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Secularism, Hermeneutics And Empire - The Politics of Islamic Reformation - Saba Mahmood

Secularism, Hermeneutics And Empire - The Politics of Islamic Reformation - Saba Mahmood

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Published by: Political Islamism on Feb 18, 2010
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Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire:The Politics of Islamic Reformation
Saba Mahmood
ince the events o September 11, 2001, against thebackdrop o two decades o the ascendance o global religious politics, urgentcalls or the reinstatement o secularism have reached a crescendo that cannotbe ignored. The most obvious target o these strident calls is Islam, particularlythose practices and discourses within Islam that are suspected o ostering unda-mentalism and militancy. It has become de rigueur or letists and liberals aliketo link the ate o democracy in the Muslim world with the institutionalizationo secularism both as a political doctrine and as a political ethic. This cou-pling is now broadly echoed within the discourse emanating rom the U.S. StateDepartment, particularly in its programmatic eorts to reshape and transorm“Islam rom within.” In this essay, I will examine both the particular concep-tion o secularism that underlies the current consensus that Islam needs to bereormed that its secularization is a necessary step in bringing “democracy” tothe Muslim world and the strategic means by which this programmatic vision isbeing instituted today. Insomuch as secularism is a historically shiting categorywith a variegated genealogy, my aim is not to secure an authoritative denition o secularism or to trace its historical transormation within the United States or theMuslim world. My goal here is more limited: I want to sketch out the particularunderstanding o secularism underlying contemporary American discourses onIslam, an understanding that is deeply shaped by U.S. security and oreign policyconcerns in the Muslim world.A number o origin stories can be told about the modern phenomenon o secu-
Public Culture
10.1215/08992363-2006-006Copyright 2006 by Duke University Press
I would like to thank Talal Asad, Charles Hirschkind, Claudio Lomnitz, and Elizabeth Povinellior their comments on this essay. My gratitude also extends to Michael Allan and Cindy Huang orthe research assistance they provided.
Public Culture
larism. One that commands considerable weight today is rooted in the doctrineo religious tolerance. In this account, modern secularism emerged in the sev-enteenth century as a political solution intended to end the European Wars o Religion by establishing a lowest common denominator among the doctrines o conficting Christian sects and by dening a political ethic altogether independento religious doctrines.
The realization o these goals was dependent, o course,upon the centralization o state authority and a concomitant demarcation o soci-ety into political, economic, religious, and amilial domains whose contourscould then be mapped and subjected to the calculus o state rule. In this narrative,both the ethics o religious tolerance and reedom o conscience are consideredto be goods internal to the doctrinal separation that secularism institutes betweenoperations o the state and church, between politics and religion. The assumptionis that the state, by virtue o its declared neutrality toward specic religious truthclaims, makes religious goals indierent to the exercise o politics and, in doingso, ensures that religion is practiced without coercion, out o individual choiceand personal assent.Insomuch as liberalism is about the regulation o individual and collective lib-erties, it is the principle o reedom o conscience that makes secularism central toliberal political philosophy in this account. Note, or example, that even though anumber o contemporary totalitarian regimes abide by the doctrinal separation o religion and state, they also routinely intervene to restrict people’s ability to prac-tice their aith (or example, China, Syria, or even the ormer Soviet Union). Sucha violation o people’s right to religious reedom contradicts a core commitmentat the center o liberal democratic governance. This does not, o course, mean thatthere is a singular model according to which the principle o religious reedom isinstituted, practiced, and regulated in liberal democracies. But it does mean thatpublic debate in liberal societies about how the boundary between religion andthe state is to be established and managed is counterbalanced with concerns ormaintaining the right to practice one’s religion reely without coercion and stateintervention.
This particular linkage between the doctrinal separation o church
1. This is a airly common historical account. For a recent and eloquent presentation o it, seeCharles Taylor, “Modes o Secularism,” in
Secularism and Its Critics
, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (NewDelhi: Oxord University Press, 1998), 31 53.2. The legal scholar Noah Feldman’s recent analysis o, and solution to, America’s “culture wars”centers precisely around these two principles o liberal secularism. He argues that the root o theconfict between “value evangelicals” and “legal secularists” lies in the act that the ormer want touse state unding or religious projects, and the latter want to limit the display o religious symbolsin public places (usually through legal means). Feldman suggests that the best way to resolve this
Politics of IslamicReformation
and state and the secular principle o reedom o conscience, while oundationalto liberal political rule, is also shot through with tensions and generates its ownpeculiar set o problems. Nonetheless, secularism is upheld these days by Ameri-can liberals and progressives alike on the assumption that this particular sociopo-litical arrangement is the best way to ward o the dangers o religious strie.Recent scholarship oers some interesting challenges to the idea that liberalsecularism primarily consists in securing a orm o governance orchestratedaround these two principles o reedom and restraint. Some scholars suggest thatthe so-called rewall separation between church and state does not adequatelydescribe how religion and modern governance are constitutively intertwined. Thisintertwining prevails not only in non-Western societies, it is argued, but also inthose that are upheld as exemplary models o what a secular polity should be,such as the United States, France, and Britain. Apart rom the constitutive rolereligious movements and institutions have played in crating the political cultureo these nations,
scholars argue, the ongoing regulation o religious lie through juridical and legislative means suggests a ar more porous relationship than thedoctrine o secularism suggests. In the United States, or example, recent Ameri-can scholarship points to the phenomenon o both lower and higher courts havingto constantly regulate when and how religion is practiced and expressed in publiclie.
Similarly, the recent French law banning the display o religious symbols(particularly the veil) in public schools may be taken as another example o how asel-avowed secular state has come to dene what religious and nonreligious attireis in the public domain (something normatively considered a matter o personalchoice within liberalism).
impasse is or the evangelicals to orego state unding or their religious programs in exchange orgreater tolerance on the part o the secularists or “governmental maniestation o religion” in civicspaces. While the ormer would preserve the ormal separation between religion and state, the latterwould ensure that everyone eels ree to express their religious aliation openly in public lie. SeeNoah Feldman,
by God: America’s Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About  It 
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).3. On the United States, see Sacvan Bercovitch,
The American Jeremiad 
(Madison: University o Wisconsin Press, 1978), and James Morone,
 Hellfre Nation: The Politics o Sin in American History
 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004). On Britain, see Peter Harrison,
“Religion” and  Religions in the English Enlightenment 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Petervan der Veer,
 Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain
(Princeton, N.J.:Princeton University Press, 2001). On France, see Jean Bauberot’s “The Two Thresholds o Laiciza-tion” in Bhargava,
Secularism and Its Critics
, 94 – 136.4. See Winnired Sullivan’s
Paying the Words Extra
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UniversityPress, 1994) and
The Impossibility o Religious Freedom
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UniversityPress, 2005).

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