The Power of Ambiguity: Agrama’s Questioning Secularism

Rarely has a book excited me lately as much as Hussein Ali Agrama’s recent Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt  (University of Chicago Press, 2012) did. It helped me to clarify some of my own thinking regarding the “generic secular” in relation to his discussion of secularism, non-secularism, post-secularism and asecularism. The last of this series he seems to valorize as something that appeared to me to be something akin to a temporary autonomous zone. The book aims to investigate the nature of secular power through the use of social theory, philosophy, and anthropology (and I note that the ethnography of the book was exciting to read) and a focus on the realm of law as found in modern Egypt. Agrama writes, “That secular power increasingly enables state sovereign capacity is a key argument of this book. It points to the possibility that secular power brings together two things typically thought to be opposed: a growing space of normative critique and contestation, and the increasing assertion of state sovereignty within social life (31).”

In the course of making that argument he develops some key concepts with regard to our understanding of secularism, all focusing upon the power of ambiguity: “secularism itself incessantly blurs together religion and politics in Egypt, and […] it is a form of power that works through and relies upon the precariousness of the categories it establishes. This, however, is not peculiar to Egypt; it is also a characteristic of many states considered to be paradigms of modern seculiarity, such as France, Germany, and Britain (71).” This emphasis on precariousness or ambiguity adds to the usual discourses on secularism which sees the principle of the state being the entity that can decide what counts as essentially religious and what scope it can have on social life, what Agrama calls the “active principle of secularism” (72), and shows that the ambiguity is built into this active principle. For Agrama takes us through the TAZ of the Fatwa councils in Egypt, which are technically outside the law, but as Egypt mixes Sharia with the French system of law it creates a quasi-legal entity that is nonetheless incredibly powerful for those who participate in the court. This is differentiated from the way that Sharia has been officially co-opted in the personal status courts, those state entities where individuals deal with litigation related to their marital status and financial issues. Agrama’s analysis here is rich, covering both the issue of care of self with regard to the Fatwa councils, and the way in which the religiously based notions of family have been used to create a secular space that undercuts the power of religion by appeal to social order. This creates a situation not unlike we find in America or France where society must be defended, often from religious extremists, but where the ambiguity of the power of these concepts location as quasi-religious or civilly religious undergirds the power of the state as such.

It isn’t my intention to do full justice here to the scope of the book or the care with which Agrama constructs his concepts alongside of his ethnography. Frankly, everyone who reads AUFS should get a copy of the text themselves and read it for that fullness. What I wanted to bring attention to was a few questions that remained for me after reading that might play into future lines of research into the “post-secular condition” and what comes after it. First, there is a certain ambiguity to Agrama’s presentation of these asecular moments. It is an ambiguity that arises out of a problem we find in our understanding of law and justice, beautifully discussed in the book through a classroom example. On the one hand nearly everyone appears distrustful of the capacity of law to truly render justice and on the other hand nearly everyone is horrified at the idea of simply getting rid of the law. The asecular space and time of the Fatwa councils do not really address this, we aren’t given the asecular as a theodicy. And I think that says something really important about Agrama’s work here as his impulse is to avoid these kinds of political and theoretical theodicies. But we aren’t given a prescriptive politics here and this may be the cause of a structural aspect of anthropological work. My question is, what might a prescriptive politics look like? Could it still be called a politics or would it be something else?

The reason this question seems important to me is because part of what I loved about Agrama’s book is the way he discusses the all-encompassing power of the state and law as what makes it so horrifying. Human beings become human only in so far as they can be subjected to certain rights and certain laws. This resonates with Laruelle’s own criticisms of philosophy and all idealist forms of thinking which subject human beings to some predicate, rather than thinking human beings as the real, as horrifying flesh and blood and so on. But we can see in his ethnography the way the law doesn’t touch on the everyday drama of being a human. So many of the stories coming out the Fatwa councils, for example, have to do with marriage and relationships. And while the law organizes these relationships, it doesn’t make sense of out of them. Something about them remains foreclosed to the law, even as the law harasses the subjects of these relationships. But Agrama is interesting in pointing out one of the ways that secular power destroys religious power is by also making religion into a power that looks to be as all-encompassing and horrifying.

This is interesting in so far as so much of the post-secular critique of secularism has focused on Christianity as homogenous with the secular and also as the main religious beneficiary of secular power. Agrama’s book is perhaps an interesting challenge to that notion, which I know Daniel Barber and myself are attracted to. To me this suggests a number of notions that would need to be analyzed and developed more. But it seems to accord with the generally dualistic notion of religion I have as a site of power that can either be conducive to the development of reactive or active forces. However, a challenge to this is the very focus on the state we find in Agrama. Absent from the book is any discussion of the question of economics or non-state sovereignty. To my knowledge this is a blindspot in general in discussion of the secular and the post-secular, except perhaps in the work of Philip Goodchild and, after looking through Adam’s post from yesterday, perhaps Agamben, but even in these sources I would say it is nascent and not fully developed. Future lines of research in this area should examine the economic element in more depth to make clear what the nature of sovereignty in a secular, globalized market that is distributed through these ambiguously secular nation-states.

Really, despite the scattered nature of these thoughts, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

5 thoughts on “The Power of Ambiguity: Agrama’s Questioning Secularism

  1. You’ve definitely convinced me to get a copy. So I will wait until I’ve actually read it to ask real questions. But I am interested to know how this has affected your reading of the category of the postsecular. Does it seem newly problematic? Or differently contextualized?

  2. Yes, i thought this book was really interesting. For me, the most interesting angle was the focus on the sovereignty structure of the secular.

    For clarification, the claim i made in On Diaspora was not that Christianity and secularism were homogeneous, but that secularism defined itself through the transmutation of religion into the threat (rather than into what ought to be identifed as fulfilled in Christianity). So it’s not that Christianity is the chief *religious* beneficiary of secularism, it’s more that Christianity is the chief beneficiary of not being religious, where not being religious = being secular, and where being secular is retroactively read as the goal of Christianity. If you are a “religion”, you’re not going to benefit from the secular. So for me it’s not that Christianity befefits, it’s that it donated the structure of how benefit is given.

  3. I’m currently working my way through Wael Hallaq’s “The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament,” which would add another layer to Agrama’s discussion of Islam, Christianity, and the Secular. Hallaq’s critique is directed toward the law and the nation-state’s all-encompassing top-down power in contrast to classical shari’a’s notion of moral-legal traditions that is commended from below (and above) the political (at least partially). What’s interesting to me and worth further conversation is the way that he too connects this with issues of economic power…if you haven’t seen the book, given it a read. I’ve had Agrama’s in my que and will grab it now.

  4. Anthony, i was left with some of your questions as well. As you noted there’s a resonance between your description of the generic secular and his description of asecular moments — moments of release from this imperative to answer the questions of secularism. This is also that interesting (if undeveloped) section at the end of the book where he uses the term “bare sovereignty” for that moment prior to the problem-space of secularism and the indeterminacies it generates — a term also used by Nancy, actually, in a slightly different sense but a provocative coincidence nonetheless. There’s an oppositional politics there, but not sure if that’s what you mean by a non-state sovereignty.
    As for what you’re saying on the law seeking to encompass the everyday dramas of being human, one thing this book did for me was to demonstrate the way distinctive regimes of law manage what you’re calling the real of being human differently. The Fatwa council and the family court, here, both based in some way on the shari’a but opening themselves differently to state power and responding differently to the generative indeterminacy of secularism, do not enact parallel efforts to manage life. I find that contrast instructive for thinking the asecular and nuancing their relation to law and the state. (Also in this vein, you might like Samera Esmeir’s elegant Juridical Humanity, on the colonial legal production of humanity from the inhuman, etc.)

    Joshua, I too have been slowly reading and enjoying Hallaq’s latest. The two books however seem to diverge (while covering similar ground) on the question of the future. This may change as I get to its later chapters, but Hallaq’s archaeological/paradigmatic frame seems in its polemic to close off the future. It doesn’t admit how his paradigms (the state and the Shari’a) are subject to translation as they mutate under the subjectifying power of the secular. He describes a certain kind of distinctive moral space, passionately delineating its contours and the shape of its forms of life, and I really appreciate his diagnoses of legal orientalism, of massive state power and the impoverishment of so-called contemporary Islamic political theory, and so on. But ultimately on the questions where the two books diverge (namely, the question of the future), i prefer Agrama’s for offering a more textured picture of how these paradigms coincide and drift into each other, always undergirded by the structuring powers of the state but ultimately (as the final section of Questioning Secularism demonstrates) not determined by them. This is slightly related to Anthony’s question about whether an asecular politics would still be a politics. Because this is a question of the survival/survivance of Islamic political theory after the state, after the state secular differentiation of the shari’a into law and politics and economics and etiquette and religion and and and. Whither Islamic politics now? Hallaq’s answer seems determined in part by his archaeological method and the tragic emplotment of his history of Islamic legal theory (on tragedy, I’m thinking of Fadel’s review of his previous book — something Hallaq cuttingly dismisses on 171 n.9 but that still offers a useful counterpoint). Agrama’s answer doesn’t seem determined quite in this way, and resonates instead with Asad’s description in one of his latest essays of a possible Islamic politics necessarily oppositional to the state. Anyway, thanks for bringing it up here — comparing the two is interesting.

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