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Notes on the Idea of Theorizing Secularism–Hussein Ali Agrama

Questioning SecularismI want to thank David True for inviting me to write on my book Questioning Secularism for the Political Theology blog. I am also especially appreciative of his enormous generosity and patience. Instead of writing a summary of my book’s arguments, which can be found in its introduction, I would like to discuss some of its underlying theoretical motivations, and some of the potential implications of the arguments that it makes. But before I start, a word on terminology. Often, we distinguish between secularism as a political doctrine, and the secular as that historical space of concepts, norms, sensibilities, attitudes and dispositions that it draws upon for its practical intelligibility. There is also a concern about the relations between the two, which is sometimes indexed by the term secularity. Sometimes it is thought that we know much about secularism as a political doctrine, but still not so much about the secular, or about secularity. I am skeptical that we know as much about secularism as we think we do, precisely because we still don’t know enough about the secular, and especially about how they mutually impact and shape each other. So in what follows I use the term secularism to mean all three of these, and not, as is usually understood, the political doctrine alone.


Let me start with an aside: studies of secularism are in a steep decline. They may soon altogether disappear in the face of other current topics: analyses of worldwide environmental change, of debt and the global financial markets, of the potential transformations brought on by the wave of technological innovation (biology, computing, weapons) that has come upon us. It is, of course, too early to make a claim like this. But I remember a brief time ago when “secular studies” – as one theorist once called it – was an enormously vibrant and seemingly promising field. To study secularism, it seemed, was to probe deeper into the condition that we all inhabit, and to engage pressing issues in the present. But since then, secularism has come to be seen as just another thing among things, about which we seem to be saying much the same sort of thing. That it comes in varieties and models (French, American, German, Indian, Turkish), that it is fundamentally theological and particularly (Protestant) Christian in its foundations, that it is more about control and constraint than freedom of belief and practice, that it never lives up to its promises to keep religion out of politics, treat religions neutrally, and promote tolerance. Most striking, perhaps, is how many of the claims made and argued in this domain of academic theorizing are not so different, except in degree of refinement and care of demonstration, from many of the claims made and fought out about secularism in the realms of everyday life and practice – in legal, political and other arenas. Reading many works on secularism of the past few years, I wonder whether they are analyzing the discourses and practices that feature in these everyday realms or more partaking of them.

Is there anything that can be learned from this? My concern is not so much the quick rise and even faster decline of secular studies, the mismatch between its initial aspirations and its subsequent results. That has happened to many initially promising and vibrant fields. My concern is rather with some of the characteristic features of the way that secularism has been theorized, which were present even when the field was vibrant, and have become more pronounced as it now declines. We all know that secularism is an integral feature of the condition we inhabit, even as we are disposed to and within it in different, differential, and highly complicated ways. We also acknowledge that secularism is tightly woven into what we value as knowledge, the forms that knowledge takes, and the characteristic ways we produce it. This means that what we say about and how we theorize secularism will also be expressions of secularism as a historical phenomenon. Of course, what we can say about secularism and what it is are not the same. Yet through my own work I have learned that they are indelibly linked in important, counterintuitive ways. That is why I think some of the characteristic features of how we have theorized secularism can tell us something about secularism as a historical phenomenon. And these characteristic features are what I have mentioned above: that secularism has come to be seen as a thing among things, that we seem to end up saying the same sorts of things about it, and that often what we say about it in theory is not substantially different from what is claimed in popular discourse and practice. Is there anything that can be learned about secularism as a historical phenomenon from these characteristics?


It is worth remembering that the current wave of theorizing about secularism was initially situated within a post-colonial context, both geographically and theoretically. One of the things that crucially brought it on was the thinking about the situation of South Asia in the 90s, in the face of very large domestic political shifts and international realignments. It was in this context that secularism became a topic of urgent, explicit discussion and rethinking. But now much thinking about the topic has been shorn off of that crucial context, one of the results of which is that we have general inquiries into secularism and “local” inquiries into how it takes shape primarily in the countries of the global South, as if they were merely derivative forms of the secular. We learn about how it works in Egypt, India, Turkey, or Palestine, but this tells us nothing about secularism as a general historical phenomenon. Or so the assumption goes. This kind of segregation is fully evident in the organization of conferences and the book chapters of edited volumes on secularism, where the general inquiries, implicitly pertaining to Europe and the US, are placed at the beginning, with the local, ethnographically described, derivative forms placed thereafter and toward the end. This is not just the gripe of an anthropologist who wants anthropology to be taken more seriously. Neither is this an argument that there are only secularisms, that there are only local forms, so that nothing beyond the local can be learned from a study of secularism in different places. This only entrenches the idea that from a study of the global South nothing broader can be learned. Post-colonial theory never saw itself as having only local theoretical import, even and especially as it argued for the need to localize and provincialize.

On the contrary. The loss of this post-colonial context has been a loss for studies of secularism more generally. For even as we see the rise of secularism to be part of the story of the modern state, we must also see the development of the modern state as part of the story of imperial and colonial expansion. We cannot so easily separate out the one from the other. And yet this is just what seems to be done in the literature on secularism, whether it treats its historical emergence or its contemporary forms. To take one example: there is very little consideration of the development of American secularism in relation to U.S. settler colonial expansion and the Native American presence it encountered throughout. Why is that?

But my argument here is not that we need now to think about colonialism and imperialism in relation to secularism, even though I think we do. My point is slightly different. For if we acknowledge that 1) imperial and colonial expansion has created a space of differential power relations that encompasses and connects the West with the non-West and that persists into the present, and 2) that secularism as a modern historical phenomenon is embedded within and woven throughout these differential relations and connections, then 3) it becomes harder to assume that the study of secularism in a third world place cannot tell us anything about it as a broader historical phenomenon.

This splitting off of inquiries into general and local varieties is a symptom of a deeper set of problems that have to do with the very idea of theorizing secularism, with how we are conceiving it as an object of knowledge and theory. It is to some of these problems that I would now like to turn.


Here is a typical pattern of analysis found in studies of secularism. It starts with theorists reiterating that, according to secular doctrine, religion ought to be placed within a private domain away from politics, and that by so doing, freedom of religion and toleration can be enabled and guaranteed. They then point out how in practice religion is never fully confined to a private domain, with the consequence that the aspired to religious freedoms are never fully available. Highlighting numerous instances of politicized religion and the persistence of forms of repression and constraint that secularism had promised to eradicate, they go on to show how secularism not only fails to deliver on its promise, but how it can never in fact live up to the ideals it articulates. This leads to the argument that secularism is not first and foremost about the freedoms associated with it, but rather about governance. There is a subsequent focus on what modes of governance secularism is or should be involved in.

This pattern of argumentation is not so much wrong as fundamentally misses the point. For it derives from an approach that continues to assess what secularism is, and does, from the vantage point and framework of what it says it is and does. That is, secularism tends to be theorized and assessed from the standpoint of its own ideological self-description. And on that basis, it has been shown to continually fail, and thus be impossible on its own terms. Time and again, secularism is shown not to be as secular as it claims, but only one version or another of political theology, in more or less subtle form. This is even as it is acknowledged that “religion” as a cross-cultural, trans-historical analytical category is itself a product of secularity. The result is an epistemological quagmire, where secularity is claimed to be religious even as religion is seen to be an outcome of secularity.

This approach has circumscribed a very wide of range of analyses of secularism thus far done, and what it represents is a conflation of the categories and criteria of secularism’s ideological self-description with the analytical concepts needed to adequately understand its workings. One consequence of this conflation is that theorists tend to see no need to develop new concepts and approaches, outside of the standard frameworks, in order to theorize secularism. Connected to this is a tendency to see secularism as a phenomenon that can be known in the standard ways. That is, there seems to be little concern over the kind of epistemological problem secularism might pose, and how the epistemological problem it poses might be crucial to its functioning and forms of power.

Essential to my own endeavor has thus been to develop the analytical concepts needed to adequately theorize secularism and its salience for modern life; concepts that, while unbeholden to secularism’s self-descriptive categories and criteria, also takes them fully into account – not as measures for its success or failure, but in terms of the work they do within and as part of the practices and institutional forms that constitute it. This has led me to argue that secularism must be crucially understood as a questioning power, one that operates through the activity of questioning that it creates. But more importantly, it is an activity of questioning that tends to undermine the viability of any of the answers given. That is to say, secularism is a form of power that continually renders precarious the normativity of the categories it ostensibly establishes. It therefore obscures the epistemological clarity of its own normative standing. In my book, I try to show how secularism works to produce this intractable non-knowledge of itself – of the distinctions, attitudes and sensibilities on which it stands.

This epistemological obscurity has a number of consequences. One of them, which I discuss in my book, is how it enables and sustains the rhetorical force and plausibility of political theological claims, quite apart from their truth or falsity. Secularism, I argue, actually lends itself to political theological interpretation because of the epistemological obscurity that it produces; such interpretation and contestation is a manifestation of the questioning activity that it animates. This is for both the practical political and legal contestations over religion characteristic of secular polities and the reigning scholarly analyses of these contestations. The case of political theology is one example of how secularism both enables and subsumes the universe of critical discourse on it. Secularism promotes the critical disposition seen as central to a secular sensibility and yet folds this disposition into itself as part of the questioning activity that it animates. In so doing, it continually returns us to the same sets of questions, and the same range of potential answers, so that we end up saying much the same sorts of things about it, over and over again. Hence its intractability. The inability to resolve these questions often leads to a continued emphasis on the necessity of the decision, its form and nature, and the potential dangers it poses. And the power of decision, as we are all aware, is considered to be an essential characteristic of sovereignty. So secularism promotes both a critical sensibility and the need for sovereign decision making, even as the two seem fundamentally, mutually, opposed.

That secularism both enables and subsumes the universe of critical discourse about it points to another possibility that perhaps deserves further consideration: that the standard modes of analysis may not be able to fully grasp the kind of power by which it works. That is, certain critical theoretical strategies, like deconstruction, genealogy , political theology, and negative dialectics, to the extent that they aim to unsettle settled categories, may be ill-equipped to capture a form of power that works by unsettling settled categories! Indeed, they may become expressions of this very power. To put it somewhat provocatively: if genealogy, deconstruction, negative dialectics and other staple strategies of our current theoretical repertoire are paradigms of reason and its limits, then we must consider the possibility that we cannot grasp secularism within the limits of reason alone. In that sense, the very idea of theorizing secularism might be mistaken.


The intractable obscurities of knowledge that secularism continually creates of itself is a characteristic of the historical phenomenon that it is. It is not just, as some have said, that secularism is a contested and contestable concept. It is rather that secularism works through a mode of unsettling by which it enables and subsumes its own contestability. The consequences of this remain to be more fully considered. But we miss this if we assume that secularism is a just a thing among things, even if a highly contestable thing. Here we might make an analogy.

The American writer Thomas Pynchon has a book of his early short stories entitled Slow Learner; all the stories in it are flawed in one way or another, and he features them to show aspiring writers the sorts of mistakes they might make. In the introduction he notes how writers are often advised to write what they know; the problem with this, he says, is that most people do not know the scope of their own ignorance.  This ignorance, he notes, is not just a blank space on the map of knowledge, which can be simply filled in with but more knowledge. Rather, it is something that has contours, structure, and characteristic ways of manifesting; and while as such it can never be fully eliminated, one might be able to get a better sense of its contours, and become familiar with its ways of manifesting in one’s everyday life and writing.

Similarly, secularism should not be seen as simply a blank space on the map of our knowledge, to be filled up and away before going on to other blank spaces. But we might be able to get a better sense of the contours of the epistemological obscurities characteristic of it, the structures of its indeterminacies and ambiguities, and become familiar with the ways they manifest within and work to shape aspects of everyday life. That, in part, is what I have endeavored toward.



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