All posts by Jonas Gamborg Lillebø

Is There a Secular Hierarchy in the Norwegian Public Sphere?

Muslim women should have the opportunity to define on their own premises what freedom is for them, even when the definition deviates from our own definition of freedom[1]

– Bushra Ishaq in Hvem snakker for oss? (Who speaks on our behalf?)



This statement by Bushra Ishaq, a long time Norwegian media debater, is an appeal to listen to Muslim women in defining secular and feminist values like freedom and equality. According to Ishaq Muslim women have alternative definitions of freedom that should be recognized. And she is not alone in claiming this. Like one young Muslim woman, Sheima Ali, said about the demand that Muslim girls must be liberated from religious suppression: [It makes her] “boil with frustration. What am I supposed to be liberated from? My freedom lies in practicing my religion the way I want” (Ali 2016). On the other hand, some researchers claim that many Muslims “rarely anchor their arguments in explicitly “religious” discourse and/or references” (Bangstad 2013, 361), and that Muslim women do not necessarily aim to define alternative, non-secular, notions of freedom (Døving 2012). On the contrary, they have embraced a secular definition of freedom and with it an understanding of the notion “secular” as non-religious.

These seemingly opposing views among Muslim women addresses at least two questions. What notions of freedom, equality and secularity do Muslims in Norway have? And what are the conditions under which different views on these topics could be expressed? In this article, I will try to discuss the latter. As I see it, the various views all relate to a shared problem of finding a place in a social and discursive hierarchy. Thus, my claim is that hierarchy is a notion that could be used to shed light on some of the paradoxes and tensions that emerge when themes such as freedom, feminism, secular society and hijab are discussed.

However, in introducing hierarchy as an analytical tool we are facing two obstacles: First, since hierarchy does not fit with the egalitarian values in modern society (egalitarianism equals non-hierarchical) hierarchies are concealed. Secondly, there seems to be a theoretical deficit in the understanding of hierarchy where “hierarchy” is used to explain for instance how certain Muslim voices are excluded from the public sphere (Bangstad 2013).  Hierarchy is in the latter understanding taken as an order that excludes differences. But following the French anthropologist Louis Dumont’s hierarchy is something that primarily includes differences into a larger order (Dumont 1971). In the article I will try to show how Dumont’s work is relevant for a better theoretical understanding of the notion itself as well as for analyzing concrete discussion in the public sphere.


“Secular extremism”, “secular feminism” or… “secular hierarchy”?

Key notions like “secular”, “feminism”, “freedom”, and “equality” are at the core of the debates on religion in the Norwegian context. However, what do they mean, and who can decide what they mean? Are all citizens “free” and “equal” to decide what “secular” and “feminism” means? Are religious and non-religious citizen equal in the interpretation of values like freedom and equality? Or, are these values embedded in a hierarchical frame of interpretation where non-religious citizens are at the top? These are central questions when religion, and in particular Islam, in the public sphere is discussed. However, they remain often unarticulated due to an insufficient theoretical frame. Furthermore, many of the participants in the Norwegian public debate on religion in the public sphere and secular society attest to the problem with the power to define these key notions.

One prominent Muslim voice in the Norwegian public debate is Mohammad Usman Rana who in 2008 wrote the article “The secular extremism” in Aftenposten. Here he expressed his view on secularism in opposition to what he sees as the Norwegian mainstream version of secularism. What is interesting to us here is both his own view of secularism and the mainstream one. He considers the former moderate, which lays emphasis on both democracy and pluralism, and the latter as “extreme”:

Modern Norwegian society is to an increasingly extent hallmarked by a secular bias. In order for pluralism to be maintained, the degradation of people of faith must cease […] The challenge for the new Norway is to find an identity of faith- should Norway be a moderate secular nation who attend to religious freedom, or should society be secularly extreme, where the state and the political correctness is dominating and defines what Norwegian citizens shall believe in? […] The counterpart is the secular model in France and the radical version of the French model in Turkey. Public expression of religion in these countries [France and Turkey] are attempted to be obliterated, so that secularism and atheism can achieve a particular position in society” […] In the public discourse in the modern Norway it is an accelerating tendency that religious people who wants to have God at the center of their life are marginalized and characterized as brainwashed and narrow sighted fundamentalists (Rana 2008)[3].

I do not think Rana’s use of the adjective “extreme” helps us to understand what secularity means. Having said that, I think his points really make sense within a hierarchical context. How so? His concern is that Norway will be a society where “secularism and atheism” will “achieve a particular position in society”. Rana here seems immediately to confuse a political principle of separating the public and the private (secularism) with a life stance (atheism). However, as I will try to show throughout the text, from a hierarchical perspective these two are linked and in fact underlines the ambiguous meaning of the term “secular”. As far as I see it what Ranas “confusion” reveals is that the notion “secular” implicitly entails that atheism is the “gold standard” for citizens in a secular society. In other words, secular society is not a neutral society were all citizens are equal but a society where the citizens are subordinated according to a set of values and statuses. Inspired by the works of Louis Dumont (1971) I will try to show there is an ideal of the secular citizen, which is the “gold standard” from which all other secularity can be measured, as being either religiously ignorant, atheists or anti-religious. This is in line with what researchers such as Marianne Gullestad has shown to be a discrepancy between formal equality and social or practical inequality (Gullestad 2002). Religious people are not formally subordinated, but practically subordinated in a “secular hierarchy”.

Another important Muslim voice is the already mentioned debater and researcher Bushra Isahaq. In her book Hvem snakker for oss? Muslimer i dagens Norge-hvem er de og hva mener de? (Who speaks on our behalf? Muslims in present day Norway-who are they and what do they think?) (Ishaq 2017) Ishaq discusses among other things Muslim relations to secular and democratic values and Muslim women’s understanding of their own equality. Reflecting upon the question whether Islam is to blame for suppressing women she argues from examples in both history and the present that Muslim women utilize theological arguments in promoting ideals of freedom (Ibid, 161). She seems to reproduce a view that “secular feminism”, with a certain interpretation of “freedom”, stands in opposition to alternative (plural, Muslim, religious?) feminism, with an alternative interpretation of “freedom”:

Secular feminism seems to consist in that western definitions of freedom is the only one valid. This exclusiveness to define gives western actors an alleged right to speak and act on the behalf of Muslim women- without listening to the wishes these women themselves express. Within such an understanding to find alternatives to western definitions to freedom is either wrong or a threat to western values (Ibid, 180).

Ishaq’s points, about the existence of strong female Muslim voices, can be found elsewhere. And I will return to other examples of Muslim women arguing in a similar way in the public debate in Norway later. For now, what is interesting as far as I am concerned is that in addressing the problem of definition Ishaq is confronted with a paradoxical link between equality and hierarchy becomes visible. On the one hand, all women are free and equal. But on the other hand, some women (secular feminists) are freer and more equal than others. A “Muslim feminist” is not the equal to “secular feminist”, but subordinate to the latter. In other words, to hold up freedom and equality as values implicates a hierarchization of how these values can be interpreted. And if this is true, then this is not equality at all, but hierarchy.

Ishaq seems to claim that the “alternative” notion of freedom can be drawn from Muslim traditions and sources. We can interpret this in at least two ways: either can “freedom” be both religious and secular (two paths to the same destination), or religion can be a source for the secular value “freedom” (secularity and religion can be understood as linked). Either way Muslim women use religious reasons in their perception of “freedom”. The question is then if such “alternative” notions of freedom could fit within the same discourse: If we want to take equality for all seriously, then Muslim women should have the opportunity to define on their own premises what freedom is for them, even when the definition deviates from our own definition of freedom and entails something we do not like (Ibid, 182).

This is extremely paradoxical: on the one hand she appeals to equality, and I would also add freedom. On the other hand, she challenges the premises for this equality (and freedom). And yet it is understandable and even inevitable if we take hierarchy into account: In order to establish oneself as a serious participant in the discourse on freedom one must express a subordinate stance in relation to the primary value, equality. By referring to “equality for all” as a norm Ishaq appeals to what Dumont calls a “paramount value”. She thus complies, as far as I see it, with what Louis Dumont in Essais sur l’individualisme calls modern ideology (Dumont 1983). This modern ideology is hallmarked by two important things: it is an individualist ideology constituted by equality and freedom as core values (Dumont names it “egalitarian individualism”), and secondly it is a concealed hierarchy. And since this hierarchy is not recognized by Ishaq the argument ends in paradoxes. What seems impossible in her proposal is to have a definition of freedom which “deviates from our own definition of freedom”. Following Dumont, the values “freedom” and “equality” cannot be given a plural meaning unless the alternative definitions are subordinated to the hegemonic interpretation. And this would in its turn mean that the plural definition of freedom is not equal. This is the invisible hierarchy that she tries to break with and which ends up reproducing the paradoxes in “egalitarian individualism”. As far as I see it, alternative definitions of freedom can only be possible within this hierarchical structure through subordinating the alternatives to the hegemonic one.

In claiming the equality to define freedom on Muslim women’s own premises she is perhaps not that far from the findings of researcher Cora Alexa Døving. Analyzing Norwegian debates on hijab in 2004 and 2009 Døving’s conclusion is that Muslim women uses secular arguments for hijab. So, contrary to Ishaq, she claims that her informants have a secular notion of equality and freedom and that they do not draw on Muslim sources like the Quran or Hadith. According to Døving Muslim women subscribe directly to a secular discourse. As far as she sees it “the hijab represents for them women’s liberation, independency, identity, freedom of expression and freedom of religion as well as a sign of religious belonging” (Døving 2012, 42) and that the hijab “directly connotes to secular, universal values” (Ibid, 43). Similar questions have been discussed in other studies as well (Barli 2009, Heggertveit 2017). The question is whether we should interpret such expressions as secular and feminist, as alternative secularity and feminist, or not secular and feminist at all.

So, does Døving’s findings contradict what Bushra Ishaq claims? Immediately they seem to draw completely opposite conclusions about what kind of traditions and values Muslim women appeal to. Alternatively, they perhaps refer to two opposite and competing discourses within the Muslim community. Another approach would be to say that both the Muslim women who draw on a Muslim interpretation of freedom and those who draw on secular values like human rights both are forced to relate to the same hierarchy of values. And in the Norwegian society there seems to be a non-religious interpretation of secularity freedom, and feminism that has a hold over all the other interpretations. The problem is that hierarchy in modern ideologies is concealed and is believed to be non-existing.

Even though this article discusses these questions in a Norwegian context, they are of course relevant outside Norway. One prominent scholar who has highlighted the problematic connection between secularism, liberalism and feminism facing Islam and the use of hijab on the international scene is anthropologist Saba Mahmood. In her work she has critically explored what she calls “normative secularity”, “secular liberalism” and “secular feminism”. As an anthropologist she sets out to investigate how “normative secularity” is less of a political doctrine and more a way of (trans)forming religious subjectivity that can suit western liberal political regimes. She writes in the article Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The politics of Islamic Reformation that: “One might go as far as to say that the political solution secularism offers consist not so much in “avoiding religious strife” but in making sure those religious life-forms that are deemed incompatible with a secular-political ethos are made provisional, if not extinct” (Mahmood 2006, 328). What Mahmood teach us is that being a citizen within western society depends on a certain kind of subjectivity which “is compatible with the rationality and exercise of liberal political rule” (Ibid, 344). This rationality, I would add, is governed through complying to a hierarchy of values. Integration into this (liberal) rationality depends on this.

In focusing on the production of subjectivity her approach seems more inspired by the likes of Foucault than Dumont. What relates Mahmood’s observations to the topic here is the close relation between liberal values and secularity in western societies. Mahmood has been criticized for being unclear on the nature of this connection since secularism does not necessarily depend on liberalism (Bangstad 2009, 80). However, in bringing in hierarchy as an analytical term I think it becomes clearer how they are linked.


Hierarchy and recognition of difference

In order to discuss the idea of a concealed hierarchy further I want to discuss some of the thoughts of the French anthropologist Louis Dumont. He has pointed out how “modern ideology” (Dumont 1983) – hallmarked by its rejection of hierarchies in favor of egalitarian individualism- has eclipsed our perception of social hierarchies in modern societies. The idea is that we do not perceive hierarchies because we ideologically got rid of them in the processes of modernization. But since we do not believe in them, it thus becomes difficult to both localize and understand them. According to Dumont, philosophers and sociologists alike are reluctantly uttering “hierarchy”:

Even sociologists and philosophers seem to speak of “hierarchy” reluctantly and with averted eyes, in the sense of residual or inevitable inequalities of aptitude and function, or of the chain of command which is presupposed by any artificial organization of multiple activities, briefly “power hierarchy”. However, that is not hierarchy proper, nor the deepest root of what is so called (Dumont 1998,19).

It seems to me that Dumont highlights two problems in one: firstly, we modern are blind to hierarchies because we think we have substituted hierarchy with equality. We believe only in the value of equality between human beings. But we also believe that we have in practice successfully substituted hierarchy with equality. Secondly, we confuse or equal hierarchy with a chain of commands. This stems from an inadequate understanding of what hierarchy is. Let us investigate the former problem before returning to the latter.

Whereas hierarchy seemingly belongs to the non-modern world of the past, modern secular society is based on the slogan from the French revolution of “freedom, equality and brotherhood”. But if hierarchies still exist, why do we fail to perceive them? A key for unlocking the question is Dumont’s analytical distinction between thinking and ideas on the one hand, and on acting and values on the other. In Homo hierarchicus Dumont praises Talcott Parsons for showing the link between action and values. Actions are directed towards certain ends which themselves are subject to evaluations. These evaluations have the consequence that they differentiate various “entities in a rank order” (Ibid) and integrate them within the same system of common values. According to Dumont Parsons teaches us that the human being does not only think, it acts. It has not only ideas but values. Hence: “To adopt a value is to introduce hierarchy, and a certain consensus of values, a certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people, is indispensable to social life” (Ibid, 20).

As far as I understand this Dumont’s point is that we remain blind to hierarchies because we do not see that social life regulated through action and values necessarily creates hierarchy. Our understanding and perception are mostly operating on the level of thinking and ideas, i.e. on an ideological level. But the organization of social life does not (always) correspond with the ideological scheme. Egalitarian societies are also hierarchical, but in a more implicit way than explicitly hierarchical societies.

Dumont highlights the distinction between thinking and acting, or between ideas and values. How does this distinction translate to the context of a Norwegian secular hierarchy and debates in the public sphere? After all, Dumont is talking about a distinction between thinking and acting. But are not the debates on topics such as secularity, freedom, and hijab on the level of thinking and ideas? How are social life, values and action relevant here? Even though Dumont’s distinction is analytically fruitful since it renders hierarchy visible, this does not mean that our thoughts and ideas are unmarked by social life and the values that creates hierarchies. Furthermore, the public sphere were values, thoughts and ideas are discussed could itself perhaps be regarded as influenced or even a part of social life. This takes us to a question I will discuss later of whether neutral institutions are possible.

The effect of Dumont’s anthropological research is to show that every society is upheld by a hierarchical order organized through certain and specific values. In western modern societies the central values are linked to the individual, its freedom and equality. In other words, even though modern ideology is based on equality, equality as the principal value of modern society creates the basis for a “new” hierarchy.

But before coming back to the value of equality, what exactly does Dumont mean by hierarchy? As we saw earlier, it is not to be confused with a chain of command. Dumont introduces in Homo hierarchicus his own understanding of hierarchy which is pivotal for our argument. Hierarchy is a relation that can be called “encompassment of the contrary”. Hierarchy is not a simple system of relations where a person, status, group, or gender is of less worth than another person, status, group, or gender. Hierarchy has to do with a whole (constituted by values) where all the parts have a place. Or, differently put, this whole can encompass and integrate parts into this whole or order. As the political scientist Dag Erik Berg writes, Dumont’s basic principle was that hierarchy is a universal phenomenon, but that modern ideology was also “systematically unconscious about hierarchy due to its adoption of equality as a paramount value” (Berg 2011, 34). This egalitarian principle was decisive for the “modern denial of hierarchy” (Ibid, 35).

The Norwegian sociologist Randi Gressgård has discussed similar issues- regarding Muslim utterances on homosexuality in the public sphere as well as discussing challenges with multicultural dialogue (Gressgård and Jacobsen 2008, Gressgård 2010)- in the light of Dumont’s thinking. Having already announced a discussion of Dumont’s interpretation of equality we can follow Gressgård’s Dumont-inspired reflection on this topic. Underpinning it all is a paradox: “I endeavor to show that the paradox of (in)equality- the fact that the ideal of equality leads to a subordination of those who are not identified with the whole- issues from a non-modern hierarchical structure” (Gressgård 2010, 40-42). This point seems in line with the discussion of arguments for hijab in the public sphere. But whereas Gressgård discusses the question by highlighting an ethnocentric fallacy where “others” become subordinated, what is at stake in the case where Muslims take part in the public debate and use secular arguments and appeal to secular values is what we could call “self-subordination”. By this, I mean that in taking part in the public debate we accept a subordination to the discourse and its values, which limits the degree to how much we can express deviating points of view. How to make of that? When “others” (religious muslims) argue on “our” (secular) premises we could read that as assimilation, we can read it as sensible, as ethnocentric or with suspicion.

Furthermore, if we take up the question of which kinds of voices we can recognize in the public sphere and which kinds of voices we can recognize as equal to our own (are muslim women arguing for hijab equally feminist to non-religious secular feminists?) we can read from Gressgård that: “recognition can only be hierarchical, because the act of recognizing means placing value on, or integrating into, a whole“ (Gressgård 2010, 50). Or as Dumont himself writes in the article On value: “If the advocates of difference claim for it both equality and recognition, they claim the impossible” (Dumont 2013, 312). We are here back to Dumonts “encompassment of the contrary”, which I think is central to our discussion of the public sphere and secular society. In order for an argument to be understood, recognized and separated from another argument it must be stripped of its singular and private character and placed within a whole which makes it accessible to everyone within.

A similar question is discussed in Vincent Descombes commentary to Louis Dumont (Descombes 2013, 232-233). He asks the question if it is possible to recognize the equality of another human being as yourself and at the same time recognize the other as other, i.e. different from me. His conclusion is that we must choose between either recognizing the other as equal to myself (egalitarian recognition) or recognizing the other as subordinate to myself (hierarchical recognition). The reason why it is impossible to combine equality and difference is that equality is the “paramount” value that institutes a hierarchy. Other values (for example the value of being different, or having alternative interpretations of equality and freedom) can be expressed, but only as subordinate to this paramount value. As far as I see it, Dumont and Descombes are both right. Furthermore, this choice between egalitarian recognition and hierarchical recognition seems to me to reflect the two possibilities for Muslim women in the Norwegian context. As a Muslim woman you can acquire recognition either as equal to secular/non-Muslim/non- religious women, or you can acquire recognition as different. In the first case you will be, at least to a certain degree, recognized as an equal citizen and contributor in the public sphere. In the second case, you will be allowed to express yourself and your difference, but you will not be recognized as an equal.


Neutrality, liberalism and secularity

The case of Norwegian Muslim views on secularity, freedom and feminism is, however, neither the only example where non-religious citizens are in a privileged position, nor am I the only one to highlight this. A similar case was presented by professor of law Joseph. H. H. Weilers in his intervention in the Lautsi v. Italy case regarding the removal of religious symbols from the public sphere. A chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held that the displaying in Italian public schools of the crucifix was a violation of the European Convention of human rights (Weiler 2010b). Weiler argued before the Court that “neutrality” within the meaning of secularism puts non-religious citizens in a position of privilege and does not promote equality for all. In his intervention Weiler stressed what he saw as two conceptual errors expressed in the premises for the Grand Chambers decision of removing crucifixes from Italian classrooms. The second of these concerned what he saw as “the conflation, pragmatic and conceptual, between secularism, laïcité, and secularity” (Weiler 2010a, 4). The error consists, for Weiler, in conflating laïcité with neutrality: “When one prohibits all religious dress in school, rather than allowing all religious dress, is one not making some kind of statement on religious belief?” (Weiler 2010b).

Even though Weiler’s points are basically directed at legal issues, they show on a more general level that it is harder to deal with a plurality (of values) than we think. The reason for this seems to be precisely what Weiler highlights: the neutral ground supposed to support the discussion of values and opinions within plural society is not so neutral after all, but rather expresses a perspective assumed to be neutral. However, if we do not take hierarchy into account, I do not think the problems addressed by Weiler can be fully comprehended. Differently put, Weiler fails to see that neutrality has a “double nature”: “Neutrality” is both the whole frame supporting a plurality of views on religion and one specific view of religion at the same time. Weiler sees the latter but cannot see the former as long as he does not take hierarchy into account.

A similar observation is made by John Rawls in the expanded edition of Political liberalism (2005). The work as a whole aims to shed light on how «reasonable pluralism» can support a constitutional democratic society. In a free society, citizens will have disparate worldviews, and yet there can be only one law. More importantly for us is his distinction between «public reason» and «secular reason». Whereas the idea of «public reason» in Rawls previous monumental work A theory of justice (1971) was given by a so called comprehensive liberal doctrine, «public reason» in Political liberalism is a way of reasoning about political values shared by free and equal citizens (Rawls 2005, 490). Rawls modifies his own position substantially compared to A theory of justice. Firstly, he takes pluralism into account. Secondly, Rawls makes a distinction between «political liberalism» and «comprehensive liberalism». The difference being that «political liberalism» does not include an overal theory of value. This is what makes it possible to make yet another distinction between «public reason» on the one hand and «secular reason» and values on the other:

We must distinguish public reason from what is sometimes referred to as secular reason and secular values. These are not the same as public reason. For I define secular reason as reasoning in terms of comprehensive nonreligious doctrines. Such doctrines and values are much too broad to serve the purposes of public reason. Political values are not moral doctrines, however available or accessible these may be to our reason and common sense reflection. Moral doctrines are on a level with religion and first philosophy. By contrast, liberal political principles and values, although intrinsically moral values, are specified by liberal politcal conceptions of justice and fall under the category of the political (Ibid, 452).

Rawls inclusion of pluralism and his emphasis on «political liberalism»/ «public reason»- as opposed to moral doctrines and reasonable «comprehensible doctrines» establised by both secular and religious reason- takes him one step away from a (previously?) biased conception of both rationality and liberalism. For instance, in distancing himself from «Enlightenment liberalism»’s attack on orthodox Christianity he shows that he has another kind of liberalism in mind (Ibid, 486). Furthermore, in distinguishing between political and moral values he distances himself from a liberalism à la John Stuart Mill where the individual is at the center for liberal philosohy:

Whatever we may think of autonomy as a purely moral value [Mills individualism], it fails to satisfy, given reasonable pluralism, the constraint of reciprocity, as many citizens, for example, those holding certain religious doctrines, may reject it. Thus moral autonomy is not a political value, whereas political autonomy is (Ibid,456)

The «constraint of reciprocity» which also is linked to the «duty of civility» involves two element: On the one hand, the ability to explain to others how principles and policies one advocate on fundamentalt questions can be supported by the political values of public reason. Or as Leif Wenar puts it: «Citizens must reasonably believe that all citizens can reasonably accept the enforcement of a particular set of basic laws» (Wenar 2017). On the other hand, citizens must also show willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accomodations to other peoples views should be made (Rawls 2005, 217).

So, how does all this relate to the claim put forward in this article that all citizens are not equal in their equality? One answer would be that Rawls view of «secular reason» as connected to a doctrine and not as the gold standard of (political) reason is compatible with this claim. In stressing that those with a secular worldview do not have a priviledged access to public reason Rawls has, as I see it, (perhaps unintentionally) revealed an intrinsic hierarchy of reason (with non-religious doctrines and secular reason at the top in this hierarchy). The same counts for his view on more classical liberalism that lays emphasis for instance on individualism. Differently put, Rawls is critical to those who claim that liberalism and individualism are identical (one version of such a «comprehensive liberalism» would be Mill) since they cannot cope with pluralism. A liberalism coping with pluralism must be political, and not comprehensive.

Rawls claim that “secular reason” and “public reason” are not the same, and his distinction between “comprehensive” and “political” liberalism, seems to me not only to be reasonable. Even though hierarchy is probably not something Rawls himself would consider as part of his argument, it allows us to better understand why we confuse them and might give “secular reason” and “comprehensive” liberalism a privileged position.

Having said that, even though Rawls insist that his liberalism does not include an overall theory of value (Gaus et al. 2018) does not the idea of finding a common ground that gives no position a privileged position (given “reasonable pluralism” through the “constraint of reciprocity”) itself indicate “pluralism” and “reciprocity” as values? If so, then we have located the principles for a hierarchy. If pluralism is to be taken into account this plurality must be handled in such a way that it does not fragment society. After all, what is at stake is the value of a constitutional democracy and a political conception of justice. Now, Rawls would perhaps say that values like “freedom” and “equality” are ideas and values generated from the public political culture and not preconditions for the public political culture. But then what constituted the public political culture in the first place? Rawls has certainly addressed some interesting difficulties in liberal theory, but it seems to me very difficult to keep a political concept of liberalism completely separated from a comprehensive one and not including any kind of overall theory of value.


Dilemmas and paradoxes in the debates on hijab

At the end of the article, I want to look at some examples from Norwegian debates on hijab as well as the academic reflections on the debates from the last fifteen years. The questions I want to focus on are the same as we have already seen articulated by Muslim debaters and social scientists: What notions of secularity are at play? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse genuinely secular? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of feminism or undermining it? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of freedom or undermining it?  Are the the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of equality or undermining it?

A very interesting article written by the social scientist Tordis Borchgrevink discusses the hijab debates in the mid-2000s with the French ban of religious artefacts in schools from 2004 as context. Her concern is basically the normative question in the liberal dilemma of how liberal one should and could be before the foundation of liberalism itself is undermined. Applied to the hijab case the problem is how to interpret the persistent use of liberal rights like equality and freedom of expression to claim the right to practice a religious-cultural tradition which (according to some) at the same time expresses the undermining of the same rights. She writes that:

The legal predicament illustrates perfectly the inherent dilemma of liberalism: How is liberal society to deal with illiberal practices without undermining its own principles? When these two systems of law, religious and secular, appear mutually exclusive, and both intervention and nonintervention in people’s religious belief appear self-defeating in terms of western norms the situation seems paralyzing. But within the framework of the present discussion one is led to ask whether this rather massive claim to wear hijab in secular contexts contributes to a lessening or a reinforcement of the pressure on liberal norms (Borchgrevink 2007, 114).

Even though liberalism has not been the major focus in the article, the theme is linked to some of the aforementioned key notions. The “liberal dilemma” resembles the dilemma of how much equality it is possible to recognize in another person’s point of view, before the principle of equality itself is at jeopardy. From what we have seen in Dumont’s critical assessment of egalitarian individualism, I think that a part of the “solution” to the liberal dilemma would be to admit that liberalism is hierarchical. The dilemma is apparent as long as it is understood from an ideological perspective. From the ideological perspective liberal values like liberty and equality are non-hierarchical in themselves. But in Dumont’s take liberal values, like all other values, tend to create the basis for hierarchical orders. In other words, we must shift from an ideological perspective to that of values and social practice. We are in a different position to analyze hierarchy when hierarchy no longer means a mere chain of authority but a relational order or whole that integrates and relates different statues and positions within that whole.

When looking into the perspective of the Muslim debaters themselves we can observe that this question of feminism and liberty is a pressing one for Muslim women[4]. But, as Saba Mahmood points out, it is also an academic pitfall:

It is widely assumed that the veil is a symbol whose variable meanings inhere either in the woman’s intentions or in the context of its adornment. Whether it is those who hail it as a symbol of their religious or cultural identity or those who spurn it as a symbol of women’s oppression (as do many feminists)[…] Such is the fate that must befall the veil in a secular imaginary: it can only symbolize the world of authority and tradition that already stands in a false relation to history and requisite progress; its proper meaning is decided by a prior verdict, namely that this tradition (often glossed as literalist) must be destroyed in order for reason, culture, and the free spirit to grasp the true meaning of religion (Mahmood 2006, 343-344).

Something similar can be seen in the Norwegian context. If we have in mind Sheima Ali’s quote seen in the introduction, the question here is whether wearing the hijab is a sign of suppression or liberty – And accordingly if wearing hijab is compatible with feminism. As another young muslim woman states in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten: “Feminism is about social, political and economic equality. That is why it does not matter what one wears, as long as we can be united on these values” (Lereng 2016).

Here enters another question of the relation between different feminist voices or different feminist groups in the public sphere. Going back to Tordis Borchgrevink, she asks if European Muslim women are defying the very laws restricting their rights, or if the head-scarf is advertising their obedience to their own subordination (Borchgrevink 2007). Her perspective on the paradox can be related to what another Muslim debater, Amina H. Bile, writes in Aftenposten. She claims that Muslim women in fact have been abandoned by western feminists. This highlights the paradox from another angle: “This is the paradox: we criticize countries which with their restriction and sanction limits women, and still we maintain our own regulations…We can discuss what feminism means on an individual level, but one thing I think we can all agree on is that the freedom to choose what one wants to wear or not” (Bile 2016).[5]

It is neither entirely clear whom the critique is directed at, nor if she draws on secular values or not. But, as Bangstad has pointed out there are strong indications of the existence of a hierarchy governed by among others the editors of the major newspapers who prefer liberal and/or non-religious Muslim voices (Bangstad 2013). What is interesting is that there seems to be some kind of internal hierarchy among feminists and an internal secular hierarchy that the Muslim women are battling with. And, when western feminist does not support Muslim women then this stands out as a paradox: the freedom we criticize other countries for violating, is violated by ourselves when it comes to Muslim women. But this is not a paradox if we understand freedom as a hierarchical value. If freedom is a hierarchical value, then freedom has a fixed meaning that is not negotiable. We are here back to the problem Ishaq is facing when she demands recognition for alternative definitions of freedom.

There seems to be a double paradox here: 1) Muslim women who use secular language of equality and liberty in order to express subordination. 2) Equality and liberty are (anti-hierarchical) values that creates a hierarchy among the citizens. It seems to me that the paradox is not just underlying the role and arguments of Muslim Women as Borchgrevink has in mind, it is a paradox underlying the secular order and in the values of the secular order itself. As far as I can see Borchgervink and Bile here are describing two sides of the same coin (or of the same paradox). However, we seem to lack a theoretical frame that can render this paradox visible without claiming to solve it. The problem is that we do not seem to understand that equality and liberty are practiced within a hierarchy of values. So secular western feminists do not understand (or admit) that their interpretation of freedom, equality and feminism is creating the “paramount value” (Dumont 1971). Therefore, any other version of secular non-religious feminism will always be an inferior feminism.

What Dumont does is to deconstruct the foundation of modern ideology which is the value of egalitarianism: Since values are the basis for the construction of hierarchical orders, egalitarianism becomes the paramount value in an egalitarianist hierarchy. Thus, the paradox is that equality is linked to its opposite, i.e. hierarchy. In other words, the value regulating the public sphere would in that case be equality. The dilemma from the perspective of the Muslim women arguing for hijab would then be to consider how much is lost in being encompassed by the values of the secular public sphere, and how much could be achieved by doing it. As far as I see it Dumont reveals a paradox that resembles that of the so-called liberal dilemma. As Borchgrevink writes: “The puzzle is this: The object of theologically founded discrimination, i.e. the victim herself, demands her unrestricted right to demonstrate religious obedience in precisely those institutions which represent the entrance ticket to social and economic participation” (Borchgrevink 2007, 115).

What the author here expresses is well put, but to me it appears less of a puzzle if we do not see it through the eyes of modern ideology. Ideologically, liberalisms’ recognition of the equality and thus uniqueness and difference of every human being is a recognition of equality, but not of difference. If this difference is to be recognized it must be placed in a hierarchy. When Borchrevink says that it is a puzzle that the “institutions”, which secure equality in social and economic participation, are also used to demand the “unrestricted right to demonstrate religious obedience”; She, as far as I see it, expresses unknowingly a hierarchical value. In this hierarchy the egalitarian “non-subordinate” woman and the Muslim “subordinate” woman are not equal in their equality. But since equality is not regarded as a hierarchical value, the subordinate and the non-subordinate woman are placed at the same level. Since hierarchy breaks with our ethical ideology and standard, we cannot admit that there are some who are more equal than others.

As far as I can see the academic research on arguments for hijab in the public sphere do not seem to be focusing on the process of how these voices are integrated and received in the public sphere. Whereas the voices of Muslim men in these questions can be more easily discared by egalitarianist feminism, it seems more difficult to exclude Muslim female voices who draw on secular values. On the other hand, non-religious feminism finds it difficult to accept this version of secular feminism.

Here we again touch upon the supposed confusion, discussed above in relation to Rana, between secularity as a (non-religious) world view and as a political principle. Are those feminists having a non-religious world-view purer in their secularism – and is it a purer secular feminism than those professing a religious world-view ?  The Muslim feminist voices and the secular feminist voices are different (religious vs. non-religious), but also unified (universal equality). From the perspective of the secular feminism the ”solution” is thus to not exclude these voices but englobe them into a hierachy. From the perpective of  Muslim feminism the solution is to be englobed.

I think, however, that Borchgrevink’s paradox could be given an interpretation, if not a solution, in the light of Dumonts notion of hierarchy. If hierarchy is established through what he calls paramount values, then any expression of deviant/ alternative values or points of view must be evaluated in relation to the paramount one(s). Briefly put, even though religious citizens and their opinions and values could be integrated into secular society and public discourse, secular citizens and non-religious values are “purer”. Or to draw on Dumont’s account for the relation between sexes: man has a “double nature”. On the one hand man represents a part of humanity which is different from but equal to women, who represents another part of humanity. But on the other hand, man also represents the whole humanity (mankind) (Dumont 1971). In a similar manner, I would claim that we could analyze the relation between secular and religious citizens on two levels: they are parts or members of the same society, but non-religious citizens also represent the secular society as a whole.



In this text I have tried to show how Norwegian Muslims taking part in the Norwegian discussion on topics like secularity, freedom, feminism and hijab reveal a concealed hierarchy. This hierarchy is revealed partly because there seems to be a tension between the various Muslim voices themselves. These tensions concern aims and approaches to obtain these aims. But they all concern a question of being recognized as equal and/or different. By taking Louis Dumont’s concept of hierarchy into account I think it is possible to discern both some obstacles and some strategies to cope with these obstacles when it comes to how Muslim views on secularity, freedom, feminism and hijab can be recognized. Following Dumont and his interpreters like Descombes and Gressgård it is not possible to recognize equality and difference at the same time.

On the level of Muslim debaters, I think that we have discerned two possible approaches to this question. On one hand we have those, represented by Ishaq, who want to be recognized for their different points of view on these notions and themes. On the other hand, we have those Muslims who claim they have embraced a traditionally “western” version of these themes and notions. It seems to me like these Muslim women want to be recognized as equals to the western, European, non-religious, feminist, Norwegian woman. The question is whether the latter Muslims can obtain this status, or whether they too will be subordinate to the non-religious feminist making the “feminist hierarchy” a hierarchy with different levels.

On a research level it seems difficult to grasp both that hierarchy is a reality in western modern societies and/or that hierarchy is something more than just a value scale. I do not necessarily disagree with what the researchers say. I have rather tried to say something that has not been sufficiently discussed by interpreting the researchers own analysis and conclusions in the light of Dumont’s thoughts on hierarchy.



Ali S. A. (2017).” Hør meg når jeg skriker.”, Aftenposten, January 1, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from:–Sheima-Ali-18

Bangstad S. (2009). Sekularismens ansikter. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Bangstad S. (2013). “Inclusion and exclusion in the mediated public sphere: the case of Norway and its Muslims.” Social Anthropology, 21, no. 3: 356-370.

Barli A.-H. (2009). Hijab in norsk offentlighet- en diskursanalyse. Master diss., University of Oslo.

Berg D. E. (2011). Dalits and the constitutional state. PhD diss. University of Bergen.

Berger P. (1967). The secular canopy New York: Penguin.

Bile A. H. (2017). Vestlige feminister svikter muslimer, Aftenposten, November 24, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from:–Amina-H-Bile

Borchgrevink T. (2007).” Whither Hijab? Religious freedom and the liberal dilemma”. Res Cogitans, 2, no. 4: 110-129.

Descombes V. (2013). Les embarras de l’identité Paris: NRF.

Dumont L. (1971). Homo hierarchicus. Essai sur le système des castes. Paris : Gallimard.

Dumont L. (1983). Essais sur l’individualisme. Une perspective anthropologique sur l’idéologie moderne. Paris : Gallimard.

Dumont L. (1998). Homo Hierarchicus. The Caste System and Its Implications. Oxford University Press.

Dumont L. (2013). « On value » in Hau : Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1) : 287-315.

Døving C. A. (2012). «Religionens omveier-det sekulære argument i hijabdebattene» i Bangstad, Leirvik, Plesner (red.) Sekularisme-med norske briller, Oslo: UNIPUB.

Furseth I. ed. (2015). Religionens tilbakekomst i offentligheten. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Gaus, G., Courtland, S. D. and Schmidtz, D., “Liberalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Downloaded at:


Gressgård R. and Jacobsen C. M. (2008). “Krevende toleranse: Islam og homoseksualitet.” Tidsskrift  for kjønnsforskning, 2: 22-39.

Gressgård R. (2010). Multicultural dialogue. London: Berghan.

Gullestad M. (2002). “Invinsible fences: egalitarianism, nationalism and racism”, Royal anthropological institute 8: 45-63.

Habermas J. (2004). «Religion in der Öffentlichkeit» in Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion. Suhrkamp.

Habermas, J. (2006). “Religion in the Public Sphere”. I: European Journal of Philosophy, 14, 1: 1-25. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from:

Heggertveit I. (2017). «Skamløse jenter»-Diskursanalyse av kvinneperspektivet i mediedebatten om muslimske kvinner. Master diss. Volda university college.

Ishaq B. (2017). Hvem snakker for oss? Muslimer i dagens Norge-hvem er de og hva mener de? Oslo: Cappelen Damm.

Lereng A. (2016). “Dra tilbake der dere kommer fra!” Aftenposten, November 24, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from:

Mahmood S. (2006). «Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The politics of Islamic Reformation», Public Culture 18 (2), pp.323-347.

Rawls J. (2005). «The idea of public reason revisited» in Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.


Weiler J.H.H. (2010b). EJIL Editorial Vol 21:1- Lautsi: Crucifix in the Classroom Redux. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from:

Wenar, Leif, “John Rawls”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: <>.



[1]  (Ishaq 2017, 182). All quotes from Ishaq’s book are translated by me.

[2] In addition to my colleagues at the department for religious studies at Volda University College, I would like to thank Alexandros Tsakos, Kjartan Leer-Salvesen, Erlend Walseth and Kishore Gajendra for helping me with developing the manuscript.

[3] Translated by me.

[4] I have drawn much on the master thesis of Ida Heggertveit regarding this material (Heggertveit 2017).

[5] Translated by me.

Translation as Critique of “Cultural Sameness”: Ricoeur, Luther and the Practice of Translation




This article discusses translation as a critique of what I call “cultural sameness”. “Cultural sameness” is a rephrasing of the Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad’s concept “imagined sameness” (Gullestad 2002, 2004). With this notion she wants to show how the process of inclusion (and exclusion) of new citizens into Norwegian society depends not only on receiving formal status as an equal citizen, but also how inclusion is linked to a social and anthropological dimension: in order to be regarded as an equal, the same cultural background and origin is required. In the text I interpret this “imagined sameness” as referring to cultural sameness. We imagine that the others we recognize as our equals have the same cultural background as ourselves and that we are recognized by others culturally identical or similar to ourselves. It is the constellation of sameness and culture that I want to question in this text.    

Sameness as a logical category (to be the same or being identical) is perceived as binary and defined by its opposite: difference. The problem with sameness is that it is oppositional, and hence closed, and that culture together with sameness here constitutes a kind of vicious circle: those who are included belong to the same culture, and those who are excluded belong to a different one. My claim is that the reason why culture has a part in exclusion and inclusion is due to its being linked to the idea of sameness and it is this very sameness that should be questioned.

How can we go about it? How can we challenge the binary logic of sameness and difference? I propose a reflection on the theory and practice of translation as analogous to thinking of culture in a way that does not work on the assumption of binary sameness and difference. As a guide for these reflections I select the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and his book On translation (Ricoeur 2004b). As a well demonstrated historical case I will also draw on Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German during the 16th century. Luther’s translation showed that it was possible for the meaning of the original text in Hebrew and Greek to be understood in the German language. As regards my guide, I wish to emphasise two points regarding Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation.

First of all by taking Ricoeur’s understanding of translation I want to show that the problem of understanding culture as static, pure and different is analogous to how languages are thought of as untranslatable (focusing on difference) or translatable (focusing on sameness).

A second aspect of translation is the consequence of the first point. If cohabitation in a society depends on cultural sameness or shared cultural identity, then this must mean that there is an inside and an outside to this culture that make it possible to distinguish those who belong here and those who do not. Translation gives us an alternative way of imagining this. Like translations, following Ricoeur, create comparables between languages, comparables between cultures can be created too. My claim is thus that we do not have to have the same cultural background in order to be able to live together. Translation through its practices thus articulates how equality and difference can be possible at the same time. Thus the link between equality and sameness is not unbreakable.




The problem of “cultural sameness”: closure and exclusion

The complex aim of this text is to discuss translation in relation to a certain notion of culture and the role that culture plays in inclusion and exclusion of new citizens. So, first of all, what does this notion of culture distinguish and what role does it play in inclusion and exclusion?   

Central to my argument is what Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad suggested in two of her articles, where she discussed how “culture” has replaced “race” as a means for excluding and including New Norwegian citizens. She claimed that it is not sufficient to acquire formal legal status as a citizen in order to be recognized as an equal citizens; this new citizen also has to feel that she is “the same” as those whose recognition is sought. Referring to Alexis de Tocqueville, Gullestad wrote that: “people have to feel that they are more or less the same in order to be equal of value” (Gullestad 2002, p. 46).

This feeling is analogous to the “imagined” and refers to the historian Benedict Andersons’ ground-breaking study of nationalism, Imagined communities (Anderson 2006). Anderson included imagination as an analytical concept for rendering account of the possibility that a huge amount of people who have never met and are geographically spread across an enormous territory to share a feeling of belonging together: the feeling of a national community could thus be said to be imagined[2].

The link that Gullestad creates between the constitutional equality of all Norwegian citizens and the socially and anthropologically constituted value of equality makes sense since it explains the inconsistencies often found in debates on Norwegian culture. It is often said that immigrants, when becoming Norwegian citizens, “must adapt to our ways of living” and abandon their cultural features and customs when those are conflicting with the norms inherent in Norwegian culture. But there seems to be confusion as to how they should do this and about what they should adapt to. When discussing Norwegian culture, the debate tends to fluctuate between references to language, values, cultural traditions, religious background (Andersen/ Tybring-Gjedde 2010) on the one hand, and the legal and political fundamentals of society such as democracy, rule of law and the freedom of speech on the other (NRK 2009, debate on Norwegian  values). Whereas the essence of what is Norwegian is vague, the legal and political fundamentals are not particularly Norwegian. However, Gullestad’s analysis explains, as far as I see it, why there is no mix up after all: the imagined sameness constitutes the community and consequently the execution of equality in the social world. In order to be recognized as equal one must be the same (identical and/or similar) as those recognizing you. From this perspective, it seems impossible to adapt to the Norwegian society, even if one minutely follows the decrees and requirements of political and legal institutions, simply because the cultural background of the immigrant is different.     

Gullestad expands the idea of “imagined community” into what she calls “imagined sameness”: we imagine that everyone who belongs to a national community is the same as ourselves[3]. In fact, it is the hallmark of a specific Nordic imagination, that “social actors must consider themselves as more or less the same” (Gullestad 2002, p. 46). It is not sufficient to render any account of Norwegian egalitarianism by referring to Norway’s formal constitutional framework. Her aim is to articulate the social and anthropological dimension that constitutes egalitarianism as a value. She continues by saying that:


When they [the social actors] thus manage to establish a definition of the situation focusing on sameness, each of the parties – paradoxically – also gains confirmation of their individual value. In order to have their desired identities confirmed, people need relevant others who are able and willing to recognize and support them. According to the logic involved, the relevant supporters are other people who are regarded as similar. This logic often leads to an interaction style in which commonalities are emphasized, while differences are played down. In this way the sameness cannot always be observed but is, rather, a style that focuses on sameness. For the sake of simplicity I call it “imagined sameness” (Ibid, p. 47).


What I find interesting here is what she says about commonalities being emphasized. The commonalities she has in mind are culture, origin and ancestry. I hence find it pertinent to interpret or rephrase Gullestad’s term “imagined sameness” as a “cultural sameness”, meaning that what is imagined as common, or that which makes us the same, is the culture one belongs to.

Going back to Gullestad, she utilizes Anderson’s reflections on the function of the imagination to shed some light on mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion and the establishment of hierarchy. Her point is, as far as I understand it, that even though egalitarianism is supposed to account for everyone, we do not leave the idea of cultural belonging when it comes to the recognition of who is a genuinely equal citizen. We thus enter the play of exclusion and inclusion. Even though equality is supposed to be universal and individual, equality is nevertheless linked to a common culture, ancestry and origin. And this “”culture” is somehow regarded as completed” (2002, p. 53). Therefore, it is not too farfetched to interpret Gullestad’s imagined sameness as a cultural sameness, which refers to cultural identity and cultural origin. For an immigrant, or rather through the very label of being called an “immigrant”, this renders the inclusion into a society a difficult task. An immigrant is someone whose cultural identity and origin is always different and which will never cease to stick with this person. The immigrant is, almost by receiving this nametag alone, excluded from the community of genuine Norwegians and placed within an invisible hierarchy of Norwegians. This exclusion and hierarchy is possible to establish on the basis of an assumption that there is a cultural difference between the original and ethnic Norwegians and those entering the community.    

We are now approaching the problem that I want to look into and which connects “cultural sameness” and translation. The logic, which makes it possible to reproduce the interface between inclusion and exclusion or the tension between equality and hierarchy, is connected to “sameness”. Or rather, “sameness” is, logically speaking, an oppositional notion that has difference as its counterpart: that which is not the same, is different. In The Oxford English Dictionary we can read the following about the definition of identity: “the sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else” (cited in Gleason 1983). “Sameness” appears synonymously with “identity” and is defined through “not being something else”. Since sameness and difference represent oppositional notions, they exclude each other. In fact the only way they can be related is by mutually excluding each other. The point is that this logic is found on a practical and social level too, in the sense that those who have a different cultural background and attachment are excluded. And when applied to “culture” this renders culture something closed. It resembles a vicious circle: the imagined sameness shapes our understanding of culture, which in its turn reproduces exclusion and inclusion, and this exclusion and inclusion affirms the imagined sameness. The question is then whether it is possible to break the circle. Is it possible to articulate openness of culture? And if so, how should we articulate it?  

By drawing a parallel between culture and language, I wish to show how translation as a problematization of the closing of languages might teach us something about the closing of culture. As far as I am concerned, the obstacle in seeing culture as closed is parallel, if not identical, to the problem of untranslatability and lack of communicative ability between languages. Common for them both is that sameness and difference constitute closure. At the social level this closure is reproducing exclusion, whereas in the field of language what is being reproduced tends to be the view that communication is impossible. However, in order to comprehend this parallel, we must turn our attention more fully to translation.      



What is translation?

Translation comes from Classical Latin translatus. Trans means “across” and latus is the perfect passive participle of the verb fero, ferre, which means “to bear”. To translate is to lead, bring, transport or conduct across and over to something.

In the practice of translation we find both the aspect of carrying something across and then of interpreting it. This practice could be described as the tension between two poles: source language and target language. The French translation scholar Jean-René Ladmiral writes that: “Translation passes a message from the language of departure or source language to the language of arrival or target language.” (Ladmiral 1994, p. 11; translation by the author) The translation transmits both meaning and message from one place to another. The point of departure is thus something incomprehensible that requires that we carry it over to our side for interpretation. It could perhaps be illustrated by the image of two separate river banks. Transporting something from one side to the other is thus perturbed until something, for instance, a bridge, is constructed, which may be able to carry things across. The two banks are no longer separated. However, the river is still there and the bridge might be fragile: a bad translation might turn out to be ruinous, leading to new misunderstandings. Briefly put, a translation might potentially always be replaced by a better one.

Relevant historical examples of translation are not difficult to find. During the 12th century, the contact between the West and the Arabic world led to vital developments, as the Greek source and foundation of the West were rediscovered. For instance, major works by Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle were translated by Wilhem of Moerbekes (Störig 1963, p. xi). However, despite a widespread practice of translation, there were no theoretical studies of translations until much later. Even though a scientific approach to translation emerged in the 15th century with Leonardo Bruni’s work De Interpretatione Recta (1420), a theoretical approach to translation was first and foremost developed from the 19th century onwards. Ricoeur refers in many places to the work of Antoine Berman and his book L’épreuve de l’étranger, where Berman discusses two German traditions of translation. On the one hand we have the likes of Novalis and Schlegel, who subscribed to what Berman called a speculative theory of translation, which was furthermore linked to what they conceived of as critique. Berman writes that for the romantic thinkers’ translation was a way of improving the potential in the original. This led for instance to the conclusion that Shakespeare was better in German than in the original English:


The original itself…possesses an a priori aim: The idea of the work, that the work wants to be (l’Idée de l’Oeuvre que l’oeuvre veut être), tends to be…but which it empirically speaking never is. The original, in this sense, is nothing but the copy- the translation if you like- of this a priori figure…By this aim the translation produces a “better” text than the first (Berman, p. 172).


On the other hand we have among others Humboldt and Schleiermacher, who for the first time tries to conceive of that which is alien or strange in a text. Following Berman’s account what is different for them compared to Novalis and Schlegel is that understanding is introduced as a problem. To understand a text is to understand “an expressive product of a subject” (Ibid, p. 227)and the phenomenon of objective language defined by history and culture. And this conception of history and culture is different from those of the readers, interpreters or translators. (Ibid) Thirdly, language is not just an instrument, but the place where the human being lives. Language defines who a human being is and renders expression through language essential. Through these three points one becomes aware of the difference between languages and the importance of these differences. A text is the expression of an individual author who expresses him- or her-self in the language of a specific time and place. Without taking this specific time and place into account, the vital aspect of the expression is lost.  

Schleiermacher in particular is enormously interesting in his linking of understanding, interpretation and translation. Whereas interpretation concerns itself with ordinary expressions, translation handles science and art. But how should this relation between the authors and the reader’s language be balanced by the translator? It is here that Schleiermacher refutes the idea that one should translate as if the author wrote in the language of the reader (Ibid, p. 235). The most important issue to recognize for a translator is the writer’s relation to his or her mother tongue.  Schleiermacher argues that in order to recognize one’s own mother tongue and having one’s own mother tongue recognized, one must be able to receive what is different. As far as I understand it, this means that what is strange and different has a constitutive role for the status of equality. Berman once wrote that Schleiermacher linked translation to a cultural situation where the national language has not yet affirmed itself, and thus could not receive the other languages nor present itself as a cultivated language (Ibid, p. 236).

Thus we may see that translation has a role to play in the inter-subjective constitution of languages. By approaching the reader’s language to the author, translations can demonstrate the equal value of the author’s language. What is first and foremost interesting for our part is the role of what is foreign (l’épreuve de l’étranger) here. It is only by showing that the reader’s mother tongue is as rich as the author’s that it can receive a status as equal. And this equality between languages is, as we shall see, pivotal for understanding Luther’s translation, which I will discuss later.

Why take this brief historical tour through the theme of translation? Schleiermacher’s sensitivity for those elements and words which are foreign represents a central event in the philosophy of translation. Translation should be seen as an effort to understand what is foreign and thus remains a challenge for the translator. Is it possible to bring a foreign meaning or message over into your own language without losing the original meaning? On the other hand, how far should we go in making the foreign into the absolute? Are translations impossible due to the differences between languages, or are they possible because we are all of the same nature or with the same historical origin? We will now go on scrutinizing the translator’s attempt to balance two languages in order that we may articulate a thinking that does not see sameness and difference as the only alternatives.           



Translation from theory to practice

If we now turn more specifically to Paul Ricoeur’s notion of translation, the basis for our reflections is a collection of three articles on translation published under the title Sur la traduction (Ricoeur 2004a). I shall not give a summary of the texts here, but rather refer to those parts which are central to our problem.

Translation fluctuates between the language of the author and the language of the reader. Ricoeur refers to a long tradition in the theory of translation. Franz Rosenzweig presents translation as a paradox. It serves two masters: the author in her work and the readers’ desire to understand. Schleiermacher for his part describes, as we have seen, translation as taking the author to the reader and the reader to the author. According to him, a translator has to choose in the end between the language of the author and the language of the reader. And in the end it is the translator’s ability to let the reader’s language receive the author’s language that is the test of whether or not the reader’s language is equal to the author’s. (Berman, pp. 226-250) Ladmiral in his book Traduire: théorèmes pour la traduction denominates the antinomy in translation between the litteral and the litterary(Ladmiral 1994, p. 89).

Now, the tension between these two poles – the author and the reader – has led to both a linguistic and a philological debate, as well as to speculation on whether or not translation is in fact possible. Two kinds or types of response can be discerned. On the one hand, given the diversity of languages, the differences between languages make translation impossible. And, as Ladmiral points out, this seems to be a dominant position. (Ibid, p. 85) In lack of a third text, the transition between the two languages remains blocked. On the other hand, given that translations actually take place, different languages must be sharing some common ground. This is an attempt to justify translations based on either common origin prior to the separation of all languages, or in a prior deeper or implicit structure common to all languages. However both strands meet obstacles: the former cannot explain the fact that translations take place; the latter does not succeed in supplying us with this common ground.

Ricoeur’s contribution is not a solution to these problems. His point is rather that this problem, whether or not translation is possible, is a theoretical problem imposed from the outside. He tries to understand the problem that the practice of translation is a response to. And what is this problem? According to Ricoeur, the real problem in the practice of translation is whether to be faithful to or to betray the language of the reader and whether to be faithful or to betray the language of the author. The outcome of this tension is “the production of equivalence without identity”. (Ricoeur 2004a: 63) Since the tension between fidelity and treason is never dissolved, it rather accounts for how an equivalent is not identical. Even though Ricoeur to a certain point might be right, the question is whether this displacement from theory to practice really avoids the problem about whether or not translation is possible As Ladmiral points out, the question about whether translation is possible is posed exactly due to this problem – which language to be faithful to – in the practice. They are part of the same antinomy. Thus it appears difficult to get rid of the question concerning whether translation is possible, due to the fact that every translation is faced with the question of whether it is a good translation. On the other hand, the question is then of quality and not of possibility. To say that a translation is not sufficient is not to say that translation as such is impossible. And in a translation some parts might be deemed more successful than others. That does not mean that less successful translations prove the impossibility of translating, only that the demand of faithfulness to the two languages has been difficult to comply with.  

This problem still endures after the translator’s work itself is finished. Even though there is no third text from where one can judge a translation, it does not follow that the translation is exempt from criticism. And the best way to criticize a translation is to present a better one. Critique is perhaps too vague or general to constitute a principle in translations, but is however a necessary part of the translator’s onerous task.



Between fidelity and treason: Luther’s creation of the comparable

Translation is the construction of equivalence without identity or a comparable between two languages. This implies a continuity and rupture of meaning at the same time. Where continuity is ensured in the commitment or faithfulness to both the author and the reader, the ruptures reveal themselves in the betrayal of them. The fidelity of received language is jeopardised in favour of a creative act, which at the same time is, as Ricoeur writes, a risk: “Grandeur of translation, risk of translation: creative betrayal of the original, equally creative appropriation by the language of reception or; construction of the comparable.” (Ricoeur 2004b: 37)

What then is a comparable? An example that is close to Ricoeur’s heart is Martin Luther’s translation of the Greek Bible into German in the 16th century. Translations of the Bible had been undertaken before, both into German as well as into other languages, but Luther gave the first complete translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts into German without going through Latin. Luther also found the earlier German translations of parts of the Bible too Latin, whereas he aimed at a Germanization of the Bible. We are not forgetting the Geneva Bible or the Czech translation by the Moravian church, even though that is not our focus here. Before Luther, the translation of the Greek text had been done through Latin. The Catholic Church had had a monopoly regarding translation and interpretation of the Bible through the Latin language, which only the Church was the real possessor of. If we read Luther’s own thoughts on Biblical translation in Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, we can discern his antiauthoritarian statement that:


We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German… Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them. (Luther 2003; translation by Gary Mann)


Reading this, it is striking to note the central role that translation has in Luther’s reformation. As Luther’s credo was that the Bible is the only authority (sola scriptura), he opened the way for a thinking that did not have to go through the tradition of the Catholic Church. In order to realise this idea that the Bible is the only authority, a consequence is that everyone must be able to read it. Sola scriptura is no good without people being able to read the Bible. Luther’s solution is ingenious. Instead of everyone learning the only accepted language of translation, Latin, which up until then had only been reserved for a few, the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts became accessible in the language of the people. In other words, Luther’s translation is not merely the effect of the idea of the reformation; it could be understood as its articulation and realisation. Or differently put, would sola scriptura be equally meaningful without the translation of the Bible? The translation thus expresses the reformation on a concrete and symbolic level. The real effect was however not only a change in the religious perception, but the destabilisation of the Church’s power and hegemony. This power was partly constituted by the Latin language as the language through which one had access to God’s word and hence the truth. The truth of God’s word constituted this power. The implication of translating the Bible to other languages than Latin was that truth was no longer mediated by the Church.

Luther wanted to Germanize the Bible by translating it into good German, the German of the people. However it was not clear what good German meant, as the Germans spoke a number of dialects (Mundarten). Antoine Berman (1995) describes the difficult balance. Luther’s double attempt was to:


Translate into a German which a priori was local, his own Hochdeutsch German, but in this process of translating, elevate this local German into a common German (un allemand commun), a lingua franca. In order for this German not to become a language detached from the people, it had to conserve something of the Mundarten and the general modes of expressions from popular language (Berman, p. 46; translation by the author).


In order for the German particularity to acquire universality in the sense of equality with Latin, it could not remain in the “pure” particularity of the dialects. However, without some continuity to the dialects and the Mundarten, it would become too strong a homogenization. 

Even though Luther was convinced that God’s word could be received in the German language, he was not exempt from the paradoxical demand in every translation of serving two masters: the language of the original or the language of the reader. Even though the principle of taking the original to the reader’s language is the most common for all translations, Luther finds it also necessary to practice the other principle of taking the reader to the language of origin. As Franz Rosenzweig writes in his text “Die Schrift und Luther” (Rosenzweig 1963), Luther was conscious of the necessity to give room for the Hebrew language in order to fully appreciate the meaning of the text. It was thus sometimes necessary to go beyond the German normal language, as he explains in his foreword to the translation of the Psalms, and “get used to” such words (solche Worte behalten, gewohnen). For example, in order to conserve the Hebrew meaning he substitutes Gefangenden erlöset (liberated the imprisoned) with Gefängnis gefangen (imprisoned the prison/imprisonment) as an expression of what Christ has done. The Hebrew meaning, that expresses that Christ has imprisoned the prison itself, could thus be said to hold an even stronger meaning than just claiming that he has liberated the imprisoned. Now, what is interesting here is that Luther does not import a foreign word to express this, but twists the German language itself so that it can receive the proper meaning of the original. It is still German, but Luther found (in Gefängnis gefangen) either a potential not yet brought to the fore in the German language, or he actually constructed a neologism in German.     

The idea of the universal as the word, reason or right in European history is accompanied by a notion of its linguistic form (Latin, French). Latin could thus be opposed by particular languages, or rather languages which had only an oral usage on the one hand, and languages that had writing and grammar on the other. This notion of the universal as the opposite to the particular is however something that found its way into the age of the Enlightenment. But, as Richard Kearney points out, there were obstacles:


The ideal in the century of Enlightenment of a universal perfect language was confronted with the resistance from cultural differences that rested on linguistic disparity… most attempts at founding a language one and absolute was found to be, de facto, an imperialist and cunning manoeuvre… which aimed at giving privilege to one particular language…in relation to the languages of subordinate countries or regions. (Kearney, p. 163)


According to Annelise Senger, Luther viewed translation as reviving old German words rather than importing foreign elements. In this respect Luther actually did contribute to homogenize the German language as later will become clear. As Luther states elsewhere in Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, the most important element to be conserved from the original text is its implied meaning.  

For our part, the most interesting aspect of Luther’s translation is how German becomes a language that the “original” text could be translated into. How can this balance, that Berman describes as “neither Latin nor a pure dialect, but a popular use of language”, be articulated? German was up until then incomparable to Latin and thus inept as translation-language. In other words, German was not an equivalent to Latin when it came to receiving the word of God. God did not speak German until Luther translated the Bible. Luther thus changed the perception of the German language. Ricoeur writes that:


Luther not only constructed a comparable in translating the Bible into German, in “germanizing” it, as he dared say, in the face of St. Jerome’s Latin, but created the German language, as comparable to Latin, to the Greek of the Septuagint, and to the Hebrew of the Bible. (Ricoeur 2004b: 37)


Once again, Luther’s translation had a striking significance for the philosophy of the Enlightenment a century later. First of all, the Church was dethroned as exclusive authority. However, that did not imply a rejection of the universal as such. Without claiming that Luther was an Enlightenment thinker-, one could perhaps localize Luther’s enterprise as being somewhere between what later became the French and the German versions of Enlightenment. The former is focused on dethroning all authorities with reference to metaphysics, tradition etc., but nevertheless preserves a centralist and anti-traditional universalism. The latter is represented by, for instance, Herder, who criticizes the rationalism of the authors of the Encyclopédie. On Herder’s stance, Louis Dumont writes in Essais sur l`individualisme that he criticized: “The enlightenment for their vulgar rationalism, their narrow understanding of progress, and above all the hegemony of this universalist rationalism” (Dumont 1983, p. 137; translation by the author). Despite Luther’s and Herder’s diverging views on translation, Luther initiated a criticism of the universalism on which Herder continues. Having said that, Luther’s enterprise is not a refutation of the universal in general, as Dumont proposes in the case of Herder. Even though Luther’s perspective was to prove  the Church wrong, and not to promote any kind of modern plurality, rendering the word of God accessible for everyone in their own language, set ideas in motion that led to a later destabilisation of the notion of the universal. In translation it is possible to grasp the universal in the particular.

Returning to the dilemma of treason and fidelity, what status does this conversion of signs have? Since there is no third text or criterion by which one can measure the correctness of a translation, one is left with the dilemma of treason and fidelity. And as Olivier Abel and Jerome Porée write, not even a true fidelity is an identical replica. However, they write as well: “that does not mean that translation is treason… it is a creative fidelity. “ (Abel/Porée, p. 125) They seem to indicate an opposition between treason and fidelity that creativity tries to surmount. This seems a bit odd, particularly in the light of Ricoeur’s own description of the grandeur of translation as “creative betrayal of the original“. However one chooses to see it, what seems to be at the center of the dilemma between fidelity and treason is creativity. Creativity is necessary in order to make the reader’s language able to receive the foreign language. On the other hand “too much” creativity risk losing the faithfulness to both languages. Thus the translator has to decide how “much” creativity and which of the two languages one has to be most faithful to.

We are now in a better position to understand the initial precisions on the comparable. Theoretically speaking, the construction of a comparable means three things: the comparable unites two entities that before where separated or heterogeneous; in this case the German written language unites the spoken German as well as the original texts in Greek and Hebrew. Secondly, in this process, the German language thought of as inferior is lifted up to equal Latin, Greek and Hebrew. And, thirdly, this equality is achieved without abandoning the German language tradition.

Going back to Ricoeur’s displacement from theory to practice, the question is not whether it is possible to translate the Bible, but to what degree the translation betrays or remains faithful to the original language and the language of the reader. Luther created what we can call an equivalent without adequacy or identity, or in other words an equivalent without homogeneity. Luther emphasizes a connective aspect when German as a language can only become a language of its own after or through its connection to planetary meanings or universals like the Bible. By finding equivalence between the Hebrew and Greek languages and the German dialects, German could be recognized as a particular language. But if this is possible, then it opens up the question of how that may be possible. Is there some common ground historically or in human nature which makes it possible? On the other hand, the failure to find the perfect translation might lead us to the opposite conclusion, i.e. that it is impossible. In other words, we see here a parallel between the problems in translation and those of culture, that is the transition between outside and inside and the question of how these two could somehow be joined. The practice of translation seems to assume and question the inside and outside of language at the same time. It assumes both unity and diversity of language. Translation is both a success (when presenting a translation) and a failure (at finding a perfect translation). These are the paradoxes of translation. 


From language to culture and back: the parallel

How is Luther’s creation of a comparable relevant to the question of cultural sameness? As Ricoeur shows, translation does not work on such epistemological assumptions. Languages are either too different or have the same origin, but in both cases they pursue their own epistemological questions. The epistemology of translation may rather be found in practice. Or as Ricoeur writes, paraphrasing Donald Davidson, that translation is: ”Theoretically Difficult, Hard and Practically Simple, Easy.” (Ricoeur 2004b, p. 15) Having said that, practices never articulate themselves but must be explicated.

What I first of all find interesting is Ricoeur’s take on this. Like the creation of a comparable shows that the problem “whether translation is possible or not” is a false or merely theoretical problem, this helps us to ask if the analogous problem “whether it is possible to live together in a culturally diverse society or not” is a false or merely theoretical problem too. What the hypothetical question does not take into account is the case where the problem has already been overcome. But since Ricoeur has analysed this through Luther’s practical enterprise, he has also found that this is not the question that translation responds to at all. The question is rather the degree of faithfulness or betrayal to one of the two languages. As far as I can see, this represents an insightful approach that is transferable to the question of culture. A process of integration is perhaps rather a question of how faithful or how deceitful one could be.  

Homogeneity in the sense of demand for adaptation is thus a response to a false problem. The demand for adaptation is a response to a problem that assumes that other cultures represent a threat to democracy as well as to society as a whole, whether Norwegian or French, etc. I am not making an invitation to relativism or a refutation of values, norms and principles in our societies. Nor am I presenting a naïve proposition. There are of course groups and individuals who have no interest in democracy and the rule of law, and there are those who are aiming at founding society on alternative laws. But in this context as elsewhere, there are only potentialities, and no guarantees.

My point is rather that this hypothetical question is nurturing itself on the logic of identity and difference that is common to both language and culture. The theory of translation puts the basic question of whether translation is at all possible or not. It premises the outcome on either an identity of all languages in human nature or a common origin, or on the differences between languages being insurmountable. This is a similar point to that of Gullestad when she reflects on the imagined sameness, which is a common cultural identity and origin. This sameness has as its opposite another and different cultural identity and origin. Following the egalitarian logic, and it being linked to this imagined sameness, any co-habituation is impossible because of a lack of original common origin that may ground a community. The hypothetical and the imagined have that in common: that they disregard practices that show something else than what theory allows. What Gullestad does not take into account is the practices or examples of successful integration, which could be subversive to the imagined sameness.  

Going back to Luther and the epistemological problem that Luther wrestled with in his translations, he did not deal with the question of whether or not the translation was possible, but rather whether he could succeed in stabilising the tension between faithfulness and treason. Again, the problem is not theoretical but practical. Likewise, we must investigate multicultural society taking the practices that are already there in order to articulate that which is already possible in practice. The idea of a cultural sameness and the demand for adaptation to our values does not render us capable of understanding the intercultural practices, which are already there and transgress our imagination. In the way in which translation as a practice transgresses our imagination, we must look into transcultural and intercultural practices that also transgress our imagination.  

Further, as a result of this preliminary “deconstruction” of the question comes the more constructive solution. In Luther’s case, the creation of a comparable makes languages (German and Greek) that before were separated or heterogeneous, open to each other. Thus, Luthers practice of translation has not only showed us a false or badly put question. It has also given us more specifically a practical example, which can reflect on cultural diversity. Translation as a practical activity overcomes obstacles of understanding. The fact that people go from not understanding to understanding one another is understandable first of all from the practice of translation. The risk is of course that the translation becomes focused on adaptation.

In addition, the equal status of German and Latin is achieved without abandoning the German language and German tradition. If the point of Luther’s translation was the creation of an equivalent without identity, something comparable to Latin, this is important due to the fact that it was no longer an obligation to learn Latin to conceive of God’s word. German received the status of universal equality to Latin, but kept its German particularity. German as Biblical language was the construction of an equivalent to Latin without being identical to Latin. To say that German is equivalent or comparable to Latin is to say at once that German and Latin are of equal value, that it is possible to say the same in both languages, and that a premise is not a complete homogenisation.   

This gives us another interesting take on the parallel between language and culture. As I see it, there are some analogous points between the Latin-German opposition and the sameness-otherness opposition in a multicultural society. What Luther’s translation created was an equality which is not based on sameness. Even though the German language is related to Latin, Greek or Hebrew, it is not reducible to them. Instead a specific German branch of Christianity saw the light of the day and augmented the linguistic and cultural spectre of the Christian religion. Equality meant thus creative contribution and recognition, but not on its own terms alone. Likewise, homogenisation, total adaptation, or cultural sameness are not a prerequisite for co-habituation and equality in a society. What generates a feeling of equality is rather that one with one’s own background can contribute to this co-habituation and perhaps broaden the imagination of what it means to be Norwegian, French, etc. 



The paradigm of openness

Ricoeur writes that translation is a paradigm and articulates a linguistic hospitality. This linguistic hospitality consists in the fact that the attempt to understand the foreign language is prior to the appropriation of it. Translation questions our self-centered being by living in a language other than our own and by welcoming a foreign language to be in our own. By calling it a “paradigm”, Ricoeur sees a parallel or analogy between languages, confessions, and religions. I would like not only to add culture to the list of analogues, but even say that translation is an intervention into the paradigm of linguistic comparison that constitutes the logic of cultural sameness and cultural difference. What Ricoeur means by calling it a paradigm is that it goes deeper and wider than this kind of comparison.

In the secondary literature on Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation, the concept of paradigm is mentioned many times. Richard Kearney writes about translation as a linguistic, ontological, anthropological and hermeneutic paradigm. Kearney writes: “Ricoeur is holding the view that good translations require a radical openness towards the other.”(Kearney, p. 161) And further: “the translation is exposing us to what is other (l’étranger). We are at the same time involved with an alterity residing outside ourselves (en dehors du chez-soi) and an alterity residing inside.”(Ibid, p. 164) This point of an alterity residing inside ourselves is a point underlined many times by Ricoeur and originally borrowed from Georg Steiner, who in his book After Babel (Steiner 1998) writes about translation internal to a cultural and linguistic domain. It seems as though we are confronted here with a question of openness. Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation is a philosophy of hospitality which points to an openness. And even though this could easily be interpreted as an ethical statement, does it not also equally hold as an epistemological statement about the practice of translation? This is not a relativist point of view. In order for a translation to be good both languages must be open: otherwise it is not a translation. Openness renders account for the rules governing the practice of translation: in order to translate one it is necessary to listen and learn what is foreign. Otherwise we are not translating. 





If we now take everything into consideration, we see that the “cultural sameness” that renders culture into a mechanism of exclusion and inclusion is situated within the binary logic of identity and difference. In order to be included into a society you have to be imagined to have the same cultural attachment. I have tried to challenge this notion by reflecting on an alternative to oppositional thinking: translation. The practice of translation follows a logic that is not oppositional but rather one of balances between languages and degrees of openness between them. In order to translate one must be open to another language, but without abandoning his or her own starting language. Luther’s translation showed that such openness was possible for the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew text to enter the German language and for these meanings to be articulated in new forms.




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[1] I want to thank Martin Peterson for comments on this text.

[2] I will not dwell on this here, but “imagined” is not the obverse of reality. Imagination is rather an element in the constitution of national communities, since the amount of people and the territory of the nation makes it impossible to ground community in, for instance, face-to-face relations.

[3] The Norwegian version of the article (Gullestad 2002) uses likhet, which also means “semblance” and “similarity”. And the author makes it clear that likhet covers both meanings in Norwegian. So there is an ambiguity in likhet meaning sameness (identical) and similarity at the same time. Having said that, she has chosen sameness and not similarity in the English version.