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Islam, Secularism and the Modern State

Talal Asad discusses his work on secularism in the modern world

Publisher: Stanford University Press (February 2003)

Publisher: Stanford University Press (February 2003)

Talal Asad discusses his work on secularism in the modern world

Talal Asad has conducted extensive research on the phenomenon of religion (and secularism), particularly the religious revival in the Middle East. Professor Asad is the author of Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). His new book, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity will be published by Stanford University Press in February 2003.

Professor Asad is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.

In this interview, Professor Asad discusses, among other things, religious revivalist movements, human rights, Shariah law and the modern state.


You have suggested in your essay "Religion, Nation-State, Secularism" that the term religion is often used anachronistically. Why is it that the term religion does not exhaust all the components -- the practices, the ways of being -- that comprise it? How did this understanding of the term come about and why is it that you place such emphasis on an alternative conception of the term?


I think there is a slight misunderstanding here. I'm not really concerned to give another definition of religion. I am not concerned to say that we can get a more comprehensive, a more dynamic conception, and so on. I wish only to point to the fact that religion as a category is constantly being defined within social and historical contexts, and that people have specific reasons for defining it one way or another.

Religion is associated with various kinds of experience, various institutions, with various movements, arguments and so on. That is what I am pointing to. In other words, it is not an abstract definition that interests me. People who use abstract definitions of religion are missing a very important point: that religion is a social and historical fact, which has legal dimensions, domestic and political dimensions, economic dimensions, and so on. So what one has to look for, in other words, is the ways in which, as circumstances change, people constantly try, as it were, to gather together elements that they think belong, or should belong, to the notion of religion. People use particular conceptions of religion in social life. This has really been my concern.

My concern in the Genealogies of Religion was to trace some of the ways in which this notion has come to be constructed historically, rather than to provide a cross-cultural definition of religion that can be applied to any society. This is what I have been trying to say.


It has frequently been argued that processes of modernization should culminate in the retreat of religion to the private sphere, so that wherever religion manifests itself in public life, this can be attributed to an incomplete or failed project of modernization, or as the vestiges of tradition forestalling the inevitable triumph of the modern. How would you respond to this?

Well, certainly that is the theory, but, of course, for a long time it has been recognized that this is not the way history has gone. Indeed, it is not even clear that the so-called "retreat of religion" has been quite a simple thing even since the beginning of the 19th century. The way in which people have thought about secularism - that is, the separation between state and religion - has in fact been adapted to very different kinds of state.

Let's think of three examples of states in the West that are supposed to be liberal, democratic and secular: France, Britain and the United States. What you have in France - very schematically speaking - is a state that is secular and a society which is secular. In England, you have an established religion and you have a very secular society. In the United States, you have a very religious society and a secular state. There are therefore very different ways in which the negotiation between religion and politics works itself out. There are different kinds of sensibilities, even in these three modern states and societies. There are different kinds of reactions that people have towards what is a transgression against "secular" principles.

For example: such sensibilities are found in the debate in France (l'affaire du foulard) about whether Muslim girls should be permitted to wear the veil in public schools. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that this has led to a negative reaction by secularists whereas wearing a yarmulke to school has not. What is it that makes the wearing of the veil a violation of secular rules of politics and not the yarmulke? My point is not that there is unfair discrimination here, but that even in a secular society there are differences in the way secular people evaluate the political significance of "religious symbols" in public space. Or take America. There are clear rules in the United States about the separation of state and religion, but that doesn't prevent "non-secular" interventions in the politics of the present regime. As we all know, the Christian Right is at the heart of the Bush government. It is an anti-Semitic ally of the Zionist organizations in America, and its political imagination embraces the coming war against Iraq as a step towards Armageddon. A "secular" war is supported by them for "religious" reasons. Again, I say this not in order to express my disapproval of the Religious Right (although, of course, I do dislike them) but to point to the fact that a secular state can without difficulty accommodate such politics.

So to come back to the question of what is modern and what is not, and what ultimately is expected of a liberal, modern state: I think one has to recognize, first of all, that the transformation of societies in what is called a modern direction, included all sorts of accommodations and all sorts of changes, all sorts of re-adjustments as well as concessions. The "secular" politics that is emerging is partly the result of these changes. And in that sense modernization/secularization is not really a simple story.

I myself am very skeptical of the notion that modernity is some kind of straightforward destiny for everybody. There is a sense in which modernity can be thought of as a historical periodization, as temporality, but also of particular ways in which people live - must live. I am not at all sure that the "modern" necessarily presupposes everything that people in one or other of the so-called liberal, secular states want or think it should be.


Secularism has always been considered a crucial component of the process of modernization. How would you define the relationship between religion and secularism?

I have a book coming out in February 2003 called Formations of the Secular in which I try to look at questions of sensibility, of experience, of the embodied concepts which orient subjects' sensorium and guide public understandings of truth. I also look at the political doctrine of secularism itself, and at the secularization of law and morality in modernizing states. I think these are complicated questions. I think we don't understand fully what all the implications of the secular modes of everyday existence are for secular politics. I think we need to think about such matters far more deeply in the human sciences than we have done so far.

Secularism as a political doctrine I see as being very closely connected to the formation of religion itself, as the "other" of a religious order. It is precisely in a secular state - which is supposed to be totally separated from religion - that it is essential for state law to define, again and again, what genuine religion is, and where its boundaries should properly be. In other words, the state is not that separate. Paradoxically, modern politics cannot really be separated from religion as the vulgar version of secularism argues it should be - with religion having its own sphere and politics its own. The state (a political entity/realm) has the function of defining the acceptable public face of "religion".


It has been argued elsewhere that religious revivalist movements -- such as (but not limited to) ones in the Muslim world -- are not in fact atavistic or premodern, but that the very condition of possibility of these movements is the modern. Would you agree with this?

I think to some extent this is certainly true. I would agree if, in "the modern condition of possibility" you include the nation-state, and the ambitions of the nation-state. It seems to me that both kinds of movements - both militant movements as well as the liberal forms of Islam that have emerged since the 19th century - are adjustments to the fact that the state has ambitions regarding the formation of subjects and the regulation of entire populations, of their life and death. These things were the concern of various other agencies previously - including what one might call the religious - or there was no such function at all. But now a single political structure, the modern nation-state, seeks to deal with them.

I think it is true that, if you like, both the radical forms of religious movements as well as the liberal forms are accommodations to the modern state. The liberal ones obviously because they represent attempts to adjust to that overarching political power and the spaces it authorizes - to the forms of privacy and autonomy that it enables and legitimizes. The radical ones too belong to the same modern world because what is at stake for them primarily is the state since that is the seat of power determining all sorts of things in ways that previously were left unregulated.

So in that sense, yes, these movements are modern. They are also of course modern in the sense that there are all sorts of modern techniques that are now available and employed by them (electronic techniques of communication, scientific forms of knowledge, the various means through which knowledge is produced and circulated, etc.). So it is quite true: various aspects of these movements are constituted in a modern way. At the same time one should not forget that they draw on traditions of reform and reinterpretation that are part of an old history - a history of disagreement, dispute and physical conflict - that is drawn on and re-presented.


Can or should contemporary Islamist movements make us rethink Western conceptions of secular modernity?

On the whole, neither radical Islamist movements nor liberal Islam appear able to make people rethink Western conceptions of secular modernity. In part this is because many of their projects, in so far as they are modern, have taken over modern assumptions of politics. In part also it is because there is an enduring antipathy in the West towards Islam and ideas coming from the Islamic tradition. And of course the mere fact of the enormous disparity in power between apparently successful Western societies and evidently weak Muslim societies also plays a part.

But I think that the phenomenon as a whole - that is the phenomenon of Islamism - as well as comparable religious movements elsewhere in the world ought to make us rethink the accepted narratives of triumphant secularism and liberal assumptions about what is politically and morally essential to modern life. The very existence of these phenomena should make us rethink our assumptions about what is necessary to modernity.


There has been much discussion recently of the fact that Islam is antithetical to liberal democracy and all it entails (equality, individualism, human rights, pluralism, tolerance and so on). How would you respond to this claim?


This is connected to the previous question. If you think of Islam and the Islamic tradition as fixed, as having a certain kind of unchangeable essence, then it might well be argued that Islam is antithetical to liberal democracy: what is modern is not really Islamic and what is Islamic cannot really be modern. So it's a Catch-22 situation that many critics insist on putting Muslims into.

Of course there are people who are trying to rethink the Islamic tradition in ways that would make it compatible with liberal democracy. But I am much more interested in the fact that the Islamic tradition ought to lead us to question many of the liberal categories themselves. Rather than saying, "Well yes we can also be like you," why not ask what the liberal categories themselves mean, and what they have represented historically? The question of individualism, for example, is fraught with all sorts of problems, as people who have looked carefully at the tradition of individualism in the West know very well. The same is true of the question of equality. We know that the equality that is offered in liberal democracies is a purely legal equality, not economic equality. And the two forms of equality can't be kept in water-tight compartments. Even political equality doesn't necessarily give equal opportunity to all citizens to engage in or contribute to the formulation of policy. What do Islamic ideas about the individual, equality, etc., tell us about Western liberal ideas?

These are questions worth pursuing, I think. So instead of leaping up and saying, "Ah yes, we can all be liberal," I think it is more important to ask, for example, "What exactly does the liberal mean by tolerance?" It is easy enough to be tolerant about things that don't matter very much. That tends to be the rule in liberal societies. Increasingly what you believe, what you do in your own home, whether you stand on your head or decide not to, is up to you as an individual in liberal democracies. So who cares? The liberal tolerates these things because the liberal doesn't care about them. Yet tolerance is really only meaningful when it is about things that really matter. Even in ordinary language we talk about "tolerating pain". In other words, the kind of tolerance that really matters is something we ought to be exploring, thinking more about - and the ways in which the Islamic tradition conceives of tolerance (however limited that might be) helps to open up such questions.

So we ought to be thinking about questions like that instead of simply - and rather defensively - saying, "There are Islamic traditions that are very liberal, you know. We can also become liberal." It is in fact much more interesting to ask, "What does liberalism mean by tolerance, or by pluralism? Is the meaning of individualism totally clear, is it totally desirable? Does an exploration of Islamic traditions give us a deeper, more critical understanding of individualism, or tolerance, or pluralism?" I would like to see more of this kind of questioning, rather than people trying to prove their liberal credentials.


How would you explain why there are infinitely more reports of human rights violations in the "Third World" than there are in the Euro-American world?

One reason for this is of course the fact that there are quite a lot of dictators in power in the Third World. This applies to Latin America, to Africa, and to China - not only to the Muslim world as the media would have us believe. But I think that there is something more that interests me in this whole question of human rights. Very often, many of the assumptions underlying human rights have to do with ways of life that are recognized as Western. Many things are found insufferable in the Third World merely because they are in the Third World. Things in the West are not found quite so insufferable simply because they are part of a different (more prestigious) way of life.

I was reminded of this again when I was reading the Christian Science Monitor recently. There was a long article on Qatar, which is said to be relatively liberal and tolerant, and so on. Qatar is portrayed as a progressive society, therefore as one of the more interesting societies in the region. The examples given to support this claim, quite unselfconsciously, are that Doha has Starbucks' cafes, that people eat Subway sandwiches, that there are malls. And of course they are also America's crucial military allies in the region at a time when Saudi Arabia is shuffling its feet in the coming war against Iraq. I am not trying to trash Qatar, of course. What I am saying is that the conception here, automatically and quite unselfconsciously put forward, is that "they are becoming more like us". "Us" here refers explicitly to Americans, not even to Europeans (which the Europeans are discovering now much to their frustration).

There is another important aspect to this human rights issue, one that has international dimensions. Many of the conditions of disenfranchisement in the Third World are due not only to brutal dictators but also to the way in which these societies are connected to the global system. The point is that conditions inside a country are not thought of as being anybody's responsibility but that of the national government.

The trouble with the way human rights violations are conceived is that they invest the sovereign state with legal responsibility for all the sufferings of its people. There is some reason for this, historical as well as political, but increasingly around the world this notion makes nonsense of the way in which the violation of people's rights should be understood. The notion that lack of education, poverty and misery of various kinds has only to do with those countries themselves is absurd. Of course (it is grandly conceded) we in the West have an obligation to give aid and they in the Third World have an obligation to follow the sound policies urged on by the IMF and the World Bank that lend them money. But beyond that each Third World country is responsible for its own miseries - and its own human rights abuses.

In other words the responsibility cannot lie here with Western countries as far as any human rights violations in the Third World are concerned. So it is that as well. There are really a number of different things that contribute to people thinking in particular ways about human rights violations, and therefore to more violations "there" than "here".


Some Muslim states such as Nigeria and Pakistan have attempted in various ways to implement Shariah law, attempts that have frequently been contested and criticized, since there is a prevailing belief that Shariah law is "backward" and anti-modern. Would you agree with this? Is it possible for Shariah law to be accommodated by the centralized and coercive system of law that is so crucial to the modern state?

Can it be accommodated? Aspects of it cannot be accommodated, and have not been accommodated of course since the 19th century - commercial law particularly, but also procedural law, and so on, have long been abandoned in most Muslim countries. Criminal law as well but that has less to do with how the modern capitalist state works than with certain kinds of liberal values (for instance, ideas of what is really cruel and insufferable and what is not). There is a rejection of punishments that have to do with the body, they are anathema to the liberal sensibility. I happen to have the same sensibilities but logically Shariah punishments are not inconsistent with the demands of a "centralized and coercive system of law so crucial to the modern state".

As far as family law is concerned, it is quite clear that this has been adjusted and accommodated in and by modern states in all sorts of ways. And now there is increasing demand for equality on the part of women in relation to particular kinds of laws that discriminate against them. Here the Shariah has come under pressure.

Again I would stress that there are movements of re-interpretation going on among various Muslims who are keen to introduce liberal values into the Shariah, who would like to re-write the Shariah from its foundations, as it were, so that it has both some kind of attachment to the historical tradition but at the same time is more palatable to a Western liberal sensibility. In principle, I do not see why this is impossible, and indeed, it may very well happen to a greater or lesser extent. In this country, there is for instance an interesting woman, Azizah Al-Hibri, a lawyer and a law professor at Richmond University, who has been very concerned to develop liberal interpretations of the Shariah in this country. Surely there are movements of this kind and they will be accommodated by a liberal democratic state.


What is the relationship between modern forms of power and the way in which questions about religion and human rights and secularism are framed?

This is a large question. And short of repeating myself, I would only say that many of the things claimed about liberal tolerance should be questioned. There are various kinds of intimidation and coercion that go on both covertly and overtly to make things acceptable to liberal sensibilities. Power is exerted not only in the ways people are allowed to speak or not speak, but in what it is that makes sense to them. Rather than thinking of power only in terms of the question of freedom of expression and its limitations, we should also pay attention to the kinds of power that go into the formation of listening subjects, of subjects who can open their minds to something that is strange or uncomfortable or distasteful.

I think we need much more investigation of what people regard as poppycock and of what they are willing to open their minds to. Secularism has tended to regard religious traditions as either making nonsensical claims about public knowledge or as having dangerous consequences when they are allowed to enter the political realm. William Connolly, for instance, has been trying in many of his writings to re-theorize the political arrangement of secularism as it is has been understood historically so that a more compassionate, open-minded attitude can be invited into modern politics.


You have been accused of sympathizing with nativism, "Islamic fundamentalism", and the like. Recently one critic charged you (along with others) of cultivating an "aura of authenticity". How would you respond to such a charge?

My first reaction would be to say that I only answer charges in a court of law!

I find this rather disappointing, frankly. It is a reflection of much of the careless thinking that is going around in the human sciences these days. It is the kind of carelessness which has some rather unfortunate and worrying moral implications. The people who say this are not unlike Bush who says, "You are either with us, or against us," and not unlike people who condemn attempts at understanding disturbing events as nothing more than attempts at excusing. I do not think quite honestly that anybody who has read my work carefully could think that I am for irrationality and for the kind of fanaticism that is associated with fundamentalism (a term I prefer not to use for theoretical reasons as well as political ones).

I know also that at least one critic has said that I have endorsed an "aura of authenticity" - and that, in his eyes, is clearly a great political failing on my part. What I have to say in response to this is not only that the person concerned has not read my work carefully but also that he has not read Walter Benjamin carefully, from whom the expression "aura of authenticity" is derived, particularly from his essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".

Many people in cultural studies and anthropology who invoke that text do not seem to have noticed that Benjamin had a very ambivalent attitude towards "authenticity". If you re-read that essay, you will see that on the one hand, he looks forward with approval to a time when certain kinds of authority are undermined, he particularly expects the end of religious authority with the collapse of cultic aura and envisages a consequent enhancement of freedom that the technique of mechanical reproduction will make possible. We know, of course, that this optimism has not been justified.

At the same time, Benjamin's idea of authenticity and aura is a very complex one. It is also a notion that relates to historicity, to the historicity of the authentic thing. It is precisely because a thing is authentic, because the same thing moves from one time to another that it acquires, as it were, certain qualities of ancientness and genuineness, an aura. Its authenticity as an ancient thing guarantees its historicity. Benjamin recognized ambivalently that the undermining of aura, in the complex sense in which he was talking about it, might also mean the undermining of historicity. Thus it is precisely the fact that certain ancient documents are authentic documents, that they show, as it were, the "real" wear and tear of their historical experience, which makes it possible to use those documents to construct a reliable historical account of something. In other words, Benjamin had a notion of aura not only as essential to modern concepts of historicity but also as intrinsic to "tradition". This lends his work a productive tension because it is not straightforwardly progressivist.

I find that what Benjamin has to say there is much more complicated and dialectical, much more suggestive, than is often vulgarly assumed by progressivists. So I would say that whoever accused me of sympathizing with fundamentalism because I'm supposed to have endorsed the idea of "aura of authenticity" that Benjamin dismantled, has done a rather superficial reading not only of my own work but of Benjamin's as well.

You have spoken of self-criticism within the Middle East. For strategic reasons, the US has now also discursively complicated its reading of Islamic tradition; it speaks of a plurality (or rather, a duality - the regressive and the modern) of traditions within Islam, and declares its aim to be to encourage the more modern, democratic element. What is the difference between your appreciation of the complexity of Muslim tradition and the US schema? Is there any commonality between the forces that the US seeks to encourage, and the sources of criticism that you gesture towards? Where would you locate, and how would you read a possible emancipatory politics today?

Well first of all, let me distance myself from US policy, and say that clearly, as I read it, US policy is only concerned to find tendencies in the Middle East and the Muslim world, whether they are religious or secular, with which it can ally politically. That does not interest me of course. Secondly, these US policymakers have a teleological conception of regional developments, and I touched on that when we talked about Benjamin. In other words, people like the patriotic journalist Thomas Friedman evaluate these movements by reference to what "we" in the US are. Because that, of course, is what all civilized human beings should become - and if this is not obvious to everyone in the world then clearly there's something terribly wrong with them.

I do not see it that way at all. I hope that things will not develop that way. In my more pessimistic moments, which are now increasingly frequent, I think that regardless of what one would like, one may end up with a world that the Friedmans of this country want. In other words, we may see a world that is more dominated and hegemonized by a singular power pushing us in a singular direction, with less and less possibility for a multiplicity of experiences, and so on. I see power as being more and more polarized, I see cultural options becoming narrower - even though individuals might have more things to consume, more ways to amuse themselves, more ways to aestheticize their personal lives. I would like to see something else, but what I like is neither here nor there, so I distinguish between how I see things as desirable and how I see things as probable. This is what I fear: a homogenization which may well lead to a victory for the kind of world US policymakers have in mind. So in that sense Friedman and I might agree, but I with sadness and he with great delight.

But then history is full of surprises; that is the one thing I console myself with. The best-laid plans of mice and men go wrong. People who confidently predict particular outcomes of historical developments are often mistaken. I hope that I will be wrong too. What might emerge as this century proceeds is in the end very difficult to say. I think that what kind of emancipatory politics makes sense will depend very much on what emerges. I am not in favour of talking confidently about what kind of politics is emancipatory. We have had too many programs of this kind in the past that have been dismal failures. Clearly one can try to resist oppressive power in various ways, some big, and some small; one can resist morally, one can resist politically. But I don't think academics have quite as much impact on politics as they sometimes think - except if you happen to be a Kissinger of course. Then you are a public intellectual integrated into the ruling apparatus. So I don't know, quite honestly, if I have anything useful to say on this subject. All I can say is that certainly politics has always had an oppositional dimension. So we ought to try to make our arrogant rulers uncomfortable at the very least, and insecure, at best. Whether we can do more than that I doubt. In the end it is up to the younger generation that has both a greater imagination and a stronger sense of commitment to fellow-human beings to decide what to do and how to do it. At present I see large uncertainties around. We are all in a sense much more in the dark than we think we are.


Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh, Asia Society Online