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.