Religious Cosmopolitanism?

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Religious Cosmopolitanism?

Orhan Pamuk, the Headscarf Debate, and the Problem with Pluralism

Justin Neuman (bio)


Is cosmopolitanism compatible with religion? 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. 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. In a time of Twitter revolutions and constant connectivity, celebrants of globalization and its critics alike are prone to thin accounts that fall back on metaphors of a flat world and the short text. Against the perils of the short and the flat, this essay celebrates the long formats and sustained acts of imaginative investment fostered by narrative literature. Focusing on Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, I analyze the ways in which worldly faith and parochial secularity unravel the religious/cosmopolitan agon. As Pamuk’s novel underscores, 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.

IKa, 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,” [End Page 143] 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 [End Page 144] 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.

We live in a time of Twitter revolutions and constant connectivity, a time when television and social media saturate cultural fields and when networks have become a synecdoche for the putative ease and rapidity of cultural exchange. While proponents of globalization celebrate the utopian potential of new media and its critics level charges of cultural imperialism, both sides of the globalization debate are prone to thin accounts that fall back on metaphors of a flat world and the short text — a problem that similarly plagues accounts of cosmopolitanism. The long formats and sustained acts of imaginative investment fostered by the humanities in general and narrative literature in particular remain a powerful defense against the perils of the short and the flat. Through a strategic reading of Pamuk’s novel, I suggest several ways in which distant and close reading practices can establish frameworks for strategic comparison while cultivating the affective attachments and capacities for self-critique at the heart of a nascent ethos of religious cosmopolitanism. [End Page 145]


To Diogenes of Sinope, the fourth-century BCE philosopher credited with coining the term cosmopolitan, all forms of religious conviction and practice were antithetical to universal citizenship and the edicts of rationalist independence. Among the many anecdotes in Lives of Eminent Philosophers about the man who spurned worldly possessions and appropriated the epithet kynikos, or doglike, Diogenes Laërtius recounts that when “[a]sked where he came from . . . [Diogenes of Sinope] said, ‘I am a citizen of the world’”— a kosmopolitês (Diogenes Laërtius VI 63). His claim to world citizenship erases and supersedes his ties to Sinope, the Anatolian port city on the Black Sea that served as northern terminus of a main trade route to the Euphrates valley (a metropolis less than five hundred miles from the setting of Pamuk’s novel). His claim also responds to local political conditions: Diogenes journeyed to Athens only after being exiled from his birthplace. He railed mightily against religion: he “saw no impropriety either in stealing anything from a temple or in eating the flesh of any animal,” called priests “the great thieves,” and when asked if he believed in the gods, responded with scorn, “How can I help believing in them . . . when I see a god-forsaken wretch like you?” (VI 73, 45, 42). But Diogenes’s negative assessment of religion was part of a systematic insurrection against and contempt for the social norms and aspirations espoused by his contemporaries. Thus, despite his animosity to the religious doxa of his day, when Diogenes renounced allegiances built upon local modes of belonging to assert a more abstract affiliation with humanity at large, his project was a radically negative one conceived as an attempt to discredit all existing systems of value. For Diogenes, religion appears as a species of particularist commitment to be spurned, though by no means the most important one.

When Immanuel Kant resurrected the term cosmopolitan in his treatise Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Essay ([1795] 1957), he bound the rhetoric and sensibility of world citizenship to a constructivist vision that replaced the anarchic energies of Cynics like Diogenes with the systematizing logic of positive law. Kant’s short essay seeks to ground cosmopolitan rights on the spatial finitude of the globe. In the third article of the treatise, “The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality,” Kant suggests that the “right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another” derives from our “common possession of the surface of the earth,” which, being finite, necessitates that we “must finally tolerate the presence of each other” (20 –21). Written toward the end of his career and in the wake of the eighteenth century’s [End Page 146] two great revolutions, Kant’s emphasis on norms and rights reaffirms the state-centered concept of sovereignty that he adopts from West-phalian Europe’s existing political dispensation. Kant, however, placed his hope for perpetual peace in a vision of the world as a system of independent, republican states, opposing the idea of a world state as tantamount to tyranny. While his analysis of the compatibility between cosmopolitanism and the nation-state echoes in subsequent systems of global governance, Kant’s analysis of religion as it comes to bear on the challenge of perpetual peace achieves substantially less traction. Kant is of two minds regarding the significance of religion: on the one hand, he sees two mechanisms at work in the world that conspire to inhibit macropolitical projects. “Nature,” for Kant, “employs two means to separate peoples and to prevent them from mixing: differences of language and of religion” (31). At the same time, religiosity remains irrelevant to transnational engagement, because Kant rejects the idea of religious difference as spurious: “Difference of religion — a singular expression!” Kant exclaims. “It is precisely as if one spoke of different moralities” (31). In this remark, consigned to a footnote, Kant evinces the rigor of his universalism — in which apparent specificities of religion are really accidents of contingency, not reflections of essential differences — and espouses a view of religion shared by many Enlightenment secularists. Secularists in this tradition came to see religion as a universal human phenomenon: “There may be different religious texts (Zendavesta, the Veda, the Koran, etc.),” Kant allows, “but such differences do not exist in religion, there being only one religion valid for all men and in all ages” (31). By conceiving religions not as discrete, robust systems of behaviors, beliefs, attachments, and communities, but instead as a universal grammar, Kant ensures that cosmopolitanism would remain a project of political rather than religious adjudication.

Cosmopolitan was a pejorative term throughout much of the twentieth century — especially when used to modify Jews, communists, and homosexuals — and a concept ignored or derided in the era of decolonization, when hopes ran high for the emancipatory potential of postcolonial nationalism. Cosmopolitanism, however, returned to center stage with a vengeance in the aftermath of the Cold War; by the mid-1990s, in the words of Eric Lott (1996), the “new cosmopolitanism” had already become “the Next Big Thing” even in the nationalist discipline of American studies (108).1 The reemergence of the term testifies to the planetary nature of many of the most significant problems facing the world today, from global climate change to nuclear proliferation to pandemic disease. Conflicting conceptions of cosmopolitanism, moreover, register opposing reactions to globalization and [End Page 147] multiculturalism as phenomena. Some use the term cosmopolitan as a gesture of approbation: global flows of capital, postnational structures such as NGOs, and unprecedented interconnectedness have fostered a more “cosmopolitan” world. Yet cosmopolitanism also names the desire shared by many on the cultural Left to forge an ethos of political engagement that navigates a middle path between the particularizing relativism of multiculturalist identity politics on the one hand and managerial globalisms on the other. To do so, new cosmopolitan theorists of various stripes have grappled with the two perceived inadequacies of cosmopolitan theory: namely, its alleged Eurocentric elitism and the frequent allegation that the ideas of “world” and “humanity” as retailed by cosmopolitans are too gauzy to galvanize the affective attachments necessary for political mobilization, let alone a fight to the death. But cosmopolitan theory has not yet adequately engaged with cosmopolitanism’s thoroughgoing secularity.

In the burgeoning debate over the meaning and value of cosmopolitanism, the concept’s Stoic and Kantian roots clarify the dialectical relationship between nationalism and cosmopolitanism that has characterized much of its intellectual history.2 The 1994 publication of Martha Craven Nussbaum’s essay “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” in the Boston Review and the subsequent responses collected in her and Joshua Cohen’s 1996 volume For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism underscore the return of cosmopolitanism as a fighting term and reify its dialectical relationship to nationalism. For Nussbaum, as for Diogenes, the cosmopolitan person’s highest commitment must be to the good of humanity as a whole rather than to what she describes as “morally dangerous” patriotisms (1996, 4). In her argument, Nussbaum upholds an ideal of cosmopolitanism as the normative force governing identity and ethics in shepherding the post–Cold War era toward a better world. Grounding these claims not in utilitarian or pragmatic terms but in an appeal to an essential humanity, reason, and the good that traces its lineage through Kant to the Stoics, Nussbaum insists that cosmopolitanism “asks us to give our first allegiance to what is morally good — and that which, being good, I can commend as such to all human beings” (1996, 5). And yet, as Hilary Putnam argues, Nussbaum’s assertion that cosmopolitans must subordinate their religious commitments in order to access the universally good is unnecessarily dismissive of religion. Rejecting religion, as Putnam suggests, forsakes “one of the most powerful resources available for combating selfishness and narrow national self-interest” (Putnam 1996, 83).

Working within Nussbaum’s Kantian tradition, Seyla Benhabib (2006) has argued for approaching cosmopolitanism descriptively as [End Page 148] the set of practices that best characterize the emergence of a global human rights regime since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. As Benhabib uses the term, cosmopolitanism neither signifies an attitude toward humanity as a whole nor describes trans-national cultures; instead it indexes a specific system of norms that governs interpersonal and international relations — cosmopolitan law — that trumps the will of sovereign states. With her focus on the juridical realm and democratic iteration — the process through which norms are repeated, contested, and resignified in particular contexts — religion enters Benhabib’s understanding of cosmopolitanism primarily in conflicts about the role of religion in the public sphere. Thus for Benhabib, L’affair du foulard — the headscarf debate in France — becomes a paradigmatic example of the tensions between universal norms, like freedom of religion, and local practices — in this case, of French laïcité. In this instance, Benhabib praises the process of debate and adjudication (“democratic iterations”) despite the fact that the outcome — legislation banning religious symbols in schools — exacerbates tension between secular and observant members of the population (2006, 71).

Alongside the universalistic, explicitly secular cosmopolitanism articulated by Nussbaum, Benhabib, and others, a divergent chorus attempts to renovate the cosmopolitan ethos by distancing it from rationalism and juridical culture. Describing these alternate cosmopolitanisms as “rooted,” “vernacular,” “cosmopolitical,” or “discrepant,” Kwame Anthony Appiah, Homi K. Bhabha, Bruce Robbins, James Clifford, and others begin by emphasizing the accuracy of many critiques of cosmopolitanism as it has traditionally been framed — namely that, as Craig Calhoun argues, “Cosmopolitanism has been a project of empires, long distance trade and of cities” (2002, 870).3 Moreover, speaking to the perceived elitism of cosmopolitanism, Calhoun adds, “Cosmopolitanism is a discourse centered in a Western view of the world,” and it “is now largely the product of capitalism, and it flourishes in the top management of multinational corporations” (873; 890). Anthropologists, cultural critics, and political scientists theorizing cosmopolitanisms, in the plural, work instead to valorize the experience of migrant workers, servants, au pairs, victims of the slave trade, and others traditionally cast as victims rather than agents in the global economy. By calling attention to the life of a migrant worker, for example, as a site of what Clifford calls “diverse cosmopolitical encounters,” he and others suggest that “these competencies can be redeemed under a sign of hope as ‘discrepant cosmopolitanisms’” (2002, 376). [End Page 149]

If cosmopolitanism historically offered a rather thinly imagined “citizenship of the world,” proponents of discrepant or rooted cosmopolitanisms seek to invest the concept with greater specificity in order to differentiate it from universalism and in so doing to increase its ethical and political traction.4 Among the critics attempting to imagine cosmopolitanism beyond notions of universal reason and citizenship, Kwame Anthony Appiah offers a particularly compelling vision in his influential volume Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006). Appiah writes, “One distinctively cosmopolitan commitment is to pluralism. Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values” (144). In claiming both that cosmopolitanism is an inherently pluralist creed and that this thoroughgoing pluralism is a unique aspect of cosmopolitanism that enables it to be distinguished from other visions of identity, Appiah foregrounds the tension between cosmopolitanism and its antithesis: religious and nationalistic particularism.

Like Kant, Appiah argues that valorizing pluralism extends to embracing “a variety of political engagements” and thus a multiplicity of nation-states (2006, 163). On a more pragmatic level, he agrees with Hannah Arendt’s mid-century conclusion that the nation remains the principal arbiter of rights and that the welfare state is a vital part of meeting basic human needs. Thus for Appiah, nations — and nationalism or patriotism in a limited sense — are perfectly compatible with the cosmopolitan sensibilities with which he identifies. For Appiah, privatized religions are part of what adds tone and definition to cosmopolitanism; religions are part of our rootedness. But strong religions run afoul of the second tenet of Appiah’s cosmopolitanism, fallibility: “Another aspect of cosmopolitanism is what philosophers call fallibilism — the sense that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence” (144). While cosmopolitans embrace pluralism and fallibility, Appiah asserts, “the neofundamentalist conception of a global ummah (community of believers), by contrast, admits of local variations — but only in matters that don’t matter. These counter-cosmopolitans, once more like many Christian fundamentalists, do think that there is one right way for all human beings to live” (2006, 143).5 As religious actors and collectives have come to replace nationalist ones as principal threats to world peace, religions — particularly “strong” religions that claim privileged access to truth and universal validity — rather than new breeds of patriotism are increasingly invoked as the antithesis of cosmopolitanism.6 [End Page 150]

The secular frame within which cosmopolitanisms have traditionally operated reflects a paradoxically narrow approach to the condition of pluralism when it comes to religion. Current paradigms suggest that global (and indeed national) citizenship in a world made up of people practicing a multiplicity of faiths — and none — requires either a public sphere distilled of particular religious practices (laicism) or a system that remands religion to a private sphere while remaining formally neutral in religious matters (the storied “wall” of separation). To the extent that religious life and structures have found places in the cosmopolitan imagination, they have done so in this latter sense, as valorized modes of private difference — like particular regional cuisines or architectural styles — that insulate against the charge that globalization produces a McWorld of homogeneous neo-liberal consumers. The conviction that modernity entails the privatization and inexorable decline of religion — the so-called secularization thesis expounded by social theorists like Max Weber and émile Durkheim — has proved integral to the self-understanding of Western modernity for over a century. Since the early 1990s, however, a crisis of faith has struck the adherents of the secularization thesis. The causes of this crisis are various: empirical data on the continued personal and political salience of religion into the twenty-first century handily disproves prophecies of its imminent decline; new theoretical approaches expose secularism’s putative universality as the outgrowth of particular reformist trends within the Judeo-Christian tradition; and the divergent routes to modernity taken by the nations of Asia and the Middle East challenge the social-evolutionary assumption that modernization entails westernization. The collapse of the secular consensus portends a sea change for theories of cosmopolitanism. As cosmopolitan ideals are increasingly predicated on secular subjectivity, it becomes more difficult to recognize religiously inflected transnationalisms as forms of cosmopolitanism; at the same time, by tacitly excluding those with strong beliefs from the pluralist fold, cosmopolitan theorists court the charges of elitism and Eurocentrism that they assiduously seek to avoid.


Of the fifty-eight languages into which Orhan Pamuk’s fiction has been translated, the 2009 Armenian edition of Snow, translated by Hakob Soghomonyan, signals a uniquely important moment in the transnational history of Pamuk’s work despite the modest thousand-copy print run. The translation, the first of a Turkish novel into Armenian since Armenia gained independence from Russia in 1991, itself [End Page 151] followed a circuitous route: with no Armenian translators fluent in Turkish, Soghomonyan worked from a Russian edition of the novel, and the resulting product was released with significant media fanfare in both Armenia and Lebanon.7 The Armenian edition travels along two physical and linguistic trajectories: one on the north-south axis of Coptic Christianity that links the Caucasus to Beirut and Jerusalem, and a second via defunct Soviet-era circuits of education and literary culture. In this way, the Armenian translation calls attention to a curious cosmopolitanism instantiated by transnational commitments and connections (in this case from Istanbul to Armenia via Moscow or Beirut), a cosmopolitanism otherwise marginalized on two distinct levels: politically by the official westernizing and pro-NATO policies of the Turkish state, and literarily by the frequent invocation of Pamuk as a writer whose work mediates between Europe and the Middle East.

The idea for the Armenian translation, moreover, has been attributed to the renowned Turkish-Armenian journalist, editor, and public intellectual Hrant Dink, who was prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish constitution for denegrating Turkishness (as was Pamuk) on three separate occasions and who was ultimately assassinated in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist. Within the semantic frame of the novel, Kars’s provinciality is belied by a vestigial global architecture of Russian streets, Ottoman fortresses, and Armenian churches: “Once upon a time,” Pamuk writes, “Kars was an important station on the trade route to Georgia, Tabriz, and the Caucasus; being on the border between two empires now defunct, the Ottoman and the Russian” (2005, 19 –20). The Armenian translation of Snow thus reactivates these defunct cosmopolitan networks. For his part, Pamuk declined the modest royalties from a translation seen by sympathetic Turks, Armenians, and the international press as a signal of cross-cultural dialogue promising to disrupt official Turkish genocide denial.

In an echo of Benhabib’s analysis of the Nuremburg trials as the formative event in cosmopolitan legal history, genocide emerges as an important cosmopolitan leitmotif in Pamuk’s fiction. Subtle narrative references to absent Armenians in Snow form the basis of a cosmopolitan culture grounded in naming the crime of genocide. In a widely quoted interview with the Swiss Das Magazin (2005), Pamuk said, “Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands [Turkey]. And almost nobody dares to talk about it. So I do.”8 With these brief words, Pamuk rocketed to the center of global media culture and into his own protracted, closely watched trial for insulting Turkishness — an event that catalyzed the Armenian translation of [End Page 152] Snow. This brief sketch of an unusual transnational publication and translation history — but one small part in the largely corporate global dissemination of any internationally best-selling novel — helps add nuance to the fable that surrounds Pamuk’s work as it circulates in translation: that like the nation of Turkey, Pamuk’s novels bridge East and West. This fable, which is promulgated explicitly by the Nobel Committee and which Pamuk has honed into a métier, accounts for much of the richness and significance of his oeuvre; like any powerful binary, however, it tends to sacrifice nuance in favor of abstraction.9

Transnational connections and mobility in Snow are nothing if not nuanced and multipolar. The novel portrays complex transnational attachments against the caricatured East/West dialectic that structures Pamuk’s reception, the inadequacy of which is expressed most poignantly in the repeated motif of the “statement[s] to the West” made by various characters: “There is, after all,” Blue explains to Ka, “only one West and only one Western point of view. And we take the opposite point of view” (2005, 228). The multileveled satire at play in the “statement to the West” and Blue’s own internationalism encourages the reader to look under this comically thin veneer. Despite the overtly political concerns explored in Snow — the novel addresses hot-button issues as diverse as EU membership, the Armenian genocide, political Islam, Kurdish minority rights, military abuses of power, economic disparities, and the headscarf issue, to name a few — Pamuk’s novel may seem an odd text through which to explore cosmopolitanism or put pressure on its ideological agon with religion. Set in a remote border town, the novel eschews the imperial center for an explicitly provincial periphery. Analogically, Kars is to Istanbul as Turkey is to Europe: a distant fringe and borderland, a place Ka recognizes “as the poorest, most overlooked corner of Turkey” (18). For Ka, in stark contrast to much of the thinking on cosmopolitanism in the wake of Salman Rushdie and the fatwa affair, diasporic internationalism and exile convey little glamour and less material reward. Instead of promoting affective attachments to humanity at large and cultivating cross-cultural fluencies, Ka’s exile produces, more realistically perhaps, introversion, a rapid narrowing of horizons, and a complete divestiture from social life.

The problematic relationship between religion and cosmopolitanism is particularly vexed in the Republic of Turkey, where, in the long shadow cast by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to be cosmopolitan has meant looking west, and where being a citizen of the modern Turkish state, and therefore of the world community, has required distancing [End Page 153] oneself from the perceived parochialisms and anachronisms of Ottoman and Islamic identities. Under the “Six Arrows” of the Kemalist ideology (republicanism, populism, reformism, nationalism, secularism, and statism), Atatürk’s top-down initiatives spread from the secular military and economic elite in Ankara and Istanbul. Atatürk’s regime replaced the Islamic calendar with the Gregorian, religious modes of dress with European fashions, Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, madrasas with state-run public schools, and a society in which women were at best second-class citizens with one in which women gained the right to vote in 1934, fully a decade before similar developments in France. Enshrined in article two of the Turkish constitution, which defines the state as “democratic, secular [the Turkish employs the French cognate laik], and social,” secularism serves explicitly statist goals; the constitution’s preamble mandates that “there shall be no interference whatsoever by sacred religious feelings in state affairs.”10 Secular nationalism buttresses the identity of the Republic while serving as a bulwark against pan-Islamic trans-national attachments to the Islamic ummah. Since the end of single-party rule in 1946, maintaining the Kemalist secularist hegemony has required military and juridical coups d’état, repeated disbandment of democratically elected parties, and the full implementation of the penal code. The ideological edifice of Kemalist secularism produces and depends on an opposition between secularist, rationalist, progressive modernization (that brings with it the attendant goods of prosperity, equality, democracy, women’s rights, individuality, and European integration) and the forces of Islam, which stand for its opposites.

And yet, the nation’s political milieu in the twenty-first century offers a conspicuous unraveling of Kemalist binaries, in particular between religion and cosmopolitanism. Since the victory in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül — both committed Muslims and former torch-bearers of radical Islam — a party with deep Islamic roots has controlled Turkish politics, garnering a plurality in the 2002 national elections with 34 percent of the vote, a figure that rose to 47 percent in the general elections of 2007. Surprising many both domestically and internationally, it has been the AKP, often against the will of parties in the Kemalist secular-nationalist tradition, that has supported Turkey’s ascension to the EU, championed women’s access to education, supported minority rights for the Kurds, and called for an end to policies supportive of torture and rendition. Founded from the shards of Islamist political organizations dissolved by Turkey’s Constitutional [End Page 154] Court for violating the principle of secularism, the AKP has tread a fine line, mobilizing Turkey’s devout majority through faith-based grassroots activism and projecting the moral values of traditional Islam while simultaneously denying explicitly Islamist affiliations or ambitions.

The AKP has endorsed and expanded Turkey’s role in NATO and signed on to the Copenhagen Criteria for membership in the EU. Its party platform contains an extensive section on human rights, and around the issue of the headscarf and the admission of covered women into the university, the AKP has argued in terms of these rights: rights to higher education, rights to freedom of individual expression, rights to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religion. For women, moreover, as Saba Mahmood (2005) and others have noted, the meaning of the headscarf itself has changed from a sign of subjection, disenfranchisement, and prohibition to an act of political speech and an affirmation of autonomy.11 Though the results of its leadership have been mixed, those in Turkey and the West who have accused the AKP of hiding a politics of shari’a law within the Trojan horse of multi-culturalist rhetoric have overstated their case.12 By maintaining a conservative, capitalist economic platform and portraying itself as a moderate and coalitional party, the AKP narrowly survived an indictment for antisecular activities in 2008. Through the AKP, an Islamic political party has challenged hegemonic state secularism in the decidedly cosmopolitan name of human rights (and the ban on headscarves in the name of women’s equal access to higher education and self-expression) and thus promises to expose and disrupt the latent Judeo-Christian secularism inherent in Euro-American cosmopolitanisms.

According to the 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project (which its chairwoman, Madeleine Albright, describes as a cosmopolitan attempt to foster, “through in-depth, mostly face-to-face interviews with tens of thousands of people in every region of the world,” a more “comprehensive, cross-cultural appreciation of the public’s evolving attitude toward their national government, their political leaders and even toward the United States” [Albright et al. 2002]), 99 percent of the Turkish population believe in God and identify with a particular religion; of these, most Turks are Sunni, the only religion to receive fiscal support from the state, though there is also a large Alevi minority and various active Sufi sects. Sixty-nine percent of the population report that they attend religious services on a weekly basis, and some three-quarters of Turkish women cover in some form. Over two-thirds of the population avow that religion plays a “very important” role in their personal lives, though only 41 percent of Turks express a [End Page 155] desire for Islam to play a larger role in political life. Indeed, in the countries surveyed in the Pew study, only France exceeded Turkey in the percentage of people (73 percent) who “completely agree” that “religion is a personal matter and should be kept separate from government.” A subsequent Pew survey, “Views of a Changing World” (Albright 2003), further revealed that more than nine in ten Turks maintain that women should have the choice to wear a headscarf or other religious covering, in direct opposition to the official policy prohibiting the practice.

My utilization of two forms of distant reading — first, to track the translation and circulation of Pamuk’s novel as a physical and cultural artifact, and second, to draw social scientific research into the fold of humanist inquiry — attempts to frame Pamuk’s Snow as a response to the prehistory of the AKP that reconfigures modernist and Islamic tropes in order to dissolve secularism and religiosity as putatively oppositional discourses. The plot of Pamuk’s novel converges on two theatrical events staged at the National Theater in Kars — spectacles watched by the audience in attendance or on live television throughout the city and described to the novel’s readers with cinematic attention to lighting, costume, and stage direction. In the first of these events, before the evening culminates in a secularist revolution staged to upset the imminent mayoral elections, Sunay Zaim, an aging but famous actor, punctuates his variety act routine with a reprise of an Atatürk-era play titled “My Fatherland or My Headscarf.” The plot of this “desperately old-fashioned” production follows a veiled woman who proclaims her independence by removing her scarf and burning it over the protests of her family and various “bearded Muslim men”; she is ultimately saved from the reprisals of “prayer-bead-clutching religious fanatics” by Republican soldiers (2005, 22). Within the semantic realm of the novel, the play operates along the lines of Hamlet’s “The Mousetrap”: by successfully cultivating the ire of the religious high school students in the audience with the symbolic power of a burning headscarf, Sunay can first elicit a reactionary backlash from the observant public and then “save” the secular republic with a fusillade of rifle shots. Instead, the drama maps the shifting terms of the headscarf debate and serves to underscore how social meaning is contingent on the context of reception. Confident in the tightly scripted binaries of the Kemalist social and cultural imaginary, which endorsed modernization as westernization and identified state power as the ethical center of the nation, the play’s author could be assured to garner “tears and standing ovations whenever it [the play] was performed” in the 1930s (162). Sunay’s revival of the play occurs [End Page 156] in a political landscape in which the cultural coordinates of the head-scarf are far more complicated, however, and a diverse array of cosmopolitical affiliations interrupt the binary modalities of Kemalism.

Kadife, the leader of the so-called headscarf girls, dons her scarf neither out of deep-seated religious conviction nor in pious obeisance to her father, who is a secularist in the Kemalist vein; instead, Kadife claims she has covered her head “for personal religious reasons but also wears the scarf as an emblem of her faith,” and thus as an act of political speech (2005, 281). As Kadife notes, “[T]o play the rebel heroine in Turkey you don’t pull off your scarf, you put it on” (312). Kadife’s claim condenses the convoluted symbolic resonance of the headscarf debate: in Turkey, where Kemalist legislative reforms have forbidden the wearing of headscarves in government and universities since the 1920s, donning a headscarf indeed constitutes an act of political dissidence. Playing “the rebel heroine,” however, asserts claims of individualism, power, and visibility in direct tension with the norms of piety and modesty that the headscarf denotes — pieties Kadife inverts in her illicit affair with Blue. For Ka, who had lived outside Turkey for twelve years before returning to Kars, Kadife represents a new type of Islamic woman whose wearing of the headscarf shatters the myths of female subservience and domesticity associated in his mind with Islamic dress. As the narrator notes, Ka “paid little attention to the head scarves he saw and didn’t attempt to distinguish the political kind from any other”; they had simply served to demarcate the modern, Western, and affluent from the retrograde and poor. The narrator continues to explain that Ka “had scarcely been in the habit of noticing covered women. In the Westernized upper-class circles of the young Ka’s Istanbul, a covered woman would have been . . . the milkman’s wife or someone else from the lower classes” (23). Kadife’s headscarf — and with it the headscarves of women in positions of power and aspiring to university educations — testifies to the political, religious, and economic shifts that have transformed Turkish society between the years of Ka’s youth and the present of the narrative. The most significant of these changes, which ultimately brought the AK Party to power to power in 2002, was the rapid rise of an Islamic middle class.13

The failure of Sunay’s play to convey a coherent meaning or forge a collective out of the disparate groups in the ironically named National Theater reflects the dramatic shifts that the headscarf debate has undergone since the time of the play’s original production in the 1930s. First, the cultural meanings cathected on the scarf have changed: “Most of the locals in the National Theater were shocked and [End Page 157] confused by the first scene,” the narrator notes; “no one expected to see an actual woman onstage wearing a head scarf. When they did, they took it to be the sort of head scarf that has become the respected symbol of political Islam” (2005, 147). After eighty years of secular rule, the scarf has ceased to function as the symbol of religious and patriarchal traditionalism for which it stood in Kemalist discourse. In fact, persistent attacks on Islamic dress by secular elites and repeated judicial disbandment of opposition political parties on religious grounds have increased the status of the headscarf as a sign of resistance and opposition. To my mind, the way the novel marks this transformation is less about “the rise of political Islam” in Turkey or transnational cultural conflict and more an attempt to understand why mainline secularisms are in danger of losing their worldliness.

In Snow, it is not the play “My Fatherland or My Headscarf ” that captures the public imagination or maps new cultural connections. Instead, the cultural work that is described as reaching all Turks — secular atheists and political Islamists, Istanbul urbanites and the residents of Kars — is a Mexican serial soap opera broadcast in Turkish translation, a show that plays “five times a week on one of the big Istanbul channels to the intense delight of the entire country” (2005, 239 – 40). With this wry gesture, Pamuk emphasizes a vernacular cosmopolitan network that binds the entire population of Turkey to the story of a fair-skinned Catholic Latina and her frustrated romances — one of many surprising connections in an increasingly complex global system. In a world whose multiple centers and peripheries shift over time, novels like Snow help us track the processes through which cultural networks transform and disseminate. Reading such novels, moreover, helps fulfill the pedagogical imperative that Nussbaum identifies with cosmopolitanism: to remedy the serious problem that we are “appallingly ignorant of most of the rest of the world” (1996, 11). At the same time, the double gesture of the literary — a form that both represents complex modes of trans-national engagement and reflects critically upon its own project of representation — resists platitudes about ethical engagement with those distant from ourselves: as Necip admonishes Orhan on the final page of Snow, “I’d like to tell your readers not to believe . . . anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away” (2005, 425).

Behind the irony and destabilization in Pamuk’s Snow lies a desire to refashion both Kemalist laicism and hegemonic conceptions of Islam in the name of reparative religious projects that renegotiate [End Page 158] the claims of secularity. In a broader context, lest universalist projects — from pragmatic ventures in global and supraregional governance like the UN and the EU, to the aspirations of “discrepant,” “actually existing,” or “rooted” cosmopolitanisms — simply buttress logically untenable and ethically problematic divisions between the secular and the religious, cosmopolitanism must undergo a similar renovation.

Justin Neuman  

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.”


Parts of this essay were first presented as a paper at the Modern Language Association conference in Los Angeles and as an invited lecture at Brandeis College. I am grateful for the comments made at these gatherings.


1. Eric Lott (1996) focuses here on the new meanings of the cosmopolitan in American studies; for early accounts of this shift in adjacent fields, see Brennan 1997 and Cheah, Robbins, and the Social Text Collective 1998.

2.  See, especially, the opening pages of the following seminal volumes: Martha Craven Nussbaum and Joshua Cohen (1996), Steven Vertovec and Robin Cohen (2003), and Robert Fine (2007).

3.  For other attempts to renovate the Stoic/Kantian lines of cosmopolitan thought in socially and politically trenchant directions, see, especially, the introduction to Carol A. Breckenridge et al. (2002); and Robbins (1999).

4.  In their essays for Nussbaum’s For Love of Country, Benjamin Barber (1996), along with Gertrude Himmelfarb and Charles Taylor (1996), specifically cite the problematic “thinness” of cosmopolitan theory.

5.  Appiah’s insights regarding globalization and fundamentalism are broadly anticipated by scholarship in international relations. Terrorism specialist Audrey Cronin put the general case well in a 2003 article for International Security: “The current wave of international terrorism, characterized by unpredictable and unprecedented threats from nonstate actors, not only is a reaction to globalization but is facilitated by it” (30).

6.  I use the term “strong religion” following Gabriel Abraham Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan (2003) to denote militant, antisecular movements, but also to describe mainstream religious practices and convictions that make claims to exclusive truth and universal validity.

7.  For media coverage of the Armenian translation, see Asbarez (2009) and Vercihan Ziflouglu (2009).

8.  Pamuk’s genocide comments went viral on the web. See English PEN (2005), whose letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books was headlined “The Case of Orhan Pamuk.”

9.  The press release accompanying the announcement of Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Prize in literature ( 2006) praises Pamuk as a writer “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”

10.  The secularity of the Turkish Republic is one of the so-called “irrevocable provisions” of the Republic in the constitution ratified on November 7, 1982.

11.  For anthropological accounts of the headscarf issue, see Nilüfer Göle (1996) and Saba Mahmood (2005). For a lively discussion of the headscarf controversy [End Page 159] and the AKP in 2008, see the discussion thread on the Immanent Frame blog, especially the contributions of Jenny White, Markus Dressler, Nïlufer Göle, and Joan Wallach Scott.

12.  See, for example, M. K. Bhadrakumar (2009) on the “Turkish snub.”

13.  On the rise of an Islamic middle class and its effects on Turkish politics, see M. Hakan Yavuz, Emergence of a New Turkey (2006). The headscarf’s shifting political signification reflects demographic and economic transformations that have led to what anthropologist Jenny B. White (2002, 48) evocatively terms “the evolution of the Islamist Yuppie,” a new class of financially successful, well-educated, politically connected, pious Turks instrumental in the rise of the AKP and earlier Islam-inflected parties. Within Turkey’s contemporary Islamic political movements, where women play an increasingly powerful role as activists, Nilüfer Göle argues that the headscarf can constitute “an active reappropriation by women that shifts from traditional to modern realms of life and conveys a political statement” (1996, 4).

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