At the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Annual Meeting 2016:
Reframing the Debate about Secularism in the MENA Region: Religious Violence, Secular Violence, and the Question of “Real” Politics
Now in its third and final year, this panel represents an ongoing collaborative effort to grapple with the implications for historical and cultural studies wrought by the critique of secularism and religion as analytic categories. Despite the growing recognition of these terms’ historicity and conceptual instability, scholarship on the MENA region still often reproduces the categories of the religious and the secular as if they were self-evident forms of identity or clearly demarcated modes of social and political organization. Our own dialogue has attempted to bridge the gap between interdisciplinary debates about secularism occurring in the realms of political and social theory–associated with thinkers like Tomoko Masuzawa, Gil Anidjar, Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Akeel Bilgrami, among others–and the historical, literary and cultural study of the modern Middle East.
This year’s panel will take up the concept of violence in its “religious” and “secular” forms. Of central interest is how these designations serve to legitimize certain forms of violence while rendering others “barbaric” or “medieval.” We are interested in exploring this link between forms of violence and political legitimacy in light of the overwhelming strength of secularism as a conceptual frame that, forged in the context of early modern Europe, carries within it myriad assumptions: that religions are voluntary associations without coercive power; that the right to exercise violence belongs to civil government alone; and correspondingly, that “religious violence” is never properly political, but rather theological or pathological.
With these considerations in mind, Liora Halperin will discuss Zionist narratives of the First Aliyah and explore the ways in which concepts like heroism, religion and victimhood helped construct particular understandings of martyrdom and the national death. Suzanne Schneider will offer an analysis of contemporary debates regarding whether ISIS is “truly” Islamic, and reflect on how the notion of “Islamic violence” is mobilized by both American and foreign leaders. Ajay Singh Chaudhary will discuss the question of “political violence” as a normative category produced in the discursive space between supposedly “irrational” religious violence and “rational” state-capital affirming “secular” police and military violence. Finally, Soraya Batmanghelichi will discuss the January 2016 execution of Shia Cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr by the Saudi government, which not only triggered a cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran but also transformed al-Nimr into a political martyr and “symbol for Shiite grievances.” Much more information is available at mesana.org. A pdf of the complete program is available here.
This discussion features: