Saba Mahmood | Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority ReportSaba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is a luminous, fiercely argued book. It requires deep and ongoing engagement precisely because Mahmood stages a conceptual-ethical impasse from which there is no easy exit. Her timely intervention reminds us that the predicament of minority religion is neither anachronistic nor resolved. Rather it is ongoing, and immediate.

In what follows, I think with Mahmood and ask how her argument about the intertwined lives of religion and politics, and the crises of recognition they produce, may play out on the Indian subcontinent with its history of Muslim minority, and affirmative constitutionalism.

*   *   *

Religious Difference makes a counterintuitive argument. Mahmood notes that the claim of secularism as enforcing a strict separation between church and state is quite misleading if taken literally. She argues that secularism refers to the ideas and practices that make religion an object of state action and interest. The separation of religion and state is neither an accomplished fact nor a desired end for state policy. In relegating religion to the private sphere, the modern state actually accomplishes two other results: it produces the split between public and private that is assumed to structure modern political life and simultaneously depoliticizes religion by redefining it as a matter of belief and conscience. In brief, the line between religion and politics—which maps onto the divide between private and public and organizes the sexual division of social life—is neither clear nor consistent. Instead, the privatization of religion often has the opposite effect. It politicizes the relationship between religion and politics by providing a moral basis for judging the political realm to be inherently deficient. Lacking a morality of its own, the political is always vulnerable to this problem, which is the problem of the theologico-political.

This renders political secularism, the relationship between religion and state, a productive site for analytic investigation. Drawing on Karl Marx’s On the Jewish Question, Mahmood argues that the significance of religion is inversely related to its relegation to the private domain, where it remains salient as one amongst other social distinctions. As is well known, Marx’s text is split between a prescient reading of the Jew as paradigmatic minority, on the one hand, and his focus on human emancipation through the ownership and control over the material means of existence on the other. In contrast Mahmood asks what happens when the problem of (religious) minority remains open, unresolved, and open to re-politicization.

As earlier (Ottoman) principles of religious pluralism and Muslim hegemony have given way to civic and political equality, religious minorities in Egypt such as Coptic Christians and the Bahá’í have demanded state protection by reiterating vulnerability as the grounds for claims-making: they activate the right to religion-in-difference by restaging exclusion, albeit in the interest of legal redress. Ironically, then, the exacerbation of religious conflict is both a sign and a symptom of the double bind of minority religion. Think not only of the Bahá’í who are forbidden to note their religion on identity cards, but also about instances of religious intermarriage, abduction, and religious conversion. Mahmood reminds us that what links these events is not merely their demand for legislative intervention, but that they test majority tolerance, risk reprisals, and may result in violence. The history of political secularism thus shows the problem of inter-religious commensuration to be an ongoing one.

*   *   *

Thinking Globally about Sex and the Social

Mahmood argues that secularism is a social form, what she calls a “globally shared form of national-political structuration” for regulating religious difference that “takes a modular form across religious boundaries.” We might recall that postcolonial theorists have argued against modularity by positing the difference between (European) origin, and non-Western implant as predicated on the logic of conceptual derivation. Partha Chatterjee put the argument most forcefully, perhaps, when he argued that anticolonial thought was distinctive in its focus on community as the site of self-making, and a substitute for the state. Mahmood rightly challenges the idea of derivation, and associated arguments for provincialization1 that tend to replicate the binaries of East and West, albeit through arguments for “colonial difference,” and cultural alterity. Instead, the domestication of liberal regulations for religious equality is an unfinished project that is neither provincial nor imitative; the problems of rule were simultaneously posed and dealt with, but across highly differentiated societies.

Mahmood’s attention to gender and sexuality illuminates one of her key contributions. She predicates the impasse of minority rights on the association between the identity of religious minority and the sexual regulation of community; that is, on the equivalence that is established between the social “autonomy” of community and its (internal) regulation by religion-based family law. This does not merely mark the inseparability of sex and society. Rather, it explains why the regulation of minority religious practice also, and necessarily, stages “sexual difference” as the axis along which minority rights enter the public sphere as contentious issues: sexual difference is the mode of visibility by which “the social” becomes amenable to politics.

Politics of Minority

The interwar is crucial for the arguments of Religious Difference. The demise of the Ottoman Empire and the catastrophe of the Holocaust, coupled with the near simultaneous expulsion of Muslim and Jew from a post-imperial “Europe” sets the stage for a global politics of minority. Mahmood links this moment with a longer-term history of Protestant missionization, and emergent associations of religious freedom with private belief and the “personal experience of the divine”; ideas that sanctioned geopolitical overreach in the name of humanitarian intervention to protect Coptic Christians as a beleaguered minority in Ottoman lands. She addresses the persistent and ongoing interface between international law, human rights, and secular Christianity in globalizing the Coptic predicament, and simultaneously tracks the problem of religious freedom as a crisis of governance for the modern Egyptian state.

I want to take up Mahmood’s key insight that the idea of minority “congeals within itself different forms of marginalization and precarity that are historically distinct, which in turn determines the kind of political struggles a minority can pursue in order to ensure its collective survival and well-being.” The issue is an interesting one with regard to Hindus, who do not historically all share a common creed, deity, ritual or text. Arvind Rajagopal has argued that those who wished to promote Hindu identity consequently had a problem that was the reverse of Christianity’s in the secular age. They had to assert a common religion despite the absence of a shared ethical system or common deities. They did so through two sets of oppositions. The first was the invisible divide between “touchable” and “untouchable” Hindus, which produced a crisis of reform; the other was the idea of an external enemy, e.g., Christians, Communists, secularists, but especially Muslims. Thus one could argue that that the history of Hinduism could be told through Muslim and Dalit (ex-untouchable) minority histories. This would amplify Mahmood’s arguments about the relationship between Christianity and minority rights, but also transform them in the context of subcontinental partition, Indian affirmative action, and religious conversion.

In direct contrast to arguments against proportional representation for Coptic Christians in Egypt (1923), the colonial state recognized Indian Muslims as a community of “historic and political importance,” and granted them a separate electorate with “weightage,” to compensate for demographic growth. In turn the Muslim separate electorate became a model for Dalit demands. For instance, Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar argued that Muslims constituted a complex, internally differentiated community whose claims to the status of nationality made partition inevitable, while the untouchables suffered from material deprivation and social stigmatization. In essence, the requirement of separate recognition was necessary to remedy the suffering of this community.

Ambedkar’s victory for the Depressed Classes in securing the right to separate political representation provoked a remarkable turn of events in September 1932 including Gandhi’s fast unto death demanding a reversal of this right, followed by the compromise solution of the “Poona Pact,” which instituted reserved constituencies to enhance the political representation of the Depressed Classes. What inaugurated the crisis was Ambedkar’s position that Dalits were a non-Hindu minority: his demand for separate representation emphasized their liminal status as victims of negative forms of sociality. Here minority status simultaneously begged the question of religious identity. Was it possible to claim an identity perceived as negative and oppositional, though it was apparently neutral? Was it possible to identify as non-Hindu?

Later, against the backdrop of subcontinental partition (and anxieties regarding the patriotism of Indian Muslims), members of the Constituent Assembly renounced the Muslim separate electorate as a hangover from the colonial past, “in the national interest.” Meanwhile the eradication of untouchability became a central tenet of the Indian Constitution: affirmative action policies developed a comprehensive, far-reaching response to the social and economic disabilities of caste, while the courts actively legislated Hindu equality. Today it is increasingly clear that the parity principle, which undergirds Indian secularism, conceals the long-term economic and social disenfranchisement of Muslims, as well as the relatively belated transference of the Hindu social majority into an overt political declaration.

Elsewhere, I have argued that vulnerable subjects come before the law through a set of reiterative acts, crises of adjudication that are scandalous precisely because they stage “the social” as the site of inequality, and suffering. However this is preceded by the historically contingent manner in which community is acknowledged, and its political status recognized. The claim that Muslims are the Dalits of neoliberal Hinduism, which is sometimes made, is a first approximation in analyzing this process. However the dialectic of de- and re-politicization affects Dalit and Muslim communities differentially, with externality and negative sociality structuring divergent paths to minoritization. The interwar status of Muslims as “majority” and “minority” communities was structured along distinct axes of agonism that have continued relevance for postcolonial politics. In the case of India, this has meant the increased ghettoization of Muslim communities coupled with their near-total exclusion from political power.

Ethics as Conversion

At the end of her book, Mahmood asks whether “the ideal of interfaith equality might require not the bracketing of religious differences but their ethical thematization as a necessary risk.” What would it mean to think this thought after the recent history of political secularism?

Ambedkar’s “answer” to this question was to return to the ground of religion itself, and to activate the historical memory of Buddhism’s disappearance in the very land of its birth. Ambedkar’s reclamation of Buddhism as an agonistic historical force reverberates well beyond the immediate event of conversion where six hundred thousand Dalits converted en masse on October 14, 1956, less than two months before he died, in a public ceremony in the western Indian city of Nagpur.

If Hindus refused to make amends to the former untouchables, the latter’s conversion to another of the world’s major religions could change the equation. Buddhism was coeval in status with Hinduism itself, and superior to it in both form and substance, Ambedkar argued. It was an Indic religion whose authority no one could dare to challenge, and its absence in India was proof of Brahmanical Hinduism’s violence. The epistemic space Ambedkar claimed was thus ingenious and unassailable, but the Navayana Buddhism Ambedkar established was in effect a new religion, not legible to extant traditions.

The modularity of political secularism, as Mahmood points out, leads to problems that are beyond legal remedy or political negotiation. Ambedkar’s answer was not only to offer a more intensively conceived form of universality in the ethical universe of his Buddhism, but also to underscore the singular circumstances of his response. For what he managed to do was to restage caste difference as a religious difference that was both familiar and new, that is, as a conversation that one assumed had already occurred, but the contents of which were, in fact, yet to be decided.

In asking us to imagine a possible exit from the violence of (minority) recognition, Religious Difference also invites us into the capacious and ongoing conversation that Mahmood has inaugurated. This is a conversation we will continue to have for some time to come.


  1. Readers frequently assume that Dipesh Chakrabarty calls for the project of provincialization. However he simultaneously underscores its necessity, while recognizing its impossibility.