CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age

[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

Essays:

Schirin Amir-Moazami

Sarah Eltantawi

Humeira Iqtidar

Roundtable Introduction by Durba Mitra

Professor Durba Mitra is a historian of gender and sexuality at Harvard University. 

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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”

CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age – Amir-Moazami


[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

Essays:

Schirin Amir-Moazami

Sarah Eltantawi

Humeira Iqtidar

 

Discussion by Schirin Amir-Moazami (FU Berlin)

Schirin Amir-Moazami holds a PhD from the department of Social and Political Sciences of the European University Institute in Florence and is currently Professor for Islam in Europe at the Institute of Islamic studies at Freie Universität Berlin. She published a book on the headscarf controversies in France and Germany and numerous articles related to questions of
secular orders and Muslims in Europe. Her research interests include Islamic movements in Europe, Secularism, Gender, Knowledge Production and Critical Political Theory. She is currently finishing a book manuscript under the title, “Interrogating Muslims: The Politics of Integration in Contemporary Germany”.

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In times of religious terror, sectarian conflict, and a worldwide revival of racist movements that shout themselves into political establishments, liberal values and secular law currently look like the only suitable antidotes. Critical investigations of liberal-secular power in these times appear counter-intuitive. Saba Mahmood’s book Religious Difference in a Secular Age. A Minority Report is an invitation to pause and to step sideways. It is a reminder to not make short-hand conclusions, and to interrogate critically – yes still, again and all the more – the hegemonic powers of liberal-secular doctrines and the nation-state as part of the problem. The blending of historical and contemporary analyses is particularly helpful to graspthe longer term legacies of shortcomings and exclusions of both political secularism and institutionalized liberal norms within a nation-state framework and its expansive forces.. Religious Difference in a Secular Age is therefore a timely and thought-provoking contribution for understanding the historicity of contemporary predicaments of both political secularism and individual liberal rights.

Key to Mahmood’s critique of political secularism is that she unravels its built-in contradictions: the promise to universality and its simultaneous particular—i.e. Christian-Protestant—legacy; the claim to guarantee religious liberty and the necessary reliance on particular notions of what counts as proper religion; the state’s claim to neutrality and its inescapable involvement in shaping religious life, sometimes in its most intimate spheres. Mahmood’s most innovative contribution is investigating these contradictions from the margins, i.e. religious minorities. Taking Egypt as a point of departure, she shows how the internationalization of the legal category of minority as a “permanent institution” (Arendt) was based on a colonial civilizing project, which still affects the regulation of religious minorities today. Likewise, the reverse side of religious liberty’s promise to abstractness and universality consists in its entrenchment with liberal Protestant understandings of religion that travelled to the Middle East through Christian missionaries in the late 19th century. Continue reading “CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age – Amir-Moazami”

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

[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

Essays:

Schirin Amir-Moazami

Sarah Eltantawi

Humeira Iqtidar

 

Discussion by Sarah Eltantawi

Dr. Sarah Eltantawi is a scholar of Islam. She is Member of the Faculty in Comparative Religion and Islamic Studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA (Asst. Prof), and a Research Scholar at the Middle East Center of the University of Washington. She is the author of Shar’iah on Trial:  Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution (University of California, 2017), which examines why Northern Nigerians took to the streets starting in 1999 to demand the reimplementation of sharia law.  Dr. Eltantawi is currently at work on a new book that takes up the rise of the of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 1928 – the present, focusing on the question of the group’s “political theology” and its place in traditions of political theory. She earned her PhD in the Study of Religion in 2012 from Harvard University.

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Anthropologist Saba Mahmood’s latest book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, offers an erudite history of what she calls “political secularism” in Egyptian modernity, from nationalist discourse in the British colonial period through the career of the Egyptian state.  Scholars of Egypt, Coptic Christian social history, and of secularism will appreciate Mahmood’s painstaking history of how Egyptian nationalist movements, key Coptic and Muslim figures, and the post-1952 Egyptian republic have understood and conditioned Copts and Muslims alike not only in their religious and secular practices, but also in their fundamental self-understanding.  While this study offers an air-tight history of these processes, some theoretical claims about secularism and the Egyptian state end up on shakier ground.

Mahmood argues that political secularism is made up of two dimensions: “Its regulatory impulse” and its “promise of freedom” which are “thoroughly intertwined.” (21) Mahmood understands Egyptian political secularism as a set of processes and histories that marginalize minorities in the service of majoritarianism. Mahmood preempts a question that will no doubt be ubiquitous for her readers: are Egyptian outcomes a result of secularism, or authoritarian secularism? For Mahmood, the marginalization of minorities is a core function of secularism and much less so a result of Egyptian state authoritarianism. Mahmood resists centering Euro-American models of secularism as the standard against which Middle Eastern societies should be judged, and asserts that while taking into account the importance of attending to specific trajectories of secularism, she is concerned that, “this way of casting the difference blinds us to common features of the secular project shared by Middle Eastern and Euro-Atlantic societies.” (4) Continue reading “CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age – Eltantawi”

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

Essays:

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. 

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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”