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Paula Grobbecker (Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg)

Democratic iterations as foundation of a new universalism?

Rising interdependencies on the international political level, transnational problems and phenomenon are paradigmatic for our time. The question is rising up, which role people play as the “demos”, the moral agents and creators of laws and constitutions in democracies in times of a legitimate cosmopolitism. Cosmopolitical justice must be grounded in the deep understanding that every person acts as a moral agent with interests and takes part in a global moral discourse. Now, more than ever, it is important that people are participating in democratic processes and will formation. In my presentation I will critically reflect about Seyla Benhabibs concept of democratic iterations as a foundation of a new universalism and possibility for people to participate in the global will formation by communicative acting.

Democratic iterations (lat.: iterare: repeat) can be understood as "empirical processes, which can be judged in the light of normative criteria deriving from discourse theory."(Seyla Benhabib 2005). The term “Iteration” was introduced by Jaques Derrida in his philosophy of language, where he states that every repetition is also a form of variation. According to him there is no original meaning or original sense of forms. Thus, every norm or right is an act of iteration and interpretation particularly when being discussed in new and different contexts amidst a creative process of change. Seyla Benhabib distinguishes from Derrida when she says, that laws or legal documents are a sort of an authoritative “original”. At this point I would claim that the antecedent is a process of certain practices itself. The meanings of those practices were enhanced by creative reappropriation. During this process even the “original” will be considered as outdated and obsolete and loose its authority on us. Hence, we can assume that iterations are the beginning, the process and the enhancement of meaning at the same time.

Seyla Benhabib notes, that “Democratic iterations are linguistic, legal, cultural, and political repetitions-in-transformation, invocations that also are revocations.” And further: “They not only change established understandings but also transform what passes as the valid or established view of an authoritative precedent.” (Benhabib 2005:48) They are complex ways of mediating the will- and opinion-formation of democratic majorities and cosmopolitan norms. To illustrate what is meant by this process: Democratic iterations take place in public debates, consultations, discussions, everywhere where rights and universal norms are being discussed, transformed and paraphrased. This occurs above all in civil society, jurisdiction and politics. Overlapping spheres of different demoi in various countries such as (trans) national civil society organizations are the indispensable actors realizing democratic iterations.

Politically, the iteration process is signed by the revision or restatement of politic contents such as laws or norms. During this unintended process of repetition original items and their significance are changing persistently in new contexts, especially when discussed in transnational contexts. Benhabib calls that a process of permanent creative acquirement.

Benhabib et al. made the concept of iterations fruitful for the democratic formation of law by describing a jurisgenerative process and politics that “permit creative interventions that mediate between universal norms and the will of democratic majorities.”(Benhabib 2005: 49) By argument, contestation, revision and rejection people are permitted to reiterate legal principles. The precondition of participation in the law formation process is the assumption that people are not only subjects but also become the true authors of law as well as the receivers of them, by becoming true “demoi”, representing the collective will of the people. Cosmopolitan norms are excepted from iteration processes – they are independent from democratic iterations because they base on normative grounds. Nevertheless, only by democratic iterations a transnational justice can be ensured, rights claims can augment and the democratic authority of individuals can be strengthened.

There are also sterile or legalistic jurisgenerative processes. In this case there is no normative learning process but a simple bureaucratic sequence of implementation or for example the hegemony of a majority preventing an open discourse. Nevertheless, in a global civil society people should be the addressees of rights precisely because they are humans and not part of group or a collective such as a nation.

This presentation is dealing with the French “scarf affair” as an example for "democratic iterations" and how a collective resignification has emerged and their application has changed in new social and cultural contexts. Later on, I will try to give a concrete critique.

Seyla Benhabib is manifesting her thesis on French Muslim women, who are claiming to wear the head scarf as expression of their personal autonomy. The discourse started during the late 1980s when young Muslim women were excluded from schools because of wearing a headscarf. The confrontations continued until the scarf was banned due to the principle of laïcité, which is employed since 1905. Understanding laicism as “the public and manifest neutrality of the state towards all kinds of religious practices, institutionalized through a vigilant removal of all sectarian religious symbols, signs, icons, and items of clothings from official spheres” (Benhabib, 2005:52) it reveals the dilemma that there is a fragile balance in relation to the individual right of religious expression and freedom of conscience. The question was rising up, what defines a good French citizen and how far is the multi-faith and plural society in line with the principles of secularity and laïcité? Lately on February 10, 2004 the French National Assembly voted with a large majority in favor of a ban of all religious symbols in public schools.

Seyla Benhabib states that the young women, going to school scarved against the rules of the French school system show a political gesture: “a complex act of identification and defiance”. They would claim their freedom of religion while being students of a French school at the same time. Afterwards the debate was coming up if the scarf should be really only a private item or not. For those girls, the school was no neutral space and they broke the rules by their manifestation. With those acts of defying the state they showed offensively their cultural difference with the demand to be recognized. Benhabib is defending the actions stating that the girls used the scarf as a vehicle to enter a sphere which was traditionally closed for Muslim women before. Her actual problem is how the French Media and the responsible authorities lead the discourse. The voices of the girls and their motivations to act like this cannot be heard. Paradoxically it is the French school which gave them the right to break out of patriarchal structures at home and gave them the possibility to resignify the wearing of the scarf.

Benhabibs enlightened solution for the conflict would be an open debate lead among the French youth what it means to be Muslim in the secular France. For Benhabib the legitimacy of law is not at stake, but the legitimacy of an unfair court decision which is not hearing the main actors as the most affected persons. She sees the veil in public as a sign for emancipation from tradition. Women wearing a scarf should not be stigmatized or stereotyped as backward. Most of the Muslim women today would represent an enlightened Islam, wearing a scarf even in terms of a “Protestantization” of Islam. The act of wearing a scarf is now reinterpreted as a private act of faith and part of the particular cultural identity pleading for recognition by the majority society. The freedom of religion should be considered more fundamental not only in France but in the whole of Europe. Culture matters and according to Benhabib “we have to live with the otherness of the others” in a liberal but often segregated society. Only encounters, political and personal learning in the public sphere can break down the walls between minorities and the majority society. There is dynamic in this process, which we can explain as follows: If new groups start to claim their belonging to the circle of addressees of rights, they become excluded from it. It is always a struggle to find a consensus and to break with beloved practices that have been passed.

We have to recognize the other without denying our difference, but without becoming relativistic towards different cultures. Axel Honneth once said “recognition precedes knowledge” („Anerkennen geht dem Erkennen voraus“). This is only possible by the takeover of the perspective of the other by a precedent interaction. Or as Adorno said: „Imitation is the prototype of Love” because you focus on the other and show affective sympathy.

The Muslim women´s self perception as “public selves” is challenging the French secular democracy. Benhabib aims at justice, solidarity and recognition of those women in the context of post-national globalised societies, sensitive with the context but respecting the commitment to universal human rights. The tension between democratic self-determination and universal human rights will not stop in the near future but public self reflection is needed, particularly if right wing parties throughout Europe gain power and especially agitate against Muslims.

Reading Benhabib one should take into consideration that she is a cosmopolitan herself: born in Istanbul, studied in the USA and taught in Harvard, Amsterdam and now Yale. One can ask why Benhabib is using Kant´s most universal book to describe migrant conditions and social transformation in a very universalistic and perhaps utopian manner. Benhabib refers to Immanuel Kant's vision of "Perpetual Peace" from 1795, where he is formulating a common right of hospitality for all people. This is Benhabibs initial point for her reflections about minorities, migration and refugees, claiming an unlimited right of residence and a world without borders. The second author who shaped her the most was Juergen Habermas and his idea of universalistic norms of discourse ethics and the theory about communicative acting. Furthermore, his thesis about the inclusion of the other as an obligation of the world citizens is an important component of her theory. The third important figure in her work is Hannah Arendt and her thesis about the right to have rights. Hereby, we can recognize a transfer of Kants, Habermas and Arendts ideas combined with her own specific liberal experience in the US-American context to societies in general. To my mind, especially her familiarity with the American society, as an inclusive state which is by tradition a country of immigration explains her worldview. The interconnection of Europe’s most liberal philosophers and her own experience enables Benhabib not only to show shifting meanings of former religious symbols but also to light up the underlying changes in the social order of modern societies.

The question rising up is, if her analysis of a changing ethnos by democratic iterations out of a special North-American experience is maybe describing migrant conditions and social transformation oversimplifying and too utopian.

First: The discourses in which the topic is being discussed are hegemonic discourses due to the fact that the authors of the debate (the three Muslim girls) cannot be heard. If democratic iterations are supposed to work namely to empower peoples participation, mechanisms are needed for a symmetric exchange of opinions and interests. Furthermore you have to take into consideration that the three Muslim Girls are certainly living in a normative religious matrix which makes it difficult for them to overcome the traditions of their parents. Moreover, Foucault reminds us that there are techniques of the self to internalize norms and compulsions, even if we express them as our own will. Nonetheless, every individual has the right to get the chance to articulate its interests and needs.

Second: A veil is not just a cloth, but an expression of faith like every religious symbol. Sure, it can be questioned if the French laical tradition is questioned at its basis just because of young people with migration background wearing the symbols of their faith. But in Benhabibs example individuals claim for rights which are distinguishing or privileging their group over another. Only religious rights for all, such as to wear religious items, could guarantee democratic equality. Maybe we can see here the limits of democratic iterations on a concrete example. The separation of religion and politics and the transformation of faith as a private matter were achievements of the French Revolution and should not be questioned. Religion in the public sphere is something that cannot be discussed, because it is based on faith and not knowledge. Especially in schools religious symbols should not be tolerated because “a school should be a space committed to the values of gender equality and to the critique of oppressive religious, familial and traditional norms.”(Laborde 2005:2) In the Arendtian sense children are expected to live together beyond their differences and the schools are obliged to guarantee the political and religious neutrality we expect from them. In that sense headscarves introduce signs of private difference and religious divisiveness into the classrooms.

Third: Benhabib leaves out the non-democratic states, which is representing the larger part of the world. How can we deal with countries where democratic rules and values are not guaranteed? Are there limits for democratic iterations or can they as well take place in non-democratic states?

To put it in a nutshell: it is crucial to guarantee equality of those who are different, that means universal rights for every single autonomous individual. Culture is always hostile to change and individuals should have the rights to participate self-determined in this process. If we take this path we can realize what Adorno subscribed as following: “not until we can deal equitable with the non-identical the demand for human justice can be achieved.” (Honneth 2000:134)


Benhabib, Seyla: Democratic iterations. In: Benhabib, Seyla: Another Cosmopolitanism. Oxford University Press, New York, 2004, p. 48.
Honneth, Axel: Das Andere der Gerechtigkeit. Aufsätze zur praktischen Philosophie. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 2000.
Honneth, Axel: Verdinglichung. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 2005.
Laborde, Cécile: Secular Philosophy and Muslim Headscarves in Schools. In: The Journal of political Philosophy. Volume 13, Number 3, 2005, pp. 305–329.
Phillips, Anne: Multiculturalism without culture. Princeton University Press. Princeton, 2007.