Throughout the protests in Egypt, and especially right after the resignation of Mubarak, many Western commentators expressed concern about stability in the Middle East, and they have connected the question of regional stability with that of whether or not Egyptians will enjoy genuine democratic freedoms. The idea is that if Egypt becomes a genuine secular democracy, then Egyptians will truly have democratic freedoms and the region will remain stable. If, on the other hand, Egypt becomes a religious state (i.e., an Islamic state ruled by the Muslim Brothers), then neither will Egyptians have these freedoms nor will the stability of the region be assured. Other commentators have responded to these concerns with assurances that the Muslim Brothers have only partial support in the population, are ideologically heterogeneous, would have to rule in coalition with other secularly oriented parties, and would therefore have to moderate the political positions they take. In this way, both democratic freedoms and regional stability would be preserved. Either way, regional stability is thought to hang on Egypt’s ambiguous future—specifically, on whether it is to be a secular or a religious state.
But it behooves us to think more deeply about what this regional stability is understood to consist in. It is clearly understood to include the maintenance of existing treaties and strategic military arrangements with Israel. And this is interesting, because Israel defines itself as a religious state. So, we have a situation in which Egypt’s becoming a secular democracy is thought to assure its continued diplomatic and military commitments to a religious state. One might object here that Israel is not a religious state and that it does not define itself in that way. This objection would be partly correct: Israel’s secular and religious identity constitutes a continual ambiguity, one with which it continues to struggle internally. Thus, although much of the population defines itself as secular, explicitly self-identified religious groups exert enormous power in government and society, well out of proportion to their actual numbers. This creates enormous controversy over central issues, such as the accepted criteria for deciding whether or not one is Jewish. Moreover, like Egypt, Israel’s personal status law is heavily rooted in religious law. Israeli religious authorities have so far successfully resisted the institution of civil marriage—a situation that forces non-religious couples in the country to choose options that provide them with fewer rights and guarantees. Unlike Egypt, however, Israel’s profound secular-religious ambiguities are not seen to threaten the existing treaties and security arrangements upon which regional stability is thought to rest. We might ask why this is so.
It is also unclear why it is assumed that if Egypt becomes a secular democratic state, it would be necessarily sympathetic to Israel. Egypt’s commitment to secular democratic ideals might well lead Egypt to distance itself from Israel on account of Israel’s ambiguous religious-secular character. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia maintain strategic relationships with Israel, but while Turkey is a country that imposes a particular brand of secularism on its people, Saudi Arabia is one in which a narrow version of Islam is imposed on the population. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic character is not seen as a threat to the region’s stability, even though its Wahhabism has been cast by some (largely lay) commentators as an ideological source of terror.
These are some of the ways in which our discourses on the secular and the religious so often twist and turn, get entangled in, and finally confound, each other. What gets lost, however, in all of the talk of regional stability and of secularity and religiosity is the crucial issue of Palestine. Few have emphasized this link in the regional chain, with the exception of Rashid Khalidi, who, thankfully, continues to remind us of it. What matters here is not whether Egypt, or even Israel, is a secular or a religious state. What matters is how Israel treats—or continually mistreats—the Palestinians, denying them their internationally agreed upon rights, and whether Egypt will continue to support this ongoing mistreatment. Here, it is important to note that the repression of the last thirty years in Egypt has been allowed to grow unhindered—both tolerated and supported—by the U.S., precisely because of its interest in maintaining those political and strategic arrangements with Israel that enable the continual and increasing violation of Palestinian rights. And it is this repression that Egyptians have so powerfully protested against.
In the end, it may be doubted whether the regional stability that so many are concerned about, and which Egypt is hoped to help sustain, can really be counted as stability. After all, this “stability” has allowed both Israel and the U.S. to conduct a number of aggressive wars throughout the region, from Lebanon to Gaza to Iraq. If commentators are genuinely concerned with democracy in Egypt and stability in the Middle East, they should fear less the Muslim Brothers and more the U.S. funding and regional alliances that aim to enact American foreign policy in the region, and which have choked off democratic possibilities for so long.
Having made these points, important for our considerations of the present moment, I would like now to turn to some more broadly theoretical reflections concerning what the events in Egypt might teach us about questions of secularity and religiosity more generally.
The question of whether Egypt is or will be a secular or a religious state has been asked for a long time, because of both the country’s strategic geopolitical location and the genuine religious-political ambiguities that it exhibits. It is therefore a question that I have not been able to avoid in my own research. However, I have tried to approach it not by looking at the norms that secularism imposes but rather the questions that it obliges us to ask and answer. That is, I do not assess the norms found in Egypt by judging whether or not they conform to secular standards, because those standards are seldom clear, highly contested, and often changing anyway. What I explore instead are the underlying, longstanding questions against which those norms are continually adduced, established, contested, and transformed as answers. I see secularism as a problem-space—a historical ensemble of questions and attached stakes; the question that anchors this historical ensemble is where to draw the line between religion and politics and what the limits of religion in society ought to be; the attached stakes are those rights and liberties typically identified with liberalism—such as equality, tolerance, and freedom of belief. That these questions and stakes are longstanding is evident; that the answers to them have been changing and contested is equally clear. What is important to note, however, is that though the problem-space of secularism is relatively recent historically (in medieval Christian and Muslim times, for example, a principled distinction between religion and politics was not typically seen to be connected to a range of fundamental rights and liberties)—it has now become indispensable to the practical intelligibility of our ways of life and to many of the ethical positions we take. It is difficult to remain indifferent to it.
It has been historically, and remains today, the case that the state has the right to ultimately decide the central questions that constitute the problem-space of secularism. This right of decision is, and has been, an expression of the principle and practice of the state’s sovereign power. We can therefore say that the power of secularism is not the power of the norm but of the question and of the sovereignty that decides it. The question of whether Egypt is a secular or a religious state is but one manifestation of this power; that it has been continually asked both in and outside of Egypt is just one indication that the country is fully subsumed within the problem-space of secularism, as are Israel, the United States, England, France, Germany, and many other states that continue to exhibit secular-religious ambiguities and that stake fundamental freedoms upon their clarification. And this will remain the case until the question of where to draw a line between religion and politics is no longer deemed necessary to ask in relation to the range and distribution of fundamental rights and liberties. (I have discussed these points in greater detail here.)
The approach to secularism as a historical problem-space, and the central role of the state’s sovereign power within it, has consequences for some of the critical claims of political theology. It may also help to frame the recent events in Egypt in a particularly revealing light. The fact that it is state sovereignty that ultimately decides where to draw a line between religion and politics means that it is a power that stands, importantly, prior to religion and politics. Since it stands prior to both, it cannot be pinned down to either. In other words, pace Carl Schmitt, some significant political concepts are not secularized theological concepts. This is especially the case with state sovereignty, because it stands prior to religion and politics and decides the distinction between them. Importantly, however, while state sovereign power stands prior to religion and politics, it is not indifferent to the question of how to distinguish and separate them.
This conception of state sovereignty contrasts with the manifestation of sovereignty that we saw in the protests. From the vantage point of the tradition of democratic legitimacy, the protests were a manifestation of pure popular sovereignty. I will contrast this to state sovereignty by calling it “bare sovereignty.” Like state sovereignty, bare sovereignty stands prior to religion and politics. Unlike state sovereignty, however, this bare sovereignty is utterly indifferent to the question of where to draw a line between them. It stands apart from the modern game of defining and distinguishing religion and politics, and does not partake of it. Not surprisingly, the protests expressed every potential language of justice, secular or religious, but embraced none. In the sense that it stands prior to religion and politics, and that it is indifferent to the question of their distinction, the bare sovereignty manifested by the protest movement stands outside the problem-space of secularism. In that sense, it represents a genuinely asecular power.
(Bare sovereignty is therefore much more than, and significantly different from, the principle of “we the people” that is formally used to justify state sovereignty within the democratic tradition. That principle has been frequently used by the state to justify various impositions and exceptions upon the population it governs. Bare sovereignty, however, breaks through this principle of justification; indeed, bare sovereignty is not a principle at all, but an exceptional existential moment, an expression of power that arises from the potentialities intrinsic to a given mode of life. For more on this point, see the remarks of legal and political theorist Samera Esmeir.)
Why have I chosen the term “asecular,” and not, say, “non-secular” or “post-secular,” to describe the power manifested by these protests? The term “non-secular” is too easily confused with the notion of the religious. And unlike post-secularity, asecularity is not a temporal marker. It allows for the possibility that asecularity has, in different forms, always been with us, even from within the traditions from which state secularity arises. Explorations of post-secularity typically try to identify the emergence of new norms. Such attempts fail to recognize that the process of identifying and distinguishing secular from non-secular norms is part of what secularism is, and that this process is integral to its power. In contrast, the term asecularity specifies a situation not where norms are no longer secular, but where the questions against which such norms are adduced and contested as answers are no longer seen as necessary. It is a situation where we can be genuinely indifferent to those questions, the ways that particular stakes are attached to them, and their seeming indispensability to our ways of life. As a result, such moments open up spaces for us to think beyond our current predicaments. Here, it is worth noting that the condition of asecularity manifested by these protests was also associated with a genuine ethos of democratic sensibility.
In regard to this connection, Talal Asad makes some important remarks, with which I would like to end. In an article entitled “Thinking about Religion, Belief, and Politics” (forthcoming in Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, Robert Orsi, ed.), he distinguishes between “democratic sensibility as an ethos” and “democracy as the political system of the state,” and goes on to say that:
the former . . . involves the desire for mutual care, distress at the infliction of pain and indignity, concern for the truth more than for immutable subjective rights, the ability to listen and not merely tell, and the willingness to evaluate behavior without being judgmental toward others; it tends toward greater inclusivity. The latter is jealous of its sovereignty, defines and protects the subjective rights of its citizens (including their right to ‘religious freedom’), infuses them with nationalist fervor, invokes bureaucratic rationality in governing them justly; it is fundamentally exclusive. My point is not to make an invidious comparison between sensibility and politics, not to argue that the two are necessarily incompatible. I simply ask whether the latter undermines the former—and if it does, to what extent.
Following Asad, we might say that the problem-space of secularism falls within the purview of the state, its sovereignty, and its expanding regulatory capacities. But what this manifestation of asecular, bare sovereignty shows us is that it may not be necessary to have a principled distinction between religion and politics to express an ethos of democratic sensibility. Or, to put it more precisely, one may not be obliged to ask and answer the question of where to draw the line between religion and politics in order to foster the mutual care, attunement to pain and distress, concern for truth, non-judgmental disposition, and tendency toward inclusion by which Asad characterizes this ethos. Indeed, the only way to obtain it might be to be indifferent to the question of their distinction and the set of stakes historically attached to it. This might be one way to construe Asad’s statement at the end of the essay, where he writes: “One might suggest, finally, that the modern idea of religious belief (protected as a right in the individual and regulated institutionally) is a critical function of the liberal democratic nation-state but not of democratic sensibility.”
I thank Samera Esmeir and Saba Mahmood for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this piece. I also thank Talal Asad, especially for his help in clarifying my ideas on bare sovereignty.