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Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report
by saba mahmood
princeton, 248 pages, $24.95

While I was reading Saba Mahmood’s new book on religion and secularism in Egypt, my university’s president—Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M.—published an article in Inside Higher Ed about the National Labor Relations Board’s attempt to assert jurisdiction over Catholic universities and colleges. Although Egypt and Chicago seem worlds apart, the two are connected by a common narrative about the relationship between religion and the secular, a narrative that both Mahmood, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, and Fr. Holtschneider call into question. I will return to the NLRB later, but I want to signal from the outset that the implications of Mahmood’s argument extend beyond Egypt to both foreign and domestic policy in the United States and other Western countries.

In the face of the common assumption that secular government is what is needed for peace in the Middle East, Mahmood argues that secular government in fact exacerbates interfaith conflict in Egypt and elsewhere. Though she acknowledges that Islamic concepts and practices are crucial to perpetuating inequality, she argues that “the modern state and its political rationality have played a far more decisive role” in producing new forms of polarization and inflaming old ones.

This happens because the state supposedly establishes the separation of public and private. The promise is that religion will be protected by walling it off into a private sphere. In fact, however, the state must constantly regulate this sphere, which means that religion is constantly subject to political control. The state’s incursions then engender demands to make the public and private still more separate, thereby reinforcing the state’s role as the all-powerful source of legitimacy for both public and private spheres.

Not dismissing such a counterintuitive argument requires entertaining the possibility—argued extensively by Talal Asad and many others over the last few decades—that secular social arrangements are not simply a neutral way of dealing with a pre-existing social fact called “religion.” Secularism is instead a historical project with its own set of normative beliefs and commitments that creates the religious-secular distinction and transforms those things labeled “religion.” Coptic ­Christianity, for example, accepted the promise of the modern state of equality for all religions. To get this promise of protection, however, Copts agreed that Christianity was private. Islam was simultaneously deemed public. The Copts accepted this wager when the modern Egyptian constitution was approved in the 1920s, and the decision has haunted them ever since.

To make her argument convincing, Mahmood must first address an objection that seems obvious to a Western audience. How can you call Egypt a “modern secular state” when it has been ruled by authoritarian governments and proclaims an Islamic identity? To lump Egypt together with liberal European and North American countries as “modern secular states” is to make the category so broad as to be meaningless. Mahmood responds by arguing that liberal states act in authoritarian ways—such as the U.S. use of torture—and that secular ideals permeate authoritarian states. Egyptian courts, for example, are obliged to regard religious equality and freedom as ideals.

And while the Egyptian constitution acknowledges the importance of Islam to the state’s identity, Mahmood points to decisions by the European Court of Human Rights that underscore the importance of Christianity in the West for making secular social arrangements possible. Most crucially, Mahmood shows that the public-private and practice-belief dichotomies pervade politics and ­jurisprudence in Egypt and other Middle Eastern states, just as they do in the West. Secularism may have many local variations, but all are related in one way or another to a ­universalizing project “which, in the postcolonial context, also involves the ongoing subjugation of non-Western societies to various forms of Western domination.”

Having addressed these initial objections, Mahmood examines the history of minority rights and religious liberty in the Middle East. Christians were second-class citizens under Muslim rule, but Mahmood argues that they fared better than Jews in Christian Europe, non-Catholics in Catholic Spain, and Muslims in French Algeria. Copts fared better under Muslims than under the Byzantines. In the nineteenth century, however, European powers pressured the Ottomans to adopt Western ideals of religious liberty. The Ottomans found that this move helped consolidate the power of the state. Granting individual liberties drastically curtailed the communal autonomy of non-Muslim groups and incorporated individuals into the state project; non-Muslims were now expected to serve in the national military. With the transition from empire to nation-state, the situation of minorities worsened. As with the Jews in Europe, non-Muslims in the Middle East were now seen as a threat to national cohesion. Non-Muslims there, under Western pressure, were granted individual freedom of belief but not communal control over their social practices, with the partial exception of family law. As with the Jews in ­Europe, the threat of assimilation was ­heightened.

In the period leading up to independence from Britain, some Copts argued for official designation as a minority and proportionate representation in government to ensure that their interests were not trampled by the Muslim majority. Claiming minority status, however, highlights their difference from the rest of the nation and enshrines their subordination in the law. Other Copts therefore adopted the secularist argument that the state should be neutral toward religion and coopted nationalist discourse to claim that the Copts were in fact the true original Egyptians and the Muslims Arab invaders. This is an argument the Copts were bound to lose. As Mahmood writes, “The ideology of national kinship that undergirded the promise of formal equality for all also produced forms of religio-cultural identity that were far more exclusionary than the hierarchies it sought to dismantle.” Copts are now contestants for national identity in a way that encourages their assimilation and disappearance and heightens their conflict with the Muslim majority.

This conflict often erupts into violence over issues of conversion and family law. Under Coptic family law, women can get divorced only if they convert to Islam or if the husband commits adultery. This is an incentive for women to convert, which regularly produces strife between Copts and Muslims. Mahmood argues that family law is not an archaism and evidence of incomplete secularization; in fact, setting aside family law into a private and religious area was an invention of secularism, one which means that struggles over sex become struggles over religion, giving sexual matters an inordinate role in marking religious identity. Though ostensibly private, the family law of minority groups is regularly interfered with by the state in the interest of “public order.” In response, Copts try to defend their practices by claiming that their historically variable family practices are in fact immutable and essential truths, thus distorting the nature of Coptic practice.

The concept of public order comes to the fore in a series of court cases that discriminate against Baha’is in Egypt. Non-Muslims have freedom of belief, but their freedom to practice publicly is curtailed. This is not a violation of secular principles, according to Mahmood, but is part and parcel of the public-private distinction, in which the private is cordoned off precisely to protect public order from religious disputes. Mahmood shows that European courts have ruled that the public display of crucifixes is not religious but cultural, while banning Muslim headscarves. It may seem that Egyptian courts stipulate a true religion—Islam—while European courts merely try to protect the rights of others, but Mahmood argues that European courts also stipulate a true religion: the liberal Protestant conception of religion as private, individual belief, whose successor religion is secularism.

As she concludes the book, Mahmood departs from analyzing secularism as a legal and political phenomenon to examine secularity more broadly as a set of cultural assumptions. She turns to the conflict in Egypt over the novel Azazeel by the secular Muslim Youssef Ziedan. The novel is set amid fourth- and fifth-­century Christological controversies, and presents a highly contentious picture of ec­clesiastical authority as brutally and arbitrarily suppressing dissent from the orthodox view of Jesus as divine. The novel pleased both Muslim readers, for whom Jesus is not divine, and secular readers, for whom doctrinal controversies are the source of pointless violence. Many Coptic Christians, on the other hand, found the novel offensive, and mounted a critique of it—not for doctrinal deviations, but for historical inaccuracies. Mahmood shows how both opponents and defenders felt compelled to argue on secular grounds. The secular idea of history is not neutral ground on which different traditions meet, but is rather the bar before which religions must justify themselves and compete with one another. As Mahmood writes, “secularity itself—its epistemic and moral certainty—provides the fuel for the conflict, erroneously described as a standoff between ‘religious taboos’ and ‘secular freedoms.’”

The stakes of Mahmood’s argument are high. To question the idea that secularism is or would be an unqualified boon for Islamic societies is to question one of the foundational premises for Western intervention in the Middle East. Mahmood does not call for the demise of secular social arrangements, only for a recognition of their limits and problems. As she writes in the closing lines of the book, her target is “our (not just Egyptians’) collective incapacity to imagine a politics that does not treat the state as arbiter. . . . The ideal of interfaith equality might require not the bracketing of religious differences” but instead their embrace “as a necessary risk in a context when the conceptual and political resources of the state have proved inadequate.”

Recognizing the problems inherent in our reliance on the secular state would mean turning away from the disastrous fantasy that the imposition of secular states on the Middle East is the cure to conflict there. The opposite is the case, as the unraveling of the Middle East since our invasion of Iraq should make plain. Closer to home, government regulation of “religion” threatens to transform and diminish Christianity and other faiths into hobbies. Even the appeal of Christians to principles of “religious freedom” is a double-edged sword, because it assumes that Christianity is a “religion,” essentially private and cut off from the rest of life.

This is precisely the problem with the National Labor Relations Board. The Supreme Court has previously exempted religious institutions of higher education from NLRB jurisdiction. What counts as religious and what does not, however, is always malleable. The NLRB is now asserting its right to jurisdiction over faculty members at religious universities unless they perform “a religious function in furtherance of [the universities’] religious mission.” The NLRB is asserting that the teaching of science or politics or history is inherently secular.

As Fr. Holtschneider points out, such a sharp divide between religious subjects and secular subjects violates the Catholic intellectual ideal of the integration of faith and reason. The problem that Catholic universities face is that in the modern secular account, the state is the arbiter of what counts as religion and what does not. Catholic universities can appeal to the state to leave us free to practice our religion as we see fit, but the very wall of protection the secular state erects around religion can also keep us from realizing the expansive vision of Christian truth to which Fr. Holtschneider points. The wall of protection doubles as a prison, one that keeps faith from reason, religious from secular, private from public. These separations end up raising tensions and creating conflict rather than the peace promised by secular neutrality. If Mahmood is right about not only Egypt but the West, we would do well to look beyond the state as sole arbiter of our relations to one another.

William T. Cavanaugh is professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University.