Chapter 5 Standing on the Edges of the New Paradigm: A Postcolonial Point of View

In: The Post-Secular City
Paolo Costa
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Avoiding the Trap of Ethnocentrism

Toward the end of Faith as an option, Hans Joas suggested looking outside Europe to see what the future of Christianity may be in a world which is now fully globalized. “If we are to analyze religion in the present day”, he claimed without hesitation, “it is vital to adopt a global, that is, non-Eurocentric perspective”.1

The suggestion may seem innocuous, but it is not. Shifting the focus from the Western world to the rest of the planet does not only modify our assessment of the actual (I mean, numerical) dimensions of the secularization process in the light of the demographic dynamics taking place on a planetary level, but also deeply affects the understanding of its social, historical, and cultural meaning. Here we enter familiar territory, especially for anthropologists. Breaking out of the cage of ethnocentrism, making “strange all those things that are so familiar to us, [forcing] us to think about the assumptions on which they are built”, is a traditional goal of ethnographic research.2 The ultimate aim of this endeavour is to increase ‘cultural reflexivity’. Tolerating for as long as possible the discomfort caused by a classic expedient of anthropological practice, the déplacement of common sense through confrontation with an alterity that arouses scandal, prompts us to sharpen our gaze by abandoning the deceptive sense of intimacy and comfort resulting from consonance between the immediate experience of the world and a hegemonic cultural design.3 From this point of view, criticizing the obvious – a typical task of any investigative work worthy of the name – implies first and foremost multiplying the access points to an empirical realm that is presumed to be familiar in order to destabilize the categorial constructs that have settled over time. The systematic shifting of the perspective and the refusal to endorse prefabricated ideas result, then, in a view of social reality that is acute and dynamic rather than panoramic and comprehensive, giving priority to the reasons of density (and proximity) over those of simplification (and distance).

In this way, the observer is transformed from a detached scholar into an exposer of hypocrisies and a disillusioned chronicler of a conflict between multiple and conflicting interests. In keeping with Foucault’s lesson, the analyst of human affairs is above all a genealogist, that is, an investigator of the traces inscribed by history on the bodies of men and women. All of this leads in the same humiliating direction: the realization that “at the root of what we know and what we are does not lie truth or being, but the exteriority of accidents”.4 Such emphasis on the practical and impure character of anthropology can also be interpreted as a step towards greater reflexivity, provided that such reflexivity is not understood as a self-examination for its own sake, but as a questioning of the ethnographer’s own assumptions with the aim to invigorate empirical analysis. As Talal Asad once remarked, the point is not just to unmask or subvert common sense, but to “complicate descriptive categories”, problematizing both the overly sharp distinctions and the overly hasty analogies with which we believe we can account for complex historical phenomena.5

If, as we have seen in the previous chapters, what is distinctive about the paradigm shift in the recent secularization debate is, on the one hand, the multiplication of approaches to an only seemingly simple event in modern history and, on the other hand, an updating of the way in which it has been accounted, framed, and classified from the outset, an overview of the positions in the field cannot fail to include an appraisal of the specific contribution that postcolonial studies has made to the deconstruction of the secularization theorem.

The contribution is significant, but not easy to focus on, not least because of the difficulty in isolating the authentic voice of the ‘subalterns’ in a conversation that has taken on such breadth, variety and vigour over the years as to discourage any attempt at synthesis. Generally speaking, the originality of this voice undoubtedly has to do with the radicalization of the critical gesture, which depends both on an antagonistic intensification of the genealogical effort and on shifting the point of view to the margins of official history. However, the outcome of this approach, suspended between contrasting impulses to particularization and hybridization, is not a foregone conclusion, as I trust will become clear at the end of the chapter. In any case, the relevance of the postcolonial outlook in the debate mapped in this book is undisputed.

That being said, what do secularization, secularity and secularism look like from the standpoint of those who have had them imposed on them compulsorily by invaders? And what happens to the protagonists of the story at the centre of this volume – religious faith, unbelief, the secular state, modernity, waves of secularization, religious revivals – once they are observed from a perspective that is neither Eurocentric nor North Atlantic-centric? What is left, finally, of the robust intuition of those who see the domestication of religion, if not as the axis, at least as a crucial junction in the evolution of the human race?

The Postcolonial Horizon

In order to sketch out an answer to these difficult but crucial questions, I must first clarify what is meant by ‘postcolonial thought’. The label is notoriously vague, as it encompasses very diverse theoretical and political-ideological stances, and is, moreover, subject to constant contestation and reinterpretation within its own discursive field.6 As is the case with related categories such as postmodernism and poststructuralism, we are dealing here with a practical-theoretical attitude rather than with “a theory in the scientific sense, that is a coherently elaborated set of principles that can predict the outcome of a given set of phenomena”.7 But despite its kaleidoscopic character, this posture includes some recurrent and recognizable elements,

The first element is a polemical and critical-deconstructive impulse. The ‘post’ in postcolonial, just like the ‘post’ in postmodern, does not merely have a descriptive function. That is, it does not simply denote the overcoming of a cultural configuration whose historical trajectory is proclaimed to be completed. In fact, ‘post’ both affirms and challenges the centrality of what has been surpassed. Colonialism is thus elevated to a key event in modern history in that it is seen as the both material and ideal point at which the asymmetrical process of discursive constitution of an accomplished, disciplined and overpowering identity (the West), on the one hand, and an exotic, static and submissive otherness (the East), on the other hand, coalesces.8 From this standpoint, the West and the Rest take shape in tandem, both symbolically and in terms of power relations. The latter, in particular, unfolded through modern geographical explorations, the imperial expansion of European nation states and the intricate itinerary of decolonization that led first, during the Cold War, to the birth of the umbrella concept of the ‘Third World’ and finally, after the fall of the Wall, to that of the ‘Global South’.9 And it is precisely the legitimacy of this unbalanced distribution of roles that is contested in practice and theory by postcolonial thinkers.

Postcolonialism thus reflects a (relative) shift in power relations both at the geopolitical level and in the way in which the asymmetry between the modern West and its global Other has been experienced and imagined in the various corners of the planet. The main symptom of this upheaval of historical and geographical common sense is the progressive convergence of scholars from the North and the South towards the goal of ‘provincializing Europe’, i.e. to stop automatically considering it as the symbolic centre and vanguard of human history. This endeavour, as the inventor of the slogan himself, the Bengali historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, has lucidly recognized, can only be dialectical. That is, it must proceed towards the end goal through an immanent critique that problematizes from within the claim to autarky and epistemological neutrality of the categorical constructions elaborated in Europe since the seventeenth-century and exported from there all over the world with the support of the critique of weapons as well as of the weapon of critique. “What historically enables a project such as that of ‘provincializing Europe’”, noted Chakrabarty in a self-reflexive attitude,

is the experience of political modernity in a country like India. European thought has a contradictory relationship to such an instance of political modernity. It is both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical in India.10

It is also from the judgement of the inadequacy and ideological selectivity of the European epistemic imaginary that the postcolonial concern for the margins and the repressed of official history, for the concrete (e.g. the body), the details (as opposed to essentializing extrapolations) and, more generally, for the “plural or conjoined” genealogical background of the present state of affairs, especially when the latter is conceived as a telos and a yardstick of human development, draws its impetus.11 Microhistory and macrohistory intersect in public and private everyday practices, incorporating in varying degrees knowledge and power, mentality and physiology, ideas and habits, to which the postcolonial theorist’s critical thinking is assiduously applied.

The emphasis on the two joint political events of colonialism, with its non-contingent misdeeds of racism, imperialism and slavery, and decolonization, marked by lightning successes, humanitarian cataclysms and more or less voluntary retreats, is counterbalanced by a special focus on power dynamics and the systematic use of physical or symbolic violence in handling the projective relationship that the colonizer establishes with an otherness that is both coveted and despised. From a post-colonial perspective, in other words, the interweaving of violence and idealism represents an original fact that needs to be investigated in depth if the ultimate aim is to “to displace a hyperreal Europe from the center toward which all historical imagination currently gravitates”.12 From this point of view, the epistemic violence with which the subaltern is reified is even more crucial than the physical violence that usually accompanies it. As María do Mar Castro Varela and Nikita Dhawan noted,

colonial discourse essentially rests on a fixation of meaning that comes to expression in the construction and determination of the other without exception. The violent representation of the other as absolutely different was a necessary component of the construction of a sovereign, dominant European self.13

Wrapping up the discussion so far, four things can be expected from a postcolonial account of the rise of a secular form of life:

  • (a) A polemical and deconstructive stance towards historicist narratives.

  • (b) An impulse to provincialize Europe through a web of interlinked genealogies.

  • (c) The belief that, from the margins and for the margins, a renewal of critique can and should take place, which was only selectively realized in the intellectual tradition of the European Enlightenment.

  • (d) A special focus on the dynamics of power and the role of violence in the momentous epistemic transformations that preceded and accompanied the colonial adventure of the West up to its imperialist outcomes.

Multiple Secularities

As I said above, a key element in the deconstruction of the secularization theorem investigated in the previous chapters is the effort at historical recontextualization. If the classical thesis asserts the inexorable decline of religion in modernity or, on the contrary, its substantial permanence in secular disguise, the critics of the theorem, for their part, retell the same story in detail, trying to resist the persuasive force of an evocative intuition or an exemplary tale that has the defect of undermining theoretical imagination. Along the way, a stylized historical process is turned into one of those thick (and intricate) descriptions favoured by anthropologists and historians.

In these disquieting narratives – genealogical tales that do not flatter the reader’s ears – contingency and singularity reign supreme. It is no coincidence that Charles Taylor’s magnum opus is entitled A Secular Age, where the indeterminative article, suggests that there can or could exist other ‘secular ages’ besides the one arisen in the bosom of Latin Christianity.14 But if secularities are by definition (at least potentially) multiple, their geographical location in a civilizational site – that is, in a specific cultural context – is essential to properly identify and understand each of them singulatim.15 This is a staple of postcolonial discourse. The discriminating point, however, is what characteristics such an exercise in contextualization should possess.

A first option is to tell the story of a form of life or a social structure from an internal standpoint, interpreting its development in the light of endogenous elements, e.g. (material and ideal) challenges, resources or impediments that are within the space of action of the participants, namely of the members of these collective bodies. Of course, to be successful, such a reading must preserve a sense of differences and alternative possibilities, and the latter cannot be separated from an orientation that is at least tacitly comparative. In other words, it cannot be overlooked the fact that the challenges, resources and impediments that the internalist account focuses on define the framework of a cultural identity that is different from other identities that have flourished around a discordant web of conceptions of self, society and nature. The substance, however, does not change. Understanding a specific cultural configuration is first and foremost a hermeneutic act: one must understand, in other words, why that particular web of public and private practices made sense (or stopped making sense at some point) from the perspective of the agents. In line with these premises, the emergence in European history of an unprecedented secular mentality and political organization can be explained – as Taylor does in A Secular Age – by calling into question, in turn, spiritual dynamics or theological discussions within Christianity, transformations in the social, scientific and artistic imaginary of European elites, creative responses to structural and often traumatic changes in the local economy, politics and technology, etc. Although each of these explanatory factors always carries with it an element of contingency and chance, it also has its own internal logic that arouses the curiosity and perspicacity of the interpreter, not to mention her considered judgement.

From a postcolonial perspective, this is important, but it is not enough.16 Particularizing secularism, uncovering its Christian roots, is insufficient, especially when the focus of the investigation is a civilization that, from a certain point onwards in its history, has not only understood itself as the pinnacle of human evolution, but has done its utmost to bring human cultural variety into line with its normative ideal of scientific, moral, political and aesthetic progress. Besides scraping off the veneer of those ‘acultural’ theories of modernity that understand modernization as a backgroundless cognitive progress,17 shifting the focus of analysis to a global horizon primarily intensifies the estrangement-effect that always results from attempts to divert attention from the foreground to the background of one’s own identity – to what has made us who we are. In fact, when they dig this deep, genealogies end up problematizing even the wider interpretative framework within which the recontextualization takes place, spreading the sense of uncertainty like wildfire. Specifically, in the case at hand, the postcolonial radicalization of the interpretative effort has had as its main consequence the questioning of grammatically basic concepts such as religion, secularity, belief, and modernity, provoking an epistemologically healthy disorientation from a comparative perspective.

But what tangible effects will this psychological condition of bewilderment and generalized perplexity have? I would point out two. The first can be described as the blurring of the boundaries that delimit the categories with which reality is put into perspective. In a nutshell, by recounting the rise of the Immanent Frame in North Atlantic societies from a different point of view, we do not simply contemplate the possible existence of a multiplicity of forms of secularity, but place these variants in an ‘interactional’ or ‘entangled history’, i.e. in a never-optimal story of encounters/clashes between civilizations and cultures, where what is at stake is always (also) hegemony and power over people’s bodies. This is how the Dutch anthropologist Peter van der Veer summed up the nub of the matter:

The project of European modernity should be understood as part of what I have called ‘interactional history’. That is to say that the project of modernity, with all of its revolutionary ideas of nation, equality, citizenship, democracy, and rights, is developed not only in Atlantic interactions between the United States and Europe but also in interactions with Asian and African societies that are coming within the orbit of imperial expansion. Instead of the oft-assumed universalism of the Enlightenment, I would propose to look at the universalization of ideas that emerge from a history of interactions. Enlightened notions of rationality and progress are not simply invented in Europe and accepted elsewhere but are both produced and universally spread in the expansion of European power.18

Viewed from a non-Eurocentric perspective, the space of historical interaction between cultures is thus both a place of entanglement, where intellectual influences become entwined, often producing a shared imaginary of modernity, and a field of strategic action, conflict, shifting alliances, sometimes even sheer terror.19 Secularization, as van der Veer himself has pointed out, is not only a process, but also a historical project, in which the secularist critique of religion has often operated as a self-fulfilling prophecy supported by states and social movements involved in colonial adventures.20 In this sense, it is justified to say that “the process by which Latin Christendom got to be secular was in large part the same as the process by which it got to be colonial”.21 Through encountering and governing non-Christian peoples, Europeans have in fact transformed not only their understanding of the functions of the state, of the distinction between civilization and barbarism, of the rule of law, but also and above all their conception of religion, of the specific weight of beliefs and rituals in local cults and in the refined modern ideal of spirituality, of the relationship between peoples’ religious history and human progress. And this change has never been painless, both because the transition to modernity is by its very nature violent and because, since secularism is a project that defines its field of action and its objectives in a process-oriented way, incompleteness is its natural condition.22 And incompleteness is notoriously fertile ground for adventurism, extremism, despotism, but also for experimentation and hybridization of old, new and sometimes simply imaginary models.

Insofar as it is the hegemonic project of a civilization committed to building a sphere of influence based on the distinction between centre and periphery, secularism, from a postcolonial perspective, must be investigated as a mixture of knowledge and power. The Foucauldian lesson is decisive here.23 To think of the world in terms of the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’ (i.e. what remains outside of an identity that sees itself as self-sufficient) means having one’s feet firmly planted in a web of practices that provide a special position for a subject capable of relating to the other as something residual. Against this fusion of meaning and effectiveness, the appeal to a superordinate truth counts for very little. More effective is a genealogical excavation capable of bringing to light the impure nature of such mixture in its most surprising and contingent details so as to demonstrate in re that the world and its regime of truth – in our case: the secular regime of truth – could have been different from what it has become and that the future will not necessarily be a photocopy of the present.

Such a broadening of both the horizon of expectation and of the space of experience is the main contribution of postcolonial theorists to the recent secularization debate.

(Anti-Orientalist) Genealogies of the Secular: Talal Asad

If one takes an interactional perspective on the political-religious history of the last centuries, some case studies stand out for their relevance.

First of all, there is the Indian example, which presents a unique constellation of religious vitality, hyperpluralism and encounter/clash of civilizations. Starting in the eighteenth-century, British colonialism in India – the imperial rule of the leading economic and cultural power of the time – was grafted onto a millenary history of coexistence between large and small cults, thanks to which an extraordinary tangle of community allegiances and soteriological beliefs and practices flourished over the centuries, giving rise to the Orientalist myth of Asia as the cradle of human spirituality. The ordering impulse of modern culture and statehood has acted on this deep diversity, fostering creative processes of adaptation that have resulted in, among others, both the inclusive nationalism of Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore and the exclusionary Hindu nationalism embodied today by the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party). It is no coincidence that, in the last twenty years, the origin and prospects of that original institutional experiment in the search for unity in diversity known as ‘Indian secularism’ have become a subject of animated discussion in the circle of scholars interested in the transformations of the role of religion in contemporary society.24

A second significant example of collision between different experiences and conceptions of the religious/secular dyad is offered by China. Here the focus of interest is the peculiar trajectory of Chinese civilization. For its relative international isolation before the crisis of the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth-century enabled the rise of an autarkic cultural constellation – what Peter van der Veer has usefully described as a “syntagmatic chain of religion-magic-secularity-spirituality” – which does not admit of the distinction, canonical in the West, between immanent and transcendent or natural and supernatural.25 It is this cultural specificity that generally renders the discussions about the more or less secular character of contemporary China blurred and mercurial.26

Although India and China are two illuminating historical instantiations of how wide the range of options generated by the tension between a regime of political secularism, some form of visceral suspicion of religions as worldly institutions, and the background of “social/cultural/political conditions that structure the question of religious adherence in ways not usually present to consciousness”27 can be, the case of Islam and its alleged imperviousness even to the contextual model, proposed by Rajeev Bhargava,28 of a “principled distance” between state and religion is the most interesting case study in light of this book’s reconstructive intent. The Muslim revival of the last decades is in fact both empirical denial, intellectual challenge and scandal for those who took for granted the inevitable decline of religion in modernity. (More or less) anguished curiosity about the riddle of Islam has thus become one of the leitmotifs of public debate in the West today. Why is it that – one constantly hears people asking on TV, radio or social media – all attempts to secularize Islamic societies have failed? What is there in the Quran that prevents what the Bible did not prevent? How much longer do we have to wait for a Muslim enlightenment?

There is probably no better guide for investigating secularization from the point of view of the encounter/clash of the Islamic world with the secularizing thrust of Western colonialism than Talal Asad, an American anthropologist of Saudi origin, son of Leopold Weiss, an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam at the age of 26 and known, under the Arabic name of Muhammad Asad, as one of the major Muslim personalities of the twentieth-century.29 Why does Asad have what it takes to exemplify, in the map that I am drawing in these pages, the position of the postcolonial participant observer in the recent debate on the crisis of secularism and the alleged return of religion in the contemporary world?

The first reason is biographical. Asad, who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1932 and spent his early years between Pakistan and India, experienced at first hand both a fascination with European rationalism and a painful disillusionment with the discrepancy between liberal ideals and the reality of the Western way of life. “When I was young”, he confessed to David Scott in a lengthy interview published in 2006,

from at least the age of fourteen, I developed an enormous admiration for the West – or rather, for a certain idea of the enlightened West. I was very much imbued with the idea that the West was where one would find Reason, where one would find Freedom, where one would find all the wonderful things which were lacking in Pakistan. And my experience in Britain and then here in the U.S.—and now I speak of a long durée in my life – was one of a slow disabusement. […] Put simply, I began to realize how saturated with prejudice people in England were. You might say I was terribly naïve to think otherwise. And I certainly was naïve, but I had to learn to see my naïveté. This seemed to me an incredible discovery, that I had failed for so long to see people in England as prejudiced, as soaked in prejudice.30

Asad’s view of the West and its role in human history thus reflects the point of view of an outsider who has had to work hard to reconcile his idealizing expectations with the prosaic nature of a world that is not only suboptimal, but filled with false consciousness and double truths. On balance, however, it was precisely his biographical location between two cultures with profoundly different memories, sensibilities and persuasive styles that enabled him to develop a broad, one might even say stereoscopic, perspective on contemporary crises. Asad’s non-nominalistic anti-essentialism and his taste for subtle distinctions, for atypical historical contextualization, for sceptical but not unmasking genealogies; his refusal of avalutativity or ethical neutrality, tempered by a theoretical and political self-restraint uncommon in a thinker undoubtedly attracted by radical interpretative moves; and, last but not least, what has been aptly described as his “tragic sensibility” (which he, more bluntly, describes as pessimism about the future of humanity) are intellectual gifts that help explain the incisiveness, sophistication and, in some respects, even obscurity of the angle chosen by Asad to explore the historical-discursive constellation produced by the triad secularity-secularism-secularization.31

In short, for Asad the practical-theoretical knot that has to be untied is political liberalism as the supposed crowning achievement of Western civilization or as the last developmental stage of the human species (at least in the eyes of its most ardent apologists). The problem, in other words, is the Enlightenment myth of modernity as a fusion of knowledge and power that enables its members to know and simultaneously dominate the forms of life that still elude those disciplines of subjectification that have made the polarization of the world into the West and the Rest possible. The aim of the Saudi-American anthropologist, however, is not so much to unmask the prejudices and hidden intentions of the defenders of the civilizing mission of Western liberalism, but rather to ‘unpack’ and bring to light the tacit assumptions on which the only apparently slender legal framework of the modern, secular nation-state is based.32

Here the meticulous effort of the sceptical genealogist who is sensitive to the reasons of the subalterns becomes essential. For Asad, to argue that liberalism is not an ingenious invention of the human mind – “a rational solution to the political problem of living amicably together in a plural, modern society”33 – but a contingent historical construction, is first of all to suggest that it has as much to do with people’s bodies, feelings and habits as those hiero- or theocentric and anti-individualist discursive traditions that, from a certain point in European history, have been grouped under the homogenizing label of ‘religion’. But, if it makes sense to understand liberalism as a form of life that brings together practices, concepts and sensibilities by establishing boundaries that, being on the one hand canonized as ‘modern’ and, on the other hand, welded and guarded by the force of the state and its laws, define the profile of an unassimilable otherness (the ‘barbarian’, the uncivilized, the retrograde), there is then an urgent need to investigate this life form in detail, exploiting its margins to bring into focus aspects that usually escape the self-understanding of Western ‘natives’, including the members of the academic community. To this end, Asad has opened up a new field of research, the anthropology of secularism, where – with his non-linear investigative style – he set out to shed light on a concept that has long remained in the shadows even within anthropological thought: “the idea of the secular”.34

What interests Asad the most is the process of historical constitution of the secular/religious dyad and, with it, of the binary codifications that “pervade modern secular discourse” and that oppose, in turn, “belief and knowledge, reason and imagination, history and fiction, symbol and allegory, natural and supernatural, sacred and profane”.35 These codifications are infused with an emphasis on immanence, on the agentiveness of subjects and their responsibility to contribute to the progress of humanity within the horizon of an exclusively profane time. It is such suspicion towards everything that transcends life and limits personal autonomy from the outside that constitutes a point of rupture also with respect to the Christian background of modern liberal civilization and it is the “moral landscape” that, in spite of its undeniable internal diversity, shapes the “single face” that the West presents abroad.36 In this sense, modernity is first and foremost a political project pursued by flesh and blood people in a logic of Machtpolitik. “The project”, Asad points out,

aims at institutionalizing a number of (sometimes conflicting, often evolving) principles: constitutionalism, moral autonomy, democracy, human rights, civil equality, industry, consumerism, freedom of the market – and secularism. It employs proliferating technologies […] The notion that these experiences constitute “disenchantment” – implying a direct access to reality, a stripping away of myth, magic, and the sacred – is a salient feature of the modern epoch. […] What interests me particularly is the attempt to construct categories of the secular and the religious in terms of which modern living is required to take place, and nonmodern peoples are invited to assess their adequacy. For representations of ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’ in modern and modernizing states mediate people’s identities, help shape their sensibilities, and guarantee their experiences.37

The contrast between the secular and the religious is crucial within a liberal horizon because it acts as the heart, and therefore also as a litmus test, of the grammar of an entire form of life. Consistently with this assumption, the ‘secular’ is understood by Asad first of all as an “epistemological category” that establishes “what practices, concepts, and sensibilities are regarded as necessary for knowledge about reality”.38 And religions, in the modern sense of cultural elaborations of a universal form of experience rather than as particular products of specific disciplinary practices, are by definition not part of it. In keeping with this approach to the matter, Asad has on several occasions drawn attention to the historical intertwining of the secular and the religious. Sometimes, he has even suggested that the secular is inseparable from the religious, since its historical rise has simultaneously led to the hegemony of a narrow understanding of the religious.39 From his perspective, however, this paradoxical claim has the sole critical function of shaking the complacent and self-aggrandizing certainties of liberal common sense.40 In other words, blurring the boundary between the two is not tantamount to disavowing the gap between the “secular myth of liberalism” and the “redemptive myth of Christianity”. On this point Asad expressed himself unequivocally:

The secular, I argue, is neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded it (that is, it is not the latest phase of a sacred origin) nor a simple break from it (that is, it is not the opposite, an essence that excludes the sacred). […] I take the view, as others have done, that the ‘religious and the ‘secular’ are not essentially fixed categories. However, I do not claim that if one stripped appearances one would see that some apparently secular institutions were really religious. I assume, on the contrary, that there is nothing essentially religious, nor any universal essence that defines ‘sacred language’ or ‘sacred experience’. But I also assume that there were breaks between Christian and secular life in which words and practices were rearranged, and new discursive grammars replaced previous ones. I suggest that the fuller implications of those shifts need to be explored. So I take up fragments of the history of a discourse that is often asserted to be an essential part of ‘religion’ – or at any rate, to have a close affinity with it – to show how the sacred and the secular depend on each other.41

But once the secular is thought of as the cradle or backdrop of liberal secularism, that is, as a tangled web of understandings, habituses and affections that have been contingently interwoven throughout history and finally consolidated into a form of life through their symbiosis with modern governmentality, does it still make sense to speak of secularization? And if so, in what terms?

To clarify this point, it is useful to dwell on the dialogue that Asad engaged in with one of the most prominent representatives of the sociological nouvelle vague in the secularization debate: José Casanova.42

In chapter six of Formations of the Secular, exegetical inaccuracies aside, Asad criticizes the idea that an intricate and contingent historical phenomenon such as secularization is reducible either (1) to a formal requirement like the differentiation and autonomization of (social) spheres of action such as, for example, politics, economics and science from religious norms and institutions; or (2) to a linear translation/traduction of the ‘theological’ (or the ‘religious’, understood essentialistically) into the ‘profane’ (which is in turn conceived in an undifferentiated and ahistorical manner). What makes him suspicious, in both cases, is the fusion of descriptive and prescriptive registers in a teleological portrait of modernization that ends up, willy-nilly, attributing unity and logical coherence to a human phenomenon – the rise of ‘secularism’ – whose apparent cohesion must be deconstructed in order to bring out (upstream, not downstream) its true historical meaning (which has more to do with state power over people’s lives than with religious control over their souls).

In his reply Casanova, while acknowledging the originality and usefulness of Asad’s project of an anthropology of the secular, challenges the conclusion of his argument in two respects. On the one hand, the Spanish-American sociologist accuses Asad of being too much “indebted to the triumphalist self-genealogies of secularism he has so aptly exposed”, when he interprets the secular as an exclusive and exclusionary form of life.43 On the other hand, he defends the (conditional) usefulness of the category of secularization from a comparative perspective. Casanova’s theoretical horizon here is that of multiple modernities or secularities. His idea, in short, is that, although the context of ‘discovery’ of the secular is the modern West (with its influential Christian theological background), the forced globalization of the modern nation-state through colonial expansion has driven other civilizations to respond to the challenge of liberal secularism and its stigmatization of traditional religiosity by drawing creatively and selectively on their own cultural resources, similarly to how the Catholic Church reacted to the new culture of human rights and, in particular, to the rise of the inviolable principle of freedom of conscience in the 1960s.44

Unconvinced by Casanova’s elucidations, Asad reiterated in his rejoinder both his distance from the theoretical framework embraced by the Spanish-American sociologist to distinguish what is alive and what is dead in the classical thesis of secularization and his belief that such a view retains a veiled teleological matrix.45 Since the Saudi-American anthropologist has made a similar objection against another of his potential ‘allies’ – Hans Blumenberg – it is worth understanding what this divergence of opinion is based on, which, if we are to trust the interpretive stance adopted in this volume, should be regarded as an intra-paradigmatic disagreement.

Asad reproaches both authors with surreptitiously assuming an overly organic, and indeed normative, view of modernity. As a result, in his opinion, a linear and causally concatenated account of human development – a seamless narrative – is re-proposed, more or less consciously, whose hidden driving force can only be Reason.46 Given such premises, the legitimizing effect is inescapable and, for Asad, harmful. The aim of his “sceptical investigations into secularism” is, in point of fact, exactly the opposite.47 It is, to begin with, to strip the distinction between the secular and the religious of any supra-historical significance. Which is like saying that there is no definition of them that is independent of the contingent historical context. What is more, the secular, even though it is primarily an epistemological category (i.e. it establishes a priori what is accessible to human knowledge), has more to do with “the body, its senses, and its attitudes” than with reason, with feeling rather than with thought.48 This is why many of Asad’s investigations into the secular can be described as “ethnographies of the human body”.49 And since “mistakes are made only at the level of thinking and interpreting, not at the level of feeling”,50 the issue at stake in the historical transformations investigated in his genealogies of the secular cannot be truth or objective knowledge. In this sense, they are precisely sceptical investigations, in tune with their Nietzschean-Foucauldian matrix.

The unity of the phenomenon of secularization is therefore not endogenous, but exogenous in origin. Its usefulness for comparative purposes comes from the will to power embodied and globally staged by the modern nation-state and its need to set stable boundaries in order to govern the ‘social’. It does not arise then – as Casanova claims – from the fact that it represents an interpretation of the human condition that, in a cross-cultural horizon, can prompt imitation, selective appropriation or motivated rejection by other cultures or spiritualities. Accordingly, the slogan of multiple modernities or secularities sounds deceptive to Asad’s ears. Here, his reflection comes close to that of a classical political realist for whom it is an incontrovertible fact that “the nation-state is not a generous agent and its law does not deal in persuasion […] its object is always to regulate violence” and never to eliminate violence”.51 Not even the democratic state is an exception to this rule, as it too is “jealous of its sovereignty […] [and] fundamentally exclusive”.52

The effect that this exercise of political power has on cultural traditions that grew up in the shadow of a less systematic and pervasive model of governmentality than the modern one is well exemplified by the case study investigated by Asad in the third part of Formations of the Secular significantly entitled “Secularization”.53 Here he investigates, from the, to him, congenial perspective of conceptual analysis, the impact that the importation of European legal codes and the consequent gradual narrowing of the sharia’s jurisdictional power had, at the turn of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century, on the moral landscape and the institutional and discursive spaces of Egypt, back then a de facto British protectorate.

Asad’s aim is to show, by means of a concrete example, which paths the (exogenous and endogenous) impulse to legal-political secularization can take, irrespective of the intentions of the agents, in a context lacking the conditions for the development of a mass secular mentality. According to his genealogical account, the long-term consequences of this top-down impulse towards secularization do not only concern the sphere of interpersonal relations regulated by law, but extend to the domains of morality, religion, customs, and spirituality. The main effect of the incorporation of sharia into a modernizing state is the systematic articulation of distinct spheres of action (family, religion, ethics, market, art, etc.) and the production of new subjectivities to which the local customary tradition is forced to adapt, succumbing to the primacy of the new form of state sovereignty.54

What we are witnessing, therefore, is not only a narrowing of the scope of the sharia, but its transmutation […] into a subdivision of legal norms (fiqh) that are authorized and maintained by the centralizing state. […] The sharia thus defined is precisely a secular formula for privatizing ‘religion’ and preparing the ground for the self-governing subject.55

In this way, dissociated from the body and its specific disciplines and entrusted to the inner jurisdiction of conscience, religion ends up assuming the form most suitable for the unfolding of the special dynamism of modern nation-states and capitalist markets.56 Once measured against its effects in an allogenic cultural context, and not against an alleged atemporal struggle between the ‘religious’ as such and the ‘secular’ as such, secularization then appears as the theatre of a “revolutionary change” which, albeit being beyond the control of its own promoters, does in fact produce an imperialist outcome, as the new moral landscape and “the languages, behaviors, and institutions it makes possible come to resemble those that obtain in the West European nation-states”.57 Secularization, in short, is the authoritarian change of the grammar of a traditional form of life that secures “the power of a particular kind of state, by pronouncing the illegitimacy of certain kinds of citizensubject who are thought to be incompatible with it because they do not share fundamental national values”.58 As a result, on the basis of an essentialist interpretation of the secular, the subalterns are denied a priori the right to explore varieties of secularity that do not involve the privatization of religion and morality and, above all, do not rely on the governmental mechanism ensured by the modern state and its ordering impulse.

For Asad, this is the face of secularization as it appears from the Middle Eastern margins of European colonial history.

An Open-ended Path: Secularization between Particularism and Evanescence

The complexity and density of Talal Asad’s arguments depend among other things on the seriousness with which he has analytically taken on the tensions, contradictions, sometimes even paradoxes inherent in the postcolonial view of secularization. From what one can gather from his writings, the main intention of the Saudi-American anthropologist is to lead the reader to spontaneously acknowledge that, for the purposes of understanding, it is not useful to think of such a multifaceted cultural phenomenon in terms of the head-on clash between supra-historical powers (secularism versus fideism, reason versus prejudice, innovation versus tradition). Instead of this stereotypical picture, we should favor the antithetical image of a multiplicity of fracture lines, whose irregular profile does not allow a unilateral exit from the controversy (since we are never dealing here with a zero-sum game).

What one is being trained in, then, can be more aptly described as the competition between heterogeneous glimpses of the same historical event that, although they may produce illumination effects, are not overseeable from the disembodied standpoint of a superordinate truth that transcends contingency. Here, the constitutive blending of knowledge and power excludes in principle the possibility of embracing without hesitation a disinterested judgement on disputed issues. The aforementioned case study of secularization of the administration of justice in Egypt is an excellent example of the kind of practical and conceptual opacity that Asad has sought to do justice to in his writings.

If we read the contribution of postcolonial studies to the recent debate on secularization as the product of a radicalization and enlargement of the new paradigm, it might then be broken down in five points:

  • (a) Its main result is an increase in complexity in the description of the explanans (i.e. the perceived decline of religion) which derives from the attention paid to marginal details and the estrangement effect typical of ethnographic investigations.

  • (b) The insistence on the genealogical background of the apparently neutral and acultural institutional and conceptual apparatuses that govern people’s lives in the West creates, then, the conditions for a greater sensitivity to historical discontinuities.

  • (c) Such demystification of ideality is accompanied, in turn, by a fluidification of the categories with which religion has been understood since the beginning of the Modern Age, or – drawing on a phenomenological vocabulary – by a sceptical weakening of regional ontologies linked more or less directly to religious discourse.

  • (d) The pragmatic sensitivity to the structural interconnection between knowledge and power also produces a general effect of disillusionment with overly organic or cryptotelological portrayals of the civilizing process.

  • (e) Finally, against the backdrop of genealogical deconstructions and the rejection of ideological simplifications, appear the germs of a principled defence of human cultural variety as the main intellectual means of defending the subalterns against the hegemonic intents, disguised as claims to truth, of imperial and neo-colonial powers.

The general historical lesson that postcolonial thinkers draw from the crisis of the secularization theorem is that it is not only erroneous, but naïve, to understand the binary codification of the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ in terms of a head-on clash between modern and traditional societies. In reality, the dividing line is jagged. There are many actors in the field, and upstream intentions count for less than the effects of subjectification downstream in the process. This subjectivation, furthermore, affect bodies and feelings sooner (and more) than the minds of the individuals involved. If you will, such lesson is a tragic one: any value-free effort at sensemaking is in principle futile. Not only is there no neutral space of discussion from which to make objective judgments about the events under investigation, but there is also no vantage point on historical processes that authorizes inoffensive uses of such an equivocal category as secularization. As Michael Warner rightly noticed, there is a huge gap between the procedural secularism of liberal political theorists and the ethical secularism of a modern prophet like Walt Whitman. In order to bridge the gap, a concept of secularity must be worked out that allows us to conceive of the changes in the imaginaries that have made possible the rise of a form of subjectivity confident in the capacity of individuals for self-governance and self-fashioning.59

However, behind the reasonable aim to destabilize, denaturalize and defamiliarize Eurocentric perspectives on the modernization process, there lies a risk of an essentialist backlash. Put otherwise, one can fall into the temptation of neglecting the internal differences in the history leading to the emergence of the variety of secularities that became established in the West during the last centuries.60 This is a drawback resulting from the interpretation of secularism as an impersonal power-knowledge apparatus, through which whoever holds the levers of command finds himself, willingly or unwillingly, in a position to shape otherness in his own image and likeness.

More precisely, the risk is twofold.61 On the one hand, there is the trap of particularism. The attempt to historicize secularism, stripping it of the veneer of a gradual discovery by human reason, may in fact result in a theoretical operation that flattens the emergence of secularity by identifying it with a form of imperialist Christianity or Christian imperialism.62 There is a clear affinity here with the theses of the theorists of the clash of civilizations. What they share is a non-dialectical conception of the relationship between identity and otherness, on which an anti-idealist alliance between realism and particularism can easily take root.63 From this point of view, the only plausible aim of theory is that of deconstructing, subverting and dismantling the interpretative and conceptual frames functional to a given power structure, which is all the more illegitimate the more pervasive and violent it is.

On the other side, the alternative to this unmasking move, whose main goal is to bring to the surface the dark side of ideality, is a form of epistemological heraclitism. Given that every historical phenomenon is immersed in a continuous flux of change and hybridization, no one can claim paternity or monopoly of anything, and consequently there is very little room left for the noble art of distinction and judgement. After all, with what legitimacy can one draw the boundaries of the West if in its cultural foundations (Hellenicity, Latinity, Christianity) there is nothing exclusively ‘Western’? If you think about it, even in Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, the master is nothing outside the power relationship that defines him as a dominant subjectivity. But if this is true in general, what remains of the ‘West’ without the ‘Rest’?

In the first scenario, the secularization debate is confined within a horizon where the meaning of the historical transition under study is shaped by a subpersonal apparatus that is independent of the intentions and claims to validity of the subjects involved. Hegemony, including cultural hegemony, means nothing beyond itself and, in this sense, its focus offers no alternative to the dualism between complicity and resistance. In the second scenario, conversely, the emphasis on the incessant interaction between cultures prevents any precise distinction of historical actors and the identification of vectors of change. Neither upstream nor downstream, therefore, is there any trace of non-hybridized models, and the negotiation of identity is the condition for grasping a phenomenon that, despite good intentions, ultimately risks melting into air due to a lack of consistency.

Asad’s titanic efforts to maintain a precarious balance between the two divergent drives towards a particularization of the ‘secular’ and the critique of any essentialization of it are both admirable and problematic. Regardless of how we assess their success or failure, the most relevant doubts concern the impact that this rage for explicitness has, has had or may have in the future on the semantic resilience of the concept of secularization. If, depending on the circumstances, ‘secularization’ can mean both the contestation and the fulfilment of religion – its erosion and its global diffusion – the question arises as to what denotative function, what grip on reality may retain a concept which is so inclusive that it risks losing any contrasting relationship with similar notions. When ‘secularity’ becomes the proper name for a form of life and this form of life cannot be a symbol of anything except its contingent sameness, ‘secularization’ also ceases to be a significant phenomenon, except for the will to power of which it can become a sign.

The eminently polemical and practical-political concern of postcolonial advocates exposes them by default to the risk of theoretical implosion. Nevertheless, it is precisely the radicality of their approach that has made such studies an ideal environment for the revival of a discussion – that about the role of religion in human evolution – which has never in its long history been merely an unflustered scientific debate. Like many other human phenomena, I would venture to say, secularization takes on a more recognizable profile when observed from the periphery rather than the centre of the empire.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. 121.


Cf. Scott, David, “The Trouble of Thinking – An Interview with Talal Asad”, in David Scott/Charles Hirschkind (eds.), Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors, Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press 2006, p. 275. See also Bardawil, Fadi A., “The Solitary Analyst of Doxas: An Interview with Talal Asad”, in: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (36/2016), p. 158: “I think of my work as making myself – not deliberately but as time opens up – repeatedly uncomfortable”.


On this topic, see the introduction to Herzfeld, Michael (ed.), Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society, Oxford: Blackwell 2001, ch. 1, pp. 1–6 (“Anthropology: A critique of common sense”).


Cf. Foucault, Michel, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, in The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books 1984, pp. 76–100, here p. 81.


Cf. Scott, David, “The Trouble of Thinking – An Interview with Talal Asad”, in David Scott/Charles Hirschkind (eds.), Powers of the Secular Modern, p. 284.


For an introduction to postcolonial thought see do Mar Castro Varela, María/Dhawan, Nikita, Postkoloniale Theorie. Eine kritische Einführung, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 20152; Young, Robert J.C., Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003; Gandhi, Leela, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press 1998; Fornari, Emanuela, Linee di confine. Filosofia e postcolonialismo, Turin: Bollati Boringhieri 2011; Mellino, Miguel, La critica postcoloniale: decolonizzazione, capitalismo e cosmopolitismo nei postcolonial studies, Rome: Meltemi 2005; Mezzadra, Sandro, La condizione postcoloniale. Storia e politica nel presente globale, Verona: ombre corte 2008. In writing this chapter, I greatly benefited from reading Ulrike Spohn’s book, Den säkularen Staat neu denken. Politik und Religion bei Charles Taylor, Frankfurt a.M./New York: Campus Verlag 2016, especially ch. 4.


Cf. Young, Robert J.C., Introduction to Postcolonialism, p. 6.


The reference book on the subject is of course Said, Edward, Orientalism, London: Penguin 2003 (reprinted with a new Preface).


For an excellent examination of the subject see Hall, Stuart, “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power”, in Stuart Hall/Bram Gieben (eds.), Formations of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press 1992, ch. 6.


Cf. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializiong Europe, p. 6 (italics mine).


Cf. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializiong Europe, p. 20.


Cf. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializiong Europe, p. 45.


Cf. do Varela Mar Castro, María/Dhawan, Nikita, Postkoloniale Theorie, p. 22.


Although his narrow approach to (former) Latin Christianity has often been decried even in the most benign discussions of A Secular Age (see, for example, Warner, Michael/Vanantwerpen, Jonathan/Calhoun, Craig (eds.), Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, pp. 25–27), Taylor had eloquently defended his choice of making his investigation proceed according to concentric circles in the book’s introduction. Cf. Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age, pp. 21 et seq. and 780 (note 21); and, more recently, Taylor, Charles, “Après L’Âge séculier”, in Sylvie Taussig (ed.), Charles Taylor. Religion et sécularisation, pp. 9–13; Taylor, Charles, “Comments on the Contributors”, in Anthony J. Carroll/Staf Hellemans (eds.), Modernity and Transcendence, pp. 163–179. For a reasoned attempt to extend the search for other ‘secular ages’ to the past as well, see Bhargava, Rajeev, “An Ancient Indian Secular Age?”, in Akeel Bilgrami (ed.), Beyond the Secular West: Religion, Culture, and Public Life, New York: Columbia University Press 2016, pp. 188–214.


On multiple secularities see Burchardt, Marian/Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika/Middell, Matthias (eds.), Multiple Secularities Beyond the West: Religion and Modernity in the Global Age, Boston/Berlin/Münich: Walter de Gruyter 2015.


For an eloquent expression of dissatisfaction with direct reference to Taylor’s work, see Mahmood, Saba, “Can Secularism Be Other-wise?”, in Michael Warner/Jonathan Vanantwerpen/Craig Calhoun (eds.), Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, pp. 282–299; Talel Asad, “Thinking about Religion, Belief, and Politics”, in Robert A. Orsi (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012, pp. 36–57.


On the important distinction between ‘cultural’ and ‘acultural’ theories of modernity, see Taylor, Charles, “Two Theories of Modernity”, in: Hastings Center Report (25/1995), pp. 24–33.


Cf. van der Veer, Peter, “Smash Temples, Burn Books: Comparing Secularist Projects in India and China”, in Craig Calhoun/Mark Juergensmeyer/Jonathan Vanantwerpen (eds.), Rethinking Secularism, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011, p. 270 et seq. By the same author see also Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2001.


To get an idea of the historiographic concept of ‘entangled history’ see Conrad, Sebastian/Randeria, Shalini (eds.), Jenseits des Eurozentrismus: postkoloniale Perspektiven in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften, Frankfurt a.M./New York: Campus 2002.


Cf. van der Veer, Peter, Smash Temples, p. 271. For an argument in defence of the idea that the most influential process in determining the place of religion in society is state building, see van der Veer, Peter, “The Secular Production of Religion”, in: Ethnofoor (8/1995, 2), pp. 5–14, here p. 6.


Cf. Warner, Michael/Vanantwerpen, Jonathan/Calhoun, Craig, “Editors’ Introduction”, in Michael Warner/Jonathan Vanantwerpen/Craig Calhoun (eds.), Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, p. 27.


Cf. van der Veer, Peter, “Smash Temples”, p. 280 et seq.


Cf. Foucault, Michel, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality 1, trans. by R. Hurley, Harmondsworth: Penguin 2006, part 4, ch. 2.


The reference text for the debate on Indian secularism is Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and its Critics, parts 3 and 4. On its present crisis see Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney/Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder (eds.), The Crisis of Secularism in India, Durham: Duke University Press 2007. The most intelligent defender of the virtues of the “distinctively Indian and differentially modern variant of secularism” is Rajeev Bhargava. Among his many contributions see Bhargava, Rajeev, “The Distinctiveness of Indian Secularism”, in Thirukodikaval Nilakanta Srinivasan (ed.), The Future of Secularism, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007, pp. 20–53; Bhargava, Rajeev, The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy, New Delhi: Oxford University Press 2010.


Cf. van der Veer, Peter, The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2013, p. 9. A synoptic study on the more or less ‘axial’ character of the ethical-spiritual reform promoted by Confucius can be found in Bellah, Robert N., Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 2011, ch. 8. An attempt to interpret Confucian spirituality outside of a dualistic framework is made in Fingarette, Herbert, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, Long Grove (IL): Waveland Press 1972.


Cf. Szonyi, Michael, “Secularization Theories and the Study of Chinese Religions”, in: Social Compass (56/2009), pp. 312–327; Dobbelaere, Karel, “China Challenges Secularization Theory”, Social Compass (56/2009), pp. 362–370; van der Veer, Peter, “Smash Temples”, p. 275 et seq. For an overview of the issue from a non-academic point of view see Pisu, Renata, Né Dio né legge. La Cina e il caos armonioso, Rome/Bari: Laterza 2013.


On the useful distinction between political secularism, ethical secularism and secularity see Warner, Michael, “Was Antebellum America Secular?” in: The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, 2 October 2012 (, date of last access: 11.04.2022). See also Casanova, José, “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms”, in Craig Calhoun/Mark Juergensmeyer/Jonathan Vanantwerpen (eds.), Rethinking Secularism, pp. 54–74.


Cf. Bhargava, Rajeev, “Rehabilitating Secularism”, in Craig Calhoun/Mark Juergensmeyer/Jonathan Vanantwerpen (eds.), Rethinking Secularism, pp. 105–109.


For an interesting posthumous dialogue with his father on the meaning and prospects of an Islamic state, see Asad, Talal, “Muhammad Asad between Religion and Politics”, in: Insan ve Toplum (1/2011), pp. 155–165.


Cf. Scott, David, “The Trouble of Thinking – An Interview with Talal Asad”, p. 249; Bardawil, Fadi A., “The Solitary Analyst of Doxas: An Interview with Talal Asad”, p. 155. On the construction of Islam as an “otherness incompatible with liberal values”, see Asad’s two interventions on the Rushdie case in Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion, Baltimore (MD): The John Hopkins University Press 1993, ch. 7–8. To get an idea of the path that led Asad to develop an anti-Orientalist anthropology of Islam see Asad, Talal (ed.), Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, London: Ithaca Press 1973; Asad, Talal, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (1986), in: Qui Parle (17/2009) pp. 1–30; and also his review of Edward Said’s Orientalism published in: English Historical Review (45/1980), p. 648 et seq.


Cf. Scott, David, “The Tragic Sensibility of Talal Asad”, in David Scott/Charles Hirschkind (eds.), Powers of the Secular Modern, pp. 134–153; Bardawil, Fadi A., “The Solitary Analyst of Doxas: An Interview with Talal Asad”, p. 156; Scott, David, “The Trouble of Thinking – An Interview with Talal Asad”, p. 296; and the closing lines of Ahmad, Irfan, “Talal Asad Interviewed by Irfan Ahmad”, in: Public Culture (27/2015), pp. 259–279. For a concise but illuminating portrait of Asad, see also Michael Herzfeld’s review of his Genealogies of Religion, published in: The International Journal of Middle East Studies (26/1994), pp. 693–695.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press 2003, p. 15 et seq. and ch. 7 (especially p. 236).


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Response to Chatterjee”, in David Scott/Charles Hirschkind (eds.), Powers of the Secular Modern, p. 219; Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 5: “Secularism is not simply an intellectual answer to a question about enduring social peace and toleration. It is an enactment by which a political medium (representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender, and religion. In contrast, the process of mediation enacted in ‘premodern’ societies includes ways in which the state mediates local identities without aiming at transcendence”.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 22.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 23.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 13. See also Asad, Talal, “Response to Casanova”, in David Scott/Charles Hirschkind (eds.), Powers of the Secular Modern, p. 209 et seq.: “Liberalism is obviously a complex tradition […] As a space of values, however, liberalism today provides its proponents with a common political and moral language (whose ambiguities and aporias allow it to evolve) in which to identify problems and with which to polemicize. Ideas such as individual sovereignty, liberty, limits to state power, tolerance and secularism are central to that space, and remain so even when challenged”. The same concept is reiterated in Asad, Talal, “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism”, in Talal Asad/Wendy Brown/Judith Butler/Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, Berkeley: University of California Press 2009, p. 19 et seq. On secularism as a “new moral landscape” see Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 226.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 13.


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Response to Das”, in David Scott /Charles Hirschkind (eds.), Powers of the Secular Modern, p. 228. See also Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 23.


On the modern construction of ‘religion’ as inner experience and private belief, see Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion, ch. 1; Asad, Talal, “Reading a Modern Classic: W.C. Smith’s ‘The Meaning and End of Religion’”, in: History of Religions (40/2001), pp. 205–222.


Cf. Bardawil, Fadi A., “The Solitary Analyst of Doxas: An Interview with Talal Asad”, p. 161. For a subtle comparative analysis of the idea of critical reason see Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion, ch. 6.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 25. For similar considerations see Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, pp. 61 and 189–191 (especially note 13, which contains a direct reference to the controversy between Blumenberg and Schmitt), and Ahmad, Irfan, “Talal Asad Interviewed by Irfan Ahmad”, pp. 260–262.


For what follows, see Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, ch. 6; Casanova, José, “Secularization Revisited: A Reply to Talal Asad”, and Asad, Talal, “Response to Casanova”, both in David Scott/Charles Hirschkind (eds.), Powers of the Secular Modern, pp. 12–30 and 207–210.


Cf. Casanova, José, “Secularization Revisited”, p. 20.


Cf. Casanova, José, “Secularization Revisited”, pp. 24–29. On this topic see also Joas, Hans, Sind die Menschenrechte westlich?


For an (indirect) critique of the implicit finalism also inherent in the apparently non-Eurocentric perspective of multiple modernities, see Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 212 et seq. (especially p. 216 and note 29).


Cf. Ahmad, Irfan, “Talal Asad Interviewed by Irfan Ahmad”, p. 261. See also Asad, Talal, “Response to Casanova”, p. 210: “a genealogical investigation presupposes a more complicated web of connections and recursiveness than a causal chain”.


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Response to Casanova”, p. 207.


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Thinking about Religion, Belief, and Politics”, in Robert A. Orsi (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012, p. 50.


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Thinking about Religion, Belief, and Politics”, p. 50.


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Thinking about Religion, Belief, and Politics”, p. 49 (italics mine).


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 6 and p. 8.


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Thinking about Religion, Belief, and Politics”, p. 56.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, ch. 7 (“Reconfigurations of Law and Ethics in Colonial Egypt”).


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, pp. 226 and 228: “the reordering of social life (a new moral landscape) presented certain priorities to Islamic discursive tradition – a reordering that included a new significance being given to the family, a new distinction being drawn between law and morality, and new subjects being formed”. On the role of the state’s jurisdictional power in this alteration of the grammar of a form of life, see Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, pp. 215 and 256: “the function of law is not merely to reflect social life but also to reconstruct it – if necessary by force and against all opposition. […] For the law always facilitates or obstructs different forms of life by force, responds to different kinds of sensibility, and authorizes different patterns of pain and suffering”.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 227.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 201: “The space that religion may properly occupy in society has to be continually redefined by the law because the reproduction of secular life within and beyond the nation-state continually affects the discursive clarity of that space. The unceasing pursuit of the new in productive effort, aesthetic experience, and claims to knowledge, as well as the unending struggle to extend individual self-creation, undermines the stability of established boundaries [required by the nation-state]”.


Cf. Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular, p. 217.


Cf. Asad, Talal, “Response to Chatterjee”, p. 219.


Cf. Warner, Michael, “Was Antebellum America Secular?”.


For a successful elaboration of this point see Weir, Todd H., “Germany and the New Global History of Secularism: Questioning the Postcolonial Genealogy”, in: The Germanic Review (95/2015), pp. 6–20.


The critical point I am about to make about the post-colonial outlook is well brought into focus in Spohn, Ulrike, Den säkularen Staat neu denken, pp. 126–132.


Cf., in this regard, the use of the expression “Christian secularism” in Mahmood, Saba, “Can Secularism Be Other-wise?”, pp. 292 and 299. For a liberal contestation of the equation between secularism and Christianity see Cohen, Jean L., “On the Genealogy and Legitimacy of Politically Liberal Secular Polity: Böckenförde and the Asadians”, in: Constellations (25/2018), pp. 207–224; and, with a less confrontational attitude, Laborde, Cécile, Liberalism’s Religion.


Cf. the definition of ‘civilization’ offered in Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, London: Penguin 1997, p. 43: “Civilizations are the biggest ‘we’ within which we feel culturally at home as distinguished from all the other ‘thems’ out there”.

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