CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age – Iqtidar

[We are excited to host this conversation on a very important book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, by Professor Saba Mahmood.  The CM Roundtable is a series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. We thank each of our distinguished panelists for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2016)

Introduction by Durba Mitra


Schirin Amir-Moazami

Sarah Eltantawi

Humeira Iqtidar


Discussion by Humeira Iqtidar

Dr. Humeira Iqtidar
 is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Politics in the department of Political Economy at King’s College London. She is the author of Secularising Islamists? Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Urban Pakistan. Her most recent publication is “Neoliberalism and Islamic Piety”, Critical Inquiry Summer, 2017. Currently her research has two key strands: One explores the ideas and practices related to tolerance through a focus on the political thought of two influential modern Muslim thinkers, Maududi and Ghamidi. This is complemented by oral histories of precarious populations such as the refugees and migrants from the Tribal Areas of Pakistan to allow a glimpse into vernacular conceptualizations. Her second project engages with the relationship between liberalization and piety in Islamic political thought. 


Is there a viable alternative to secularism for protecting minority rights today? Debates about secularism continue to circle around this question, but it has been difficult for critics to provide a clear answer to the question despite their many concerns about secularism as an ideology and a state policy. Mahmood, too, does not offer a direct answer to the question, but she presents a characteristically rich way of thinking about it, with the aspiration that her critical engagement might make it possible to “craft[…] a different future” (p.21). She proceeds by giving close attention to the specific mechanisms through which secularism purportedly protects minority rights, in particular the legal and institutional apparatuses that create the legal and political entity: the minority. How is the minority created, and understood? What rights are sustained by secularism, and how?  While her focus is on Egypt, Mahmood argues that the structural features of secularism are shared across the world. This renders Egyptian and American or British secularism alike. Such a move complicates the idea that the persecution of minorities in Egypt is due to a failure of proper imposition of secularism. For Mahmood, the current situation of minorities in Egypt is very much a product of secularism.

The denaturalisation of minority as a category forms the cornerstone of her larger argument. If the minority is not a ready made, already available entity, then how is the minority created? Mahmood takes a detailed look at the development of the legal concept of the minority in the Egyptian context, and some of its political and social consequences. From the early pre-modern concessions to Christians within the Ottoman empire, to the arrangements under the colonial administration, the legal identification of some members of a polity as requiring protection changed in subtle but important ways in the modern period. British and French states used protection of minority rights not just as a means to divide and rule in Egypt, as in other colonial contexts, but also to establish their own legitimacy as rulers in the colonies. For scholars of South Asia this is a familiar argument, and one that also finds resonance in the scholarship that has engaged with the processes through which religious identities sharpened within the framework of colonial secularism in India. Mahmood’s key contribution here is to argue for a more explicit understanding of the ways in which colonial secularism sutures with liberal governance today. Continue reading “CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age – Iqtidar”

A Passage to America

How May I Help You?

Deepak Singh (DS) is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic. His new book, How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage by UCPress in Feb 2017. We are happy to carry a conversation between Singh and long-time CM friend Aftab Ahmad. Aftab Ahmad (AA) earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawahar Lal Nehru University, specializing in Urdu humor and satire. He was the director of AIIS, Urdu Language Program at Lucknow, for four years. He published Bombay Stories (Random House India, 2012, and Vintage International, 2014) and Mirages of The Mind (Random House India, 2014, and A New Directions Book, 2015) with co-translator Matt Reeck. Recipient of PEN Translation Grant, he has taught at UC-Berkeley. He now teaches Urdu language and literature at Columbia University.

AA: For the benefit of those who have not read the book yet could you say briefly what is this book about and what in your own opinion have you achieved and accomplished through this book?

DS: This book is about my experiences as a ‘fresh off the plane’ immigrant in the United States of America, selling electronics in a retail store in a small town Virginia, where I learned about the struggles of my colleagues and I adapted to my job and my new life. There are a lot of qualified, educated Indians and immigrants in general, staffing the many motels, grocery stores, super markets in the United States. They came to the U.S. looking for a better life, but we often take for granted what they had to give up to be here, the sacrifices they made. We can’t paint all immigrants by a single brush. By telling stories of low-wage employees, I have attempted to bring openness and humanity to debates about work, race, ethnicity and immigration in the United States. Continue reading “A Passage to America”

CM Exclusive: Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction


By Sarah Besky

Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.

[Previously by Sarah Besky: Surkh Salam, XQs]


Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

Forthcoming from Tsinghua Press

When I sat down to write this Prologue to this new Chinese-language edition of The Darjeeling Distinction, I had just returned from a six-week research trip to London, where I steeped myself in the archives of the British Indian tea industry, mostly housed at the British Library.  As I pored through old correspondences between planters in the hills of Assam, Darjeeling, Kerala, and Kangra and brokers and buyers in London, comparisons between the teas of China and India abounded.  Even if the idea of writing a Prologue for a Chinese edition of my book had not been at the back of my mind during those months surrounded by musty letters, notes, and scientific documents about everything from chemical contents to proper modes of storage and shipping, these comparisons would have been impossible to miss.

Anxiety on the part of European tea planters in India about how the quality of Indian tea measured up to that of Chinese tea are emblematic of a longer economic and geopolitical entanglement between Britain, India, and China that spans continents and centuries, and links commodities including tea, opium, and silver.  Readers of The Darjeeling Distinction can find some of the history of this struggle recounted in the book’s early chapters.  Continue reading “CM Exclusive: Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction”

On two modes of witnessing: Azadeh Akhlaghi and Gauri Gill

By Sarover Zaidi

[Sarover Zaidi is an anthropologist, obsessing on architecture, art and other modes of being. Besides she runs ‘Elementary forms and the city’ and an itinerant future Guild for those who stand between the academy and the street. She has previously studied philosophy, worked in rural public health, loved and left Berlin, and worked in a bank.

The author would like to thank Samprati Pani for editorial and other lifeline inputs.

A version of this article first appeared in the Critical Collective – an online art and art history magazine from India.]


Dedicated to the memory of my father, who died February 2017, my eternal witness.

Image credit: Art Heritage gallery

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means—

Listen: It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “Witness” in Arabic

—Agha Shahid Ali, In Arabic, 2003

Ali Shariati, the Iranian revolutionary and socialist, died mysteriously in 1977.  Shariati, also a sociologist, wrote Jihad and Shahadat, a rendering of the historico-mythical battle of Karbala, retelling it as the first red revolution. Composed as a testimonial to the dead, Shariati portrayed the female protagonist Zainab as the last witness to this bloody battle of loss, death and mourning. Unfortunately, at the peak of Cold War politics, prior to Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran (1979), Shariati had been found dead under mysterious circumstances (1977). Shariati’s own death went without witnesses or testimonials, or the image and space of mourning it demanded. Forty years later, Azadeh Akhlaghi, a photographer, provides a testimonial to Shariati’s death, in her experimental series ‘By an Eyewitness’. Continue reading “On two modes of witnessing: Azadeh Akhlaghi and Gauri Gill”