Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation

Saba Mahmood

Since the events of September 11, 2001, against the

backdrop of two decades of the ascendance of global religious politics, urgent
calls for the reinstatement of secularism have reached a crescendo that cannot
be ignored. The most obvious target of these strident calls is Islam, particularly
those practices and discourses within Islam that are suspected of fostering fundamentalism
and militancy. It has become de rigueur for leftists and liberals alike
to link the fate of democracy in the Muslim world with the institutionalization

of secularism — both as a political doctrine and as a political ethic. This coupling
is now broadly echoed within the discourse emanating from the U.S. State
Department, particularly in its programmatic efforts to reshape and transform
“Islam from within.” In this essay, I will examine both the particular conception
of secularism that underlies the current consensus that Islam needs to be
reformed — that its secularization is a necessary step in bringing “democracy” to
the Muslim world — and the strategic means by which this programmatic vision is
being instituted today. Insomuch as secularism is a historically shifting category
with a variegated genealogy, my aim is not to secure an authoritative definition of
secularism or to trace its historical transformation within the United States or the
Muslim world. My goal here is more limited: I want to sketch out the particular
understanding of secularism underlying contemporary American discourses on
Islam, an understanding that is deeply shaped by U.S. security and foreign policy
concerns in the Muslim world.

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