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”

Being Brown in Trump’s America: A Roundtable on Hate Crimes Against South Asians in the United States

Monday, March 20, 4-6pm  |  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Co-sponsored by the Tricontinental Solidarity Network (Tricon), Islamic Studies Program, Asian / Pacific Islander American Studies, Center for South Asian Studies, South Asia Solidarity in Michigan (SASMI)

Facebook event: here.

Panelists: Manan Desai (American Culture), Hafsa Kanjwal (History & Women’s Studies), Salman A Hussain (History & Anthropology), and Shama Lakdawala (Chai Tea Party).

The roundtable was moderated by Tapsi Mathur (History), and organized by Tricontinental Solidarity Network (Tricon) and Lia Wolock.

Following are the edited and revised comments delivered by two of the panelists. Continue reading “Being Brown in Trump’s America: A Roundtable on Hate Crimes Against South Asians in the United States”

XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Syeda Masood for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII.]

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Julie Billaud is an anthropologist working on Afghanistan, Islam, gender, international governance and human rights. She is the author of Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

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1. You open the book with a quote from Bakhtin and his idea of the carnival informs your book in a big way. How did you come across Bakhtin’s theory and what compelled you to frame your book largely through his theoretical lens?

Before studying anthropology in the UK, I studied contemporary literature in France and I came across Bakhtin’s theory of language and his work on the social nature of speech in this context. It is only later on, when I started studying for my PhD, that a Mexican anthropologist and friend of mine introduced me to his writings on Rabelais and his reflections on the ambiguous and subversive potential of the carnival. Reading this text was enlightening, as it enabled me to draw similarities between the medieval carnival and the context of ‘postwar reconstruction’ in Afghanistan. Indeed, the so-called ‘transition’ is in my opinion better described as a state of liminality comparable to the one found in a carnival where the new and the old merge in unexpected ways. The joyous atmosphere of the carnival put aside, the ‘postwar/reconstruction’ carnival in Afghanistan is a moment when rules are turned upside down and when new imaginaries can emerge. For instance, the downfall of the Taliban has opened some room for free speech and for women to take part in politics; developments that could at first sight be perceived as a radical reversal of the old order. Yet these reforms have been carried out while former mujahidin and warlords responsible for major crimes and human rights violations have been brought back to power with the support of the international community. Besides deepening a sense of uncertainty experienced by the Afghan people, these contradictions are a source of intense social tensions between conflicting visions for the future of the country. Furthermore, this state of uncertainty forces Afghans to play roles and to constantly adapt their performances according to different situations. It is not the first time that Afghans are forced to engage in a play whose scenario has been written for them by others. Indeed, this ‘frame’ (to use Gregory Bateson’s notion) which powerfully impacts on people’s behaviors, creating spaces and interactions which are ‘set apart’ and understood to operate according to different rules, was also a feature of the Russian occupation of the country. Bakhtin, who wrote on the carnival in a context where communication was perceived as a threat to power, has developed an intimate knowledge of the necessarily ambiguous nature of transcripts in such environments. In the same way as James Scott understood the difficulty for subordinates to speak their minds in the presence of power, Bakhtin was deeply aware – as a witness of the Stalinist purges and as an intellectual who had been banished from the center of official Soviet culture – of the conditions of possibility for dissent to be expressed. Scott uses the notion of ‘hidden transcripts’ to characterize the critique of power that goes on offstage, behind the back of the powerful. I personally find Bakhtin’s reflection on the centrifugal force of popular culture, promoting ambivalence and allowing openness and transgression, slightly more compelling than Scott’s ‘public/hidden’ transcripts dichotomy.

2. You touch upon many themes and highlight several tensions that your interlocutors were living with like gender as self and performance, nation and occupation and freedom and constraints. What would you say is your main argument in this book?

In writing Kabul Carnival, my intention was to provide a historically, politically and culturally situated representation of ‘Afghan women’. The argument I make in this book is that the political category ‘woman’ in Afghanistan is the result of a long history of interventions in the region, which have often been legitimated by the need for white men ‘to save brown women from brown men’, to use Gayatri Spivak’s expression. These orientalist representations of Afghan women as oppressed ‘others’ have been reactivated in the post 9/11 context to legitimize the occupation of the country and the various reforms imposed on the Afghan polity. Because of the disconnect that currently exists between the liberal ideology accompanying so-called ‘reconstruction’ efforts and the harsh material reality of life under foreign occupation, the international community’s agenda for ‘gender justice’ has the paradoxical effect of triggering identitarian reactions and nationalist feelings which deeply constrain women’s capacity to speak. Indeed, the eruption of moral panics framed in terms of ‘moral pollution’ is very much related to the presence of NGOs, international organizations and military troops whose agenda and actions remain doubtful for the majority of people. Like in other colonial encounters, women are the symbolic terrain upon which a cultural battle between different versions of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ is being fought. The book provides ethnographic illustrations of the dilemmas faced by ordinary (and less ordinary) women in their quest for a culturally legitimate voice and of the various cultural repertoires they mobilize in their everyday interactions. Moving away from representations of women as powerless victims, the book is an attempt to reveal their extreme resourcefulness and ingenuity even in the most precarious circumstances. More generally, the book is a plea to acknowledge the wounded relationships between Afghanistan and ‘the West’ and the unforeseen consequences these may have, not only for gender relations but also for the country’s political destiny.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/10144406@N06/

Continue reading “XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud”