Religious Difference in a Secular Age: Book review

Why would the 1960s, a decade frequently associated with the last gasp of secular values and governance in Egypt, inaugurate a period of utterly unprecedented growth in one of the country’s largest and most important religious institutions — the Coptic Orthodox Church? This is a question I have been perplexed by for years as a historian of modern Egypt, the Coptic community and Coptic-Muslim relations.

Indeed, well before the 1967 defeat, the Coptic Pope, Kirollos VI, and Egypt’s President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had sealed a partnership between church and state that would ensure the acknowledgment of Kirollos and popes after him as the sole legitimate leaders of the Coptic community in both spiritual and temporal affairs. This is a partnership that would pave the way for the explosive growth of the Coptic Church as an institution both in Egypt and in the diaspora, pervading the spiritual and social lives of most Copts in the decades that would follow, and indeed, to this very day.

All of this is perplexing because the commonly accepted images of Kirollos and Nasser as public figures in Egypt hardly appear commensurate with this historical development. For his part, Kirollos is far better known for his spirituality than for institution building. And Nasser, in stark contrast to his successors as president, is not commonly reputed to have politicized religion. Indeed, a great deal of the nostalgia associated with Nasser in contemporary Egypt is intimately bound up with a perception of his rule as mostly, if not entirely, secular in outlook and orientation.

I have offered my own answers to this question, which are particular to the Egyptian context. The rationale for the partnership between pope and president was linked to their shared aversion to the Coptic lay elite that had wielded great influence in Egyptian politics between the 1919 and 1952 revolutions. This was an elite that regarded the Coptic clergy as utterly incapable of managing an institution as large and complex as the Coptic Orthodox Church, and that recoiled in alarm at the land reform and, later, the nationalization projects mounted by Nasser’s state. That Kirollos and Nasser would find common cause to marginalize the Coptic lay elite is, with this history kept in mind, entirely understandable.

What is so exciting about the publication of Saba Mahmood’s latest monograph, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015), is the promise of an answer to such questions that is less concerned with the vagaries of political coalitions than with the structure and ethos of the modern Egyptian state. Central to Mahmood’s concerns in this book is the Egyptian state’s pretense of secularism. 

In an important sense, Mahmood seeks to turn conventional notions of Egyptian secularism on their head. While countless observers of modern Egypt have attributed sectarianism and the discrimination that Copts suffer to the “incomplete” or “imperfect” realization of secular principles in the Egyptian polity, Mahmood argues, to the contrary, that the very realization of secularism has had a devastating impact, not only for Copts, but for all Egyptians. This secularism has purported to sever the political sphere from the religious, and to give the state a neutral attitude towards all Egyptian citizens regardless of their faith. In fact, perhaps counterintuitively, the pretension to secularism has required the modern Egyptian state to intervene in affairs of faith as never before, with the result that sectarian differences have become increasingly relevant in Egyptians’ lives, not less so.

There are five facets of secularism that Mahmood addresses: Political and civil rights, religious liberties, minority rights, public order and the legal distinctions between public and private. Religious Difference in a Secular Age is particularly indispensable in illustrating the genealogy of these facets of secularism, for instance, how closely the idea of religious liberty became, over time, bound to distinctly Protestant notions about individual conscience. Indeed, the first chapter traces how, in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries had a profound influence over the drafting of international human rights instruments cited to this day, in a manner that generally favored individual protection of conscience over collective protection for minority communities.

The implications for Egypt of this precedence for positing the individual over the collective are explored at length in the second chapter, in which Mahmood offers a close reading of debates about the political representation of Copts, dating both to 1923 and to 2012. She elegantly captures the conundrum that secularism presented Copts and all Egyptians with in these moments: “How could a state that sought to eliminate religious inequality do so without making religious difference part of its political vocabulary?”

The profound skepticism about claims to minority status long held in particular quarters of the Coptic community is rooted in secularism’s promise of abstract equality for all citizens. Nevertheless, this promise stood, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, in awkward tension with notions of Coptic distinctiveness, articulated not only in terms of faith, but of race or ethnicity. For Mahmood, Western forces bear significant responsibility for exacerbating this tension, whether the British colonials who spoke of Copts as a race in the occupation period, or the American evangelicals who currently point to Copts as persecuted by a monolithic Islam.

Through the final three chapters Mahmood analyzes the pernicious effects that Egyptian state pretensions to secularism have had in varied spheres — the sexual politics of family or personal status law, the precarious legal condition of Bahá’í citizens of Egypt, and the vigorous debates that followed the publication of Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel in 2008. Emphasized throughout this second part of Religious Difference in a Secular Age is the reductive and often violent character of secularism, whether faced by Coptic women caught between the dictates of the state and those of their church, by Bahá’í Egyptians navigating their obligations to a state that repudiates their beliefs, or by people of faith required to defend religious practice according to standards of objectivity and rationality.

As one long concerned with the absence of Copts from scholarship on the history and politics of modern Egypt, I am struck by how Mahmood’s central focus upon Copts and their struggles seals her argument about the nature of Egyptian secularism. This book is powerful testament to the notion that one cannot grasp modern Egyptian history without engaging the role of Copts in the Egyptian polity. There was once a time when American history was recounted entirely without reference to native Americans, African Americans, or Asian Americans. Arguably, modern Egyptian history is still recounted as if Copts were entirely inconsequential to that history. I can only hope that this work will press Egyptian scholars to redress their neglect of Copts’ lived experiences.

Perhaps ironically, my reservations about the work are likewise bound up with my sensibilities as a historian and concern with lived experiences. While Mahmood’s book affords ample attention to Copts in the abstract, there are few life histories of Copts, or of Egyptians generally, that animate the text. For instance, Mahmood notes her debt to the personnel of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), among whom she conducted fieldwork, but these lawyers and activists rarely figure as actors in the narrative she develops. Particularly given the heavy burdens — not least, imprisonment — that these lawyers and activists now face by virtue of their courageous work in contemporary Egypt, I had hoped to learn more of them in this work.

This relative absence of lived experiences and life histories speaks to a broader issue in the text, about which I am of two minds. While an integral part of the boldness and brilliance of Mahmood’s work is the central focus on secularism, one wonders at times in reading the text just how much explanatory power secularism, as an idea, can bear. Without doubt, the work is successful in demonstrating the potentially destructive force of the varied facets of secularism. But what of the Egyptians who put the idea into practice?

Upon finishing the book, I was left wondering whether the genealogical approach that Mahmood pursues, for all the insight that it can afford us about secularism’s often deliberately obscured origins, can blind us to the agency of Egyptians in enacting the idea.


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism