The dystopic possibilities for the US motioned by the violent acts of 9/11 were painfully intensified by the immediate aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina less than five years later. In Europe, tensions from the sovereign debt crisis yielded deep fissures in the fabric of the European project and presented unique degradations of their own that have become manifest across the social spectrum. Brazil, China, and India face ruthless challenges in the course of their global integration, while elsewhere around the world the reality of societies worst fears are lived-out daily through the pageants of drought, flooding, criminalisation, prostitution, poverty, hunger, drug abuse, disease, illiteracy, and menacing rates of unemployment. The demands of such phenomena show just how far collective society is from a concrete utopia and that responding to human tragedy of such nature and scale requires a drastic reorientation of action, a deeper awareness of the consequences of lifestyles, and a new willingness to ‘speak up and fight’ (p. 193).
This book addresses the issues of human dignity amid a backdrop of socio-economic exploitation, the relationship between perceptions of needing economic emancipation before the establishment of human rights, and tending of new and rich vocabularies within the public sphere and processes of democratic iterations (p. 15). As such, the author presents the central argument that, ‘much appreciation of developments in contemporary human rights law and cosmopolitan norms misunderstands their jurisgenerative effect’ – the capacity of the law to help develop a ‘normative universe of meaning’ that oftentimes becomes detached or outstretches the meaning of the law itself (p. 15). Cosmopolitanism, moral claims and legal entitlements, and the legacy of classical and ideational traditions for the progression of human rights are the essential features of this work. Under the term cosmopolitanism, Benhabib further pursues the themes of unity and diversity of human rights conceptualisations, strife between democracy and communities based upon shared moralities, and competing visions and world divisions of peoples and sovereignty, the nation-state, and crisis and tragedy.
With a brief history of the tensions between perspectives within the realm of cosmopolitanism, connections between Theodore Adorno, Max Horkeimer, and Hannah Arendt are explored to reflect upon views regarding anti-Semitism, genocide, and citizenship within Europe. Although they are strong methodological and normative universalists, each exhibits unique theoretical applications—from political economy and psychoanalysis to ideographic historical narrative and sociology (p. 22). In chapter three, Benhabib encounters Raphael Lemkin’s “legal universalism” whereby the Holocaust is used as ‘an example rather than the unique problem of that chief crime against humanity – the crime of genocide’ (p. 23). Referring to ‘international law and human plurality in the shadow of totalitarianism,’ parallels between the lives of these two thinkers are brilliantly illuminated. Noting respective experiences, contributions to on-going debates, and their unique formulations of work relating to crimes against humanity and atrocity, Benhabib questions whether there exists a distinction between cultures playing a contributory role to civilization and those that either do not or cannot.
From the tensions resounding among the transformation of the international norm of sovereignty, Benhabib moves to ‘another universalism,’ considering the ‘crisis of Western reason’ within the context of Husserlian phenomenology. Questions of universalism and the legacy of Western rationalism as a universal legacy lead to reflections upon the Western way of life as a means of bringing “other peoples and other cultures under the influence of an in-egalitarian global capitalism (p. 59). A reconnoitre of the many dimensions of universalism establishes the basis for rich discussion of moving beyond interventionism and the state of indifference. Sovereignty and the emergence of cosmopolitan “norms” (i.e., new modes of citizenship conceptualisation in “volatile” times), rights transcending national borders and the idea of international human rights, and “cosmopolitan federalism” are the focus of subsequent chapters. They cover fields of conflicting demand regarding sovereign state equality and a reach for universal principles of human rights, and their relationship with global forces, in addition to legal landscapes across borders, and institutions of national citizenship.
The cases of France, Germany, and Turkey are focused on in the penultimate chapter with the aim of revealing a juxtaposition of modernity and religion, a heightening level of ‘antagonisms around religious and ethno-cultural differences,’ and the rising challenge of religious fundamentalisms toward the separation of politics and religion as a ‘crucial aspect of the modernisation process’ (p. 167). These cases provide ideal milieus for examining a discursive frame of legal reference as all three countries are party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European convention on Human Rights. Fighting against what one group in particular referred to as ‘repressive governmentality,’ the achievements illustrated here may be understood ‘in the broader context of civil rights for other groups’ (p. 181). Despite successes shown in these cases, Benhabib holds them to a higher expectation in line with a Habermasian view of achieving an acceptable level of ‘civility in social relations’ even amid the ‘growth of a plurality of cultures and religious world views’ (p. 183).
This book delivers a remarkable contribution to theoretical debates centring on issues of human rights and exposes a field of intriguing connection points between Islam and Western liberal constitutional democracies. With a wide range of principles, norms, and conceptualisations facing one another, this book may easily relate to multiple disciplines, including those of political studies, sociology, legal studies, and international relations. Benhabib has constructed a praiseworthy position from which to build her empirical analysis. She strikes an admirable balance between intellectualising the driving ideas behind the issues as they are practiced and the theoretical dialogue that constitutes an important feature in each chapter. The approach is straightforward and devoid of convolution or legalese. By combining prevalent issues of a complex and often misguided post-9/11 world with classical traditions of the Frankfurt School and a rich blend of influential philosophers and thinkers, Benhabib offers a fresh perspective on the political transformation of the contemporary period entrenched within a striking vision for a lucid cosmopolitanism.