The politics of religious freedom:

Religious freedom as a binding practice of suspicion

posted by Hussein Ali Agrama

I would like to begin with a famous case in Egypt that, though over a decade and a half old, remains salient for thinking about religious freedom. This is the apostasy case of Nasr Abu Zayd, the professor of Arabic and Islamic studies who was declared an apostate by the Egyptian courts, and whose marriage was forcibly annulled as a result. The case was raised using a highly controversial principle within Egyptian law, and much of the debate was about whether its use was acceptable within this case. This principle was called hisba, and it technically means, “the commanding of the good when its practice is manifestly neglected, and the forbidding of the detestable when its practice becomes manifest.” If hisba were accepted in this court case, it would mean that anyone could subsequently intervene and even dissolve the marriage of anyone else by raising a court case against them. So when the courts affirmed this use of hisba, judged Abu Zayd an apostate, and annulled his marriage they set a precedent that, not surprisingly, made many people nervous. For the inviolability of an entire domain of private right seemed to be undermined. Another result of the hisba judgment was that a wide range of Islamic practices once considered within the bounds of legitimacy could become suspect, with potentially dire consequences. This was because Abu Zayd’s written work, though unorthodox, arguably had antecedents and analogues within Islamic tradition. Yet it was on the basis of his written statements that he was legally declared an apostate and separated from his wife. Partly in response to the ambiguity and anxiety unleashed by the hisba decision, the Egyptian parliament passed legislation severely restricting the private uses of hisba, vesting it within the General Prosecutor instead—an agency with extremely broad investigative authority, and that stands ambiguously between executive and judiciary power. So the state, instead of reducing the ambiguity of hisba, only absorbed its potentially far-reaching power into itself and out of the hands of citizens. Few were pleased by this move, and everyone subsequently looked upon hisba with some suspicion.

Many have since written about this case, including myself. In my work, I’ve detailed how hisba is less a deviation from secularism than an expression of the underlying power that makes secularism possible—including the state’s fundamental right to decide the proper place of religion in social life. Here, however, I focus on something else: how hisba became not only an object of general suspicion, but also a particular modality of suspicion as a result of court litigation and state legislation. This modality of suspicion, exercised by the state, is intimately tied to the defense of religious freedom, and I suspect that it is shared across seemingly very different secular polities. To see this, consider the following passage from the Abu Zayd judgment:

The Court notes that there is a difference between apostasy, which is a material action with its basic elements and conditions….and belief (i`tiqad). Apostasy is necessarily comprised of material acts that have an external being. Such acts must make manifest, in a manner undeniable and without dissent, that one has called God Most High a liar, and the Prophet, peace be upon him, a liar by denying what he has brought to Islam….Belief, however, differs clearly from apostasy. For apostasy is a crime whose basic material elements are presented before a judge to decide whether it exists or not….But belief concerns what is in the interior of a human being’s self, belonging to his domain of secrecy. It is neither a matter of judicial probing, nor of investigation by people, but is to do with the relationship between the human being and his Creator. Apostasy is a breach of the Islamic order, at its highest degree and most valued foundations, through manifest, material actions. In positive law, it comes close to a breach of the order of the state or high treason. Apostasy is investigated by the judge or the mufti. However, the punishment for assaulting religion through [an act of] apostasy does not contradict personal freedom. This is because freedom of belief (`aqida) requires that one be a believer (mu’minan) in his words and acts, and that he possess a sound rationale for his abandonment of belief. But a breach of Islam can only be due to corruption in thought or the lure of material, sexual, or other worldly purposes. To combat this category [of desire] is not considered combat against freedom of belief, but rather the protection of belief from such vain, corrupt passions.

In distinguishing between apostasy as an “outer” material act and belief which occurs in an “interior” forum, the Court defines its jurisdiction over the determination of apostasy and justifies its approach in making that determination. On the basis of this distinction, the Court took only Abu Zayd’s written work into account, without probing into his personal views—his “interior” relationship with his creator. Taking statements from his written work at face-value, the Court compared them with statements designated within the sharia as indicating apostasy; finding them to be similar, it pronounced him an apostate.

Many commentators on the judgment have discussed how it separates private belief from public act/expression. No one, however, has discussed the seeming contradiction it presents just a few lines later, where it reconnects private belief and its public manifestation in the context of a defense of religious freedom. Importantly, the Court does not see religious freedom as simply a right to believe what one wants. It also includes maintaining the conditions under which religious belief can be sustained and cultivated. For the Court, this entails that belief be protected from the motives of worldly power that might corrupt it. This, in turn, requires the Court to pronounce what those motives are—as it did with Abu Zayd. Acts and expressions of belief are therefore objects of especial suspicion, to be put under particular scrutiny, for potentially harboring ulterior, corrupting motives. Such scrutiny might be seen as a kind of vigilance against power and its potential abuse. (Indeed, part of the Court’s concern was that Abu Zayd was also teaching his books to university students.) In other words, outer act and inner belief, though initially divided, come to be reconnected through a suspicion of motives of material interest or worldly power. In the context of the freedom of religious belief, it becomes imperative to determine whether acts or expressions of belief are genuinely religiously motivated. This presumes the power to pronounce upon and, if necessary, probe into the character of one’s private convictions. Here the defense of religious freedom promotes a distinctive form of suspicion.

This suspicion is not exclusive to Egypt. Strikingly similar versions of it are found in seemingly very different secular states.

For example, Winnifred Sullivan has highlighted two central criteria in U.S. jurisprudence on religious freedom. They parallel those of the Abu Zayd case. The first criterion was whether religious acts or expressions were sincerely held to be essential to one’s religion. This conflicted with the second, often prevailing, criterion: whether these acts and expressions were authorized and mandated by orthodox religious texts. In U.S. courts, there seemed to be a disposition to presume the sincerity of litigants’ religious belief—which may be due in part to a traditional American respect for individual belief rooted in a particular Protestant history. Nevertheless, as legal theorist Kent Greenawalt writes, “when the state offers exemptions based on people’s convictions, it cannot avoid all inquiry into sincerity.” The Court thus retains the prerogative to determine and investigate this sincerity in the context of defining and defending religious freedoms—a prerogative it has exercised. More, this determination and investigation purveys a suspicion of motives of material interests or other worldly purposes. To quote Greenawalt again:

Another category of religious claims that should not count as spiritual are schemes cloaked in religious language in which the incentive to participate is financial self-interest and not spiritual development. A finding that a claimant is sincere should be easy if one cannot discern any secular advantage from a person’s engaging in the behavior she asserts is part of her religious exercise.

But whether it is preferable for the Court to actually investigate sincerity or simply make presumptions about it without an investigation has been historically difficult to decide.

A similar situation is found in France. Anthropologist Mayanthi Fernando describes the dilemma veiled Muslim women faced in opposing the banning of the veil in public schools. If, on the one hand, the veil was deemed an obligation mandated by religious authorities, then it could be construed as potentially coercive and an impingement of religious freedom. The French state was therefore very concerned to ascertain that there was no external coercion or pressure to wear the veil—a concern that entailed knowing about the circumstances of people’s private lives and convictions. But if, on the other hand, the veil was construed as a matter of personal belief—a choice—then it was not mandated by orthodox religious texts and therefore inessential to the practice of one’s religion. Banning it was therefore not necessarily an impingement on religious freedom.

But even as a personal belief and choice, the veil was still construed by the state as an essentially religious, and fundamentally Islamic, sign. For state officials, it indicated a will and a desire to manifest Islam. Some saw it as potentially indexing a rising Islamism, one that degraded women in ways incompatible with the French republic’s fundamental values. It was thus a will and a desire that the state sought not to encourage, lest those values become undermined. Thus, in his analysis of the state’s investigation, Talal Asad notes that,

…not only [do] government officials decide what sartorial signs mean, but …they do so by privileged access to the wearer’s motives and will—to her subjectivity—and this is facilitated by resort to a certain kind of semiotics. A governmental commission of inquiry claims to bring private concerns, commitments and sentiments to the public sphere in order to assess their validity for the secular Republic, but it does much more than that. It constitutes meanings by drawing on internal (psychological) signs or external (social) signs, encourages certain desires and emotions at the expense of others.

So even though the veil was construed as a choice, indeed, precisely because it was, it could be deemed a suspicious and potentially dangerous act.

That the determination of genuine religiosity in terms of ulterior motives is a practice of suspicion becomes fully evident when it comes to Muslims in Europe and the U.S., with the near paranoid quality of the public debates about the building of mosques and minarets, the potential usage of sharia law, the teaching of Arabic in public schools, the donating to Muslim charities, and the wearing of veils. While there are complicated historical and political reasons for this near paranoia, my point here is to emphasize a central element of the structure it takes. And this is the constant attempt to unmask ulterior motives of material interest and worldly power behind a range of otherwise ordinary (in this case, Muslim) practices and expressions of belief, in order to defend those freedoms, including especially religious freedom, that are seen as constitutive of the ways of life the state is supposed to guarantee.

These examples, then, reveal a distinctive structure of legalized suspicion. On the one hand, private belief and public act/expression are made separate, but on the other, they are brought together in order to define and defend religious freedoms. In this case, private belief becomes framed within a complex of motives, will and desire—one that becomes suspect to the extent it expresses material interests or drives towards worldly power. As such, it can become subject to investigation and disciplining, which means probing into the details of private life and conviction. This structure of suspicion, shared by the U.S., France and Egypt, brings together under the pretext of religious freedom two central aspects of liberalism and secularism respectively. The first is a distinctively liberal vigilance against power and its abuse, and the second is a characteristically secular desire to draw a line between religion and material power. What this suggests is that, under a liberal secular legal regime, suspicion of religion is the flip-side of the freedom of religious belief.

The Abu Zayd judgment cited above poignantly highlights this contradictory structure of suspicion. At one level, the Court took Abu Zayd’s written statements at face-value—to say what they mean—and found them to contradict orthodox doctrines literally construed. The Court thus declared him an apostate. But when it came to religious freedom, his words were paid extra attention, meaning more than what they said, as having ulterior worldly motives against which the freedom of belief—to cultivate belief and have it flourish—had to be defended. In this case, the Court simply presumed and pronounced upon Abu Zayd’s motives, without investigation. This shows that the suspicious attribution of motives does not depend on an investigation, even though it enables one to be done at the discretion of the judiciary.

Hisba, through and under the law, has come to embody this structure of suspicion and the discretionary power that comes with it. It therefore enables the assertion of the sovereign power of decision into the intimate domains of everyday life. This becomes clear when we remember that hisba was placed in the hands of the General Prosecutor, with his ambiguous status between judiciary and executive power and his nearly unfettered investigative authority. For now it is the General Prosecutor who is responsible for bringing a hisba case to court. He must therefore conduct an investigation to decide whether a potential case merits further litigation. That means he might have to scrutinize the motives behind statements of religious belief. If, however, such scrutiny seems to intrude too much into a person’s private life or interior forum, the General Prosecutor has another option at his discretion: to take these statements at face-value, as saying what they mean, as the Court did with Abu Zayd. A focus on literal statements, however, may fail to capture the complexity of people’s private religious lives. As with the U.S. and France above, it is unclear here which is preferable: to investigate how genuine one’s religious motives are, or to make presumptions about how genuine they really are.

This tension between intruding into a private, ostensibly protected, domain or taking statements too literally is reminiscent of another tension upon which modern legal legitimacy both rests and continually founders: between the enactment and the appearance of justice. The more zealously an official investigates, the more abusive of justice he might seem to be. If, however, he relies strictly on procedure, this might make a mockery of justice. Hisba now partakes of this dilemma too.

To conclude: I cited the Abu Zayd judgments to show how hisba, in its contemporary legalized form, embodied a distinctive structure of suspicion. Through the judgments, hisba potentially undermined an entire domain of private rights. In restricting hisba’s uses, the state transformed it into a modality of suspicion only it could exercise. This modality of suspicion, enabled to defend religious freedoms, nevertheless undermined the crucial distinctions on which they relied. More, it became ensconced within another dynamic of suspicion, the tension between the enactment and the appearance of justice. This tension is even further compounded because, as I show elsewhere, it remains irresolvably indeterminate whether hisba is still an Islamic and thus primarily religious principle, or, as an expression of public order, it has become an essentially secular principle. The example of hisba therefore not only confirms Winnifred Sullivan’s thesis that religious freedom as a legally enforceable right is impossible to attain. It also shows how such religious freedom will never appear to be fully achieved, being entangled in its entirety within the dynamics of law’s suspicion and secular/religious ambiguity.

We should not, however, take the impossibility of religious freedom to mean the failure of secularism. For that would reduce an analysis of secularism to an assessment of whether it fulfills the promises it makes. Secularism as a historical phenomenon is certainly more than its promises, if only because it so consistently and demonstrably falls short of them. We might consider instead how this sense of a continual failure is built into the historical grammar of secularism, and its consequences. In this case, the constant disjuncture between religious freedom as a secular aspiration and the secular means of achieving it constitutes a space of a continual striving, one which works to expand and entrench the suspicion and potential for intervention that provoked it in the first place. Within this space, religion is given to continual politicization, political theological claims acquire plausibility and force, and critique becomes a seemingly indispensable capacity that one must sustain and tirelessly cultivate. As a result, the question of religious freedom, as a central secular stake, remains poignantly alive, drawn into a seemingly unavoidable and incessant cycle of provocation, critique, and intervention. That is, the modalities and dynamics of suspicion outlined here help sustain the problem-space of secularism, its constitutive questions and stakes, the critical dispositions it induces, and the propensities toward sovereignty it displays. We remain bound to this problem-space through the incessant suspicion it provokes.

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