I guess it’s to be expected that in today’s fashionable anti-secularist perspective an act of secular criticism that calls for “de-transcendentalizing the secular” would be unfathomable—not merely contrarian or inadvisable, but inconceivable, unaccountable. I did underestimate, however, just how eagerly such a perspective would bar the notion that a critique of secularist assumptions—specifically, secularism’s own transcendentalist assumptions—can take place from within the secular domain, as internal deconstruction and thus self-alteration of the secular, with the aim of opening a whole other horizon of thinking about contemporary political problems beyond the bipolar syndrome of “secularism” vs. “religion”.

Saba Mahmood’s riposte is exemplary of this baffled disavowal. Certainly, the focus of “De-transcendentalizing the secular” was not on Mahmood’s work, and my critical comments pertaining to her, like comments made about others (Anidjar, Asad, Brown, Connolly, During), were signposts on the way to a much broader argument. This does not mean that Mahmood does not have the impetus to defend herself, and opposing my argument may be one way to conduct such a defense, except that this opposition is built on some conspicuous misreadings. I will begin by briefly pointing these out. More important, and in order to rectify her charge that my criticism of her is unfounded, I will look more closely at the argument in her Public Culture article “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire“—always in the spirit of elaborating on the broader argument I have initiated and not under the imperative of tête-à-tête polemics.

I responded unequivocally to the question “Is critique secular?” in order precisely to raise the stakes of the question. Anything else, I’m afraid, compromises the secular from the start, and, with the pretext of sustaining ambiguity, renders it a mere concept among many, as if in a streamlined and neutralized array of equivalent objects. (One wonders what epistemology authorizes ambiguity outside the realm of critique, but that’s another matter.) My response does not leave any room for the secular to cruise, as it were, on its own epistemological assumptions. Insofar as critique can never be anything less than self-critique, the certainty of weighing the secular with the critical is precisely to plunge the domain of the secular to the uncertainty of its own interrogation. Whether we like it or not, this, itself, is the domain of the dialectic of Enlightenment.

For this reason, I made it repeatedly explicit that the secular was a non-substantive, conditional, and differential domain, therefore—speaking precisely—worldly. By contradistinction, I identified secularism as an institutional term that represents a historical range of projects, and thereby often tends to certain a priori and dogmatic assumptions, which I identified as secularist metaphysics. Though I advocate the emancipatory potentialities of the secular—indeed, with the aspiration of reconceptualizing and enriching the emancipatory domain of the secular—I explicitly criticize the metaphysics of secularism, in fact from within the domain and as work of the secular, as an act of secular criticism. (This is why it is crucial that the metaphysics of secularism not be equated with theological metaphysics, and secularism not be considered another sort of religion; this latter claim is one of the most politically reactionary positions of anti-secularist thinking.)

Mahmood either does not see or does not want to see this explicit and repeated distinction. In her words, I offer “moral platitudes about the goods secularism offers to humanity”; I opt “for the moral superiority of secularism through recourse to the familiar Enlightenment rhetoric of freedom, human creativity, and autonomy as well as an impoverished materialist conception of history”; my “rhetorical defense of secularism devolves upon a kind of liberal romantic imaginary…[of] commitment to autonomy, creativity, imagination, and freedom”, etc.

Never mind here that a proper and rigorous response would require that Mahmood produce a framework of thought that would advocate a politics against autonomy, imagination, freedom, and human creativity, since apparently these are just reprehensible objects of desire. Never mind her derisory insinuations that I am ignorant of “all the recent work on the modern emergence of the categories of secularism and religion.” Never mind that I’m an impoverished materialist thinker, or in turn, a liberal romantic who spouts moral platitudes—although I must say, for the record, that I don’t mind being called a romantic, but everyone knows (insofar as my work stands for it in public view) that liberalism makes me angry and morality makes me cringe. Never mind all that. What remains puzzling is how an entire argument against the transcendentalist metaphysics of secularism can be rehashed and served as a secularist love fest.

Puzzled though I am, I will wager an answer. My understanding of the task of secular criticism is to oppose any sort of heteronomous politics; because theological politics is heteronomous by definition, Mahmood finds it easiest to declare me an avid defender of secularism. Even if I also identify secularism’s transcendentalist politics as heteronomous politics—its technological rationalism, the cultural Ego Ideal, the imperialist mission civilisatrice, the instrumentalist appropriation of the other, etc.—she, nonetheless, bristles at my “visceral attachment” to secularism. She goes so far as to spin my critique of secularism’s rationalist metaphysics against me, leveling the charge of infusing my argument with a certain “structure of affect.” This latter charge, of course, I would hardly disavow, since it’s precisely the rationalist impartiality of secularist thinking (which is, of course, neither rational nor impartial) that I put into question. One wonders how she might account for her own structure of affect, if this, like autonomy, imagination, freedom, etc., is such a reprehensible thing. Does she mean to suggest that anti-secularism is “rational” and “impartial”—even if (or especially when) it is conducted by (presumably) secular academics?

Mahmood’s misreading becomes comprehensible if one looks closely at her own assumptions in the article that served as focus for our initial discussions at SSRC and to which I had referred in passing. I hereby isolate four points.

1. Mahmood predicates her entire argument on an uninterrogated identification of secularism with liberalism. Never mind that secularism does just as well with non-liberal ideologies and institutions, whether the colonialist apparatus of the British Empire, twentieth-century’s fascist or communist states, or non-liberal postcolonial regimes of all kinds. One is puzzled as to why her political critique is not addressed to liberalism as such. Or, more precisely, why, in her political critique, is the ideology of liberalism reduced to a problem of the secular vs. the non-secular? Let us say that, although her target seems to be (by virtue of the argument) the normativity of liberal institutions, her desired enemy is not liberalism but secularism. However, because she doesn’t even raise the question of their equivalence as a preliminary self-critical step in her argument, she confounds the terrain, possibly hoping she can hit both targets at once. But this way she misses the fact that you cannot conduct an anti-secularist argument simply by attacking liberalism without falling into the same path of argumentation that behooves the anti-liberal agendas of US Christian Republicanism. This is one of the ways in which Mahmood’s argument is conservative, whether she intends it or not.

Needless to say, I hardly care to defend liberalism. On the contrary, my attempt to reconfigure the domain of the secular against secularism’s own statist metaphysics is also a critique of the metaphysics of liberalism as such—both its statist and its market metaphysics. But it is so by implication. My impetus is not to critique liberalism—not here, anyway—but to critique heteronomous politics in whatever form this takes, liberal or non-liberal, secularist or religious. The imaginary investment of certain Western (largely Christian) societies in secular institutions—usually (but uncritically) associated with liberal institutions—cannot be the exclusive ground of defining and debating the secular. I understand how it is convenient, because this way the anti-secularist argument draws strength from the condemnation of the US imperialist machinery. But, again, this raises the question as to why a critique of ‘Western’ imperialism, generally speaking, has to be conducted as critique of secularism. Why does it have to be? I raised this question in my initial piece, and I raise it again, since Mahmood does not seem to consider it worth addressing.

2. Mahmood’s central thesis is that secularism “proffers remaking certain kinds of religious subjectivities (even if this requires the use of violence)” according to a “normative impetus internal” to it. “Normativity” is indeed her favorite word, and here it flags the American imperialist agenda of forcefully shaping subjectivities in the Islamic world. About the latter, there can be no argument. But whether this is the outcome of a “secularist” agenda is a matter of debate. I suppose that to the degree that we are talking about practices of the US institutional apparatus, this could be called secularist (among various other names). But I don’t think these practices can be so easily considered “secular” as Mahmood’s own phrasing—“the United States has embarked upon an ambitious theological campaign”—explicitly admits. This conceptual difference is not so fine as to be imperceptible, whether by Mahmood or anybody else. The difference between institutional secularism and the secular as a conditional domain of interrogation is marked by an epistemological chasm.

Then there is the issue of secularism’s shaping of subjectivities as such, its “attendant anthropology of the subject.” Taking as basis the enormous critique of theories of the subject in the last 40some years—which is, let us not forget, a matter of self-critique to the degree that it has all been conducted (including the postcolonial perspective) within the terms of a dialectic of Enlightenment—there is not much here to contend regarding the enforced subjectification that colonialist/imperialist states have perpetrated on conquered peoples all over the globe (but also—and it is equally important—on their own societies). The problem lies in the argument’s framing.

There is, at best, something naïve in setting the foundations of one’s argument about the ills of the secular imagination on the inarguable fact of colonialist/ imperialist politics, especially when one dares not even pose the question of what is normative in non-secular modes of rule. On what basis is there no ground for critique of non-secular modalities of political rule seeking to transform religious subjectivities (not to mention non-religious subjectivities) so they conform to a certain politics? Shall we not speak of the “attendant anthropology of the subject” that Mahmood’s own ethnographic argument proposes? What agenda authorizes us to remain uncritical of it?

3. Mahmood chronicles the ‘findings’ of the Rand Corporation regarding the inner workings of Islamic societies as exemplary of American imperialist practices in the Islamic world. Exemplary, indeed, they are—although to give such scholarly credence to Rand’s account of the social imagination is really to give them too much credit. They are not scholars but ideologues, ideological bureaucrats. It is especially alarming, however, to equate the Rand rhetoric with the view of certain prominent Muslim reformist thinkers—Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Hasan Hanafi, and Abdul Karim Soroush. Even more so when the argument is constructed with such phrasing as: “Echoing the Rand report’s contention that the Quran is a human rather than a divine text, Abu Zayd argues that the Quran… entered history… [etc.].” This is startling. Do we really need the Rand Corporation to tell us that the Quran is a human rather than a divine text? What is a divine text, but what certain humans, in certain conditions (which are always historical, even when expressed in the most profound spiritual terms), convene, name, and occasionally worship, as divine?

It’s one thing if Mahmood were to argue that the Quran is divine, pure and simple—to argue from the standpoint of a believer. (But there is no pure and simple: are we to assume that communities of believers are so consistently uniform that the precise nature of the divinity they worship—and all its objects—is beyond discussion?) Yet, if she argues that for some people the Quran is divine (as, for others, are the Vedas, the Torah, the Gospel, or the Book of Mormon), she engages in a historical argument about a historical process that institutes a text as divine and, insofar as we are speaking of social-imaginary institution, continuously reinstitutes a text as divine, as long as required by a certain society or societies, a certain community or communities, in order to safeguard and reanimate their identity. In this latter case, what the Rand Corporation has to say is of little importance—except as analysis of how the enemy thinks—but what certain intellectuals, within this social imaginary, say about the varied permutations of this imaginary is of enormous importance, and to belittle it by dubbing it an echo of the enemy think tank is an act of extraordinary arrogance.

This is not the place to conduct the full argument about what sort of textuality—and consequently what sort of social and political imaginary—characterizes a sacred text. Walter Benjamin’s insights to this regard would be essential. I do want to clarify, however, that I would never discount the enormous political power—whether subjugating or (more interesting from my perspective) insurgent power—of a sacred text. That this power derives from its being sacred does not mean that it is sacred. Or, that a text derives its political power from being claimed as sacred by a certain society does not mean that it is sacred by divine decree. In other words, the point is not to dispute the sacredness of the text, but to raise questions about how this sacredness is authorized.

This is also the case with politics based on transcendental religious commands. I am talking specifically of how such commands pertain nominally to emancipatory politics. I would never doubt, for instance, the great revolutionary inspiration that liberation theology once held for certain oppressed societies in Central America or, for that matter, the inarguable power that Islam holds for certain of the insurgent communities in Iraq today. But as I have said several times, this does not mean that, come post-insurgency time, the time of self-determination, a politics based on religious command can produce an autonomous society—at least, history has never shown any such cases. There is a foundational reason why this has not happened: a politics based on religious command bars, by definition, the last instance of any given society’s self-interrogation as to who authorizes its self-determination. Not only does it take for granted an external, ahistorical, heteronomous authorization; it forbids the very question.

4. Mahmood’s dismissal of any argumentative basis for the Quran as a historical text belies her dismissal that neither Quranic scripture nor Islamic ritual can be treated as semiotic or symbolic significations. What is operative in both dismissals is contempt toward the literary domain as a proper epistemological framework, or indeed, contempt toward the poetic as such: “The fact that this understanding of religion and scripture as a system of signs and symbols, ready for a cultured individual to interpret according to her poetic resources, enjoys such broad appeal is in part what the term normative secularity captures” (her italics). How the poetic becomes normative is one of the most mysterious epistemological steps in her entire argument. Not to mention—again keeping Benjamin in mind—that dismissing the poetic in such thoughtless fashion dismisses the opportunity to radically theorize the political power of a sacred text.

Mahmood continues in this vein to reiterate her argument from Politics of Piety that “Muslim women’s consensual adoption of the veil” is belittled when subjected to analyses that determine it according to its symbolic indications, its semiotic meaning, its significations of identity, or even its social instrumentality in regard to sexuality and gender roles. Instead, she argues that the veil claims “a religious obligation,” as “part of a religious doctrine, a divine edict, or a form of ethical practice, and that it therefore has nothing to do with ‘identity’.” I understand (and I agree) in what terms she objects to secularist assessments of wearing a veil – whether oppositional (feminist or otherwise) or supportive (as indicative of the woman’s right to choose how to identify herself) – as imposing on the gesture of the veil a framework of meaning derived from external reasoning and thus disregarding the gesture’s own self-determination of meaning.

But I am amazed at the inability or unwillingness to press the critical question in both directions. Is the veil not a sign for the devout Muslim? What is it? An empty signifier? And as sign, how can it not be activated but in an identity-formation—which, incidentally, by virtue of the elementary dialectics of institution in any society, can never be conducted entirely within an internal signifying framework? That is, one’s identity—even under conditions of perfect self-determination (which, of course, never exist in history, but for the sake of argument)—can never be formed without, simultaneously, forming the identity of the other against whom (or in contradistinction from whom, in difference from whom) one defines oneself.

To argue further: Why is utter and unquestionable obedience to divine/doctrinal edict not an identitary mechanism? This question is never answered by Saba Mahmood because it is not even asked, as if obedience to divine doctrine is different substantially from obedience to non-divine doctrine. (I am not speaking here of negotiation with authority, whether secular or non-secular, but of strict obedience to doctrine—because these are the terms of Mahmood’s argument about the significance of the gesture of the veil.) If one were to seriously argue that religious obedience is radically different from any other kind of doctrinal obedience, so that it lies beyond the world of symbols, signs, social and communal mechanisms, or principles of identity-formation, then there are only two options: 1) the religious experience is totally unworldly, therefore asocial and ahistorical, and in this respect, one can never claim that it bear a politics—of piety, or any other politics for that matter; 2) the religious experience is utterly irrelevant to any discourse or meditation on society, and can only be conducted in terms of the self-enclosed hermeneutic universe of mystical thinking, and for this we have, say, the extraordinary texts of Rumi, the Kabbalah, or St. Teresa de Avila—texts that do not require the authorization of the sacred to yield their poetic splendor.

In other words, if non-secular gestures are to bear a certain politics, they cannot be determined as idiosyncratic or idiomatic gestures; they pertain to an imagined community of some kind and are therefore implicated in an identity-formation of some kind. It is precisely Mahmood’s inability or unwillingness to even entertain the notion that these gestures are themselves identitary gestures—no doubt, in their own way, and here the difference between identitary frameworks would be indeed a worthy theoretical pursuit—that anchors her anti-secularist politics to the stealth dogmatism of nativist identity politics. One yearns here for a little intellectual daring, perhaps the kind that Frantz Fanon showed in the midst of a real revolutionary situation, when he warned us of the pitfalls of national consciousness, equally unafraid to dismantle colonialist and postcolonial—and we might add, ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’, secular and non-secular—essentialisms alike.