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”

Liberticide

By Francesca Recchia

Vancouver kiss – Rich Lam/Getty Images

It happens slowly, irreparably, slyly. What was the title of that song? Killing me softly. That’s how freedoms are killed – for the most.

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Female student protest in Kashmir – PTI (from Hindustan Times)

I am not talking about the big, bad, repressive regimes that everyone is so prompt to condemn. It’s not about water-hosing protesters or tear-gassing demonstrations or pellet-gunning stone pelters at eye-height. The public has strong reactions against these things – except for the latter, actually: in that case, if you excuse me a bad pun, people easily turn a blind eye because it is not really OK to mess with the world’s largest democracy (and a huge exploitable financial market). I am not even talking about brave women facing anti-riots cops or couples kissing passionately in front of burning barricades as if expecting the Apocalypse. These make good photos. They are also too much in our face and the media and public opinion are quick to respond. People call these instances brutal and unacceptable, they require specific hashtags and swift online mobilisations and collective changing of Facebook profile pictures in solidarity.  Continue reading “Liberticide”

In Memory of Kavita S. Datla

At the end, here is my desperate search for the beginnings of memories. I turn first to emails but I cannot find a beginning in these emails, even the very first one is already in medias res. I have now searched my emails for all correspondences and they stretch from Berkeley to Chicago to Madison to Berlin to New York. There are dinner invitations and regrets, coffees and lunches, comments on working papers and introductions, links to academic controversies, thoughts on tenures and promotions, exchanges of meanings of esoteric Urdu words and phrases, discussions of new books, always. There is a photograph that I have in my memory– but not in my possession– from somewhere in 2002/03/04 at the annual South Asia conference at Berkeley. The photograph is taken at night and in the haze of bad light and smoke, I see Kavita standing alongside friends. I am not sure this memory of a photograph is not an invention but I keep looking for it nonetheless.

Kavita Datla was an Associate Professor at Mt Holoyoke. She was the author of The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India (2013). You can read my interview with her at the publication of her book in 2013. Her most recent article, The Origins of Indirect Rule in India: Hyderabad and the British Imperial Order evolved the arguments regarding indirect rule and sovereign rights– of states and peoples– outside of European political history. This was part of her new work that she completed even as the illness claimed her. She passed away yesterday after nearly three year battle with cancer.

I am in sorrow and I offer my condolences to the loved ones, colleagues, and family of Kavita. She was the finest mind, the best read scholar I ever met, and the kindest to both arguments and humans. The loss to the field of South Asian history is tremendous, but I also mourn, alongside her loved ones, at our loss of her beautiful heart.

update 08/01: A tribute to Kavita Datla at H-Asia.