Secular Governance and Islamic Law

The Globalization of the Minority Question

In: Sociology of Islam

In this paper I examine the uses of the concept of minority by contemporary Muslim public intellectuals engaged simultaneously in discussions about the status of Muslims in the West and the place of non-Muslims in the Islamic world. I show how the concept of minority – rendered in Arabic through the neologism aqalliyya – is both problematic and indispensable to the discussions taking place in the transnational spaces of Islamic normative debate. Drawing on Saba Mahmood’s work, I argue that the minority question is both a strategy of modern secular governance and a tool used by a set of actors pursuing different projects. I suggest that the Islamic traditions that are often seen as foundational to the inequalities that shape the life of non-Muslims in the Middle East are in fact more ambiguous in their effects than they may appear at first sight. Although Islamic legal discourse has been predicated on a hierarchy that places non-Muslims in a subaltern status, it also embodies universalist norms that serve to counter some of these inequalities – even if the goals it articulates and the language it deploys are not always immediately intelligible within a modern context.

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