Uprising in Egypt:

Asecular revolution

posted by Hussein Ali Agrama

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-spacea 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.

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3 Responses to “Asecular revolution”

  1. avatar Andrew March says:

    This is a very eloquent and thought-provoking comment. This seems to me the crucial commitment: “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.” There is a sense in which this Arendtian understanding of moments of revolutionary freedom implores us to avoid a pre-political principled dogma about *anything* which might come out of such popular spontaneity. But it is easy to imagine why it is so hard to sustain this. Like electricity, popular power has to go somewhere. It either dissipates and leaves the prior regime in place, or helps to constitute something new. But that something new is, if not a seizure by some narrow group, often merely a form of ordinary, banal constitutional politics. (It was Arendt’s concern to show how this might retain some of the enchantment of revolutionary freedom.) It is precisely the difficulty of sustaining the magical and inspiring nature of the revolutionary moment which is, above all, *not* so many other things—banal, petty, boring, corrupt, ordinary, tyrannical—that so often causes the disappointing crash after the high of the revolutionary moment, that feeling of the “lost treasure” when everything was possible and everyone was sincere. Again: this disappointment and sense of melancholy, as experienced by so many in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, is often the lucky outcome.

    But I am also intrigued by Agrama’s notion of the “asecular.” Why just “asecular”? Isn’t the revolutionary moment precisely not reducible to so many ideological cages operating prior to that moment? When Agrama calls the politics of Tahrir “asecular,” is he doing anything different than when others call it “atheocratic” or “areligious”? While it is indeed inspiring to see the Egyptian anti-authoritarian movement hold up the promise of all kinds of new moral and institutional possibilities, it seems once again that our obsession with secularism and its constraints presupposes a set of absences. When Agrama, along with Asad, identifies the asecular spirit as issuing from “bare sovereignty” and facilitating a democratic ethos, it is not hard to see what kind of ethos is excluded from this—an ethos of religious governance. We are free to herald the “asecular”—to be indifferent to the questions of the boundary between religion and politics—only by assuming that the theocratic is absent, that is, that a certain kind of secularism has already done its job. For certainly the “democratic sensibility as an ethos” is not all-inclusive. If it excludes authoritarian state secularism (Syria, Turkey, France), it is also excludes many forms of non-state religious movements which aspire to *be* the state.

    More specifically, in what conditions is it possible for us to assume that “bare sovereignty” stands “prior to religion and politics, and that it is indifferent to the question of their distinction”? Must we not make certain assumptions about the people which is exercising its bare sovereignty? Must we not assume that it is in some ways a *non-political* people, a people that is not already organized by some conception of how politics and religion ought to look after the revolution, by some conception of what it means to win or lose the moment? Is it possible to imagine such an ahistorical people not already invested in a conception of the political and the religious? Agrama’s very moving comment invites us to think about what would mean for this *particular* people, the Egyptian people, to devise and sustain a politics that is not preoccupied with secular questions. Above all, it seems to presuppose a people not preoccupied with theological and theocratic questions.

  2. Thank you for this very interesting article. Is the notion of bare sovereignty deriving from Agamben’s bare life?

  3. While I find this a very helpful contribution to think further about the possible future paths of Arab societies after the revolution, I find Agrama’s analysis of asecularity empirically problematic. The theoretical argument itself is convincing, but I do not find it really reflecting the developments in Egypt after the revolution. The momentum on which Agrama draws in his analysis seems to be the utopian moment of standing on Tahrir Square and saying “No” to the Mubarak regime, a moment which was made possible because different political movements had agreed to temporarily lay down their differences for the common cause. That utopian moment is over now, and the March 19 constitutional referendum has made the point very clear.

    In this referendum, one decisive argument for the “Yes” vote on limited amendments of Egypt’s constitution (rather than drafting a new one right away) was an openly anti-secular one, made by Muslim Brothers and especially Salafis, Egypt’s most dynamic popular religious movement. Unlike other opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to run for the “Yes” probably out of tactical considerations to secure themselves a good position in the negotiations of power. The Salafis took a strong pro-Mubarak stance during the revolution and thus never were part of the revolutionary alliance in the first place. Now they have turned from a piety movement into a radical political movement within weeks, and they have plastered Egypt’s cities with posters calling for Egypt to be an Islamic state. They have been rallying for a “Yes” vote with the claim that the supporters of a “No” vote want to scrap article two of the 1971 constitution which states that Islam is the religion of the state and Sharia the source of positive law. In Friday sermons on the eve of the referendum, a regular argument made by preachers in Egypt’s mosques was that voting “Yes” was “an obligation by Islamic law” (wagib shar’i) to prevent Egypt from falling under godless liberal and/or Christian rule.

    This kind of campaigning has anti-secularism as a key populist rallying point much the way cold war politics in the West often relied on anti-communism as the common “cause.” It has already meant that the focus of political and societal debate has begun to shift from issues of economic inequality, police brutality, and oligarchic entrenchment of economy and politics (the issues which originally took people to the streets) to issues of sexual morality, religious and confessional relations, etc. The Salafis, who never had any pretenses of solving the problem of economic inequality, are now riding the wave of post-revolutionary transformation by trying to dominate religious debates and to impose stricter gender segregation in public transportation in the short term, and rallying for an Islamic state in the long term. The nationalist/liberal/leftist parts of the opposition is now consequently busy articulating their cause in the scope of a new formative sociopolitical dichotomy, profiling themselves as those in support of a democratic civil state, in opposition to a perceived alliance of Islamists and the old system.

    Agrama suggests to look not “at the norms that secularism imposes but rather the questions that it obliges us to ask and answer.” While I find that Agrama’s analysis falls short of the post-revolutionary reality, I think that his theoretical analysis of the particular power of secularism is useful to think with when it comes to the power of religious populism that is right now developing into a dominant issue in post-revolutionary Egypt. Few days before the referendum I met with two friends who live in inland Agami, a low-income area in Alexandria and one of the areas strongly dominated by the Salafi movement. My friends were very much opposed to the Salafis, who in their view were narrow-minded and determined to force their views upon Egyptians. But they found themselves unable to disagree with the key demand of the Salafis: an Islamic state that applies the Sharia in full. As Muslims we must be for an Islamic state, they admitted but stressed that it should emerge from the people themselves and not be forced upon them. The question about the Islamic state is posed here is such a way that it cannot be simply declared irrelevant by focusing on issues of corruption, inequality, unemployment. It is a question that is being posed by social movements that enjoy the privilege of religious authority among very large segments of the population who, even if they dislike the Salafis’ and other Islamists’ radicalism in pursuing the Islamic state, find themselves compelled to agree that “this is how it is in religion” (ed-din keda).

    I agree with Agrama that it would do Egypt and many other countries good to be asecular, but at least at the moment I do not see it happening. Thinking about the Islamic state along the lines of Agrama’s analysis of the secular, I would rather argue that the current rapid re-politicisation of religious conservatism is providing not so much specific norms—after all, Egypt is for the large part a conservative and religious society anyway—than specific questions that it obliges Egyptians to ask and answer. There is no way Egyptians can remain “genuinely indifferent” to questions taken up by anti-secular religious populism. They will have to develop answers, and as the logic of hegemony has it, these answers bear the mark of the questions.

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