recognition despite ethnic differences and “the crucial interdependence of peoples in a world society.” Furthermore, the right to belong, the right to membership, should be seen as a human right in the moral sense of the term. Therefore, to view communities as homogeneous entities that hold a common heterogeneous moral principle and sympathies, not only is sociologically dangerous (my word), but also this idea “secludes people with interest beyond the hegemonic moral code.” Benhabib objects the epistemological understandings of how we calculate or how we analyze the effects of interconnections or interdependent relationships because this task is “not only very difficult but even impossible to measure,” and what she calls “the epistemic objection”. In short, the complex, the moral, and the epistemic issues surrounding redistribution. Nevertheless, when she acknowledges the importance of assisting the economically poor or marginalized nations to temporarily reduce pressure of migratory movements, I must interject and say that what Benhabib underlines is also a simplified and commonly standardized view of the marginalized country and the one who helps. First, it is well-established within the field of international relations that most states that seek economic aid coincidently undergo internal political and cultural corruption, where most help provided by non-government agencies does not reach the population. Second, and based on the 2020 Annual Report to [Canadian] Parliament on Immigration, we can empirically show that “personal and family reunification safety” is the number one reason for migrants to move to Canada rather than economic motives. Furthermore, I argue that her proposal of treating the difference principle as a guideline and goal rather than as “specific policy [policies] for reducing inequalities such as debt amnesty for struggling [underdeveloped] economies” appears to overlook the crucial issues surrounding local-politico corruption from those states. Using Benhabib’s analysis, it is imperative to also address the single view and assumptions of underdeveloped states. The polity in some underdeveloped countries can also have root causes of the struggles from relieving agencies (UNSC, Red Cross) “to reach certain populations, even when those states are members of the United Nations and have signed bilateral agreements that include assistance.” It is fair to claim that Benhabib does highlight that “the socioeconomic injustice cannot be identified independently of practices of democratic freedom and self-determination,” so, the socioeconomic inequality implies complex-multilayer background to be considered. Again, Benhabib’s thesis on the tension between human rights and citizenship as well as her questions on how to “mediate between moral universalism with ethical particularism” touch on intriguing points; however, I argue that her thesis against reductionist arguments toward culture should also be applied across the board.
When Benhabib shares examples of states such as France, The United States, or Germany, she is indirectly associating similar states. A political theorist would also consider the elements behind federalist or centralized democratic systems that hold unique ways to legislate and apply decision-making, as not every state embraces equal application of democratic federal structure. By using Benhabib’s analysis of contextualization of the universal, the democratic structure of states, involved in international relations, must also require a historical and cultural interpretation in order to comprehend its political, economic, and cultural internal struggles as “the extension of human rights to individuals and the decriminalization of their status is one of the most important tasks of cosmopolitan justice in our world.” Yet, one must underline that she acknowledges how has the theory of citizenship and its practice been shaped by territoriality, administrative control, democratic legitimacy, and cultural identity. Benhabib is at her best when she analyses the interconnection between morality, ethics, and legality by underlying that “cannot be turned into legislation.”
The case of l’affair du foulard, the scarf affair, a long dispute that drew public confrontation in France in 1989, is used by Benhabib in both books to showcase a perfect example of a private-versus-public religious symbolism, and the so-called separation of state and religion, interpretation of the religious, and legislation. This is a paradoxical situation in which the French states take charge to arbitrate and dictate “more autonomy and egalitarianism in the public sphere than the [three] girls themselves wearing their head scarves seem to wish for.” There are three key notes l’affair du foulardexposes and are worth noting: first, the oversimplified notion that head scarves are used by all Muslim women; second, the collective assumption about the nature of the state and its sovereignty; third, the thin line between what is considered a religious representation or simply an inherited symbol of culture, or an artifact that has a special meaning for an individual. Benhabib is emphatic when addressing sociological constructivism as it leads her to “the conviction that strong multiculturalism, or what has been call mosaic multiculturalism, is wrong.” The collective view of a Muslim woman, reduced to wearing head scarves as in l’affair du foulard, assumes that the three girls’ actions were purely an act of religious defiance against the secular state constraints of their freedom to cover their heads. This came as a result of exposing the private into the public; that becomes an issue of state arbitration and as a result, the “collective political contestations about the nature of the state sovereignty.” Nevertheless, what one can read behind this religious-secular debate is that the reader may not know if the three girls held their right to wear their head scarves because of religious choice or merely because of a symbolic and inherited family tradition. Could the whole exercise be resolved or understood through comprehensive dialogue? Culture is political, says Benhabib as she stresses “the fundamental right to privacy in a liberal society and that some practices and activities are not proper subject for collective action” while she stands well-founded behind the idea that all social practices and activities may become proper subject for public discussion and expression. Therefore, do universal rights claims need to be contextualized? How do the voices of the excluded, women, immigrants, minorities that include religious groups – get included in the public sphere?
Benhabib’s proposition underlines these questions through a process of democratic iterations, the normative, utopian aspect of legal claims – and the very process of questioning, confrontation, and dialogue. One of the central arguments Benhabib offers to explain this, which is closely related to interactive universalism, is the aforementioned concept of “democratic iterations” where there will be a contentious dialogue as part of a well-functioning democracy. What she means by this is that every democracy, a constitutional democracy, and many non-democracies (for example a constitutional monarchy, e.g., Morocco), had adopted a certain system of rights. These rights are also reflected in various international documents such as “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Charter, the Inter-American Declaration of Rights, or the Arab Declaration of Human Rights.”But in each case these rights require interpretation, or what Benhabib calls the iterations within a specific context. What interests Benhabib is how we contextualize the universal, focusing on processes of democratic iterations as they relate to the rights of others, “be they women, be they migrants, be their sexual minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities.” In short, her thesis underlines that in the process of political conflict and agonism, which is essential to the democratic public sphere, what sometimes rises are social movements, contentious movements that use concepts of rights to apply to them. This is a crucial point from Benhabib that needs further clarification.
For example, the American Declaration of Independence says, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” however, stresses Benhabib, certainly the subscribers “did not [at that point] include women and did not include black slaves as they were not even considered fully humans but the property of the master.”Another historical frame sets an example of women and black slaves during the abolitionist movement. These groups began to protest also as human beings; Benhabib asserts that what happened is a “process of iteration, a democratic alteration, in the sense that the voice of those who have been excluded were included into the public sphere.” In other words, there was a critique of the public sphere for being exclusionary and there was a claim from the excluded that questioned the boundaries of the public sphere by invoking these rights’ claims. Benhabib reaches an interesting point when she emphasizes that “the theoretical mistake comes from the homology drawn between individual and collective claims, a homology facilitated by the ambiguities of the term recognition” (The claims of, 53). Clearly, her goal is to sort out epistemological and methodological assumptions that have been dominating philosophical debates regarding universalism and/or relativism and to a certain extent, Benhabib also raises another important point which is the subjectivity of the person who invokes a right for themselves. The individual claim also immediately changes the hermeneutic of this right invoked. What does she mean by this?
If we go back to the example of the women's movement, most political concepts of rights distinguish between the public and the private sphere and have a certain understanding of what to hold illegal or subjective. What we see in the individual claim is that once women become the subject of both political and legal rights, there are a set of issues that also come into the public sphere (i.e., sexual harassment, rape, voluntary interruption of pregnancy, sexual violence). As Benhabib succinctly puts it, “the theoretical mistake comes from the homology drawn between the individual and collective claims, which subordinates moral autonomy to movements of collective identity. Suddenly, all these issues that were considered part of private life and that were not considered fundamental to the subject of rights come into the public sphere. What changes is not only who is speaking, but also what is being spoken about you. The philosopher aims for intercultural justice between human groups in the name of justice and freedom, not as a mere effort to preserve cultural boundaries. From another angle, we should view “human cultures as constant creation, recreations, and constant negotiations of the imaginary lines between we and the other.” Nevertheless, she acknowledges that the us and themrest on unexamined prejudices, ancient battles, historical injustices, and absolute administrative ruling; the beginnings of “every modern nation-state carry the traces of some level of violence and injustice.” Benhabib takes the last point seriously when stresses the difficulties and complexities behind concepts, words, rituals, symbols, or systems of meaning while (in the end) we lack even foundational notions to understand different cultural circles as “we gain fascinating insights into the process of the construction of others from Western political thought,” or what one may define as “ethnocentric universalism.” Benhabib uses the expression “radical incommensurability” to address groups that hold the idea that the egalitarian principle is quasi-impossible to achieve due to unresolvable cultural differences between groups to measure or comprehend the others’ culture. Against this position, Benhabib ponders: “if cultures are so different then, we would never be able to comprehend basic human activities such as marriage, myths, [or] rituals.”
The us versus them comparative analysis is never coincident, just as our own cultural circle is never homogeneous, or ethically and ethnocentrically equal, the us versus them comparative:
I believe that a generalized attitude of moral equality spreads in human history through conversations as well as confrontations across cultures, and through commerce as well as wars; international agreements as well as international threats contribute to its emergence. I believe in moral learning through moral transformations, and I assume that it is not the deep structure of the mind or psyche that makes us believe in universalism, but rather such historical and moral experiences.
Benhabib defends egalitarian reciprocity that comes as a result of cross-cultural dialogue. In short, the only effective vehicle to seek understanding between the us-versus-them dilemma is by close contacts between communities where they intersect and interact (the commonalities rather than what part them); there are “compelling collective narratives and significations that range across institutions that form the dialogue of cultures.” We may agree when Benhabib asserts that “there is no such holistic of unitary identity that reduces every human group to a coherent and easily delineable narrative,” or in my own words, there is no such thing as pure culture.
Considering Benhabib’s main thesis that addresses the issues of essentialization, including claims of moral universalism against the ethical particularism and the dangers of reducing cultural and religious identities, how does this essentialization juxtapose against religion? Better yet, how do we see religion within Benhabib’s philosophical assumptions that restricts understanding of culture? Is there a proper space where religion can coexist within the dialogue she proposes?
If cosmopolitanism is always uneven and “religion is politics,” that carries moral connotations, and we can conclude that religion is culture. Because cultures form and evolve through complex dialogues and interpretations with other circles of culture, their “boundaries are fluid, porous, and contested.” With that said, religion faces no uneven dilemma as culture and politics do. In the end, there is one element within this predicament I share with Seyla Benhabib. I subscribe to what she suggests in that fundamentalism and radical incommensurability are interrupting the potential democratic dialogue. Fundamentalism and universalized view of the other are linked to a deep reaction not only “against globalization, but against the increasing hybridization of cultures, languages, and religions that accompanies globalization.” To be fair and potentially unbiased, fundamentalist arguments can be found within the libertarian democratic side as well, as intercultural and religious identities are likely to generate the most intense emotional response, regardless of which side you are on.
 Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 129.  Benhabib, The Rights of Others, 19.  Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 33.  The Rights of Others, 16.  Ibid., 20.  Ibid., 3.  Ibid., 12.  Ibid., 55.  Ibid., 66  Ibid., 67.  Ibid., 22.  Ibid., 67.  Ibid., 54.  Ibid., 55.  Ibid., 49-69.  Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 301.  The Rights of Others, 77.  Ibid., 81.  Ibid., 106.  Marco E. L. Mendicino, M.P, (Accessed October 16, 2021) “2020 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration,” https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/annual-report-parliament-immigration-2020.html  The Rights of Others, 107.  United Nations Security Council, “Emergency Relief Coordinator Warns that Halting Cross-Border Deliveries in North-West Syria,” April 28, 2021, https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14507.doc.htm  The Rights of Others, 110-111.  Ibid., 16.  Ibid., 168.  Ibid., 190.  The Claims of Culture, 117.  Ibid., 7-8.  Ibid., 95.  Ibid., 120.  The Rights of Others, 219.  Ibid., 2-7.  Ibid., 180-181.  Ibid., 82.  Ibid., 78.  Ibid., 46-47.  The Claims of Culture, 53.  Ibid., 177.  Ibid.  Ibid., 23.  Ibid., 31.  Ibid., 32-33.  Ibid., 38-39.  Ibid., 137.  Ibid., 138.  Ibid., 120.  Ibid., 184.  Ibid., 185.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.
Benhabib, Seyla. The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
——— . The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Mendicino, Marco E. L. M.P. “2020 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration.” Accessed October 16, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/annual-report-parliament-immigration-2020.html
United Nations Security Council. April 28, 2021. “Emergency Relief Coordinator Warns that Halting Cross-Border Deliveries in North-West Syria.” https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14507.doc.htm