Talal Asad in Immanent Frame:
In Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood has produced a valuable account both of how the idea of separating religion from politics came to be central to the development of the “religiously neutral” state in Europe (beginning with the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century and culminating in the new nations after the First World War) and of how that idea became politically important in the postcolonial Middle East. In particular, she describes how in constituting religious identities, the state in modern Egypt creates unexpected opportunities for political power and social confrontation among those who seek to regulate, as well as those who claim to represent, religious minorities. Her detailed analysis of the rich historical and ethnographic material she has assembled reinforces the conclusion that instead of regarding the secular state as the solution to discrimination against religious minorities, it must itself be understood as part of the problem. So I offer a few reflections prompted by her excellent study, first on liberal ideals that are commonly said to promote equal treatment for minorities, and then about the secular anxiety that preceded the 2013 coup against the elected president Mohamed Morsi.
Secularism can, of course, exist in authoritarian states, but liberal democracies cannot exist without secularism because state neutrality is regarded as essential to the flourishing of liberal values (freedom, equality, tolerance, and dignity). One might, therefore, press the following question: In what way, precisely, does secularism express these values?
Thus Jürgen Habermas has argued, as a liberal, that the principle of equality should be extended to religious believers in their political discourse and behavior:
The understanding of tolerance in pluralistic societies with a liberal constitution demands that in their dealings with unbelievers and those of different faiths, believers should grasp that they must reasonably expect that the dissent they encounter will go on existing; at the same time, however, a liberal political culture expects that unbelievers, too, will grasp the same point in their dealings with believers.
But does it follow as a practical matter that the state treat citizens holding diverse beliefs equally because there can be no rational defeat of one proponent by another? Or is it simply a liberal sensibility that treats all citizens, regardless of religious beliefs, with equal concern and respect by other citizens, the government, the law, and the constitution?