The political sentiment represented by the WSF celebrates diversity, and cultivates a substrate where movements can be incubated, and prosper. This paper questions a particular secular(ist) vocabulary, grammar, and culture of politics exhibited at the WSF in Bombay. It asks whether the political space of the Forum, which is defined as open, democratic, and tolerant, must necessarily be a secular one, or whether a secularistic political affect closes potentialities by narrowing the possibilities for anti-imperial critiques, thus excluding valid forms of dissent? The paper will argue that a secularistic culture of politics can be an impediment for an emerging and growing revolutionary phenomenon because of its exclusionary and limiting tendencies. Building on a critique of affective politics, it will be shown that the imperative of a politics of resistance free from religious sentiments will both fail to address the needs of vast majorities of the planet’s inhabitants and continue to provide opportunities for more fundamental and violent alternatives to flourish. Drawing from the work of Connolly, Deleuze and Guattari, as well as Ramadan, this paper critiques the privileged space allotted to secularism, and invites discussion about how to provide scope for the possibility of a political ethic which does not alienate believers, instead creating the potential for new models of political pluralism.

Bio note

Anila Daulatzai has been involved in various political and community actions for over two decades. She has done research on reproductive health among Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan between 1995-2001. Her research interests include health, economic vulnerability, and social suffering in Afghanistan and among Afghan refugees. She holds Masters degrees in public health and Islamic studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently pursuing a PhD in anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University. E-mail : anila@jhu.edu


“Why don’t we admit it and say it plain and simply”, declared a twenty-something Indian male to a small group of delegates gathered in a tent-like structure in Bombay at the January 2004 meeting of the World Social Forum (WSF). “Why aren’t we straightforward and say that the reason Afghanistan is a failed state is its religion, the religion of Islam. Why don’t people see that the real fault is in the religion?” The young man addressed his questions to a panel of self-proclaimed “experts” titled “Afghanistan: the First Target in the War on Terror”. Initially, there was a gasp as many in the room could not imagine how such words might be uttered in the sacredly tolerant space the WSF offered. Pervaiz Hoodbhoy, a panelist and professor of physics from Quaid-i-Azam? University in Islamabad, Pakistan was the main respondent. He began smiling while giving examples to support the position of the young man. His main point was that nothing positive ever came out of a place where Islam was pre-dominant. The young man continued with disparaging comments about Islam in India and then later openly declared his allegiance to the Hindu right.

I start with this unusually explicit example about the place of religion in the WSF not to accuse it of being anti-Islamic, or of supporting the militant Hindu right but rather to question a particular secularistic1 vocabulary, grammar, and culture of politics exhibited at the Forum in Bombay (similar notions of secularism inform many cultures of politics, especially of the Left, in South Asia and elsewhere). Must the political arena of the WSF, which is defined as an “open space”, necessarily be a secular one? Or is this an unnecessary limitation that closes potentialities by narrowing the possibilities for anti-imperial critiques, and by excluding valid forms of dissent? I will show how particular practices of politics can be an impediment for an emerging and growing revolutionary phenomenon because of their exclusionary and limiting tendencies. With this paper, I hope to discuss practices of secularism as they occupied a privileged position amongst the cultures of politics in the open space of the WSF. Furthermore, I wish to dislodge the primacy given to secularistic practices in such similarly left-progressive spaces as the WSF. I will do this chiefly in three ways, drawing selectively from scholars who have made major contributions to these discussions. The question of how secularistic practices have come to be seen as the “normal” expression of oppositional politics (and everything else as a deviation, or an irrational misapprehension) lingers incessantly throughout this paper. With the help of William Connolly’s work, attention will be drawn to the registers of subjectivity that are excluded from public discourse as it is crafted by secularistic practices. A second section will critique particular expressions of feminism at the WSF that have an underlying “family resemblance” to secularistic practices in terms of the way some forms of feminism privilege a particular, historically and ideologically specific point of view.2 Lastly, by critiquing the privileged space allotted to secularistic modes of political participation, scope will be provided for the possibility of a culture of politics that does not alienate believers and instead opens up the potential for new models of political pluralism. I will do this against the background of the “ethos of engagement” of William Connolly’s political philosophy (Connolly, 1995, 1999). Throughout, the critique will be expanded by discussing specific cases, primarily from the WSF 2004 in Bombay but also historically specific examples, to illustrate, as precisely as possible, my uneasiness with the centrality of the position given to secularistic modes of political participation at the WSF.

In addition to the work of Connolly, I hope to weave in the work of others who have inspired the thoughts I gesture towards in this paper. They include the joint works of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Iranian/Canadian anthropologist Homa Hoodfar, Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan, as well as Pasthun political activist / freedom fighter Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

I must state at the beginning three caveats. Firstly, attending WSF 2004 in Bombay was a valuable experience in many ways that are difficult to articulate. I critique the space not only because I find comfort in the potential that it does represent, but also because there is something very unique about a political arena solely dedicated to the re-making of a world that has been broken. So although this exercise will mainly critique that “open space”, I do it only in the hope of making a modest contribution to the rich reflections and debates that are taking place or have already done so. I raise this critique in the spirit of camaraderie and community that I would hope it engenders. Secondly, not only do I critique the “open space” of the WSF, but particularly when referring to the events of WSF 2004 in Bombay, I am very specific about naming organisations and individuals. Although it may seem as if I am unnecessarily singling people and / or organisations out, I chose to do so precisely because they are paradigmatic of much larger sentiments that I feel are impeding the growth of the open space. My intention is not to critique individuals, many of whose work I find valuable, but the ideas that they promote and foster, perhaps uncritically. Lastly, in this paper, Islam is the religion discussed most, perhaps because it is the one I know best, but maybe also because of the particularly suspicious and difficult position it, as well as its followers, have been mercilessly propelled into at this critical historical moment. In my critique of the privileging of a secularistic culture of politics at the WSF, it is not my intention to dislodge secularistic practices and replace it with a privileging of Islamic principles. (If this does happen unintentionally, I will have done a disservice not only to the spirit of this process, but also to the spirit of Islam as I understand it.) My approach is rather to consider secularistic practices as problematic, full of rigidity, contradictions and anxieties. Presenting them as problematic will hopefully crack the doors of debate open enough so that productive discussions will ensue. The aim is not to eliminate secularism or secularistic practices entirely, but to de-center their position as the only authoritative sources of public reason and translate them into one of many points of view in a political ethics of pluralism. This essay is not meant to provide decisive answers to the problematic of secularistic practices that is being presented, but to offer an invitation to discuss further what I see as only a beginning.


Towards the end of this essay, as I assemble what I propose as essential components of a more generous, imaginative, ethical and pluralistic politics, I will rely heavily on the seminal works of political theorist William E. Connolly (Connolly, 1995, 1999). For now, I will offer some thoughts of his that were of great use in refining my understanding of the problematic of secularism at the WSF.

Secularism was constructed at a very precise historical moment to transcend certain difficulties within Christendom and the Church’s involvement with politics. Although secularism was an appropriate theological and political move to make at a specific moment in history, the limitations of secularistic practices must now be recognised. Contingent on history and other specificities, secularism has come to take on many different formulations depending on various interpretations. As difficult as it is to define what constitutes the “religious”, it is equally difficult to define what constitutes the “secular”. It has come to be known as the separation of church and state, yet in this essay its meaning extends beyond this mere distinction. A secularistic notion of public life is not the norm, although it is currently often assumed to be. Here I critique secularistic practices that organise the public realm and public reason in such a way that they are sanitised of religious sentiments, along with the secularistic practices that leave the guttural register of being, which is mediated by religious sentiments and affect, out of public life.3

Connolly refers to what he calls the “visceral registers of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity” as he describes the sentiments, or emotions, that secularism disallows from entering into public life (Connolly, 1999). I understand these visceral registers to be the historical and cultural inheritances that inform gut reactions. He uses the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Talal Asad as well as others who may have differences, at times substantial and at other times more subtle, in their notions of ethics, democracy, justice, the role of religion in public life, etc, but who all share and maintain what Connolly refers to as “the ethical importance of engaging the visceral register of subjectivity and intersubjectivity” (Connolly, 1999, p. 15). He outlines how instincts, the changing position of symbol and ritual in religion, and affects, operate at different registers of being. He also mentions how, in expanding the possibilities for a more generous ethos of public life, these scholars emphasise a metaphysical viewpoint that is marginalised in relation to the more dominant, centred (but nevertheless metaphysical) perspectives of the West. In this task of accentuating more marginal metaphysical understandings, these scholars reveal the strategies often used by secularists, in which the latter encourage others to transcend personal, culturally rooted affects meanwhile surreptitiously allowing their own (i.e. secularistic) rooted affects in through the back door – ultimately resulting in secularists assuming the authoritative position and secularistic practices being privileged as the only acceptable modes of reason in public life.


I begin expressing my discomforts with the ethical (and other) dilemmas that lie within the problematic of secularistic practices by offering, as illustration, a few specific examples from the WSF 2004. One of the organisations present at the WSF is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which in the past few years has been presented as a paradigmatic example of progressive, transformative politics,. RAWA spokesperson Sahar Saba spoke at two events in Bombay: one was a large WSF-organised panel with Arundhati Roy, Nawal El Saadawi and others titled “Wars Against Women, Women Against Wars”, the other was the much smaller panel mentioned at the outset of this essay, which was organized by the Afghan Women’s Mission. In both events, Saba repeatedly referred to the burqa as “a disgusting piece of clothing”. In one event, she spoke of how the burqa disgusts her and about how the mere sight of it sickens her. It is critical to attend cautiously to this feeling of disgust and to avoid the secular tendency that ignores altogether the visceral registers of subjectivity and intersubjectivity resonating with it. Attending to these registers would be a first step in appreciating their importance and in cultivating a culture of politics that values a plurality of sensibilities. I wish to state quite clearly that it is not that Saba had this feeling of disgust that I find problematic, but the way this affect is privileged over other equally valid affects. But where do such feelings of disgust as expressed by Saba come from? The way I understand it, reactions like hers are part of what Connolly refers to as the “visceral registers of subjectivity and intersubjectivity”, and are formed by tapping into a sedimented reservoir, or “cultural repertoire” of sorts, as Asad calls it, which is a series of historical and cultural inheritances that makes a person who he or she is (Connolly, 1999; Asad, 2003). Such inheritances can be contingent on and formed by multiple religious, cultural, class, gender, fashion / stylistic and other sensibilities. The reservoir or repertoire is instinctual and often occurs unsolicited. Connolly refers to these as “thought-imbued feelings” and emphasises how Nietzsche understands the “thoughts behind your thoughts and thoughts behind those thoughts”; although these are instincts, they are much more than muscular reactions or pre-determined biology-based forces – rather thoughts located in culturally shaped affects (Connolly, 1999, p. 28). Connolly points to the importance of attending to these visceral registers not only because such attendance requires one to work very specifically on one’s own thinking, but also because it will advance a politics of becoming that is more ethical, generous and hence more appropriate for the sort of pluralistic political ethics that this historical moment demands (Connolly, 1999).

The WSF 2004 meeting in Bombay was not the first or second time that RAWA and the Afghan Women’s Mission have expressed feelings of repulsion and disgust not only for the Afghan burqa but for any head scarf for Muslim women. In numerous public fund-raising events of RAWA over the past six years, the representatives of RAWA (almost always Sahar Saba) frequently show videos with commentary and give lectures that communicate their disgust with the burqa and the veil. RAWA appears as representing Afghan women, yet its secularistic mode of political participation invalidates the sensibilities of a significant majority of women in Afghanistan – local or regional, and class differences notwithstanding – for whom wearing a burqa or a headscarf is a matter of personal choice and religiosity that is deeply rooted in their culture. In many ways then, RAWA is paradigmatic of the much larger sentiment within the culture of politics that I critique here.

A RAWA spokesperson was asked in March 2004 for the magazine Counterpunch if she considered secularism to be a prerequisite of a successful democracy (Ravishankar, 2004). The representative replied: “In our opinion, secularism and democracy are two sides of the same coin. Democracy without secularism is incomplete.” (Ravishankar, 2004). In an article written by RAWA for Radical History Review, it describes itself as follows: “RAWA, in short, supports all movements in favor of democracy, freedom of expression, and the fulfillment of human rights and social justice.” (RAWA, 2002). The RAWA website opens with the following statement: “If you are freedom-loving and anti-fundamentalist, you are with RAWA.”. Finally, the mission statement of their website offers this: “RAWA is the oldest political / social organisation of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women’s rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan.”.

These self-descriptions by RAWA, coupled with their position on the role of religious sentiment in public life, attempt to represent the organisation as embodying the normatively superior mode of political participation. They equate their secularistic politics with promoting human rights, democracy, peace, freedom – in essence all that is good and rational. Implied in this is the converse of such a thought, i.e., that non-secularistic politics, or a political participation inflected by religious sentiments, are conveyed as irrational and less capable or even incapable of promoting democracy. What RAWA representatives and supporters may or may not have realised is that by unfettering the political sphere from the authority of the religious they have replaced religion with another authority – that of secularism or secularists.

As will be developed in the next section, such exclusionary practices and modes of political participation / normativity were also present in the much larger session on women and war with Nawal El Saadawi. The forms of feminism maintained and promoted by both RAWA and El Saadawi are dismissive of the possibilities of religious feminisms, most specifically of Islamic feminism. Secularistic politics and Western feminism, as upheld quite paradigmatically by RAWA, entirely foreclose the possibility that a woman might autonomously choose to be veiled or covered, and that progressive politics and religion can, also, be two sides of one coin.

Similar to the secularistic culture of politics, notions of feminism present at the WSF operated along comparable exclusionary lines, suppressing alternative modes of female sovereignty. In the larger panel “Wars Against Women, Women Against Wars”, Egyptian scholar Nawal El Saadawi referred to Muslim women who veil themselves as oppressed and then compared these women to women who wear earrings and / or make-up, calling the latter ornaments the postmodern veil. Similarly, in her article “Another world is necessary”, El Saadawi mocks a young veiled Pakistani woman who confronted her after her speech at the 2003 Social Forum in Porto Alegre. The young Pakistani informed El Saadawi that, in fact, it was her own personal decision to wear the veil, and explained that this decision is an expression of her personal freedom (El Saadawi, 2004). El Saadawi also mentions in the article an American woman who in the same way reprimanded her saying that it was her choice to wear make-up: “Why are you against make-up? How can you call it a postmodern veil?! It is a free choice!” (ibid.). In both instances El Saadawi summarily dismisses the possibility that the veiled woman and / or the make-up wearing American female could exercise their freedoms and produce outcomes that were devoid of influences from what El Saadawi calls religious and market “fundamentalisms” (El Saadawi, 2003, 2004a). In her speech in Bombay at WSF 2004, El Saadawi further clarified her position as she spoke of Muslim women in France who were protesting against the French government’s laïcité law banning the veil from schools: “In these demonstrations the young women and girls who marched in them wearing the veil were often clothed in tight fitting jeans, their faces covered with layers of make-up, their lips painted bright red, the lashes around their eyes thickened black or blue with heavy mascara (…) their demonstration was a proof of the link between Western capitalist consumerism and Islamic fundamentalism, how in both, money and trade ride supreme, and bend to the rule of corporate globalisation.” (El Saadawi, 2004b). I object to the links that El Saadawi makes as well as to her reductionistic tendencies in regards to the potential roles that religion can play in a woman’s life. She repeatedly refers to women who chose to wear the veil as suffering from “false consciousness”, which ultimately makes such women “enemies of their freedom, enemies of themselves” (El Saadawi, 2003, 2004a, 2004b). She even goes as far as to collapse veiling with the horrific acts of rape and violence against women: “Women are increasingly exposed to patriarchal oppression; to violence; to rape; to loss of their rights in the family; to segregation, discrimination, veiling, and female genital mutilation.” (El Saadawi, 2003). In a similar vein, in the Afghanistan panel session with Saba, Professor Hoodbhoy followed RAWA’s denouncements of the veil by adding a comparison with slaves who were liberated, but when given the choice, chose to remain slaves. He repeatedly attributed the decision to veil oneself to “false consciousness”.

What kind of radical politics in an “open space” can be promoted by such imperatives of exclusion? Veiling is a controversial and highly complex issue, which has received much attention, and has become an emblematic symbol of the discourse on gender and Islam – sometimes with the consequence of obscuring historical, regional, and individual particularities. Islamic feminist scholar Homa Hoodfar complicates a discussion of it by documenting how, for the West, the veil has symbolised, since as early as the 19th century, the inferiority of Muslim societies (Hoodfar, 1997). She discusses how the veil continues to be a powerful symbol in both the West and Muslim societies. In the West, its meaning has remained largely unchanged, while in Muslim societies its function and significance developed greatly in response to political and social movements. Hoodfar focuses on veiling as a lived experience full of contradictions and manifold meanings (Hoodfar, 1997). She recognizes how the veil has served and continues to serve as a tool in the service of patriarchal mechanisms that control women’s lives, but she gives much attention to the ways Muslim women have re-inscribed the significances of the veil and in the process challenged and reformed social institutions. At the WSF, the veil, as an expression of religiosity, resistance, or both, was explained away as mere false consciousness by El Saadawi and Hoodbhoy. The question arises, however, whether the enforcing of a normative, unveiled woman would be less paternalistic than forms of Islamic feminism focusing on the agency of Muslim women?

While I can understand personal aversions to the veil, I do object to judgements made about women who do veil themselves and to the assumptions that underlie such judgments. Connolly warns us that the development of sensibilities is critical. When one allows one’s personal gut feelings to be left unanalysed and unattended, as is the case in secularistic notions of public life such as the ones discussed above, ethical thoughtlessness results (Connolly, 1999). It is precisely these sorts of exclusionary positions that I think are compromising the spirit of the open space of the WSF. El Saadawi herself nicely describes its process: “The WSF is not merely an annual event in Porto Alegre. It has become a global movement, a continuous process to create an open space for free and equal exchange of thoughts and action.” (El Saadawi, 2004a, p.138). I am most concerned here with the contradictions El Saadawi poses for herself, and perhaps for others. I wonder how equality of exchange can be possible when those motivated by expressions of religiosity are dismissed as “brainwashed”, suffering from false consciousness or victims of multiple fundamentalisms. The particular feminism El Saadawi is promoting is clearly a secularistic one that not only marginalizes but also ridicules forms of feminism or femininity inspired by Islam, as well as other contemporary interpretations of female self-determination.

The very simple point I am trying to offer here is not so much that Saba, El Saadawi or Hoodbhoy react to expressions of religiosity with discomfort, but that these reactions are presented as the only valid position and therefore as having normative status. If we are trying, however, to create an idealised, open space for the WSF, we must allow a plurality of sensibilities without privileging some and disallowing others. Presently, a hierarchy of affects seems to be established. One is given more value than others, and is seen as more rational and reasonable, and therefore permissible. Secularistic ideologies have come to be assumed to be neutral, value-free, and uncharged with historical contingency, whereas everything else is considered loaded, biased, and non-objective. As a consequence of this hierarchy, which normalises certain affects and dismisses others, people of faith are expected to contain their religious sentiments. This is an impossible task to perform – one cannot distil one’s politics as such so that what is informed by gender, culture, historical, and class sensibilities is completely isolated from the politics informed by religious sentiments. And it is an unethical demand, as one should not be expected to suppress what one brings into the open space of the WSF if one’s culturally sedimented reservoir is in complete consonance with its Charter.


An emerging pluralistic and inclusive radical politics could be assembled with the vision of Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari. They introduce the concept of the rhizome as an emblem for new forms of politics, thought, and ways of life that are not trapped within the rigid confines of totalising Western thought and hierarchical structures, such as those within and between nation-states, languages, and so on. Rhizomes are horizontal, root-like stems that extend underground and send out shoots to the surface, connecting plants in a living network. They are particularly appealing as a metaphor for Deleuze and Guattari’s new paradigm of embodying multiplicity because, in contrast to trees which are stationary, originating from a single origin and firmly rooted, rhizomes constantly negotiate and create new roots and lines of connections in the processes of their development. “The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance”, say Deleuze and Guattari. A rhizome rejects authoritarian logics, is nomadic, and acentric, which enables it to capture multiplicities of meaning in the processes of becoming. “Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it has multiple entryways.” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980 (1987, p. 12)). Deleuze and Guattari promote the rhizome network in order to subvert the arrangements of power in society and to undermine reductionistic tendencies that single out identities into discrete components. They instead advocate revolutionary practices that nurture metaphysical relations and propagate assemblages of affect that affirm differences. The “assemblages” they describe are created by linkages between differing systems of knowledge formation, which can connect and produce potential new forms of thought and politics in nomadic and non-hierarchical ways, within and across domains. With their concepts of rhizome and assemblage, Deleuze and Guattari deliver analytical tools that can help in sketching out the possibilities of pluralistic, transformative progressive politics.

Similar to the rhizomes of Deleuze and Guatarri is Manuel de Landa’s notion of “meshworks”, which Arturo Escobar describes as a metaphoric network topology that should be considered for a politics of emergence (Escobar, 2004). Another useful practice, or concept, for burgeoning political and social movements such as the WSF is Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ idea of “translation” (Santos, 2004a, 2004b), with which he calls upon movements and NGOs to create contact zones open for other movements, discourses, practices, knowledges, and strategies. The celebration of diversity through solidarity and the identification of shared sentiments are foundational for any counter-hegemonic movement, says Santos.

In speaking of what he calls “the sociology of absences”, he identifies processes of hegemonic reason and rationality that create “non-existence”, which “is produced whenever a certain entity is disqualified and rendered invisible, unintelligible, or irreversibly discarded” (Santos, 2004a, p. 238). Thus a successful counter-hegemonic movement would include turning these absences into equally critical components of the “ecologies of knowledge” (Santos, 2004a, p. 239). Religion and religious sentiments come to my mind as such absences. Santos seems to think along similar lines: “The future of counter-hegemonic globalisation depends on a process that allows for mutual clarity among the experiences of the world, both available and possible. For example, between the concept of human rights and the Hindu and Islamic concepts of human dignity; between western strategies of development and Gandhi’s swadeshi” (Santos, 2004b, p. 342). A rich corpus of understanding and debates of ethics, democracy, metaphysics and human rights is lost by the privileging of secularistic configurations as witnessed at the WSF – thus creating unintended forms of exclusion and marginalisation.

William E. Connolly’s book Why I am not a Secularist proved to be extremely useful in helping me theoretically to map my suspicions of secularistic practices as witnessed at the WSF (Connolly, 1999). In this book, Connolly maintains that secularism, as it exists today in the West, is no longer an appropriate model for restricting religious dogmatism or potential sectarian conflict from entering into public life. He refers to a host of nontheistic intellectuals such as Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and others, who cannot be easily categorised according to the ways they conceive of the role of the sacred in public life. Connolly thoughtfully remarks that agreeing to a separation of church and state does not necessarily mean acquiescing to formations of public life laid out by secularism. He advocates the conception of alternatives to either defending a particular faith or subscribing to the limitations of secularism in envisioning public life. Throughout his text, Connolly refers to the formations of public life constructed by secularism as “immodest” and “tone-deaf to multiple modes of suffering and subordination” (Connolly, 1999). How can we afford to favor a conception of public life and public space that not only is “tone-deaf” to the sufferings of many but also ignores entire registers of instincts and sensibilities of many? While attempting to avoid formulaic prescriptions, I hope this paper offers the mindful suggestions that Connolly gives to begin renegotiating the terms of secularism so that they are vigilant to the sensibilities that abound in contemporary political life.

Connolly repeatedly refers to several strategies that I understand as important in his concept of a public ethos of engagement – a politics of becoming that would allow for a more imaginative and deeply democratic space to emerge. He provides lucid discussions of the conservative pluralism that abounds in progressive spaces and leaves it wide open for activists and others to enact the project of radical pluralism. These strategies include but are not limited to critical responsiveness, critical reflexivity, the cultivation of ethical sensibilities, and the ethical arts of the self. Part of the artistry of the self, which Connolly views as essential, means confronting with generosity and forbearance those identities of difference each of us constructed, maintained, and participated in marginalizing to validate our own identities. Connolly uses Deleuze and Guattari’s image of rhizomatic pluralism to outline the overlapping connections and multiple entryways for collaboration that would allow us to organize without the need for a centre. He further speaks of a “plurivocity of being” that allows for similar sentiments to arise from different moral sources. In thoughtfully and thoroughly negotiating these tensions, a politics of becoming infused at every moment with a deep commitment to justice could potentially emerge.

Let me return to where I began. The young Hindu nationalist found a friend in the professor. Professor Hoodbhoy is a Marxist who does believe that religion is the root of evil (he made this clear to me in a small discussion we shared after the panel). “Be patient, my friend, be patient”, Hoodbhoy said to the young man. At this moment I saw the glimpse of a potential. Was this the sort of potential one would envision arising from the open space of the WSF? It was a momentary alliance created by the similar position these two individuals took towards Islam. One believed in an ideology that rejects religion, the other believed in an ideology that combines the passion of one religion with the hate for another. It is important to remark here that I did not choose to criticise the dynamic that had occurred between the Marxist and the radical Hindu because I contest the concurrence of points of views of representatives from fundamentally opposing political camps. It is not the concurrence that I take issue with, but with the point of view itself, the exclusionist, marginalising position privileging sentiments directed against a particular religion.

At another nodal point of the so-called anti-globalisation movement, in Europe, certain alliances between the movement and Islamic intellectuals have occurred and are strongly criticised. Controversies arose, e.g., about the participation of the philosopher and Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan in the European Social Forum.4 He was accused of anti-Semitism, an accusation that thwarted more thoughtful discussions on the role of Muslims in a progressive political space. In this case, the moment of agreement, the potentialities created by similar anti-imperial and anti-neoliberal sentiments were diminished and the fact that an alliance had occurred across very different domains of resistance became the issue. Ramadan’s writings extensively detail the Islamic principles of justice, social welfare, community, struggles against oppressions, solidarity, education, etc., and conclusively show the deep commensurability of Islam with the anti-neoliberal globalisation resistance movements (Ramadan, 2004). He has criticized the anti-globalisation movement for a “lack of openness” to “the world of Islam” (Mannot & Ternisien, 2003). In essence, he criticizes the “open space” for not allowing an alliance between the progressive movement and followers of Islamic principles. In his scholarly work, Ramadan asserts the universality, inclusivity, and openness of Islam, as a consequence of which he encourages Muslims to join the anti-resistance movements. He pleads with Muslims to understand Islamic principles such that they fight against all injustices and all forms of oppressions, not only those that effect their ethnic or religious communities. Ramadan’s approach is a theological one, the argument I make is rooted in the ethics of political participation. Nonetheless, we arrive at similar conclusions about the place of religion in progressive politics.

The political sentiment represented by the WSF, according to its Charter, is supposed to celebrate diversity, to cultivate a substrate where movements can be incubated and prosper. Could it also contain the capacity to support a movement based on or inspired by Islam, or religion in general, as Ramadan advocates? Expressions of religion that do not resort to violence in any way to achieve political goals would be in consonance with the values expressed by the Charter of the WSF. I am thinking here, to give a historical example, of the anti-imperialist, non-violent Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement in the North-West? Frontier Province of present-day Pakistan.5 It was inspired by Islam and led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), a companion of Mahatma Gandhi (who, for his part, was inspired by Hinduism) in the independence struggle against the British Empire. Ghaffar Khan’s Islam was inclusive. It did not marginalise or alienate but instead presented a line of reasoning and a sentiment of sovereignty that could be reciprocated by those adopting a secularistic line (or informed by other religious traditions). Abdul Ghaffar Khan is rarely mentioned in history books because of the particularities of the postcolonial history of Pakistan. Yet his life project had significant consequences for the sub-continent, and well beyond. Abdul Ghaffar Khan waged a relentless non-violent freedom struggle against the British Empire at great personal sacrifice. In 1929, he organized an “army” of 100,000 Pasthuns from the North-West? Frontier Province who vowed to fight, non-violently, against colonial rule, exploitation, poverty, ignorance and injustice. Ghaffar Khan’s undertaking was a difficult one. He spent half of his life behind bars, in chains, and in exile. Yet for more than eighty years, he struggled incessantly not only for independence from the British, but also for social reform. Ghaffar Khan opened schools throughout the North-West? Frontier Province, brought women into the mainstream of society, fought for more equitable land distribution and encouraged his nonviolent soldiers to commit to at least two hours of social work a day. His activism was unfalteringly rooted in his understanding of Islam, which he summarized as amal, yakeen and mohabbat (selfless service, faith, and love) (Easwaran, 1984, p. 63). Ghaffar Khan continuously challenged those who commented on the unique nature of his movement, as many erroneously believed that Muslims and Pasthuns were inherently violent people.6 To Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars, there was nothing incommensurate about Islam and their anti-imperialist struggle. “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor’s yoke”, Ghaffar Khan would repeatedly say (Easwaran, 1984, p. 103). Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars located the foundations for social-reform, self-determination, justice, and non-violence in Islam, which enabled them to be patient and forbearing, even against the staggering violence of the British. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, the British tortured the Khudai Khidmatgars, imprisoned them, set their homes and agriculture fields ablaze and massacred them, yet the Khidmatgars refused to abandon their non-violent resistance. Although motivated by Islam, the movement was non-sectarian. It transcended ethnic, religious, class and national limitations.7 When Sikhs and Hindus were attacked in Peshawar, 10,000 Khidmatgars protected their lives and property. Similarly, as riots enveloped the central Indian state of Bihar in 1946 and 1947, Ghaffar Khan journeyed there with Gandhi to quell the violence. Ghaffar Khan worked closely with Gandhi throughout the independence movement, becoming a valued Muslim ally of Gandhi’s predominantly Hindu Congress Party. This alliance helped to free India from the British in one of the most memorable and effective anti-imperialist struggles in history.

For Ghaffar Khan, Ramadan and many others, religion is not an optional attachment to the resistance movements they were or are engaged in; it is elemental to it, as it is to the integrity of their personæ, and their subjectivity. Religion cannot be dismissed if it has the scope to allow a person to make connections between who they are and the world they inhabit, and when it contributes to struggles against injustice and oppression without exclusion. As my paper has hopefully shown, the imperative of a politics of resistance free from religious sentiments will both fail to address the needs of vast majorities of the planet’s inhabitants and continue to provide opportunities for more fundamental and violent alternatives to flourish.


Scholars, activists and journalists have meticulously detailed the failures of religious dogmatism. Should we not also be equally thorough about addressing the limits and incongruities of secularistic politics in our world? Many philosophers and political theorists worldwide have engaged with the problematic of secularism and offered a vision of post-secularistic reason. I strongly advocate that these discussions take a more central role in the emerging counter-hegemonic movements. Those who consider themselves activists can no longer be complicit in aligning uncritically with secularistic modes of political participation that speak of tolerance, democracy, non-violence and universality, but systematically impose on believers a secularistic mode of political being. This complicity often aggravates and obscures the modes of suffering of those who are most marginalised. Consequently, many people are left alienated and refrain from participation in counter-hegemonic movements altogether, while believers who have chosen to participate are welcomed only as fragments.

I believe that by attending to the “visceral registers of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity” it will become evident that the affective politics of secularists have been privileged and reified as normative at the expense of the affective politics of believers. The metaphysical realm constantly enters into politics, but it is not always at a level of perception that is visible to us. Thus, we must be more vigilant about addressing the relevance of bringing this metaphysical register into public discourse and debate, particularly in progressive political spheres. Neglecting this can have horrendous consequences, especially because the right wing and neo-conservatives are successfully exploiting these affects. Attention to these affective realms would allow us to identify and dismantle the hierarchy of affects that has been unwittingly maintained in this open space of progressive politics. Focusing on the “visceral registers of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity” will enable the possibility of building a movement infused with deep pluralism. Connolly lucidly argues that this would be a critical part of building a public ethos of engagement which would allow alliances between secularists as well as believers, who enter into politics and advance towards the same goals but from differing starting points (Connolly, 1999). As Connolly affirms, “nothing is more unrealistic today than to insist upon the incontrovertibility of a particular metaphysical faith or to pretend to bypass this dimension of politics altogether” (Connolly, 1999, p. 187).

Although general suggestions have been made here about the possibilities of re-assembling progressive political spaces, such as the WSF, I refrain from offering these suggestions as prescriptive. However, beginning discussions within and between progressive spaces directed towards addressing the affective levels of politics could be one place to start. Once this is underway, a wider range of conversations might flourish – from fundamental questions of how religion is defined, to discussions that extend beyond the secular / non-secular divide. In other words, this paper is not intended to give conclusive answers to the questions it raises, but rather to invite discussion.

Throughout this paper I have called secularistic politics exclusionary; it might, however, be more accurate to refer to them as unethical. Although I do not wish to disparage or attack anyone in this burgeoning movement, I will use a quote by Deleuze and Guattari which I feel points out, although somewhat too harshly, the reactionary potential of the secularistic imperative: “Leftist organisations will not be the last to secrete microfascisms. It’s too easy to be antifascist on the molar level, and not even see the fascist inside you, the fascist you yourself sustain and nourish and cherish with molecules both personal and collective.” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980 (1987, p. 215)).

The way I understand it, the WSF, and progressive politics in general, need to be particularly vigilant about the creation of a space that might nurture the becoming of subjected peoples. The space must allow, on equal footing, for the various possibilities of life and ways of inhabiting the world. Only through work on ourselves and relations and understandings with others imbued with forbearance and generosity can we remake ourselves, remake our political community and actively participate in the remaking of our world.


. I am grateful for the friendship and intellectual support given to me by Roger Begrich, Mary Rushfield and Hussein Agrama, especially during the writing of this essay. I also thank Jai Sen and Chloé Keraghel for their advice and skilful editorial comments. I would like to extend my gratitude for the support given to me by George Fisher, the Institute for Global Studies and the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University for making my presence at the WSF 2004 in Bombay possible. I am endlessly grateful to my family for their sacrifices and generous spirits, with special gratitude to my mother and father for having the imagination and patience to create and nurture the open space that is our home. 1. Throughout this paper I will use the adjective secularistic in order to describe practices or forms of political ethics that are informed by imaginations of secularism. It is therefore related to, but not synonymous with, the term secular. 2. The idea of “family resemblances” to describe the ways in which certain aspects are common to a category, i.e. through their similarities and the relationships between them, goes back to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language (Wittgenstein, 2001). 3. The term “affect” will often be used in this paper. Although a much more nuanced conception of affect has been carefully worked out by Brian Massumi in his book Movement, Affect, Sensation: Parables for the Virtual (Massumi, 2002), “affect” can be most simplistically understood as emotion, intensity, or feeling. 4. I commend the organisers of the European Social Forum (ESF), and particularly Jose Bové, for allowing Ramadan to contribute actively to the ESF despite the intense pressure on them to ban his participation. 5. Books on the life and work of Abdul Ghaffar Khan are limited. In fact, it is difficult to find a single book on him in Pakistan due to his anti-Partition stance. The books by Banerjee (2000), Easwaran (1984) and Korejo (1993) have been quite useful in understanding various aspects of Ghaffar Khan and his movement. I have done much research including oral histories over ten years of visiting the Pasthun areas of Pakistan as well as speaking to non-Pasthuns and non-Muslims who now live in India, but who lived in Pasthun areas of what is now Pakistan during the Khudai Khidmatgar movement. I have done this to augment, and sometimes question, the information presented in these books. This has been an ongoing and endless process of inquiry of mine. I owe my knowledge of Abdul Ghaffar Khan to my father, Mohammad Ashiq Daulatzai. I am grateful for being truly enriched by his expansive knowledge of the region and enchanted by his compassionate yet critical comments on Abdul Ghaffar Khan. I also thank B.P. Singh for his generous spirit and infectious love for Abdul Ghaffar Khan. 6. Pasthuns are also referred to as Pathans, Pukthoons, Pakhthuns, Pusthuns. Pasthuns are separated by the Durand Line, a somewhat arbitrary border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that was engineered by the British in 1893. Timothy Flinders notes that the word Pakthun became Pathan in British India, and it is the word that is used in the English language to describe Pasthuns. However, the word Pathan contains vestiges of colonial manipulation and thus Pasthun / Pakhthun / Pukthoons / Afghans are the dialect variations and preferred terminology not only for Ghaffar Khan, but for most Pasthuns, in order to reflect the unity of Pasthuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan? border. 7. Although India gained independence in 1947, it was a time of great sorrow for Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his movement. They had vehemently opposed the partitioning of India and once Pakistan was created, Abdul Ghaffar Khan refused to accept its existence. He was therefore imprisoned for more than 15 years by the Government of Pakistan, and later lived in self-imposed exile. He unfortunately resorted to ethnic nationalism after the partition of India in attempts to disallow the marginal treatment of Pashtuns.


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