Theory

Jürgen Habermas during a discussion in the Mun...

Jürgen Habermas during a discussion in the Munich School of Philosophy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The theoretical framework of my research will be based on the “deliberative model of democracy” developed by Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib. This model of democracy proposes a synthesis between the liberal and republican models of state-society relationship. With its emphasis on decision-making through compromise, self-understanding and justice, combining universal values with the ethical values of a specific community[1], the deliberative model provides an appropriate and useful theoretical structure to understand, explain, classify and predict the knowledge in the field of political interactions between Muslim immigrant organizations and the liberal states in Europe.

This model is particularly relevant in this day and age when liberal democratic states have to find innovative solutions to the simultaneous challenges of democratic legitimacy, societal cohesion, increasing religio-cultural diversity. Benhabib’s interpretation of Habermas’ deliberative model, which establishes procedures of free deliberation of all equal citizens about the issues of common concern, provides modern and complex societies with the basis for legitimacy and “practical rationality”[2].

What is crucial in terms of legitimacy is the participation, critical reflection and voluntarily given assent of all taxpayers in society, including immigrants, in the opinion and will formation processes which aim to establish the rules governing the polity. As for the rationality, majority rules in the decision-making procedures ensure that the decisions reflect temporarily agreed-upon conclusions whose validity can always be renegotiated[3].

The process in which deliberation takes place is decentralized and noncoercive. Competing interests are expressed and the conflict between them is resolved by binding decisions in the making of which all those affected participate. Deliberation is carried out in a plurality of modes of association in the public sphere. Political parties, citizen initiatives, social movements, associations and interest groups including those of immigrants, are but some of those “interlocking networks of deliberation”[4].

Benhabib’s analysis of Models of Public Space compares and contrasts the conceptions of Arendt, Kant and Habermas. Benhabib expresses disappointment by Arendt’s separation of public and private spaces, high and low politics, which she tries to bridge. Benhabib’s comparison of Kant’s liberal and Habermas’ discursive public spaces reveals a clear preference of the latter. For Benhabib, Kant’s liberal approach, though understandable in a historical perspective, does not go beyond limiting the state power in favor of basic rights and liberties. Although participation in the public dialogue is encouraged, the basic concern for the liberal is to constrain this dialogue through some abstractions (original position) which help avoid differences and conflicts. Only a neutral and legalistic approach can provide space for pluralism and stable public order in a liberal state.

Benhabib strongly rejects this liberal premise by arguing that privatization of disagreements is not possible because politics challenges the divisions between moral and legal, private and public, good and just[5].

Deliberative model as well attaches importance to basic rights and liberties. However, although these constitutive norms cannot be transformed and abrogated by majority, they are issues that are also constant subject of deliberation, contestation and negotiation.

Benhabib agrees with most of the discursive public space conception of Habermas, particularly the emphasis made on participation in will formation and democratic legitimacy, as well as the absence of neutrality constraint. She supports the idea that in a discursive public debate, nothing is off the agenda. Benhabib argues then the main reasons what makes discursive public space of Habermas preferable to liberal public space of Kant/Rawls are the openness of the agenda of public debate, the interaction between the political and the “background culture” in civil society as well as noncoercive and nonfinal processes of opinion formation[6].

The problem with Habermas’ discursive model, for Benhabib, is that it is not enough inclusive to cover issues related to justice in private realm which certainly have political implications. For example, in terms of the emancipation of women, she labels Habermas’ model as “gender-blind” which does not provide space for women on her own terms and treats power relations in the “intimate” private sphere as nonexistent. Benhabib thinks that it is necessary to renegotiate the boundaries between the public and private spheres on the basis of egalitarian reciprocity. She believes that the revised discursive/deliberative model could “demystify discourses of power and their agendas” and provide the liberal democratic societies with an alternative compatible with the modern social trends and emancipatory aspirations of new social movements[7].

Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale (Photo credit: Yale Law School)

One relevant example Benhabib discusses in her analysis of deliberative model is the headscarf issue. She approaches the problem with the same argument of undesirability of restraining public dialogue in a polity. As long as the sides do not attempt to dominate the public space with the power of their discourses, even if this power is based on majority, deliberation on possible resolution of the conflict should continue. However, she does not provide a consistent argument to respond to the case in which the issue of wearing a headscarf is transformed from the private space into the public one which makes it interpreted as a question of national security/identity. This example reveals the difficulties of functioning in a society where the line between the public and the private realms is hard to draw. Benhabib’s attempt to include as many private issues on the agenda of the public dialogue as possible may also risk that the deliberation result in a stalemate because of irreconcilable sensitive issues.

Based on an extension of the current theories of deliberative democracy, a new framework  has recently been developed by Bora Kanra (2012), which he calls “Binary Deliberation”. Particularly relevant for divided societies, binary deliberation emphasizes “social learning” phase of deliberation which is oriented to interpretation of differences rather than making decisions. I will utilize and apply the premises put forward by this framework and test their validity in the context of interactions between Muslim representatives and government agencies in Belgium.

My research will aim to contribute to the deliberative democracy model by emphasizing the role that human rights play as “shared values” “or “ground rules” in the delibrative process. In what Habermas calls “post-secular” societies, religion maintains a public influence and relevance and human rights help provide a legal and political context in which religious identities can flourish.[8] In fact, “post-secular societies” in the West co-exist with “post-Islamist movements” in the Muslim world. The post-Islamists emphasize change through religiosity and rights[9]as well as willingness to enter into dialogue with the secular. Muslim immigrants in the West simultaneously live in both of these worlds. Understanding their experience which allow for the practice of human rights without abandoning their religion can contribute to both theory and policy development in order to address the challenges faced by today’s multicultural liberal democracies.


[1]Habermas, Jürgen, Three Normative Models of Democracy, in Constellation, Vol. I, No:1, 1994. p.26

[2] Benhabib, Seyla. “Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy”, Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, p. 70

[3] Ibid, p.72

[4] Ibid, p.74

[5] Benhabib, “Models of Public Space: Hannah Arendt, The Liberal Tradition and Jürgen Habermas”, in Craig J. Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), p. 99

[6] “Toward a Delibrative Model of Democratic Legitimacy”, Benhabib, p. 75-76

[7] “Models of Public Space”, Benhabib, p. 113

[8] Habermas, Jürgen, “Post-secular society- What does that mean?”, Philosophy and Religion, www.resetdoc.org

[9] Bayat, Asef, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, Stanford: Stanford University Pres, 2007

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