It is commonly thought that violence, injustice, and discrimination against religious minorities, especially in the Middle East, are a product of religious fundamentalism and myopia. Concomitantly, it is often argued, that more of secularism and less of religion represents the solution to this problem. In her stunning new book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report
(Princeton University Press, 2015), Saba Mahmood
, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, brings such a celebratory view of secularism into fatal doubt. Through a careful and brilliant analysis, Mahmood convincingly shows that far from a solution to the problem of interreligious strife, political secularism and modern secular governance are in fact intimately entwined to the exacerbation of religious tensions in the Middle East. Focusing on Egypt and the experience of Egyptian Copts and Bahais, Mahmood explores multiple conceptual and discursive registers to highlight the paradoxical qualities of political secularism, arguing that majority/minority conflict in Egypt is less a reflection of the failure of secularism and more a product of secular discourses and politics, both within and outside the country. In our conversation, we touched on the salient features of this book such as the concept of political secularism and its applicability to a context such as Egypt, the genealogy of minority rights and religious liberty in the Middle East, discourses of minority rights and citizenship in relation to the Egyptian Copts, the discourse of public order and the regulation of Bahai religious identity and difference in Egypt, secularism, family law, and sexuality and the category of secularity and particular understandings of time, history, and scripture brought into view by the controversy generated in Egypt by the novel Azazeel. This theoretically rigorous book is also wonderfully written, making it particularly suitable for graduate and undergraduate courses on Islam, the Middle East, secularism, religion and politics, gender and sexuality, and theories and methods in religion.