On the follies and failures of secular convictions-I

Sher Ali Tareen December 30, 2018 1 Comment

Furthering the conversation around the interaction of religion, secular power, and minority suffering in Pakistan and beyond


My mid-September essay in the TNS titled Beyond Religious Bigotry and Secular Freedom has elicited some critical reactions that I wish to briefly respond to here as a way to clarify my argument, and to hopefully further the conversation around the interaction of religion, secular power, and minority suffering in Pakistan and beyond.

Written in the context of the deplorable episode of renowned Pakistani-American economist Atif Mian’s forced expulsion from the Economic Advisory Council as a result of the backlash that emanated from his association with the Ahmadiyya community, the thrust of my essay centered on the following argument: such moments of minority injustice cannot be reduced to a battle between “religious bigotry” and “secular freedom.” Rather, the minoritisation of particular religious communities and concomitant majoritarian violence are inextricable to certain irresolvable contradictions afflicting modern state sovereignty, and its ineluctable entanglement with political secularism.

Drawing on the magisterial work of anthropologist Saba Mahmood, I had argued, “religious inequality is enshrined in the very organising logic and structure of the modern nation-state, Muslim or non-Muslim. For all its attempts at religious neutrality, the political and legal structuration of the modern state necessitates its involvement in and production of religious difference. While the precise texture and trajectory of such inequality certainly differs from the US to Egypt to Pakistan, no modern state — Western or non-Western, purportedly secular or religious — can escape an underlying paradox: even if the state “aims to make religious difference inconsequential to politics,” it cannot help but embed “majoritarian religious norms in state institutions, laws, and practices” (Tareen 2018; Mahmood 2015: 206).

The larger conceptual argument that anchors this line of thought has to do with a point that is now well-rehearsed in the field of what might be called Critical Secularism Studies, but that is still perhaps less familiar in some other academic and non-academic circles. That point is this: rather than the inverse or opposite of religion, the secular is better understood as a form of power that constantly manages and regulates what religion in the modern world should look like, often in a manner most conducive to liberal political rule.

At the outset, before I get to addressing some of the critiques my essay espoused, a clarifying comment is in order: critiquing secularism or exhibiting a less than enthusiastic embrace of the fantasy of religious equality it purports to deliver does NOT amount to an endorsement of religious fundamentalism. Bigotry of any sort, including that issued from actors marked as religious scholars, is condemnable; the question at hand is whether recourse to the always deferred promise of secular freedom represents our only or best alternative. It is precisely a view and worldview that thrives on the secularism/fundamentalism binary, that sees the former as the antidote to the latter, that the field of critical secularism studies has sought to disrupt and question, by showing the conceptual contradictions and exclusionary political operations that mark secularism as an idea and ideal.

Critiquing secularism or exhibiting a less than enthusiastic embrace of the fantasy of religious equality it purports to deliver does NOT amount to an endorsement of religious fundamentalism.

Now turning to responses to my essay: Afiya Shehrbano Zia’a article in TNS titled Atif Mian and Postsecular Anxiety represented a wholesale dismissal of the field of Critical Secularism Studies as what she termed a “diasporic academic indulgence” that in her view is politically and philosophically fallacious, while also irresponsible. The irony involved in casting the sledgehammer of exclusion as part of a conversation on minority exclusion is lost on Zia. There are several excellent academics based in Pakistan who draw on and are inspired by the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Humeira Iqtidar (among others) who I suspect will take strong exception to Zia’s characterisation of engagement with this important body of scholarship as “diasporic indulgence.”

The implied message in this vacuous description of course is that interrogating the machinations of secular power is some elite ivory tower preoccupation with no relation to conditions on the ground in settings like Pakistan, and is thus only of interest to far removed diaspora scholars. Leaving aside the problematic (shall we say fallacious?) binary here posited between the theoretical and the practical, the texture and content of Zia’s article make plainly obvious her less than a reassuring understanding of this field of study. Notice for instance this sweeping claim of hers: “Based on the works of Habermas, Taylor, Casanova, Asad and others, postsecular theory runs on the premise that secularism is not the opposite or antidote to religion.” This pithy sentence is quite revealing of Zia’s inadequate grasp over the thought of these scholars, especially that of Talal Asad.

To begin, though in fairness Zia is hardly the only one to commit this mistake, her description of “postsecular” for the work of a scholar like Asad is misplaced for at the heart of his scholarly corpus is the attempt to trace the enduring workings and shadows of the “powers of the secular modern” (NOT postsecular) in varied domains of life. Moreover, lumping Asad with Habermas, Taylor, and Casanova as part of a common scholarly project is profoundly troubling.

Among the interventions of Asad’s thought has been precisely to unsettle Habermas’s celebration of the modern public sphere as a space of rational discourse and debate by highlighting the power differentials and imbalances that inform the logics and rationalities governing such spaces. Similarly, questioning Jose Casanova’s “secularization thesis” was central to Asad’s 2003 classic Formations of the Secular. And even an elementary understanding of Charles Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age makes abundantly obvious the major differences between his and Asad’s approaches to and conclusions regarding secular power, as the latter’s commentary on this book clearly shows. Zia has not done her homework before so cavalierly dismissing an entire field of thought. Perhaps “indulgence” in some readings, with an open mind and less polemical attitude, might do her a world of good.

In her essay, Zia also charged that I had engaged in what she called “humpty dumpty logics” while commenting on secularism. This is an intriguing category the lineaments and purposes of which are not so clear to me. Much like her essay as a whole, this category left me at once amused and bemused, almost in equal measure. But the few indications Zia offers on what this means only shows her own incapacity to think more creatively than what imprisonment to the religion/secular binary would allow.

Take for instance her following charge: “Tareen considers the agents of religious discrimination and hate for Ahmadis to be the liberals/secularism and not the defamed mullahs/Islamisation.” This is an absurd reading of my argument, nourished by the equally absurd Manichean assumption that the goodness of secularism or the wickedness of the mullah are the only two options we have available. Such unflinchingly fundamentalist faith in the salvational powers of secularism that proscribes even the hint of any analysis that sheds doubt on the purity of that power is sure to put many a religious fundamentalist to shame. As I will have occasion to repeat, the point of my essay was not to blame “secularism/liberals” but to shed some doubt on the conceptual and political soundness of reading moments of minority injustice such as the Atif Mian episode as the certain product of a naturally irreconcilable standoff between secular goodness and religious bigotry.

To close this segment, let me address another argument (a charitable description) of Zia’s presented recurrently in her essay: namely that I had “privileged majoritarian pain” by highlighting the intimate entanglement of modern state sovereignty, political secularism, and minority suffering. This, again, is a bewildering claim. The entire point of my essay was to push for an analysis of minority discrimination that thinks carefully about the very political conditions and discourses that generate the division of humanity into such categories as “majority” and “minority.”

Clearly, the story of such enumerated identities cannot be divorced from the event and legacy of colonialism, and the perpetuation of that legacy, albeit through new and varied mechanisms, in postcolonial settings like Pakistan. How does such a conceptual stance equate to privileging “majoritarian pain” is rather beyond me.

(To be concluded)



Pakistani seminary students take their first semester exam at the Islamic Jamia Binoria seminary in Karachi on December 7, 2013. More than 3,300 students took their examinations at the seminary where hundreds of Pakistanis and foreigners study. AFP PHOTO/ Rizwan TABASSUM

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