The book blog
In the summer of 2013, the international Islamic magazine al-Bayan published its Ramadan issue with a striking cover. Flanked by titles on the Qur’anic and Biblical figure Haman, jihad and the great battles won by Muslims in the month of Ramadan, and an interview with the Iraqi Islamist intellectual ‘Imad al-Din Khalil, the image that the editors chose for the cover article was clearly meant to cause controversy. Casually strewn across a map of the Middle East and North Africa was a simple sibha, a chain of beads used to count repetitive prayers known collectively as adhkar. In recent years, the sibha has come to be associated as a marker of Sufi Mulims, given that non-Sufi reformist Muslims of various stripes have stipulated that it constitutes an innovation in worship and thus a straying from the perfect path laid down by the Prophet himself for praising God. Attached to the end of this sibha, where a bead or other decoration might normally be located, was a small American flag, resembling those lapel pins that US government officials began to wear following 9/11. If the implications of the image itself were not clear, the headline on which it sat most certainly was: “American Infiltration through the Sufi zawiyas.”Read The new global politics of religion: A view from the other side.
In the late 1920s, the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote a series of scientific papers proposing that the universe could not be known with perfect certainty. His theory, which came to be known as the “uncertainty principle,” blamed the limitations of scientific measurement. Perfect knowledge was impossible, Heisenberg theorized, because scientists changed the quantum universe through the very act of measuring it. Observers could not watch the universe voyeuristically, as though from the sidelines. To sight quantum reality was to alter it.
Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion introduces something like an uncertainty principle into the targeting of religion in international relations. In a manner not dissimilar to Heisenberg, Hurd argues that, in the process of singling out religion for support or censure, governments, lawmakers, advocacy groups and others alter the complex field of social relations that they purport to manage. They change religion through the process of sighting it.Read The uncertainty principles of Heisenberg and Hurd.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion is notable for its subtlety and intellectual generosity, as well as its breadth and depth of engagement with contemporary scholarship and public affairs. This is also a book with a big, hard-hitting idea of its own. Its primary thesis is crystal clear, timely, and provocative: “religion” cannot serve as the basis for scholarly analyses or the formation of policy. I agree with that: individuals, communities, and events are more complex than the idea of religion can capture; indeed, the very idea of religion often gets in the way of understanding how those things work.Read A more anxious freedom.
Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is a luminous, fiercely argued book. It requires deep and ongoing engagement precisely because Mahmood stages a conceptual-ethical impasse from which there is no easy exit. Her timely intervention reminds us that the predicament of minority religion is neither anachronistic nor resolved. Rather it is ongoing, and immediate.
In what follows, I think with Mahmood and ask how her argument about the intertwined lives of religion and politics, and the crises of recognition they produce, may play out on the Indian subcontinent with its history of Muslim minority, and affirmative constitutionalism.Read Competing inequalities.
What logics, strategies, and effects characterize the category of religion as an instrument for governing social life? What possibilities and foreclosures result from summoning religion to serve novel political ends? Questions such as these subtend much contemporary scholarship on religion; their ascendancy testifies to the puissance of recent deconstructions of the concept of religion, especially those marshalled by critiques of secularism. Rather than conceiving religion as the disavowed other of secular modernity, the burgeoning field of secularism studies has demanded attention to the continual consolidation of “religion” within the problem space of secularism, especially in relation to the dispensation of the modern nation-state. Despite the recent interest in the relationship between secularism and religion, however, the distinctive forms and functions of “religious freedom”—as both a principle for and an object of global governance—have received less attention. Thankfully, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, has arrived to decisively fill this lacuna.Read A salutary tremor.
In the preface to his 1947 essay, Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote forcefully of the need to push past official accounts and declared principles when assessing the character and justness of a society. Focusing on the lived effects of ideas instead of on “tired sayings” formulated as “venerable truths” was precisely the genius of Marx’s critique of liberalism, Merleau-Ponty explained: “In refusing to judge liberalism in terms of the ideas it espouses and inscribes in constitutions and in demanding that these ideals be compared with the prevailing relations between men in a liberal state, Marx is not simply speaking in the name of a debatable materialist philosophy—he is providing a formula for the concrete study of society which cannot be refuted by idealist arguments.”Read The pathologies of religious freedom.
For those of us who have been following the Politics of Religious Freedom project on this website and elsewhere, Beyond Religious Freedom bears a distinct yet familiar flavor. Other scholars writing on religion and secularity have already shown that significant differences exist between “top-down,” “bottom-up,” and “from outside” definitions of religion favored by policymakers, clerics, and academics. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s own categories of “governed religion,” “lived religion,” and “expert religion” reproduce this tripartite division, but add a degree of nuance by showing, for example, that the definitions of religion favored by elites such as policymakers and ecclesial authorities may not match the “lived religion” experienced by ordinary people. Similarly, expertise on religion comes in a variety of forms, from the policy-relevant academic knowledge sought out by federal agencies pursuing counterterrorism objectives to the quasi-missiological scholarship generated by “religious engagement” advocacy groups.Read Religious freedom, past and future.
As it promises on the dust jacket, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom delivers a critique of the politics of promoting religious freedom that is both timely and forceful. The critique expands and empirically illustrates an argument that Hurd has presented earlier—that religion in international politics is governed by a Manichean view of “religion” as either “good,” and therefore eligible for support, or “bad,” and therefore in need of control, monitoring, and suppression. The critique is timely because it addresses the incontrovertible empirical fact that new methods and terms used by NGOs, think tanks, and state agencies have decisively changed the landscape of the domestic and international promotion of religious engagement and religious freedom.Read Engaging the R word.
In the United States, the Middle East is almost always presented as a problem to be solved—most significantly, the problem of religious extremism and conflict. Popular explanations of such conflict turn on supposedly deep-seated cultural attributes within Arab societies and often tied to the nature of Islam. But even for those that avoid this essentializing turn, virtually all commentators take for granted the proposed solution: generate ever-more secular political practices. In other words, what the region needs are governing institutions that treat individuals of all religious backgrounds as civic equals and thus reduce confessional difference to a matter purely of private (and legally protected) choice.Read Democracy and the secular predicament.
Last summer I read All Can Be Saved by the eminent historian of colonial Latin America, Stuart Schwartz. It’s a compelling story of inter-religious tolerance and boundary-blurring coexistence in the Hispanic world in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Near the end of the book, Schwartz sums up his approach: “One must go beneath the histories of state policies and religious dogmas that have dominated the writing of history, and one must look not primarily in learned discourse (usually controlled) and at the policy of government and kings, but in the actions and words of people who sought to think for themselves.”
Beyond Religious Freedom addresses a parallel set of concerns in a different setting. It asks scholars of law, religion, and global politics to consider not only the histories of learned discourse (expert religion) and the policies of governments and kings (official or governed religion) but also the actions and words of ordinary people (lived or everyday religion). The interactions between these overlapping fields, the power dynamics through which they shape each other, and their deep immersion and fluid entanglements with their socio-cultural, legal, economic, and political surroundings are, on one level, the subject of the book.Read Beyond Religious Freedom—An introduction.
Most of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is an original and thorough exploration of the historical rise and unfolding of this finitude of our imagination—the difficulty of relating to the lives of religious communities, in their difference, without the arbitrating mediation of the state. Mahmood traces the gradual replacement of earlier Ottoman modalities of rule governing religious communities and the relationships between them by the state-centered secular mode of governance. The former was a tradition that did not promise equality but maintained religious pluralism, without intervening in what constituted religion and without attempting to reorganize religious life. Paradoxically, the hierarchy characteristic of that system of rule left religious communities more immune to the infiltration of state powers. On the other end, despite its promise of religious equality, secular governance, as Mahmood shows, contributed “to the exacerbation of religious tensions in postcolonial Egypt, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarizing religious difference.” At the center of the book is a story about the sovereign state, modern law—domestic and international—and the unequal power distributions between the West and the non-West during the colonial and post-colonial periods, all of which make up the forces of political secularism and the stage for its unfolding.Read Equality time.
Trenchantly framed as “a minority report,” Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers more than just one dissenting opinion. The book makes at least three distinct interventions—archival, critical, and methodological—that together call state secularism into question as a political project and normative ideal. This “minority report” has major significance. It raises crucial historical and ethical questions about the power—and limits—of the state and law to achieve “religious equality.”Read Minority matters.
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.Read Thinking with Saba Mahmood.
The stark divide between the sacred and the profane engendered by the Great Separation between religion and politics in the West is put to the test in Saba Mahmood’s rich and fascinating study of secularism and its paradoxes. Challenging conventional understandings of secularism as the solution to the religion-fueled wars that have characterized much of human history through the Enlightenment, Mahmood boldly argues instead that secularism is one of the enabling conditions of conflict. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers an incisive and counterintuitive depiction of the strange career of secularism as anchored in the state’s sovereign power to define and regulate religious life—a sphere that by secularism’s own terms should have been private and depoliticized. This claim acquires particular significance when applied to the supposedly non-secular states in the Middle East. It turns out that when it comes to government intervention in religions, there is not much separating the liberal secular states of the West from the religious, authoritarian states of the Middle East. Could the Great Separation actually be one great con?Read Secularism at home and abroad.
It seems as if there’s been an avalanche of inquiries into the precarious status of religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies in recent decades, much of it framed in terms of the incomplete secularization of Muslim states and/or the (in)compatibility of Islam with secularism, modernity, tolerance, and liberalism. Continual irruptions of interreligious tension and violence in the Middle East in particular have taken on an even more ominous cast in the shadow of ISIS/Da`ish, confirming the extent and depth, as well as the intractability, of “the Muslim problem” in the cottage industry of publications devoted to anatomizing it. In this context, the appearance of yet another excursus on religious minorities in a Muslim majority state seems little more than napworthy.Read In praise of heresy.
“Now let us see how Bauer formulates the role of the state,” writes Karl Marx in his famous take on the minority question, which Saba Mahmood aptly recalls and perceptively reads. Marx recognized that Bruno Bauer, his interlocutor, was also fighting for emancipation and equality; Bauer was fighting for political emancipation. But Bauer failed “to examine the relationship between political emancipation and human emancipation.” He failed to recognize that, in Germany at least, the state is “a theologian ex professo.” Marx does grant that there may be some states where “the Jewish question loses its theological significance and becomes a truly secular question.” And yet he is also very clear that to stop at the secular (that is, at political emancipation) is insufficient. “Political emancipation from religion is not complete and consistent emancipation from religion, because political emancipation is not the complete and consistent form of human emancipation.” Her Marxian reservations notwithstanding, it is a proximate, urgent and enduring struggle, one for “religious equality,” that Mahmood documents and embraces. “As an aspiration and a principle, religious equality signaled a sea change in how interfaith inequality was historically perceived . . . the variety of social movements fighting for religious equality attests to the global reach of this ideal and its promise . . . The impossibility of its realization should not blind us to its power, its ongoing promise, and its constitutive contradictions.”Read Legal age.
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 A thought-provoking study.
It 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.Read Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report—An introduction.