[From the Archives] Religious Cosmopolitanism? Orhan Pamuk, the Headscarf Debate, and the Problem with Pluralism

Justin Neuman’s “Religious Cosmopolitanism? Orhan Pamuk, the Headscarf Debate, and the Problem with Pluralism” originally appeared in Issue 77 of the minnesota review

Ka, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow (2005), is an Istanbul-born secular intellectual who “couldn’t see how [he] could reconcile . . . becoming a European with a God who required women to wrap themselves in scarves,” and so, in dismissive fashion, he “kept religion” and its “bearded provincial reactionaries . . . out of his life” (96). Returning to Turkey after a dozen years in Germany as a poet in exile, Ka travels to the eastern Anatolian city of Kars, where he encounters a range of Islamic practices and performances among the observant members of the population: a Kurdish sheikh, the Islamist mayoral candidate, young men labeled radicals and terrorists, and the leader of a group of girls protesting the ban on headscarves at the local university. As he discovers, however, these locally specific and globally networked forms of religious experience are a far cry from the Atatürk-era conception of Islam as the parochial antithesis of modernity and worldliness. Ka’s diasporic trajectory and modernist literary ambitions mark him, in an ironic reversal, as the novel’s least worldly character, as Blue, its charismatic terrorist antihero maintains: Ka, he says, is “a modern-day dervish. . . . [He has] withdrawn from the world to devote . . . [himself ] to poetry” (76). As Ka wrestles with the artistic, social, and political sterility of his secularity, he finds himself turning to religion on an individual level, identifying his newfound religious investments as the source of his resurgent poetic powers and also revising his attitudes about the place of religion in the public sphere. In short, we find Ka working toward a mode of being that is at once religious and cosmopolitan.

Is cosmopolitanism compatible with religion? More specifically, can the cosmopolitan desire to engage diversity and forge new affiliations provide the resources to cultivate larger loyalties in a climate of global religious resurgence, one in which the divisions between varieties of religious and secular culture are increasingly salient? For many thinkers, the utopian energies of cosmopolitanism as a primary ethical commitment to “the worldwide community of human beings,” as Martha Nussbaum (1994) puts it, depend on subordinating religious difference to a common humanity; in fact, religious convictions, communities, and attachments have come to replace nationalism as cosmopolitanism’s foil and ideological antithesis. Rather than seeking to overturn the nation-state, theories of cosmopolitanism have evolved within and become increasingly complicit with state sovereignty and global capital. To travel smoothly among the flows of global culture and public reason one need not abandon the nation, but one must, in the dominant account, be willing to shed the parochial trappings of religion — or at least relegate such attachments to one’s private life.

Religious individuals — the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso or Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, for instance — can clearly be cosmopolitan in the casual sense of the term (worldly, international, well traveled) and in the more robust ethical sense that they are committed to promoting human rights, dignity, and emancipatory politics beyond their faith communities. For many who are not international celebrities, moreover, the precepts of a particular religion — and the increasingly transnational communities of faith — are a primary vector of engagement with the world beyond the nation; but cosmopolitanisms underwritten by particular faiths are ultimately ways of advocating for one religion’s putative universality rather than an attempt to foster substantive engagement with religious difference as such. Christianity, for instance, can reasonably claim to have been a cosmopolitan faith since the Apostle Paul began preaching the gospel of Christian universalism to non-Jews, a message epitomized in his letter to the struggling Christian community in the central Anatolian town of Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:38 New Revised Standard Version). According to regnant theories of the secular, like the Kemalist laicism espoused by Pamuk’s Ka, strong religions bespeak a fundamentalist countermodernity. In this vein, Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006) describes radical globalized religious movements as paradigmatic examples of “counter-cosmopolitanism,” a term he uses to denote both the transnational and technophilic nature of such groups and to emphasize their adherence to visions of universal truth that are antithetical to the robust pluralism he celebrates (196). And yet, as Pamuk’s novel underscores, precisely because the most prominent boundaries of the modern world system are not territorial or political but religious, any cosmopolitanism worthy of the name must offer a model of inclusivity and universalism that both recognizes and reckons with the substantive differences that separate varieties of religious and secular experience.

This essay explores what it might mean to cultivate a sensibility of religious cosmopolitanism through the study of narrative literature. I begin by analyzing the intersection of these terms — the religious and the cosmopolitan — across their longue durée. The resulting history helps to clarify how and why cosmopolitanism, conceived and theorized in opposition to political boundaries, has come to conceive religion — religious practices, convictions, and communities — as its theopolitical limit while becoming increasingly compatible with nationalism and soft accounts of cultural difference. An ethos of cosmopolitanism underwritten by a set of distinctly secularist norms cannot, I suggest, bridge the divisions or cool the conflicts of a post–Cold War world, where violence ignites precisely around the fault lines of religious difference. As I use the term here, religious cosmopolitanism describes an ethos of individual engagement and voluntary affiliation, one that aims to cultivate inter-epistemic fluencies, establish systems of mediation, and explore spaces of encounter that promote mutual recognition, respect, and nonviolent contention. As differentiated from paradigms like pluralism and interfaith dialogue — which stress the equal validity of all religions and uphold tolerant coexistence while tending to reify existing identity formations — cosmopolitanism as a project offers a different approach to diversity, one that emphasizes affinities, decision making, and imaginative investment.

To read more of “Religious Cosmopolitanism?  Orhan Pamuk, the Headscarf Debate, and the Problem with Pluralism,” visit our archives for Issue 77. You will need a subscription or institutional access to read the full article.

Justin Neuman is assistant professor of English literature at Yale University, where he works on twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature and culture. He is the author of recent articles in Criticism, the Hedgehog Review, and Studies in American Literature and is a contributing writer for the scholarly blog Immanent Frame. He is currently at work on two book projects: “Novel Faiths: Secularism, Religion, and Global Fiction since 1989,” and “Crude Culture: Literature in the Age of Oil.”


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