Liberalism Repatriated: Prospects of an Anthropology of Antiracism

By Tejani, Riaz | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Liberalism Repatriated: Prospects of an Anthropology of Antiracism


Tejani, Riaz, Anthropological Quarterly


The recent crisis over laicite in French public institutions is part of a larger dilemma faced by the liberal nations of Europe struggling in concert to forge a supranational polity, while safeguarding their autochthonous notions of tolerance and universalism. Despite the modular appeal of liberal ideals such as free markets and secular governance, the implementation of these in all corners still manages to evoke Western Europe as the birthplace of this tradition and the space in which it has putatively been correctly in practice. Witness, for example, the myriad civil society organizations that have intervened in ethnic conflict situations around the world and make Western Europe their bureaucratic home. For immigrants who find themselves arriving and establishing new lives in this civil Europe, the situation on the ground may controvert the ideals that have been exported and continue to be exported abroad. In France recent events challenge the malleability of liberalism by presenting it with a greater diversity of cultural symbols and communal affinities. If one response has been a law to ban religious signs from public institutions, another has been the efflorescence of civil and human rights organizations entrenched in a fight against racism and xenophobia. In the spirit of ethnographic inquiry into states and state power, an anthropology of Antiracism captures the tense repatriation of liberal ideals carried out with increasing tenacity by migrants in the European Union.

The French law enforcing laicite results from a decade-long debate over the meaning of the hijab and its relationship to both the Catholic and Jewish communities of France. It also reflects concern over the growing population of muslims which now surpasses 5 million and places Islam second behind Catholicism in number of followers. But the law also comes at a time when Western countries wish to draw a hard line between tolerating difference and encouraging divergence; the law thus represents a more global crisis over humanity and its others.

Humanity as an idea is defined through shared value concepts. It includes all those who believe in well established goods such as "freedom" and "sovereignty". In the post- revolutionary United States, as in most self-fashioning nation-states, these values were embedded in institutions. What set the country apart, however, was the effort to reconcile institutionalized values with real deviations, heterogeneity, hybridity, and polyglossia, presented by the variety of cultural idioms brought by immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, and to a lesser degree Latin America and Asia. That is, the nascent United States had to combine mechanisms to institutionalize values at the highest level (albeit nominally bracketing religiosity) in tandem with mechanisms to incorporate challenges to those values through rational judgment. These formed the two sides of the multicultural national project.

In her reflection on the liberal diaspora in Australia, Povinelli (2002) labels these two sides "moral sensibility" and "critical rational knowledge." Accordingly, moral sensibility is that kind of knowledge that refers always to something beyond discourse (2002: 9). It makes an appeal to some tacit, "pre-theoretical" way of thinking. Meanwhile, "critical rational knowledge" is that kind of knowledge that is able to reflect on itself. It is able to appraise its legitimacy according to some standards of rationality (2002: 9). It is useful here to reiterate an observation Povinelli makes all too subtly. The goal of critical rational knowledge is to not simply to allow routinized procedures to deliver a just conclusion; it is also to reinforce the value concepts that underly its assumptions. So although value judgments are made separate from that which is considered rational knowledge, the separation between the two fields is not a logical impasse but the result of great labor to evacuate the appearance of morality from the realm of rationality. …

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