Religious Difference in a Secular Age:

A thought-provoking study

posted by Talal Asad

Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportIn Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood has produced a valuable account both of how the idea of separating religion from politics came to be central to the development of the “religiously neutral” state in Europe (beginning with the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century and culminating in the new nations after the First World War) and of how that idea became politically important in the postcolonial Middle East. In particular, she describes how in constituting religious identities, the state in modern Egypt creates unexpected opportunities for political power and social confrontation among those who seek to regulate, as well as those who claim to represent, religious minorities. Her detailed analysis of the rich historical and ethnographic material she has assembled reinforces the conclusion that instead of regarding the secular state as the solution to discrimination against religious minorities, it must itself be understood as part of the problem. So I offer a few reflections prompted by her excellent study, first on liberal ideals that are commonly said to promote equal treatment for minorities, and then about the secular anxiety that preceded the 2013 coup against the elected president Mohamed Morsi.

Secularism can, of course, exist in authoritarian states, but liberal democracies cannot exist without secularism because state neutrality is regarded as essential to the flourishing of liberal values (freedom, equality, tolerance, and dignity). One might, therefore, press the following question: In what way, precisely, does secularism express these values?

Thus Jürgen Habermas has argued, as a liberal, that the principle of equality should be extended to religious believers in their political discourse and behavior:

The understanding of tolerance in pluralistic societies with a liberal constitution demands that in their dealings with unbelievers and those of different faiths, believers should grasp that they must reasonably expect that the dissent they encounter will go on existing; at the same time, however, a liberal political culture expects that unbelievers, too, will grasp the same point in their dealings with believers.

But does it follow as a practical matter that the state treat citizens holding diverse beliefs equally because there can be no rational defeat of one proponent by another? Or is it simply a liberal sensibility that treats all citizens, regardless of religious beliefs, with equal concern and respect by other citizens, the government, the law, and the constitution? Habermas wants to see the tolerance toward the unshakeable opinion of others reflected in the state’s recognition that all citizens have the right to act as religious subjects in national politics. He considers that extension of the concept of religious freedom to be contingent on the requirement that politically relevant religious beliefs be translatable into a language that non-believers can understand—i.e., into secular, “objective” language. But Habermas doesn’t impose a reciprocal requirement on non-believers, and thereby acknowledges that the institutionalization of languages as unequal is essential to the secular state. That, of course, makes mutually open dialogue between very different political subjects (where each may learn something valuable from an alien viewpoint) difficult if not impossible.

The legal principle of equality is, in fact, tautological: the law must treat every citizen who occupies the same condition in the same way. Someone who is different must therefore be treated differently: if you are more qualified for a public position than I the law recognizes that I will not be treated as equal to you. The problem, of course, is how sameness is to be determined. Alain Desrosières, author of a history of statistical reason, has made the point about equality thus:

The only way of understanding the recurrent opposition in politics, in history and in science between on the one hand contingency, singularity and circumstance and on the other hand generality, law, regularity and constancy is to ask: “for what purpose?” The question is not: “Are these objects really equivalent?” but: “Who decides to treat them as equivalent and to what end?” The debate is therefore endless.

The question of who belongs to the People, and of when a minority is required to prove its loyalty to the People, are both central to that debate. To be boxed in to minority status is to be in a space of danger.

Liberals claim that the essence of secularism is that all subjects be treated with equal concern and respect—that is, as having dignity. However, the attitude of concern and respect is quite compatible with legal inequality. Indeed, the modern concept of personal dignity carries traces from an earlier hierarchical world in which honor belonged to (privileged) minorities. Now that dignity has been extended to everyone in society, it is “insult,” not “inequality,” that is considered the greater social wrong. Indeed, the law of insult is part of the genealogy of the law of hate speech, a legal concept now invoked to protect the sensibilities of vulnerable minorities. Legal equality, as Marx pointed out long ago, is capacious enough to accommodate many invidious differences.

Despite the fact that in elections voters can be added, subtracted, and disaggregated without discriminating against individuals, the principle of equality has some uncomfortable consequences. Consider: Where individuals are absolutely equivalent the choice by authority of one or the other is the same. In other words, when faced with equals (substitutables) from among whom he has to choose, an official may do so without it being obviously invidious. But, faced with equals, he may choose a Muslim over a Copt in Egypt, a Jew over a Palestinian in Israel, a white over a black in the United States. It is only a tally of the choices over time that can show and define the bias against a minority. Only in that way can one demonstrate that an intentional selection is being made. One way of addressing unjustifiable selection is to demand that categories of people discriminated against be proportionally represented in the public sphere—and that, of course, further institutionalizes minority difference and problematizes formal equality.

In democratic governments, the voting method (by which particular collective disagreements can be resolved) is assumed to express the People’s unitary will. Within the universe of voters, the opinion of one is equivalent to and substitutable for that of any other, and therefore the opinion of a majority takes precedence over that of a minority—i.e., resolves the disagreement. But there’s a sense of “minority” (and “majority”) other than this quantitative one, a concept that is not the result of resolving differences by counting (as in a panel of judges with a majority and minority opinion). This non-quantitative sense is linked to the idea that each People is characterized by distinctive values—a culture—that are essentially those of the “majority” population and that of the state that is therefore their state. According to this sense, minorities are regarded as standing within the state but outside its culture. This cultural idea of minority—that includes “religious minority”—belongs to an accidental history, and it sits uneasily beside the statistical concept of the abstract citizen and the theological concept of the sovereign state.

The preoccupation with unity has been a central feature of secular—not just religious—discourse, and the requirement of absolute loyalty to symbols of the nation is essential to that political tradition, even in its liberal form. Mahmood is correct to point out that the call for the protection of minority rights must be seen as part of the problem of state sovereignty—of the state and its constitution in its historical particularity. The presence of those who are not “fully integrated” must somehow be dealt with by the state if its sovereignty is not to be compromised. Historically the solution to that problem has taken many forms. The genocide perpetrated by the Nazi state against European Jews, including Jews who had fully assimilated, was one such “solution.” Effacing public signs of their religious and cultural difference in order to better to integrate into the abstract state they inhabited did not save them. In Egypt, the Society of the Muslim Brothers can be seen as a religious minority, rejected as part of the nation by the military state and therefore violently repressed—a move initially supported by many secular liberals. To adapt Desrosières: while the protection of difference by the state can be embodied in law’s certainty, the claim to sameness often incites suspicion that it is a mask for deeper difference—and hence suspicion of treason.

In her book, Mahmood points to the fear of Islamism among Copts, liberals, and leftists after the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood president in 2012. It is worth stressing that that fear is attached to a project. “Liberal and leftist intellectuals,” observed sociologist Hazem Kandil, “have long advocated a thoroughgoing secularization of Egyptian culture, seeking to convince people to relegate religion to the private sphere, or at least to cast it aside when they take political decisions. Since the revolution, many have felt they now possess the moral authority to press this case home.” The People, in other words, must be forced to be free—and then policed by the state to ensure they remain free. Coercion and freedom are not contradictory in any simple sense. It is not clear to me what gives secularizing intellectuals their “moral authority” to rearrange by force the life of an entire population in accordance with secular norms, but it was clear to the self-proclaimed secularists that they could not perform this role without the help of coercive apparatuses. Hence this claim to moral authority led them eventually to appeal to the military (with the approval of the Interior Ministry, the judiciary, and the business elite) not simply to defend “religious minorities” against social discrimination and government oppression but to eliminate a religious minority (the Muslim Brotherhood) whose presidential candidate was successful in the national elections. Kandil’s eyes are set on revolutionary Russia and China, where, as he points out approvingly, organized party cadres could fan out all over the country and root out old, entrenched formations. “But so long as there is no revolutionary movement to fill the void,” he observes, “cornering opponents without possessing an organization to take them out freezes the revolt into a position of simply demanding, and then hoping for the best.”

The military, of course, offered itself as the organization appropriate to that task. But whether secular intellectuals could use this organization to secure their own secular democratic project was, apparently, not given careful thought. The result: the military was encouraged to undertake an act of treason against the elected president and those who protested against the coup d’état were named as a “dangerous minority.” In a self-proclaimed democracy, everyone and no one is “the People,” although very specific elements can and do claim to represent it and to protect it against those who would betray it.

The Egyptian journalist, Hilmi Namnam (now minister of culture), speaking shortly after the coup d’état that was reinforced by massive violence against pro-Morsi protesters, stated: “No democracy or society has ever advanced without the shedding of blood.”1 Many meetings, Muslim and Christian, were held on this topic in Cairo. According to Namnam, the physical elimination of enemies is essential for the achievement of the People as a secular body. “We must get rid of the lie that Egypt is by natural disposition a religious state,” he declares, “because Egypt is secular by nature.” As government minister, he repeats this claim in a television interview early in October 2015—insisting that “political Islam” was responsible for “terrorism and extremism in Egypt.” When the state sheds blood it is to be recognized as the necessary annihilation of traitors. It is motive (or rather, the claim to a “secular” motive) that justifies the violence of sovereignty against citizens whose violence (real or alleged) is actuated by disloyalty—especially dangerous because it is religious. The convergence of institutionalized policies with individual motivation is, of course, not a simple matter, as Mahmood has so ably demonstrated. The project of expressing the People’s will is always confronted by motives of betrayal. Traitors are necessarily a minority—hence minorities can be suspected of nurturing treason. When the People seek to overthrow their government, they are by definition the majority—until they are defeated by the powers of the state.

  1. Mafīsh dimūqrātiya wa mafīsh mugtama‘ intaqal ila-l-amām bidūn damm. See the video of the workshop organized by the journalist Hilmi Namnam discussing the making of the new constitution by the military-appointed committee (halaqa niqāshiya lil-hay’at al-injīlīyya hawl dastūr misr ba‘d 30 yūnyū).

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3 Responses to “A thought-provoking study”

  1. avatar Charles H. E. Ault says:

    Not since graduate school have I put myself to the test of making common sense out of this kind of hyper-theoretical tract writing. Maybe the few hundred (could there be thousands?) people familiar with these arcane socio-political arguments will find them worthy of engagement. The “people,” including the vast majority of relatively well-informed voters in a democratic society, will never be troubled by such neo-scholasticism. They do know, however, that democracy is always vexed with protecting minorities from the “tyranny” of the majority. That means mucking in the messy business of give and take. Real life in a democracy plays out in a continuous drama of shifting power relations. In the extreme, one faction may, indeed, take power by force if it has the arrogance and the means to do so. Yes, we know, “the protection of minority rights” IS “part of the problem of state sovereignty.” But this is not cause for such high-brow hand-wringing. It is simply the case. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

  2. avatar Nancy says:

    Charles H. E. Ault,
    I think you just do not understand what Talal Asad is saying. So it is surprising why you write here to say that “the ‘people,’ including the vast majority of relatively well-informed voters in a democratic society, will never be troubled by such neo-scholasticism. ” Why bother reading anything like this then? All is fine and well with so-called well-informed people!

    Did you ever consider that so-called well-informed people (in a democracy like the US) voted for a war that proved out be completely based on false premises, devastating an entire region, causing so much destruction and displacement of so many people? Are you now going to say that the well-informed people of that democracy were simply lied to, or they just were not well-informed after all?

  3. avatar David Lehmann says:

    Talal Asad seems to elide Egyptian secular liberalism in general with the Sisi regime and its justifyers. Is this accurate or fair? He also does not ask whether the Muslim Brothers were prepared to recognize the rights of others – a question to which I do not claim to know the answer in any detail. I question his description of the Muslim Brothers as a religious minority, not least because they had a massive electoral following, but above all because they are a religiously-driven political force rather than an identifiable religious category (on the analogy of the Ahmedis in Pakistan for example or the Copts in Egypt).

    Which having been said, I do not see what is controversial about the claim that secularism is never truly neutral or ‘equidistant’ among religious traditions and institutions in a particular country. Now do I see what is controversial about remarking that is transplantation outside Europe produces absurd and often unjust effects. And when I say ‘outside Europe’ I include the USA where state support for religion is tacitly or casuistically indulged in all sorts of legal and fiscal ways.

    Finally: what is “colonial” about the secularism of Egyptians who use it as a façade for suppressing their enemies? Of course the idea has Western and so inevitably colonial roots, but by the time it has been abused through generations it has surely acquired deep local roots and resonances.

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