[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)
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.
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”