[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)
Roundtable Introduction by Durba Mitra
Professor Durba Mitra is a historian of gender and sexuality at Harvard University.
This interdisciplinary discussion of Saba Mahmood’s latest book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) highlights the significance of Mahmood’s work for diverse audiences. It was assembled to speak to the broad interdisciplinary impact of Mahmood’s scholarship— which has been the subject of much scholarly debate and has had an impressive reach across disciplinary and geographic divides. The roundtable features Professor Schirin Amir-Moazami (FU Berlin), a political theorist working on questions of gender and diversity in contemporary Europe, Assistant Professor Sarah Eltantawi (Evergreen State College), a scholar of religion specializing in North Africa, and Professor Humeira Iqtidar (King’s College, London), a political scientist who specializes in Islam in South Asia. By way of introduction to this roundtable on Religious Difference in a Secular Age, I want to think about Mahmood’s recent work through her larger body of scholarship and take a moment to situate Religious Difference in recent debates about secularism, law, and gendered power.
In her introduction to Religious Difference in a Secular Age, Mahmood argues: “The secular, in other words, is not the natural bedrock from which religion emerges…it is itself a historical product with specific epistemological, political, and moral entailments” (3). In her first book, The Politics of Piety (2005), as well as the widely cited May 2001 Cultural Anthropology article, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent,” Mahmood argues against reductive critiques of Muslim women’s agency and the inadequacies of the normative subject of feminist theory to comprehend women’s lives in the context of postcolonial Egypt.
Mahmood provocatively confronts the “culture” problem that vexes feminist theory. She argues for a feminist methodology that takes into account the possibility of desire, self-making, and embodiment in movements and subjecthoods that so often bring unease to moralist understandings of agency in transnational feminist politics. Mahmood instead argues for a feminist project suspicious of liberal, and liberatory, promises of a staunchly secular feminism. Mahmood made this argument at a critical time, at the inception of the War on Terror in 2001, which deftly utilized the language of secular liberty to claim that religiosity was oppositional to the cause of women and national liberation (for example, in Afghanistan).
It was Mahmood’s critical gaze at this transformative historical juncture— the complications it posed for theory as well as for liberal and left political movements— that has provoked scholars across disciplines and geographies to read and debate loaded concepts like “custom”, “agency”, and “freedom” for our contemporary world. Mahmood emphasized the methodological power of the embodied concept of piety, now a key idea for what has become essential reading in a range of curriculum, from anthropology to women’s, gender, and queer studies. As scholars continue to theorize the problem of agency and the illiberal subject, one might rephrase the central problematic in Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age to engage these questions again, a decade and a half after her seminal 2001 article. What if “the secular” was not the “natural bedrock from which” feminism emerges? Continue reading “CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age”