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The suspicious revolution: an interview with Talal Asad

By Nathan Schneider

Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles, Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both global context and the ways in which their interaction has been shaped by local histories, in the West and the Middle East. Most recently, he co-authored (along with Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler) Is Critique Secular? and contributed a chapter to the just published SSRC volume Rethinking Secularism.

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NS: Since you’ve just been in Egypt, I wonder if we can start by talking about some of your reflections on the Arab Spring. How would you characterize what has changed in the Middle East, and in the world?

TA: I wouldn’t say that I’m competent to talk about the whole world, but I think it’s an extremely encouraging development in the Middle East. The bravery and courage and idealism of the people was really something to watch and to listen to. It is quite true, as everybody says, that, whatever happens, we’ll never go back to square one in Egypt. But a lot of the other things that people want, I suspect, may not be realized. There won’t be social justice—there won’t be all sorts of reforms that the pro-democracy activists called for. Currents and forces both inside the country and out will ensure that it doesn’t proceed as many people had hoped at the beginning. It’s much more complicated than accounts in the media would lead us to believe. I’ve been trying to make sense of it myself ever since I arrived in Cairo. But, you know, I’m a pessimist about all sorts of things—politics included.

NS: What was it like to be there in the midst of a revolution?

TA: Even before my wife and I went, people kept saying to us, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Our Air France plane was actually cancelled. We were due to go on the 29th of January. We eventually left on the 12th of February, via Paris. We weren’t even able to go directly to Cairo, either. We had to go through Beirut. Then, all sorts of people starting ringing, again asking, “Is it safe? Are you sure you’ll be safe? We’ve heard all sorts of frightening things.” Remember the stories circulating early in the uprising about the prisons that had been opened and the police being withdrawn from the streets? That was what the fear was about. People wouldn’t believe me, but I was there for four months, almost, and I went all over town and never encountered any violence. I didn’t have any friends who could attribute violence to the uprisings—which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Cairo contains eighteen million people, so it has always had its fair share of criminality. But ordinary life, actually, continued. Cafes were open, and shops, restaurants, and so on. You’d often hear that foreigners were in danger, or that ordinary life was impossible, but that is really not true.

NS: Impossible, that is, without the control of the state and the police?

TA: Exactly. There are elements in Egypt that were quite happy to circulate stories of unrest. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces talked again and again about the fact that we must have stability, which is then linked ominously to questions about the state of the economy. Since the economy suffers from the political instability in the country, they say, we shouldn’t have more demonstrations or strikes. But one of the things that emerged for me there, and which I’m trying to make sense of, was the constant flow of speculation, of suspicion, about who’s saying and who’s doing what. Why are they doing this? Are they really doing it for good reasons? Is it the army? The Muslim Brothers? Is their presence or absence significant? Do they mean what they say?—You know, that sort of thing. I can’t claim to have made good sense of it yet, but, to me, this seems very important.

NS: The fault lines of Egyptian society definitely seem to be shifting, and maybe suspicion is a consequence of that. We saw lots of images here of Muslims and Christians watching over each other in Tahrir Square, for instance.

TA: I was very pleased to see these expressions of solidarity.

NS: A lot was made of the fact that their demands were economic and political rather than explicitly religious. Did you see, or did you sense, that this suspicion was part of a novel form of secularity emerging on the streets there?

TA: My own work has questioned the mutually exclusive categorization of the secular and the religious, and I think there is lots of evidence, empirical and analytic, to show that the way in which secularity has been thought of conventionally won’t do to understand all that has occurred in recent history. Just recently, I saw scenes on Democracy Now! of people carrying placards with slogans for the camera, in Arabic, which said, “We insist on the trial of such and such,” but which started off with “Allahu akbar!” These utterances were not seen as inconsistent. I saw this myself in Tahrir Square. Egyptians use these expressions, like inshallah—God willing—all the time. As far as expressions are concerned, there was such spillover in all sorts of ways.

NS: But does that linguistic spillover go so far as to affect how institutions are being transformed?

TA: They may, to the extent that language use carries sentiment, hopes, and fears about social changes. There is discussion about whether the new Egypt will be a secular state or not. Many among the Muslim Brothers and those who are sympathetic to them have said, of course, that they are against a secular state. But they’re not saying they want a religious state either. Instead, they’re talking about having a dawla madaneyya, which literally means a “civil state.” What that implies isn’t entirely clear yet. But the insistence by people that they want neither a religious state nor a secular one has appeared again and again in all sorts of discussions.

NS: Such ambiguity might be disappointing to some secularists watching from the West.

TA: But it isn’t a straightforward question, in any event, of unambiguous “secularism” arising in that context. What will emerge in Egypt, in terms of both practical politics and thinking about politics, and the role of religion, is still very open.

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