I would like to begin with a famous case in Egypt that, though over a decade and a half old, remains salient for thinking about religious freedom. This is the apostasy case of Nasr Abu Zayd, the professor of Arabic and Islamic studies who was declared an apostate by the Egyptian courts, and whose marriage was forcibly annulled as a result. The case was raised using a highly controversial principle within Egyptian law, and much of the debate was about whether its use was acceptable within this case. This principle was called hisba, and it technically means, “the commanding of the good when its practice is manifestly neglected, and the forbidding of the detestable when its practice becomes manifest.”
Posts Tagged ‘law’
I knew that my new book, Political Theology, would be controversial. It covers a lot of ground; it produces odd conjunctions; and its rhetoric can sound extreme. It pays little attention to academic conventions and often cuts against popular, political expectations. Some might think presumptuous its design and method of “rewriting” Schmitt’s classic. Many readers are startled to find that out of an engagement with Schmitt can come an exploration of freedom in its political, legal, and discursive dimensions. Others are surprised to find that a book about sovereignty and law—let alone a theological inquiry—puts the imagination at its center.
I find Kahn’s book as a whole less coherent than some others have. One issue I want to raise is the specter of American exceptionalism that haunts the book. Haunts, actually, may be too mild a word, since Kahn enthusiastically embraces the exceptional nature of American politics and law, and does so in absolutist terms (perhaps this is just the unfortunate sign of the legal mind at work, as is also the case in Schmitt).
At a moment when some of the theoretical gestures being inspired by old, new, or futuristic political theologies have become ineffective, Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is a book of extraordinary significance. Or, perhaps I should say that I think it might be a book of extraordinary significance, inasmuch as it bears a potential to do something which has remained impossible, not only for Carl Schmitt, but also for some important contemporary critics of neo-liberal political economy. I want to reflect specifically about the way this impossibility might become possible, strangely, by way of a new migration of Abraham into the territory of philosophies of freedom and difference.
My colleagues at The Talmud Blog asked me to provide a guest post about my research interests.
I agree with Kahn (and with Schmitt) about the fact that political theory should leave room for decision and exception. But to me, the main question is: to what extent? Are there no principles that admit no exception? When I read Kahn, as when I read Schmitt, I don’t seem to encounter any such principles—anything like what Habermas thematized in Law and Morality as “indisponibility,” that is, rights that are not at the disposal of the sovereign. Can the sovereign decide that torture is a legitimate practice? The answer, to me, should be no without exception.
“At stake in our political life,” Paul Kahn observes, “has been not our capacity to be reasonable, but our capacity to realize in and through our own lives an ultimate meaning.” While it would require little effort for me to catalogue the many insights that seized my attention while reading Kahn’s thoughtful and highly provocative new book, it is this basic insight that chiefly arouses my interest, insofar as it serves as the organizing premise for the argument as a whole. It is therefore this claim most of all that deserves close scrutiny.
The latest issue of Dissent features an argument (sub. req.) by Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske against the prevailing understanding of religious freedom in recent U.S. jurisprudence and, more generally, against the accommodation of claims on the grounds that they derive from a specifically religious belief and not otherwise.
Kahn has identified an ideal—the sacrificial ideal of freedom—that exists both as an ideal and at times in practice. And while the U.S. is certainly his main subject, he describes an ideal of freedom that has purchase well beyond American borders. Perhaps this freedom is what we’ve seen evoked by some of the protesters in the Middle East and North Africa in recent months. And Kahn is right to draw our attention to the claim that there is something miraculous in the plausible appearance of “the people.” Conjuring the people by giving up one’s self seems to represent just the kind of freedom and popular sovereignty that Kahn has in mind. The challenge for those who accept Kahn’s ideal is how to bring the individual and the conjured popular sovereign into a sufficient degree of unity with the apparatus of government, for such is the condition of more lasting freedom. These are the directions in which Kahn pushes us, and we need not think that he is correct on a factual or phenomenological level all of the time in order to examine this ideal, to ask when and how it emerges, and to see it as something astounding and “theological.”
Since the process of understanding divine law is not a uniform or singular one, there are multiple interpretations of what divine law is, and, consequently, there are many schools of Islamic legal thought. The sharīʿah-fiqh distinction is one that is clearly recognized in Islamic jurisprudential texts and beyond. While I am still in the process of undertaking a thorough historical study, I suspect that the conflation of the terms sharīʿah and fiqh became normative among Muslims in the modern era—particularly in the context of Islamist-based resistance to imperialism. Regardless of the precise genealogy, the use of the term sharīʿah rather than fiqh in contemporary Muslim discourses has political motivations and ramifications; in other words, it is essentially about power.