Protect Your Republic Protest by とある白い猫 - Selahattin Sönmez via Wikimedia Commons
Protect Your Republic Protest by とある白い猫 – Selahattin Sönmez via Wikimedia Commons

Hasan Azad:  Do Muslims belong in the West? This is a question that is being asked with increasing force in Euro-America. Central to the way in which this discourse is being constructed are discussions about secularism. I’m interested in exploring notions of secularity and secularism and how such ideas—as they are articulated within a Euro-American context—are imagined in opposition to Islam and to Muslims. In other words, I wonder to what extent Islam and Muslims are politicized within Euro-American discourse as a means of expressing notions of secularism and secularity.

Daniel Martin Varisco:  The term “secular” has been expanded beyond the usual dictionary rendering of “Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” to a sense that it is somehow against or harmful to religion and spirituality. As the definition goes, one can only have a sense of secular in a context in which there are religion and spirituality. I know of no society, nor can I imagine one, in which there is no religion or spirituality. So by “secular” do we mean things that are not overtly religious (a skating rink as opposed to a mosque) or do we mean a tendency to harm religion? I think the first sense is the better choice.

Those who choose between “secular” and “religious” as though they are polar opposites have a biased binary vision of life. The tension arises when it is claimed (and this is not only for some Muslims) that every aspect of life in a social sense is religious. To me, this is as dangerous as saying that there should be no religion or spirituality at all. Both are dogmas that cannot function except under coercion. The biblical admonition of “render under Caesar what is his and unto God what is his” is a wise adage for any religion. Caesar may claim to be a god, but rendering to him does not mean worshipping him. Humans are social animals who articulate values. How these values and social interaction are framed can never be solely “secular” or “religious” nor has this ever been the case except in dreams. Reality, define it as you will, forces compromise.

Azad:  While I am not in fundamental disagreement with you, of course, what I want to draw attention to is the manner in which, within a very strident Western discourse, “Islam as a political concept” is posited as fundamentally religious and is therefore the polar opposite of all that (to state the obvious, but which nevertheless bears re-stating) is “secular”—where the secular is understood as being the measure of all that is modern, rational, progressive, and Western. What follows therefore—and this is a trend that has been gaining considerable momentum over the past decade and a half or so—is the idea that “Islam,” which is seen as the primary alter of Europe, must itself be erased from contemporary history.
French Ban on Hijabs via

Erasure occurs on both the “external” level and the “internal” level. Externally, perhaps the most obvious example is the banning of the hijab from schools and the niqab from public spaces in France. (Debates surrounding the hijab and the niqab are also occurring in the UK as well as much of continental Europe). The internal forms of erasure are less immediately obvious, and perhaps that is what is to be expected. Since the banning of the hijab from schools in France, there has been a concerted effort on the part of school teachers to insist that Muslim school girls wear shorter, more revealing skirts; while mothers who wear the hijab have been discouraged from participating in school events in the case of younger children, the claim being that their presence encroaches upon laïcité, the term for French secularity which holds a more divisive connotation than the mere “separation of church and state” in the United States. Most recently, French Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, has announced that school cafeterias will no longer serve non-pork substitution meals to children living in towns won by FN candidates—the argument being made that it is to ensure that laïcité is protected. In the United Kingdom, there are increasingly concerted efforts at British universities to limit Muslim students from praying the communal Friday prayer with claims of upholding secularism as well as the need to curtail, and ultimately defeat, “extremism”—and the two claims are linked of course.
French Ban on Hijabs via

Varisco:  Starting with the French case, it is relevant to note that the clash is between the state sponsorship of laïcité and a particular way in which Muslims engage French culture. There are, of course, many Muslims in France who choose not to veil. The erasure you speak of, I would argue, is less against an abstract notion of “Islam” and more a reaction to an immigrant community (with a colonial past for the French) who happen to be Muslim. The prejudice is obvious in equating a cultural fashion of dress with the religion as a whole, but this has happened with other religious groups in the past as well. The essential problem is essentializing Muslims by targeting one aspect of the way they demonstrate their faith. It is this strident Western discourse of the other which is copied wholesale by some Muslims, again perpetuating a binary that opposes “secular” to “religion.”

Perhaps the term “secular” is so loaded with baggage that it cannot be redeemed. I feel this is the case with “Islamism,” a term I refuse to use, because it is really a biased cover for politicizing “Islam.” When the media starts using “Judaism” for political acts of Jews and “Buddhism” for political acts of Buddhists, etc., I will reconsider my position. There is a similar problem with the term “religion,” because some think only their particular religion (or maybe a select few) count as true religions. As an anthropologist, I follow the Victorian founder of anthropology, Edward <chrome_find class=”find_in_page”>Tylor, in noting that religion is universal in our species. No people have ever been found without some notion of immaterial or non-human forces and beings. So the issue becomes how the various facets of life are seen through a religious filter. I think it is not productive to assume an absolute Durkheimian fault line between sacred and profane as these are arbitrary rather than fixed categories. Take Easter for example. Some Christians will focus on the spiritual meaning of the resurrection, while others will put out Easter eggs on the lawn and buy chocolate bunnies for their kids. What we call religion and secular are married.


Azad:  I wonder to what extent the term “Islam” can be redeemed, within the context of a modern, Western, “secular” lexicon. I do take your point regarding Islam(ism). I, for one, do not like the term and try my best not to use it. What I am really trying to get at is the way in which the very concept of Islam is always already semiotically, politically (from the side of modern, Western, “secular” discourse) overcharged. To say otherwise would simply to be unobservant regarding the political unfoldings in Euro-America—which I know from your work you certainly are not doing.

What I am trying to problematize is the very notion of Islam—within some extremely powerful, and discourse-fashioning sectors—as being, off the back, a designator of a recidivist religiosity and its attendant recalcitrant religious-politics. What can be said with certainty, as far as the marriage or separability of the religious and the secular, is this: the historic Islamic constitutional system and the separation of powers was more robust than what exists within the modern context. And, although I know you are describing something else, this latter point gives, I think, a very different spin on things.


Varisco:  At what point in history has the idea of “Islam” in the West not been “politically overcharged”? Christians, Jews, and Muslims have seen each other through a politicized and ideological lens from the beginning. One issue, as you note, is if it is possible to move beyond the hegemonizing discourse in which non-Muslims (not just in the variegated West) portray Islam as political above all else? Individuals can move beyond such bias, of course, and I know many who have. But the media as such, and certainly the American political maelstrom, politicize Islam in the same way they went after “communism.” But “Islam” (either in a positive or negative sense) is an ideological construct, no matter how it is construed. As an anthropologist, I am more interested in Muslims, or what some are now calling “lived Islam” (and what Abd al-Hamid El Zein called “islams”). I do not see how any notion of Islam (or Christianity or Judaism or any religion you can think of) can be pure or rescued from a politicized context. Such a quest might best be styled “piety in the sky.” The nuances of how “Islam” is used are best analyzed in specific contexts (as Said did masterfully in his “Covering Islam” on the Iran hostage crisis and quite a few anthropologists are doing these days). If we focus on the abstract notion, problematic as it obviously is, we will not escape a philosophical wordscape and may just end up preaching to ourselves.


Azad:  I am not sure if we can transhistorically and categorically state that “Christians, Jews, and Muslims, have seen each other through a politicized and ideological lens from the beginning.” To do so is to assume that the conditions of possibility—which give rise to “politics” and “ideology”—have always been the same through history. And that politics and ideology are transhistorical notions, when that is not the case, as I am sure you will agree.

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that the lens(es) through which Christians, Jews, and Muslims have seen one another—and indeed have seen themselves—have varied through the course of history and in different places due to a variety of factors. As such, the contemporary situation in Euro-America—and its view of Muslims and Islam—has a particular coloring, which has its own conditions of possibility, rendering Islam and Muslims as monolithic and fundamentally opposed to “the West.” This latter point I think we are in agreement about.

As for thinking through the tension between El Zein’s “islams” versus Asad’s “discursive tradition” of Islam, I believe this requires a differentiation between “dogma” and “expression”—dogma being more consolidated and expression, of necessity, being more diverse. I do not think there is a simple resolution of these in the sense of opting for one position over the other; rather, there needs to be a nuanced understanding of how the two inform one another in differing contexts.

In the end, I suspect, we are not in much disagreement, although we may seek to articulate certain aspects over others, as is often the case in academic discourse. (Now, if only we can translate this into something that goes beyond the ivory tower, as you have rightly suggested . . . )


Varisco:  I agree that it has not been the same lens; there have been a number of lenses depending on the historical and cultural context. But my point is that there can never be a “pure” sense of any religion as somehow above the fray of the politics and prejudices in any age and indeed the aspirations of real people. This is a given, I think, and is the spur to study the why and how. The idea of a “monolithic” and politicized Islam is not a modern idea. Check out John Tolans’s superb Saracens (2002). Much of the Islamophobia we see today is a redirection after the Cold War. Remember that Reagan supported the Afghan mujahhadin when they were fighting the Soviets, but when the Taliban turned against “us” they became terrorists. Zein did not think of opting for expression over dogma; his The Sacred Meadows (1974) on the elite in Lamu demonstrates this quite well. He argues that anthropologists should focus on the “islam” that is lived and can be observed in the action of Muslims in a given cultural context rather than accepting dogma as such. (He was justifiably criticizing the earlier text of Geertz who Weberized Indonesian and Moroccan Islam with virtually no ethnographic input.) Zein would be the first to argue that the anthropologist needs to understand how Muslims relate what they do and say to the dogmas that surround them. I highly recommend his ethnography, which is unfortunately out of print.


Azad:  While I do incline (à la Said) towards the idea that Islam (and Muslims) has been the primary Other of the West (and has always been considered in monolithic terms), I cannot help but think as to how this has had differing manifestations and points of emphases in various periods and places. For example, in the two somewhat different contexts of the English Enlightenment and the founding of the United States, while Locke (and other English Enlightenment thinkers) and Jefferson were both opposed to Islam, there was, nevertheless, a significant borrowing and engagement with Islam and Islamic thought in both cases. This belies the notion of a “basic” projection of disgust and aversion towards Islam (and Muslims) as is being manifested in Euro-America today. In other words, while Islam (and Muslims) may have been seen in monolithic terms during the course of the West’s engagement with Islam, it is also true that that led to (and continues to) produce very different “types” of reaction, which are inflected by the particular conditions of possibility.

I certainly do not think that religion can be above the fray of politics and prejudices or the aspirations of real people. However, at the risk of belaboring a point, what I am really concerned with here is the way(s) in which Islam and Muslims are being reduced to “a political concept” within mainstream discourse(s) in the West and against which much of Euro-America’s anxieties, fears, and indeed revulsions are being expressed. I am not sure that it is simply a case of “a redirection after the Cold War,” although it is partly that. I think there are some deeper processes at work, which are specific to the way(s) in which Islam and Muslims are being “othered” today.


Varisco:  Our conversation has shifted from the role of secularism in politicizing Islam to the hoary universal burden of “othering.” Othering is never as monolithic as it is often conceptually portrayed. This assumption was a fault with Edward Said’s Orientalism, in which the discourse of “Orientalism” was posed as unidimensional and essentialized the “West” in what Sadik al-Azm rightly called an “Orientalism in reverse.” Muslims are othered in multiple ways, including gender and ethnic identity, just as Muslims other one another and those belonging to different religions. The “deeper processes” can be found in any age, but obviously we are best positioned to probe such processes with Islam as practiced and politicized today.

All this brings us back to the notion of “secularism” and its sibling “modernity.” There is massive literature on these concepts, but my point is that both necessitate a problematic relation to “religion.” It is nonsense to say that being secular means being non-religious; if such is the case, then the United States (where almost half the population thinks Adam and Eve better explain human origins than scientific evolution) is not secular.  What needs to be unpacked is the binary secular/religious because it is misleading and assumes an opposition rather than an integration. Take a look at the Burj al-Arab Hotel in Dubai: is it secular or religious? Or the Mecca Hilton Hotel with “two air-conditioned and carpeted ten thousand-seater prayer halls” and a shopping mall right next to the ka’ba; is this secular or religious? Neither term explains anything. The important question for me as an anthropologist is the variety of ways in which Muslims apply their “religion” in real life. It is important, of course, to unpack loaded concepts. But this should not be an end in itself. There are many “islams” out there and observing and engaging with Muslims in social and cultural contexts are the real contribution to mitigating the incessant prejudice against Muslims in the public sphere.


Hasan Azad is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, with a focus on Islamic studies. His dissertation is an interdisciplinary examination of the role of Islamic ethics in constituting diasporic communities in the West. His research interests include postcolonial religious identities, secularism and secularity, Islamic politics, Islamophobia studies, Sufism, and sharia.

Daniel Martin Varisco is president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, editor of Contemporary Islam and editor-in-chief of the online journal CyberOrient. He is the author of Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation (Palgrave, 2005). In September he will be joining Qatar University as a research professor.

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