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Review: Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech

21 November 2011

Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmoud are four big names on questions of secularism and the modern West. In Is Critique Secular?,which is the second volume in University of California, Berkeley’s series The Townsend Papers in the Humanities, these thinkers address questions regarding the relation of secularism and the notion of critique which is so important to the contemporary Western mind, focusing in particular upon the very current question of the relationship between the West and Islamic world. Each, excepting Wendy Brown, who provides the introduction, contributes at least one chapter. Independent chapters by Asad and Mahmood are followed by a response to both by Butler and, finally, short replies to Butler’s response by both Asad and Mahmoud.

The work undertakes principally to examine the supposed secularity of the practice of critique, which in modern Western culture is held essential to the attainment of certitude. The lens through which this task is approach is the then-very recent (the book was published and the conference which birthed it was held in 2009) Danish cartoon controversy, in which the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (and, subsequently, Norwegian and North American newspapers) published cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad which were taken by many Muslims to be deeply offensive and which sparked protests in some areas of the so-called Islamic word and calls for the defense of free speech by many Western pundits and politicians. The authors challenge the oft-repeated maxim that the controversy was a conflict between the open, free, critical thinking West and the religious, repressive, irrational ‘Islamic world.’ Asad and Mahmood especially proffer alternative modes of viewing the controversy but helping the (Western) reader to understand the issue from the other (Islamic) perspective. They very effectively problematise the dominant Western assumption which equates secularism and a-religiosity to reason, freedom, and critical thinking and religion, particularly Islam, to violence, conformity, and obscurantism.

Of particular interest to me was Saba Mahmood’s analysis of the historical development of contemporary Western views on the relation of persons and objects. Grounded in the Protestant Reformation’s separation of true spiritual meaning from ritual objects and actions this ‘semiotic’ understanding of the relationship between persons and objects distantiates substance and meaning, form and essence. I was struck not only by the direct implications of this idea to Mahmood’s argument regarding the inability of Western audiences understand the offence taken by Muslims at unkind depictions of the Prophet Muhammad but by the anthropological implications of this semiotic way of reading the world. The semiotic paradigm which Mahmood describes essentially evacuates the world of inherent meaning, reducing all meaning to reference to the observer, paralleling the evacuation of the sacred from the world which reduces all time and space to the profane and finds sacredness only through human ascription.

The chapters by Asad and Butler were equally arresting. Asad examines Islamic perspectives relevant to an understanding of free speech, shining a particular light on questions of blasphemy and seduction, acts which a Western framework sees as legitimate expressions of a right to free speech, if not necessarily morally justified ones, but which Islamic thought sees as violations of the person who is the subject of rights. Butler, in her typically clunky yet engaging manner, raises interesting questions about how rights are actually operative in the West, as opposed to how they are claimed to function, and points out how free speech, along with other ‘values’ of Western society such as sexual diversity, are being instrumentalised in service of anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism. This is especially interesting in view of one of the monograph’s more pervasive themes: the problematisation of the race-religion divide in the West. The reflection on that question, whether anti-Islamic polemics are assaults on a set of ideas or on a people, whether how we in the West distinguish between a race, which we protect from incisive criticism, and a religion, which we consider fair game, is an erroneous one, raises some important questions about Western assumptions regarding the natures of race, religion, and people.

Is Critique Secular? makes some excellent contributions to the question of the nature and meaning of secularism, both from the perspective of current realities and that of historical developments. It is a short read (154 pages, including all endnotes) but more compact than simply brief. I recommend it to anyone interested in the nature of critique, the nature and development of secularism, or the relation between the West and so-called ‘Islamic world.’ It is available through the University of California Press directly but also through major book retailers (I had no luck with my preferred local brick-and-mortar but I encourage you to ask). My copy, which I acquired with free shipping, cost roughly $17 CAD.

Edition reviewed: Asad, Talal et al., Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (The Townsend Papers in the Humanities No. 2), Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.

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