“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.