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Timely questions

As thought, commentary and action regarding Egypt’s unfolding present struggle to keep pace with one another, the arrival of Hussein Ali Agrama’s Questioning secularism is very timely.  His study foregrounds such questions as:  Is Egypt a secular state or a religious one?  To what extent can ‘Islamic law’ (shari‘a) be adapted to the structures and procedures considered proper to the rule of law in modern states?  What forms of governance will ensure the protection of democratic rights for all citizens?  Even as I write, these are the questions that animate discussions in Egypt’s legislature, courtrooms and cafés.  So one dimension of this book’s timeliness is its coincidence with events that hold global attention.

Questioning secularism is based on sustained engagement with sites of debate in and around Cairo. More specifically, accounts of personal status cases and the work of lawyers in and beyond the courthouse take turns with descriptions of the work done by religious scholars and ordinary Muslims at the Fatwa Council at Al-Azhar.  This ethnographic material is couched within a sharply reasoned inquiry into the historical conditions in which the questions above have become so urgent.   Thus, emerging from fifteen years of work on these questions, a second trajectory of the book’s timeliness is a matter of patience: patience with the long journey of research and inquiry that allows a thought to mature.  Agrama’s approach is not to provide answers to the questions and in fact he insists that while the questions are of pressing importance and by no means ‘false,’ they cannot be answered in a definitive way.  If the importance of a question is not in its answer, then what is it that these questions do?

Philosophers have long held that questions do not simply denote a lack of knowledge but instead set out approaches to underlying problems.  Questions can be false if they lead one astray from a problem, and true problems are never exhausted by a set of ‘answers.’  Agrama develops this insight and draws on David Scott’s work[1] to show how specific questions also enable and empower distinct political formations.  Accordingly, the questions above are the enabling condition of secular power.  They exemplify the underlying question of ‘how to draw the line between religion and politics.’  And the problems to which they lead are the struggles for liberal rights and duties such as freedom of belief, equality and tolerance that can only be secured by sovereign states.  Questioning Secularism is a thoughtful articulation of a theory of power: one organized by questions that animate distinctive constellations of concept, affect and institutional structure.

In order to examine the analytic purchase of this approach, let me trace Agrama’s account of the logic through which the second question above has come to animate the extension of sovereign state power in Egypt.  Landmark reforms of 1897 were designed to integrate the authority of the shari‘a into the structures and procedures of law deemed proper to modern states.  They did so in part by constraining the relevance of the shari‘a to the domain of the family—a domain that was a distinct category within the legal systems of European states but not recognized as such within the shari‘a itself.  This fact is well known to students of Islamic law but Agrama directs attention to the logic underlying a procedural innovation that accompanied these reforms.  In principle, shari‘a court proceedings were to be held in public—but if it was judged to be in the interest of public order, then court could be convened in private.   The first important consequence of these reforms is that the categories of public and private were made dependent on one another: the family became an object of protection as the foundation of the public order.  Secondly, by presuming that keeping court proceedings open to the public would build confidence in the judiciary the reforms also presumed an attitude of constant vigilance against the abuse of power.  Such abuse might take the form of a bias in judgments, or the exploitation of religious law for worldly ends.  Agrama’s ethnographic account of the personal status courts in Cairo shows how this vigilance had come to be embodied as suspicion: not only do litigants suspect the judges of bias, but judges suspects litigants of false testimony or manipulation of the law.

Thirdly, the reforms connected the concept of the public order to the state’s capacity to invoke a state of exception.  Like the family, the concept of the public order emerged within European law.  In that context it was a kind of loophole through which a state claimed exception to the application of otherwise binding foreign judgments.  As such, it was a space for the assertion of domestic sovereignty.  When imported into Egyptian law, too, the concept enabled the state to assert its own sovereignty by declaring an exception.   Who exactly is the public?  Who decides what counts as protection of the public order?  Within a diverse society the notion of the public entails distinctions of majority and minority that become the terms for evaluating equality before the law: minority groups are entitled to special protection to ensure equality.  That the majority of Egyptians are Muslim thus underwrites the legitimacy of the shari‘a in personal court proceedings, but opens several problems for non-Muslims.  For example, the fact that personal status cases between Christians of different denominations are subject to the shari‘a technically would allow polygamy for Christians of different denominations.  But Agrama discusses a court case in which the principle of public order was invoked to deny that possibility on the grounds that it violates an essential feature of Christian religion.  In considering monogamy an essential feature of Christianity, then, the ambiguous principle of public order enabled the state to make a theological pronouncement on a minority religion. By doing so, it also produces doubts about whether or not the law successfully achieves the equality for which it strives.

It turns out that the state will make similar pronouncements on the boundaries of the majority religion.  This is precisely what occurred in the famous 1996 case of Nasr Abu Zayd, to which Agrama devotes his first chapter.  Complementing other scholarly analyses of the case that have emphasized how Islamic legal concepts were radically redirected away from their classical usage, Agrama goes on to show that the case also exemplifies the dilemmas produced by the concept of public order, which required the state to decide what counts as apostasy.  The religious freedom of Egypt’s Muslim majority requires that the principles of their religion not be violated in a public way.  When Abu Zayd’s published writings were designated as an issue of public interest and separated from his own ‘private belief,’ the paradox of the state’s pronouncement on his marriage in the name of public order was set in motion. On this basis the courts deemed Abu Zayd’s writings apostasy and nullified his marriage to a Muslim woman according to the conditions of the shari‘a.  In the same sentence of the final ruling, the courts were able to claim to protect Abu Zayd’s right to believe whatever he wished privately, but justified their intervention as a protection of the public order.  What this case shows is not the resurgence of religion within the secular state, but a necessary paradox of a modern state that would espouse the protection of freedom of religious belief in the name of public order.  Unsurprisingly, commentary that accompanied these proceedings was characterized by doubts and distrust as to whether the rule of law in fact produces the freedom of belief to which it aspires.

In sum, if several stages of legal reforms were meant to answer the question of how to integrate the shari‘a into the rule of law, they did so with two important consequences:  they produce an affective sensibility of suspicion and vigilance against the abuse of power, and they empower the state to decide on exceptions.  A profound indeterminacy about when and how the state is authorized to decide on exceptions in turn re-animates the suspicious sensibility about where to draw the line between religion and politics.  The stated goals of equality for all citizens and freedom of religious belief are necessarily called into question by the very procedures that are meant to secure them.  What these questions do, then, is not only respond or limit sovereign state power but produce and enable it.

To frame secular power as a questioning power thus invites us re-examine the assumption that state power aims in some particular way to draw the line between religion and politics.  While that assumption has allowed for important perspectives on the normalizing dimension of secular power, it has had the consequence of suggesting that any elements of indeterminacy and uncertainty must be subjected to that normalizing process.  But approaching the issue from the perspective of the question enables us to see how the state derives its power from provoking the very questions it alone has the authority to resolve.  According to this view, most of what is called ‘critique’ falls squarely within the paradigm of secular power.  If for Foucault the critical sensibility that emerged across centuries of rising state power in Europe took the form of the question, “how not to be governed like that,”[2] then perhaps for Agrama, we might say the critique takes the form of the question, “how not to draw the line between religion and politics in this way.”

Agrama’s sixth chapter describes the critique produced by lawyers committed to the Islamist movement in Egypt.  On the one hand these lawyers affirm the general principles of liberal governance including the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the principle of legal equality.  On the other hand, they emphasize their disappointment with the sufficiency of human rights discourse to motivate and secure those principles.  Thus before they begin to argue in the courtroom, they sometimes preface their cases with a recitation of a relevant Qur’anic verse.  Knowing and hoping that the judge would decide the case purely on the basis of the law, they nonetheless emphasized that it was only the judge’s commitment to the pursuit of justice as a Muslim that could activate the law.

The technique of evoking a theological source that ostensibly stands outside and beyond the state resonates with some critical views associated with Carl Schmitt’s work on political theology.  Indeed, the critical traction of reciting verses from the Qur’an derives in part from the state’s narrative of itself as relying on Islam and protecting the values and principles of the Muslim majority.  But Agrama’s intervention is to point out that both of these critiques elide the fact that the foundation of the state’s sovereignty is conceptually prior to the distinction between religion and politics.  In other words, it is only from the perspective in which state power is a given that religion can be projected as its point of origin.  Thus, however warily, when the Islamist lawyers employ a religious language of justice in the courtroom, they do so in accordance with the categories, sensibilities and judicial procedures established by the state.  Placing religion before politics, as it were, they do not evade the question of how to draw the line between them.  By insisting that the line be drawn in this way rather than that way, their work falls squarely within the domain of normative critique that enables and produces the authority of the state.

Normative critique, thus, belongs to a kind of normalizing power that seeks to subject every last space of social life to its force. But if one follows Agrama to take secular power as a questioning power, then we might subsequently ask how it is that questions can be skirted, evaded, deflected, discarded or declined.  When state sovereignty seems to reach further and further into the recesses of social life, what kinds of spaces remain or emerge that might deflect the constitutive questions of secularism?

Agrama describes two such spaces.  His fourth chapter is rooted in an ethnographic study of the Fatwa Council of Al-Azhar—one of the most highly respected institutions of learning in the Islamicate.  Though often glossed as a ‘non-binding legal opinion,’ Agrama’s description of fatwas as “religious responses issued by learned sheikhs to questions asked of them about certain aspects or affairs of life” already begins to stage a particular intervention.  Wresting the study of fatwas from the presuppositions about creativity or imitation that have framed much inquiry into their long history within the Muslim societies, Agrama sets the practice of seeking fatwas within the temporal horizon of everyday life in which advice and counsel are offered to questioners in order to go forward with the affairs of daily life.  (The public circulation of fatwas beyond the face-to-face encounter of questioner and respondent falls beyond the purview of analysis.)  The sheikhs with whom Agrama spoke described their work less in terms of innovation or imitation than as a responsibility to bring their knowledge of the shari‘a to bear on the task of facilitating affairs in the daily lives of Muslims.  Commonly revolving around such issues as the conditions set in the shari‘a for the legitimacy of a marriage in view of God’s commands, consultation took as its primary goal the task of showing Muslims the path toward a more virtuous self.   The practice of seeking and providing fatwas at Al-Azhar falls out of the question of secularism—that is, it belongs outside the questions that produce and enable state sovereignty as the paradigmatic form of secular power.  And indeed the kinds of sensibilities, procedures and stakes that were attached to the questions of secular power do not resemble what is attached to the Fatwa Council.  In lieu of suspicion these interactions rely upon trust and good faith; instead of extensive procedures designed to prevent manipulation the Fatwa Council was a space where ethical cultivation was allowed; and instead of anxieties about distinctly liberal notions of freedom and equality, one finds a journey to becoming a better Muslim.  In sum, deflecting the question of secular power means deflecting or suspending the broader architecture of concepts and affects that enable it.  In a preliminary manner, Agrama designates this space as ‘asecular’—a space that is out of the question of the secular.

In the midst of this lucid and eloquent book, Agrama treads notably lightly in his discussion of how these asecular practices relate to secular power.  It remains unclear to me, for example, why Agrama insists that asecular practices are not opposed to secular power.  On the one hand he introduces these practices in relation to Foucault’s notion of the care of the self as “both a way of refusing particular modes of power and acting ethically in the face of them” (p. 180).  But he later writes: “though disengaged the council is not […] explicitly opposed in any particular way to the secular power that produced it.  It is neither secular nor opposed to secularity; rather, the concerns of secularity are not its own” (p. 187).  Even if the emphasis of the Fatwa Council is not to refuse secular governance but to submit to divine sovereignty, doesn’t this imply a kind of opposition?  I believe more clarity on this problem would strengthen Agrama’s overall account of the power of the question.  It would also enable a closer tracking of Agrama’s position vis-à-vis other work addressing the relation between the shari‘a and the modern state.  For example, in a recent book that could profitably be read alongside Questioning secularism, Wael Hallaq argues that the classical articulation of the shari‘a recognizes only divine sovereignty, and that the practices organized around that form of sovereignty are fundamentally incompatible with state sovereignty in its current hegemonic form.[3] Agrama’s account shows the lineaments of a practice that Hallaq may recognize as proof of how the “moral effects [of historical Shari ‘a ] persist with unwavering stubbornness.” At the same time, the practices of learned sheikhs at Al-Azhar might be an important qualification to Hallaq’s more general claim that “its institutions, hermeneutics, and personnel have all vanished without hope of return.”[4] Without naming itself a revolution against the state, and even if it is an historical product of the state, the Fatwa Council suspends and deflects the questions that animate and enable state sovereignty.  Why not call that opposition?

That is precisely the question that Agrama suggests the Egyptian state may begin to ask—a question that would inevitably result in more complex forms of state scrutiny and intervention at the Fatwa Council of Al-Azhar.  In this light, Agrama’s designation of the initial days of the protest movement as another asecular space is provocative and insightful.  This is the designation that makes it clear that divine sovereignty is not the only alternative to state sovereignty.  The protest movement accommodated multiple religious orientations in producing explicit political demands that nonetheless deflected the question of how to draw the line between religion and politics.  Here I am reminded of the protest movement that surged in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.  Support for the protest movement in Egypt was an explicit motivation for one of the initial gatherings in February 2011, which soon became a diverse movement that accommodated intense and agonistic disagreement among Islamist, secularist, and a host of other political—and otherwise ‘non-political’—forces calling for radical changes in the Kurdistan Regional Government.  The Kurdistan Regional Government swiftly and violently suppressed the protest movement and by the time I reached Kurdistan in June of that year, those who had supported the movement had already begun to regard it as a distant memory clouded over by hopelessness.  But that moment was more than fleeting: it was honored through such ordinary practices as refusing to walk in front of the building where the movement’s first martyr was killed; and it was sustained by one poet who acknowledged the dismal failure of the protests but insisted “since then I have been living on the pleasure of those days, and I think I can I live here for another year.”  In small-scale projects of living, then, the asecular dimensions of the Egyptian Revolution are being carried forward even in places as distant as Kurdistan.

Of course, such projects are not movements or powers and perhaps this is why Agrama so carefully describes the asecular as a moment, a practice and a space.  In attending to a few aspects of the initial days of the Egyptian protest movement, Agrama suggests that these practices are not limited to the domain of pietistic aspiration that claims for itself the orthodox mainstream of Islam.  Indeed, Questioning Secularism is not an anthropology of orthodox Muslim piety squared against the secularizing state.  It is an anthropology of secular power that evokes select dimensions of Muslim thought and practice—as well as other forms of explicit political action—in order to destabilize conventional accounts of the natural necessity of secular governance.  It is a clear and incisive picture of how secular power works through questions to sustain a distinct sensibility of suspicious vigilance by engaging complex structures of governance that extend state sovereignty into the recesses of daily life.  Agrama concludes his epilogue with a rather grim prognosis of the future of asecular practices in Egypt given the state’s increasing intervention into daily life.  But by showing such a picture of secular power, the book also sets new conditions for recognizing those forms of thought, action, and commentary that fall out of the question of secularism.

So as timely as the work is, Agrama’s account of secularism as a questioning power also provides a framework for the identification of practices that are distinctly untimely insofar as they appear out-of-sync or disinterested in the pressing questions of religion and politics that enable the expansion of state sovereignty.  Those practices might be a part of the ‘democratic ethos’ of care and responsiveness that the present asks of us.  So if the book leaves other readers—as it left me—with a heightened sensitivity to the persistence and emergence of diverse forms of thought and practice that may be organized around different questions, then perhaps this is a third trajectory in which Questioning Secularism may be considered a timely work.

  1. [1]Conscripts of Modernity:  The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment.  Duke University Press, 2004.
  2. [2]“What is Critique?” In The Essential Foucault.  The New Press, 2003.
  3. [3]The Impossible State:  Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament.  Columbia University Press, 2013.  p. 50
  4. [4]ibid. p. 168

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