Trenchantly framed as “a minority report,” Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report offers more than just one dissenting opinion. The book makes at least three distinct interventions—archival, critical, and methodological—that together call state secularism into question as a political project and normative ideal. This “minority report” has major significance. It raises crucial historical and ethical questions about the power—and limits—of the state and law to achieve “religious equality.”
At its most literal level, Mahmood’s reference to minority describes her subjects: after focusing on pious Muslim women in her first book, she focuses here on the vexed position of Copts and Bahá’ís, religious minorities in Ottoman, colonial, and postcolonial Egypt. But as Mahmood makes clear at the outset, the book “is not an ethnography in the classical sense.” While based on participant observation with minority-rights groups, her focus is as much on the lived reality of concepts—political secularism, religious liberty and minority rights—as on individual lives. Her anthropological archive thus reaches beyond recent ethnography to include legal history, contemporary jurisprudence, and literature. She traces this conceptual history from the Ottoman capitulations through nineteenth-century colonial and missionary projects to the contemporary politics of human rights NGOs and evangelical Christian organizations. Mahmood’s method highlights both continuities (for example, in the language of religious freedom) and ruptures (such as the introduction of “public order” as a new legal category in the 1920s) in the management of minorities in Egyptian law and society.
This historical genealogy highlights how religious differences in Egypt, rather than being defused by legal provisions for minorities, have been reified and exacerbated by them. The seemingly counterintuitive claim is pointedly intended to question political secularism’s ability to neutralize modern religious conflict, despite its normative claims to the contrary. For Mahmood, this is not a matter of ideological hypocrisy or failed intentions. It is, rather, a structural problem of secular governmentality: state efforts to manage religious difference are fraught with contradiction. In casting doubt on national and international rights frameworks, Mahmood encourages us to question the social entailments and political effects of a modern “rule of law.”
In illustrating the paradoxes in the state management of minority problems, the book also delivers a powerful minority report in another sense. Mahmood offers a sharp rejoinder to reigning assumptions about secularism’s ability to accommodate religious difference in the modern nation-state. Her concrete case shows how secular states actually produce and govern “religion” as a purportedly private concern rather than either subtracting or ignoring it. Her analysis is guided by Karl Marx’s account of how the modern liberal state privatizes religion in On the Jewish Question—how, in other words, the state’s claim to political neutrality consigns religion to the private domain of civil society and law. Following Talal Asad’s critical anthropology of secularism as a political project, Mahmood also demonstrates how states, while apparently privatizing belief, in fact adjudicate and govern the boundaries of that domain, including what does and does not count as religion. Asad has productively used this framework to explore the representational problem of Muslims as a “Religious Minority” in Europe. The case of the headscarf in France, banned from public schools in 2004, offers a well known example of how public manifestations of minority faith are produced as a recurring legal and administrative problem. Rather than decisively resolving the question, the French law on laïcité regularly gives rise to new questions: does it apply to private day cares? Can mothers who wear the headscarf accompany their children on school trips? Courts in France are repeatedly called upon to decide how to resolve this problem. Mahmood’s study productively turns this familiar case on its head in order to make clear how it is political secularism, rather than Islam that is the source of the problem. In Muslim majority Egypt, where Christians are in the minority, the problems of secular governance remain.
These challenges impact majorities as well as minority, as Hussein Ali Agrama’s work on the legal treatment of Islamic apostasy well shows. But minorities feel the state’s regulatory power even more acutely. Egyptian Bahá’ís, who represent less than one percent of Egypt’s population, are a seemingly very minor case. For Mahmood, legal debates over how and whether to legally recognize citizens whose faith is unrecognized stands as “exemplary” of the contradiction between Egypt’s secular civil legal framework that guarantees religious equality on the one hand, and on the other, the state’s exclusive recognition of “religions of the Book.” The state is caught in a bind by the question of what religion to list on the Bahá’ís’ national identity cards, which are an essential feature of civil life in Egypt. Jurisprudence hesitated between forcing Bahá’ís to lie or allowing them to list a Bahá’í identity, which would paradoxically recognize the religion for administrative purposes and subject Bahá’ís to discrimination. Ultimately, a 2008 decision allowed them to leave it blank. As Mahmood argues, however, this seemingly secular legal solution based on a civil legal concept of public order introduced by British colonial officials in 1923 actually reinscribed the Bahá’ís’ unequal status: it marked them as an unofficial minority or as apostates.
The case of the Bahá’í illustrates more than a parochial problem. Many European states and the European Court of Human Rights use analogous legal reasoning to adjudicate questions ranging from crosses displayed in Italian school classrooms to headscarves in French and Turkish schools. The sovereign legal mechanism used to address these questions provides states with a margin of appreciation in determining the normative public order, thus reproducing differences between majority and minority rather than resolving them.
As the comparative cases studied by Mahmood illustrate, the problems arise neither from a particular minority’s qualities—whether those of Copts or Bahá’ís in Egypt or Muslims in France—nor from Egypt’s particular failures as an insufficiently secular state with Islamic majoritarian norms. The problem is, rather, a structural one produced by the modern nation-state and its formal, political equality. The problem of religious minority in Egypt illuminates a global difficulty, not just a provincial one. The book’s intervention thus reaches far beyond the local legal context and its rich archive.
There is yet a third sense in which the book is a minority report. By illustrating how Egypt exemplifies a “globally shared aspect of political secularism,” Mahmood resists issuing a particularizing “indigenous account.” She refuses a facile division between a normatively secular West and its failed imitators or alternatives elsewhere. Rather than appearing as a “minoritarian” exception to a presumptive Western norm, the Egyptian case makes manifest, through comparative analysis, how secularism has historically inscribed and continues to preserve majoritarian norms, including within the West.
By inverting the logic of comparison that historically structured colonial and international law, Mahmood thus de-provincializes the Egyptian case. She demonstrates that the paradoxes of its religious governance result as much from a reliance on concepts and techniques adopted in modernizing and colonial legal reforms as from its purported basis on sharia. These modern concepts and techniques—such as the circumscribed domain of family law or the sovereign logic of public order—shape how religion is allowed to structure social life. Majority and minority differ in Egypt and France, for example. But they have a shared history of legal concepts and mechanisms that is all too easily obscured by familiar rhetorics of civilizational or cultural difference. This makes Mahmood’s work essential reading as much for scholars of modern Europe and European Empire as it is for specialists of the Middle East.
Mahmood’s central focus on a global genealogy of personal status or family law makes these global connections explicit. The history and structure of Egyptian Codes have intellectual and institutional kinship with contemporary reforms adopted in Europe and European colonies. The global power of personal status and family law codes, as legal scholars Janet Halley and Kerry Rittich have explained, lay in how they universally cast the domain and function of the family as private and particular, which is to say intimate, moral, affective, and, most importantly for Mahmood’s project, religious. As both universal and particular, local expressions of personal status globally reflected, and indeed instantiated, national, religious, and ethnic particularity. In contrast, market law was cast as transcending such cultural particularity. These universalizing and particularizing assumptions informed national codification projects, the development of international private law, and colonial law in the nineteenth century— in Italy and Egypt, in the U.S., and in French Algeria.
For Mahmood, the persistence of this legal framework in Egypt creates an asymmetrical conflict between majority and minority over “private” religious rights. Women are often at the center of these conflicts about religious freedom, as the controversies over Coptic women’s conversion to Islam demonstrate. These cases make clear how religious freedom subordinates individual women to the rights of the community. For Mahmood, these conflicts should not be understood as a mere expression of a transhistorical religious patriarchy (either Muslim or Coptic). It is, rather, modern law that cements the regulatory fates of religion and the family (for which women so often stand in). As she explains, “the central role sexuality has come to play in the standoff between the religious and the secular in a variety of global struggles is diagnostic of this conjoining.” The argument is powerful precisely because so many claims about the normative value of political secularism are founded on its purported association with gender and sexual equality.
Importantly, then, Mahmood’s argument is not intended as a defense of the legal rights of the Coptic minority in any simple and straightforward way. She instead raises questions about the forms of violence and inequality that are perpetuated and reinforced by secular legal frameworks of minority rights, most notably with respect to women. While attending to the structural and physical violence exacted on Coptic communities in Egypt, Mahmood underscores how Copts, and the institutional Church in particular, have been drawn into complicity with secular authoritarian regimes, both in the past and today. Their doing so, however, is an effect of Copts’ persistent social, economic, and political precarity, not transhistorical religious enmity.
Committed to a normative social ideal of both religious and gender equality, Mahmood questions how the state, and its legal forms, can ultimately realize it. In conclusion to her chapter on the (non)recognition of the Bahá’í, she notes that “we cannot but address the state in our quest for political and religious equality.” She, nonetheless, suggests that a singular focus on the state limits political imagination. The book’s conclusion thus points in a different direction, away from an aspiration directed at the state and toward “an aspiration grounded in a historically distinct social experience.”
Mahmood thus sets her sights on the state and law in order to reveal the limits of political secularism—and hence to move beyond or outside it. Her work embraces “a critical practice that does not privilege the agency of the state.” The conclusion, like the introduction, thus echoes Marx, whose critique of the state also concludes with a gesture toward social powers that are beyond and against the state. If the Arab Spring seemed to represent a momentary explosion of such social powers, the brutal state violence of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s current regime warrants this kind of skepticism.
It is worth returning here to On the Jewish Question, where Marx makes an analogous criticism of the secular bourgeois state and its privatization of social difference. Alongside religion and the family, as Marx notes, property is consigned to the domain of private law. While public law is the province of the abstract citizen, private law is reserved for the “man” of civil society. “This man,” he explained, “was not liberated from religion; he received religious liberty. He was not liberated from property; he received the liberty to own property.” Entrenched in civil society, the privatization of property right and religious right were not just parallel but linked in the past and today.
As a result, religious forces alone cannot alone explain the rigidification of religious difference in modern Egypt (and, by implication, elsewhere). They have rather developed in dynamic relation to political and economic forces that gave rise to the current impasse. On the one hand, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist state, in establishing an entente with the Coptic papacy, undermined the social power of lay Coptic elites. On the other hand, more recent neo-liberal dynamics, including the “privatization of the economy and public goods,” have had “the unintended consequence of making religious institutions central to civic and social life.” Whether operating in an expanded or retracted form, state government of religion exacerbates the problem of religious difference. If not to the state, to where should we now look in order to better reimagine religious and economic equality?
Like Marx, Mahmood leaves open these two questions. How might those social powers that remain beyond the state’s purview be activated? And what role, if any, should still be played by the state? It is hard to imagine more pressing questions for our time.