Saba Mahmood on Secularism

Echoing Edward Said’s notion of “traveling theories” Saba Mahmood writes “it is important not to conceptualize secularism on a single model whose skeletal structure has been fleshed out by Euro-American societies, a model by which the modernizing attempts of non-Western nations are to be assessed. Even if we understand secularism in its most narrow sense – as the doctrinal separation of religion and state – it is worth noting that this separation has been negotiated in a variety of ways even in Europe and the United States. […S]ecularism has entailed the legal and administrative intervention into religious life so as to construct “religion” – in it spacial entailments, in its worldly aspirations, and the scope of reasoning – along certain lines.” Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 77.
What is important about this quote is that it doesn’t say anything new or striking but simply captures, without any difficulty, that which contemporary politics/theology/philosophy/ethics consistently seem to forget or ignore.


One comment on “Saba Mahmood on Secularism

  1. Theophilus says:

    Even within the Euro-American traditions there are significant differences regarding how secularism is understood (and misunderstood). Just for one close-to-home example, consider the Canadian and American understandings of the idea. In the States, the government isn’t allowed to favour any particular religious tradition, so there’s a cottage industry of suing the government over displays of crosses on public land, for instance. Meanwhile, here in Canada, God is mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution, religious displays on public land are not legally proscribed (see the giant illuminated cross on Montréal’s Mount Royal), and publically-funded religious schools are a reality in several provinces, including Catholic schools in Ontario and Alberta.

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