by Talal Asad

[At an SSRC colloquium, Michael Warner and I brought together a group of scholars in the humanities and social sciences to discuss the first chapter of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, alongside recent articles by Gil Anidjar, Jürgen Habermas, and Saba Mahmood. This weekend, remarks made by Talal Asad at that colloquium are being posted at The Immanent Frame. Transcripts of remarks by Akeel Bilgrami, Simon During, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Colin Jager, and Jonathan Sheehan are also available.—ed.]

Let me begin with Saba Mahmood’s paper, which I think is important, and talk about the idea of the “normative impetus internal to secularism,” as she puts it. Instead of seeing secularism as the solution to entrenched religious conflicts, instead of focusing on the notion of religious neutrality, say, she wants, in this paper and elsewhere in her work, to look at the way in which secularism informs foreign policy.

As those of you who have already read her paper will know, it deals with the International Religious Freedom Act that was passed by the U.S. Congress, something that has consequently become a mandatory element in American foreign policy. She looks at that policy as it relates to Islamic reform along liberal lines, at the programmatic statements about the necessity for such reform made by U.S. policy advisors and also at the material and moral encouragement given by American institutions and government officials to a number of Muslim reformers or would‐be reformers.

Now, I happened to be talking about this paper with a friend recently, who felt that criticisms of the kind Saba had offered might serve to delegitimize the reformers, an undesirable consequence from his point of view. And in any case, he continued, it over‐generalized the religious landscape that actually exists in the so‐called Islamic world. I didn’t agree (don’t agree) with either of these points, and it might be worth our talking about them. As I see it, her concern is not to generalize about the state of Islamic reform but to examine the “normative impetus” that underlies the secular worldview, in this case as it informs U.S. foreign policy. That policy seeks to encourage a place for a secular religion in the Islamic world on the grounds that Islam would then be safer for democracy (i.e., Western countries). Religion is okay, according to this worldview, but only if it recognizes its limits and adapts itself to liberal values. Saba’s concern, as I understand it, is to examine the way U.S. power enters into this project of reformation, not to question the motives of the reformers.

This would not be of any interest if we accepted that a more liberal, a more free approach to religious interpretation—and indeed, to religious belief—is simply an extension of freedom. Saba thinks, on the contrary, that it is important to analyze the way power shapes freedom. I understand her to be saying that it is necessary to examine the intrinsic limits to the freedom being offered by the reform. And I agree. Liberal freedom that seeks autonomy for the individual is notoriously imprecise. The older notion of negative freedom has been shown to be theoretically inadequate, but the idea of positive freedom has produced its own problems. (Incidentally, Charles Taylor wrote illuminatingly on this subject a long time ago.) If the idea of positive freedom requires that we take into account our dependence on institutions, social forces and other people, what limitations does “secular religion” impose on our ability and desire to negotiate that freedom?

What comes out of Saba’s paper for me—and indeed also out of Gil Anidjar’s paper, which I will talk about in a moment—is secularism as a mode of international hegemony. I think that this is a very important and interesting topic, which is not to say that what many of us recognize as secularism is uniquely hegemonic and that religion is not. It is rather a matter of looking at what the differences might be.

Gil’s paper as I read it is a very ingenious and sophisticated deconstruction/construction of a position that I hadn’t thought of in relation to Edward Said, and certainly it has prompted me to rethink what the implications of his arguments are for understanding Orientalism.

The one thing that I am not entirely convinced of is the formula: “Orientalism (the object of Said’s book) is Christianity and Christianity is secularism.” Gil seems to me to make a too‐quick move from one term to another. Although there are connections among them, I am not sure I would make the argument in quite the way Gil does in his paper.

His argument reminded me, in a way, of Marcel Gauchet’s thesis about Christianity and the secular, that Christianity is the unique religion that has given rise to the necessity of secularism. Fundamentally I find Gauchet’s book—The Disenchantment of the World—unpersuasive, for reasons we can talk about. Gil has a more subtle, deconstructive approach, and his main interest is in 19th- and 20th‐century Christianity, the period when Christianity in various forms was part of global expansion. But precisely because it sometimes conflicted with secular colonial authority—and even adapted to it in an exploitative manner—Christian missionizing cannot, I think, be regarded as identical with it. There are connections between Christian movements, values, etc. on the one hand and secular European imperialism on the other, but they are not identical.

I have read the introduction to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I am eager to read the other chapters. I am very struck by Charles’ attempt to argue that what is unique about the secular age, one of the unique, central things about it, is that belief in God and the idea of transcendence aren’t simply disabused by scientific thought; they are transformed. What is crucial about the age of secularity is that belief becomes one option among many. I think this is a very important argument, although I have several thoughts about that.

I wonder how—and I was thinking about this when Beth [Hurd] talked a moment ago about the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, Muslims) and how the classical Islamic conception of the People of the Book compares with this modern state of affairs. As many of you know, Judaism and Christianity are recognized in Islamic thought as having a measure of validity together with Islam, although of course Islam retains for itself a hegemonic position as the final and complete truth. What is interesting, theologically, is that what is considered to be the incompleteness and even the distorted character of the divine message possessed by Judaism and Christianity does not constitute grounds for eliminating the latter. Certain kinds of incomplete and distorted truth have a validity of sorts. Their difference is recognized and preserved. Of course Jews and Christians suffered socially from various disadvantages in medieval Muslim societies; there’s no doubt about that. My point is simply that ideologically and conceptually you do have societies prior to the age of secularity recognizing the existence of other beliefs. One wants to know then what the difference is in this case. I am not saying that what we have in this case is the same situation as the one described by Charles for the age of secularity, but clearly it seems that there is more at stake here than simply saying one is aware of the fact that one has to recognize the coexistence of a plurality of beliefs, of several religions.

The other thought I had reading Charles Taylor is this: How important are beliefs in the age of secularity, in modern society? I remember many years ago being very struck by an argument by Alasdair MacIntyre to the effect that in modern society it makes no difference what beliefs people subscribe to, because if you are a Jew or a Christian, a Protestant or a Catholic, in modern society your religious beliefs make very little difference to the kind of life you live, the kind of life you are constrained to live in modernity. In other words, there is little to distinguish the way most Christians, Jews, atheists, and so forth, live in modern society, whatever their beliefs, primarily because religion has been (or is required to be) privatized. So what emerges from this is that we are talking about something rather subjective. Indeed, this subjectivism is the focus of Charles’ book.

The third thought that I had is this: What are the stakes in wanting a fixed definition of religion, whether in terms of “a sense of fullness,” as Taylor suggests, or of “transcendence,” or of “something beyond what has yet been achieved, or will ever be achieved”—and so on? What is at stake here? Why are we so concerned to establish a category that encompasses a number of very different kinds of experience, experiences that for some religious people don’t belong together at all?

I think we should return again to the question of the modes of public and private life, the structure of the lives that we are all constrained to live in modern society. It seems to me important to take this question as a central one rather than to focus on something that has to do with an ineffable experience. It’s not that I want to dismiss concern with the subjective, the experiential. I don’t mean to suggest that conditions of experience aren’t important. I think they are important, though we need to know more about exactly how and why they are important. It seems to me that perhaps in our contradictory societies, very contradictory experiences and sensibilities must mediate in complicated ways the spaces and processes in which political actions are supported or obstructed, claims to knowledge validated or dismissed. I would be more interested in a discussion of that kind, in asking “In what way do these experiences mediate different areas and processes?” rather than identifying something that can be called modern religion or modern religiosity. I am myself rather skeptical about this latter enterprise.

Finally, one of the things I was struck by in Jürgen Habermas’ essay is an idea that has been around for some time that I find unpersuasive. This is the idea that secularism is in some ways compatible only with a fully modern society in which there is prosperity and political stability, and therefore a greater sense of security and certainty. Conversely, it is only in societies undergoing uncontrolled change during modernization that we get uncertainty, and therefore an opening to fundamentalist religiosity. As we were saying, the remarkable thing about that argument is that, of course, one thinks about the United States, a highly modern society, which has always contained strong currents of fundamentalist religion. What is the reason for that? People who believe in secularism tend to produce particular reasons to explain that fact away. I am not persuaded by the old explanation that secularism is based on a society characterized by stability, certainty and prosperity. We tend to forget that secularism developed most vigorously at precisely the time in the 19th century when there was the greatest amount of change, uncertainty and so on. That kind of psychologism I find unpersuasive.