In 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.Read the rest of A thought-provoking study.
Talal Asad is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His publications include On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press, 2007), Formations of the Secular (Stanford University Press, 2003), Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), and a number of influential articles, including “On Re-reading a Modern Classic: W.C. Smith's The Meaning and End of Religion,” in History of Religions (2001). Asad is a contributor to the SSRC volume Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Posts by Talal Asad:
In an essay entitled “Secular Criticism,” the noted literary critic Edward Said wrote that “Criticism…is always situated, it is skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings.” To this I would merely add three questions: First, what work does the notion “secular” do here? Does it refer to an authority or a sensibility? Second, since criticism employs judgment, since it seeks conviction – of oneself and of others – to what extent does it therefore seek to overcome skepticism? Finally, if secular criticism regards itself as confronting the powerful forces of repression, finds itself open to all “failings,” can we say that secular criticism aspires to be heroic? […]Read the rest of Historical notes on the idea of secular criticism.
What are the stakes in wanting a fixed definition of religion, whether in terms of “a sense of fullness,” as Taylor suggests, or of “transcendence,” or of “something beyond what has yet been achieved, or will ever be achieved”? What is at stake here? Why are we so concerned to establish a category that encompasses a number of very different kinds of experience, experiences that for some religious people don’t belong together at all? […]Read the rest of Secularism, hegemony, and fullness.