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.

She traces the articulation of a Coptic minority from anti-colonial struggles to post colonial nationalism, and late twentieth century economic and political liberalisation, to show that secularism has led to the emergence of the Coptic Church as the main political and social representative of ordinary Copts. This process, she suggests, has strengthened the hold of the Church in social life and public representation of the group identified as the minority. A similar trajectory can be seen at play in the case of inter-religious marriages and other matters placed under the rubric of family law. Pre-modern gender inequalities and religious hierarchies are, Mahmood argues, provided a new lease of life by the mechanisms through which the state appropriates for itself the right to demarcate public and private spheres of life.  These mechanisms include, the reliance on religious hierarchy to articulate a specifically ‘religious’ reading of particular issues such as gender roles, as well as the demarcation of issues that can be addressed by religious leadership as private, and thus outside of the immediate purview of public debate.

This creation and management of the minority is further fleshed out by the example of the Bahai community in Egypt. Mahmood argues that the same tension between religious freedom and minority rights plays out in the case of Bahais in Egypt as of the Muslims in the European court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Both the Egyptian state and the ECtHR struggle with reconciling civil and political equality with the regulation of religious difference in social and political life. Through a consideration of specific court cases where public order considerations have clashed with the right to religious liberty, she argues that the adoption of key secular concepts in very different religious and legal traditions “produce very similar effects: authorizing the state to pronounce on substantive religious content and promoting majoritarian values and sensibilities at the expense of minority beliefs and practices” (150). In short secular concepts when put into practice produce effects opposite to what secularism is valued for.

The final chapter takes a somewhat different turn. In this chapter, Mahmood investigates the controversy surrounding the publication of a historical novel, Azazeel, to bring out the shared conceptions of time and history that underpin contemporary debates between Muslims, Coptic Christians, secularists and others. The novel, written in Arabic is set in 319-415 AD and structured around the debate among Christians about the human and divine qualities within Christ which eventually led to a split within the church. The novel became immensely controversial and Mahmood lays out the lines of this debate in some detail. Critically, she argues that there is a shift in historical imagination shared by all these groups, so that ‘calendrical’ rather than ‘sacral’ time tends to underpin debates about theological details. This shift, she seems to suggest is linked to a wider transformation where the shared historical imagination actually makes it harder for different groups to reconcile their diverse theological approaches and conclusions. Ultimately, she suggests, secularism produces sharper religious divisions and more intractable debates because of this shared historical imagination, which in turn leads to a reliance on the state to act as a neutral arbiter when it can never really play that role.

Mahmood, I think rightly, argues that “The two dimensions of political secularism—its regulatory impulse and its impulse of freedom—are thoroughly intertwined, each necessary to the enactment of the other” (21). This is, indeed, the crux of the problem. It is, however, not just a feature of political secularism, I think, but of liberal governance more generally, and the relationship between liberalism and secularism could have been fleshed out more sharply in this book. In liberal political theory, this tension is framed as the relationship between liberty and equality. Ensuring equality may require state regulation, but this carries the potential to limit liberty. Some liberal theorists recognise this tension more acutely than others. Many others argue that there is no tension: equality can be only achieved through liberty (including from state intervention for the libertarian strand of liberal thinkers) or vice versa. Mahmood does not engage directly with these debates within liberal political theory but her work provides important insights for those of us who do. A key insight is related to the conceptualisation of inequality. Mahmood attunes us to deeper, more layered contextualisation for defining inequality. If she is right to suggest that inequality “does not have a generic form” (201), then the challenge for political theorists is to grapple with this variation in the notion of inequality without letting go of the attempt at a generalizable construct.

More importantly, Mahmood probes constantly, but with varying depth, the relationship between legal rights and social norms. When states try to capture social norms in legal codes they end up producing new social realities as well as moribund ethics. We know more about the creative and generative function of law, than about the ways in which a social and ethical norm may be hollowed out through legal codification. For instance, an important strand of South Asian historical scholarship in the last two decades has painted a detailed picture of the new realities, such as heightened communalism, that colonial law making engendered. Yet, we have paid less attention to the transformation of ethical norms. How ethical ideas and practices are demarcated, and then transformed, sometimes unrecognizably, through legal codification requires more research. In Mahmood’s narrative we catch glimpses of changes in ethical norms and habits of individual, social and political tolerance that transformed as the responsibility for everyday peaceful co-existence shifted from individuals and communities to the state. With the state as the arbiter of political equality and religious freedom, Mahmood seems to suggest ethical norms somehow lost their capaciousness as they became legal injunctions. She moves too quickly to the discussion about ethical norms in the conclusion, without establishing first the relationship between social practice and ethnical norm more clearly and firmly. A sympathetic reader can build upon the glimpses she has provided in the preceding chapters but it would have been useful to have a sharper articulation of this relationship. Nevertheless, her concluding remarks are suggestive of interesting avenues for future research: how and in what ways have ethical norms changed under liberal modes of governance. This is a brilliant book from a scholar who continues to blaze a trail in placing liberal theoretical assumptions and assertions under the magnifying glass, pointing out the distortions, and suggesting interesting ways of seeing them anew.


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