Religious Difference in a Secular Age:

Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report—An introduction

posted by Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportIt is no exaggeration to say that the religious diversity that characterized the Middle East for centuries is in precipitous decline. The reasons for this are multiple, including civil wars that have ravaged Iraq, Syria, and Libya; territorial expansion of militant Islamist groups (like ISIS); and steady erosion of political and civil rights in the region. The US invasion of Iraq and subsequent intervention in Libya have left wide swaths of the Middle East in utter disarray and brought the plight of religious minorities to a new impasse.

Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is an exploration of the minority question not so much in the context of warfare but of stable governance where the promise of civil and political equality continues to hold sway. Because I am interested in how religious difference has come to be regulated and remade under secularism, I focus on the problem of religious minorities rather than groups defined by ethnic, linguistic, or other attributes.

Through a focus on the case of Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahá’ís in Egypt, I argue that in the postcolonial period modern secular governance in the Middle East has exacerbated religious tensions, hardened interfaith boundaries, and polarized religious differences. This will seem counterintuitive to those who believe that secularism is a solution to the problem of religious strife rather than a force in its creation. Yet secularism, far from separating religion from politics, has extended the sovereign state’s control over religious life, allowing majoritarian religious norms to striate national identity and the legal-political structures of modern polities. This feature is not exclusive to Middle Eastern states but is a globally shared aspect of political secularism deriving in part from the structure of the modern liberal state and its division of the citizenry into majority and minority population.

Religious Difference in a Secular Age tracks the modern career of political secularism in Egypt through the institutionalization of five of its signature ideas: political and civil rights, religious liberty, minority rights, public order, and the legal distinction between public and private. This kind of work is, by necessity, recursive in that any attempt to track the Egyptian history of a secular concept or institution requires tracing the hegemonic footprints of European secularism. European and Egyptian formations of the secular are conjoined by a colonial legacy and political genealogy. Consequently, my book does not offer an “indigenous account” of secular concepts and institutions so much as it highlights the overlapping histories that have shaped their modern trajectory in Egypt.

Throughout the book, I explore different facets of the relationship between Egyptian and European articulations of secularism. In the epilogue, I gather up the diverse threads of this inquiry in order to highlight the implications of my analysis for how we might conceptualize secularism in both its unity and its dispersion. Briefly put, my argument is that even though religious minorities occupy a structurally precarious position in all modern nation-states, the particular shape this inequality takes—its modes of organization and articulation—is historically specific. Consequently, the means by which religious minorities wage a struggle against this inequality, as well as the paradoxes and contradictions such struggles generate, vary according to national context (e.g. Egypt, France, United Kingdom). While each chapter of my book elaborates a historically specific set of problems that Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahá’ís face in Egypt, I also show how these problems are derivative of a set of conundrums and paradoxes that the secular state generates in its management of religious difference.

The inescapable quality of secularism, I argue, emanates in part from the structure of the modern liberal state, which promises to demolish premodern forms of hierarchy in order to create a polity where all citizens are supposed to be formally equal in the eyes of the law. This promise, we might recall, was linked to a foundational critique of ascriptive inequality and a recalibration of particularistic forms of belonging. The modern political subject had to subordinate fealty to his religion, locale, and clan to loyalty to the nation- state. In the nineteenth century, the liberatory promise of political and civil equality transformed how non-Muslim subjects of Islamic empires came to understand themselves in relation to the state. No longer destined to remain unequal by virtue of their faith, membership in the modern polity promised to allow them to stand as equals with Muslims. A key dimension of this transformation was the legal and political elaboration of the public-private divide, a duality crucial to the development of other modern distinctions such as secular/religious, political/civil, and universal/parochial. When Coptic Christians, at the turn of the twentieth century, tried to find themselves in this abstract language of citizenship, their Christianity posed fundamental, if familiar, problems. Their enfranchisement was predicated upon their willingness to privatize their Christianity, precisely because their religious difference was deemed to be inconsequential to their public, political, and legal status. This circumscription of Coptic Christianity to the private domain went hand in hand with the enshrinement of Islam as the collective identity of the nation.

A close reading of the minutes of the committee charged with drafting the first constitution of Egypt in 1923 reveals the impossible challenge all the protagonists (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and secularist) faced. Given the religious inequality that permeated Egyptian society and the majoritarian thrust of the parliament, some drafters had proposed minorities be granted proportionate representation as a means to secure their voice in the government. Such a solution, however, seemed to lodge religious difference into the very heart of a political system that eschewed religious distinctions. On the one hand civil and political equality in the eyes of the law meant that the state had to be indifferent to the religious affiliation of its citizens; on the other hand, because religious inequalities and differences characterized the society, state law was being called upon to manage and redress them. How could a state that sought to eliminate religious inequality do so without making religious difference part of its political vocabulary? A second dilemma emanated from the circular relationship between the nation and the state. Was the state transcendent to the nation or constituted by it? If the state was constituted by the nation, then should its laws not reflect its cultural, religious, and ethnic particularity? The seemingly technical issue of proportionate minority representation in fact encompassed the far deeper question of how religious inequality could be redressed in a polity whose laws were supposed to be indifferent to religion. Faced with these dilemmas, all proposals to secure special rights and protections for minorities were rejected by Muslims and non-Muslims alike in favor of the abstract language of equality in the 1923 constitution. Strikingly, after the popular overthrow of the Mubarak regime, when Egyptians debated the question of proportionate minority representation again in 2012, similar questions dominated the debate—a resonance that attests to the structural paradoxes that continue to haunt the secular promise of religious equality today.

It is tempting to view the difficulties Egyptians have encountered in instituting minority rights as a parochial story specific to Islamic societies. Yet it behooves us to think critically about the structural challenges most religious minorities face in the framework of the nation-state. The parallel with the Jewish question in Europe is instructive here. As historians of Europe tell us, Jewish emancipation over the long nineteenth century was predicated upon the privatization and individualization of Jewish religious life. This often entailed both the dissolution of their autonomy over various aspects of communal life and their assimilation into the cultural norms of European nations rooted in Christian values and sensibilities. Despite Jewish attempts to accommodate this demand, their difference from the identity of the nation did not simply disappear. The persistence of the “Jewish question” well into the twentieth century indicates that Jewish difference— particularly embodied in the practices and lifestyles of unassimilated Jews— could not be successfully abstracted. It continued to pose a challenge to the norms of European nations, which were putatively universal and areligious but substantively Christian.

If the globally shared grammar of political secularism provides one lens through which to understand the struggle of non-Muslim minorities for equality in Egypt, then another equally important force in its creation is the legacy of Islamic rule and its management of religious difference. The first half of the book provides the broad contours of this legacy, particularly of Ottoman rule, and the second half tracks the specific ways in which this legacy informs the present.

Of consequence are Egypt’s laws that allow state recognized religious minorities (Christians and Jews) to have autonomy over family law thereby enshrining religious difference in the domain of private law. The religion-based family laws of Egypt are often understood to be a legacy of ancient shari’a norms. However, drawing upon the work of historians of Europe and the Middle East, I show that family law, as an autonomous juridical domain, is a modern invention that did not exist in the premodern period. It is predicated upon the public-private divide so foundational to the secular political order, and upon a modern conception of the family as a nuclear unit responsible for the reproduction of the society and the nation. Religion, sexuality, and the family are relegated to the private sphere under this system, thereby conjoining their legal and moral fates. As a result, family law has come to bear an inordinate weight in the reproduction and preservation of religious identity. The Coptic Orthodox Church, for example, views any state-mandated reform of family law as an unlawful incursion into its sphere of juridical and ecclesiastical autonomy. It has also rendered the Biblical prohibition on divorce and remarriage as consubstantial with Christian doctrine—despite having allowed the practice under various circumstances in premodern times. These tensions are aggravated due to the existence of inequitable laws that prohibit Muslim conversion to Christianity while allowing/ encouraging the reverse. While the Egyptian state justifies this through invocations of old shari’a norms against apostasy, the current prohibition violates the principles of religious freedom and civil and political equality that the Egyptian constitution guarantees. One toxic result of the modern state’s regulation of religion, family, and conversion is that Christian-Muslims conflict often unfolds over the terrain of gender, sexuality, and interreligious marriages. This conjoining of religious morality and sexuality is reminiscent of debates in the US and Europe around abortion, the veil, same-sex parenting, and contraception that exhibit similar fault lines.

If family law is the means by which the Egyptian state acknowledges and regulates the presence of permissible religious difference in the polity, what is the status of those confessional groups that the state does not recognize? I take up this question in relation to the small Bahá’í minority whose religion was banned under President Nasser largely for national security reasons. In recent years, Bahá’ís have taken their case to the courts in defense of their civil and political rights. The Egyptian courts have responded with a checkered jurisprudence that grants Baha’is the right to hold their beliefs in private while endorsing the public prohibition on their faith. Egyptian legal arguments bear a striking similarity with the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights on religious minorities in a range of countries, including some that espouse a distinctly secular identity (France and Switzerland) and others where Christianity and nationalism have historically been tightly entwined (Italy and Greece).

The secular concept of public order and the distinction between private religious belief (forum internum) and its public expression (forum externum) are central to this corpus of jurisprudence. The concept of public order, enshrined in Egyptian, European and international law, allows modern states to restrict basic rights of citizens when they are deemed to threaten the moral and social cohesion of a given society. While the European Court of Human Rights does not privilege references to, and interpretations of, religious principles in the way that Egyptian courts do, their analogous deployment of public order and religious liberty challenges us to think analytically about what accounts for this resonance. I suggest that the right to religious liberty and the concept of public order are important vectors of a secular political rationality that is beset with a characteristic set of questions and conundrums: How is the state supposed to represent and preserve the values and traditions of the majority at the heart of national identity without discriminating against the minority? How is such discrimination to be judged, by whom, and on what grounds? How these questions are settled inevitably requires the sovereign state to make normative judgments about what religion is or ought to be and its proper place in the social life of a polity.

The final chapter is somewhat of a counterpoint to the book’s focus on political secularism in that it takes up the question of how secular conceptions of temporality, history, and revelation condition even the most polemical Christian-Muslim debates in Egypt today. These assumptions were at play in the controversy that erupted over the publication of the Arabic novel Azazeel, a story set in the early period of Christianity in Egypt (319–431 AD) when the Christological debate split Christendom apart and eventually led to the consolidation of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Despite vitriolic exchanges between the Coptic Church, which condemned the novel, and the author, Youssef Zeidan, all the protagonists relied on a secular conception of history as a repository of “real events” that occurred in calendrical (rather than sacral) time, unbound from eschatological events and temporality—a tradition of argument that dates back to the eighteenth century when religion and scripture were increasingly refashioned in a secular direction. Through an analysis of the debates around Azazeel, I reflect on the relationship between secularism and secularity, particularly how a positivist notion of history informs religious worldviews that seem otherwise incommensurable. In this chapter, I also analyze contrastive conceptions of humanity enshrined in the figure of Jesus Christ that had historically animated different traditions of Christianity, but which have come to be flattened and polemicized in the current standoff between the religious and the secular.

Many critics of Egypt’s discriminatory policies toward religious minorities argue that if the state were to be truly secularized it would eliminate interreligious conflict. While there is no doubt that this would improve the life of Egypt’s religious minorities, it ignores the fact that the modern secular state is not simply a neutral arbiter of religious differences: it also produces and creates them. To think through this problem, one has to begin by recognizing the contradictions and inequalities that political secularism itself generates and the religious presumptions it embeds in the legal and political life of the nation. My suggestion is not that religious conflict is solely a product of secularism or an inevitable one. But insomuch as secularism is one of the enabling conditions of religious conflict today, it behooves us to understand its paradoxical operations so as to mitigate its discriminatory effects. A scholarly inquiry into secularism’s promise, limits, and contradictions should not be mistaken as a denunciation of secularism or as a call for its demise. Secularism is not something that can be done away with any more than modernity can be. It is an ineluctable aspect of our present condition, as both political imagination and epistemological limit. To subject the repressive and productive aspects of secularism to analytical scrutiny is to not only deprive it of innocence but to craft, perhaps, a future in which religious equality is better realized than it is in our present world.

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