Jacques Berlinerblau on “Pomofoco” and religious freedom

My Georgetown colleague Jacques Berlinerblau recently published a delicious — and gutsy —  piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is delicious and gutsy at the same time because it is so refreshingly and humorously candid in its criticisms of a school of thought that has become very fashionable (if not hegemonic) in contemporary academic discourse on secularism, religious freedom, and human rights. Much of what appears about religious freedom and secularism on the “Immanent Frame” website of the Social Science Research Council, for example, reflects this school of thought.

Among Berlinerblau’s most memorable — and funny — achievements is to give this school of thought a name. He calls it “Pomofoco.” That might sound like a petroleum company, but it’s short for “Post-modernist, post-Foucauldian, and post-colonial.” Very apt, as the Pomofoco school represents a remarkable confluence of all three of those now very fashionable, and of course partially overlapping, streams of academic thought.

But Berlinerblau comes not just to christen Caesar, but to bury him. And Berlinerblau’s courageous christening-cum-critique identifies gaping flaws with Pomofoco thinking. For anyone concerned about developing a proper liberal humanism foundational to the theory and practice of human rights, Berlinerblau’s tour de force is of enormous value. (Not to mention entertaining. Jacques Berlinerblau is blessed with a sharp mind, wicked sense of humor, and fearless indifference to political correctness. And he is not afraid to put them on display —even in the normally decorous pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

The first flaw in Pomofoco thinking Berlinerblau deliciously describes thus:

[One] hallmark of [the Pomofoco] school [is] its conspicuous aversion to secularism. And liberalism. And democracy. And the Enlightenment. And American foreign policy. And Israel. And Western civilization. And those who criticize political Islam or Islamic extremism via invidious comparison with any of these. It appears to be Pomofoco’s objective to everywhere draw the following conclusion: As troubling as radical Islamism might be, secular liberal democracies are just as bad—no, worse!

For the “Pomofoco” school, it appears, the emergence of modern liberal and secular political thought and practice has been an unmitigated moral calamity — a moral calamity, indeed, than which nothing worse can be imagined. Secularism comes in many forms, of course, some humane and some not, as Berlinerblau emphasizes.  But for the sake of argument let’s call a secular political project one that seeks to create a social and political space in which no single religious community or institution enjoys unchallenged dominance and all people regardless of their religious beliefs enjoy equal human rights, including a right to religious freedom. Of course, not all avowedly “secular” regimes have come close to promoting such an objective. But it is no stretch to suggest that, generally speaking, confessional non-dominance combined with some kind of religious freedom is a characteristic goal and feature of secular political orders. (Think of the Republic of India, whose democratic constitution avowedly declares a “secular” republic in large part for the purpose of protecting “the right freely to profess, practice [sic] and propagate religion.”) Seldom achieved, of course. But worthy objective, right?

Not according to the Pomofoco school. As Berlinerblau notes, the proponents of this way of thinking — a wide interdisciplinary range of scholars, from anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood to political scientist Elizabeth Hurd — deplore the very objective of secularism. It is not just that all modern secular orders miss the mark, or fall short of a worthy goal. It is that the very goal is a hidden exercise in coercion and domination — even when the goal is as innocent-sounding as “religious freedom.” Indeed, Elizabeth Hurd, for example, has castigated religious freedom per se as “this modern attempt at mind control,” comparing it — get ready for this — with the Inquisition. (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” goes that old Monty Python skit. And I for one certainly did not expect it in the middle of Hurd’s critical account of “religious freedom.”)

The sweeping Pomofoco critique of “secularism” and “religious freedom” is noteworthy on numerous counts. One is that it clearly and necessarily presupposes a passionate appeal to a concept of, well, freedom — the idea that “mind control” is wrong, and specifically the idea that there is something seriously wrong with coercively imposing one person’s version of “religion” on another person (even if the coercion is soft and subtle). Presumably by calling “religious freedom” a form of “mind control” and comparing it to the Inquisition, Hurd is not trying to be nice. As Hurd herself seems to suggest, so-called “religious freedom” is actually an assault on “human dignity and diversity.”

But the moment one takes  the trouble to develop and elaborate such an inchoate commitment to non-domination in religious matters, one would quickly have on one’s hands a normative political and moral doctrine that would have some elements of something like the ideas of liberalism, democracy, religious freedom, and perhaps even secularism, depending on how one defines those terms. Presumably it would have to include some kind of idea that arbitrary domination of some people by other people on religious issues is just plain wrong, as a matter of principle.

If so, wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable, if not unavoidable, to call such an idea “liberal” or perhaps even “secular,” and to name the principle underlying it “religious freedom”? In other words, the Pomofoco school seems to be heavily invested in critiquing what it calls “religious freedom” and “secularism” with its increasingly heated, Inquisition-laden rhetoric — each time with “its finger pointed higher in the air,” as Berlinerblau says. But it must do so in the name of an underlying commitment to a principle of religious freedom or liberalism or secularism (or….?) that it is not willing or able to announce, articulate, or defend.

A hidden bunker may be a convenient place from which to shell the enemy, but it makes it hard to have a constructive or even intelligible conversation. It is one of the virtues of Berlinerblau’s piece that he zeroes in on this feature — and failure — of “Pomofoco.” According to the Pomofoco position, as Berlinerblau describes it, “[secular] states are incorrigible, illegitimate, and must be replaced.” But as Berlinerblau rightly asks: “replaced by what?” Alas, the work of staking out a clear normative position — or even an inchoate moral principle — does not seem to interest the Pomofoco school at this point in time. As someone who has profited from the work of some members of the Pomofoco school, particularly Elizabeth Hurd’s invaluable The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, I hope this is not where things remain.


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Timothy Shah

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