Antisecularist Failures: A Counterresponse to Saba Mahmood
I guess it is to be expected that in today’s fashionable antisecularist perspective an act of secular criticism that calls for “detranscendentalizing the secular” would be unfathomable — not merely contrarian or inadvisable but inconceivable, unaccountable. I did underestimate, however, just how eagerly such a perspective would ban the notion that a critique of secularist assumptions — specifically, secularism’s own transcendentalist assumptions — can take place from within the secular domain, as internal deconstruction and thus self-alteration of the secular, with the aim of opening a whole new horizon of thinking about contemporary political problems beyond the bipolar syndrome of secularism versus religion.
Saba Mahmood’s riposte exemplifies this baffled disavowal. The focus of my essay in this issue is not on Mahmood’s work, and my critical comments pertaining to her, like those pertaining to others, are signposts on the way to a much broader argument. This does not mean that Mahmood may not defend herself, and opposing my argument may be one way for her to conduct such a defense, except that this opposition is built on some conspicuous misreadings. I will briefly point these out, but to counter her charge that my criticism of her is unfounded, I will look more closely at the argument in her essay “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation” — always in the spirit of elaborating on the broader argument I have initiated and not under the imperative of tête-à-tête polemics.
It was to raise the stakes of the question “Is Critique Secular?” that I responded unequivocally to it. Anything less than that response would have, I fear, compromised the secular from the start. My response leaves no room for the secular to cruise, as it were, on its own epistemological assumptions. Insofar as critique can never be anything less than self-critique, the certainty of weighing the secular with the critical is precisely to plunge the domain of the secular to the uncertainty of its own interrogation. Whether we like it or not, this is the domain of the dialectic of enlightenment.
For this reason I have repeatedly made it explicit that the secular is a nonsubstantive, conditional, and differential domain and therefore — speaking precisely — a worldly one. By contradistinction, I have identified secularism as an institutional term that represents a historical range of projects and so often tends to certain a priori and dogmatic assumptions, which I have identified as secularist metaphysics. Though I advocate the emancipatory potentialities of the secular — indeed, with the aspiration of reconceptualizing and enriching the emancipatory domain of the secular — I explicitly criticize the metaphysics of secularism, in fact from within the domain and as the work of the secular, as an act of secular criticism. (This is why it is crucial that the metaphysics of secularism should not be equated with theological metaphysics and that secularism should not be considered another sort of religion; the latter claim is one of the most politically reactionary positions of antisecularist thinking.)
Mahmood either does not see or does not want to see this explicit and repeated distinction. Aside from her ludicrous mischaracterization of my position as antimaterialist, liberal, and romantic, what is truly puzzling is how an entire argument against the transcendentalist metaphysics of secularism can be rehashed and served as a secularist lovefest. Puzzled though I am, I will attempt an answer.
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