I have hesitated to respond to Gourgouris’s post because of its dramatic and consistent misreading of my argument in “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire.” His vitriolic tone seems to undercut critical exchange and makes it impossible to offer anything but a defensive response. Furthermore, it exemplifies the kind of blackmail-one is either for or against secularism-that was my object of concern in the earlier post and which I think carries great analytical and political costs. That said, and perhaps despite my better judgment, let me see if I can elaborate why this kind of thinking is inimical to developing an analytical language about what constitutes secularism, secularity, and the secular in our present world today.
First, a few remarks on Gourgouris’s repeated use of the term “anti-secular” to describe and dismiss my arguments. This gesture of course invites a simple counter-response: “No I am not anti-secular” or “Yes, I am.” Such a framing fails to address the complicated set of questions that the symposium “Is Critique Secular?” opened up to reflection and to which I alluded in my earlier post. Notably, calls for the embrace (or for that matter rejection) of secularism are premised on a putative opposition between secular and religious worldviews wherein each is defined as a necessary and stable essence that is superior to the other. It is argued that there is an essential kernel to secularism that must be preserved and defended from religious extremism and backwardness. For some this is secularism’s scientific rationality, for others it is secularism’s incipient objectivity, and for yet others it is secularism’s strict separation between state and religion. The idea that the “good” elements in secularism can be distinguished from its “bad” sides, the latter discarded and the former refined, only serves to further reinforce the blackmail that one is either for or against secularism. (It reminds me of a similar dilemma thrust upon critics of modernity at an earlier moment to which Michel Foucault responded astutely in his essay “What is Enlightenment?“)
Apart from the fact that the “good” and the “bad” cannot so easily be distinguished much less purified, the crucial problem with this kind of thinking is its assumption that a secular worldview is the opposite of a religious one, each indebted to a distinct epistemology irreconcilable with the other. (Charles Taylor’s recent post to this thread provides an intellectual genealogy of this position.) As must be obvious to readers of my work, I do not agree with this understanding of secularism. As a number of scholars have shown recently, the emergence of the modern category of the secular (to be distinguished from the pre-modern use of the Latin term saeculum) is constitutively related to the rise of the modern concept of religion wherein it is impossible to track the history of one without simultaneously tracking the history of the other. Furthermore, secularism, as a principle of liberal state governance, has entailed not so much the abandonment of religion but its ongoing regulation through a variety of state and civic institutions. Through this process has emerged a modular conception of religiosity and a concomitant religious subject that animates various kinds of secular discourses—including juridical, cultural, ethical, and political.
Since this argument is quite well known, I do not want to rehearse it here other than to say that this way of thinking challenges the simplistic assumption that secularism is empty of any theological arguments; that if any trace of theology is found in secular discourse, then it is clearly a “bad” development that sullies the true essence of secularism (hence the mission to “detranscendentalize the secular“). For Gourgouris, the fact that I read the theological agenda of the U.S. (in my “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire” piece) within the terms of the secular is a gross error insomuch as the two are supposedly mutually exclusive. Not only is this understanding of secularism historically inaccurate, I am suggesting, but it remains blind to the enormous impetus to religious reform that is internal to different varieties of secularism (benign or otherwise).
My article “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire” is an inquiry into how some of the constitutive assumptions of secularism—particularly those that enable the distinction between enlightened religiosity and its more backward/dangerous forms—underwrite the current U.S. government’s attempts to intervene politically and strategically in the Muslim world. (Apart from the Rand Corporation report, my article focuses on the notorious “Muslim World Outreach” program established by the White House National Security Council with a funding of $1.3 billion dollars.) I treat these attempts as historically contingent, enabled by specific events and geo-political developments, and not in any way evidence of a necessary or essential relationship between imperialism and secularism. Obviously, as any student of colonialism and imperialism knows, the history of these two projects is diverse and the role of religious missions within them highly variegated. This variegated history, however, cannot simply be told in terms of a clash between “religious” and “secular” interests for reasons that I have already stated.
It seems that I have upset some people by showing that many of the heroes of the progressive left—self-identified liberal Muslim reformers such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Abdel Karim Soroush—share secular assumptions about enlightened religiosity with the U.S. State Department. The charge is that in doing so, I have construed them as pawns of an imperial master, reducing their voices to an “echo of the enemy think tank” when presumably they are far more sincere and original in their engagements with Islam. I am not so sure about the originality of their arguments, but, as I noted in my article, these reformers are indeed opposed to U.S. geopolitical interests in the region and do not see themselves as serving this agenda. My object of analysis, however, is not their motivations and intentions but the discursive assumptions (about knowledge, history, language) that underpin their methods and programs of reform. Do we have to prescribe to a full fledged theory of shared interests and motivations to be able to see the common set of discursive presuppositions that cut across political projects? Could one be politically opposed and still share a set of epistemological and conceptual truths? Could one analyze this convergence critically without being accused of “belittling” the heroes of our stories?
Now the question of how liberalism and secularism are related, not just conceptually but practically through mechanisms of governance, is one that needs far more scholarly attention than has been given so far. In my article, I tried to lay out the unique character of liberal secularism in terms of its forceful commitment to the principle of religious freedom/freedom of conscience (this seems to have clearly escaped Gourgouris’s attention). As I pointed out, while totalitarian states (such as China, Syria, the former Soviet Union) abide by the separation of religion and state, they also regularly abrogate religious freedoms. Liberal secular states, while they regulate religious life, must constantly counterbalance this regulation with an individual’s right to practice his/her religion freely without coercion and state intervention. Insomuch as liberal political philosophy consists in setting limits to and enabling the exercise of freedoms, often conceptualized in individualist terms, the calculus of freedom and coercion also informs the practice of liberal secularism.
Individual freedom (as enshrined in the principle of religious freedom) is as central to liberal secularism as it is to political liberalism; in fact, one cannot imagine the latter without the former. But this character of liberal secularism cannot, in my view, be analyzed simply in terms of its merits and failures or its moral necessity. It needs to be analyzed, on one hand, as an exercise of the state’s sovereign power to regulate religious subjectivities, practices, and forms of life, and on the other, as a means by which religious minorities and majorities appeal to institutions of juridical and state power to curtail and/or extend their ability to practice their religion freely. Insomuch as the principle of religious freedom marks the ground upon which the proper limits of state jurisdiction over religious life are argued, contested, and settled in secular liberal societies, then it is crucial that we interrogate the shifting and contested operations of state and juridical power. Such a task would require not simply holding up the morality of the principle of religious freedom but to track when and how it emerges as a strategy of political rule and claims to citizenship.
Finally, and yet again, some brief remarks about the veil. Gourgouris excoriates me for taking seriously the claim, made by a large number of Muslim women, that the veil is a doctrinal command, and for failing to recognize the real significance of the veil as a symbolic element within identity formation. Let me clarify. While interpretations of the veil abound, two main views prevail among its practitioners and critics: one understands the veil to be a divine command and the second regards it to be a symbolic marker, no different than a variety of other practices (religious and non-religious) that represents a Muslim woman’s identity. In my work I do not endorse one of these interpretations over the other since it is not the veracity of these claims that interests me. Instead, as readers of my work know, my attempt has been to analyze both these understandings of the veil as speech acts that perform very different kinds of work in the making of the religious subject.
As I have argued, to understand a bodily practice (such as veiling) as a symbolic act presumes a very different relationship between the subject’s exteriority and interiority than an understanding in which a bodily act is both an expression of, and a means to, the realization of the subject. In other words, my point is not to dismiss semiotic processes (as Gourgouris mistakenly suggests), but to inquire into practices whose assumptions about semiosis do not map onto the model of signs standing for meaning or identity. To say this is to simply note that many dimensions of practice, both linguistic and non-linguistic, cannot be grasped in terms of a theory of representation. Here one only needs to recall the work of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, C. S. Peirce, and J. L. Austin who, in their different ways, have made us think of semiotic practices in registers other than those of meaning, communication, and symbolic signification. (For similar reasons, I treat the claim that the Quran is a historical text as a performative speech act that enables very different relations of power and truth than one that regards the Quran as a divine text.)
Finally, let me close by reminding readers of the questions that prompted the symposium “Is Critique Secular?” at UC Berkeley. These questions, as I suggested earlier, require a commitment to put some of our most cherished assumptions to scrutiny. This in turn depends upon making a distinction between the labor entailed in the analysis of a phenomenon and defending our own political commitments and preferences. The tension between the two is a productive one for the exercise of critique insomuch as it suspends the closure necessary to political action so as to allow thinking to proceed in unaccustomed ways. The academy, I continue to believe, remains perhaps one of the few places where such tensions can be explored.
If I could, I’d like to weigh in on Saba Mahmood’s penetrating analysis of critique by situating my reading of her work along with my understanding of A Secular Age. In so doing, I hope to describe how Secularity—at least Taylor’s third version of it—might be reconcilable with the notion of critique that Mahmood is proposing. To do so, I’ll borrow a bit from Mahmood’s understanding of the body and William Connolly’s understanding of the politics of becoming.
In her book, Politics of Piety, Mahmood is not discounting that Secularity 3—in some form—already exists in Egypt; the fact that people feel able to join the piety movement point out that some form of religion as one option among is present, even if not as strongly in the West. It is not whether secularism exists in Egypt that troubles her, but rather what it does. Like Talal Asad, Mahmood worries that a modern secular worldview leaves no room for critiques that are non-liberal, making a distinct teleology—like that of the mosque movement—all but impossible. I think she has done an excellent job of furthering this discussion in her blog posts, but I’d like to take the discussion back to A Secular Age itself.
Mahmood’s definition of secularism fits more or less as two different forms of Taylor’s secularity 1 and 3: “Secularism has often been understood in two primary ways: as the separation of religion from issues of the state, and the increasing differentiation of society into discrete spheres” (47). She argues that if the mosque movement seeks to change anything, it is her second form of secularism, in which religion is relegated to its own private sphere. They “seek to imbue each of the various spheres of contemporary life with a regulative sensibility that takes its cue from the Islamic theological corpus rather than from modern secular ethics” (47).
Mahmood’s point here ties in with her book’s much larger purpose: a meta-critique of critique itself. She points out that a secular worldview (bearing some similarity to Taylor’s Secularity 3) is imposed upon Egypt as a totalizing, even redemptive vision, while a similar totalizing view (that of the piety movement) is disregarded immediately, without any sort of intellectual generosity or openness. There is no escaping secularism in the Middle East, which is “impacting everything from pedagogical techniques to conceptions of moral and bodily health to patterns of familial and extra-familial relations” (191). Responding to secularism then cannot simply be a political or economic discussion, but should emphasize “arguments about what constitutes a proper way of living ethically in a world where such questions were thought to have become obsolete. In Egypt today, the primary topoi for this ethical labor are the body, ritual observance, and protocols of public conduct” (192).
It is an important challenge, and a difficult one to respond to: after all, the world Mahmood describes is quite different from the one Taylor does and the compromise of “you do your thing and I’ll do mine” is, in fact, an implicit rejection of the piety movement and an acceptance of Taylor’s ethics of authenticity. For example, the “forms of attire toward which secular-liberal morality claim indifference” are the kinds that allow secularism in the first place (75-76). Mahmood’s critique bears important similarities to Talal Asad’s concern about the dominating power of Taylor’s secularism. Indeed, both challenge whether Secularity 3 can in fact function as the “overlapping consensus” Taylor calls for in his 1998 essay in Secularism and its Critics. I think it can, but I think the means of compromise ought not to be rooted in the axial age, but rather in fusing Taylor’s conception of Secularity 3 with the Foucauldian emphasis on bodily practice that Mahmood employs.
William Connolly talks frequently about the “politics of becoming” and the importance of cultivating a means of engagement. I’m not sure that is entirely what Mahmood is getting at, but I think they are onto something similar, something which can help Taylor take into account bodily practice. Mahmood writes that the mosque attendees want to ameliorate this situation through the cultivation of those bodily aptitudes, virtues, habits, and desires that serve to ground Islamic principles in the requisite strategies and skills to enable such a manner of conduct, and the lives of the most devoted participants are organized around gradually learning and perfecting these skills (45).
She later describes various participants in the movement talking about how bodily practice enables them to be more virtuous. However, it is important not to frame these as a sort of individual means of authenticating the self. Mahmood makes clear that she does not believe that an actor “uses various corporeal techniques to acquire a cultural specificity” (121). Rather, for her, bodily practice forms “the terrain upon which the topography of the subject comes to be mapped” and so the self moves not from internal to external but, in fact, the other way around. What practice does is more important than what it means:
What is striking about this approach to the explication of the self is that the work bodily practices perform in crafting a subject—rather than the meanings they signify—carries the analytical weight. In other words, the “how” of practices is explored rather than their symbolic or hermeneutic value (122).
This approach is particularly useful for Mahmood in her analysis of gender norms, when she argues that a hermeneutic approach might not capture the fact that “acts of resistance” compel the body to act in certain ways, requiring “the retraining of sensibilities, affect, desire, and sentiments—those registers of corporeality that often escape the logic of representation and symbolic articulation” (188).
Both Taylor and Mahmood agree that bodily practice does not much matter in the new form of secularity: this might be somewhat lamentable for Taylor, but it is downright tragic for the women in the mosque movement. But here is where Mahmood’s stern warning against hermeneutics becomes useful: we are not talking about how we interpret the body, which, quite likely, does in fact happen a lot less. We are talking about the existence of the body itself, which, following Foucault and others, does not ever really disappear. Whether or not we are aware of it, our bodies form our ethical sensibilities—a point first made by Aristotle, made contemporary by Elias, and used implicitly by Taylor. Mahmood would certainly agree that this is true for the women of the piety movement, and I am sure she would grant that the same is true for the rest of the secular world.
So the compromise I would suggest between the two is simple enough: we need to recognize that everyone—not just the women of the piety movement—are ethically formed by their bodies. Mahmood discusses the self-reflection that always happens in self-formation, even when it is mainly physical (I notice I pray in the right form or I don’t, so I adjust accordingly, etc.) (55-57). I think she is onto something important here, and I am borrowing from the Connolly’s politics of becoming to talk about it.
What if we all became more aware of our bodily practice? Of course, our various end-goals would still be quite different; we would still be, whether the women of the mosque movement like it or not, amidst the ethics of authenticity. The modern moral order will almost certainly rule, whether we like it or not. But if we are aware of what is visceral, what is bodily, what is habitual, and we are aware of these things as preconditioning our responses (rather that being the subjects of them), then we are—all of us—more able to engage in the sort of generous critique and interlocution which Mahmood describes.
My understanding of Talal Asad’s work is that it asks us to question the assumption that the West is secular in its modern formation and development. Also, how the rhetoric of “secularism” in the West has been used as a tool for intervention in regions that are defined by the West as “non-secular.” This is very valuable intervention.
The further question I have is whether secularism is Western at all. Was there secular political organizing—in the sense of how the term has developed—somewhere else and before European modernity?
The answer is that there was. Among many other “non-Western” examples, Islamic history can provide few examples of “separation” between state and Church, and this was the case among the Ummayads, the Abbassids, and other dynasties.
The further point that is worth examining is whether we need to rather understand the question of secularism and the separation of state and church in relative terms rather in absolute ones. And here “separation of state and church” means the ending of the absolute rule of the Church, which is more of a European lineage than anywhere else.
Some who are critical of those “fanatics” who want to reinstate the role of the Church in government have legitimate fears. In Europe and the West in general, it means going back to times where people had much less of a say in their property, life, and liberty than they do now. In the “Muslim” world, some who oppose “religious fanatics” are opposed to something that was never there. There was never an absolute rule of the church in the Muslim world, and those “purists” are fantasizing about something that was never there, or about something that was that was “represented” for them by Western scholarship and discourse that continues to project its own history and reality rather than present serious analysis and history of what was in the Muslim world, and what is at this moment.
Groups who want to turn the clock back, rather than forward by learning and improving our living conditions in a political framework that is more just and tolerant to real diversity, exist both in the West and in the East. What is really troublesome is that in the academy as a site of critical reflection, there seems to be rather more of complicity, reaction, or complete denial.