Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Secularism, Sovereignty, and Religious Difference: A Global Genealogy?

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Secularism, Sovereignty, and Religious Difference: A Global Genealogy?

Article excerpt

This essay draws on one of the chapters of my new book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report published by Princeton University Press. In this book, I argue against the oft-repeated claim that the recent violence we have witnessed against religious minorities in the Middle East is a product of age-old Islamic hierarchies and religious antagonisms that characterize the region. Instead, I suggest that, while Islamic concepts are important, modern secular governance has played a crucial role in exacerbating religious tensions in the region, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarizing religious differences. This claim may appear counterintuitive to those who believe that secularism is a solution to the problem of religious strife rather than a force in its creation. My book challenges this assessment by examining the career of four cornerstones of secularism--political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains-in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt. Far from securing a separation between religion and state, I argue, these concepts have made religious identity more rather than less consequential to national politics, amplified religious differences, and consecrated majoritarian religious values and norms within the laws of modern polities.

My analysis here is indebted to the burgeoning field of secular studies that has, over the past two decades, definitively challenged the conventional account of secularism as the separation between church and state, religion and law, and ecclesiastical and political authority (Asad, 2003; Agrama, 2012; Bauberot, 2000; Connolly, 1999; Fernando, 2014; Fessenden, 2006; McLeod, 2000; Modern, 2011; Taylor, 2007). Scholars from a variety of disciplines have argued that modern secularism is far more than this minimalist formulation allows; it entails fundamental shifts in conceptions of self, time, space, ethics, and morality, as well as a reorganization of social, political, and religious life. The secular, in other words, is not the natural bedrock from which religion emerges, nor is it what remains when religion is taken away. Instead, it is itself a historical product with specific epistemological, political, and moral entailments-none of which can be adequately grasped through a nominal account of secularism as the modern state's retreat from religion. Broadly speaking, this emergent scholarship explores two distinct, albeit related, dimensions of the secular: political secularism and secularity. Secularism pertains to the modern state's relationship to, and regulation of, religion, while secularity refers to the set of concepts, norms, sensibilities, and dispositions that characterize secular societies and subjectivities. (1)

This essay is concerned with political secularism, which, following Talal Asad (2006), I conceptualize as the modern state's sovereign power to reorganize substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices. The state's sovereign power to define and regulate religious life is neither monolithic nor predetermined. Rather, it is shot through with a generative contradiction. 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. …

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