Religious liberty, minorities, and Islam: An interview with Saba Mahmood

posted by Nathan Schneider

Saba Mahmood is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and whose work raises challenging questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, agency and freedom. Her book Politics of Piety, a study of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Cairo, questions the analytical and political claims of feminism as well as the secular liberal assumptions on the basis of which such movements are often judged. In the volume Is Critique Secular? she joins Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown in rethinking the Danish cartoon controversy as a conflict between blasphemy and free speech, between secular and religious world views. Now, Mahmood is working on a comparative project about the right to religious liberty and minority-majority relations in the Middle East. We spoke over breakfast in New York City.

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NS: I know you have been following the events in Egypt and have even been back a couple of times since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. How would you describe the situation?

SM: I think this is an incredibly interesting time in Egypt. The country is involved in a historic and heady process of political transformation. The stakes are very high, and it is unclear whether the kind of changes—political, social, and economic—that the January 25 Revolution envisioned will, in fact, be possible. Like any other revolution in modern history, this one faces immense challenges from both within and without.

NS: What exactly are those challenges, in your view?

SM: Well, after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, as one would expect, the movement became divided over what the collective future of the country should be. Old differences that had been set aside to topple the Mubarak regime have come to the fore again—differences of class, ideology, and religion, all of which affect the vision of what a just society should be. Second, there is the issue of transforming the political system from within to create a democratic structure—which entails, not only promulgating new electoral laws and procedures, but also forging laws that address the demands of a democratic society. Then there is the challenge of how to dismantle the much-despised state security apparatus, with its bloated and corrupt bureaucracy of surveillance and vengeance, and the Emergency Law—in place for over twenty years—that has facilitated its operations. In recent months, protestors have taken to the streets again to demand an end to the military trials that have continued since the overthrow of Mubarak. (Some report that more than 10,000 people have been tried in military courts since the revolution.) These military trials are a symbol of the old system that is still intact, and which the protestors of the January 25 Revolution had sought to dismantle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are economic issues that are systemic, and that are not simply Egypt’s but belong to the international system of finance and capital. Egypt, like any other Third World country, is hostage right now to the global economic crisis and the immense pressure put upon those countries by international institutions (like the World Bank and IMF) and geopolitical powers (the US and Western Europe) to resist the demand for socially progressive economic reforms. The Egyptian military is part of this system and has benefitted from it immensely. I cannot see how the military, as the primary institution in charge of this “transition,” is going to set aside its economic interests to yield to the popular demand for economic justice. This is in part why Egyptians from various walks of life continue to stage sit-ins and protests across the country.

NS: How do you think these challenges might be overcome?

SM: Well, I have faith in the Egyptian people and their thirst and desire to transform the status quo. None of us expected or predicted what the Egyptians were able to achieve on February 11, 2011, with their determination and political will. The unimaginable became imaginable. The same powers are in play right now, and I suspect we all will have a lot to learn from the developments that unfold in Egypt in the coming years.

NS: Without a doubt. But let’s back up a bit now. I first read your essay on “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual” when I was a freshman in college, and it had a big influence on how I came to think about the practice of religion. I still look back to it. In that vein, I wonder if you, too, had an experience early on that reoriented your own thinking.

SM: One thing that had a decisive impact on me was Talal Asad’s “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” I was a graduate student at Stanford at the time, and I was working on issues of religion at a moment when there was little interest in the subject within the discipline of anthropology. This was pre-9/11, and people didn’t think that religion was of great importance. I was reading a lot on my own, and this essay came up in footnotes. Our library didn’t even have a copy of it, so I had to request it through interlibrary loan. I sat down, and I distinctly remember reading and then rereading it several times. I was really challenged by the questions that the article forced the reader to ask, not just of Islam but of religion in general. It’s a very well-circulated paper now, and most students of religion and Islam tend to read it, but at the time, it was a buried treasure.

NS: Tell me about what brought you to anthropology in the first place. You were an architect before that?

SM: Yes, I practiced architecture for four years. At the time I was also involved in activism against U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the Middle East. When the first Gulf War broke out, I realized that there were many pressing questions, which the war had brought to the fore, that I hadn’t really resolved for myself. These were questions that had to do with the transformed political and social landscape of the Muslim world, the ascendance of Islamic politics and the challenge this posed to those of us who grew up believing in the promise of secular nationalism to forge a different future. Following the Iranian Revolution, in 1979, Islamic movements had become the primary expression of political dissent in a variety of Muslim countries. In order to think about the transformations this ascendance had caused in the social and political landscape of Muslim societies, I resolved that I would go back to graduate school. At the time, I did not really know much about anthropology; so I enrolled in a political science graduate program, which I found to be very Eurocentric. I realized that this discipline would not help me explore the kinds of questions that I was interested in. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to anthropology at the time, and it has been my disciplinary home since.

NS: Have you found anthropology to be a discipline in which questions that concerned you as an activist can be addressed?

SM: My activism would probably have been accommodated in any discipline. But what anthropology has allowed me to do in a serious way is pursue the question of difference. The traditional aim of socio-cultural anthropology was to study the primitive other in order to reflect upon the peculiarity—and often superiority—of Western cultural and social norms. In the late 1980s, anthropologists and others launched a robust critique of the essentialized and ahistorical notion of cultural difference that had served the discipline for so long. One important result of this critique was that the discipline moved to think critically about the question of difference—not just cultural difference but how different histories, traditions, and arrangements of power force people to live and experience life in heterogeneous ways. In general I find anthropology’s commitment to thinking critically about difference unique in the human sciences and worthy of engagement and exploration. So, in answer to your question, it is not so much that anthropology is especially open to activism, but rather its insistence that we engage with difference, while being attentive to relations of power that hierarchicalize and essentialize differences, that has enabled me to work productively in the discipline.

NS: On your website, you also say that your experience in architecture influenced your work as an anthropologist. Can you say something about how?

SM: That’s probably overstated! But when I was practicing architecture, I realized I wasn’t very happy with the elitist and technological bent of the profession. I started working instead with the homeless, designing, financing, and constructing housing for people who couldn’t afford to pay rent or mortgage. The work I did was mostly in dense, urban communities, both in the U.S. and, briefly, in Pakistan. This experience left me with an appreciation for the grit of urban life, the challenges it throws up to people, and how they manage them. In a sense, this is what Politics of Piety is about, too—people trying to make sense of a world that has completely undone the possibility of a wholesome life, but in which people still try to recreate that possibility through suturing various kinds of disparate practices and habits.

NS: Why did you choose Cairo as the site of your fieldwork?

SM: At first I went to Algiers, but it was in the throes of a civil war, which made fieldwork impossible. I also went to Fes and Casablanca but found that political debate was very guarded and muffled, making it difficult to pursue the kinds of questions I was interested in. In Cairo, however, I found a place that was very vibrant and alive with debates about the importance of secularism, Islamism, and what it means to live as a Muslim in the contemporary world. The city streets pulsated with these debates, and Egyptians generally did not feel restrained in expressing their religious and political views. I found the public culture of the city very conducive to the project I wanted to pursue, and so I stayed.

NS: What brought you to the theoretical tools that would help you interpret that experience in Politics of Piety?

SM: By the time I went to do fieldwork in Cairo, I was already very critical of how the existing literature analyzed Islamist movements, largely in functionalist and reductive terms. It seemed to subscribe to a hydraulic conception of politics: you squish something down in one place and it bubbles up in another. Islamic politics, in other words, was a displacement of something more fundamental—economic frustration, lack of democracy, and so on. But I was far less prepared to think about the range of embodied religious practices I encountered and how these inform or undergird politics. It was really a challenge for me to think about people’s preoccupation with the minutiae of bodily practices and not to read them as misguided or misplaced religiosity. Like countless other scholars, I initially tended to view them as inconsequential both to politics and to the substance of religion. It was really only after doing the fieldwork, when I came back and started writing, that I began to think more deeply about these issues and my own inadequate response to what I had observed in the field. This process of reflection and writing brought me to rethink the distinction drawn between ethics and politics in liberal political theory, as well as the centrality of affect and embodied praxis to political imaginaries and projects.

NS: In the preface to Politics of Piety, you speak very eloquently about the relationship between that project and your experience of coming of age in Pakistan. Does Pakistan continue to inform the questions that you pose and the ways in which you think about them? The country has certainly come to play a different role on the world stage in recent years. . . .

SM: The developments in Pakistan have been quite tragic. The Pakistani military has mortgaged the future of the country to fight a series of proxy wars for the U.S.—wars that have methodically destroyed its infrastructure, not to mention social and political life in the country. Politics of Piety is an analysis of a different kind of Islamic movement, in Egypt, that is transformative of social and political life but not destructive of its very possibility. In Pakistan, Islamist movements have largely played a very destructive role, especially with the ascendance of jihadi movements that have made a Faustian bargain with the Pakistani military, on the one hand, and U.S. strategic interests, on the other. It’s quite different in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest Islamist political organization in the country—has eschewed militancy at least since the 1950s, and the network of da’wa groups that I analyze in my book are reformist in nature, focused largely on proselytization and social welfare activities. The career of Islamic militants in Egypt was short-lived, and they do not command the kind of power that they do in Pakistan. As a result, the social and political profile of Islamism in Egypt is radically different from its counterpart in Pakistan. In my current project, I have begun to take up the question of how geopolitics transforms the ways religious coexistence is managed, produced, and transformed. But, while geopolitics has certainly transformed Pakistani life, in my current work I’m not thinking about it particularly in the Pakistani context.

NS: Can you tell me more about the project you’re involved in now?

SM: Well, I am engaged in a couple of related projects. My personal project focuses on how Christian-Muslim relations have been historically transformed through the introduction of the concepts of minority rights and religious liberty in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt. Aside from this, I am also working on a three-year collective project with three other colleagues (Elizabeth Hurd, Peter Danchin, and Winnifred Sullivan), funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. It focuses on how religious freedom is being transformed through legal and political contestations in a variety of countries in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and South Asia. It’s called “Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Norms and Local Practices.” Most of the scholarly work to date tends to treat religious freedom as a singular and stable principle, enshrined in international and national legal documents. Others tend to focus on how different religious traditions are either amenable or resistant to the incorporation of liberal conceptions of religious liberty. Our project is distinct in that it asks whether religious liberty can indeed be treated as a singular or stable principle aimed at achieving shared goals and objectives, given the diversity of historical and political contexts. We will track the variety of claims made in the name of religious liberty, with the aim of mapping out modular disagreements that occur in a variety of national and international political contexts. We are interested in this because we believe that, in order to reach any sort of agreement in the human rights community, it is important first to understand what is really at stake in battles over religious freedom. It is also important to ask whether religious freedom, given its manifold deployments and limitations, is the best way to achieve co-existence for the variety of actors involved.

NS: A thread that seems to connect the earlier work with what you’ve been doing more recently is the issue of freedom—from freedom as personal autonomy, in Politics of Piety, to religious freedom in international law, now. Has the one informed how you think about the other?

SM: That is an interesting question. I agree that liberty and freedom are at the center of both of my projects. The right to religious liberty is often conceived in individualist terms—whether in the First Amendment, the European Convention on Human Rights, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the right to religious liberty has also been imagined in collective terms as the right of a group to practice its traditions freely, without undue intervention or control. This latter conception has been very important to religious minorities in claiming a place of autonomy and freedom from majoritarian norms and state interventions. In my current work, I am trying to think through how these alternative conceptions of religious liberty stand in tension with each other and the sorts of impasses it produces.

NS: What kinds of methods are you using? Are you doing fieldwork again?

SM: Fieldwork is an important part, but the project has historical, geopolitical, and legal dimensions as well, since I’m interested in tracking how notions of religious liberty travel across time and history, and also across the divide between Western and non-Western. So, I’m looking at the UN charter, the UDHR, international laws and treaties, as well as particular legal precedents in Europe that have traveled to the Middle East and have gained particular traction there.

NS: Tell me more about what the fieldwork is like. After all, I imagine that the usual way of studying international law is primarily textual. How does fieldwork inform these kinds of questions?

SM: I’m interested in the social life of the law, especially since many court cases about the right to religious freedom in the Middle East are fought, not just in courts, but through public campaigns launched on the cultural-political terrain. People’s sense of what constitutes religious liberty is shaped by how human, civil, and minority rights organizations end up contesting and arguing over it. Part of my fieldwork in Egypt entailed working with human rights practitioners, particularly those who are using international human rights protocols in their legal strategies and public campaigns.

NS: Can you say a bit, in turn, about how Is Critique Secular? came about and the kinds of problems that framed it?

SM: It emerged out of an event organized at UC Berkeley to announce the establishment of a new teaching and research unit on critical theory. This inaugural symposium generated a lot of interesting debate and discussion—not only on the Berkeley campus but here on the Immanent Frame as well. The Townsend Center for the Humanities, where the event was held, approached me and other participants about putting some of the papers together in book form. As we could not pull together all the papers from the symposium, we focused on the ones about the Danish cartoon controversy. Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and I decided that we would try to organize the book around this question while also retaining some of the original impetus for the symposium.

NS: More recently, the cartoon controversy seems to have repeated itself all over again with the Park51 complex in Lower Manhattan, or the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” And long before that, there was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses.

SM: Well, I think there are substantial differences among the issues involved in each of these controversies. I think the latter is quite straightforwardly about the right of a much-maligned minority to build a place of worship near a site invested with patriotic-national fervor, while the former controversies centered upon Muslim objections to how the prophet Muhammad was portrayed.

NS: What is wrapped up for people in these portrayals of the prophet?

SM: It’s not an accident that with both the Satantic Verses and the Danish cartoon controversies, what was at stake was the particular kind of affective and religious connection pious Muslims (but certainly not all Muslims) feel to the figure of Muhammad—to his iconicity and his exemplariness. This relationhip forces us to think about religiosity in more complicated ways than as privatized belief, or as a system of rules, regulations, and taboos. Both Muslims and non-Muslims must think critically about whether the sense of injury that derives from this sort of religiosity is translatable into a language of rights, and whether understanding this sense of injury is something worthy for the ethical and political life of a religiously diverse society. I think that there is an increasing tendency within the U.S. and Europe—on the part of the majority and minorities alike—to resort to the law and the state to settle ethical and moral issues. At the time of the Danish cartoon controversy, both sides wanted to defer to the law to settle their claims. But I think that such a turn to the law, or legislation, freezes positions and allows the state to intervene in domains toward which it claims to be neutral. My contribution to Is Critique Secular? lays these issues out in more detail than I can do justice to here. In sum, what I am suggesting is that struggles over religious difference cannot simply be settled by the heavy hand of the law. Insomuch as these struggles entail competing religious sensibilities as well as deep prejudices and intolerances, they must be engaged on other—cultural, ethical, visceral—grounds. This may not yield immediate or definitive results, but it is a necessary and important step in the creation of a multi-religious polity.

NS: So how do you think this plays out in the case of Park51?

SM: There, of course, even though the personage of Muhammad was not involved, the language of injury and offense dominated the debate. If you recall, in the Danish cartoon controversy, the claim was that the right to freedom of expression is also a right to offend anybody and anyone—and that this is a characteristic of an open, pluralistic, and democratic society. Some even argued that the cartoons served as an instrument to create offense, so as to engender a critical dialogue among Muslims about Islam. In contrast, in the Park51 controversy, it was argued that the complex should not be built because, even though Muslims have a right to do so by virtue of the First Amendment, building one so close to the World Trade Center would offend American sensibilities. The claim to offense and injury in each instance was being marshaled for very different purposes.

NS: And the players’ roles have been reversed, haven’t they?

SM: Right. I do think, however, that what is at stake in all these debates is the status of a religious minority within self-avowedly liberal societies, which claim to have in place the most robust mechanisms possible for accommodating the concerns of majority and minority alike. And yet, what we find is that the rights of minorities are actually framed by the norms of the larger community; it’s against those norms that minoritarian claims are judged and contested, and that is where the idea of religious liberty and freedom of expression as an individual right remains inadequate to grasping the situation. We have to start thinking in terms of how groups are weighted both demographically and politically, and how this conditions the context in which certain claims are made or heard. It’s not enough to refer to a right that exists in constitutions—such as the right to free speech or to religious liberty—and to track when it is applied or not. Far tougher questions are at play. One has to think about how the ethical, cultural, and social norms of the majority structure the possibility of the exercise of individual and group liberties differently for minorities. I should make clear that this structural problem characterizes all nation-states (premised as they are on the demographic calculus of minority and majority populations), and is not simply particular to Euro-American societies.

NS: When you approach these issues today, are you still coming to them as an activist as well as a scholar?

SM: No, I would say that I come to them more as a scholar than as an activist. My intellectual work has often led me to challenge and complicate my political stances—to complicate the very ground on which politics can be imagined and conducted. Politics, in my opinion, demands a certain closure of thinking, in order to judge and to act. Intellectual work requires a different kind of labor. In one sense, of course, all arguments are political when you’re thinking about such controversies, but I don’t start with a political position and then see how the argument unfolds. For example, during the Danish cartoon controversy, I was puzzled by the fact that the kind of injury expressed by ordinary pious Muslims did not find any voice in the polemical debates in either the Islamic or the European press. I tried to make sense of this silence, and it led me to suggest that the kind of religiosity expressed by most Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons was incommensurable with the language of rights, litigation, and boycotts that came to dominate the debate. And it was precisely because this religiosity could not be contained within the language of identity politics that it found no expression in the public debate. Needless to say, this argument did not win me friends in either one of the two camps.

NS: Is there something in particular that you think the West needs to know about the Muslim world, or about Islam, or about Muslim minorities? Is there some message that, above all, you think needs to be definitively stated—or is the questioning enough?

SM: I don’t think questioning is enough. But I do think that there is a desperate need to challenge the current way of framing things, as a civilizational stand-off between Islam and the West. This way of thinking is not only dangerous but also unsustainable in the long run. Those of us interested in stepping out of this overheated polemic have a responsibility to make people realize why this framing is inadequate and problematic, even dangerous. Despite important differences among political ideologies and religious traditions, I believe that we have the historical language and analytical skills to think differently, to imagine a future in which Islam and the West are not locked in some zero-sum game. To take a simple example, when I speak of the kind of relationship that many pious Muslims feel toward Muhammad, which was partly at stake in the Danish cartoon controversy, surely it is recognizable to scholars of Christianity (with its long and rich tradition of the Eucharist and Corpus Christi), Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and late Antiquity? Surely we can think together about different conceptions of religiosity and what space they have in, and what effects they may have on, our political present without descending into the abyss of civilizational incomprehension and incommensurability?

NS: What about the concerns of Western feminists in particular? There sometimes seems to be especially little hope for common ground on women’s issues.

SM: Once again, feminism has a rich and varied tradition of thought and praxis. The current tilt toward painting an essentialized picture of feminism and Islam—as quintessential opposites—is inadequate to the complexity of both traditions. There are no doubt historical reasons for the great suspicion with which some Islamic symbols are treated in Euro-American societies, but I would hope that thoughtful people would be able to think through this history critically. Take the example of the current obsession with the veil in Europe: colonial discourse had long cast the veil as the essential symbol of the civilizational inferiority of the East, and of Islam in particular. It is not a surprise, therefore, that anti-colonial movements took up this symbol precisely to reverse the colonial judgment while embracing the practice—in the process, reifying the importance of the veil to Muslim identity. The current discourse is, in a sense, a re-enactment of this history. What is new, however, is the way in which the European and Turkish bans on the veil have been held up in the name of secularism, wherein secularism is equated with the principle of gender equality. For example, the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that uphold the headscarf ban in Turkey and France rest on two interrelated claims: one, that the veil is a symbol of women’s oppression; and two, that insomuch as secularism is for gender equality France and Turkey, as secular states, cannot condone this practice. But, historically, secularism has hardly been on the side of women’s rights—otherwise French women would have been granted the vote long before 1945, and the separation of church and state would have yielded gender equality in the nineteenth century, when European states adopted this principle. Secularism and women’s rights have always had a troubled relationship, which is important to think about from within the history of feminism. This does not mean, of course, that one has to denounce secularism and embrace religion or vice versa. One has to be able to see the mutual imbrication of religion and secularism to even diagnose the problem correctly. Otherwise, I think we run the risk of dulling the critical edge of feminist thought.

NS: I found your essay about the mobilization of feminists behind the invasion of Afghanistan very powerful. I remember being so struck at that time by how American women were identifying with women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, which made some eager to support our military adventures over there. But is there a better way to ally ourselves with women in the Muslim world?

SM: The entire social fabric of Afghani society has been torn apart as a result of, first the war between the United States and the Soviet Union, between 1979 and 1989, and then the U.S. war against the Taliban and now al-Qaeda. There are civilian casualties reported almost every day—the vast majority of whom are women, children, and the elderly—as a result of U.S. bombs and drones. This violence exceeds and parallels the violence unleashed by the Taliban on the Afghanis.  We read about these casualties in the media, but I do not see any mobilization by major U.S. feminist organizations to demand an end to this calamity. This silence stands in sharp contrast to the vast public campaign organized by the Feminist Majority in the late 1990s to oust the Taliban. I am often asked by American feminists what they can do to help Afghan women. My simple and short answer is: first, convince your government to stop bombing them, and second urge the US government to help create the conditions for a political—and not a military—solution to the impasse in Afghanistan. It is the condition of destitution and constant war that has driven Pakistanis and Afghans to join the Taliban (coupled with the opportunistic machinations of their own governments). Perhaps it is time to asses whether diverting the U.S. military aid toward more constructive and systemic projects of economic and political reform might yield different results.

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