A fascinating interview of Saba Mahmood on religious minorities in the Middle East
The issue of minority rights in Muslim societies is often in the news these days. Plight of minorities sometimes show up on Irtiqa, as that is one of the countries that I am most familiar with. The state sanctioned persecution of Ahmadis, in particular, is hard to ignore. A new book by anthropologist Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, looks at minority rights in the middle east – with a focus on Egypt – and challenges some of the conventional thinking about secularism. Here is her book blurb:
The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.
Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.
If you have an hour and a half and are interested in a detailed discussion of this topic, then please listen to this excellent interview of Saba Mahmood by Sherali Tareen as part of New Books in Islamic Studies podcast. All of the discussion here is fantastic but I was struck by two things in particular.
First, that the issue of state neutrality towards religion in a secular state can be problematic when (and that is always the case) when cultural norms already favor a dominant religion (this discussion is around 48 minutes in). This was, of course, quite apparent with the recent Christmas holidays. Second, Saba Mahmood provides a fascinating example of the official status of Bahai’i faith in Egypt European Court of Human Rights especially regarding Muslim minorities.
For example, the French ban on Muslim veil was upheld on a very similar reasoning (i.e. there is a freedom to believe but the public expression in the form of wearing the veil contradicts the national secular norm). So ultimately, the structure of the arguments is the same for the states to intervene in regulating the lives of minorities (she also looked at Greece with its Greek Orthodox religion). (this discussion starts around 1 hour mark) and their right to display their religion. The state regulated Bahai’i faith by saying that they are free to believe in their faith as citizens of Egypt but not to a public express their religion. And this public expression included public prayers or their places of worship or even on a identification of their religion on the national identification card. So there is freedom of religion but the state has the right to regulate any public expressions that can go against the identity and norms of the state – and because Egypt’s identity is Muslim, they can regulate Bahai’i expressions as they are not considered Muslims within the Egyptian state. But here is the twist (at 1:05): Saba Mahmood finds a parallel reasoning in the
You should listen to the whole interview to get the full gist of the arguments. For a broader history, listen to 10 minutes to 41 minutes, and for the discussion mentioned above, check out 48minutes to 1:10.
Here is the link to the interview again.