Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury & Free Speech: Book Review

Asad, Talal, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, & Saba Mahmood. 2013. Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury & Free Speech. Second Revised Edition. New York: Fordham University Press.

By Brian Howell (Wheaton College)

This past summer began with a United States news cycle dominated by a single story. The U.S. Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and its evangelical owners, the Green Family, supporting their claim that to provide certain forms of contraception through their health insurance plan would violate their religious conscience. Conservatives and many religious groups declared the decision a victory for religious freedom. Progressives, many women’s advocacy groups, and many supporters of the Affordable Care Act decried this the inappropriate imposition of religious views on individuals, and a failure of the state to protect the rights of women to comprehensive health care.

While both sides generally argued their positions based on liberal principles of individual rights, there were more complex questions in the background: what is the legitimate role of religious views in the secular public sphere? What is properly a “religious” belief and what is its relationship to economic, social, and political actions? Where are the limits of religion in a secular state?

Working from a different set of conversations around global Islam and secular Europe, these questions are taken up in one of the more productive reads I have enjoyed this year. Beginning as a conference at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007, Is Critique Secular? lived for a time as a publication of that conference. After some years of reaction and discussion, the authors decided to re-frame the collection with a new preface by the authors, and published as a mutli-authored book by Fordham University Press in 2013. The book now consists of chapters from two anthropologists – long-time scholar of secularism Talal Asad and comparatively more recent voice Saba Mahmood – paired with an introduction by Berkeley Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown, and response from Judith Butler, a prominent feminist scholar and social theorist. Asad and Mahmood each provide short replies to Butler’s discussion, constituting the last two chapter of the book. Although the entire volume comes in at a slim 145 pages, the format provides for vigorous interaction. Going far beyond the cases on which the authors primarily rely, the questions of secular society and its relation to religion as practice and concept are taken up with vibrancy that will make this volume a key conversation for anyone interested in the nature of secularism and liberal society in a rapidly changing global context.

Both Asad and Mahmood take as their focal event the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. Taken by many in the Muslim world to be blasphemous, the controversy sparked a wide conversation about the nature of Islam, European culture, and the state of multiculturalism in Europe. As Asad notes at the end of his first chapter, the very notion of blasphemy is “inconceivable” due to “Europe’s proscription of theological language in the public sphere” (p. 51). Muslim outrage then, particularly when manifest through violence, was (and is) framed as “radicalism,” irrationality, and the rejection of the liberal ideals of individual conscience, freedom and individuality. For some, this strengthens their view that Islam is incompatible with European liberalism. For others it represents a failure of Islam to rise to its own noble ideals of individual conscience. But what the controversy does not do, argue these authors, is bring into the light the contours of secularism as a regime of power, a “political episteme that structures modern societies in modular and similar ways” (p. xv). For that, they argue, a deeper more critical exploration of secularism is required.

There is an irony in calling this discussion a “critical” exploration, as part of what is being explored is the nature of criticism itself. This irony is not lost on the authors, of course.By exploring how criticism emerged in as a kind of unbiased reading in a secular regime of knowledge, the authors are able, each in their own way, to uncover the polemics of criticism as a genre. “What we now call critique,” writes Asad, “did not [originally] aspire to conquer universal truth but to resolve particular crises justly and to correct particular virtues within a particular way of life” (p. 42). It is as the notion of critique morphed into the quest for universalism and the modern virtues of reason and “freedom” that contemporary law (a particular focus of Mahmood’s essay, but part of each author’s contribution) began to elide ethical and political questions that emerge from specific historical schemes and constitute the ground on which specific judgments come to be made.

In the discussion from Butler, and the responses from Asad and Mahmood, the book takes on a tone of a conversation that is the best of what an academic conference can produce. Butler does not so much refute the arguments of Asad and Mahmood as extend or interrogate them. In relation to Asad, she asks if his discussion of critique as “taken-for-granted schemes of evaluation” that emerge in historic and contextual moments to be traced out genealogically, is ultimately different from Asad’s own critical procedure. (p. 109-110) To Mahmood, she pushes the claim that law serves as a particularly secular (and thus hidden) regime of knowledge as problematic. “When Mahmood makes the decision to turn away from law and politics,” queries Butler, “does she not inadvertently overlook the possibilities of a politics, including a political judgement, that might not be constrained by legal norms or practice?” (p. 118) This strikes Butler as giving too much to a “culturalist” argument of critique. Asad and Mahmood each respond to her queries and elaborations with careful clarifications and qualifications. The result is to take the reader through a conversation that leaves these abstractions clearer than they could be from each essay alone.

The relevance of the conversation for scholars of Islam, multiculturalism, and secularism is evident, but for the anthropologist of Christianity the connections are, at times, a bit submerged. Though controversies over religious sentiments (such as the outcry over Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and other publicized conflicts over the public funding of so-called anti-Christian art) are referenced as related phenomena to the conflict of secular Europe and the “muslim world,” there is also the use of “Protestantism” to gloss a secular, privatized religion. Weber is taken for granted in a way that anthropologists of Christianity have come to frame as highly problematic. This is not to say that Christianity is treated without nuance or complexity. Asad, in particular, traces the tensions between reason as a part of a secularized regime of knowledge and the way Christians have tried to wrest it back into a theological key, such as in contemporary work from John Milbank, Pope Benedict, and others. But at the same time, the focus on Islam throughout much of the book leaves a great deal of room to consider how the larger argument about the historical emergence of secular critique might be valuable to the anthropology of Christianity as it develops in the present. As the recent Hobby Lobby case makes clear, public Christianity in the United States, and perhaps increasingly in Europe, is re-embracing a notion of a public role and a challenge to the blasphemy of the state. Within the larger discussion of blasphemy, secularism, and liberal legality are the resources for rich discussion with public Christianity and controversies generated there.

To take one example, the conversation around “blasphemy” as a problematic, if not impossible, category in the modern state provides some of the most fruitful ground for anthropologists of Christianity as we consider the globalizing contexts of Christian cultures. Although, to my knowledge, “blasphemy” was never raised before the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case, it was striking how the failure of liberal discourses of “free speech” in the case of Muslims vis a vis Europe mapped onto the public controversies in the United States. In the Hobby Lobby case, both proponents of “religious freedom” and advocates for “women’s rights” adopted a liberal frame from which make their case; the same contours of secularism could be seen as lurking behind, and complicating, the discussion as it did nine years ago for those working through the reaction of Muslims to the Danish cartoons. Asad and Mahmood argue that the publication of the cartoons exposed the secular regime of knowledge as a totalizing discourse that sought to define the “religious” in interiorized, privatized terms. Inherent in this formulation, they argued, was an implicit relation between the objects of speech, religion, art, and freedom. The taken-for-grantedness of these relations left Muslims without a possibility for persuasively responding to the injury or “blasphemy” they experienced in terms congruent with other possible understandings of image, self, and meaning. Mahmood and Asad both persuasively demonstrated how the characterizations of “Islam” that came through a (mis)characterization of blasphemy in terms suited to the liberal regime of secular/religious dynamics served to further disguise the historical and contextual nature of secular claims.

In the same way, I would argue, the arguments for “religious freedom” and political rights wrapped around the question of the Affordable Care Act and employer-mandated health insurance illustrate a secularized, and inherently limited, ability of the secular public sphere to represent religion as anything other than private, interiorized elements of affect and belief. Like Muslims, conservative Christians become, in some renderings of the conflict, the irrational other, ill-suited for full acceptance in the secular state. The dynamics of secular critique serve as the taken-for-granted ground of the conversation. As critique is placed into a cultural, historical and juridical context throughout the book, it becomes clear that this is no neutral space for determining the validity of religious claims. As Butler says, “secular terms should not have the power to determine the meaning or effect of religious concepts.” (p. 99)

A review such as this is ill-suited to flesh out the argument about Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court, religious freedom, and individual rights. I’ll leave that important work to my friends on Facebook. I raise the issues here only as an illustration of one way in which I was immediately struck by the relevance of Is Critique Secular? for the anthropology of Christianity. We frequently run up against similar questions of religion in the modern/secular state and juridical boundaries for religious life. Whether in historic transformations of missionary contact and conversionist movements, or contemporary dynamics of European humanists and Pentecostal citizenship, the anthropology of Christianity has often made state, secularism, and the public/private sides of faith central to our work. The work of Asad, et al. should become a significant intellectual resource as we continue sorting out the “religious” as it is constructed, performed, and (re)articulated in everyday life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *