Questioning Secularism (Agrama, 2011)

Hussein Ali Agrama’s Questioning Secularism distills the layers of the modern nation and exposes the entrenchment of a ‘deep-state’ that works for a political elite. He describes how revolutionary legitimacy is often undermined in favor of a liberal secularism, which is both the mode in which the state wields power over belligerent citizens and the malaise that simply abandons the virtue of hope. In this sense, Islam and any religion are deemed incompatible with social content its doctrines enjoined us to reject. Contemporaneously, spaces of ‘asecularity’ offer an antidote to resist the elite capture of politics by refuting the perception that secularism is a neutral force. How might this secular revolution look like? According to Ali Agrama, it is one where “protests expressed every potential language of justice, secular or religious, but embraced none.” Asecularity is also an non-temporal term that meant standing beyond religion and politics and indifferent to the question of their distinction. Elsewhere, Agrama says that “the bare sovereignty manifested by the protest movement stands outside the problem-space of secularism.” The definition of asecularity alone is compelling until one considers the field of action and the warm bodies in the picket lines. How did his case study of Egypt hold up his arguments? What kind of resistance does not aim to problematize and reconfigure the religious and political? What form of sustainable social change does not eventually bend toward justice and redemption offered by religion and class struggle? The scholar Talal Asad’s ideas on secular liberalism helps us further in the critique of a disembodied secularism: “We often speak of a religious body and we think of it as the body of a believer. Can we also speak of a secular body? If so, what might that mean? And how is “the secular body,” whatever it may be, related to liberalism and modernity? Does suffering have an ineradicable place in secularism?”.  Transposing his arguments to Ali Agrama’s context: If we take out the sacred narrative of pain and suffering in Islam which is also the immanent frame of modern secularity, what kind of suffering takes over in an asecular revolution or nation? What systematic doctrine in the modern world is able to reclaim the virtue of hope and translate to any important degree, the fervor only previously seen in the domain of religion or fandom. Is asecularity a project of understanding societies and expressions of human possibility and history as a means of liberating the present from the burdens of the past, and so constructing the future?