Contending Modernities article

Atalia Omer: A Response to Jan-Werner Müller



I was very intrigued by the tension Müller articulated between Christian ethical impulse and Christianity as identity politics. Müller posits illiberalism as a critique of capitalism, which invites further conceptualization of the interconnections between economic and religiocultural and political developments. In particular, such interconnections tell a story about the complex relations between economic and other forms of “under-development” and the conditions for chauvinistic and populist politics of identity and exclusions. Hence, I welcome the boldness of Dr. Müller’s provocation: “If something called liberalism can look like it’s only good for winners, liberals have to think again.”

This provocation opens the door for a critique of political liberalism and its complicity in various forms of domination and marginalization, without disposing of its pluralistic insights. Müller did not so much engage in such an undertaking but his critique of the label “illiberal democracy” (often employed to describe democratically elected ethnocentric and authoritarian regimes) as a misnomer and as such a dangerous one that offers a license to populist and undemocratic leaders to celebrate their illiberality as the choice of the demos. Illiberality, Müller is clear about it, is not democratic. A “democracy” that lacks a fundamental value commitment to pluralism opens the door to totalitarianism and is, in effect, not democratic. Populism, Müller argued, is necessarily anti-pluralist—a context where “religion” is reified as a rigid and exclusionary “flag.” To label certain regimes “illiberal democracies,” therefore, is to employ an incorrect label because such regimes damage rights that are constitutive of democracy. The label “fake” is much more accurate.

Müller, accordingly, stressed the conceptual delinking of liberalism and democracy and that this delinking is not particularly novel. In fact, it has been pivotal to various forms of critique of “bourgeois democracy”—whether Marxist or Schmittian. Schmitt’s work, Müller proposes, foresees and offers frames for analyzing contemporary transitions to authoritarianism under a democratic façade. Finally, he employed Chantal Mouffe to argue that the ever expanding logic of neoliberalism and the related lack of real political choices within this discourse and liberalism’s rationalist obsession with consensus building rather than healthy agonistic conflict explain the emergence of right-wing populism and anti-liberal movements.

Before turning to the economic dimension of the argument, I would like to ask what the relations between liberalism and secularism may be, and conversely between illiberalism and religion, in this narrative and critique of the “illiberal democracy” label. This pondering stems from an effort to broaden the discussion of liberalism to liberalism’s inbuilt mechanisms for revision and the complex relations of the tradition of political liberalism to religion. In other words, while we recognize the populist equation of liberalism with unfettered capitalism and radical individualism and that this connection offers ingredients for the recipe of populist nationalism, I am interested both in the “product” itself, namely how does chauvinistic interpretation of nationalism (identity politics or cult of authenticity) draw upon religion and what may be the role of intra- and inter-religious engagement and deepening religious literacy in countervailing such manipulations of identity?  This question is relevant to the conference’s focus on inter- and intra-religious engagement and especially to the kind of agency that the supposed targets of such populist manipulation by elites might have in cultivating resources to resist it.

Emma Tomalin, from the University of Leeds, questioned in a post-conference correspondence Müller’s suggestion that “a focus on multiculturalism is no longer at the forefront of European politics.” “This may be the case at the level of the state,” she wrote. However, it does not apply to her “observations at the local level (e.g. local councils in the UK) that are very much the opposite.” On the local grassroots level “there is a great interest in and focus on how to make multiculturalism as a strategy work in practice through increased engagement with faith actors and moves to do this in ways that do not create further marginalization of under-represented groups (e.g. women).” One needs ponder the apparent “disconnect between what is happening at the national and international levels around multiculturalism/diversity/pluralism and what is going on at the local level,” Tomalin concludes. Much of her research focuses on ‘local democracy’, suggesting a need to link the study of grassroots democracy where interreligious and inter-group action and engagement happen daily on the ground, with that of nation-state and international (democratic) populist discourses.

The findings of CM’s Working Group “Global Migration and the New Cosmopolitanism” may offer some insights pertaining to Tomalin’s critique. Global Migration and the New Cosmopolitanism examined neighborhood-level dynamics of inter-communal and inter-tradition engagement in various urban centers in western Europe and North America, with a focus on examining the possibilities of scaling up patterns of pluralistic engagements that challenge in lived and embodied ways the monocultural logic of nationalism and the populist engine of culture wars and identity politics. It is important to note that many of the instances of inter-religious and inter-communal work at the neighborhood level of the cacophonous urban centers of the west also present case studies in socioeconomic marginalization and neglect. This is an important point to underscore in order to avoid discussing challenges to pluralism solely in terms of religiocultural difference. Such a limited explanatory frame would reinforce the populist logic Müller is critiquing and tracing.

The connection between liberalism as capitalism run amok and maximization of personal freedoms provides a pretext for the emergence of “religious” and “illiberal” populist alternatives that underscore ethnonational conceptions of nationalism as a reactionary mechanism. Effectively, Müller stressed that such reactionary forces (as he observed in the case of Viktor Orbán in Hungry) position themselves against “liberalism” (which they ridicule as “political correctness police”). They promote a platform of market and moral restrictions: calls for imposing constraints on capitalist greed go hand in hand with appeals to conservative “family values” and restraints on sexual freedoms and expressions of sexual identities. “In short,” he told us, “anti-capitalism, cultural nationalism and authoritarian politics become inextricably linked.”

In consideration of the theme of interreligious engagement and how it could be linked to the discussion of populism articulated here, I would like to think about the intersections between religion and nationalism and the elastic ways in which the “elective affinities” between conceptions of ethnicity, nationality, and religion play out. We heard from Müller about the role of chauvinistic interpretations of religion and their roles in constructing reactionary illiberal political visions but what about the role of religion in liberal hermeneutics that does contribute to maximizing inclusivity? This is where liberalism as a tradition with inbuilt self-revising mechanisms can be elaborated upon as a framework to revisit the sociological and theoretical challenges of pluralism. Indeed, and to return to the ills of liberal democracies, it is important to take into account the various layers of marginalization that liberal democracies have generated.

Finally, Professor Müller’s account of populism and defective democracies was silent on the question of gender. Women are often the immediate and direct target of chauvinistic politics and so it would be beneficial to analyze patterns of religion’s relevance to identity politics through a gender lens that no longer presupposes the normative “citizen,” the subject of democratic theory, as a man. It is crucial to integrate into our analysis feminist critiques of normative political theory as well as to explore further the connections Müller identifies between critiques of unregulated capitalism, on the one hand, and targeting radical individualism, women and LGBTQI rights, on the other. Religious hermeneutics and literacy are certainly critical in combating such illiberal currents.


Atalia Omer
 Atalia Omer is Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Politics (2008) from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research focuses on Israel/Palestine; religion, violence, and peacebuilding; as well as theories and methods in the study of religion. Omer was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2017, resulting in Decolonizing Religion and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2023). Among other publications, Omer is the author of When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians (University of Chicago Press, 2019). She is also a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

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