Interviews:

The suspicious revolution: An interview with Talal Asad

posted by Nathan Schneider

Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles, Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both global context and the ways in which their interaction has been shaped by local histories, in the West and the Middle East. Most recently, he co-authored (along with Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler) Is Critique Secular? (University of California Press, 2009) and contributed a chapter to the just published SSRC volume Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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NS: Since you’ve just been in Egypt, I wonder if we can start by talking about some of your reflections on the Arab Spring. How would you characterize what has changed in the Middle East, and in the world?

TA: I wouldn’t say that I’m competent to talk about the whole world, but I think it’s an extremely encouraging development in the Middle East. The bravery and courage and idealism of the people was really something to watch and to listen to. It is quite true, as everybody says, that, whatever happens, we’ll never go back to square one in Egypt. But a lot of the other things that people want, I suspect, may not be realized. There won’t be social justice—there won’t be all sorts of reforms that the pro-democracy activists called for. Currents and forces both inside the country and out will ensure that it doesn’t proceed as many people had hoped at the beginning. It’s much more complicated than accounts in the media would lead us to believe. I’ve been trying to make sense of it myself ever since I arrived in Cairo. But, you know, I’m a pessimist about all sorts of things—politics included.

NS: What was it like to be there in the midst of a revolution?

TA: Even before my wife and I went, people kept saying to us, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Our Air France plane was actually cancelled. We were due to go on the 29th of January. We eventually left on the 12th of February, via Paris. We weren’t even able to go directly to Cairo, either. We had to go through Beirut. Then, all sorts of people starting ringing, again asking, “Is it safe? Are you sure you’ll be safe? We’ve heard all sorts of frightening things.” Remember the stories circulating early in the uprising about the prisons that had been opened and the police being withdrawn from the streets? That was what the fear was about. People wouldn’t believe me, but I was there for four months, almost, and I went all over town and never encountered any violence. I didn’t have any friends who could attribute violence to the uprisings—which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Cairo contains eighteen million people, so it has always had its fair share of criminality. But ordinary life, actually, continued. Cafes were open, and shops, restaurants, and so on. You’d often hear that foreigners were in danger, or that ordinary life was impossible, but that is really not true.

NS: Impossible, that is, without the control of the state and the police?

TA: Exactly. There are elements in Egypt that were quite happy to circulate stories of unrest. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces talked again and again about the fact that we must have stability, which is then linked ominously to questions about the state of the economy. Since the economy suffers from the political instability in the country, they say, we shouldn’t have more demonstrations or strikes. But one of the things that emerged for me there, and which I’m trying to make sense of, was the constant flow of speculation, of suspicion, about who’s saying and who’s doing what. Why are they doing this? Are they really doing it for good reasons? Is it the army? The Muslim Brothers? Is their presence or absence significant? Do they mean what they say?—You know, that sort of thing. I can’t claim to have made good sense of it yet, but, to me, this seems very important.

NS: The fault lines of Egyptian society definitely seem to be shifting, and maybe suspicion is a consequence of that. We saw lots of images here of Muslims and Christians watching over each other in Tahrir Square, for instance.

TA: I was very pleased to see these expressions of solidarity.

NS: A lot was made of the fact that their demands were economic and political rather than explicitly religious. Did you see, or did you sense, that this suspicion was part of a novel form of secularity emerging on the streets there?

TA: My own work has questioned the mutually exclusive categorization of the secular and the religious, and I think there is lots of evidence, empirical and analytic, to show that the way in which secularity has been thought of conventionally won’t do to understand all that has occurred in recent history. Just recently, I saw scenes on Democracy Now! of people carrying placards with slogans for the camera, in Arabic, which said, “We insist on the trial of such and such,” but which started off with “Allahu akbar!” These utterances were not seen as inconsistent. I saw this myself in Tahrir Square. Egyptians use these expressions, like inshallah—God willing—all the time. As far as expressions are concerned, there was such spillover in all sorts of ways.

NS: But does that linguistic spillover go so far as to affect how institutions are being transformed?

TA: They may, to the extent that language use carries sentiment, hopes, and fears about social changes. There is discussion about whether the new Egypt will be a secular state or not. Many among the Muslim Brothers and those who are sympathetic to them have said, of course, that they are against a secular state. But they’re not saying they want a religious state either. Instead, they’re talking about having a dawla madaneyya, which literally means a “civil state.” What that implies isn’t entirely clear yet. But the insistence by people that they want neither a religious state nor a secular one has appeared again and again in all sorts of discussions.

NS: Such ambiguity might be disappointing to some secularists watching from the West.

TA: But it isn’t a straightforward question, in any event, of unambiguous “secularism” arising in that context. What will emerge in Egypt, in terms of both practical politics and thinking about politics, and the role of religion, is still very open.

NS: Do you think something had to change in the minds of people to build this kind of movement? Take the assassination of Anwar Sadat, compared to the uprising against Mubarak. One had machine guns and grenades, and the other had millions out in the street, mostly peacefully. What accounts for the difference?

TA: Well, it isn’t as if the recent events were totally without precedent.

NS: No, there had been decades of organizing—and, of course, there was the example of Tunisia.

TA: There had been strikes and demonstrations for a long time, and there was the Kefaya movement, although it was rather limited and somewhat elitist. But peaceful protests in the past have not attracted much attention from the Western media. I do think things have changed, but I don’t think it was quite like a conversion, so to speak, nor was it all pre-arranged and carefully thought out as a revolution. In some cases, people discover that they’ve got some power they didn’t think they had—even a technique that they don’t intentionally develop, but which they suddenly find themselves with and begin to understand. Maybe one needs to think of the uprising as more than a technique for getting rid of a despotic regime, but as a mode of existence, almost. The novelist Alaa Al Aswani said in an interview with The Independent that being part of this revolution is “like being in love.” I don’t think it’s quite like that. You might say, actually, that it’s more like a religious experience.

NS: Does the sense of suspicion that you were talking about fit into those comparisons? Is it like jealousy in love, or doubt in religion? How uniquely Egyptian is it?

TA: I’ve been thinking of it as something intrinsic to revolutionary situations. If you look back even to the French Revolution, and certainly to the Russian Revolution, that’s exactly what always happens. The revolution eats its own children, as the saying goes—partly because there’s so much at stake. There are so many enemies, and you don’t know who they are or who will do what. I see it simply as part of such a situation, which can never be resolved by final answers because it is always generating new questions on one side or another. No revolution is ever finished.

NS: Can you say more about how that suspicion took form in Cairo?

TA: I had a discussion with some friends of mine just before the March 19 referendum, and all the left-wing ones were saying that they’d be voting no. I remember thinking that it doesn’t quite add up. To say no would be to say that there would be no elections in September for the national assembly as originally planned, and that the army would stay on ruling the country for another year and a half. And yet these same people had already said that they didn’t trust the army! “Yes,” they said, “but we want the army to be replaced by a committee of three civilians.” But you know that’s not going to happen, I said. So there seems to be a certain inconsistency here: one becomes so suspicious about some possibilities that where one should be suspicious one isn’t.

NS: Since coming back to the United States, have you noticed a shift in how the West perceives the Muslim world?

TA: Well, I don’t read newspapers regularly—so you might be in a better position to answer that than I.

NS: Really? Why don’t you read newspapers?

TA: It’s not that I have any sound reason for it. I haven’t read newspapers for thirty years because I find that, for some reason, they tend to break up my mind. They write about so many different things, and you’re always going from one thing to another, and then on to another, unrelated to the last. I like to read journals—weeklies. I also watch Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! and some of the news programs on Russia Today. Listening to TV newscasts is less disruptive, strangely. So I’m not sure I can adequately answer your first question as to whether there has been a change in Western depictions of the Muslim world or not.

NS: I suppose I’m thinking about the difference between the images we saw of the “Arab Street” in Tunis and Cairo and, say, those during the Danish cartoon controversy—

TA: Shouting, and the rest.

NS: Yes, shouting, and burning flags, intense violence, people getting killed and killing each other—this sort of self-immolating fury. And then, suddenly, we have this other set of images, where two dictators get knocked off in the space of a few months, in a relatively orderly and impressive way.

TA: I think one should distinguish between the cartoon affair, which mostly involved Muslim immigrants in Europe, and the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Western media haven’t been interested in the long history of political protests and strikes in Egypt, say, as they have been in the sexy cartoon affair. The significance of the current uprisings is not just that they are peaceful. It’s that they indicate a major unsettling of a region strategically crucial to Western powers.

NS: What do you think made the Danish cartoon incident such a crisis?

TA: I’ve written about this at length in several places a couple of years ago. I think it was partly the continuing obtuseness of liberals, especially in Europe—liberals who are almost never consistently liberal. That particular scandal was unfair to the immigrants, and somewhat hypocritical. Liberals like to say that everything should be up for criticism. But we know it isn’t. And now in the US we have a state that is increasingly invading our privacy, and there seems to be very little resistance to that from liberal intellectuals. Anyway, shouldn’t we be more disturbed by the intellectual undermining of things we think of as eminently rational and decent? We should be ready to ask ourselves whether perhaps they’re not quite as rational or decent as we thought. But instead of learning how to deal with immigrants as part of our society we think of them as invaders.

NS: It sounds like the revolutionary suspicion that you were talking about earlier—seeing enemies everywhere except where it matters most.

TA: Normally, the element of hypocrisy in itself is not terribly interesting. What interests me more is that the cartoon scandal raises questions about how we think of freedom, including religious freedom, and about the language that is used to defend some of the things we think of as most valuable, if not sacred, to us.

NS: In the case of the cartoon controversy, for instance, free speech.

TA: Yes, if you want to put it that way.

NS: What’s being asserted, then, when Western, secular liberals claim that a cartoon about Muhammad is free speech and shouldn’t be apologized for? What is encoded in that claim?

TA: I think one thing that’s encoded there is a certain attitude toward religion in general, toward Islam in particular, and also the attitude that nothing is sacred. But there is also a sense of “these wretched immigrants who don’t understand our culture.” The encoding in this whole cartoon affair was a secularist one, which categorized the cartoons as free speech, even if they were deliberately provocative—not just deliberately provocative, but insulting. Why do it? What’s the motive? I’m talking about speculation and suspicion; what is the motive for wanting to attack Muslims? Why not just say, “If you riot in the streets or kill somebody, I’m afraid you’ll have to suffer the consequences under the law”?

NS: Well, wasn’t there a principle at stake: the right to provoke if one so wishes, and to criticize religious beliefs?

TA: Yes, but why do we want to exercise that right in some cases and not in others? I’m not just after prejudice, but the morphology of our provocative choices. There was much talk, sentimental and romantic, of a duty to fight for the right to free speech. As soon as an incident like this happens, we’re immediately regaled with stories about Bruno at the stake, and the Catholic Church, and so on. One doesn’t quite have to think in these terms. Our problems are not medieval problems. The challenges are not the same. For God’s sake, let’s think clearly! All this complaining about religious dogmatism—we know very well that some of these secular critics are about as closed-minded as you can get on all sorts of issues. Even as eminent a theorist as John Rawls says that certain kinds of reasoning should not be allowed into the domain of politics because all they do is create irresolvable conflict, so that only what liberals deem rational can be allowed to enter public space. Is it the case that religion always produces conflict that can’t be resolved peacefully? Doesn’t secular provocation—“fighting words”—lead to violent conflict? Does every conflict in society have to be “resolvable”? Of course there have to be limits on provocation.

NS: What about the election in the Palestinian territories of Hamas, or even the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood right now in Egypt? There’s this incredible suspicion right now in the West, which views these factions as unpredictable and uncontrollable, and we’ve taken political measures to suppress them. Is that a kind of censorship, too?

TA: Yes, I think you’re right. The need to control and predict non-Western movements is what it’s partly about. But let me give you an example of what I think happens, mistakenly, in the explanations secularists give of the Muslim Brothers. The Brothers’ ideas are really, in many respects, in a state of flux. The younger members often contest or disobey the directives of their leaders. There are different currents within the movement itself. Their present situation is also an expression of the fact that—and most people in the West don’t know this—the Muslim Brotherhood was savagely repressed by past Egyptian governments for 60 years. They have been put in prison, hanged, tortured, exiled. I say this not because I think one should be sympathetic to them because of what they’ve suffered, but because, like so many people who have suffered, they have developed an instinct for mere survival. In my view, having talked to some of them, simply how to survive politically, as an organization, is what their leadership has learnt best over time. Their minds are focused on that aim and have become rigidified. They’re not able to think freely enough yet—about freedom of thought, speech, and action—to take advantage of the new situation.

NS: Perhaps, when repression is involved, suspicion can turn to paranoia.

TA: Yes, for both persecutors and persecuted. Because the Muslim Brothers have contradictory positions and are in many respects confused, my friends in Egypt say, “Ah, you see? They say one thing and mean another! One member says this and another says that!” What could quite reasonably be seen as fluidity, uncertainty, and disagreement on their part gets represented as speaking with a forked tongue. I’ve heard so often the remark: “This is just a game that the Muslim Brothers play.” This makes me wonder whether anybody else in politics plays games! Liberals? Socialists? Conservatives? Don’t they say one thing and then do another, or compromise on their principles for the sake of practical ends? That is, in part, how an obsessive suspicion closes off the mind to any serious attempt at understanding what’s going on. For most of my left-wing friends, the Muslim Brotherhood equals hypocrisy and the hidden determination to establish a totalitarian state. I think this a priori suspicion is wrong. I don’t think, by the way, that there’s even a danger of anything like that happening. In comparison to other groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah—with whom, I should say, I do have sympathies—the Muslim Brothers do not have a militant wing. This hasn’t been sufficiently recognized. In the past they were involved in violence, but for many decades now they’ve moved away from it toward a more or less parliamentary line—like Eurocommunism—rather than a revolutionary one.

NS: But isn’t the concern about what could happen if they were voted into a position of power over the police and the military in Egypt?

TA: Yes, but the point is that they would have to get into that position of power in the first place, and the military isn’t their instrument. There’s always a possibility, of course, that they might become a dominant force in government and that they might use the police repressively, like the Mubarak regime. But would that mean a totalitarian government was imminent? For God’s sake, even in the United States the police are used to harass various kinds of movement—peace movements, ecological movements. The security measures now in place here have deeply invaded our liberties and privacy. Still, the United States is not (yet) a totalitarian state, it’s a secular state and it’s highly unlikely that its secularism will be abandoned anytime soon. In Egypt the Muslim Brothers would have to have a very substantial presence in the national assembly before they could do anything really significant, and I doubt that they will have that. In any case we don’t even know what policies the Muslim Brothers would support as members of a government, because the policies haven’t been sufficiently formulated and agreed upon yet. Let’s bear in mind the difference between the promises made by Obama the candidate and the decisions taken by Obama the president. They tell us that democracy is all about compromise and being realistic.

NS: Consider someone who would oppose a right-wing, religious party in the United States. Is there any difference between opposing such a thing in one’s own country, where one understands what’s at stake and what’s at play, and opposing an ostensibly similar party in a foreign country, just by saying, “I wouldn’t want that myself”?

TA: Yes, I can understand that—

NS: Or is there something different that we have to understand about the other society that makes the two incomparable?

TA: I can understand why many people would equate the religious right here and the religious movements there. But I don’t think that they’re directly comparable. There is a difference, and I think part of it comes from the savage repression in Egypt of the Muslim Brothers, which the religious right in the U.S. has not had to undergo. This doesn’t justify anything in particular, but it’s something that one has to think about. And, connected with that, there’s the fact that the Brotherhood is a movement that has been resisting what I would call Western imperialism, whereas that isn’t true of the religious right in the U.S., which, on the contrary, very often supports it. Now, I don’t want to be understood to be saying that simply because the Muslim Brothers oppose imperialism they’re beyond reproach. What I’m saying is that it’s more complicated. During the Brotherhood’s rise in the 1930s, it was strongly anti-British. And the United States has been constantly intervening in Egypt after the British left—even supporting Mubarak right until the very end—and that’s not going to be lost on the Muslim Brothers, although it’s still an open question as to whether they and the U.S. government will now regard each other as implacable enemies.

NS: How much does the fact of their being religious fuel the suspicion leveled against them in the West and among liberals generally? Should it?

TA: I don’t think, in principle, that just because a movement declares itself to be religious, it should be made the object of special suspicion. In my view, one shouldn’t trust anyone who hankers after state power, whether they call themselves religious or secular. The modern state is at once one of the most brutal sources of oppression and a necessary means for providing common benefits to citizens. Whether it is secular or religious seems to me much less important than the fact that it is a state. If we look back over the twentieth century and this should become obvious.

NS: How does having grown up and having been educated on both sides of the colonial divide affect how you look at situations like this? You often see colonialism where other people are blind to it, it seems.

TA: Yes, but I’m also sometimes irritated by people who would like to explain everything in terms of colonialism. That is just so crude. I also find myself resisting people who say that colonialism has nothing to do with the present situation because colonialism is dead and gone. My own feeling is that what people assert or deny is due to colonialism should be constantly interrogated. In our world, external intervention by strong powers, superpowers, or the superpower, is a fact of life. The United States has been intervening in the Middle East for a long time—it would be surprising if it didn’t!

NS: Is such intervention the same as the old colonialism? Or can it be better than that?

TA: It’s neither better nor worse, but it’s certainly not the same. I recall something Hillary Clinton said, in some conference or other, to the effect that in the end the government is concerned not with promoting democracy, as such, but with promoting America’s national interest. That would have to come first. At the same time, she said she would be the happiest of persons if the two things converged—which of course makes the ideal of democracy into an instrument, not an ideal. But I can understand that. I can see why she would say that, because power is what the modern state is about. I can see why the US would want to have what it calls “stability in the region,” a region in which the US has such immense interests—in its oil, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in the confrontation with Iran, and so on. I can see that they would want to have, in every country, some kind of influence, if possible. I might want to attribute everything to colonialism or imperialism, but I think that won’t do. But then nor would I want to say, “Don’t blame imperialism, it’s all your own fault really!” It’s not a question of fault, it’s a question of the way in which various forces collide and intervene and shape what are regarded as national interests.

NS: It’s interesting that you seem so accepting of this interventionist order—

TA: No, I am not accepting of it, certainly not. I’m trying to see things as they really are. But, at the same time, I’m aware that this means not being able to invoke one’s own moral position very easily. Perhaps that’s why I said, early on, that I am a pessimist. I have felt for a long time now that we have gradually—and when I say “we,” I mean everybody in the modern world, and I’ll say more about that—worked ourselves into a situation that is truly tragic, in the Greek sense of having no real resolution. There are the most awful prospects before us, with the kind of technological warfare we now have, with the fantastic extension of consumerism and money, with the consequent growing gap between the very poor and the very rich, with the destruction of the environment, and with the ramifications of climate change and nuclear energy. I really hope that this is simply a sign of my being old. It may well be, because I don’t see things in the way that a younger person would, I’m sure. I see it all as being absolutely disastrous. But people will try to resist, and they should.

NS: How? I think of the Human Terrain Teams that were dispatched in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which anthropologists and other experts in local culture and language would be embedded with military units. Should an anthropologist, someone with a more textured view of what’s happening on the ground, be a part of that process of intervention so as somehow to improve it?

TA: No, certainly not—absolutely not. That’s not resistance, that’s collusion. I remember talking once a long time ago with Edward Said about empire and how it might be defeated. We were just sitting and having coffee, and at one point I responded to some of his suggestions by saying, “No, no, this won’t work. You can’t resist these forces.” So he demanded a little irritably: “What should one do? What would you do?” So I said, “Well, all one can do is to try and make them uncomfortable.” Which was really a very feeble reply, but I couldn’t think of anything else. But it doesn’t follow from a pessimistic outlook that one just has to accept things as they are and ask fellow anthropologists to do the same. In any case, I’m very much against the kind of involvement you mention, making things smoother for empire.

NS: What was it you wanted to say about the “we”?

TA: Oh. When I was a young man, I used to hear and read about the marvels of European civilization, about how Europe had achieved so much, and how the Muslim world, and others, hadn’t. Even China was nowhere then. It was Europe that led the world. People used to speak about “European civilization,” you know, at one time. Then the language gradually shifted, and it’s interesting to trace some of those shifts in language. Now, more and more, one hears people who are very sensitive to our impending disasters talking about how mankind will destroy itself, how mankind has brought itself to a position where it will destroy itself. I find that to be an interesting shift, the move from praising one’s distinctive “civilization” when one thinks of positive things, in order to be able to say to others, “You haven’t been able to achieve these things.” And then, when you’re in a bloody mess to which there may be no solution, you talk about “mankind” having brought itself to the brink of disaster.

NS: “We’re all in it together.”

TA: And in a sense we are—it’s true. But maybe we aren’t all equally responsible. People in villages in India, or Africa, or Latin America—they’re not responsible for climate change. There’s an interesting way in which one says, not only, “We’re all in this together, so let’s work together,” which is fine. But “It’s everybody’s fault”? That’s different. As one used to say in school, trying to spread the blame around, “It’s not only my fault, sir! All of us, we all made this mess!” It’s that kind of cowardly reaction I’m referring to.

NS: Whose fault is it, then?

TA: Again, it’s not a question of fault. There’s a long history of human choices that is leading us all, unintentionally, to where we shall soon be—at a dead end. Some of these choices were more momentous, affecting far more people, than other choices. Some of us now are in a more powerful position to choose than others are. “Mankind” is not an agent.

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One Response to “The suspicious revolution: An interview with Talal Asad”

  1. avatar David Dark says:

    An extraordinarily good interview. Great work, Nathan Schneider. And thank you for bringing him back to the question of “we.”

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