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.
Saba Mahmood, in her powerful and incisive new book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, fundamentally upends this conventional wisdom, deftly showing how polities throughout the region have been organized around a basic secular public-private divide that mirrors Western statecraft. Islam (not unlike Christianity in Europe) is often abstracted and universalized as the collective identity of the nation while minority religious faiths are privatized—treated as juridically irrelevant to one’s public and legal status. But instead of taming religious identity, this state management of the meaning and boundaries of communal faith has actually intensified religion’s role in public life. It has combined formal legal equality with substantive inequality, linked faith under neoliberal conditions to the privatized provision of basic goods, and transformed religion into a fundamental social and political flashpoint. Indeed, the dilemma has been too much rather than too little secularization. And the belief that conflict can be avoided through yet more state management amounts to willful blindness—it imagines that simply repeating the same historic errors can somehow lead to different outcomes. This is an essential intervention into debates about religion’s role in the region and Mahmood’s book should be read—and reckoned with—by anyone interested in these matters.
For our essay, we would like to take up a challenge implicit in the book: how might we think beyond the terms generated by political secularism? What are the available resources for criticizing modern secular governance and mitigating its discriminatory effects? Our main worry is that, at times, secularism seems to refer to a set of all-encompassing and irreversible processes, linked broadly with the making of modernity. Mahmood is careful to distinguish political secularism from secularity, the latter being the more overarching concept bound to, for example, the making of the modern subject and the epistemological conditions of modern conceptions of history. But though more narrowly construed, political secularism comes to define the field of what we might call modern statehood. And, in this sense, secular statecraft is taken to be the unavoidable and permanent effect of modern sovereignty itself. Our question and concern is whether such a broad ranging diagnosis may work against the task of criticism.
One way to go about such a task is to break down political secularism into component parts and processes. In doing so, we might be able to tease out the core elements in today’s governing model, those elements that are most concretely responsible for generating conditions of violence and hierarchy. And by honing in on them, we can also think more creatively about ideological, institutional, and ethical responses and alternatives.
One of the unstated culprits or causes that has enabled the vulnerability of religious minorities is, broadly put, democratic politics. Mahmood rightly highlights what she terms “majoritarian bias” as a key factor that undermines both the right of religious liberty as well as the principle of legal equality. This is the important point made in chapter four, where she deftly juxtaposes the legal treatment of the Bahá’í question in Egypt with rulings on veiling by the European Court of Human Rights. Mahmood shows how, in both cases, the deference to majoritarian norms continuously calls into question liberal neutrality. We are in deep sympathy with this line of criticism. But our point is that majoritariansim itself needs to be given an account of. Mahmood takes majoritarianism to be part and parcel of liberal statehood, but arguably it more rightly belongs to the story of modern democracy. It is democracy, after all, that gives powerful moral and political charge to the categories of majority and minority. Our suggestion is that to fully account for the minority predicament today, we need to attend to the dynamics, compulsions, and the continuing appeal of majoritarianism. And for this we have to understand its relationship to the logic and history of democracy.
Historically, majoritarianism has indeed intersected in crucial ways with liberal statehood. Going back at least to World War I and the League of Nations, international powers have sought to reconcile popular sovereignty and individual rights by presupposing a necessary relationship between democracy and ethno-religious people-hood. This conceptual move linked democratic aspirations to destructive brands of nationalist majoritarianism.
It was also the product of a particular historic conjuncture. We can see the problematic tie between the governing democratic model and the question of religious difference in how figures like Woodrow Wilson imagined the essential architecture of twentieth century international order. For Wilson, especially in the aftermath of world war, global violence had in large part been the product of a basic predicament. While the world was made up of distinct “peoples,” these peoples were distributed across various polities in ways that undermined the ability of any specific ethno-religious community to enjoy explicit self-determination. The goal, therefore, of a postcolonial world was to transform plural imperial orders into self-determining democratic nation-states built around a single people. Wilson and others recognized that such a vision could never be perfectly achieved; states would necessarily have a majority ethno-religious community and a minority “remainder.” But, as Robert Meister has explored in his recent book After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights, the underlying hope was that minority rights would be respected through two features: 1) an internationally enforced system of status protections and 2) the political fact that a minority in one state would be a self-determining democratic majority in another. This latter feature would ensure an international framework of mutual co-national support across political boundaries.
Unfortunately, as the last century has underscored, the vision of democratic self-determination as bound to majoritarian “peoples” with minority ethno-religious populations has proven catastrophic in its effects. Interwar Europe witnessed mass transfers of populations and genocide. This violence continued in the postcolonial world, generating persistent cycles of oppression and resistance—oftentimes marked by mutually reinforcing projects of majoritarian nation-building and minority exclusion and secession. In these contexts, the implication of democracy and democratization is the continual exacerbation of tendencies toward religious conflict and minority vulnerability.
What are the deeper conceptual grounds for the association between democracy and violence? Modern democracy has come to signify a number of social and political effects and aspirations, from the critique of hierarchy and authority, to social leveling and the championing of egalitarian values. Politically, this equality is aspirationally connected to visions of collective rule and ideals of ruling in turn. But democracy has also come to be understood and practiced as a claim to power, a discourse of legitimation about who has the moral right to rule. The braiding of moral-ethical claims to legitimacy with claims to power makes democratic majoritarianism especially hard to temper and restrain. In ideal models of democratic voting, majorities and minorities are temporary and conjunctural, shifting in make up with every political decision. Majoritarian claims, however, collapse the logic of voting with the logic of power, and seek to endow a descriptive majority with a permanent right to rule. The already-known majority’s view is always seen to be more legitimate than that of the minority.
This is one way in which democracy imbues the categories of majority and minority with moral and political significance. In the postcolonial world, these categories were also marked as demographic categories. This process itself was closely tied to secular statecraft and involved the categorization and politicization of “ascriptive” identities of religion and ethnicity. It is arguably more accurate to say that secularization has made religion function as a marker of ethnic identity. What comes to be at stake in so-called “religious” conflict is often less doctrinal disputes or theological authority but rather contestations over power and representation.
Secular statecraft—as Mahmood so deftly shows—has exacerbated this conflict, but so have processes of democratization. We suspect that secularism alone cannot tell us why the majoritarian claim appears so plausible and appealing as a popular attitude and aspiration. The deepening of democracy in places like Turkey and India, for example, has given rise to the success of religious political parties. In his groundbreaking analysis in “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” Ashis Nandy showed how and why the deepening of democracy might entail new forms of religious conflict and violence. These changes are, in part, driven by plebian upsurges, in which newly politicized populations work out an equalizing process and express varying degrees of anti-elite sentiment. Indeed, this often takes the form of open disdain for and conflict with secular ideology, seen as the rhetoric of a western-oriented paternalistic elite. But this politicization is also an expression of a newly felt popular power and has been accompanied by growing violence against minorities. In India and Thailand, for example, the interlocking of violence and democracy has made Muslim minorities visible and vulnerable targets.
Our endeavor here was to show the utility of locating the problem of religious conflict not only in terms of secularity or political secularism but also in relation to the paradoxes of democracy and the specific historical construction of political democracy in the twentieth century. Such a reframing allows us to retell the story of so-called confessional conflict in terms of a contingent set of fairly recent political developments. While these developments are clearly deeply rooted today, they nonetheless have a concrete periodization and genesis. For this reason, by taking a slice of the larger secular condition, we can imagine how political institutions and affiliations might be reshaped, not least of which by embracing and enacting alternative visions of self-determination.
Secularism and democracy are defining features of modern statehood and modern politics. But they both contain internal paradoxes and contradictory entailments that need to be disentangled to be accounted for and reckoned with. As Mahmood has so acutely argued, we cannot diagnose or address the problem of religious difference if we assume that religious conflict in societies and polities outside the West simply arises from an incomplete or distorted secularism. Likewise we cannot address or understand modern democracy if we see majoritarianism or populism or religious nationalism as simply signs of incomplete or distorted democratization.
Mahmood provocatively suggests that the antidote to religious conflict cannot be more secularism, since secularism itself generates conflict. This might be where the analogy with democracy meets its limits. We, at least, want to hold out hope that more democracy—rather than less—might be required to generate genuinely new political configurations.