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Painting the Others: Law, Ethics and
«the Right to Have Rights»
between Cosmopolitan Identities and Cultural Claims

Seyla Benhabib
Interview by David Ragazzoni

Professor Benhabib, with regards to the Arendtian conception of human beings as story-tellers, your own biography can be defined as an amazingly complex “web of narratives”. You were born in Istanbul from a family of Sephardic Jews, had an English education in Turkey and then moved to the United States as a young student at the age of twenty. What role did this private background play in your studies of multicultural societies?

I do not think it was a biographical interest that led me in the first place to multiculturalism. My background is in German philosophy and critical theory and, prior to my books on multiculturalism, I worked on the critical theory of the Frankfurt School in books such as Situating the Self. I would rather say that what made me move towards this area of study were in the first place the political developments that I saw around me. In particular, I was in Europe at the time of the Jugoslav crisis: on the one hand, Europe was moving closer together, and on the other hand the migration and refugee question and the situation of the refugees coming from Jugoslav countries were very much on the table. This was the time of the great debates about the reform of the German asylum law. Added to this, I spent ten years, from 1979 until about 1989, in what was West Germany at the time and of course, knowing Turkish, I could understand and read the newspapers of the Turkish migrant community.
So I would say that, in the first place, it was these political events and developments within the European context that led me to issues of this kind because – it is funny – I never really worked on multiculturalism when I was in the United States as such. I worked more on gender issues, but undoubtedly knowing the languages that I do – French, German, Spanish, in addition to Turkish and English, of course – gives me sense of seeing some of the problems from the insight. I can read the newspapers and the publications, and I have a certain sensitivity – let us put it this way – also due to my own background, which makes me more sensitive, and more susceptible, to certain arguments about multiculturalism. In the first place, though, it was both a political and a theoretical development that led me into this.

Looking back to the “history” of multiculturalism, political theorists have progressively improved their views of how to interpret multiculturalism within contemporary democracies. The shift from the paradigm of «recognition»[1] to that of «redistribution»[2] has been, with no doubt, one of these turning points. Which changes in politics and social realities made political theories undergo such transformations?

Perhaps we should begin with a clarification of the number of phenomena which the term «multiculturalism» refers to and which are not always very clearly distinguished from one another. This would enable us to understand why the terms «recognition» and «redistribution» are themselves “umbrella-concepts” that would have to be philosophically sharpened in order for them to help us think about certain issues.
In the first place, multiculturalism refers to the demand of ethnic groups coming out of the student movement and the women movement within liberal democracies – «Black is beautiful» – and to the sense of ethnic cultures providing an alternative to capitalist consumer culture. So, particularly in the American context – you find this very much in Iris Young’s work – multiculturalism goes out of this political developments, sometimes also referred to as the «rainbow coalition»: African-American people, Chicano-latino people etc. This is one context.
Now, the second is the link in problematic ways, in many cases, between multiculturalism and post-nationalist developments. On one hand, you have genuinely multicultural societies with distinct language groups like Canada, Israel and India; on the other hand, there are the post-Soviet societies, that have emerged at the collapse of Soviet communism where – be it Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Esthonia – there is an attempt at nation-building and the question of cultures coming up particularly about the relationship of language groups and culture.
The third is, of course, the European debate about migrant communities. Some of these migrant communities were born in Europe. In particular this is the case, now, where in Germany you have the third generation of Turks – the first Turks came in the 1950s. In France you have always had people who came after the Algerian War, who have French citizenship – the Algerians and then some Moroccans, a few Turks etc. – and in Spain and in Italy you have people from African countries, again Morocco, Libia, Latin America. And Great Britain, as a former colonial power, of course has the greatest diversity of people from South-East Asia and East Asia, some who are British subjects, some who are not. So «multiculturalism» is referring to these enormously complex developments.
However, I think that the paradigm of integrating migrant groups to existing societies by promising social-economic mobility, the paradigm of assimilation a l’Americanne, has collapsed. It is not functioning sociologically, it is not functioning economically, and further more – this is what Taylor meant by the term «recognition» – there is a demand on the part of many of these groups that instead of assimilation want to be recognized in their own alterity, in their own otherness. Of course this demand for recognition is very broad, very wide and the paradigm shift – the debate between «recognition» and «redistribution» – really is the degree to which cultures can be differentiated from socio-economic claims. And the degree to which some of these multicultural issues are interlaced with questions pertaining to both sociology and economics.
Having said this, I find the strong juxtaposition of these paradigms unhelpful. I think we do not learn as much in the analysis both philosophical and socio-theoretical through the paradigms of recognition and redistribution. The term «multicultural citizenship» and everything it implies seems to me to be still analytically more important: this is the reason why I myself do not work with either the paradigm of recognition or redistribution.

Another important contribution was provided in the 1990s by Will Kymlicka and his studies on multicultural citizenship
[3]. Do you think his distinction between «poliethnic» and «multinational» groups (1995) was a strong normative criterion for the development of a liberal theory of minority rights?

As I said, I think the term «multicultural citizenship» and the domain opened up by Kymlicka is extremely important. What I understand in the first place by this term is that there are public claims being made by all the different groups we have mentioned before to be represented in the public spheres in different ways. Kymlicka distinguishes between land, language and representation rights, so multicultural citizenship claims involve at the same time claims to land, language and representation. I would also add claims concerning civic status and private law: this is one of my major emphasis in The Claims of Culture, that is: much of the negotiation among cultural groups and Western liberal democracies, constitutionally based on the principle of neutrality, is also around the domain of personal private law, concerning the status of women and children. We see this in India, we see this in the debate in Canada as whether or not Muslim groups should be granted their own arbitration courts; we now see this in the debate that was started in Europe by the archbishop of Canterbury, when he said that maybe the recognition of some form of Islamic courts is not such a terrible idea, that some aspects of Islamic law could be integrated. This is an area still of extreme contention.
Now, Kymlicka’s own framework was, I think, weakened by his distinction between «poliethnic» and «multinational» groups. He wanted to defend strong multiculturalism for multinational groups for which the principle is that they are territorially settled, have their own language and usually are indigenous peoples in Latin and Central America: «first nations», as they are referred to in Canada, or «native Americans», as they are referred to in the US. Kymlicka’s criterion was in the first place referring to these groups that he thought could be defined as «societal cultures»: poliethnic groups, immigrants were actually said to stand under an obligation of assimilation, except insofar as certain cultural claims like recognizing special dietary laws, not working on the Sabbath, for some groups special dress codes etc., were recognized.
Basically, though, Kymlicka’s arguments about immigration are really quite problematic: he says immigrants are those who have voluntarily left their country. But today the idea that immigration is a voluntary move is an extreme and wrong idealization. We know that the distinctions between immigrants and refugees are becoming more difficult to maintain: people become immigrants precisely because they are economic refugees, cannot basically sustain a livelihood, are afraid, and because the State is discriminating against them by not providing them with certain resources. So, this distinction between poliethnic and multinational groups was problematic, and I would not insist on it. Today the irony is that particularly the kinds of multicultural questions that concern Europe and the UK are emerging out of the context of immigration rather than the demands of indigenous peoples. Therefore I would not want to support that distinction.

Multicultural studies have constantly stressed the tension between liberal emphasis on free, individual choices and democratic quests for equality within that kind of «patchwork quilt» which, in Ignatieff’s words[4], today’s liberal democracy tends to be. According to Ronald Dworkin[5] (1978), such claims become more understandable when they are seen through the distinction between a «substantive» and a «procedural» conception of public good. How would you suggest then to read, today, the relationship between liberal and democratic trends within multicultural societies? Would you stand next to, or go beyond, Dworkin himself?

This question has a few dimensions. First of all, I find this Ignatieff’s statement inadequate to the history of political thought, because the projects of liberalism and democracy have been integrated. Certainly they have been at times struggling with one another, but if we define liberalism as respect for human rights, for constitutional government, for a division of powers, much of the democratic struggle began also as a struggle for universal suffrage and for expanding the citizenship participation in liberty. I think those who contrast liberalism and democracy in very strong ways identify democracy with a simplistic majoritarian rule, and I do not really see what democratic theorists they would be referring to unless they do not take Rousseau as the paradigm of their democratic ideal. But I am not quite happy with this juxtaposition. There is another kind of distinction, invented by Isaiah Berlin and related to the «negative» and the «positive» concepts of liberty: «negative» liberty to do what you want to, «positive» liberty when you are forced to do things in the name of a conception of the good. It seems to me, though, that any defensible understanding of human freedom will involve both a negative and a positive dimension, when the positive dimension is politically identified with the course or view of a public authority. We know that Isaiah Berlin was basically writing within the context of the Cold War and identified «positive» liberty with what he thought was the Communist project or what was called «authoritarian» or «totalitarian» democracy. But on the whole I am not that pleased with such a strong juxtaposition. I feel as there is a great deal of simplification, because most democratic movements insist on rights and some form of the division of power.
Dworkin’s distinction between a «substantive» and a «procedural» conception of public good is certainly plausible. Another way to state it is that a liberal society does not dictate a particular conception of the public good, but lets procedures define individual liberties and the room for action and the good: the individuals and societal groups are free to pursue their own understanding of what leads them to happiness and well-being.
In general I subscribe to this, I see no problem with it. I just do not think this is going to be very helpful for multiculturalism, because within the problems of multiculturalism the issue is: do we need group rights at all or do we just say that individual rights suffice for the group level? And when we are talking about group rights, why is it that we want to make the argument? Take the question of minority language rights. Taylor, as well as Kymlicka and others, argues that the preservation of minority language rights is a public good, and that, if we just leave it up to the work of civil society and capitalist economy, then everybody would start speaking a form of English, and linguistic variety may not be preserved. Now, are we going to say that minority language rights, because they imply a substantive procedure, should not be defended within a liberal State at all? I would say: no, this is not correct. I agree with those who think that the preservation of linguistic pluralism and minority language rights is a human good, is a good of human diversity, in an ethical, in an ontological sense, and there are ways of defending this that are more or less compatible with liberal goals. For example, if regional, local and federal governments decide to subsidize the teaching of these languages in the schools or to fund cultural and literary projects, publication, television programs, I see nothing wrong in this. In fact, European Union does quite a bit at the level of preserving these language rights. The problems emerge in many ways: groups that themselves defend these language rights may sometimes be discriminatory and oppressive against other groups who live with them, causing a Russian goals effect of boxes within boxes. I saw this in Catalonia, in Barcelona, where at one point Catalan became the official language of Catalonia and school teachers, who came from other parts of Spain and only spoke Castiliano, lost their positions because they could not also teach in Catalan. This seems to me an illiberal way of going about it: maybe you need to make provisions of ten, fifteen years, first generation teachers, second generation teachers etc. You sometimes see this in the discrimination against English speaking minorities in Quebec, where it is not necessary to impose such oppressive rights. Another example: take the case of Turkey. Here we are in Istanbul, there are fifteen million people of Kurdish origin in this country. They have at least two distinct languages, and they cannot be taught in these languages in their elementary school. In fact there are now moves to try to punish the speaking of their own language among the children in the elementary schools, some who do not know Turkish; Kurdish publications are not permitted; there is very limited radio broadcast offered. Now, for me this is clearly also a context of oppression and discrimination, and I would see no reason as to why one would not try to support linguistic diversity while at the same time safeguarding procedural liberties. So, this Dworkinian juxtaposition does not help us: we have to think beyond it.

Individual rights and claims of culture: this crucial dilemma of multicultural debates has been often approached from the perspective of a sound-bite kind of universalism. Echoing Arendt’s work, though, you have lately proposed «the right to have rights» as the moral foundation of another, more carefully grounded universalistic ideal. What makes your universalism a better understanding of contemporary human beings?

About fifteen, sixteen years ago, in Situating the Self, I have made a distinction between «substitutionalist universalism» and «interactive universalism». By «substitutionalist universalism» I meant a universalism which proceeds from a certain model, anthropological and psychological, of what it means to be a human being. As with the work that we did in gender critiques, of assumptions of rationality and autonomy of the male subject, I think that we showed that many universalistic projects were themselves based upon a limited anthropology and psychology. I introduced the term «interactive universalism» then to indicate a kind of universalism where the project of the recognition, of the difference and otherness of the other was open, continuously challenged and it had to be achieved in dialogue and not definitionally. The emphasis here would be very much on encountering each other in the public sphere, basically in communication and dialogue situations: the guiding idea would be the principle of the equal worth of every human being, the principle that the ideal of the human would itself be open to these interactive encounters.
«The right to have rights» is a concept in moral politics that touches on the same issue it develops out of the principle of the equal worth of every human being: it is about the moral foundations of the political. It takes this ideal of interactive universalism and brings it into the domain of thinking about the legal and the political in this specific context. Does it make it a “better understanding of contemporary human beings”? I think it is a response, in the first place, to some of the dilemmas and transformations in international law in the State system, by insisting on the fact that the recognition of the other as a right-bearing person provides the protection and the inclusion to many millions of human beings. To defend it as a full-flash philosophical concept, one would have to go into moral psychology: one would have to give a fuller definition of one’s perception of human capabilities, and I have done some of this work in Situating the Self. So I would not blur the concept of «the right to have rights» with a full-flash ethical theory of universalism: it is really a principle in political morality that answers specific issues, but it is not the entirety of a moral understanding of universalism.

The post-Westphalian international order we live in today has progressively caused an eclipse of State sovereignty, thus producing a fragmentation of legal answers concerning the status of immigrants and asylum-seekers. How will this “clash” between national, constitutional systems and international law develop in the next few years, both in Europe and in the United States?

There is a need for a significant reconsideration, a new analysis of many of the agreements concluded in the 1950s, at the end of the Second World War, such as the Geneva Convention pertaining to the status of refugees. I think this is clear: the Geneva Conventions, as many people pointed out, were based upon the model of the individual dissident, and were tailored very much to the model of prisoners of conscience. Whereas today we have refugees who are economic refugees, increasingly coming as a result of global and ecological disasters, where the line between the natural and the social disaster is itself being blurred. In Europe it is very common to make a distinction between the political refugee and the economic refugee, and to imply that the first is basically someone who is lying: this is a very superficial understanding of the conditions under which individuals become economic migrants. There is a great deal of need to reconsider this as well. I think that the regulation of first refugee movements is going to be one of the biggest tasks facing international law in the next few decades.
Now, when we come to migration, this is an area where there is so much public disinformation, both in Europe and in the United States, that astonishes me. I have studied immigration and migratory movements (because we have to talk both about emigration – leaving a country – and immigration) both at the philosophical and sociological levels.
At the sociological level, there has never been a point when peoples in the world have not moved: I think that one should basically understand that human beings are moving animals, they do not stay in one place, they move around the world. Now, what is acute, I think, in the last fifty years – and this is what the numbers are showing us – is that world migratory movements have increased about six-fold of what they were in the pre-World War situation, partially because of means of communication, new means of transportation, and the fact that for some regions of the world there is peace that is prevailing. But one of the factors that contributes a great deal to migratory movements is what I call «pull-and-push», that is to say, migrations always happen along structured lines in the economy. In the way irresponsible politicians talk about it, it is as if all of the sudden a group of people (let us say in a village in Mexico or Morocco) decide that they are going to get into a boat and go somewhere else. Usually people go somewhere else because they have some kin, some networks, they have some information and they have heard that there are possibilities, or channels, of getting jobs. So, there are both “pull” and “push” factors, and what we need to understand is the «pull-and-push» factors of migration. In a global economy to stop migration is damaging to the worldwide economy: everybody knows this, and everybody just does not admit it. Particularly, let us say, in Europe, with the aging population, unless you have young migrant workers paying into social security remittances, the European welfare state system is facing a big problem. Migration is not economically damaging to the receiving countries, but has always this cultural and psychological dimension: for human beings, I think, it is very easy to see the other, whom they can culturally, visually and linguistically identify, as the source of their own alienation, as the source of their own problems. This happens again and again and again, and the only way to deal with it is really public Enlightenment. I am not saying that there are not cultural problems or problems of assimilation, that it is not damaging when a local system is completely incapable of dealing with medical and school problems. However, you need politicians and people in public life with a sober understanding of the causes of migration, able to understand that one can regulate migration without eliminating it. And of course we need, again, better structures of global governance for regulating migration.

Global justice, gender studies, cultural identities and human rights, religion within and outside public sphere: the relationship among such topics has drawn the physiognomy of multicultural politics over the last decades. As a political theorist, what do you think will be the new frontiers of debating multiculturalism in the years to come?

I believe the most important debate that is taking place right now is the differentiation between assimilation and integration. There is this model of universal citizenship in the United States and also in France, maybe also in Italy, according to which migrants come, learn the national language and eventually move up: they never quite become like others. The United States is the only nation that defines itself as a nation of immigrants, and therefore you become an American not because you stop being an immigrant but because you become an American of the first generation, second generation, third generation etc. Now in Europe, even if there is a universalistic model of assimilation as there is in France, you still have strong sentiments of nation, strong senses of the ethnos: to find ways in which migrant groups who are now second and third generation can become integrated without giving up whole aspects of their own identity, is obviously one of the challenges. I think what the Turkish Prime Minister said, that to deny a man assimilation is a crime against humanity, is nonsense: this is just not a definition of a crime against humanity. We need distinct models: a «strong» multiculturalism runs the danger of creating enclaves, little islands and tribes of the groups that are coming in. This is happening, I think, to some extent with the Turkish population in Berlin, not necessarily because of strong multicultural ideology but because there is some kind of impatience and disappointment on the part of the general progressive German population, also about how much they can be transformed. So this is a difficult theme. In other words, the alternatives are either an oppressive model of assimilation or a model of integrative separatism: neither of these are right, and we have to find some kind of more fluid, more dynamic models, once given more to self determination in the claims of culture. That is why I propose deliberative democracy and strong civil society associations as also one way to look at this problem.
I think the second issue is going to be debates around the law, especially the degree to which we can live with multiple legal jurisdictions. This is important particularly for both observant Islamic communities – not everybody, obviously – as well for observant Jewish communities. Because multiple jurisdictions also concern private or family law (in the first place I mentioned it), I think again and again the issues about women’s rights and group rights are going to come up for articulation in the debates around multiculturalism.
A third area about which more work needs to be done is multiculturalism in reference to land rights and intellectual rights. I am very concerned about the condition of indigenous peoples whose land is not only torn apart by the Brazilian government, but also on this land certain plants with medical functions are either being possessed by big pharmaceutical companies or people are being cheated into giving them their knowledge. This is another area, which touches also on huge questions like global climate change, disasters as we increasingly see with cyclones and tsunamies. We do not quite have an understanding of them, but they seem to be related to global climate changes and they are affecting people whom we call the «cultural others».

Just a final question. You have touched on the issue of multiple jurisdictions. Do you think that the tension between national answers to the quest for security and international defense of human rights will affect the way we think about multiculturalism?

Since 9/11, the bombings in London and Madrid and a lot of the European debates around issues like freedom of expression, something very dangerous has been happening, that is: to paint all Muslims or all Islamic groups as potentially terrorists and “others”. There has been a big confusion there of “stamping” the other. Whenever a political discourse develops, that paints members of another group as being simply defined by certain characteristics. It is of course very dangerous, it is how Fascist politics worked. On the other hand, there are certainly some of these extremist groups who have infiltrated also in immigrant communities. There needs to be a balance. I would say that one has to separate the question of security from that of immigration while, at the same time, dealing with some groups by also proposing more liberal alternatives, engaging with these groups rather than pushing them asides. Hopefully -I mean- one of the reasons why we are here in Istanbul is for this dialogue between Islam and liberal democracy around various demands.

Interview given in Istanbul on June 2nd, 2008.


[1] C. TAYLOR, The Politics of Recognition, in A. GUTMAN (ed.), Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1992.
[2] N. FRASER, A. HONNETH (eds.), Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, Verso, London 2003.
[3] W. KYMLICKA, Liberalism, Community and Culture, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1991; ID., Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1995; ID., The Rights of Minority Cultures, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1995; W. KYMLICKA, I. SHAPIRO (eds.), Ethnicity and Group Rights: NOMOS 39, New York University Press, New York 1997.
[4] M. IGNATIEFF, The Rights Revolution, Anansi Press, Toronto 2000.
[5] R. DWORKIN, Liberalism, in S. HAMPSHIRE (ed.), Public and Private Morality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1978.
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