BONNIE HONIG: OK. Hi, I'm Bonnie Honig, and I'm one of the six week faculty members at the School for Criticism and Theory here this summer. I'm a political theorist. And it is my honor and pleasure to introduce today's lecturer, Saba Mahmood, who is an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley and my colleague at SCT, whom I've just got to know here and whom I already cherish for her humor, insight, and integrity in thinking.
Saba has more masters degrees than anyone I know. She has one each in the disciplines of anthropology, political science, architecture, and urban planning. This last in urban planning, in combination with an undergraduate BA in architecture, account, I think, for her stint-- four years long in the late 80s and early 90s-- working for Common Ground in Washington State, a nonprofit devoted to developing low-income housing for poor and homeless people.
Read in temporal context, these four masters degrees, I'm guessing here, suggest-- and this is my guess-- that Saba began her career in architecture and urban planning, and then possibly possessed of certain questions about meaning or justice, turned reasonably enough to political science, but again, reasonably enough, drew certain conclusions about that discipline's incapacity to answer those questions-- I say that as a member of the discipline-- and turned to anthropology, where she got not only a master's degree but also a PhD in 1998, and seems finally to have found or made for herself a home.
Now she is an anthropologist who studies habitus. Her book, The Politics of Piety, which has been translated into French, won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association for Best Book on Women in Politics, and honorable mention for the Albert Hourani Best Book Award of the Middle East Studies Association. She's also co-editor of and contributor to two other books, one a very important book, as well, called, Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, and another, Contested Polities: Religious Disciplines and Structures of Modernity. Her articles have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Public Culture, Social Research, Cultural Anthropology, among other respected journals, many operating at the intersection of multiple disciplinary formations.
Her argument in the Politics of Piety is one of relevance to many disciplines of inquiry and important as well to the wider world of politics and culture. It is simply that liberal assumptions about the powerlessness of women in religious, and especially Islamic, contexts are unwarranted and tend to promote and protect specifically liberal understandings of freedom, agency, and statehood, and not the gender equality on behalf of which liberals claim to speak when they object to religious forms of sexual difference. Saba finds in a widespread Sunni Islamic women's mosque movement in Egypt not an ideal of sex/gender equality, but something in between the equality proclaimed, if never fulfilled, in liberal societies and the constitutive sex/gender inequality associated with patriarchal societies.
She finds, that is, a class-differentiated, meaning-making world and practices that are, to use an old word, gyno-centric. In many ways, a set of women's publics in which women preach and practice together on behalf of the moral training of the self and the body, which Saba reads in striking Foucauldian terms. This world is not insulated from that of men, however apart are its practices of religious education. As Saba notes in her book, women leaders of the movement have a certain autonomy in leading their communities, to which their male counterparts tend to defer. Here, the key theoretical move is to open up space between the liberal view of religion as the pure repetition of habit-- unthinking-- and liberal autonomy as self invention or innovation. Active engagement in learning, such as is practiced in the women's mosque movement, is neither/nor.
Wearing the veil is also neither/nor. The problem, in short, is not the veil, as so many secularists think, but rather secularists' rather limited categories for comprehending it. Worse yet, our binarisms press us not only into confrontational thinking but into confrontational politics as well.
The same sensitivity to the limitations on established ways of knowing and seeing informs her work in Is Critique Secular?, Co-edited and coauthored with Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Talal Assad. There, Saba's contribution looks at the Danish cartoon controversy, in which the Prophet Muhammad was depicted by some as a terrorist. Here, she moves to address the subtle epistemological registers that undergird the debate, identifying how certain liberal or Western understandings of signification in referential terms subtly drive the expectation on the part of liberals and secularists that Islamic people should be able to detach themselves and their religious beliefs from public speech and caricature. Why can't "they" establish some distance between themselves and the bruising counterpunching of a healthy liberal public sphere?, liberal secularists ask.
Saba's answer is that the expectations that others should relate to images in the same way as do Western secularists is premised on an epistemic hegemony in which a certain kind of distance between subject and object is naturalized. Careful not to fall into the usual alternative in which the non-Western subject lives in an enchanted world of signs and wonders, while the Western subject knows better, Saba carefully charts the views of those who object to the cartoons. It isn't about the images of the Prophet as such, but rather the role of the Prophet in their everyday lives as an exemplar to be approximated through memetic daily practice. In short, just as the veil plays a constituent of role in her Politics of Piety book in the ethical political formation of the self as subject, here, too, the prophet's exemplarity plays a role in the daily pedagogy of the self as a work of art.
Saba's aim throughout her work, as I hope these comments have just suggested, is to make agency in the book and injury in her essays, in all of their variety and complexity, intelligible through careful acts of cultural and epistemic translation. And this she does in my view admirably. Her newest work is on the politics of secularism, an area of central importance right now to both our disciplines and many others. Thus, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you my favorite Pakistani anthropologist, Saba Mahmood.
SABA MAHMOOD: Thank you for that very generous introduction. Let me see. Can you hear me? Thank you, Bonnie. I don't know, how many Pakistani anthropologists are there in the world? I'd like to know myself.
I would like to first of all thank Amanda Anderson for extending this invitation to be here for the summer at SCT. Like Bonnie, I was very tentative when I first got the invitation, thinking of my summer and of the pleasures associated with it. And then somebody convinced me, just like someone did Bonnie, that the pleasures are many to be had in this context as well. And I'm certainly not being disappointed.
I should say that the title of my talk has changed, and so please take note. And in part, it's changed because Michael Warner is here, and he's going to be giving a talk tomorrow. I had read Michael's work earlier, the work that he'll be presenting tomorrow, about six months ago, I believe, and it's ever since been a provocation to me. So I decided, as I was thinking about the paper to write for this venue, to actually take up that provocation and think about some of the issues that Michael will talk about tomorrow as well. So hopefully, we'll be in conversation.
I want to thank you all for coming despite this very hot weather, on a holiday, as I have been told. It's always been the case with me that talking about religion never bestows the bounty of God on me. And today's weather has convinced me that this is a pattern that I should just embrace. So I'm embracing this heat. If the lights are too bright and you can't see all my slides, please let me know, and we can actually lower the lights.
So let me start. As the debate about secularism has unfolded over the last two decades, it has coalesced around a set of insights and working assumptions that are useful to state at the outset of my talk. I do so for two reasons.
We can rock. I do so for two reasons. Given the relative newness of the field of secular studies, one cannot assume that these insights are known or shared by those unfamiliar with the debate. Second, it also allows me to spell out the framework within which I'm operating so that I may explore a more precise set of questions about the relationship between secularism and sexual difference and the role this nexus of sexuality and secularism has come to play in the negotiation of religious difference in postcolonial Muslim polities of the Middle East.
Secularism has often been understood as a foundational principle of liberal democratic governance, securing the separation between religion and politics so that an individual may practice her faith freely without coercion and state intervention, articulated in the right to religious freedom. In recent years, this understanding of secularism as the doctrinal separation of religion and politics has come to be challenged in two important ways. First, a growing body of scholarship shows that the secularization of modern society has historically entailed not so much the withdrawal of the state from the religious domain, but the state's reconfiguration of substantive features of religious life. A key element of this reconfiguration involves the extension of state regulation of the social and legal norms that are derived from religious doctrine. In many instances, modern nation states have had to act as de-facto theologians, distinguishing what is properly religious from what is not, in order to render certain practices indifferent to religious doctrine, thus legitimately bringing them under the domain of civil law. The intertwining of religion in modern governance prevails not only in non-Western societies, the scholarship suggests, but also in those that are upheld as exemplary models of what a secular polity should be, apparent in the ongoing juridical and legislative regulation of certain aspects of religious life in the United States, France, and Britain.
A second important intervention that complicates secularism's claim to state neutrality toward religion is made by anthropologists and historians, who argue that in most liberal democratic societies, the process of secularization has entailed not so much the elimination of religion from politics or public life, but its reformulation in accord with a normative model of religiosity, one that is amenable to practices of liberal political rule. This normative model regards religion primarily to be a matter of privatized belief in a set of credal propositions, to which an autonomous individual gives assent. These scholars draw attention to the disciplinary practices through which such a secularized conception of religiosity and the concomitant believing subject is produced. This production is not the accomplishment of the state alone, they point out, but of a wide range of social, cultural, and civic organizations, whose activities promote and engender secular dispositions, with an emphasis on a post-Protestant hermeneutical stance toward scripture and religious rituals, the retraining of moral and ethical sensibilities, as well as a linear conception of time and history.
These two related but distinct complications of the conventional secular narrative have opened a new field of inquiry into A, different models of state regulation of religious life, and B, the unexpected effects this regulation has produced in political, ethical, and social fields of human action. Despite the proliferation of projects and writings under the rubric of secularism over the last decade, as Michael Warner and Joan Scott have pointed out recently, there is a striking lacuna in the scholarship about the central role sexuality plays in contestations about the secular. As Michael Warner's talk tomorrow will suggest, this lacuna is all the more remarkable given the fact that most of the flashpoints over the secular in the world today are about sex and secularity, battles over abortion, gay marriage, the regulation of the veil, ordination of gay priests, administration of HIV/AIDS programs, and international family planning programs, to name only a few.
Scott and Warner propose two different ways of diagnosing this analytical failure and of thinking about the nexus between sex and secularity. For Warner, the necessary relationship between sex and secularity has less to do with religion's-- although to be more specific, Christianity's-- hostility to sex and far more to do with how sexuality and secularity are mutually constituted in the modern period. One place where this neutral constitution is most evident is in the practices of the biopolitical state, whose management of the population, in the name of public health, medicine, and reproduction, recalibrate sexuality as one of the central axes of modern governance.
This normalization and regulation of sexuality, Warner argues persuasively, is manifest not only in practices of governmentality but also a range of contemporary religious, supposedly anti-secular, movements that have increasingly come to cast the question of religiosity as necessarily and essentially linked to a proper reckoning with sex. What is quite novel about Warner's argument is that he turns the table on what is largely a Foucauldian account to suggest that secular sexuality despite its vast regulation is not contained by these projects of normalization, but also exceeds them. I'm sure you will hear more about Michael's argument tomorrow, but here I want to simply mark the distinction Michael offers between sex that is linked to normative and regularizing projects of secularism and anti-secularism and sex that escapes such ethical and moral ambitions.
Let me contrast Michael's argument with that of Joan Scott, whose Politics of the Veil many of you are reading in my seminar and also parts of it in Michael's mini-seminar. In this book and in her more recent work, Joan Scott argues for an approach, that is somewhat distinct from, if complementary to Warner's, for thinking about sex and secularity. Scott argues against the conventional narrative that portrays the unfolding of modern secularism as a triumphalist march of progress that liberated sexuality in its wake from the taboos and controls of traditional religion, in the process leveling sexual differences by granting women civil, political, and economic rights.
Scott complicates both these claims by showing that not only has gender inequality persisted in secular societies across the West and non-West divide but also, importantly, sexual difference continues to play a, if not the, constitutive role in organizing the proper boundary between the religious and the secular. More specifically, she argues that under secularism, sexual difference becomes the basis for representing alternatives between past and future, religion and rationality, private and public. She reads these representations in a psychoanalytical register, arguing that they simultaneously assuage deeply-rooted unconscious anxieties about sexual difference and secure the plausibility of the secular. To the extent that these representations structure the meanings of secularism, she concludes, they feed into its normative expectations, indeed, they contribute to the production of gendered secular subjects.
In what follows, I want to think about how the secular reorganization of religious life in post-colonial Muslim societies forces us to reconceptualize the relationship between sexual difference, sexuality, and secularism, as theorized by Warner and Scott. As I will argue the case of post-colonial Muslim societies in the Middle East, it elucidates distinct dimensions of secular power that are not legible in the story about secularism in Western liberal societies. This includes a historically distinct model of organizing religious difference that tweaks the secular regulation of sexuality and sexual difference in unique and unexpected ways. In turn, this historical model has produced unique configurations of religious liberty and sexual politics, in which Western power and geopolitics play a constitutive role.
In my concluding remarks, I will revisit the work of Warner and Scott to think about the similarities and differences across Western and non-Western post-colonial experiences of secularism. Broadly speaking, this paper is part of a larger project, about which I will speak more when I present my colloquium paper on Thursday, in which I develop an alternative genealogy of how secularism, sexual difference, and religious freedom have come to be intertwined in the context of the Middle East. This is a genealogy that displays some similarities with the account Warner and Scott present, but also differs from it in important ways. These differences and linkages I want to suggest are key to conceptualizing the shifting and historically contingent project of political secularism.
One of the most common ways that the secularization of Muslim societies is narrated is by telling the story about the transformation of religious law-- the Sharia- in the modern period. We are often told that the Sharia, which encompassed all spheres of life in the pre-modern period, came to be limited in scope through its sequestration to matters pertaining to family law, on issues of marriage, inheritance, divorce, and child custody, what today is called personal status law or family law in Muslim societies. The circumscription of the Sharia is supposed to stand in for the general curtailment of religious authority in the modern period, as societies came to be increasingly organized into distinctly differentiated spheres ruled by secular rationalities of civil law. It is further argued that when colonial powers came to the Middle East, they refrained from interfering in the religious affairs of colonized peoples, and therefore left family law intact as the space par excellence of native culture's autonomy and freedom. As a result of this colonial ambivalence, the argument goes, the Sharia has taken on an ossified and recalcitrant quality that has remained untouched by the secularizing and liberalizing force of civil law. The preservation of the Sharia in the form of family law in this narrative is diagnosed as the symptom of a compromised secularism that prevails in Muslim societies.
This account is flawed for a number of reasons. To begin with, the telescoping of the Sharia into family law did not simply curtail the scope of religious law, but also transformed it, from a system of decentralized and locally administered set of norms and procedures to a codified system of rules and regulations administered by a centralized state. Family law under the auspices of the modern state has become not simply a tool for the execution of divine law, but one of the techniques of modern governance and sexual regulation.
As we know, the family becomes a privileged instrument and element in the regulation of the population under the auspices of the modern nation state. Neither the practice of personal status law nor the object to which it is applied, the family, has remained historically unchanged. One effect of this process is the historical transformation wrought in the concept of the family from a loose network of kin relations to the nuclear family, with its attendant notions of conjugality, companionate marriage, and bourgeois love extant in Muslim societies.
Secondly, the telescoping of the Sharia into family law did not simply curtail the scope of religious authority, but crucially helped secure a foundational distinction internal to political secularism, namely, the distinction between the public and the private. Thus, the colonial powers' enshrinement of the Sharia as family law was not so much an expression of their benign tolerance for the native culture, rather it was a product of the secular formula for privatizing religion. Importantly, just as religion came to be privatized in the modern secular imaginary, so were matters pertaining to the family, sexuality, and sexual difference. The privatization of these aspects of social life did not mean, of course, that they fell outside the purview of the state, rather they came to be increasingly regulated by the centralized state and its various political rationalities, no longer administered by local muftis, qadis, customary norms, and parochial moral knowledges.
One paradoxical consequence of the secularization of Muslim societies is that just as religious authority became marginal to the conduct of civic and political affairs, it simultaneously comes to acquire a privileged place in the regulation of family and sexual relations. To put it another way, one of the results of the simultaneous privatization of religion and sexuality in the Muslim world is that the two have come to be ineluctably conjoined, such that questions of religious identity for the Muslim majority and non-Muslim minorities alike often entails contestations about gender, marriage, and the family. While some aspects of the story about the privatization of religion and family are shared across the Western and non-Western divide, what is distinct about post-colonial societies is that in most cases, family law continues to be administered solely in accord with the religious guidelines, with no recourse to civil law.
In other words, where family law or personal status law prevails, it remains the only source for adjudicating conflicts pertaining to marriage, divorce, and inheritance. This is just as true for Muslim family law as it is for Hindu Buddhist, Christian, or Jewish family laws in countries as varied as India, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, and Syria, to just name a few. In Lebanon alone, there are 15 different kinds of personal status laws that pertain to different religious confessions, such as the Greek and Syriac Orthodox churches, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Maronite Christian Church, Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, and so on.
One explosive consequence of this conjoining of intercommunal and family regulation is that political conflict over religious difference often then falls on the terrain of sexual and gender difference. Any attempt by the state to create a uniform civil code for adjudicating family relations is opposed by various religious groups, particularly religious minorities, as an incursion into the autonomy of these religious communities. The famous Shah Bano case in India exemplifies these tensions. Let me give a short account of this case so as to give you a flavor of the explosive nature of such conflicts and the assumptions that undergird them.
In 1985, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Shah Bano, a 62-year-old divorced Indian woman was to be paid alimony by her ex-husband, a ruling that was contrary to Muslim family law, but in accord with the criminal procedure code of India. The Muslim minority of India protested this ruling as an unfair incursion by the state into affairs over which they had legal autonomy. Faced with Muslim protests in 1986, the Indian government reversed the Supreme Court decision and passed a bill that removed Muslim women from the requirements of the criminal procedure code. This bill in turn provoked a vitriolic reaction from secular leftists and women's rights groups, as well as the Hindu right wing political parties, all of whom for different reasons argued that the bill weakened the secular basis of Indian citizenship by giving way to the orthodox and patriarchal forces of a minority religion. Since then, the debate about the adoption of a uniform family law in India has come to be represented as a contest between those who champion the individual rights of Muslim women, represented as victims of unjust gender practices of the Muslim community, and the collective rights of the Muslim minority, painted as backward and patriarchal.
In this framing, secularism emerges as the guarantor of gender equality and civil rights, while religion is made to stand in for gender injustice, communalism, and obscurantism. Needless to say, this way of framing the issue leaves no possibility of thinking about the symbiotic relationship between the religious and the secular in creating this conflict. The Shah Bano case is one among many such cases that exemplify the turn political conflicts over religious difference take place in post-colonial societies.
A very similar debate, however, recently unfolded in England when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that not unlike Jewish customary law practiced in the United Kingdom, Muslims might also be allowed to use Islamic family law to settle conflicts of marriage and divorce. There was a bitter backlash by many in Britain who saw this proposal as a threat to British secularism that would also open the door to institutionalizing the backward and patriarchal laws of a religious minority. A very similar confrontation erupted between the Muslim minority and non-Muslim majority in Canada in 2005.
What is common to all these controversies is that the demand for and opposition to family law is ultimately cast as a conflict between the secular liberal principle of individual equality and the principle of multicultural religious pluralism. This way of framing the issue is key to a classical debate within liberal political theory about how to draw the proper boundary between the rights of minority groups against the larger society and the rights of each minority group against its own individual members. The answer to this dilemma is far from clear and has been negotiated in a variety of ways. What is important to note, however, is that the question of gender equality sits at the center of this interminable conflict.
It might be useful here to recall the multiculturalism debates in the 1980s in North America. The problem these debates articulated was never simply how to let multiple cultures bloom in the liberal polity, but to ensure the institutional conditions for the preservation and reproduction of minority traditions and ways of life. The work of a range of multicultural theorists, Will Kymlicka, Iris Young, [INAUDIBLE] and Charles Taylor to name only a few, may be understood as an elaboration of the dilemma within liberal political theory. Notably, the issue of women's equality as an individual right secured against religious tradition, custom and culture, often served as a litmus test in these theorists' work to define the limits of the autonomy accorded to minority groups to practice their traditions.
Something quite similar is no doubt at stake in the debates about family law that I have cited here, in that opposition to Sharia-based family law is often staged as an argument for establishing the rights of women as individuals against the tyranny of custom and religious tradition. But there is also something else at stake. It has to do with how the legal justification for upholding religion-based family law has increasingly come to be grounded in the right to religious freedom, a grounding that further amplifies the tensions between an individualist and a group conception of rights.
There are, for example, two distinct notions of religious freedom extant in international law and a variety of national constitutions, one that casts the right to religious liberty as an individual right, as in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and another that casts it in communal terms as the right of a minority group to profess and practice its religion and culture without undue restraint from the state or majoritarian culture. In so much as the conflict between these competing claims to religious freedom are settled by the sovereign prerogative of the modern state, then the right to religious liberty is one of the key sites where the boundary between the religious and the secular is now often negotiated and set.
It is often asked as to why have issues of sexual regulation come to be tethered to religious identity in postcolonial societies in such an explosive and insidious manner? The quick and easy answer has often been that this process is indexical of the incomplete character of non-Western secularism aided and abetted by the colonial power's anxiety about interfering in native religious life. The assumption is that if these societies had gone through a complete process of secularization, if colonial powers had done their duty, then the religious basis of family law would surely have been abolished, taking down with it the patriarchal norms of kinship grounded in religious doctrine.
Apart from the fact that such an answer rehearses the exhausted trope of non-Western modernity and secularism as always a lack or inadequacy, what is far more important is its failure to recognize the fact that what we call family law or personal status law today is a fragment of a historical model in which religious difference was conceptualized and organized very differently than the system of post-colonial nation states in which it is now inserted. This historical fragment has come to acquire a particularly pernicious form under secularism's foundational divide between the public and the private. As such, it is neither an expression of the essential religiosity of these societies nor a diagnosis of their incomplete secularism. It is another mutation of the Janus-faced character of modern secularism, in which religion is ineluctably tied to its Siamese twin, the secular, an intertwining that is often disavowed by those who speak in its name.
Consider for example, the historical continuities and disruptions that the institutionalization of family law manifests in modern Egypt. Egypt's current family laws, both Muslim and Christian, are a legacy from the Ottoman period, when religious difference was the primary axis for the organization of a unique socio-political order. For those of you who might not know, the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic empire that lasted for over six centuries, from the 13th to the 20th century, and at the height of its power extended over a vast geographical expanse from the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and West Asia, ruling over an immense diversity of religious faiths.
What was remarkable about the Ottoman Empire was its system of organizing religious difference, in which each community had juridical autonomy over religious and family affairs, as well as a range of other domains. This non-liberal model of pluralism was quite distinct from the liberal model, to which it is inadequately compared, in that each religious community's autonomy was justified not in terms of group versus individual rights, but a political order in which difference was paramount. The Ottomans did not aim to politically transform differences into sameness. Instead, various contiguous religious groups were integrated through a vertical system of hierarchy, in which Muslims occupied the highest position.
A number of historians have argued that, unlike the European Christian empires of the 16th and 17th centuries that sought to suppress or eradicate religious difference, thereby provoking almost 100 years of religious wars in Europe, the stability of the Ottoman Empire in part derived from a system in which religious difference was assigned a recognized place in the socio-political order. An order that was, nonetheless, ineluctably hierarchical. While many aspects of this older system were slowly transformed over the course of the 19th century, the judicial and legislative autonomy of most religious communities continued to be maintained. This state of affairs, however, was transformed in the colonial period when the distinction between the public and the private came to be instituted, with religious and family affairs firmly located in the former. The part of the Ottoman system that the British Empire preserved under a radically different logic of secular governance was the religious basis of family law. This question has continued to prevail in postcolonial Egypt, even as the principle of civil and political equality aims to level religious difference within the national citizenry.
Let me elucidate the complex and volatile character of the secular dispensation by considering the case of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. While the Coptic Orthodox Church is granted autonomy to adjudicate Coptic family affairs, this autonomy also stands in tension with the sovereign state's prerogative to regulate civil, political, and religious affairs on the one hand, and the assimilative thrust of the national culture that remains Islamic in its ethos and substance on the other. The Coptic Orthodox Church realizes that their members are always under subtle social pressure to convert to Islam and to assimilate to Muslim ways of life. This is not because Cops are subject to Muslim proselytization-- strict national laws prohibit such efforts-- but because of unfair regulations and norms that favor religious conversion from Christianity to Islam, while making the reverse far more difficult, if not impossible. While there are no clear laws that prohibit inter-religious conversion on the books per se, in practice the Egyptian state makes it extremely hard for Muslim converts to obtain legal recognition and documents necessary for the conduct of civic and political life.
Given these conditions, it is not surprising that the Coptic community is rife with rumors and anxieties about how Muslims are always trying to snare Christians to convert. Such anxieties are particularly manifest when Coptic women and girls either marry or have romantic liaisons on with Muslim men. Cops widely believe there is a conspiracy on the part of Muslims to abduct and coerce Coptic girls to convert to Islam. Despite the disputed and contested nature of this claim, news of Coptic girls' forced conversion to Islam circulate widely in the national and diasporic Coptic media.
Recently, the American Evangelical movement has stepped into the fray, taking on this issue and giving it far more legitimacy than it had ever received before. Last year, Christian Solidarity International, an evangelical organization that works on behalf of what is now called the global persecuted church, released a report that gives the issue an unprecedented prominence in the global and international arena. The report that the Christian Solidarity International has put out not only seeks to document the abduction of Coptic girls by Muslim men but also elevates the charge to the category of sexual slavery that is now a part of UN protocols-- United Nations protocols-- and US laws on human trafficking. While I will return to this point later in my paper, here I want to note that what seemed to be the cultural problems of religious excess internal to Muslim societies are deeply embedded in geopolitical struggles over Islam in what is now loosely called the Western civilization.
One of the most incendiary incidents to erupt on the Egyptian scene in recent years that captures this complex intertwining occurred in November 2004, when a 47-year-old woman by the name of Wafaa Constantine-- Constantine-- who was married to a Coptic priest in a small village, went missing. Upon investigation, the security police reported that she had converted to Islam and was now living with a Muslim family in Cairo. Immediately following the news, protests broke out in the village of her residence, and Coptic demonstrators accused the security police of failing to bring Constantine back to her home after they had discovered her whereabouts.
Stories circulated that she had fallen in love with a Muslim colleague, who had convinced her to elope and convert. Thousands of cops occupied the Coptic patriarchate in Cairo, shouting slogans such as, religious conversion cannot be coerced, and stop the gangs of women kidnappers. When the police failed to turn her in, the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, used his personal influence with the president to demand Constantine's return. Tensions escalated further, and the pope went into isolation and protest while rioting erupted in and around the patriarchate, in which both Cops and police were injured.
On the night of December the 8th, 2004, the security police handed over Constantine to the church, at which point, under tight state security, she was taken into custody by the church officials and sequestered from public. The church emphatically denied Constantine's conversion to Islam and charged that under the use of force and drugs, she had lapsed momentarily, but was otherwise holding firm in her faith. Since she was handed over to the church at the end of 2004, Constantine has not been seen or heard from. In 2008, when several Muslim clerics charged in an incendiary fashion that the church had killed Constantine, church officials announced that she was alive and well, living a secluded life in the pope's home monastery in the high desert and will soon appear on Coptic television. To date, no such sightings have been reported.
Notably, in the public debate that followed Wafaa Constantine's alleged conversion and subsequent disappearance, there was little discussion about what Constantine's motivations were. We still know very little about who she is, why she left her home, and indeed whether or not she converted to Islam and if so, under what circumstances. Instead, public debate focused on the classic conflict between her individual rights to religious liberty and the Coptic community's right to persevere against perceived Muslim aggression, as well as their right to defend the community's honor, whose ultimate repository are deemed to be its women.
In reading these debates, I was struck by the lack of concern for Constantine herself. While she emerged as the object of protection by the church, the police, and the Muslims, she seldom emerged as the subject of the controversy. Among the few who expressed a concern for Constantine's motivation and well-being was Tariq al-Bishri, a leading Islamic reformer, a well-respected jurist, and a critic of the government. Bishri is well-known for having written one of the earliest books on the rights of religious minorities in Egypt within the framework of Islamic law. In what follows, I want to highlight two critical points raised by Bishri, by way of reflecting on how sexual difference and the right to religious liberty have come to be tightly interwoven in the debate on what it means to be a religious minority.
First, Bishri condemned the Egyptian state for violating its own laws by handing Constantine over to the church, which he argued has no legal or constitutional authority over an Egyptian citizen, regardless of his or her religion. For Bishri, the church under the current pope has usurped extralegal powers with the acquiescence of state authorities, such that it can claim to be sovereign over all costs, regardless of the fact that they are first and foremost subjects of the nation state. Bishri argues that in capitulating to the pressures of the church, the Egyptian government violated Constantine's rights as an Egyptian citizen, thereby abandoning her to the vagaries of the power of church authorities.
Now, while Bishri has a point, he nonetheless remains impervious to the structural contradictions that haunt the status of minorities in a national polity. The concept of national minority is built on a fundamental tension. On the one hand, it signifies membership of a minority group in a national polity. On the other hand, the minority group, by virtue of its racial, religious, or ethnic difference from the majoritarian culture, also represents an incipient threat to national unity. This threat is internal to the ideology of the nation state insomuch as the modern concept of nationhood regards linguistic, ethnic, and cultural characteristic as a legitimate basis for people's claim to national self-determination and independence statehood. The demand of a national minority to preserve its uniqueness has always the potential of fracturing national unity and is therefore open to the charge of betraying the nation.
The second point made by Bishri that I want to focus on is his excoriation of the Coptic Church for its hypocrisy in demanding the right to religious freedom for cops as a minority on the one hand and violating Constantine's individual right to convert to Islam on the other. He wrote, and I quote, "The church administration violated its own oft repeated call to uphold freedom of religion and the right to inter-religious conversion regardless of whether it is to or from Islam." End of quote.
While Bishri is right to point out the hypocrisy of the church, he fails to recognize that this contradiction between minority group rights and individual rights is a structural feature of the discourse on religious liberty, especially when invoked in relationship to religious minorities. Insomuch as this tension remains unresolved within the conceptual architecture of religious liberty, then its resolution ultimately devolves upon the particular accord established between religious minorities and the state. In the case of post-colonial Egypt, this accord has entailed granting autonomy to the Coptic Church over family affairs while at the same time limiting the possibility of conversion to Christianity. Even though Coptic family laws does not prohibit conversion to Islam or any other religion, such an act nonetheless touches upon the vulnerabilities of the life of a community already under the threat of assimilation and discrimination.
The fact that this anxiety works itself out around women's conversion highlights the degree to which women are regarded as more coercible than men, their consent more pliable to seduction. The right to religious freedom of the individual is therefore differently weighted when it comes to women versus men for the Coptic Church as much as its followers. Most feminist scholars tend to explain this differential status of women versus men to be a product of the overvaluation of women as the repositories of religious tradition and its primary producers.
Such an argument however, does not take into account how central gender and sexual difference is to the secular dispensation. As the work of Joan Scott on French Republicanism and Laicite shows, sexual difference continues to organize key binaries essential to variations of the secular liberal political order, such as public and private, reason and passion, universalism and particularism, and so on. Many of these distinctions organize the debate on the veil in France and its eventual ban in 2004, and are equally relevant to the operation of the modern political order in Egypt. What is unique about the secular dispensation in Muslim societies is that by telescoping the Sharia into family law, the family, particularly the behavior of women and children, is given a disproportionate importance in conflicts over religious identity and religious difference. Insomuch as Coptic religious identity is invested in family law and the family is the paradigmatic space associated with women and reproduction, then it is not surprising that Constantine's conversion elicited such a strong reaction from lay and religious Cops alike.
The difficult and interesting question that follows from Scott's work and my argument so far is, how does the fundamental instability inherent to secularism, in its constant quest to draw the boundary between the religious and the secular anew, change the way sexual and religious differences are regulated, perceived, and experienced? For if sexual difference emerges differentially and contingently in different articulations of the religious and the secular, then we need to think carefully about its changing valence and the conflicts it can potentially generate.
By way of providing some ways to think about this question, let me turn to an issue I mentioned earlier in my paper, the recent entrance of the American Evangelical movement into the Coptic scene. Despite longstanding doctrinal and cultural differences that had historically divided the Coptic Orthodox Church from Western Christendom, the recently organized "new Evangelical movement" has become far more attentive to its global calling to save persecuted Christians in Muslim societies and socialist and communist countries. While you will read a lot about this in my colloquium paper later this week, here I want to highlight the conjoining of two projects undertaken by these new Evangelicals in the Middle East. First is a project that aims to secure the right to religious liberty for Christian minorities living in Muslim and former socialist countries. And second is a campaign to make what they call sexual slavery a global crime.
Notably, the new Evangelicals are quite distinct from their earlier counterparts in that they are far more cosmopolitan, interested in forging a global alliance with their Christian brethren in the South, and conversant in the language of human rights, which they now ubiquitously use in their various campaigns. Their goal is not so much to convert heathens living in the global South as to save what they call the persecuted church in various parts of the world from non-Christian persecution, particularly Muslim persecution. One of the central means by which they seek to realize this goal is by harnessing the resources the US State Department to serve the interests of the global Christian Church and by remoralizing US foreign policy.
This Evangelical mobilization has been very effective in recent years, with the passage of two landmark pieces of legislation in the United States. First is the International Religious Freedom Act passed under President Clinton in 1988, which mandates the US State Department and the President of the United States to persecute violators of religious freedom globally, with a particular focus on the treatment of Christian minorities living in the Middle East. The second piece of legislation, known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000, established the US State Department office to combat human trafficking on a global scale. Both of these, even though they are US pieces of legislation, they mandate the US Congress and the president to follow its dictates globally.
As the work of Elizabeth Bernstein has shown, even though the ostensible aim of this new legislation is to criminalize human trafficking, which includes forced labor and forced sex-- and they don't make a clear distinction between these categories-- it is the prostitution of women and girls that constitutes the paradigmatic instance of what "modern-day slavery" is assumed to be. The spate of US anti-trafficking laws, which are sort of listed over here at the bottom, that have emerged in the wake of this act create severe criminal penalties for pimps and sexual clients who are portrayed as slave holders, impose financial sanctions upon nations deemed to be taking insufficient steps to stem prostitution-- understood to be self-identical with human trafficking and with slavery-- and stipulate that internationally based NGOs that do not explicitly denounce prostitution as a violation of women's human rights are to be disqualified from federal funding. The campaign against sexual slavery won another victory in 2000 when the United Nations passed a new protocol to prevent human trafficking in women and children, particularly under Article III of this protocol.
It is under the umbrella of these two projects of religious freedom and sexual slavery that the Christian Solidarity International, a leading Evangelical organization active on both fronts, released a widely circulated report giving evidentiary credence to the claim that Coptic girls and women are abducted, sexually abused, forced to convert to Islam, and marry Muslim men. While the evidence provided by this report is uneven and sometimes dubious, what is interesting about the report is its intertwining of sexual politics with the politics of religious freedom. On the one hand, the report clearly frames the forced conversion of Coptic women to Islam as a violation of the religious freedom of the Coptic minority community, but on the other hand, the fact that many of the women converts are over 18 years old poses a problem, in so much as their actions are protected by the individual right to religious liberty also championed by the Evangelicals.
It is at this point that the report's framing of Coptic women's abduction as a story about sexual slavery becomes crucial. The report charges that the women are seduced into having sexual liaisons with Muslim men, lured by the hope of a genuine relationship, which in reality is fraudulent because its aim is conversion to Islam. The report argues that the process of luring a woman into a relationship for the purpose of forced marriage, when accompanied by force, fraud, or coercion, constitutes an act of human trafficking. As such, it calls upon the United States government to act in accord with the US law on trafficking and to pressurize the Egyptian government to change its policy toward Cops. This appeal is now repeated widely by Christian television and broadcasting networks and other Evangelical media outlets in the United States and Europe. If I had time I would show you some interesting clips, but I don't.
The portrayal of Coptic women converts as core subjects of conversion is crucial to the story. This claim largely turns on the vulnerability of Coptic women to what is characterized as the predatory practices of Muslim men, rooted in the Islamic traditions that legitimize violence against women and non-Muslims. The report plays on the post-9/11 sentiments of its American audience, drawing upon widely available tropes of Muslim male violence, Islam's inherent misogyny, and its lack of tolerance. Insomuch as the Coptic women converts are portrayed as agentless actors preyed upon by Muslim men, what is erased from this picture is the role of the Coptic Church in policing and punishing the conversion of its members, as exemplified by the Constantine case. While rumors about Coptic women's abduction had circulated in the past, what is new about this turn is that women's conversion has become the flashpoint for arguments about the religious freedom of the community as such.
In this framing, what is striking is that a Coptic woman's submission to the Coptic community and its institutions emerges as the paradigmatic act that secures the community's collective exercise of religious liberty. Recall here the sequestration of Wafaa Constantine in the pope's monastery, from which she has never been able to emerge. In such a context, a Coptic woman's conversion to Islam cannot be rendered in terms of her religious liberty precisely because she has become the bearer of the community's religious freedom. This paradoxical conjoining of her submission and the collectivity's freedom is not an expression of an essential religio-cultural patriarchy, rather it is a product of the secular dispensation in which minority identity has come to be vested in the regulation of the family whose exemplary bearer is, after all, the woman. Note that minority and majority operate here not simply as legal, but also gendered categories, insomuch as the mirror of the hierarchical relationship between the coerced Coptic female and the aggressive Muslim male.
It would be easy to think of the Coptic problem as particular to Muslim societies, and of course, in some ways it is. But it is also important to realize that a constellation of global forces have played a constitutive role in transforming the terrain in which the Coptic question can be imagined, argued, and debated, key among them the power of the contemporary American Evangelical Christianity to define a new set of geopolitical agendas. It would be difficult to imagine this global force as religious in any simple sense, distinct from the operation of secular power, given how deeply implicated the US State Department and various United Nations agencies are in the campaigns that Evangelicals have helped mobilize, including those of religious freedom and sexual slavery. As such, the Coptic-Muslim struggle cannot be understood in culturalist terms, rather it provokes us to reflect on the consistencies and idiosyncrasies of the past and present of post-colonial societies presents in the making of the secular at a global and geopolitical scale.
Let me conclude by going back to the questions and framings with which I had opened my talk, key among them the insights both Michael Warren and Joan Scott provide to think about the privileged status accorded to sex and sexual difference in contemporary conflicts over the religious and the secular. Notably, I share with Warner the insistence that secularism is not simply indifferent to sex, as a space of freedom and ever-increasing liberty, but that secularity and sexuality are mutually constituted in the modern period. Warner further argues that secularists and so-called anti-secularists in their agonistic stance towards each other fail to see their mutual investment in secular sexuality. I think he's quite correct to point out that secularism in particular remains blind to its investments, normative, ethical, and embodied, in the secularity of sex.
This is where I think Joan Scott is particularly useful in trying to tease out what the different kinds of investments in sex and secularity are. For Scott, it is the axis of sexual difference that both gives a certain structural stability and consistency to the secular, particularly the secular liberal political order, but it also serves as a constant provocation and a point of instability. Insomuch as the valence and symbolism of sexual difference might change, our different cultural interpretations collide to produce generative conflict.
It is in this instability produced by the shifting articulations of sexual difference, and I would add the instability of the secular project itself, in which I place my argument. My talk here draws upon a different genealogy, one located in postcolonial Muslim societies and the particular history of the Ottoman organization of religious difference that they inherited. I have argued that with the secularization of Muslim societies, religion and sexuality both came to be privatized and simultaneously invested in the preserve of the family. This conjoining, I have argued, is particularly pernicious because any attempt at changing the parameters of family law or dethroning it from its privileged status is met with resistance from religious groups, particularly minority religious groups. It doesn't mean that family law cannot be changed or that it cannot be made amenable to more egalitarian conceptions of gender equality, as you know the recent transformation in the Moroccan family law in 2004 clearly show. It's one of the most complete overhauling Muslim personal family law that I've seen in history.
One would expect that the introduction of the discourse on religious liberty, especially in its individualist formulation, would break the circumscription of religion, family, and sexual difference, that its critical power would pry loose the rigid hold of the circumscription, providing a reprieve from this hothouse of mutual constitutions. But as my analysis has shown, the discourse on the right to religious liberty counter-intuitively has only deepened the circumscription, further investing the minority and majority identities in this logic. The fact that this fixing has been in part achieved through supranational forces of legislation and power only reminds us that such matters are not simply cultural but also geopolitically determined. Thank you.
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The simultaneous relegation of sexuality and religion to the private sphere is widely regarded to be a key feature of secular liberal societies.
Saba Mahmood, professor of anthropology at University of California-Berkeley, analyzes the contradictions and paradoxes that attend this feature of liberal secularism by focusing on the institutionalization of "family law" in postcolonial societies and the conflicts it tends to produce around gender and sexuality.
The event was sponsored by the School of Criticism and Theory.