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The radical intellectual legacy of Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood’s work marks a turning point in critical thought and has become part of the canon across a range of disciplines including Islamic studies, postcolonial and feminist theory as well as cultural anthropology. In opening space for thinking
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  Dossier: SabaMahmoodinmemoriam The radical intellectual legacy of SabaMahmood RatnaKapur But what I have come to ask of myself,and would like toaskthereader,aswell,is: Domypoliticalvisionseverrunup against the responsibility that I incur for the destruc-tion of life forms so that‘unenlightened’women may be taught to live more freely? Do I even fully comprehendthe forms of life that I want so passionately to remake?Would an intimate knowledge of lifeworlds that are dis-tinct from mine ever question my own certainty about  what I prescribe as a superior way of life for others? 1 Saba   Mahmood’s    work   marks   a   turning    point   in   critical   thought   and   has   become   part   of    the   canon   across   a   range   of    disciplines   including    Islamic   studies,   postcolonial   and   feminist   theory    as    well   as   cultural   anthropology.   In   open-ing    space   for   thinking    beyond   the   limits   of    the   liberal   ima-ginary,   Saba’s   scholarship   encouraged   a   radical   reframing    of    intellectual   thought.   It    was   an   invitation   to   become   more   aware   of    the   parochialism   of    our   own   positions   and   the   hubris    with    which   even   avowedly    critical   and   progressive   scholars   operate.   It   pushed   back   against   the   presumed   self-sufciency    of     western   liberal   knowledge,   exposing    it   as   divisive,   exclusionary    and   implicated   in   the   harms,   injuries   and   tragedies   that    we   see   unfolding    across   the   globe,   not   only    in   authoritarian   regimes   but   also   liberal   democracies. It  is not   possible   to   do   full   justice   to   Saba’s   oeuvre   in   this   short   contribution.   I    will   therefore   highlight   two   features   of    her    work   that   have   been   radical   and   trans-formative.   My    insights   are   offered   both   in   celebration   of    her    work   and   as   a   lament   over   the   loss   of    an   emin-ent   intellectual   and   dear   friend.   First,   I   highlight   her    work   on   the    veiled   subject   and   its   challenge   to   liberal individualism,drawing largely on her path breaking rst book,  Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Fem-inist Subject   (2005). 2 Second, I present her analysis of  secularism which culminated in her last book,  Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report   (2016). 3 I dwell at greater length on the latter text,given that dis- cussion of it was cut off prematurely by Saba’s death. My  discussion homes in on how these texts have unmasked the exclusionary and retrogressive features of the liberal imaginary,while also taking us beyond it. Theradicalveiledsubject  Politics of Piety   unsettled the Eurocentrism of cultural anthropology,political theory and feminist politics. The book provides an ethnographic analysis of the practice of veiling amongst the Muslim women’s revival or  da’wa –a conservative mosque movement in Cairo in the 1990s. Saba analyses the role of piety as an ethical practice inspiritual pursuit reected in part by the practitioner’s personal choice and active desire to veil. It is a practice that permeates every aspect of the adherent’s life and in-cludeswomenwhoarehighlyliterateandsociallymobile.Theyareactivelyengagedintheprocessofself-makinginand through the ethical parameters of Islam. Saba offersa critique of notions of agency based on western concep- tions of rationality and liberal conceptions of freedom that necessarily require an‘Other’to ourish. She traces how these concepts have been aggressively asserted inthe post-9/11 era, where feminists have joined liberal 48  RADICALPHILOSOPHY2.05/Autumn2019  democratic governments in their excoriations of Islamicpractices,including the practice of veiling. She provides a powerful rebuttal of this position by dissecting and dis- rupting the lines between the religious and the secular. She foregrounds the lifeworlds of non-liberal‘Others’in non-Western societies that are foreclosed by positions thatviewveilingexclusivelyasatraditionthatinvariably  subordinates and from which women  must   be rescued. In the process,she demolishes the assumption that the non-Western‘Other’simply acts out of deference to tra- dition or an antiquated cultural code by default or lack of choice.  Politics of Piety   offersanincisivecritiqueofagencyas aligned with either liberal autonomy or resistance. The critique argues against the rescue or saviour mentality that informs human rights,especially feminist endeav- ours,andencouragesgreaterreectionontheimperialist tendencies and righteousness nestled in such pursuits.In this text, as in much of Saba’s scholarship, there isa renegotiation of the feminist political project, to en- sure that it does not remain static,become dogmatic or morph into a salvic force that broaches no challenge or interrogation. Saba practiced the very ethics that she  witnessed in her subjects and was willing to pose enorm- ously challenging questions: What do we mean when we as feminists say that gender equality is the central principle of our analysis and polit- ics? How does my being enmeshed within the thick tex-ture of my informants’lives affect my openness to this question? Are we willing to countenance the sometimes  violent task of remaking sensibilities, life worlds, and attachments so that women like those I worked with may  be taught to value the principle of freedom? 4 In  Politics of Piety,  feminists in the global north and south are singled out as invariably adhering to a specic form of liberal agency, one that is sexualised, unveiled and rational / without the trappings of tradition. Saba’s analysis reveals how the issue of the veil cannot be re- ducedtobeingfororagainstthepractice; orasoperating along a gender equality/tolerance divide. These binariesmiss the challenge posed by the subjectivity of the veiled  woman and her  decision  to wear the veil as an ethicalpractice as well as a tool of emancipation. The practice of wearing the veil not only transcends the liberal fram- ingoflifealongapublicandprivatedivide,italsocannotbe understood within a politics of‘resistance to relations of domination, and the concomitant naturalisation of  freedom as a social ideal.’ 5 The practice of veiling is not understood within the terms of subordination or oppres- sion,but as an ethical practice that reects another way  of being and living in the world. In interpreting ethical subject formation in relation to the pietistic Muslim wo- man through Foucault’s analysis of the technologies of the self,Saba brought into crisis the‘unfettered’liberalautonomous subject to which Western feminism has at- tached itself. The book exposes the patronising and imperialistapproach of feminists and liberal intellectuals towardsMuslim women especially in the post-9/11 era that wit-nessed the resurgence of old colonial tropes about the ‘Other’and claims about the civilizational superiority of  the West. Saba points to the need to bring humility to our global quest to liberate women. She pointedly asks, [D]oes a commitment to the ideal of equality in our own lives endow us with the capacity to know that this ideal captures what is or should be fullling for everyone else?Ifitdoesnot,asissurelythecase,thenIthinkweneedtorethink,with far more humility than we are accustomed to,what feminist politics really means. 6 The turn to the ethical subject is a turn that com-pels the progressive scholar to take seriously another’s  worldview. It pushes us tointerrogatehowourowninter-  ventions can inict harm and result in epistemological erasures. It is an argument that has enormous appeal to those scholars who are either seeking,familiar with,live alongside or within alternative lifeworlds. It is a politics that proposes a space from which to challenge cultural relativists,religious nationalists of the Hindutva,Islam- ist or Buddhist Singhalese variety, and other orthodoxpositions,while also remaining critical of liberalism as the default positon for progressive and feminist politics in these despairing times. TheJanus-faceofsecularism Saba’s work on agency and the religious subject cannot be separated from her second major contribution–ana-lysing the relationship between secularism and religion at a structural level and its devastating impact on reli-gious minorities. In her book  Religious Difference in a Secular Age ,Saba traced the many contradictions in sec- ular governance and how it is implicated in solidifying  49  religious difference and division. In bringing religion‘out of the closet’Saba does not seek to reinforce subordinating or retrograde practices, nor does she accept that the evacuation of religion from liberal thought is an accomplished fact. She engagescritically with the concept of secularism, tracing the  work that it does in liberal democratic and authoritarianspaces,anditsimpactonminorityrightsinbothcontexts.Shearguesthatwhileataformalleveltheminorityispro- jected as an equal citizen in law,this claim neglects the power inequalities that have produced the very category  of the minority through the privileging of majoritarian norms. These norms remain obscured from view by polit- ical secularism’s claims to neutrality. Secularism is largely conceived of as a progressiveend goal marking the transition of society from the ir-rational dark ages of religious domination and belief into the period of rational thought and modernity. Itis purportedly achieved through the separation of reli-gion from the state and the neutral role of the state in matters of religion. This teleological narrative and min- imalist formulation presents secularism as an end goalthat will ultimately resolve religious conict. Building  on critical scholarship that has challenged this classicalaccount of secularism,Saba puts into crisis the received  wisdom about secularism as a social and political ideal,by setting out its genealogy and demonstrating how it has in fact exacerbated religious conict. 7 Drawing on the work of Talal Asad, Saba sketches thediscursiveoperations of political secularismthat pro-duce and naturalise the public and private domains,and through which the modern secular state reorganises re- ligious life. In establishing these domains, secularism determines and regulates the content and shape of reli- gion and its concomitant practices. Far from separating  religion from the state,Saba demonstrates how secular- ism is implicated in producing religious difference andreligious inequalities. It claims to relegate religion to the private sphere while at the same time regulating any  number of aspects of socio-religious life,thereby falsify- ing the public/private distinction. In other words,it both regulates and constructs religion as a space free from state intervention,which requires that it be called upon to adjudicate the line between the public and private. This also means that when courts are called upon to de- termine whether a particular practice is an essential part of religious belief or a practice that can be regulated throughthepublicorderexceptionstoreligiousfreedom, ‘secular’judges are engaged in nothing short of theolo- gical reasoning. Saba demonstrates how religious liberty and minor- ity rights took shape in the nineteenth century and within the context of the nation-state and global polit-ical inequality. She traces the Protestant srcins of the distinctionbetweenreligionandsecularismandhowthis distinction is framed,sustained and maintained by themodern secular state. The analysis makes evident how  religious majoritarianism is implicated in secularism,so that religious difference cannot be understood or settledsimply by‘the heavy hand of the law.’ 8 The resolution of sectarian or religious conict cannot be pursued throughabettermodelofsecularismorthroughmoresecularism, given how secularism is itself implicated in producing  the conict. In  Religious Difference,  Saba compares how the rightto freedom of religion,which is a key component of sec- ularism,functions in secular democracies in Europe as well as in Egypt to regulate and contain the rights of religious minorities through a majoritarian lens. Thiscomparative analysis may at rst glance seem counter-intuitive. The open recognition of Islam as the ofcial religion of Middle Eastern states,including Egypt,and as integral to national identity,seems to be illustrative of  their lack of commitment to secularism,which demandsstateneutrality. This lackis furtherevidencedinthecon-joining of religion and citizenship through the existenceof separate family laws as opposed to a shared civil code delinked from religious afliation. 9 These features are also present in a range of Asian countries which are also hence presumed to be non-secular. However,Saba persuasively demonstrates how reli-gion also remains a predominant feature in the separa- tionmodelofsecularismbasedonStateneutrality,where Christianity is central to the identity of Euro-Atlanticstates. She illustrates how this fact is at times openly  acknowledged by intellectuals,politicians and even the judiciary. 10 She singles out the case of   Lautsi v Italy   de-cided by the European Court of Human Rights in 2011,  whichupheldtherightofItalianpublicschoolstodisplay thecrucixintheclassroom. 11 TheCourtheldthatChris- tianity in Europe is linked to the Enlightenment values of liberty and freedom of the person. While liberal demo- 50  cracies are more reluctant to acknowledge the presence of religion in secularism,Christianity remains integralto the national identity of some European states. The Court ultimately upheld the right to display the crucix in public schools,stating: It can therefore be contended that in the present-day social reality the crucix should be regarded not only as a symbol of the historical and cultural development, and therefore identity of our people,but also as a symbol of a value system: liberty, equality, human dignity andreligious toleration,and accordingly also of the secular nature of the state. 12 Asbecomesevident,thereligiousmajoritarianismin-forming secularism is obscured through the ruse of neut- rality and its histories cast as universal. Saba captures this seamless equation of secularism and Christianity in a quote from Jürgen Habermas: Egalitarian universalism,from which sprang the ideals of freedom and social solidarity,of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy,substantially unchanged,has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinter- pretation. To this day,there is no alternative to it. Andin light of the current challenges of a postnational con-stellation,we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk. 13 As Saba remarks this statement attributes the entire de-  velopment of secularism and democratic governance to a Judeo-Christian ethics of justice and love. It not only reinforces and reproduces a historically inaccurate nar- rative,but also draws attention to how Christian norms,  values and sensibilities are instantiated into narratives about European identity and become part of commonsense thinking about secularism. 14 An account thatsimply speaks to the deciencies of secularism in non-Western contexts does not grasp how secularism struc- tures the practices of religious belief and practices in the western,liberaldemocraticworld. Saba’sanalysisrevealshow the precarious positions of minorities in liberal andauthoritarian contexts is continuously produced and sus- 51  tained. 15 Instead of offering a solution to the problem of religious tensions and demolishing religious hierarchiesthrough the pursuit of equality,secularism is implicated in creating them. Saba argues that modern secular gov- ernance has played a prominent role in transforming  pre-existing religious differences,producing communal strife,and making religion salient to both the minority and majority communities. 16 In this narrative,neutral- ity is unmasked and the modern state exposed as being  deeplyinvolvedinmanagingandregulatingreligiouslife including by adjudicating on matters of religious doc- trine and practice. The continued presence of religion in the public arena is not a sign of incomplete secularisa-tion,but part of the structural paradoxes of the secularproject that has helped to shape relations between the minority and majority. 17 Recuperatingradicalityfromthedespairofprogressivepolitics In exploring alternative subjectivities with reference to the veil as well as exposing the integral relationshipbetween secularism and religion, Saba opened herself to excoriating critiques from the progressive left and feminists. With regard to the veil,the critiques centred on Saba’s ostensible negation of Muslim women’s de-sire to be free from traditional practices. Similarly,her work on secularism has been challenged as undermin- ing the possibility of an exit for those caught in the web of religious fundamentalism. Yet in interrogating andreframing questions of secularism, religion and equal-ity, Saba did not seek to demolish these concepts. Her position is more nuanced and thoughtful than these cri- tiques suggest. 18 Saba’s arguments are informed by a desiretorecuperateradicalityfromaprogressivepolitics that remains lodged in despair and hopelessness. Her insights are designed to sharpen our intellectual tools in order to push back against Islamophobia as well as thelimits of western liberal thought,without slipping into the position of a cultural relativist. Withregardtotheveil,shedemonstrateshowalogicthat insists on disrobing the Muslim woman perpetuates a colonial fantasy that this single, essential act of un- veiling will ensure her liberation from patriarchy andthe oppressive practices of her culture. Penalising her failure to do so severely constricts and distorts the eman- cipatory principle of gender equality by equating it with the right of women to wear what they want in public – except   whenitisaveil. Thesestrategiesfailtoappreciate how the meaning of the veil, for some Muslim women,cannot simply be inscribed within secular assumptions about choice and freedom. For committed practitioners of piety,‘the veil’is not simply what they opt to wear– a garment that can be donned or removed as required– but rather signies a mode of being, an elision of self- conception,interiority and identity. Similarly, while some of her critics expressed thefear that her analysis of secularism could play into the hands of religious fundamentalists to advance their anti-  western, anti-secular agendas, Saba’s analysis reveals how right-wing and conservative forces have proven ad- ept at being able to advance their ideological agendas inandthroughliberalvalues,includingthediscourseofsec- ularism and its constituent elements,equality and toler- ance. These political processes speak to the urgent need to retrieve and counter these encroachments througha focused critique. Saba’s work can encourage thinking in a more productive and radical direction, including the exploration, recovery or seizing of heterodox and esoteric components within different philosophical tra- ditions that have been marginalised or obscured in the hegemonic claims of religious fundamentalists. The critiques of Saba’s work in these areas speakto a deep reluctance on the part of the left, including critical and feminist scholars, to engage the terrain of  religion. In fact,such critiques invariably and reexively fallbackonuninterrogatedunderstandingsofsecularism and liberal individualism as a political counter to reli-gious and right-wing agendas. Such reluctance cannot countenance new conceptions of freedom or alternative lifeworlds that have the slightest traces of‘religion’. And  yet the questioning of secularism,equality and agency  does not imply support for the rhetoric of cultural relat- ivists,or ideologues of various persuasions. In fact,the analysis seeks to recuperate a radical political agenda,by  occupying the semantic and political‘nonliberal’space that has too easily been ceded to reactionary forces and orthodoxies by progressive, leftist and feminist forcesout of fear that it may mark them as ‘religious’ or un- secular. Indeed,it opens the possibility that has eluded postcolonial scholars to ground their positions outside of the violent legacies of the Enlightenment rather than 52
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