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  • Violence and the Profane:Islamism, Liberal Democracy, and the Limits of Secular Discipline
  • Brian Goldstone

Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world…what about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

Slavoj Žižek, The New York Times, March 12, 20061

When, at the end of this great struggle, we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no "sacrifice." The price for civilization must be paid in hard work and sorrow and blood.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 28, 19422

Civilization must, unfortunately, have its victims.

Lord Cromer, British Consul-General to Egypt, 1883-19073


In February and March of 2006, amidst a worldwide "war on terror" initiated by the United States, two episodes—the so-called cartoon riots that arose following the publication of inflammatory caricatures of Muhammad, [End Page 207] and the arrest and threatened execution of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity—drew renewed attention to what many perceive to be an incommensurable relationship between certain strands of Islam and secular, democratic political arrangements. "Many of us in the West were reminded of how vast the chasm is between you and us," was how one prominent editorialist, addressing the "Muslim world" in the wake of these events, put it in The New York Times.4 Using these two incidents as critical points of departure, I seek to examine how the deployment of a certain kind of juxtaposition, or what I am here calling profanation, became a strategic device in the discursive spaces surrounding these events, with a number of writers incessantly contrasting "Islamism" (shorthand for "Islamic fundamentalism") to what they saw as the defining characteristics of democracy, freedom, reason, and pluralism—in short, to civilization. But juxtapositions of this sort are hardly new. Drawing especially on the recent work of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and William T. Cavanaugh, I will argue that the rhetorical opposition to religious violence and its accompanying concepts (such as sacrifice, cruelty, and suffering) has, from the very beginning, served as an organizing impetus and legitimizing logic for secular liberalism. From this follows a central observation of this essay, namely that secular liberalism, far from eliminating extreme forms of violence (as it purports to do), instead tries to redefine the manner in which, and, most importantly, the reasons for which one should be willing to defend and offend, suffer and inflict suffering, and even to kill and die. Secularism, I am arguing, bolsters this arrangement by encouraging the demarcation of religion from public life or, failing that and more commonly, by ensuring that religion never goes public in ways that might jeopardize the state's monopoly on violence.

As a political doctrine, then, secularism inherently depends on the primacy of a particular conception of citizenship. According to Asad, secularism is more than simply the separation of religious from secular institutions in public life; rather, what is distinctive are the new meanings ascribed to "religion," "ethics," "politics," and, indeed, "public," and the manner in which one's personal identifications (and thus commitments) are meant to shift along these lines.5 More specifically, a person's habits and sensibilities must be disciplined just to the extent that one's sense of political belonging—and the invention of a distinction between "political" and "religious" belonging is crucial here—no longer derives primarily from one's religious community (especially when such communities espouse doctrines deemed threatening to "the peace"), but is instead found in the nation-state and its values. Foremost among these are [End Page 208] the values of tolerance, forbearance, modesty, and, at least insofar as public religiosity is concerned, nonviolence—not to mention the overlapping values that capitalism both encourages and requires.6 Moreover, with time it becomes conceivable that such disciplining will succeed precisely to the degree that "religion" will no longer be seen as an opposing or even mutually exclusive sphere in relation to "politics," but will instead be considered complimentary or, perhaps, even necessary to the latter's operations. Invoking Louis Althusser, we might say that as an ideological project secularism is ultimately geared...


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pp. 207-235
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