On the follies and failures of secular convictions-II

Sher Ali Tareen January 6, 2019

The sovereign separation of religion and politics is the hallmark of a secular political theology


Ali Usman Qasmi’s response to my essay, also published in TNS titled Reifying the Divide: Ahmadis in Pakistan, though markedly less polemical, more measured, and at times even insightful, nonetheless evinces a less than nuanced reading of my argument and of the interaction of discourse and power more generally. To begin, he claims that I place the “blame” for minority suffering and injustice “squarely” on secularism.

Let me offer the corrective that I was not interested in “blaming” any phenomenon (or in offering any alternate “panacea”) but in highlighting the conceptual and political possibilities that are foreclosed when dominant understandings of normatively powerful categories like the secular are uncritically embraced. Approaching theoretical inquiry as an exercise in imputing or exonerating blame signals a singularly impoverished conceptual orientation. Moreover, let me also clarify that unsettling conventional wisdom about a category of life, such as say the secular or liberal democracy, does not equate to rejecting that category altogether, much like critiquing the concept of human rights does not equate to an argument for denying an individual’s or a community’s human or constitutional rights. Genealogical inquiry is not always a normative enterprise.

The crux of Qasmi’s critique of my essay hovered around his contention that the minoritisation of Coptic Christians in Egypt, as explored by Saba Mahmood in her last book, and that of Ahmadis in Pakistan do not follow common trajectories, and I hence erred in mobilising her thought in the Pakistani context. Obviously, I am aware of the differences in the two contexts, but drawing a comparison between them was hardly my point. Qasmi has done a rather superficial reading of Mahmood by emptying her work of what is among its most significant and profound insights, namely, to repeat: while the precise trajectory of religious inequality is historically specific to each context, the inextricability of secularism to liberal political rule is derived from analogous conundrums and paradoxes involved in the modern state’s management of religious difference. In other words, for Mahmood, the perpetuation of religious inequality is ineluctable to the very structuration of the modern state, and hence to political secularism, in both self-avowedly secular and religious states.

Turning to case of the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, here we have a community whose minoritisation was enshrined in the law for the purpose of maintaining public order and as a way to secure and amplify state authority: how does that escape or overcome the paradoxes and conundrums of modern state sovereignty Qasmi is unconvincing in showing. His highlighting the modern emergence of the Ahmadiyya in contrast to the pre-modern history of Christian Copts hardly resolves this impasse.

Similarly, pointing to the pressure of the ‘ulama’/or to the mobilisation of theological arguments as part of the process that resulted in the enforced exclusion of the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam does not circumvent the underlying intimacy between the exacerbation of religious difference and the paradoxes of modern state sovereignty. Herein lies the crux of the problem with Qasmi’s position: by positing the sphere of religion/religious discourse as necessarily distinct and bifurcated from the domain of the state/politics, he uncritically replicates the secular binary between religion and politics and is hence unable to consider an act of “religious exclusion” as a quintessentially secular gesture.

One must not romanticise ‘ulama’ traditions of knowledge or remain uncritical of its problematic aspects, especially on questions of gender and minorities. But one should not dismiss them as a relic of the past.

The underlying flaw here is with the persistence to view the “religious” and the “secular” as stable, neatly separable categories rather than as mutually emergent and constitutive; a rather reifying assumption I may add. And it is this flawed persistence that nourishes Qasmi’s insistence that one must attach the “blame” for minority suffering on the myopia and bigotry of “religious authority/‘ulama’” while leaving unblemished the virtue of secular reason.

His entire framing of the issue of Ahmadi exclusion as the case of a tussle between the “willing” pressure of “religiously obscurantist forces” exerted on a hapless state that “unwillingly” succumbed to that pressure is at once theoretically clumsy and politically odious. Again, such a framing depends on the unsound assumption that the domain of “secular law/politics” and that of “religion” are neatly separable so that the pressure exerted by inhabitants of the latter onto those of the former can be easily identified, dated (so for instance 1974 not ‘53), and mourned. The sovereign separation of religion and politics is the hallmark of a secular political theology.
Qasmi marshals some very interesting historical details regarding the Ahmadi exclusion from the fold of Islam in 1974, but the theoretical posture he brings to bear on his data is sorely wanting. And though not pivotal to my point here, one may note in passing that curiously, in December 1974, Zulfikar Bhutto had described the declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslim precisely as a “secular decision,” discussed in fascinating detail by Muhammad Qasim Zaman in his monumental recent book Islam in Pakistan: A History (Princeton University Press, p. 76).

Finally, what I found most troubling in Qasmi’s essay was his suggestion that my proposal to excavate resources of inter-religious hospitality in the Muslim intellectual tradition represented an argument for categorising Ahmadis as modern-day “Dhimmis.” It takes a healthy dose of hermeneutical incompetence to have arrived at this conclusion. This reading distorts my point while also displaying a reductively caricatured view of Muslim intellectual thought: past and present.

What I had in mind was the importance of imagining a horizon of the political that does not concede the problem of religious difference to the regulating calculus of the modern state. Surely, such a task of excavating alternate political imaginaries cannot involve the seamless inheritance of the pre-modern context of an imperial Muslim political theology. To the contrary, it is precisely the un-inheritance of such a political theology premised on the assumption of Muslim empire that creative engagement with and translation of the pre-modern Muslim intellectual tradition must entail. Critiquing the fantasy of secular power does not automatically involve seeking refuge in the comforting fiction of Muslim imperial power; such an abysmal choice signals a tragic absence of imagination.

But any project of reimagining the tradition cannot bypass the tradition or its custodians. Certainly, one must not romanticise ‘ulama’ traditions of knowledge or remain uncritical of its problematic aspects, especially on questions of gender and minorities. But neither should one dismiss them as a relic of the past or reduce Muslim political thought to such signature constructs of Euro-American stereotyping of Islam as the figure of the “Dhimmi.” Such a jaundiced view of the ‘ulama’ only highlights an abject unfamiliarity with the dynamicity of their knowledge traditions, modern or pre-modern.

In the contemporary South Asian context for instance, one can point to the work of excellent scholars such as Mawlana Waris Mazhari, Mawlana Ammar Khan Nasir, among several others who are engaged in the immensely difficult yet hugely profitable project of rereading the canonical legal tradition to forge new and more emancipatory understandings of pressing ethical issues including minority justice, gender justice, and rethinking blasphemy, often at great risk (see for instance Nasir’s wide-ranging 2011 Urdu work Barahin, Dar al-Kitab, Lahore). Such intellectual efforts, that must carefully tread traditionalist protocols and checkpoints, do not deliver the instant gratification of radical outcomes that many of our modernist sensibilities expect and desire. But their patient, painstaking, and often messy exercise of traditionalist hermeneutics ultimately promises a more confident and richly textured negotiation between the heritage of the Islamic tradition and the conundrums and promises of modernity. One may not always agree with their logics but one does not have to agree with or embody a logic of life to be able to sympathetically listen to it and learn from it.

After all, why should a logic of life be worthy of a hearing only when and if it successfully passes the interrogative witness stand of liberal secular judgment. As Saba Mahmood, in one of her shorter yet piercing early essays, Questioning Liberalism, Too, had so purposefully asked: “what would it mean to take the resources of the Islamic tradition and question many of the liberal political categories and principles for the contradictions and problems they embody.” Given the encrusted secular convictions that saturate so much of our world today, the stakes and urgency of this question cannot be starker.




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