Deconstruction, Secularism, and Islam

By Andresen, Joshua | Philosophy Today, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Deconstruction, Secularism, and Islam


Andresen, Joshua, Philosophy Today


Since the early 1990s, Jacques Derrida's growing attention to politics and religion has been abundantly noted. What has received far less attention is Derrida's explicit secular commitments in his discussions of religion and politics. Such commitments might be seen as arising from a structural threat that religion, or at least religious dogmatism, poses to political discourse. Insofar as religion, for Derrida, is bound to appeals to the sacred, understood as the unscathed, the pure, and thus the unconditioned and absolute, it threatens what he described in "Violence and Metaphysics" as "the worst violence," i.e., the denial and closure of discourse. ' Given such a threat, an appeal to secular principles to protect a democratic public space of free and critical discourse might seem to follow. In this essay I seek to unsettle such a possible perception of the relation between deconstruction and secularism, as well as Derrida's own commitments to secularism for democracy, by critically contrasting Derrida's discussion of secularism and religion with the work of two recent Muslim reformers. In the work of Abdullahi An-Na'im and Abdolkarim Soroush we find an implicit, but far-reaching, commitment to a certain logic of autoimmunity that Derrida analyzes at length in "Faith and Knowledge" and gives voice to in "Above All, No Journalists": for the sacred or divine to "reach the light ... to phenomenalize itself, to utter itself, to manifest itself, [it] must cede to . . . 'autoimmunity.'"2 That is, for the sacred or divine to manifest itself, it must appear in the human space of the profane. Both of these Muslim reformers draw strong democratic consequences from the necessarily profane status of religious interpretation and knowledge. Thus, contrary to the prevailing secular conception of the proper relation between democracy and religion, as well as the predominant western view of Muslim religious and political thought, they defend democratic reforms from an avowedly religious basis.

Because Derrida's commitment to secularism follows from and mirrors his commitment to democracy, I will begin by reviewing the general nature of political commitment for Derrida and the specific basis of his commitment to democracy. I will then examine Derrida's strategic advocacy of secularism for democracy despite the double-bind and autoimmunity inherent to both democracy and religion. In the second half of the essay, I move to examining how An-Na'im and Soroush present critical alternatives to Derrida's account of secularism and religion, ones that upset the presumed necessary link between secularism and democracy.

Deconstruction and Democracy

Derrida argues repeatedly and at great length that ethical, political, and religious commitments are all characterized by a leap beyond what can be known or generated by rational deliberation. That is, there is always an unbridgeable gap between reason and deliberation on the one hand and the decision to believe or act on the other.3 No rules or norms or even direct commands interpret themselves in any given situation (e.g., God to Abraham: "Kill Isaac!" - is it meant ironically? Is that exactly what I should not do? Is this a test? I must decide, always in a deficit of certainty). Thus the very question, "what should I do?" generates an infinite responsibility for whatever I do, even if I do nothing at all, because I can never fully justify whatever decision I make.4

Derrida complements the arguments for infinite responsibility with arguments that every action I take is always open to the double bind of chance and threat.5 That is, the unknowability and essential incalculability of the future means that any decision I make and action I take, regardless of how long I deliberate on it beforehand and how much knowledge I assemble on its behalf could end in regret. The point again is not to generate fear or inaction. On the contrary, the double bind of chance and threat and the necessary irresponsibility characterizing every decision imply, for Derrida, the urgency of deciding and doing something, as well as grappling with our responsibility for effects we can never completely control.

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