Symposium Introduction

“Political secularism,” Saba Mahmood tells us in the opening pages of Religious Difference in a Secular Age, “is not merely the principle of state neutrality or the separation of church and state. It also entails the reordering and remaking of religious life and interconfessional relations in accord with specific norms, themselves foreign to the life of the religions and people it organizes” (20–21). Mahmood’s book engages the dynamics of this “reordering and remaking of religious life” in light of contemporary discussions of secularism and religious freedom. On the one hand, she considers political secularism as it impacts non-Muslim minorities in the context of the modern Egyptian state; and on the other hand, she considers valences of secularity that delimit a set of norms and sensibilities constitutive of political imagination more generally. The book’s two parts bespeak the range of issues brought to bear in her analysis of secularism: in part 1, the discussion of religious liberty and minority rights between Europe and the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in part 2, the analysis of three cases surrounding the proper place of religion in modern Egypt. Across the various chapters, Mahmood draws upon examples including Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” and debates in Coptic family law as well as rulings in the European Court of Human Rights and a controversy surrounding a novel by the contemporary Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan. What results is not only an argument about secularism and religious freedom, but a method for considering the permeation of secularism beyond the conventional purview of the state. Echoing strengths of her first book, Politics of Piety, Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age reframes how religion and secularism matter—and envisions, at its boldest, how to imagine political life otherwise.

Engaging debates in postcolonial studies, law, gender and religion, Mahmood focuses her reflections on the treatment of Coptic Christians and Bahais in modern Egypt. She draws in doing so from her yearlong experience at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and yet she is clear to suggest that her book is not a conventional ethnography: “I track not only the ideational life of a concept but its practical and material unfolding in a society that is historically distinct but shares a global grammar of legal and political governance” (23). There is an ethnographic engagement in her attention to a specific site, but she attends to Ottoman legal traditions, family law and European history, all of which impact the experiences and frameworks through which religious minorities are understood. Intriguingly enough, Mahmood’s abiding interest in law allows her to shuttle between the particularity of the cases she addresses and the generality of the legal traditions that inform the recognition and governance of religious minorities. In the end, she offers an understanding of critical anthropology as a site from which “to decenter and rethink the normative frameworks by which we have come to apprehend life—where one’s own, another’s, or those yet to be realized.” “It is this understanding of anthropology,” she tells us, “that animate this book” (24).

Part of what makes Mahmood’s book so compelling is the vantage it lends to considerations of secularism not solely as an abstracted concept, but a set of practices that come to articulate ways of living. The various chapters—which deal with gender, family law, Ottoman history, Egyptian government, and the nexus of literature and history—bespeak a scope and ambition to track secularism and secularity outside the confines of a single discipline. As Mahmood notes, “Secularism as a statist project exerts inordinate power on our political imagination, most evident in our inability to envision religious inequality without the agency of the state” (212). Mahmood’s book is an eye-opening inquiry to the limits of a political imagination framed as a matter of statecraft and governance. Her work provides a vision of what critical anthropology can bring to those of us working in the humanities, social sciences and religion—that is, ways of seeing the world anew.

Taking a cue from the multidimensional nature of Mahmood’s book, the symposium gathered here draws together scholars from anthropology, history, gender and religion. Each of the participants was asked to comment upon a question or issue raised that sheds light on their own research, and each of the responses attests to the critical afterlife of Mahmood’s work across a number of disciplinary fields. The goal for the symposium is to prompt a conversation that we hope to follow online in the coming weeks—and that we hope sheds light on generative readings of Religious Difference in a Secular Age.

Angie Heo


Secularity and Thinking about the Hermeneutics of Theological Controversy

One subject that never fails to fascinate me are the christological controversies of the early church, and especially, the violent uproar that ensued outside the councils’ doors. And over what exactly? Technical distinctions between the Antiochene formula of “completeness of humanity” in “one person” and Nestorius’s “one hypostatic unity” of “one nature” which is human? Or, for more stunning confusion, the so-called “monophysite” pronouncement of Christ’s one nature, against the Chalcedonian formula of “two natures without being mixed, transmuted, divided or separated”? The idea that the fifth-century monk Shenoute of Atripe, notorious for his militant disposition, killed for these questions suggests nothing less than an entirely other world. The hermeneutics of these lofty distinctions seem so vastly irrelevant to the mundane concerns of everyday reality. Added to the question of relevance, one can hardly imagine how ordinary, illiterate Christians—then and now—relate to controversies over the very delicate grammar of divine truths, which even today’s most sophisticated theologians labor to narrate and situate within their proper intellectual-historical contexts.

It is the possibility to think beyond a state of estranged fascination that, I think, animates Mahmood’s work on secularity via literary (theological and fictional) depictions of early church theology in Egypt’s ethnographic present. In her book’s last chapter, “Secularity, History, Literature,” she studies a controversy which broke over the award-winning Arabic novel Azazeel (2008; 2012, trans. Wright), focusing on exchanges between its secularist author Youssef Ziedan and Bishop Bishoy, a high-ranking figure in the Coptic Orthodox Church. One of Mahmood’s central arguments is that Azazeel resurrects “old wounds” for the Coptic Church by returning to the historical site of christological controversy in the fourth and fifth centuries: its protagonist St. Cyril of Alexandria, its outbreaks of punitive violence, its lasting scars on Christendom’s unity. These wounds continue to be felt to the extent that the Coptic Church’s identity as an autonomous Christian tradition (against Catholicism and Protestantism) has historically been branded as a christological issue (i.e., Coptic break with Chalcedon in 451 CE). But, as Mahmood critically suggests, causes for currently felt sensibilities no longer map onto those of preceding ones: i.e., fiery disputes around the orthodox image of the “human”—across fifth-century church councils and twenty-first-century public courts of religious freedom—are of a substantially different nature.

Mahmood’s unwavering attention to the secular is strategic; to her credit, she avoids reducing the Azazeel controversy into one of Muslim-Christian conflict (in spite of Coptic reductions of it into such). Youssef Ziedan is “Muslim” in identity, and yet, there is nothing discernably “Muslim” in his fictional depiction of the fifth-century monk Hypa’s narrative quest for the meaning of life, one which ventriloquizes secular-humanist desires for pleasure against prohibition, freedom against authority. Likewise, there is nothing particularly “Christian” about the input of Coptic secularists like Karima Kamal and Kamal Ghobrial who are just as wary of clerical excess in their newspaper editorials. Mahmood further avoids a reduction of the controversy into one of religious pietism versus secularism. Rather than positing theological apologetics against historical fiction, or pious cleric against secularist cosmopolitan, she cuts through calcified party positions by showing how both Bishoy and Ziedan build their defenses on a shared sense of “empty, homogeneous time.” By revealing an impasse in the Bishoy-Ziedan exchange, Mahmood also acutely points out that they effectively talk past each other despite their shared grounds of historical sensibility, which do little toward mediating above and beyond the constraints of “religious difference.” In spite of all their work to speak within a common frame, Ziedan and Bishoy just don’t get each other—and this communication breakdown might very well speak more to the discursive limits of this frame than to the deficiencies of the two public personalities.

In my comments that follow, what I wish to explore more is the potential reach of secularity beyond the relatively circumscribed sphere of secularists, and through some fruitful openings availed in Mahmood’s account. Mahmood is carefully earnest to engage the logics and sensibilities of Azazeel, portions of Bishoy’s formidable tome, and the commentaries surrounding both texts; consequently, the scope of her analysis is squarely situated within the bounds of the text’s contents, and I would add, at the expense of their broader reception. Bishop Bishoy, it seems to me, represents the sole voice through which we can navigate the offense and relevance of Azazeel for the vast majority of devout Copts who have not read the novel itself nor slogged through Bishoy’s four hundred–page critique at their leisure, and yet who still find themselves mired in the public stakes of intellectual controversy. Of course, the controversy’s significance reaches nonreading audiences, precisely because of the effect that such texts like novels and apologetics can perform outside of its literal and literary readability. In the spirit of enlarging our collective scholarly imagination, I wonder how we might think more about the surrounding variety of textual performances and publics in which the Azazeel controversy was ensconced—its audiences, styles and contexts of reception, and their variable interfaces with the powers of secularization.

My inquiry here returns us to my initially expressed fascination with the relevance of theological controversy for the mundane and everyday. Christological discourse travels, its weight and force in late antiquity differing from its work in the contemporary present of majority-minority inequality and clerical authoritarianism. For the benefit of this post’s readers, I should perhaps mention that I write as an anthropologist, and although I am not a theologian, I draw insights from my fieldwork among Coptic Christians and our conversations about theology. It is from Mahmood’s original findings and research that I seek to pursue themes that address the widespread sensibilities of theological literacy (apologetic and iconological) which may also have informed the Coptic community’s grievances with Azazeel and its uptake of Bishoy’s defense.

Addressing a Silent Majority?

Mahmood stays close to the inequality between the West and the non-West by charting genealogies of Protestant, Enlightenment and Orientalist thought and their marks on Azazeel and Bishoy’s critique. As with her analysis in the other chapters, she tacks between Egypt and Europe to “conceptualize [secularism’s] variations in relation to a universalizing project, which, in the postcolonial context, also involves the ongoing subjugation of non-Western societies to various forms of Western domination” (10–11). What she thus significantly contributes to the scholarly literature on secularism in the non-West is an account of Protestant-Orthodox inequality, East-West division, and above all, the unique history of Copts’ marginal status across contiguous realms of global Christendom and secular modernity. This inequality of Christian belonging—racial and colonial in nature—is where the chapter concentrates much of its investigation into the variant footprints of secularity.

To my mind, there is less attention paid to how the Muslim-Christian axis of inequality sheds light on Azazeel’s life beyond Ziedan’s intentions and the novel’s literary readability. Copts see the novel’s offense as “Muslim” in origin, and Mahmood explains this misrecognition in curiously emphatic terms:

Many Coptic Christians I spoke with thought that Azazeel was simply a literary version of sermons delivered by fanatical Muslim preachers who attack the truth of the Bible and the divinity of Christ. (185)

To portray Christianity as a unified tradition, [Bishoy] must erase the history of internecine Christian warfare, thus securing a global Christian identity against its current persecutors, the Muslims. Furthermore, in the current climate of confessional polarization, the fact that Azazeel’s author is a Muslim can only be read as an act of aggression against a beleaguered minority. (194)

As Mahmood notes, an attack on Orthodox Christology in a Muslim-majority society cannot be read as anything other than an attack on Christianity. Given the prevalence of Islamic discourses against Trinitarianism in Egypt, amplified from Friday’s mosques and circulated via street stalls and schools, the most illiterate of Copts can be well attuned to the inequities of what can be safely spoken aloud when it comes to human-divine formulae. Azazeel, and its secular-humanist rhapsody of Nestorianism and Arianism owes nothing to these Islamic discourses of course. What is striking is how Christology, and all its strangely arcane semantics, is so readily interpreted through the ideological grid of sectarian identity. This identitarian association is another aspect, I would suppose, of secularity’s design, also propped up by particular sensibilities, dispositions, attitudes and assumptions. How might we think of the life of theology’s heat at the interface of Orthodox and Islamic traditions? And, as it is also subject to transformed ideas and expressions of the “human” and the “divine,” and its signifying equivalence with the globally common image of “Christianity versus Islam”?

This brings me to my second set of questions regarding Bishoy’s critique of Azazeel and what it suggests about the various publics he addresses. His writings might not necessarily be directed at Ziedan, and entertaining the communicative nature of his address may help us consider the longer histories and multiple sites of his critique. Apologetics, or a “theology of defense” as the Arabic suggests (al-allahut al-difa’i), is a recently developed genre in the modern history of Coptic Church education, and it is addressed to Copts as a pedagogical tool of communal self-identification. The discursive field of apologetics trains Copts how to respond to “attacks” on the Church’s teachings, not so much in the open but for their own quiet advantage. Much of its printed materials are intended to circulate within the Coptic community, and in the case of more sensitive texts (e.g., Islamiyat), circulating them outside of communal bounds is strictly prohibited. Although many Copts pore through the texts, many are familiar with the general gist of arguments. To the degree that Bishoy’s apology enters into well-trod terrain (centuries-old debates over divine-human communion), it seems to me that understanding his wounded standpoint, and the flock he stands for, includes engaging the uneven field of theological polemics, and more significantly, their contemporaneous trajectories in the Muslim-Christian context. Bishoy and Ziedan miss each other’s paths with different gists of “human” agency and tactics of historicization, but the nature of these cross-fires might also be approached as an outcome of discursive strategies employed for previous occasions in which christological truths have suffered threat in isolation.

In a secular-liberal public, as Mahmood has shown in her other work, minority discourses can never occupy the same space nor carry the same force as majority discourses. Ziedan does not write as a “Muslim,” but against his clearly aired intentions, he is certainly read as one. Maybe we can linger a bit longer on this public misrecognition. Given their minoritarian position at the margins of the mixed secular public, Copts can only address core differences in doctrinal teachings from the inhabited posture of ritual “defense” (rather than the ideal of transparent, unencumbered critique). Seen in this light, Bishoy’s arguments may well be pitched less to Ziedan, and more to a silent “Muslim” superaddressee.

Self-Recognition and Critique

Mahmood’s final chapter also raises the salient, very timely issue of religious authority in Egypt and the public critique of it. Another key offense that Mahmood explores is the injury that Copts received from Azazeel’s depiction of St. Cyril of Alexandria as a ruthless, violent demagogue who repressed the free pursuit of truth. Charges of “clerical excess,” from the Enlightenment thinker Edward Gibbon to secularist critics Karima Kamal and Youssef Ziedan alike, have been particularly well-rehearsed during the late Pope Shenouda III’s reign. Over the last fifty-plus years, as Mahmood details in her book’s other chapters, the Coptic Church has transformed into a central political actor in defining the state of inter-communal affairs in Egypt. Bishop Bishoy is himself a cleric fallen from grace, once part of Shenouda’s closest inner circle and no longer as a result of his sensational remarks against Islam and Muslims (e.g., “Muslims are mere guests of our country”) and Islam (e.g., “verses of the Quran were inserted after the Prophet’s death”). Professing loyalty to the highest clerical ranks of antiquity and the necessity of papal disciplinary measures also presumably serves as an open statement of loyalty to the church order.

Navigating how various literary genres levy critiques can help us think about the religious and secular dimensions of the public sphere. It is the image of Cyril of Alexandria, and divergences in iconological sensibility, that prove central in the Azazeel controversy. What I find most provocative about Mahmood’s analysis are her insights into the sensible aesthetics of historical fiction and theological literature, through the differing forms of self-recognition and critique that each genre invokes. First on historical fiction, she writes: “A work of historical fiction recalls a host of images and events that are meant to trigger various kinds of recognition in its audience. . . [it] works to induce recognition in its readers and its success is measured in part by how it can do so” (198). The public potential of Ziedan’s novel is that various monks and clerics who read Azazeel can recognize themselves to be the objects of critique. Second on theological literature, Mahmood builds on the work of patristics scholar Susan Wessel (2004): “Cyril also implied that he himself was the new Athanasius, the next defender of Nicene orthodoxy . . . By representing events in terms of actions to be imitated, paradigms to be followed, types had strong moral implications” (201). Following norms of theological critique, authors place their selves in authoritative association with holy figures of the past. For reading audiences, sacral lineages also activate acts of recognition and linkages with the past that are not quite secular-historical; rather, they partake in the time of saintly mimesis.

Somewhat expectedly, few Copts are well-versed in the ins and outs of Christology, and fewer still in the histories behind each of the popes and the historical periods of imperial rule under which they reigned. If there is a holy figure that is induced by the name “Cyril,” it is less likely to be the fifth-century Cyril of Alexandria than the late contemporary “Baba Kyrillos” (d. 1971) who is widely remembered for his affectionate friendship with President Gamal Abdel Nasser. What is rather key to clerical authority is the iconological memory through which pious devotees align authors and figureheads with the foundational past. Namesakes secure patrons and virtuous associations for the public. Here, I would like to pursue Mahmood’s brief foray into the ancient literary imagination via Wessel, to consider the moral conditions for clerical critique in the present of Coptic Church authoritarianism.

The example that immediately comes to mind is that of another christological controversy, this time between two rivals in the Coptic Church: Pope Shenouda III and Matthew the Poor (Matta al-Miskin). By the mid-2000s, Pope Shenouda had already earned his spiritual moniker as “the learned one” (al-muta’allim), the shelves of all Coptic bookstores are stocked with his tracts, pamphlets, sermons. The only other theologian who introduced a glimmer of contest to Shenouda was Matthew the Poor, the late abbot of Monastery of St. Maqar in Wadi Natrun, a monastery which enjoys its own printing press that had once published his works and that of his disciples.1 To the extent that his writings also filled stores and libraries, his work may very well have been regarded as a spiritual and intellectual voice critical of Shenouda’s hegemony in contemporary Coptic thought. Framing his work on deification in line with Cyril of Alexandria’s legacy, Matthew the Poor introduced new strands of theological thought in continuity with the patristic literature. I mention this example because of the reaction that Matthew the Poor’s work elicited from Shenouda, who took on the very public role of censure and discipline in response, and in keeping also with the iconic function of the fifth-century church fathers.

Interestingly enough, Shenouda’s reply to Matthew the Poor reveals peculiar alignments with other paradigms and moral types. In his brilliant writings on the modern legacy of christological discourse (Coptic Christology in Practice, OUP 2008), Stephen Davis observes how Shenouda dramatizes his rebuke by borrowing language from Muslim critics of Trinitarianism:

Second, and even more pointedly, [Pope Shenouda] accuses [Matthew the Poor and his followers] of committing al-shirk bi-llah (“the act of associating something with God”). The charge of al-shirk represents a standard Muslim criticism directed against proponents of Christian Trinitarian doctrine; in this case, however Shenouda employs this language against a fellow Christian as an expression of opposition to the doctrine of deification. (Davis 2008:278)

What does it mean for Shenouda to ally Coptic Orthodoxy with Islamic truths—and against rival bishops within the Coptic Church? Public performances of safeguarding the tradition occur for a Coptic audience, and for Copts familiar with the language of the majority. Shenouda’s reply seems to suggest how the terms of christological debate and self-recognition can shift according to the literacy of his audience increasingly aware of outside sources of religious critique. Rather than appealing to his papal lineage via Cyril of Alexandria, Shenouda links himself with the majoritarian image of monotheism outside of the Christian tradition. I would venture to add that, in doing so, he also effectively secures his own iconic status as the community’s protectorate from bad publicity. This move is yet another articulation of the infamous church-state entente.

The Coptic Church, despite its appearance of unity, has also been rife with internal dissent at its highest ranks among Bishops Bishoy, Matthew the Poor, and Popes Shenouda and Kyrillos. The public image of these figures is much of what is at play in these open controversies over theological issues, and with significant effects (e.g., Monastery of St. Maqar is now regarded the black sheep of Wadi Natrun) Copts may not have necessarily read Azazeel or Matthew the Poor’s writings, but they are likely to know why they shouldn’t even bother.

* * *

Throughout this essay, I’ve tried to delve into more aspects of the “Coptic” side of the Azazeel controversy, through its nonreading audiences and surrounding theological practices of critique. Now I’d like to end by briefly considering what engaging these aspects might do for Mahmood’s analysis of secularity. In her last chapter’s concluding remarks, “The Human in the Divine,” Mahmood suggestively gestures to an alliance of overlapping sensibilities between devout Copts and orthodox Muslims. Drawing our attention to pieties in parallel, she makes the case that the offense which Copts received from Ziedan’s secular-humanism is like that which Muslims received from Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s assertions of the Quran as a human creation. The idea here is that what Muslims and Christians both share in common is their deeply felt aversion to humanist dogma. To the extent that they share a common foe in secularity, these two pious communities (parallel and separate) stand for the shadowy non-secular, secularity’s foil, and the putative outside of secularization. While this analytic orientation enables us to view the secular’s operations as a hegemonic middle ground between religions, it also somewhat obscures how traditions are oriented and remade in relationship to each other. Images of the “human” and the “divine” are also translated between Islamic and Christian theological discourses, offering fruitful openings for engaging secularity’s variations in the non-West. Inasmuch as they are shaped by the majority-minority inequalities and the habitually invoked threat of fitna, these translations are also sites where secular power can leave its tracks.

  1. Just days before Sadat was assassinated during a military parade on October 6, 1981, Father Matta al-Meskeen, a major reformer, told Time magazine (28.9.1981): “Shenouda’s appointment was the beginning of the trouble. The mind replaced inspiration, and planning replaced prayer. For the first years I prayed for him, but I see the church is going from bad to worse because of his behavior [. . .] I can’t say I’m happy, but I am at peace now. Every morning I was expecting news of more bloody collisions. Sadat’s actions protect the church and the Copts. They are from God.” This statement contributed to a lasting schism between these two major reformers in the church.

Armando Salvatore


The Antinomies of the Secular Sovereign and the Varieties of Secular Practice

This masterful study by Saba Mahmood deserves to be engaged from several angles. What I would like to focus upon in this symposium are two interrelated threads that the author, due to her approach (a critical anthropological that provides a diagnosis of the present), recognizes as important but leaves slightly under-argued. Focusing on these two threads is integral to gaining a deeper understanding of why the global regime of the ‘secular sovereign’ works in the lopsided ways that Mahmood reconstructs: namely, the promise of religious equality and the exacerbation of religious conflict.

The two interrelated threads are a) the historico-political constitution of the secular sovereign in Europe, which overlaps with colonialism from a late stage but has deeper and more intricate ‘roots,’ and b) such roots, which are themselves theologico-political. This move should help question that the secular sovereign is in essence late-colonial and postcolonial, even, if anthropologically, it is only in this form that we can observe and interrogate its present functioning. The historico-political thread might highlight the degree of historical contingency and political calculus determining the contradictions and tensions that the author analyzes. At the same time, however, a complementary focus on the theologico-political dimension might lead us to see such tensions as antinomies inherent in the machine itself of the secular sovereign, as e.g. analyzed by Roberto Esposito in Two.

These antinomies can only be understood in the context of what Mahmood characterizes as the identitarian, if not ideological, self-construction of the West as ‘rooted’ in Latin Christianity/Christendom. Nonetheless, an additional focus on a theologico-political thread beyond the historico-political dimension might suggest that there is more than a self-serving ideological justification in this identitarian construction of Latin Christendom. This is a potentially crucial point since it underscores the importance of the longer-term impact of the dispensation of the ‘secular sovereign’ of Latin Christendom on the Muslim colony and postcolony, an impact that cannot be reduced to the effects we observe here and now.

I would like here to press the author in a direction that does not entirely match the predominantly anthropological interest of her work. If it is true that we are coping with “the extraordinary power that Western Christianity commands in the modern world, so much so that its history has come to stand in for the history of secularism” (p. 206), we cannot address the latter without understanding its deeply-rooted genealogy in the former. It is my impression (or hope) that the questions I am going to raise might not be entirely erased in reflections on precisely those issues of religious difference like those that provided the main anthropological background to the author’s investigation, particularly at the level of her conversations with Egyptian legal activists. Therefore, I am convinced that anthropological questioning done “to grasp fragments of the past congealed into the present” (p. 23), also by contextualizing present disputes with the help of historical materials, might be actually a crucial tool for making such larger (historico-political and even theologico-political) questions more visible in the current conflicts revolving around religious difference and equality.

The Historico-Political Westphalian

In her book, Mahmood, being well aware of the historical and theoretical depth of the question, does initially relate the breakthrough that packaged regimes of the secular sovereign within late-colonial modernity in Egypt to the ‘early-modern’ Westphalian momentum in the Europe that emerged from the Wars of Religion. However, Mahmood’s reference to Westphalia is quickly collapsed into a putatively Lockean dichotomization of the private and the public spheres, of forum internum and forum externum, a dichotomization that according to her acquires a foundational power in shaping the regimes themselves of political secularism which we all (including contemporary Egyptian society) have inherited.

It is known, however, that the private-public distinction is much older not only than the one we find in Locke’s work in the context of the maturely modern ‘Latin Christendom’ of his age (already marked by the Protestant Reformation and the first effects of the Westphalian settlement), but also older than Westphalia itself. It might go as far back as archaic Roman law. In this ancient context, the binary had a religious, albeit pre-Christian connotation, so that this kind of law, and the private-public binary, cannot be seen as inherently ‘secular’ in any contemporary or modern sense—that is, the sense referenced by Mahmood throughout her book. Within Islamic (including legal) traditions, the ‘Roman/Latin’ private-public distinction finds some roughly matching binaries that are well-known and do not need to be rehearsed here. Thus, what happened with the Latin Westphalia is precisely what Mahmood seems to acknowledge in several, yet scattered passages: not that the dichotomy was constituted at once within a newly emerging regime of the secular sovereign but that actually the pre-existent private and public spheres, which had been subject to a continuous process of reconstruction  well before the Protestant Reformation and the Westphalian settlement, were quite at once considered to be potentially and arbitrarily connectable through sovereign fiat.

The cuius regio eius religio (or just cuius) that is often considered a Westphalian trademark (though it was first formulated one century earlier in the Peace of Augsburg) might be considered a major key to this interventionist fiat. Indeed, between Augsburg and Westphalia and after, the prerogative of the ruler to have his religion monopolizing the religious field in his kingdom (the strictest injunction of the cuius) morphed into his sovereign determination to ‘tolerate’ religions other than his own. The step was however the extension of the same sovereign principle as nested in the cuius. Westphalian sovereignty can indeed be equated to the power to arbitrarily intervene not just on the religious field but on and within the private-public nexus spanning the same field—and to do so via sovereign powers, i.e. through evoking a sacred nexus between law and rulership that overlaid the quite sophisticated legal reasoning of the Roman law tradition. This time-honored legal methodology and practice did not endorse in principle arbitrary interventions on and within the private-public tensional field. I think therefore that it would be safer to say that it was Westphalia, and more specifically the cuius, rather than Locke, that established the principled danger of religious minorities, the sovereign prerogative to deal with them by fiat, and the conceptual fundaments themselves of the notion of a minority. A minority was now bound to practice its religion within the private ambit of the forum internum, proclaimed as inviolable and not exposed to the sovereign’s absolute power to safeguard public order from the potential divisiveness of religious minorities.

What Locke undertook was a liberal smoothening of the principle by starting to spell out the implications of the individual ‘counter-sovereignty’ within the forum internum, namely liberty and rights. As Elizabeth Pritchard highlights in her important book, Religion in Public, Locke emphasized the public, discursive, and persuasive dimension of religion rather than its strict confinement to the forum internum. The public side of religion was intended to work as the engine of reasonable forms of religious engagement that could, indeed, be also acceptable to the sovereign. Westphalian confinement enjoys here a ‘liberal-democratic’ momentum (or turn) through an emphasis on engagement and circulation. Clearly, however, the more this liberal counter-balancing and extension of a previously privatized religion is perfected, the more it needs to rely on a disciplinary and interventionist dichotomization of the private and the public, which is quintessentially Westphalian.

Not only the sovereign has to protect and consider inviolable the forum internum so as to legitimize itself as sovereign. A mutual confirmation, if not an essential symbiosis, between the two types of sovereignty (public and inner/private) is authorized, which finally merge into one: the citizen has ultimately rights through building a cell within the Leviathan’s body politic. By being privatized in principle, religion is therefore ever more imbricated in both the individual bodies and in the collective body. The reason why “Westphalian sovereignty” is not entirely a misnomer, as Mahmood suggests, is because, far from the restricted use of sovereignty in international law as marked by the principle of non-intervention in the sovereign state’s affairs, the kernel of sovereignty has a theologico-political root that is permanently watered in the cuius’ protective shadow. The forum internum can exist only as integral to the Leviathan’s body, which is according to Hobbes both supernatural and artificial. The forum internum happens to be located at the opposite end from the merely externalist definition of sovereignty in international law, namely the sovereignty of the forum externum. Yet this opposite end, impregnated with ‘inner’ religion, provides the ultimate source of legitimacy to Westphalian sovereignty through the burgeoning consciousness of the private citizens. As Reinhart Koselleck masterfully demonstrates in his Critique and Crisis, they will try, from Locke onwards, to politicize their determinations of consciousness in common form as demos. Yet this move, far from just democratizing the Leviathan, will make ever more explicit the totalitarian potential of the secular sovereign (as staged in the drama of the French revolution)

In European pre-Westphalian but also in premodern and certainly precolonial Islamic contexts, the connection between the two, private and public, realms was certainly important but unfolded through practices that were largely external to the of control sovereign powers. However, these practices were subjected to legal regulation. In the Islamic ecumene, they were regulated by fiqh, which is not necessarily ‘law’ like in the Roman law tradition, but is doubtless comparable to it. This is why to identify the private-public dichotomy per se with the modern disciplinary regime of the secular sovereign is a reductionist argument. It might lead to ignore the ‘endogenous’, largely precolonial changes, within the Islamic ecumene itself, that might have tilted the private-public balance in favor of sovereign interventionist powers. This actually occurred before any colonial pressures were impacting Muslim empires and potentates via the Latin Westphalia, and not just in the Ottoman case. Though there is hardly any ‘endogenously’ Islamic match to the Latin/Westphalian Leviathan and its colonial extensions, modern sovereignty cannot be considered an exclusive prerogative of the former. Early modern Muslim sovereignty took often the form of millennial charisma but was nonetheless selectively and often extensively interventionist within the realm of the law. It cannot be taken for granted that ideas of patriarchal rule over the ‘family’ were unaffected by such transformations.

Yet the book seems to suggest that Egypt like other former regions of the Ottoman Empire transitioned from a traditional, relatively benign, ‘endogenous’ regime of religious inequality towards a colonial and secular, radically new dispensation creating the field of tension between religious diversity and equality. The notion of an (however benign) inequality attributed to the Ottoman order seems to be derived from a standard of equality drawn from the same notion that the author criticizes. Exclusion and hierarchy are here encoded from within the grammar of the secular sovereign that systematically dismantled the power and governance apparatus the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ in the course of the long 19th century, in spite of the fact that Ottoman reforms were seldom a unilateral response to European pressure. They were at least partly the continuation of earlier traditions of public self-critique and innovation that started in the 17th century also through the pressure of ‘popular’ voices that made themselves autonomous from the bureaucratic establishment. This pattern is neither the traditional one of Latin Christianity nor it can be reduced to the private-public interventionism originating in the post-Ottoman polities (Egypt included) via the colonial twist of the secular sovereign. However, this development did contribute to the ‘moralization’ of the law in ways that are comparable with European trends from the same age, in spite of all differences.

One would need to object to the book’s argument that the Ottoman case cannot be reduced to a transition from society’s self-organization through largely autonomous religious and legal powers, to the state authorization of religion via law for the goal of ‘striating’ society—in what appears as a backlash caused by disempowering society and surrogating its former self-constituting powers through a previously sedated and increasingly culturalized ‘religion’ (p. 80).  The author writes, “while Islamic concepts and practices have played a role, far more consequential is their realignment to fit a governing rationality” (p. 81). This is true, but there have been multiple trajectories of realignment and reconstruction (also within the realm of law and jurisprudence) which cannot be reduced to a single model or momentum. One should try to keep open the search for a variety of secular practices which might have been generated as the outcome of those multiple trajectories.

The Theologico-Political Latin-Christian

The theologico-political dimension of the secular sovereign needs to be spelled out more precisely than previously done through the mere evoking of the Leviathan. This step is also necessary to understand the historico-political Westphalian ‘difference’ and so the weight of the subsequent Western colonial interventions. Mahmood highlights the importance of this dimension with regard to the Egyptian state, whose political theology “navigates between liberal and Islamic traditions, even if one commands a much greater force in the negotiation than the other” (p. 19). Deepening the level of political theology requires reaching back beyond the stage represented by Locke, on which the author lays much emphasis. In spite (or rather because) of the limpid and straightforward character of his argument, previously summarized, a proto-liberal, yet also deeply Calvinist thinker like John Locke cannot be considered as exemplary of the ‘Latin Christian difference’ on which the Westphalian regime rests. This is a difference that covers an essential antinomy in the structure itself of the law. This antinomy has been subjected to continuous changes (without ever disappearing) in its trajectory from sacred nomos towards positive, civil and constitutional law. And this is certainly a difference that would make nonsensical, as Mahmood seems to rightly warn us, a search for an Islamic (or even just an Ottoman) equivalent or match to it.

The essential antinomy resides in the legal mechanism that on exceptional cases can disarticulate, as it were, from within, the working of law itself,: the mechanism is ultimately identical with the sovereign itself, who can call for and execute the state of exception. Recent Egyptian history is a sequence of reimpositions of a state of exception, with brief intervals of its relenting. This trajectory is a tragic self-caricature of the fundamental antinomy, not by chance self-perpetuating itself in the postcolony. But it is also a threat to its ultimate global integrity. The Latin Christian sovereign’s becoming increasingly and explicitly secular in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries did not lead to the abandonment of the antinomy but rather to its sharpening in the metropoles and its twisting in the colonies. The fact that the family, as Mahmood notices, has an “exaggerated weight … in contemporary religious debates” and within the mature functioning of the secular sovereign, is explained by the contradiction that “the state (whether exemplarily secular or incompetently so) can intervene in the private domain even as it hails privacy as a distinct and sacrosanct feature of modern polities” (p. 119). One has the impression that the secular sovereign is here a self-perpetuating interventionist machine ‘betraying’, as it were, its own premises and promises, or laying exaggerated weight randomly and arbitrarily. The secular sovereign appears as constructing a surreptitious realm of politicization through the ‘exaggeratedly weighted’ private sphere for which the secular construction of religion is instrumental. Depoliticizing religion at the level of political participation surreptitiously repoliticizes it on the plane of family/civil society/sexuality. Yet before the advent of the secular sovereign these fields were private (autonomous) in a different way. At the same time, the secular sovereign depoliticizes the public dimension of religion and so its politically transgressive potential, and with it diminishes the chances of secular liberation. The extent to which an antinomy of the law perpetually lures behind the legal interventionism of the secular sovereign is manifest through the fact that the legal mechanisms of control over the newly enucleated private sphere of the family are left without compensation and balances, thus eroding the significance of the liberal bending of the secular sovereign and its political theology. The ‘checks and balances’ are mostly intra-elite institutional adjustments but leave intact the exposure of the ‘field’ to sovereign interventions.

Here Mahmood’s argument is situated within the trail of the Marxian critique she illustrates and largely endorses at the beginning of the book. Accordingly, the bourgeois hyper-politicization of the private sphere with the nuclear family and privatized religion at its center, depoliticizes religion and tames it into an instrumentum regni. Were once religiously impregnated calls for justice the trigger for transgressions of hierarchical boundaries and contestations of the legitimacy of the political centers, social strife is now surreptitiously shifted towards cases of violation of the borders of tolerance and fairness among fragmented and privatized, cultural, linguistic and religious identities. A discourse of rights and tolerance trying to maximize religious liberty proposes itself (ever since Locke) as the solution to conflict.

The legal form itself of the ‘constitution’ and the fact that a single article in it can declare a particular religion the religion of the state, using it to pinpoint a kinship identity linked to a population and a territory, is a product of the here described type of political theology—before it becomes a byproduct of political nationalism. The body of the nation and the chosen people have clear biblical antecedents and ideational conditions.

Yet the question is, is the global, colonial and postcolonial regime of the secular sovereign whose functioning creates the ‘contradictions’ highlighted by Mahmood reproducing itself just through continuously adjusting the model across sovereignty differentials inherited from colonial imbalances of power, if not even through the purported difference between ‘competent’ and ‘compromised’ applications of the same model? Or is the picture more complicated? In order to make her framework plausible, the author takes on board the depiction (still popular among educated classes in Egypt) of precolonial times as the era of Ottoman domination and backwardness relying on a mildly benign, stagnant regime of religious and gender inequality. The author’s argument has here to rely on a rather circular view of the relation between the secular sovereign and colonialism, which allegedly brought that stagnant (albeit benign) regime to a collapse—replaced by a colonial regime of the secular sovereign that reflects the Westphalian turn and its ‘final’ liberal secular outcome. Colonies and postcolonies perpetuated this liberal secular regime, refined and twisted it, or brought it to a state of tragic implosion, whereby the underlying antinomy is potentially undermined through the routinization of the exception.

The cement of this inherent complicity between colonialism and secularism is “public order”: “the concept of public order … secures the right of sovereign power to intervene in a domain that is otherwise deemed private and immune from state interference” (p. 151). This is a snapshot of the state of exception, the core mechanism of the Latin Christian political theology. Mahmood highlights its European origin by referring to an article of the 19th century French Civil Code (p. 163). This was, however, not the ‘root’, but already a reception of the principle, now decisively re-rooted within the format of a ‘civil code.’ Its deeper rooting ranges as far back as to Westphalia and the Leviathan if not to earlier developments of the Latin Christian juridical and political theology, as spelled out in the classic of Ernst Kantorowicz’ The King’s Two Bodies.

The secular sovereign originating from the Latin Christian juridical and political theology is unique but not entirely incomparable. In this sense, even acknowledging that ordre public and the fiqh principle of al-maslaha al- ‘amma( variably—and reductively—translated as “common good” and “public interest”) “belong to two distinct epistemologies” (p. 165) does not make them incommensurable in practice. Mahmood shows us a crucial case where the latter influences the interpretation of the former. It is a 1979 ruling of Egypt’s Court of Cassation that mentions that “[public order] comprises the principles … that aim at realizing … al-maslaha al- ‘amma.” In spite of being a key method of fiqh, and in this sense epistemologically and methodologically located almost at the opposite end of the rule of exception of the secular sovereign, al-maslaha al- ‘amma was not seldom invoked by rulers in premodern and early modern Islamic history (i.e. well before colonialism and secularism),with or more often against the fuqaha’s liking and consensus, as a justification for exceptional decrees and so for affirming  the rulers’ prerogatives if not full state sovereignty—quite in analogy with the functioning of the European principle of public order. If public order is the main gate for the triumphal entry of the (originally Latin Christian) political theology of the sovereign exception into the legal systems of the Muslim postcolony, maslaha can yet provide its discrete backdoor.

Singular or Multiple Regimes of the Secular Sovereign?

Can we be satisfied with envisioning a smooth alignment between liberal ideology, secular order, and the interventionist dichotomization between private and public spheres? Or is the secular sovereign neither exclusively dependent on a Lockean proto-liberalism nor leading to a monodimensional type of such  interventionism? Are there multiple ways for reenacting that ‘essential’ antinomy of sovereignty through law as practiced? Is the regime of the secular sovereign in Egypt in particular, and in the Muslim postcolony in general, impregnated with trajectories of the secular that do not work in the same antinomian-interventionist way inherited from Latin Christianity via colonialism?

The claim that “premodern Islamic concepts of governance in a place like Egypt have rearticulated and transmogrified the principles, concepts, and institutions of political secularism” (p. 9) is both interesting and problematic. It is interesting since it suggests that non-colonial, non-Latin-Christian components have had an impact on the regime of the secular sovereign. It is problematic since it stamps them as irremediably “premodern.” The book seems to consider those Islamic concepts of governance as, after all, just concepts, rather than as institutional matrices and legal discourses. As mere concepts they could just provide a weak and vulnerable cultural mold to how the Western secular sovereign is received and impacts ‘locally,’ thus creating power differentials while reproducing the type of religious conflict inherent in the global secular regime.

I am suggesting that there might be ‘multiple secularities’ beneath a Western global secular sovereign which can be ascertained via the analysis of both politico-historical trajectories and contemporary practices. I was perplexed by the author’s attribution of the idea of multiple secularities to postcolonial scholarship. She finds this idea problematic “in that it constructs the history of the Middle East either as a deviation from Western models of secularism or as a local and regional story that adds little to its conceptual formulation.” Being derivative of the wider “debates in the 1990s waged under the rubric of ‘multiple modernities’,” the notion purportedly suffered from (and here the author quotes Timothy Mitchell) “leaving undisturbed the epistemological hegemony of European forms of life and historical teleology” (p. 10). Having been myself a practitioner of the approach and sharing in the surrounding debates, I think that Mahmood’s critique is both correct and partial since the approach of multiple modernities, which was never particularly sympathetic with postcolonial studies, is evolving well beyond the points criticized, also by treasuring the precious observations of Mitchell. It seems to me that it is less the field of multiple modernities/secularities than the approach of Mahmood’s book that takes for granted the “epistemological hegemony of European forms of life and historical teleology.” The multiple modernities trend has proved to be permeable to appreciating the historical impact of Islamic institutional matrices that cannot be reduced to “concepts.” These are matrices that affect the colonial and postcolonial regimes of the sovereign secular not from any ‘premodern’ static configurations but through ‘modern’ dynamics that might have been prefigured in largely ‘autochthonous’ (an adjective that I am using here cautiously and reluctantly to make a  point) varieties of secular practices. The subsequent impact of colonial regimes of the secular rerouted these dynamics according to the parameters of the political theology of Latin Christianity emphasizing sovereignty and public order.

The intersection of the historico-political and the theologico-political dimensions of the secular sovereign calls for a consideration of the early modern reconstruction of non-Westphalian statehood in the Muslim empires (Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal in particular). The process was frequently animated by the construction of distinctive forms of public scrutiny through state actors and public criticism voiced by autonomous actors, both of them impinging on a burgeoning inner realm of consciousness. Emerging Sufi practices and preachers of a new ‘puritan’ type addressed the legitimacy of the political centers by contributing to a reduction of religion to a self-centered type of morality. Clearly the center of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic, on the one hand, and the post-Ottoman Egypt of the British protectorate and its postcolonial extension, on the other, are different cases. It is hard to explain the colonial and postcolonial dynamics of the latter against the background of a uniform set of Ottoman precedents, encompassing Ottoman Egypt.

For sure, during the 19th century, and prior to the breakthrough that saw the rise of the specific type of secular legalism that the author focuses upon, there were a variety of interventions, like the introduction of new codes and courts, where it is difficult to neatly distinguish between an ‘autochthonous’ tradition and a colonial interventionist trend. Only at one juncture one gets the impression that the two components can be distinguished in a visible way: when the form and the heading of various sections of the new civil codes were adapted from European ones while the content was largely selected from fiqh teachings and manuals. Yet the most important overarching transformation is that from that period onwards the shari‘a, far from being just confined to the realm of ‘family law,’ seemed to work as a systemic metanorm. In such a form the revitalized shari‘a discourse  did decisively impact on modern governmentality through innervating the nuclear family assigned to the private sphere via the discourse of ‘morality’ built up since the 17th century, but was also decisive in arming the private-public interventionist mechanism that is essential to secular governmentality. Even at that stage, however, the shari‘a could never be reduced to an identitarian token and to a smooth tool of conversion of the Western and global language of the secular sovereign into an Islamic autochthonous one. The legal discourse of shari‘a, even when deprived of the autonomy of the waqf as a key institutional matrix, could still innervate the parallel legal circuits of fatwas that, now expunged from the legal system proper of courts and codes, continued to live on its own, not devoid of normative power on people’s life. The working of a pure, purified, post-Latin/post-Christian secular sovereign would not have allowed the existence of such a parallel normative realm.

Studies on multiple secularities also beyond the conventional boundaries of the ‘West’ and ‘modernity’ are starting to question the existence of a global regime of the secular sovereign only allowing for power differentiations within it (and/or for local or national identitarian pretensions of autochthonous articulations of that same selfsame global regime, like when we depict legal actors in Egypt as pretending to be ‘Islamic’ while being ‘actually’ secular). This is not an easy and low-risk research enterprise, but it might prove helpful to respond to Mahmood’s concluding question, if we take it as a hopeful opening, as I think we should, rather than as a rhetorical question: ““Can secularity—as a substrate of ethical sensibilities, attitudes, and dispositions—provide the resources for a critical practice that does not privilege the agency of the state?” (p. 212).

Camille Robcis


Decolonizing Secularism

For several years now, scholars across various fields have highlighted the central role that colonialism played in the genesis and the development of liberalism. Historians and political theorists in particular have convincingly shown how colonial concerns shaped the great theorists of liberalism (Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, or John Stuart Mill, for example) but also the politicians, the civil servants, and the administrators who instituted liberalism as a practice in Western Europe throughout the nineteenth century. British and American liberalism and French republicanism were all (although in different ways) premised on universalism: abstract human rights and equality before the law. Yet, both liberalism and republicanism accepted a series of exceptions and exclusions—women, slaves, and colonial subjects most notably.

Whereas scholars can mostly agree on this point, the great dividing question in recent scholarship on imperialism concerns the nature of these exceptions and exclusions. For some, the racism of liberalism was simply a parenthesis, an anomaly, or a problem of faulty implementation that was eventually overcome and rectified in the twentieth century through law. To be sure, exclusions might continue to arise, even today, but we should strive for a better, more perfected, and more expansive form of universalism. For others, however, colonialism, imperialism, and racism were not the noxious side effects of liberal universalism but rather its constitutive features. From this perspective, critical thinking should not remain stuck on who and what is genuinely or cynically universalist or on the illusory search for a truly liberatory universalism. Rather, we should strive to understand how difference is constantly—structurally—produced by universalism in ways that are, indeed, historically and geographically specific.

In the field of religious studies, the last two decades have also been similarly marked by a series of intense debates concerning the definitions and boundaries of the religious and the secular. Talal Asad, in particular, has put pressure on the long tradition that has identified critique with secularism, modernity, and enlightenment, perhaps best exemplified today in the work of Jürgen Habermas. As Asad has argued, it is important to consider religion beyond belief as a material practice and to rethink secularism beyond the principle of state neutrality and the separation of church and state, as a form of political governance. Secularism should not be understood as the retreat of the state from religion, as the opposite of religion, or as the relegation of religion to the private sphere, but rather, as Saba Mahmood puts it, as a form of intense state scrutiny constantly “stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices” (3). The secular within this paradigm, “is not the natural bedrock from which religion emerges, nor is it what remains when religion is taken away” but a new conception of “self, time, space, ethics, and morality, as well as a reorganization of social, political, and religious life” (3). Given this understanding of secularism, the search for “multiple secularisms” is as fraught as the appeal to “alternative modernities” and to “more universal universalisms”—all of which take secularism, modernity, and universalism as the normative ideal from which all other models depart (10).

In her brilliant new book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood brings together these two fields of colonial/postcolonial criticism and religious anthropology by effectively “decolonizing” secularism. Mahmood takes strong positions in both debates, which, she argues, are intimately connected since religious equality has functioned as a “constitutive feature of political secularism” (5). As she explains, she is interested in the “structural paradoxes that haunt the secular project,” two in particular: why, despite its claim to religious neutrality, “the modern state has become more involved in the regulation and management of religious life” and why instead of “leveling religious differences in the political sphere, modern secular governance” has allowed them to flourish in society and to “permeate national identity and public norms” (2). These are structural features of secularism in the sense that they are systemic, generative, and immanent contradictions that stem from the very raison d’être of secularism.

But despite her commitment to a structural analysis, Mahmood is also interested in exploring the role of contingency, in examining how geographical and temporal specificity give these structures their particular configuration. In other words, in Mahmood’s work, secularism is not subsumed under a totalizing logic (of global capital or modernity for example). As she puts it: “I treat secularism neither as a single formation that homogenously transform all histories nor as a plurality expressed in local cultural forms. Rather, I suggest that secularism entails a form of national-political structuration organized around the problem of religious difference, a problem whose resolution takes strikingly similar forms across geographic contexts. In light of this, the critical issue is not so much to pluralize secularism as to conceptualize its variations in relation to a universalizing project, which, in the postcolonial context, also involves the ongoing subjugation of non-Western societies to various forms of Western domination” (10).

Mahmood’s case study to explore these “variations [of secularism] in relation to a universalizing project” is Egypt. Egypt allows Mahmood to expose how colonialism, liberalism, and secularism were—and still are—indissociable from one another. As Mahmood writes, many of the “signature concepts, institutions, and practices [of secularism] were introduced through . . . colonial rule” (11). Egypt, furthermore, where “modern secular governance has contributed to the exacerbation of religious tensions . . . hardening interfaith boundaries and polarizing religious differences” (1). As Mahmood makes clear, just as the empire was never a simple appendage to the nation-state (a particularism of the universal), Egypt can answer some of the fundamental questions that haunt Western secular and liberal societies today. To quote Mahmood: “Rather than see colonial history as parallel to the development of secularism, I suggest that it is integral to the elaboration of the secular project” (134).

In other words, Egypt, as the title of the book suggests, offers a “minority report” that nonetheless touches the core, the majority, and that puts into question the very logic of the binary oppositions underlying secular liberalism: particular/universal, private/public, and different/normal. Once again, Mahmood’s goal here is not to advocate an alternative secularism or to suggest that we should get rid of secularism, once and for all. As she puts it: “A scholarly inquiry into the dual character, the limits, contradiction, and violence [of secularism] should not be mistaken as a denunciation of secularism or a call for its demise. Secularism is not something that can be done away with any more than modernity can. It is an ineluctable aspect of our present condition, as both political imagination and epistemological limit. To critique a particular normative regime is not to reject or condemn it; rather, by analyzing its regulatory and productive dimensions, one only deprives its innocence and neutrality so as to craft, perhaps, a different future” (21).

Religious Difference in a Secular Age thus offers us a particularly successful example of critique in Marx’s sense of term, as systematic demystification. Mahmood interrogates each of the concepts that have provided the transcendental and self-evident (“innocent and neutral”) normative platform of both liberalism and secularism: religious liberty, political equality, minority rights, private and public. To formulate a question, as Marx puts it, is to resolve it. Marx, or at least the young—almost deconstructive—Marx, accompanies Mahmood throughout this book. And just as Marx, in his 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question,” attacked Bruno Bauer (as representative of Hegelian idealism) for suggesting that freedom would arise with the end of religion and the consolidation of a genuinely secular state that would disavow all religions and all particularities, Mahmood contends that “a secularist hope that a truly secularized state will deliver us from religious conflict and prejudice is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly the state is (or can be) neutral toward. As Marx argued, the secular liberal state does not simply depoliticize religion; it also embeds it within the social life of the polity by relegating it to the private sphere or civil society” (21). Religion is not the ultimate problem: the liberal state is.

My questions for Mahmood mostly revolve around this last point concerning the role of state governance in her argument. Three questions, more specifically, stayed with me after reading her incredibly stimulating study in which a detailed historical analysis and a rigorous theoretical engagement complement a captivating anthropological field work. My first question concerns her chronology; my second, the actual process of abstraction required by both liberalism and secularism; my third, the alternative to state power that Mahmood envisions and hints toward at several points throughout her book.

To a large extent, the chronology underpinning Mahmood’s argument mirrors Marx’s in “On the Jewish Question.” Marx makes a distinction between three times: the time of the “Christian State” characterized by a single ruler, and the proliferation of estates, corporations, guilds, and privileges, a time also known as absolutism or feudalism; the time of “political emancipation” following the American and French revolutions which essentially refers to liberalism, a political system anchored in secularism, abstract human rights, equality before the law, and a strict division of public and private; and finally, what Marx calls the time of “human emancipation” which will presumably arrive with communism (or permanent revolution, or radical critique, however we choose to understand Marx’s enigmatic expression). The target of Marx’s attack is primarily “political emancipation,” i.e., liberalism, for the same reasons that Mahmood develops in Religious Difference in a Secular Age. The liberal state does not ignore religion as it claims to do, but in fact, it operates as a “devious” intermediary, depoliticizing citizens and the public sphere more generally. To use Marx’s terms: “the political revolution . . . abolished the political character of civil society.” Marx’s point here is not that we should yearn for the “good old days” of absolutism but rather that the state, even in liberalism, is never neutral and that “political emancipation” is merely a step (albeit a necessary step) toward human emancipation. Liberalism, in other words, is not the end point.

Mahmood’s narrative also appears structured around a tripartite chronology to the extent that the Ottoman Empire that she describes resembles Marx’s “Christian state” with various inequalities (religious, familial, political) enshrined in law and to the extent that “political emancipation” or liberalism becomes a normative ideal in the Middle East after the nineteenth century, even in explicitly authoritarian states (5). I wonder, however, if the logic of the liberal state has indeed been consistent since the nineteenth century. In a fascinating passage for instance, Mahmood explores the effects that the economic liberalization, deregulation, and privatization inaugurated by Sadat’s regime and consolidated by Mubarak had on religion and she suggests that these processes have made religious institutions even more central to civic and social life (83). Is neoliberalism here a mere intensification of liberalism? Does the political rationality of this modern state operate similarly as it did in the nineteenth century or is there a different (perhaps neoliberal?) logic at stake here? Does the total “economization” of the social constitute a break from classical liberalism or a “reprogramming of neoliberalism” to cite Wendy Brown?

This leads me to my second question: I would like to understand better how exactly secular governance works. Is Mahmood’s worry that the universal always gets filled with particular content? She suggests this at various points, when she writes for example that “the legal grammar of political secularism is neither neutral nor abstract but, as part of the organizing structure of the nation-state, is suffused with the historically specific norms and values that give the nation-state a distinct identity” (175) or “these problems are . . . internal to the edifice of liberal citizenship, which is purportedly abstract but in practice normatively majoritarian” (106). Or is Mahmood’s main concern abstraction more generally: the abstraction upholding liberal universalism but also the abstraction of religion as individual belief in Protestantism which (if we follow Asad on this point) has served as the model for secularism? Does abstraction always lead to “innocence and neutrality” (21)? And if so, how can we rethink the political without of abstraction and/or representation? Is abstraction a mask for idealism, the kind of political and philosophical idealism cherished by Bruno Bauer and the Young Hegelians? Or, perhaps, is Mahmood’s true target the state?

In the epilogue to her book, Mahmood takes up the question of the state directly as she proposes the concept of “secularity” (which she defines as a “substrate of ethical sensibilities, attitudes, and dispositions”) as an alternative to secularism, as a “critical practice that does not privilege the agency of the state” (212). I understand secularity here as a form of what Mahmood refers to as “political praxis,” as an outside to the “framework of rights” (32), but also as the kind of “ethical thematization” that she calls for in the last page of the book (213) as an answer to “our collective incapacity to imagine a politics that does not treat the state as the arbiter of majority-minority relations” (213). Here again, I would be interested to hear more about this “ethical thematization.” Is this comparable to the “human emancipation” that Marx calls for? If so, does this necessarily lead to a certain anarchic understanding of the social or to the actual destruction of the state? Or does “ethical thematization” require a particular subjective or psychic disposition—a revolution in one’s head? Is this form of “embeddedness” or “life world” an alternative to abstraction? If so, what kind of politics can we derive from this model without falling into a fantasy of a practice that would be non-mediated, non-corrupted, and non-representative—an example of the “jargon of authenticity” that Adorno has so aptly criticized? By raising these crucial and challenging questions, Mahmood has given us an extremely important book.

Elizabeth Castelli


Meeting Saba Mahmood in Fifth-Century Alexandria

Having been invited to engage with Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, I wish to take up her fascinating discussion in the final chapter—an exploration of the controversy surrounding the publication in Egypt of Youseff Ziedan’s 2008 historical novel, Azazeel, which appeared in an English translation by Jonathan Wright in 2012.

Azazeel is a novel set in the fifth century in Egypt and projects the individual spiritual (and carnal) struggles of a monk named Hypa against the complex backdrop of christological controversies, battles between emergent orthodoxies and persistent heresies, and the theopolitical intrigues of the city of Alexandria. Ziedan introduces Hypa’s story through a modern-day frame story: an archaeologist in late-twentieth-century Syria discovers thirty scrolls that contain Hypa’s memoir, the scrolls’ contents offering a firsthand account of the tumultuous world of newly imperial late ancient Christianity, including a brutal and graphic recounting of the murder of the Pythagorean philosopher and academic, Hypatia, at the hands of an Alexandrian Christian mob in 415.

The publication of Azazeel in 2008, its complex reception over the next few years, and the heated controversy it inspired offer Mahmood a rich case study for the broader arguments she lays out in Religious Difference in a Secular Age. Mahmood is interested in challenging the self-evidency of the “secular” and the semiotic chain of binaries that undergird it—secular/religious, public/private, universal/parochial, political/civil. She is also interested in historicizing the idea of the “secular,” showing how it is the product of a series of particular epistemological, political, and theological contestations that are tightly interwoven with the histories of European imperialism and Christian missionary projects. As Mahmood characterizes the conflict over the novel, “The Azazeel debate pivoted around two incommensurable understandings of religion: one in which humanity itself provides the values and models of human flourishing against which the contributions of a religious tradition are to be measured and judged; and another wherein human existence must be molded in accord with the dictates of a transcendent god” (182). As Mahmood narrates the controversy, Ziedan—a Muslim intellectual who is also the director of the Egyptian Manuscript Center and Museum, an institution known for its preservation of Coptic texts—found himself pitted against Coptic clerics, most notably the senior and highly regarded Bishop Bishoy, who wrote a four hundred–page response to the novel, declaring it “the worst book ever known to Christianity” (Bishoy, 13, cited by Mahmood, 187). As she analyzes the controversy, Mahmood argues that both Ziedan and his critics are tangled up in secular logics, especially those that assert the primacy and authority of history.

Mahmood notes that Azazeel was a highly celebrated novel when it was first published, winning the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (or what some call “the Arabic Booker”) in 2009 and translated into numerous other languages (including English in 2012). A quick survey of reviews of the book after it appeared in English confirms Mahmood’s argument that readers find in its pages a modern notion of universal humanity set against religious particularity and constraint. For example, freelance journalist Ben East writes in a review published in The Guardian in April 2012, “Ziedan seems to be calling for harmony and understanding in religious thought. He merely underlines how ridiculous—and yet dangerous—squabbles between religious sects can be. . . . [Azazeel is] underpinned by a believably human and universal tale of a man, racked with doubt and temptation, on a journey to find himself.” Back in Egypt, Mahmood notes, the controversy over the book took root in the fertile ground of contests and conflicts between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority as many Copts read the novel as an attack on their community and noted that no Christian writer could produce a similar novel about Islamic history without being resoundingly condemned.

Mahmood’s analysis of the novel and the controversy that surrounded it focuses on two particular elements—the story of the murder of Pythagorean philosopher and pagan intellectual Hypatia and the christological controversies of late ancient Christianity.

The question that haunts any discussion of Hypatia is what, indeed, we can know about her status and her death. There are only three ancient accounts, each of them quite brief, of Hypatia’s murder: Socrates Scholasticus’s Ecclesiastical History (fifth century), Damascius’s Life of Isidore (sixth century, likely dependent on earlier oral sources), and the seventh-century Chronicle of John of Nikiu. I routinely use these three sources in a classroom exercise when teaching about late ancient religious violence. Is Hypatia a dutiful daughter, a hapless victim, a proud martyr for science and philosophy, a magician, collateral damage in a dangerous political confrontation between church authorities and imperial power, the personification of the last generation of pagan intelligentsia? It is virtually impossible to get to the “truth” of Hypatia through these sources; each account is inextricably bound up with the religious and ideological projects of their creators.

Mahmood rightfully observes that the story of Hypatia has long been the object of romanticized portraits—from Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire to Charles Kingsley’s 1853 serialized novel, Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face, and G. Stuart Ogilvie’s 1894 four-act play, Hypatia to, more recently, the 2009 film Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz. Mahmood notes that Bishop Bishoy explicitly accuses Ziedan of depending upon the Kingsley novel and as a consequence reinscribing an Orientalizing caricature of Eastern Christianity onto the forebears of contemporary Coptic Christians. Historian Maria Dzielska, whom Mahmood cites, highlights the interestedness of all the sources—ancient, religious, secular, modern—noting the role of desire in historical reconstructions that variously portray Hypatia as virgin-martyr, philosopher-scientist, feminist avant la lettre.

Mahmood argues that Ziedan and the bishop are caught in the web of secularity in their debate over history, or what she calls “their common secularity that has become so naturalized that they cannot even recognize it in each other’s arguments.” This may be so, but I wonder whether another frame for understanding the tensions between their arguments—beyond “secularity”—might be a robust notion of collective memory. Mahmood reports that Ziedan understands himself to be a historian engaged in a humanistic project whereas Bishop Bishoy reads Ziedan’s novel as an affront to history his community tells about itself. Both Ziedan and Bishop Bishoy are engaged in competing projects of generating useable pasts, projects that are reflected in the historiographical problem presented by the fragmentary ancient sources of Socrates Scholasticus, Damascius, and John of Nikiu.

The debates that took place during the christological disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries were never debates staged solely on philosophical or theological grounds. They were also staged in the context of political competitions between bishops and institutional struggles between different players including, but not limited to, bishops and monks whose interests were not always clearly aligned. Mahmood seems especially distressed by what she calls Ziedan’s “elision” of Arianism and Nestorianism, as if these categories existed as pure expressions of coherent and clearly differentiated thought in the historical context of the battles over the nature of Christ. As several decades of historical inquiry into the emergence and consolidation of the categories of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” have shown, however, the ancient orthodox impulse toward systematization was often if not always a theopolitical project, one in which the formulation of creeds and confessions intersected in substantive ways with claims to authority, both personal and institutional. The very effort to declare someone an “Arian” or a “Nestorian” was an act of classification that sought to delimit the category of “Christian” from a particular point of view. As historian of late ancient Christianity Todd Berzon has shown in his just-published monograph, Classifying Christians, the orthodox/heresiological impulse toward ethnographic classification was an epistemological and institutional effort to consolidate power and knowledge, often under the cover of theological debate. So, for Mahmood to critique Ziedan for eliding or conflating “Arian” and “Nestorian” is paradoxically to align herself with the heretic-classifying orthodox operatives in the late ancient context.

This paradoxical or unexpected alignment points to a more general observation about Mahmood’s argument. Her interest in making the Coptic bishop’s critique of Ziedan intelligible sometimes depends on its own set of binaries which pin Ziedan to the cosmopolitan anti-religious secular position and Bishop Bishoy to the position of a religious defense of transcendent, transhistorical, sacred truth. That is, it seems that her argument rests upon the very binary that she critiques. This framing manages, inadvertently perhaps, to cast the Coptic clerics’ positions as the only legitimate expression on the side of “religion.” When we study the late ancient history of Christianity, we have to remind ourselves constantly that the history that we know is always partial and perspectival and tilted toward those at the top of institutional hierarchies. So the church councils that Mahmood cites as spaces of question-settling (which they certainly were or, at least, sought to be) should also be understood as spaces where elites gathered to consolidate their power and turn their ideas and arguments into normative claims. And given the fact that these councils of bishops met repeatedly to try to settle questions that refused to be settled suggests that there was in fact a much more robust and diverse set of positions, arguments, and commitments on the ground—held not only by dissenting bishops but by a whole range of other players whose voices our sources too often mute or ignore altogether.

In a different domain altogether—the contemporary world of national and international efforts to protect and promote “religious freedom,” a world Mahmood also explores in her provocative and engaging book—we see the mixed effects of governmental and international bodies seeking to secure “religious freedom” but assigning privilege and legitimacy to the perspectives of the leaders of religious communities in the process, thereby underwriting their claims to authority. In grounding her discussion of Ziedan and his critics in a historical reading of late ancient church councils, Mahmood (whether intentionally or inadvertently) performs a similar act of privileging and legitimation for the orthodox bishops of late antiquity.

My critical comments about the impossibility of historical reconstruction in the case of Hypatia and about the status of theological controversy in the late ancient Christian context are not intended to undermine the project of Mahmood’s book, which I find to be both challenging and salutary. Indeed, I hope my comments can serve as an invitation to further conversation about the broad themes of the book and in particular the last chapter’s intriguing example of late antique Christianity’s complex afterlives.

John Modern


Secularism, Computers, Identity

Despite decades of withering academic critique, the secularization thesis—its categorical tendencies and conceptual constellations—still permeates the political air. When there is too much religion or when religion exceeds its place or when bad religion triumphs as true, secularization is judged not to have taken hold. Familiar laments issue forth. Secularization has yet to assume dominance in particular parts of the world (despite our best efforts). We have yet to adequately persuade others of the ideals of secularity. Or god forbid, we have not lived up to the promise of our secular subjectivity.

Which is to say that the secularization thesis does not so much go unquestioned as it has become common sense, the background to policy directives, editorials, the quantifications of political scientists and pundits on CNN. What role, then, does all the hand wringing over the forces of fundamentalism and intemperate political speech achieve? All the perfectly pitched anxieties and performances of self-doubt that the fate of civilization hangs in the balance?

The failure of secularization is about incompleteness, disappointment, and often castigation in its call to return to the original promise—the dream of a world without religion, in general, and religious difference, in particular. A lament with a particular brand of hope, often vaguely technological:

Angry mobs of Islamists battled secular protesters with fists, rocks and firebombs in the streets. . . . Many in both camps brandished makeshift clubs, and on the secular side, a few carried knives.1

And it is precisely such blithe invocations and loaded categorical divisions that so often propel the secularization narrative forward—the present failures of the secular covenant redeemed by recommitment (and perhaps the knives).

The very same shuffle (one step back, two steps forward) may be seen in the jeremiad, a sermonic genre popular with American Puritans. Indeed, the jeremiadic form was perfected by Puritan divines in the seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony and bound up with the telos of an American secular in its attitude toward history, temporality, and scripture. As chronicled by Sacvan Bercovitch’s now classic The American Jeremiad (1978),2 this particular form of castigation was a ritual of assent, a rhetoric of social control that individualized sin and deflected attention away from institutional contradictions. The effect of calling out present sin, in other words, served to call individuals back to the covenant (and this is an important part of Bercovitch’s glimpse into the making of an American biopolitics). There is a tremendous acrobatics involved in this kind of lament. For here is a plea that transforms what begins as a valuation of particularist reflexivity into unreflective consent. Present sins redeemed by future aspirations inducing recommitment.

As Bercovitch writes, the jeremiadic form was “born in an effort to impose metaphor upon reality” (62). Which is a long way of suggesting that the saga of Puritan orthodoxy—in its categorical imposition upon the real—may be as good a place as any to begin thinking about the mechanics of secularism. For it begs the question of how to analyze the flow of categories in the process of being deployed, disseminated, and diffused, generating a host of other and often mutually reinforcing categories to be deployed, disseminated, diffused? How to account for definitional forces becoming the stuff of life itself?

In Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood offers an impressive case for the covenantal coercions of secularism, its “inescapable quality” and its limitations.[foonote]See[/foonote] What is the source of secularism’s sway, the slow sucking sound of its future ever making its way in? How does religion—as legal concept, as word and deed, as an object of critique or scientific explanation or manifesto—serve to consolidate a political order? Do secular orders of governance depend upon the violation of their first principles to maintain their authority? Do concepts such as religious liberty and minority rights more often than not serve the interests of the state rather than the individual who supposedly possesses some version of them? These are but a few of the questions that Mahmood entertains in Religious Difference, her persuasive and exacting investigation of the powerful resonance between secular concepts such as religious liberty and minority rights. In a series of tightly argued chapters, Mahmood charts their generative relationality on the national stage of modern Egypt.

According to Mahmood, religious difference is entangled in the making and maintenance of the nation state—a new kind of political rationality that differs from the pluralistic calculus of empires. Underlying Mahmood’s analysis is a sense of increasing precarity of religious minorities, in general, but particularly those like Bahais in Egypt, or to a lesser extent, Coptic Christians. This political rationality involves “the reordering and remaking of religious life and interconfessional relations in accord with specific norms, themselves foreign to the life of the religions and peoples it organizes.” Mahmood’s focus, then, is on “life worlds” that such activity “creates, the forms of exclusion and violence it entails, the kinds of hierarchies it generates and those its seeks to undermine.”

To cut to the chase, Mahmood’s argument—based in ethnographic and archival work in contemporary Egypt—demands nothing less than a rethinking of what constitutes the authority of the modern state—“the modern state’s disavowal of religion in its political calculus and its simultaneous reliance on religious categories to structure and regulate social life” (25).

In the maneuvers of the contemporary Egyptian state Mahmood rightly detects the scent of Protestant interiority, wafting, historically speaking, from colonial administrators and missionaries (44) who had earlier used concepts such as religious liberty to secure their own political status and cast suspicion upon communities and traditions that they found threatening. “In reflecting on this global campaign that Euro-American missionaries, educators, and colonial officials launched, it is hard to separate the religious elements from the secular ones. Indeed, it is difficult to even imagine how one would secure such a separation epistemologically, politically, and historically” (46–47). With the continuing impact of American evangelicals, proponents of neo-liberalism, and the politics of Human Rights and the US Government’s passage of IRFA in 1998 (the American International Religious Freedom Act), Egypt remains central to a global secular imaginary not to mention it being a site of secularism’s categorical reach and categorical confusions.

A central argument of Religious Difference is this—in its claims to promote equality at the level of the individual, secular governance produces all manner of new exclusions and distinctions. For example, given “the pernicious symbiosis created between religion and sexuality under modern secularism” (114) women bear the brunt of the regulatory power, their bodies overly invested with moral claims and disproportionately subject to the rule of law. In Egypt, the imagination of secular order hinges upon maintaining the public-private divide and increasingly upon the dictates of “family law” religious minorities, too—Bahais and Copts to a lesser degree—bear a sacrificial burden when it comes to maintaining secular modes of governance. For both women and Bahais, these hierarchies are not merely epiphenomenal, unfortunate and unforeseen consequences of any good faith effort of global governance. On the contrary, exclusions and distinctions are essential to the state’s perpetuation—assuring its authority over religion by generating the inequalities that demand its intervention and arbitration. And so on and so forth.

Mahmood does not rest satisfied with exposing the contradictions of secular governance. Structural paradoxes haunt the secular project. But such paradoxes, in turn, beget contradictions that are, and this is a significant contribution of Religious Difference, “generative.” These contradictions, in other words, not only constitute the norm. They normalize the norm by way of its transgression. So, for example, the relegation of the religious to the private sphere (as a matter of belief and conscience) (4) happens in a kind of two-step maneuver. The secular state violates its own norms in order to reinforce them:

On the one hand, the liberal state claims to maintain a separation between church and state by relegating religion to the private sphere, that sacrosanct domain of religious belief and individual liberty. On the other hand, modern governmentality involves the state’s intervention and regulation of many aspects of socioreligious life, dissolving the distinction between public and private and thereby contravening its first claim. This does not mean that the liberal state’s ideological commitment to keep church and state apart is false or specious, or that secularism constrains religion rather than setting it free. Rather the two propensities internal to secularism—the regulation of religious life and the construction of religion as a space free from state intervention—account for its phenomenal power to regenerate itself: any incursion of the state into religious life often engenders the demand for keeping church and state separate, thereby replenishing secularism’s normative premise and promise. (4)

The insight here is both profound and disturbing, namely that the promise of secular order is sustained because of its inherent limitations—its material failure guaranteeing its ideological success. In pointing out this loop Mahmood suggests that there may be nothing behind the mask of secular governance save for its capacity to perpetuate itself. It is, as they say, a theory of information. But it can still fuck your shit up.

A secular state, then, is something like a wrathful god in its legal and affective sustain. Perhaps even an agency of its own. And this is the brilliance of Mahmood’s ethnography of the state—her attention to its lifeways, the decisions it makes in order to survive, the different opinions and debates that it generates. Here is a post-human political critique of a self-organizing system. For rather than focus on the creativity of individuals within the secular age, Mahmood’s interest lies in the creative qualities of secularism, that is, secularism as a discursive formation that performs an amazing trick of making individuals meaningful to themselves.

If critique that privileges a concept of the human as creative and creatively flawed does not sufficiently appreciate that human action adds up to more than the sum of its parts, how, then, to tell a story that appeals to that excess, to those nonhuman elements, or perhaps the inhumanity of the collective, or at least elements that are neither mathematical nor within one’s immediate grasp? Mahmood theorizes the closures of secular governance not to revel in the disciplinary excess of our secular age (although there is pleasure to be had in such masochistic embrace) but to offer a new ground of analysis on which the closures of secularism are integral to its dynamism. And it is on this point that Mahmood accounts for the generative force of secularism, approaching it as not simply self-regulating—in the sense that mere ideology conserves its power—but rather as self-organizing in that its generative force arises in those points and moments of boundary maintenance, where and when an outside is necessarily maintained.

Take for instance one of Mahmood’s set pieces—the introduction of digital systematicity as the arbiter of Egyptian national identity (157–63). In 1998 the Ministry of Interior built a Civil Status Organization ID card factory in order to produce the first national identity card that conformed to international ISO standards and security measures. In 2004 computers were introduced in order to streamline the issuance of national identity cards, to further standardize their necessity, and, in effect, to leverage their functionality against a Bahai religious minority. Each card possessed a unique “national number” (raqam qawmi). At this time Bahais were legally forbidden to list their religion on their identity cards. Before the introduction of computers Bahais were often permitted by local officials to list Bahai on their cards. Consequently, before the introduction of computers this paralegal maneuver was not much of an issue as identity cards were not tracked systematically nor were they often called for in public.

Identity cards were used for such things as opening or closing a bank account, applying for a driver’s license or passport, and registering to vote or registering the number of your mobile phone. Identity cards were made of pure polycarbonate material and had 2-D encrypted barcode. They also had an ICI, short for invisible constant image that retained hidden information on the card owner and could only be read with the use of specialized optical technology.

As Nayer Nabil of Cairo reported in 2007, the material effects of the algorithmic abstraction was systematic discrimination:

“I tried to obtain the national ID card. In the application, I wrote that my religion was Baha’i. The officer refused to accept the application and asked me to present my birth certificate. I showed it to him. It stated that I was Baha’i and so were my parents. He still refused to accept the application and asked me to apply in Cairo. When I went to Cairo, I met an officer called Wa’il who opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a big pile of documents and said, “You see, all these applications are from Baha’i who want IDs. You will never ever get them.”[foonote]Human Rights Watch, “Egypt: Allow Citizens to List Actual Religion on ID Cards,” November 11, 2007, https:/C:/dev/home/[/foonote]

Here was a personal play of a nonhuman power that “authorize[d] the state to pronounce on substantive religious content, and promoting majoritarian values and sensibilities at the expense of minority beliefs and practices” (151).

In 2008, the Administrative Court of Justice ruled that Bahais should have national political identity cards to ensure their civic equality. The judgment was poignant in highlighting the devastating emptiness of categories (so as to be as flexible and fungible as strategically possible)—they were to leave the space for religion blank (so as not to challenge the state’s sole recognition of “the religions of the book” and not to compel any individual to bear false testimony to the state—a win-win for the state!). “Because no other state has this distinction,” writes Mahmood, “their identity cards clearly mark them as Bahais; the empty slot is an indication of their deviation from the Muslim norm and, for some, a sign of their apostasy from Islam” (163).

The computers installed to systematize issues of Egyptian national identity bear an uncanny resemblance to the powers of secular governance, in general—purporting to go inside in the name of protecting it, crunching the data of the private, systematizing it and making it make sense, making it public for the sake of private freedom and political security. Lines of code becoming lines of force—creating absolutely new conditions of possibility while simultaneously drawing from an epistemological fundament of Western liberal conceptions and deployments of the secular. A standardized national identity card for every Egyptian citizen, a technique by which individuals can be made known to themselves and others without remainder.

  1. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Blood Is Shed as Egyptian President’s Backers and Rivals Battle in Cairo,” New York Times, December 5, 2012, http:/C:/dev/home/

  2.  Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremaid. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.