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  • Is the “Post” in “Postsecular” the “Post” in “Postcolonial”?
  • Graham Huggan (bio)

If it is one of the givens of postcolonial criticism that it uneasily shares radically different historical trajectories, it is another that whichever trajectory is privileged is likely to tell us as much about the practitioner as the practice, and as much again about the method of study as the object of study itself. One way of charting this history is to look at the shifting relations between the various “post” terms that—in what remains probably the most popular of its own institutional trajectories—have helped shape postcolonial studies as an academic subdiscipline over the last twenty-odd years. Thus, for many, postcolonial criticism will always be a child of poststructuralism and a close if distinctly quarrelsome relative to postmodernism, even though there is no shortage of evidence to the contrary and plenty more that this mediated battle of the “posts,” never too likely to be attentive to the complexities of intellectual history, has only been ideologically effective insofar as it has been strategically misunderstood.

More recently, however, a new “post” term, “postsecularism,” has entered into the fray, encompassing a reawakened interest in the role of religion in world society and politics, some of the latest ethical developments in continental philosophy, and a recognition—inexorably shaped by the events and aftermath of 9/11—of the increasing politicization of religious attitudes, values, and beliefs in an unevenly developed late-capitalist world. Three important monographs, each published in 2009, signal what some claim to be a “post-secular turn” in postcolonial theory and criticism (Mandair, [End Page 751] “Hegel” 1). The first of these, Manav Ratti’s misleadingly titled The Postcolonial Secular, is concerned primarily with the multireligious nature of the subcontinent and with the emergence of what he calls a “post-secular condition” coinciding with the failure of organized religion in South Asia, and the need to retain the capacity for faith, wonder, and enchantment without political constraint (1). The second, Debjani Ganguly’s Caste, Colonialism and Counter-Modernity: Notes on a Postcolonial Hermeneutics of Caste, combines postcolonial and postsecular approaches to caste, which she insistently sees not as an archaic remnant within a progressivist narrative of secular modernity, but rather as a complex set of interlinked practices that are in a constant state of flux. The third, Arvind Mandair’s Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation, is more critical of a postsecularist school of thought, which, in association with poststructuralist theory, forms part of what he sees as a generalized translation mechanism that has fatally misshaped both internal and external perceptions of India’s relationship to the West. It seems significant, especially in the post-9/11 context, that each of these studies focuses on South Asian religions other than Islam, possibly confirming the reluctance of postcolonial critics—with some notable exceptions—to engage with Islamic beliefs.1 And, lest Edward Said be seen as one of these exceptions, it bears reminding that Said throughout his life remained a firmly secular critic, whose particular brand of secular humanism has been hugely influential for postcolonial studies even if—as Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin suggest—his downplaying of “theological” schools of contemporary theory was neither an attack on religious belief per se nor an attempt to bypass religion as an object of postcolonial analysis, but rather a call to challenge fundamentalist dogma in all societies and cultures, whether these are identified as “religious” or not (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 212).

Be this as it may, it is not until relatively recently that debates around religious belief—particularly those concerned with the “deprivatization of religion” (Beaumont) and the realignment of political subjectivity and religious agency—have come to assume central importance in postcolonial studies, partly as an attack on self-privileging versions of Western modernity even as it trains its morally disapproving gaze on the illiberal cultural practices of the non-West. Still, these challenges are not in themselves confirmed signs of a “postsecular turn” in contemporary literary and cultural theory, still less of what Peter L. Berger et al. call, in what appears to be a...