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

Posted by patwari on September 06, 2017 · 16 mins read

[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 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".



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.

By problematizing the case of Muslim-Coptic relations in contemporary Egypt Mahmood convincingly shows how the remnants from the era of Islamic empires (i.e. the differing personal status law for various communities, p. 116) survived through the codification of family law with the assistance of colonial authorities' remodeling of the legal system. Women and the family were thereby burdened to preserve the “authentic” core of society and relegated to a distinct domain of the private. This legacy has had long-term effects, and structures public/private splits until today. In today's Egypt the Coptic minority question thus signals a specific expression of a structural and epistemological problem between public reason and private morality molded in European thought throughout the 18th century, as traced back and accounted for by Mahmood. The exclusionary effects with which both Copts and Bahais are confronted are also manifest in the ways in which the Egyptian state constantly navigates between liberal law and Islamic majority conventions.

The “Muslim (Minority) Question” in Europe

I can hear liberal theorist's immediate response to this: Beneath these selective and incomplete local adaptations of liberal principles and the secular state, there exists a purer version of political liberalism and secularism to be rescued. Mahmood's constant allusion to Europe, however, contradicts such common wisdoms. The birthplace of liberal and secular principles has not remedied these built-in contradictions, but is yet another reflection of them. This becomes particularly clear in her discussion of the European Court of Justice and Human Rights' rulings of constitutional controversies regarding religion (chap. 4) throughout the last decade. Equipped with these cases, Mahmood demonstrates that a formally more coherent version of liberal rights and political secularism, too, ultimately privileges majoritarian rule by backing up the decisions of the sovereign nation-state through the flexible and problematic principle of “l'ordre public”.

Also, Mahmood's discussion of (post-)colonial entanglements between Europe (and, in the case of Egyptian Copts, the US) and the Middle East has consequences for how we interpret the ongoing and increasingly expanding controversies on the presence of Muslims across Europe. These controversies do not accidently concentrate disproportionately on Muslim bodily practices, as well as sexuality and gender norms more generally. Mahmood's analysis helps us to understand the deeper, historically engrained undergirdings of these debates beyond the scholarship on (post-)colonial phantasies and Orientalist imaginations, namely, in its historicity of law-making and the pushing of sexuality and religion into private domains, while at times “arbitrarily intervening into it to reorder human life” (135). Indeed, the paradoxes of the simultaneous relegation of sexuality and religion to private domains of non-interference and the reloaded “discursive explosion” on the Other's sexuality and religion is succinctly exposed in the ways in which the Muslim (minority) question is framed across Europe. That Muslims in Europe “exist as a difficulty” in need to be addressed (Sayyid 2014: 3), has generated a number of interventions: cultural, governmental, epistemological, and also legal. As a scholar of Islam and Muslims in Europe, for me the book, therefore, also opens up an interesting analytical perspective to understand political secularism — the political and legal regulation of religion — as intimately bound by what Mahmood calls secularity, i.e. sensibilities, emotions, social conventions and habitualized practices of liberal-secular couplings.

Again, the numerous controversies across Europe on Muslim bodily practices (veiling, praying in public, male circumcision and more recently the refusal to hand-shake) make this connection pertinent. The sovereign state's entitlement to attribute meanings to complex bodily practices, turning them into compactly legible religious “symbols”, reveals precisely the visceral components and gives flesh to Mahmood's reminder that “neutral” secular law ultimately relies on majoritarian rules. One recent example revealing how such embodied secular sensibilities enter into the loose category of “l'ordre public” is the legislation against face-veils in France which was backed up by the European Court of Justice and Human Rights in 2014. The ECHR in this case coupled l'ordre public with the conventionalized norm of “vivre ensemble” (“living together”). This case revealingly makes clear how affective attachments of secular principles constitute an intrinsic part of the legislation, even if usually re-translated into a more distant and neutral language. Political secularism, in other words, both draws on and reenacts secularity.

It would thus be worth exploring carefully the social life of such legislations and the emotional and embodied components nurturing them—in the case of face-veil prohibitions normative assumptions about the adequate ways of communication in public life, habitualized conventions of bodily visibility or norms of transparency. For it is only by taking seriously how secular law is complicit in and dependent on these more tacit and often unmarked inscriptions of formally liberal and secular societies that we can fully understand the conundrums for minorities within liberal democracies. Additionally, since Mahmood alerts us to be attentive to secularity as constituting “the epistemological and cultural ground on the basis of which religious claims can be authorized and validated” (206), I also see her book as an invitation to study more carefully the relationship between public discourse, knowledge production and the interpretations of the law. Expert knowledge and its authoritative status of neutrality, rationality, and scientific truth would be an important additional component of such investigations.

The affective and embodied attachments of liberal and secular principles and the indeterminacy this entails also within liberal democracies expose minoritized religions to a set of inherent aporia, for to be recognized on an equal footing, it is necessary to articulate one's “religion” in a language that is legible to liberal law and its translations into the incorporated contours of particular nation-state structures.

For the case of Muslims across Western Europe, I therefore see Mahmood's work as a warning to not hastily praise minority rights or politics of recognition as the remedy to the gaps in universal citizenship (while also not praising the latter). The legal recognition of minority rights is not able to cure these predicaments, but rather brings them to the fore. The very position of having to turn into a subject of recognition freezes complex and dynamic religious practices into a fait accompli, while the state enhances its sovereignty by turning into the distributor of the good of recognition (see Markell 2003). Religious minorities are thereby faced with the requirement to exhibit the signs of their difference—“presenting oneself as knowable” (Markell 2003: 31)—in order to gain legal protection. On the other hand, they are compelled to adjust to an existing framework, in the case of Muslims in Europe to specific arrangements of church, state, and the nation.

The ongoing struggle of Islamic communities in Germany to be recognized by the state as a “cooperation of public law” like churches, serves as a case in point here. This move requires from very heterogeneous Islamic movements to merge into quasi-church structures and to speak with a single voice to the state. By verticalizing Muslim communities' dynamic and horizontal authority structures, the German state, in turn, asserts a surplus of authority and control over these very movements. More importantly, in spite of efforts, so far none of these communities has managed to earn the legal status of cooperation of public law. To turn into a legally recognizable religious minority, in this case, depends on a shifting set of requirements ranging from norms of “proper” religion to the call to display loyalty to the constitution. Legal recognition always simultaneously means regulation, and it urges Muslims to literally re-form Islam according to a Christian model. Striving towards legal recognition under an ever-shifting conditionality, indeed, pushes the politics of recognition much closer to assimilation than many theorists of multiculturalism would acknowledge.

The unmarked general instance (the recognizing authority) thus not only interpellates the marked particular (the seeker of recognition) in an asymmetric way, such recognition is also dependent on rearticulating a moral norm (secularity) whose contours gain currency in the process of marking and exceptionalizing difference through the ambivalent act of recognition. In the case of Muslims in Europe, this process is salient in the ongoing and expanding call for Muslims to display loyalty to the allegedly abstract liberal principles before even being considered qualified contenders in the struggle of recognition. The minority is thus both subjected to an inspecting gaze, and required to adjust to an undetermined abstractness. Minoritized groups, even if legally protected, thereby necessarily maneuver between assimilation and segregation, normalization and exceptionalization, marking and dissolution.

The legalist discourse, to which many Muslim communities in Germany have nonetheless subscribed, while being constantly reminded of their exceptionality, is another instance of the powers of liberalism and political secularism. Put differently, the productive force of individual rights and their promise to inclusiveness not only consists in its normative assumptions about the appropriately free subject (Rose 1999). It is also revealed in the fact that its promise to universality inscribes itself into the subjects of law, effecting identification with the state as the guardian of individual rights.

To be sure, what follows from Mahmood's book is not a rejection or abandonment of political secularism or liberalism but rather a critical analysis of its complex operations: “[…by analyzing its regulatory and productive dimensions, one only deprives it of innocence and neutrality so as to craft, perhaps, a different future.” (21). Although implicated in critical, and not normative political theory, I wonder, however, if such a prospect will be heard especially by normative political theorists à la Taylor, to whom (amongst others) the book also speaks back. Mahmood leaves us with the intellectual task to figure out how to conceptualize such a different future without repeating the shortcomings of our current secular condition: shoehorning complex particularities and genealogies into universalizing patterns.



Markell, Patchen (2003). Bound by Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rose, Nicolas (1999). The Powers of Freedom. Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sayyid, Salman (2014). Recalling the Caliphate. Decolonisation and World Order. London: Hurst & co.