In the concluding paragraph of the penultimate chapter of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood writes:
[I] want to invite us to contend with the conditionality of this [religious] freedom, its sequestration within a specific political imaginary that cannot make do without the agency of the sovereign state. We cannot but address the state in our quest for political and religious equality, despite the exceptions and constraints. To think with this conditionality is to acknowledge the finitude of our imagination even as we seek to expand its constraints.
Most of the book is an original and thorough exploration of the historical rise and unfolding of this finitude of our imagination—the difficulty of relating to the lives of religious communities, in their difference, without the arbitrating mediation of the state. Mahmood traces the gradual replacement of earlier Ottoman modalities of rule governing religious communities and the relationships between them by the state-centered secular mode of governance. The former was a tradition that did not promise equality but maintained religious pluralism, without intervening in what constituted religion and without attempting to reorganize religious life. Paradoxically, the hierarchy characteristic of that system of rule left religious communities more immune to the infiltration of state powers. On the other end, despite its promise of religious equality, secular governance, as Mahmood shows, contributed “to the exacerbation of religious tensions in postcolonial Egypt, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarizing religious difference.” At the center of the book is a story about the sovereign state, modern law—domestic and international—and the unequal power distributions between the West and the non-West during the colonial and post-colonial periods, all of which make up the forces of political secularism and the stage for its unfolding. Far from constituting a solution to the problem of religious conflict, they reconfigure and intensify its terms.
These forces make our imagination finite, Mahmood argues, putting limits on the reach of our vision and shaping the possible, even as we attempt to loosen their constraints. They redirect political thinking and action toward the state and international institutions, investing them with the capacity to protect religious communities. Inequality persists. For state and modern legal practices themselves are constitutive of the polarization of religious difference and inequality, granting themselves the prerogative to decide on key aspects of religious life. And hence the impasse: Progressive political action of communities seeking to preserve their religious life proceeds by pursuing protection in the very institutions that marginalize and reorganize them. The finitude of our imagination is therefore evident in the difficulty of articulating avenues for the existence of communities in difference (including religious communities) without the mediation of the state, the associated regime of political secularism and the international projects of minority rights and religious liberty. This difficulty persists despite the realization that political secularism is itself, at least in part, conceptive of the today’s religious polarization. It persists, one might add, because its condition of possibility is the historical demise of a world in which non-secular authorities and traditions were more relevant to ethical and political life. It persists because of the rise of a new stage of power—the international—enabling more infiltration in the lives of communities, particularly in the so-called third world, while presenting them with new vocabulary of political secularism to make their plight legible. It persists because the struggle for equality has become a defining characteristic of modern politics, and this equality requires an equalizing force—the state—a party that can claim to neutrally distribute capacities and forces between members of society. But if political secularism delineates a specific political imaginary that cannot make do without the state and therefore reproduces its necessity, does this mean that the juridico-political language of political secularism is the only mode of thought available to communities who live in difference? Or to ask the same question differently, does the rise of the world of modern states equal the demise of a pre-modern horizons? Does the struggle for equality foreclose other struggles? I return to these questions at the end of my observations.
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One term key to Mahmood’s story is “minority.” The vocabularies, institutions, and practices of the modern state govern relationships between different communities, but also define religious communities as majority or minority groups. Religious communities become intelligible, and their wounds recognizable, only by assuming such a position, delineated and governed by the state, international institutions, as well as transnational actors embedded in unequal geopolitical power relations. As a political term, Mahmood argues, minority “registers hierarchized difference (and not simply difference), despite the state’s claim to ensure equality for all its citizens.” We learn that the persistent inequality from which the Coptic and Bahá’í communities suffer does not constitute a deviation from political secularism, but is enshrined “within the structure of the modern state and its operational logic.” Promising equality, the state politically and legally renounces difference, while allowing inequality to “continue to permeate social life.” Such is the constitutive contradiction of political secularism, including the minority status that Mahmood recovers. The minority status is at once responsible for the various wounds inflicted on communities and for making them recognizable and therefore healable. We could say that the term comprises both the illness and the remedy.
Furthermore, the minority status (similar to “religious liberty”) is not a neutral adjective attached to a group because of a demographic fact. Nor is the minority status, unlike what liberal legal and political theorists of multiculturalism conjecture, merely protective of an already existing identity. Rather minority rights (and religious liberty) are at once the marker of existing power relations and constitutive of their own power operations. These rights, as Mahmood writes, “have been tied from their very inception to raison d’état, regional and national security, and geopolitics.” The classification of groups as minorities and the protections that consequently follow are a product of asymmetric power relations, national and international, colonial and post-colonial. In addition, and perhaps most significantly, the term “minority” has been transformative of religious life while claiming its protection. One episode of this secular transformative power is the reconfiguration of religion as private belief detached from the communal rituals that maintain and sustain religious life;these ceased to qualify as religion. This productive power helps to explain the intensifications of conflicts (gendered family law, aporias of conscience, state-sanctioned hermeneutics) characterizing inter-religious relations in Egypt.
Mahmood’s account is also useful in understanding minoritization processes more generally, and beyond the question of religious difference. By minoritization I mean both the actual forceful reduction of communities and peoples, as well as their resignification as minorities. That is, minoritization as consisting in both mortal operations (wars and expulsion) and the conceptual animation of survivors as a minority community. Consider the 1948 war that resulted in the defeat of the Palestinians, the formalization of the Zionist colonization of Palestine, and the establishment of a new state that brought in more settler-immigrants to ensure Jewish majority. While most Palestinians in the areas occupied during the 1948 war became refugees, some of them succeeded in remaining in Palestine. They became second and third class citizens in the new state. But the state also classified them as religious minorities. Many Palestinians adopted the minority identity in their various political and legal struggles for equality. They preferred the term national minority (over religious minorities) for its signification of national loss, national belonging to a larger people, and the persistence of a unified community. Crucially, however, what was left unchallenged by those who pioneered the cause of the minority and sought its protection by the means of state and international law, is an appreciation for their condition as a minoritized people. In this case, the term minority secured the results of military expulsion, revealing yet another instance of the former’s violent transformative power. By seeking protection in minority status, these Palestinians reinforced their minoritzation. While Mahmood’s book is concerned with specific episodes of minoritization, her discussion elucidates the deep solidarity between state violence and minority status, as well as its subjugating powers. Such was also the understanding of many Palestinians who refused the minority status, opting instead for terms that mark their position as colonized.
Mahmood’s book also makes one curious about the quality of inter-communal relations once communities gained their intelligibility through numeric articulations: a community is a minority insofar as the number of its members is demographically inferior to another community. That counting is the means for delineating the terms of inter-communal relations and governing them is no minor operation. We know much about the rise of statistics and their relationship to biopolitics and the state. But Mahmood’s book could be read as offering us a window into the fate of ethical and political relations once the results of counting begin to determine norms, relations and the terms for co-existence. Perhaps in this regard too we can observe the finitude of contemporary legal-political contemporary imagination: the inability to relate to difference without counting the individuals who embody it, measuring its demographic reach. One seems to be under the obligation to relate to difference and to appeal for its protection only once it has been enumerated, its threat measured and delimited (and therefore secured). Protection, securitization, and governance meet again, this time through the mediation of numbers.
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Let me conclude by returning to the puzzle that animates Mahmood’s inquiry:
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. Despite the erosion of political and civil equality in Egypt, activists continue to call upon the state to make good on its mandate.
How to explain the appeal of political secularism despite its failure to deliver on its promise? This appeal seems to emanate from political secularism’s hybridity. It is at once a set of ideals promising equality, and an array of governmental practices that privilege majoritarian norms (“it is hard for us to articulate a critique of religious inequality without at the same time calling on the state to become more secular.”) Perhaps this hybridity is what makes political secularism so irresistible. Despite the inequality and the inter-religious conflict which political secularism entrenches and exacerbates, its ideals continue to guide activism against inequality, by providing the critical language and the promise of a conflict-free society. This critique of inequality transforms it into a problem that must be overcome (or at least managed). Political secularism, in other words, assumes all tasks: how to know a problem, how to make it, and how to fix it.
Hence the sense of loss that one might experience reading the book. There is of course the explicit historical loss, narrated in the book’s first part, of ways of relating to communities of difference without the grids of political secularism. There is also the loss that the reader experiences intellectually and politically in attempting to find an exit from the world of nation states, its associated regime of political secularism, and its technologies of rule, in particular the reconstitution of communities as majority or minority. And finally there is loss in the face of institutions of inequality and of subjugations that are themselves also institutions of critique.
But if there is a sense of loss, there is also clarity in Religious Difference in a Secular Age. Clarity about the limited horizons of political secularism, about the necessity of observing other possibilities for ethical inter-communal relationships, and about the importance of probing other grounds of critique or imagination. This clarity is most evident in the concluding lines of the book: “the idea of interfaith equality might require not the bracketing of religious differences but their ethical thematization as a necessary risk when the conceptual and political resources of the state have proved inadequate to the challenge this ideal sets before us.” Mahmood does not elaborate further. But this requirement of ethical thematization, which comes with a necessary risk, means that the juridico-political language of political secularism is not the only mode of thought available to communities who live in difference.
If political secularism did not achieve the totality to which it aspires, if we grant the enduring possibility of ethical reckoning, as Mahmood herself does in the fifth chapter, then we can observe communities living with difference, opting for non-minoritarian significations, co-existing and conflicting, without neatly dividing their relationships into equal and unequal—as if such pure discrete measures are possible, or as if human and communal relationships can be lived based on their numerical value/threat. It might be then possible to argue that the temporality of secularism does not only comprise the linear and deeply historicist temporalities of political secularism and secularity—temporalities that introduce a radical break with the past, and map us on a world gained against a world lost. Rather the temporality of secularism is joined by less thematized possibilities and struggles that do not belong to it, but offer a glimpse into other ways of living with difference. This ethical thematization of difference, as Mahmood reminds us, comes with a risk (including perhaps the risks of questioning the promise of a unifying equality, of acting from the grounds of disagreement, and of losing the arbiter on earth). But this is an avowed risk, indicating modesty in political action, unlike institutions of political secularism that cannot but govern from big stages with big ideals.