Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportIt seems as if there’s been an avalanche of inquiries into the precarious status of religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies in recent decades, much of it framed in terms of the incomplete secularization of Muslim states and/or the (in)compatibility of Islam with secularism, modernity, tolerance, and liberalism. Continual irruptions of interreligious tension and violence in the Middle East in particular have taken on an even more ominous cast in the shadow of ISIS/Da`ish, confirming the extent and depth, as well as the intractability, of “the Muslim problem” in the cottage industry of publications devoted to anatomizing it. In this context, the appearance of yet another excursus on religious minorities in a Muslim majority state seems little more than napworthy.

But Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report isn’t just any book on the subject. It’s a serious and systematic disruption of the unexamined faith and hidden conceits of superiority that enable so much of this commentary to approach the vulnerability of religious minorities as primarily or exclusively a Muslim failure, a problem with Islam, or both. It does so by asking precisely the question foreclosed by this approach: what if secularism is part of the problem rather than the inevitable solution?

The answer is essentially an ethnography of secular governmentality that demonstrates precisely how and why secularism exacerbates rather than resolves interreligious animus in Egypt. The narrative traverses time and space and moves with ease across analytic registers and scales, shifting deftly from the empirical to the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological, and back again. These coordinates enable Mahmood to trace the complex path by which the secular logic that structured modern Euro-American nation-states has also transfigured Egyptian religious life, bringing into sharp relief how such logic has been reinterpreted, constrained, and recalibrated along the way, much as the flow of even an impassable river must conform to different terrain.

As always, Mahmood takes the time to let the materials she has so painstakingly gathered sift and settle, resisting at every turn the temptation to impose the most readily available explanations that fit neatly into existing disciplinary paradigms. She follows the evidence where it leads. And where it leads invariably takes her against the current, virtually guaranteeing that she will be misread by those throughout the academy and beyond whose careers and commitments are built upon the shibboleths her arguments call into question. Mahmood knows this. She knows, too, that the belief that secularism is the solution to interreligious violence is so widespread and deeply rooted in liberal democracies that it rarely, if ever, registers as a claim in need of defense or open to argument. In fact, for many true believers, it’s no less than an article of faith, to the extent that skeptics come to seem like heretics—accused of betraying the very aspiration to religious equality underlying secularism, as if questioning the efficacy of a vaccine is equivalent to opposing a cure.

This does not mean, of course, that there are no legitimate criticisms to be made of the book. There are, for example, some omissions one could question, areas where causes and effects get a bit muddied, and points where the writing, rich as it is, makes the various threads of argumentation harder to keep track of than is necessary. But in my view, the significance of the evidence, along with the theoretical power and instructive potential of the analysis, far eclipse such criticisms.

In light of this assessment, and in keeping with the subversive energies of Religious Difference in a Secular Age, I’d like to devote the remaining space to thinking with rather than against Mahmood. Specifically, I want to extend her analysis of secularism and gender in Egypt to the making and remaking of identities and norms that the book doesn’t explicitly thematize, but that are implicated in its pages: Islamism and masculinity. I do so not as a rebuke to the book’s current focus but as a way to explore the reach of just one part of it. The extension to this particular subject is driven as much by politics as scholarly interest: the global attention Islamism currently commands and the degradation of public discourse about it have ensured the eclipse of all the historical contingencies, entanglements, legacies and contradictions that render it legible. So understood, I want to suggest that, in this particular historical moment, the book provides urgently needed resources for thinking through the relation of secular governmentality to Islamism, to the normative masculinity entailed by the modern nuclear family, and to the oppositions through which they have currently come to be classified, attached exclusively to one another, and constituted as central to a dehistoricized “Muslim problem.”

Religious Difference in a Secular Age takes as its general subject the effects of political secularism on “the way religious identity has come to be lived for Muslims and non-Muslims alike” in Egypt. Yet the book is subtitled “a minority report” for good reason: it is ultimately animated by the plight of religious minorities in Egypt and of two non-Muslim minority groups in particular. As these are the hard cases, such a focus makes sense. The Copts and Bahais (along with Jews and Shi`i Muslims, among others) of Egypt bear the greatest burden of intensified religious polarization and live daily with the heightened vulnerability it entails. It is to such religious groups that the secularist ideals of religious liberty and minority rights hold out the greatest promise, and so it is on their behalf that the contradictions of secularism partly constitutive of their predicament are here called to account.

In chapter 3, Mahmood details how and why such vulnerability comes to be gendered by examining the explosive tensions between Copts and Muslims over the intermarriage and conversion of women. Such disputes are frequently glossed either as an exclusive expression of religious conservatism whose antidote is more secularism, or as “emblematic of how women have often been treated as symbolic placeholders for broader struggles over cultural, identitarian, and territorial claims throughout history.” By contrast, Mahmood argues (á la Joan Scott) that these conflicts must also be understood as a product of how modern secularism has divided and arranged the public and private domains of life, relegating not only religion but also matters of sexuality and the family to the private sphere, intertwining them in ways that intensify rather than ameliorate pre-existing gender and religious hierarchies.

But the chapter also details how, in Muslim-majority states such as Egypt, this has entailed placing religiously based family law and the family in the same juridical domain. As a consequence, struggles over religious identity routinely play out in the arena of family law, invariably to the disadvantage of religious minorities who are unequally regulated. As Coptic Christians are Egypt’s largest religious minority, and as Coptic family law is in many ways distinctive, Mahmood primarily elaborates the effects of this “volatile symbiosis between religious identity and family law” on this particular community in an analysis where gender mainly functions as a marker for female/woman. Among the many effects of such symbiosis are increasing anxiety among Coptic Christians about their survival as a faith; the vesting of minority identity in the regulation of the family “whose exemplary bearer is, after all, the woman”; and the increased policing (rendered as “protecting”) of Christian women from the predations of “aggressive Muslim men.”

Pivotal to this narrative is the transition from polygamous extended families to the modern nuclear family in Egypt in the second half of the nineteenth-century, although—as historian Margot Badran puts it—the “legal consecration of the innovation of a modern nuclear patriarchal family” didn’t occur in Egypt until 1920, when the Muslim Personal Status Code was enacted. Mahmood argues that this transition reconstitutes the patriarchal family but in new form, enmeshing it with religiously based family law inhabiting an emergent private realm. Perhaps obvious, but not articulated in the book, is the fact that a new kind of normative masculinity is also constituted in and through this patriarchal nuclear family, one in which the husband is head of the family, and his wife and children dependents upon him; they are his to guide, guard, protect and control, and they render to him their obedience in exchange. In this way, the secularist logic that has intertwined religious identity and family law, and that has invested religious survival in the integrity of the patriarchal nuclear family, has also made particular enactments of this new masculinity critical to ensuring such integrity.

Much (although certainly not all) of Islamist discourse adumbrates a set of gender norms that include precisely this version of (hetero)normative masculinity. It also includes a correlative conception of the Muslim family—constituted, in part, by the moral purity of the mother/wife—as central to rescuing the umma (Muslim community) from internal decay and Western domination and, by extension, restoring Islam to its former glory. In radical Islamist discourse in particular, evocations of this norm are frequently accompanied by exhortations to enact or perform it, whether by ensuring that Muslim women are more fully safeguarded or by exacting revenge—either physically or symbolically, by way of moral/cultural corruption—on those presumed to violate them and the umma they are made to represent.

The tendency today is to explain such evocations and exhortations in terms of a pathological Arab/Muslim hypermasculinity, the essential patriarchalism of Islam, the misogyny of what are depicted as developmentally arrested honor cultures, or some combination of all three. These depictions have a long and pernicious history, part of an iconography of the Orient implicated in a wide range of imperialist ventures that have enjoyed a new lease on life since 9/11. At the same time, they tend to be reinforced by Islamist claims to speak for the “authentic” Islam and the tendency to selectively invoke Qur’anic verses or hadith (reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) as justification their actions. Paradoxically, both collude to produce the appearance of uninterrupted continuity with pre-modern antecedents that might seem to be sensibly analyzed under the rubric of an essential Islamic patriarchy or timeless Arab manhood.

Yet this hides from view precisely what Mahmood’s ethnography brings into sharp relief: that such equations and investments must be understood in relation to the emplacement of family and religion—specifically, different family laws for different religious communities—in the same juridical domain that has been central to the path of secular logic in particular postcolonial societies. Far from being sui generis, then, what Fatima Mernissi once called the Islamist “obsession” with the place and purity of (Muslim) women is evinced in Coptic Christian as well as in Muslim communities in Egypt, and plays out with different inflections in countries from Israel to India. And there’s more.

Mahmood argues that the continuing inability to recognize how secularist logic has adjusted to postcolonial contexts such as Egypt sustains tired tropes about incomplete secularization or the essential antipathy of Islam to modernity that themselves operate within and re-authorize the opposition between a fully civilized West and a civilizationally immature Islamic world. By the same token, blindness to the historical specificity of the normative masculinity (and gendered preoccupations) many Islamists adumbrate does more than simply reinforce the tendency to assimilate its signs to a savage Muslim hypermasculinity. It also sustains an historical amnesia in which this normative masculinity, and the correlative investment in policing female sexuality, are rendered foreign (and specifically Muslim), and therefore alien to Euro-American societies—which can then be represented as inherently liberal and egalitarian all the way down.

These are two sides of the same coin. Both help explain why it is that, when it comes to “Islamic terrorism,” an ahistorical hyper-masculinity or dysfunctional manhood are so often invoked as primary cause and explanation of first resort.1 What is perhaps less obvious is the way both also enable the erasure of masculinity when it comes to patterns of male violence within the so-called West. Here, an obvious case in point is the striking number of gun massacres in the United States in the last three decades, all but one of which have been committed by men (the majority of them Caucasian).2 Such a pattern would seem to demand some consideration of masculinity. Yet in public discourse, references to masculinity or even gender seem to be as scrupulously avoided here as they are assiduously applied to male Islamist violence. Even law and government agencies dedicated to compiling information about perpetrators hew to the generic language of offenders, victims, and arrestees, while endless commentary about mental instability, workplace rage, or misfit youth largely proceeds as if the killers have no gender. It is difficult to imagine a similar reticence if all the shooters but one were, for example, women. Or black men.

None of this is somehow meant to suggest that every instance of male violence expresses a “crisis of masculinity”; that no one has analyzed connections between American gun violence and masculinity; or that this version of normative masculinity either represents or exhausts normative gender regimes in the Middle East. Rather, they’re an effort to take seriously Mahmood’s analysis of the powerful, complex, and routinely misrecognized imprint of secularist logic on Middle Eastern religious life by using this opportunity to learn from it, in part by investigating its implications and extending its reach—in this case, to an omnipresent subject characterized far more by noise than knowledge. Religious Difference in a Secular Age is, first and foremost, an invaluable map of the intersecting genealogies that constitute the history of the present precarity of religious minorities—the very history eclipsed by secularist oppositions through which such precarity is rendered symptomatic of “the Muslim problem.” It can also be read as an urgent reminder and resource for understanding the complexity of Islamist identities and norms—along with how they are inflected and enacted—as simultaneously an expression of secular governmentality and a rejection of its basic premises. And that may just be the beginning of its reach.


  1. For critiques of this pattern post-9/11, see Jaspir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 51-61 and Paul Amar, “Middle East Masculinity Studies: Discourses of ‘Men in Crisis,’ Industries of Gender in Revolution,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 7(3), 2011: 36-70.

  2. Mother Jones reports that there have been 72 cases of mass shootings–defined as having more than four victims—from 1982 through October of 2015. “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America,” Mother Jones, by Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan.