Religious Difference in a Secular Age:

Thinking with Saba Mahmood

posted by Hussein Ali Agrama

Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportI’d like to thank Saba Mahmood for Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. It is an indispensable contribution to the study of secularism, one whose timeliness and provocation will last far beyond the present moment. Like all contributions of this kind, it will take time and careful engagement to fully digest the insights that she provides us. Here I’d like to delineate some lines of inquiry that her arguments provoked for me, in the hope that we may think them further together.

Mahmood outlines a set of concepts that are historically central to the workings of secularism and elucidates how they facilitate outcomes that often differ starkly from our expectations. She shows how, because our commitments to religious liberty and equality have worked through these concepts, distinctions between majorities and minorities will be continually made and increasingly entrenched within social life, a process that thereby fosters conflict along the very lines that secularism promises to at least diminish if not dissolve. The answer to sectarian conflicts cannot therefore be more or better secularism, since it is secularism itself that shapes and provokes their current forms. That, as I understand it, is her overall thesis, and I found her arguments on its behalf to be powerfully persuasive. Embedded within her thesis is a potentially profound challenge to a set of claims that are strongly promoted by some theorists of secularism and many political liberals: that a harmonious religious pluralism can be achieved by finding shared foundational societal values, and that this can be done through an overlapping consensus.

It is this challenge that I’d like to draw out here, through an issue that Mahmood importantly raises but does not extensively discuss. Thus, it is only in the beginning sections of the book that she raises the seemingly irresolvable dilemmas that Jewish minorities faced in attaining secular freedoms in 19th century Europe. She does this to elucidate how the secular concepts of religious liberty and minority rights historically took shape, and to highlight how their intrinsic, enduring, limits were cast within the nation-state frameworks and global political inequalities of that time. We might, however, follow through on this a little further, in light of the arguments she makes. For Jewish communities in Euro-America seem to have achieved, during the last half-century, a degree of civil/political equality and religious toleration that would seem almost ideal, and certainly quite unprecedented from before. How might we explain this in light of Mahmood’s arguments and her overall thesis on secularism and religious conflict? Does it evidence the virtues of sharing fundamental social values in a democratic society, the power of an overlapping consensus in achieving a harmonious religious pluralism?

Here one might object that Jewish communities in Euro-America haven’t quite enjoyed the purportedly ideal levels of tolerance or equality that people commonly assume. I think that’s right; the situation is more complicated, as I’ll discuss below. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that the degree of acceptance and commitment to toleration that they have been afforded is strikingly greater than for their fellow Muslims in Euro-America, or for Christians in the modern Middle East. Mahmood does speak about the European Jewish experience as the paradigm case through which the minority question is typically understood. At the same time, she notes the limitations of thinking solely through this experience, highlighting a number of sociological differences that distinguish it from other minority experiences in Europe. But this does not quite explain the degree of equality and toleration afforded to Jewish minorities in Euro-America. How, then, might this speak to Mahmood’s thesis? If it is not a paradigm case of the religious equality and toleration that can be achieved, then is it an exceptional one? If not a demonstration of the power of sharing basic social values in a democratic society, then what?

Robert Meister, in his book After Evil, provides for a potentially different explanation. He argues that the figure of the Holocaust has become foundational to post-1950s human rights discourse, in the form of an implicit promise never to let it happen again. This promise, however, takes two forms. The first is to never again allow Jews to suffer such a fate. The second is never to allow anyone to ever face a fate similar to what Jews faced in the Holocaust. For Meister, this casts Jews as historically paradigmatic victims, and creates for Euro-American societies a sacrosanct commitment to protecting Jewish communities no matter what. That commitment, in turn, has led Euro-American societies to strongly identify what they see as their own values, with what they see as Jewish values. It is precisely this sense of strongly shared values, however, that enables human rights discourse to universalize itself, to move beyond the moment of the Holocaust and Jews as paradigmatic victims, to encompass all of humanity.

A contradictory dynamic is thereby set in motion. On the one hand, you see an unwavering commitment in Euro-American societies to protect Jewish communities in whatever difference and particularity they might claim. On the other hand, they become especial targets of criticism, who can always be accused of practicing a politics of exclusive victimhood, if they are seen as refusing to universalize their views and practices in the ways that human rights discourse prescribes. The figure of the Holocaust is also ensconced within this contradictory dynamic. On the one hand, it has a unique, “evental” status for human rights discourse. On the other, it acquires a universal dimension through the implicit human rights promise to never again allow anyone to face something similar to it. But this requires one to compare it with the scale and severity of any (potential) mass atrocity that one is confronted with, in order to decide a proper and proportionate response. The need to compare, however, always leaves open the possibility of staging an equivalence, which might undermine the unique, evental status of the Holocaust within human rights discourse. Hence the enormous hesitation in Euro-American societies to relate the Holocaust to other mass atrocities—chattel slavery, the extermination of indigenous peoples, colonialism—because of the equivalence this might imply.

For Meister, the rise of Israel and its subsequent history—from the Eichmann trial, which mobilized Holocaust history in the service of Israeli security strategy; to the dramatic victory over Egypt, which established Israel as a strong and stable regional player and Euro-American ally; to its extension of military occupation over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which continues to this day—has not only sustained this enduring, contradictory dynamic, but has also given it a distinctive geo-political extension. So that you see a staunch Euro-American commitment and continued practical support to Israel no matter what it does to the Palestinians, but along with this unwavering support, Israel comes to be seen as an especial target of criticism for its ongoing human rights violations. (The argument, I take it, is less that Israel is in fact singled out for criticism, than about why the claim that it is singled out has such affective resonance in Euro-America.) Israel’s destructive policies toward the Palestinians, Meister notes, have come to be seen as the constitutive exception to human rights discourse—unfortunate but necessary—because they represent what might need to be done to prevent another Holocaust.

Meister is mainly concerned with post-50s human rights discourse as a global phenomenon, and only discusses specific countries—America, Israel and Germany—to show how its contradictory dynamic historically took shape. Otherwise, he isn’t concerned with how it manifests in other important states, such as France. However, from some of the ethnography that I’ve read, and the initial fieldwork that I’ve done, elements of this contradictory dynamic show. For as the French Republic more stridently identifies with them and the values they mutually share, French Jews from a variety of political and religious orientations express a growing feeling of isolation, a disconnection from the politics of the state, a creeping sense of silent discrimination from all sectors of society, and a deepening disquiet at the evident contradiction where, on the one hand, there is a constant identification with them in the name of Republican values, but on the other, there is a growing embrace in society of right-wing parties like the National Front, which also claims to identify with them but whose recent revisionist past is well known. And French Jews often find themselves being identified with Israel and its policies, whether or not they feel any loyalty or connection to the country. (This seems to contrast with Muslim minorities in France, who are typically not identified in quite the same way with the policies of the countries where they are seen to have roots.)

These empirical observations have also been made by others. Meister’s genealogy would purport to explain them as localized permutations of the human rights dynamic and its geo-political extensions. If he is right, we might consider how it articulates with Mahmood’s arguments and overall thesis. For example, she argues that minority rights and religious liberty were never neutral legal and political concepts, but “have been tied from their very inception to raison d’etat, regional and national security, and geopolitics.” (p.60) She shows how they were used throughout the 19th century by European Christian-majority states, which were consolidating their own sovereignty, to extend their protection and jurisdiction over Christians in the Ottoman Empire, further undermining its sovereignty. But the present case represents an interesting inversion of this power relation. During the 19th century, states where a group of people were the official majority extended their power and undermined the sovereignty of a weaker state in which their people constituted a minority. But now states with a minority—Jewish communities—extend their support for another state—Israel—where that minority is the official majority. That is, it is not Israel that extends protection to Jewish minorities in Euro-American states, but Euro-American states that confer support to Israel, reinforcing its sovereignty, as part of their unique responsibility to protect the Jewish minorities that they betrayed during WW2 and as part of the universalizing discourse of human rights.

Taking the genealogies of Meister and Mahmood together therefore confronts us with some difficult, disturbing questions. Thus: does this genealogy imply that Jewish communities in Euro-America have been afforded the degree of equality and toleration they have, at the expense of Palestinian life? Does this also pressure Jewish communities to identify with, or have a position on, Israel—whether or not they feel any connection or loyalty to it? Does the difficulty of engaging the Holocaust in relation to other atrocities mean that Muslims will never be able to elicit the same commitments to equality, toleration, and protection from the Euro-American states in which they live? Is this, then, a situation that portrays the virtues of shared foundational values in democratic societies, or is it rather a poignant expression of ongoing global power asymmetries? But perhaps these two alternatives are not as opposed as they seem. It is striking that, when it comes to Euro-America, there is often talk of shared values and an overlapping consensus, but with the global South, and especially the Middle East, the emphasis is on the need for fundamental reform. In light of this contrast, can the chorus of advocacy for shared values be innocent of the global power asymmetries in which it subsists? Mahmood teaches us to remain alert to these possibilities, to the solidarities and complicities such differential claims enfold.

If my remarks are right, then the situation of Jewish minorities in Euro-America is neither a paradigm case of the religious equality that can be achieved, nor an exceptional one. It is instead an example of how secularism constantly blurs religion and politics, an expression of its intractable indeterminacies writ large on the global scale, as part of the transnational matrix within which the differential relations between minorities today must be understood – whether they be Muslims and Jews in France, Copts and Bahá’ís in Egypt, or Armenians and Kurds in Turkey. What this suggests is that the post-1950s are crucial to the genealogy of secularism, especially if we are to understand the complex, contradictory emotional attachments it currently induces in us. It also raises the important question of how Euro-America’s intensifying engagement with the Middle East might be reshaping secular concepts, practices, and social imaginaries.

So, should we give up on religious freedom and equality? Mahmood argues not that we should not, but that we cannot. Religious freedom may be impossible to achieve, but secularism has shaped us so profoundly that we cannot but aspire to it. What’s left in between the impossibility of achieving religious freedom, and the impossibility of not striving toward it? Here Mahmood holds out a tantalizing hope, ending with a call for the risky ethical thematization of religious difference. But how might this work, given that the secular state’s political-religious ambiguities, its suspicious sensibilities, continually render fragile the ethical foundations of social life? I hope that on these questions, we can think further together.

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