Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportThey had been accustomed in their childhood to follow his direction, and to refer their little differences to him; and when they were men, who fitter to rule them? Their little properties, and less covetousness, seldom afforded greater controversies; and when any should arise, where could they have a fitter umpire than he, by whose care they had every one been sustained and brought up, and who had a tenderness for them all? It is no wonder that they made no distinction betwixt minority and full age.

John Locke

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“Now let us see how Bauer formulates the role of the state,” writes Karl Marx in his famous take on the minority question, which Saba Mahmood aptly recalls and perceptively reads. Marx recognized that Bruno Bauer, his interlocutor, was also fighting for emancipation and equality; Bauer was fighting for political emancipation. But Bauer failed “to examine the relationship between political emancipation and human emancipation.” He failed to recognize that, in Germany at least, the state is “a theologian ex professo.” Marx does grant that there may be some states where “the Jewish question loses its theological significance and becomes a truly secular question.” And yet he is also very clear that to stop at the secular (that is, at political emancipation) is insufficient. “Political emancipation from religion is not complete and consistent emancipation from religion, because political emancipation is not the complete and consistent form of human emancipation.” Her Marxian reservations notwithstanding, it is a proximate, urgent, and enduring struggle, one for “religious equality,” that Mahmood documents and embraces. “As an aspiration and a principle, religious equality signaled a sea change in how interfaith inequality was historically perceived . . . the variety of social movements fighting for religious equality attests to the global reach of this ideal and its promise . . . The impossibility of its realization should not blind us to its power, its ongoing promise, and its constitutive contradictions.”

Throughout this erudite and engrossing book (the chapter on Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel is particularly brilliant, as is the analysis of constitutional debates and the historicization of family law), Mahmood draws from her rich ethnographic, historical and textual, indeed literary, knowledge of Egypt and Europe, of law and liberalism, of religion and secularism, and more. As she elaborates and advocates for a subtle and layered understanding of the principle of religious equality and the (otherwise than secular) struggles that animate and are animated by it, she maintains a plural, but coherent, perspective on “the agency of the sovereign state” and on “the historically grounded sensibilities of the different communities that constitute the social.” Although she demonstrates its limits (as “one of the enabling conditions of religious conflict today,” for instance) and argues that, “as a statist project [secularism] exerts inordinate power on our political imagination,” Mahmood does not quite propose that we emancipate ourselves from political secularism. Her inquiry should therefore “not be mistaken as a denunciation of secularism or as a call for its demise. Secularism is not something that can be done away with any more than modernity can be. It is an ineluctable aspect of our present condition as both political imagination and epistemological limit.” Mahmood could even be understood as wishing to advance secularism (“the promise of a humanity freed from servitude to divine and clerical authority”)—to complicate it, yes, but also to extend it further. She suggests that secularity (“as a substrate of ethical sensibilities, attitudes, and dispositions”) may thus “provide the resources for a critical practice that does not privilege the agency of the state.” More important, Mahmood’s strict focus on what she repeatedly defines as religious minorities (the Copts of Egypt, the Muslims of Europe), on the multiple entanglements of religion and the secular, makes it clear that her criticism is primarily directed at the secular state and its treatment of religion. What she therefore does is “treat secularism neither as a single formation that homogeneously transforms all histories nor as a plurality expressed in local cultural forms.” She suggests instead “that secularism entails a form of national-political structuration organized around the problem of religious difference, a problem whose resolution takes strikingly similar forms across geographic contexts.”

Still, beyond religious difference, if hardly separate from it, Mahmood acknowledges and engages—differentially, as it were—with sexual difference, national, cultural and/or racial difference, even with geopolitical and historical difference. But, as her title makes clear, her focus is on religious difference, religious equality (and inequality), and on the difference the secular makes (“I focus on the problem of religious minorities rather than groups defined by ethnic, linguistic, or other attributes,” she writes). Thus, whereas Bauer failed to recognize the state in its theological dimensions, Mahmood makes no comparable mistake. She understands the state, the secular state, as theological. And whereas Marx affirmed the end of “religious criticism,” Mahmood seems intent on assuring us that we must continue to engage in “secular criticism.”1

The secular state, then. Just like others have called our attention to “the racial state,” “the ethnographic state,” “the security state,” and to “the sexual contract.” With distinct agendas and priorities, they have told us about the management, indeed, about the multifarious production of (minority) difference. As Talal Asad puts it, the state (Asad speaks here of “political supremacy”) “works effectively through institutionalized differences. It is a notorious tactic of political power to deny a distinct unity to populations it seeks to govern, to treat them as contingent and indeterminate.” Asad underscores, just as Mahmood does, “the strategy of disaggregating subject populations in order better to administer them,” the singular importance of the rhetoric of numbers, the embedded lexicon of majority and minority. But it is not religious difference that Asad discusses in this particular instance, it is rather “culture” (Asad writes before September 11, and before “religion” became the very name, aside from gender and sexuality perhaps the only name, of difference.) Asad explains that “whereas ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ relate to the principle by which public policies are made and unmade, ‘culture’ is virtually coterminous with the social life of particular populations, including habits and beliefs conveyed across generations. One is always born into a culture, and even if one alters one’s way of life later, one always belongs to traditions by reference to which one’s difference is constructed and elaborated.”

There is much to be said about the concept of minority deployed by Mahmood, about its own Christian and colonial history.2 What Asad describes, at any rate, is the making of culture as a difference that one encounters. Elaborating on the notion of “cultural minority,” he points to the discrepancy in attempting to resolve politically that which is understood as pre-political. By locating culture (or religion or race, gender or class) in time out of mind, the liberal state not only buttresses and legitimizes a certain notion of the political (as opposed to the religious, but also to the racial, the national, the sexual, the economic, or the social); it not only manages and produces these other realms as sites of difference, but it also disaggregates difference. That is, it begins to manage difference by a priori relegating some differences to the realm of religion, others to the realm of race (hence segregation or extermination), others to the realm of the national (hence partition), yet others to the realm of class (hence workers rights and welfare), and (finally?) to the realm of sexuality (hence universal suffrage and gay rights). Or else, think of the Jews, whom Mahmood invokes with varying degrees of pertinence, who had to choose between “nation” and “religion.” Which is why we must understand the radical novelty of modern divisions as generative, as Mahmood rightly insists. And why the narrative according to which some selfsame “religion” was privatized is untenable. There is no such thing as “the privatization of religion and sexuality under modern secularism,” much less a “privatization of sexuality in modern times.” There is an invention of both religion and sexuality (and race and class and nation, etc.) as categories of rule and regulation, of governance and subjectivation, under the regimes of modernity.

There are good reasons, of course, for the analytic distinctions that isolate the racial state from the secular state, that discriminate between class warfare and religious strife. But the familiar mantras (“race, class, gender”) have taught us to recognize diverse entanglements as well as masks of conquest (literature for religion, in Gauri Viswanathan’s compelling argument). After all, just as the Jews had to choose among religion, nation, or race (but others exercised a more malign and sovereign decision over that, as is well known), the Copts of Egypt oscillated between racial and national—not just religious—options. As Mahmood writes, “History, in the secular imaginary, is the purportedly neutral ground over which different discursive traditions meet, obliged to translate their specific life worlds into a commensurate form called ‘religion.’” History is indeed a translating ground, but the state is another scene, another stage, upon which discursive traditions, collectives of different sorts, vie for recognition and are forced to make themselves into the state’s image. But which image, which minority, does the state want? Which does it choose? Recall, as Mayanthi Fernando did, those Muslim French who have long had to pass muster in “cultural” rather than “cultual” (or “religious”) terms—and vice-versa.

Is the modern state secular? Is it racial, sexual, commercial, liberal? No doubt it is all those things. Marx for one identified the state as Christian and recommended we do not abide by the distinctions it itself produces and generates, secular/religious among them. The state, after all, is the primary site of a narrowly conceived political emancipation and its divisions are masks of conquest indeed. Look at Egypt. Current developments—which Mahmood underscores as well—certainly remind us that the state is first of all the security and military state. And not just in Egypt. Just watch the gear on a police officer near you—if you can afford to. Whether our secularity, our secular sensibilities, will save us now or only a god, another god or many, I do not know.

“Few of the economic and political transformations I have described,” writes Mahmood, “can be neatly aligned on either side of the religious-secular divide.” To understand our secular age, her book demonstrates, means to suspend, if not altogether abolish, the very notion of political secularism. Indeed, Mahmood expresses her astonishment at the persistence of secularism, for “how can secularism be called upon to solve the majority-minority conflict when it is partly responsible for its creation? Yet secularism’s claim that it is the best solution to religious strife continues to hold sway.” One must also wonder at secularism’s latest claim that it is the best explanation for religious strife.


  1. I invoke Edward Said’s famous phrase with a measure of irony, of course, when considering the heated debates that have centered on the “postsecular”—a term Mahmood refuses and refutes—and the peculiar reading of Said they have often been sustained by. Not to mention the fierce animus these debates have mobilized and projected—at Saba Mahmood in particular. If time and space permitted, I would revisit these debates and, on the basis of Mahmood’s book, propose something like a roadmap, a solution to the religious-secular or secular-postsecular conflict.

  2. “Now, what are the minorities?” asked Muhammad Ali Jinnah. “Minorities mean a combination of things. It may be that a minority has a different religion from the other citizens of a country. Their language may be different, their race may be different, their culture may be different, and the combination of all these elements – religion, culture, race, language, art, music and so forth makes the minority a separate entity in the State, and that separate entity wants safeguards. Surely, therefore, we must face this question as a political problem, we must solve it and not evade it.”