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Inviting our future: liberal de-culturalization and the Paris attacks – Part two

Date:16 February 2016
Author:Religion Factor
A street memorial in Paris following the November attacks. Source: Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
A street memorial in Paris following the November attacks. Source: Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

“Perhaps we should ask ourselves if these people have not rather come here to save us.” (Erik Borgman)

In today’s post Ton Groeneweg continues his analysis of liberal de-culturalization as a deeper trend exposed by the responses to the attacks in Paris. In this second part of his blog, he focuses on how this process of de-culturalization has sincere consequences for our existence in liberal societies, and how the experienced threats to our liberal existence might offer some opportunities as well.

In the first part of this blog, I analyzed the process of liberal de-culturalization as an inherently ambiguous mechanism within liberal culture, through which it projects itself as superior to other cultures because of the claim to be freed from specific cultural bonds and characteristics. This led to the conclusion that liberal culture not only excludes other cultures from its privileges without acknowledging this, but it also remains blind to the repercussions of this exclusionary mechanism for others as well as for itself. In this second part I will elaborate on this last suggestion, that the process of de-culturalizationhas profound and possibly detrimental consequences for the liberal self-image, and its possibilities to fulfil its own promises. Towards the end I will return to the original occasion of this blog, the context of the present responses to the attacks in Paris.

We started out by comparing the notions of deculturation, taken from Olivier Roy, with the notion of de-culturalization that I coined in elaborating on Wendy Brown’s analysis of the ambiguities of liberal culture. The two notions are apparently rather different in their orientation. Olivier Roy speaks about a very particular social class, that of second-generation Muslim migrants, that goes through a specific experience of alienation as part of a broader phenomenon of the deculturation of religion in the era of globalization.[i] The notion of de-culturalization I have been trying to develop here, starting out from Wendy Brown’s argument about the peculiar (mis)fortunes of culturalization under liberal regimes, seems to have a broader focus. Yet it doesn’t need too much imagination to see that the two have close relations. The depth of the deculturation that Olivier Roy describes is not sufficiently acknowledged by referring to the second-generation Muslim youth alone. The mere fact that Roy identifies another group, of native French converts who turn to Islam as resort for their radicalization, already testifies to this. Where does their estrangement come from? Undoubtedly from very particular individual backgrounds and settings. But it simultaneously points towards the possibility of a more general estrangement that haunts our European cultures and societies, and of which the radicalized youth in France and other countries might be the extreme and excessive incorporation. Their exemplarity might not be entirely random, in the sense that those who are or feel marginalized in multiple ways (culturally, socially, generationally, economically) will feel the effects of such an estrangement most acutely, and have the least means to accommodate it. Yet the more general estrangement suggested here might have something to do with precisely the self-replicating, de-culturalizing double bind of liberal culture as such. And it might affect our liberal selves as much as our presumed ‘others’, even more so if it is driven by a political rationality that is scrupulously promoting it, yet without acknowledging this. Let me try to indicate three possible consequences of this more generalized sense of de-culturalization and some of the perspectives it might open:

  1. We saw that one of the effects of the liberal project of de-culturalization is its blindness to the particular material shape and embodiment of its cultural manifestations, which are readily universalized as being carried by their de-culturalizing promise. This blindness carries another with it, namely the blindness to how our liberal selves are being formed, prefigured and shaped by the culture of which we are a part. The promise of the free enjoyment of culture also brings the illusion of actually being free from cultural conditioning and determination. This is, ironically enough, a trend that is adverse to the liberal promise of cultural freedom, since it blindly delivers us to the manifold manipulations of modern cultural production, under the spell of being the ‘free’ consumers of it. So even beyond the injustices it does to other cultures through their systematic depreciation as being merely particular cultures, it robs us of the opportunity to develop a more substantially free relationship to ours. As always, the quest for freedom starts with the recognition of how unfree we really are. It doesn’t require, after all, an exaggerated sense of scepticism to acknowledge how our own pleasures and desires are procured by the appeal of consumer goods that offer themselves as their fulfilment. It might just be that we have not measured the depth of this procreation of our own sense of selfhood yet. A more openly engaging relationship with the mechanisms that steam our inner economies of desire and satisfaction, contains at least the promise of a more conscious and free employment of them, with some awareness of their social and political bearings.[ii] Perhaps this could even incite us to occasionally resist them and hence open up another economy of (self)liberation. Or even awake another longing for fulfilment that is now displaced by desires tumbling over each other in their hastening towards satisfaction. It is my strong conviction that the struggle to do justice to others will gain infinitely more vigor and zeal, if we acknowledge that we ourselves, although in different ways, also have a stake in it. It might even offer a glimpse of giving some real meaning to our lives.

  2. One of the strongest effects of liberal de-culturalization is the illusion that our cultural preferences and experiences are a private They erupt and are dealt with within ourselves without much consequence for the world outside, mainly for our personal pleasure. The price of this individually ‘free’ enjoyment of culture is that the experiences we gain on the way do not really count beyond the sphere of our personal lives either. This in itself is already a strong impetus for the loss of meaning so widely experienced in modern liberal societies. If meaning is just personal and private, and doesn’t have any repercussions for the world in which I live, it easily evaporates in ephemeral moments of rapture. This is, as in the previous point, not just a gross misrecognition of the way our cultural tastes and affinities are shaped by our environment into the core of what we hold sacred and deeply moving. It also robs us of the opportunity, if not the right, to both give meaning to and derive it from the world and the time in which we live. Whatever our personal engagements are, they remain aloof from the realities in which we operate, as they are ‘merely’ personal. In a more recent book, Wendy Brown has analyzed how a ruthless process of individuation is one of the most consistent traits of what she calls there ‘neo-liberal rationality’.[iii] This already indicates that the privatization of our cultural existence is not merely a matter of personal enjoyment, but intricately connected to the political and economic systems that allow us this private sphere, and only this sphere. What it simultaneously shows, is that de-culturalization is also a profound de-politicization. Our longings, desires, passions are stripped of their political nature – they are privatized as merely ‘personal’ cultural preferences, devoid of any real substance. (Or rather, individual satisfaction is the only ‘real’ substance we can assume.) And yet in this way, as Wendy Brown also indicates, the inevitable re-politicization of culture in the struggles over cultural hegemony that we experience today, offers new opportunities as well. We might not even be without help here.

  3. One of the supreme ironies of our time, in all its questionable liberal and secular self-confidence, is that it is not just a ‘foreign’ culture but a religion that is opening up a whole new field of cultural, political and existential experiences. It is almost as if Islam has come to Europe with a purpose.[iv] Not so much to turn us into adherents of Mohammed, but to confront us with the limitations and injustices (both to ourselves and to others) of our secular liberalism. Indeed proposing a conversion of sorts. Clearly not anybody’s explicit strategy, this does indicate that besides the many challenges we are facing today, there are also opportunities looming behind the overt struggles and spectacles surrounding us. If the only option to attain full citizenship in liberal societies, as for Muslim citizens in Europe, is to either disown or privatize your cultural identity, then the resistance to this liberal pressure by re-affirming cultural identity has a profound political bearing. And not just for Muslim citizens: it could likewise invite us into an allegiance that progressively engages in a recognition of how the same structures that create the exclusionary reflexes of our liberal culture, keep us also caught in the self-replicating, self-alienating structures that seclude our privileged existences. Thus it could open up a new window on the self-imposed limitations of our own life under liberal rule, its desperate privacy, and allow us to grasp some of the political dimensions of our privatized cultural experiences. Unlocking the privacy of our inner experiences is always a political awakening of some sort. Not so much in prescribing univocal political positions, but in opening us up to the sense that what is unfolding itself around us actually matters to us.


What the responses to the Paris attacks and to so many other less brutal clashes today expose is, among other things, the cultural specificity of the dominant liberal norm. In other words, it forces the dissimulating gesture of liberal de-culturalization to unmask itself and operate without disguise: European culture is liberal culture and as such will tolerate other cultures, but not allow them to challenge it. This more open affirmation of liberal culture as a specific culture creates its own ironies. European culture is being defended today, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks as much as after the incidents in Cologne during New Year’s Eve, in the name of values like ‘openness’, ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’. Such values derive their liberal appeal and worthiness of being defended at least partially from their proposed universalizing potential, the presumption that the world would be a better place if all cultures would accept and practice them. Regardless of the question of the validity of such an appeal, it would be slightly silly then to claim this as the unique heritage of a particular culture. Yet this is exactly what is being done, quickly leading to measures and procedures that overtly contradict this universalizing claim. The security measures to protect those within the liberal realm from real or perceived threats are obvious examples of this, as are the levels of suspicion raised against anything remotely reminiscent of ‘recruitment’ in the name of radical Islam.[v]

So does all of this imply that liberal culture, in its dissimulating strategy of de-culturalization, has reached its limits and shows some fatal deficit? Not necessarily. If it is able to accommodate within itself an acknowledgement of the mechanisms that makes liberalism vulnerable to the threats of dominance and exclusion inherent in its universalizing claim, the glimpse of another paradigm might appear. Once again, this is also what Wendy Brown seems to propose towards the end of her book. As she argues, inspired by one of Talal Asad’s casually profound reflections: “the alternative is not abandoning or rejecting liberalism but rather using the occasion [in our case, of the controversies around Islam, or – for that matter – the refugee crisis; TG] to open liberal regimes to reflection on the false conceits of their cultural and religious secularism, and to the possibility of being transformed by their encounter with what liberalism has conventionally taken to be its constitutive outside and its hostile Other.” (174) It is my personal conviction (and modest source of hope) that what we are beginning to witness today, for example in the Dutch debate on Zwarte Piet or on the issue of ‘white privilege’ in general,[vi]offers a glimpse of such a more self-critical practice in a possible future liberal culture. It also shows the tremendous defence mechanisms that are brought to the field, some in the explicit name of liberalism itself.

Admittedly, the chances of a more substantial manifestation of such an elevated practice of liberal self-consciousness are slight under the present climate of polarization and economic pressure. But it would already be worthwhile to be more confident about what we are trying to defend. In that sense, I agree with Joram Tarusarira’s assessment that we could do with a little more assurance sometimes, even so if what we defend looks more like Erin Wilson’s unsteady and uncomfortable acceptance of an ambiguity that is the only viable condition to do justice to our precarious lives and those of others. My addition would be that aspiring for such a condition is itself a liberating exercise and, indeed, part of the quest for a more meaningful existence under liberal rule. It would lead, as Wendy Brown says in continuation of the passage quoted above, to a “more modest, more restrained” practice of our liberal engagement with the other and with ourselves. It could likewise offer a new, even passionate commitment to a challenging and uncertain future.

So perhaps we should not be too modest in our encouragement of a deeply self-critical practice, both challenging the economic and political systems that keep us in the tracks of our self-blinding alienation, and unlocking the inner and embodied resources that mirror these outside systems under the guise of being our private personal stirrings. If we have to be modest in our expectations of their realization, we need not be modest in our ambitions themselves. In all fairness, has this not always been the promise of all projects of liberation, politically or spiritually, contemporary or historically, secular or religious? The prospect of inviting the other to open us to the structures that bind our selves in our exclusionary practices, would benefit us as much as the other. And as the alternative, as we see all around us today, is the increasing foreclosure of such an openness in the name of a questionable and hypocritical self-preservation, we should perhaps take the risk. It is our future itself that we are inviting.[vii]

Ton Groeneweg works as Policy Officer Religion & Development at Mensen met een Missie, and is a fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. His personal blog can be found at


[i] See Olivier Roy: ‘Le djihadisme est une révolte générationnelle et nihiliste’ (Le Monde Idées, 24-11-205).

[ii] I’m uncomfortably aware of the looming reproach of an elitist critical position here, as if it would require an advanced reflexive consciousness of the ‘real’ structures that govern us in order to liberate ourselves from them. I am, in fact, rather skeptical about the possibility of the latter, and strongly disavow that critical awareness is the only or even preferred option here. I would rather suggest, by way of example, a tentative re-appreciation of some of the disciplinary practices traditionally cultivated by so many religious cults, as a way of resisting the seductions of our liberal existence.

[iii] Wendy Brown: Undoing the Demos. Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books, New York: 2015. See also my review of this book on the Religion Factor.

[iv] I have explored this same point in my blogs ‘Why we need Islam’ and ‘Radical Islam’ see

[v] A shocking example was the way the distribution of copies of the Qur’an to Muslims in a refugee centre in Nijmegen was seen as a potential precursor to a salafist recruitment strategy (TV item in Nieuwsuur, 3 February 2016).

[vi] This debate was ignited recently by the article ‘Witte mensen moeten eens luisteren’ (NRC 7-8 November 2015) and the ensuing avalanche of responses. Some commentators have justly pointed out that this is something of a catching up of Dutch society, compared to other countries, like the US, where contestations around the issue have been waging for ages. Nevertheless, the debate unfolding itself in the Netherlands over the past two years is a remarkable progress. A small step for humanity, but a huge step for the Dutch.

[vii] And again, I would say, we are not entirely without a clue here. The spontaneous and welcoming responses to the fate of the refugees coming into Europe these days could also be seen as a genuine expression of being moved in a way we had almost forgotten. Beyond the usual picture of fleeting and superficial sentimentality, these passions could very well express a potential longing for a more meaningful engagement with the other, hidden beneath the improvised gestures to supplement the state management of an uncontrollable problem. The challenge will be to lift this passion above mere personal gratification and turn it into a political question about the future of our European societies.


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