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WITHIN the vast literature produced on contemporary Islam, Islamist movements have often been analyzed through the lens of identity politics. The increasing emphasis on Islamic forms of behavior among Muslims in the Middle East has been commonly read as a recoding of nationalist sentiments in religious idioms, a recoding that does not so much replace Arab nationalism as recast its political sentiment in Islamic symbols. The growing interest in Islamic rituals such as donning the veil, performing collective prayers, and listening to sermons are understood to enfold existent forms of Arab nationalism into particularistic expressions of religious belonging, a development that has, if anything , narrowed the scope of nationalist politics by making the figure of the Muslim paradigmatic of the citizen-subject. This continuity between Islamism and nationalism would appear to be all the more pronounced with regard to the question of gender since both ideologies appear to cast women as the repositories of tradition and culture, their bodies made the potent symbols of collective identity. SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) Ethical Formation and Politics of Individual Autonomy in Contemporary Egypt* SABA MAHMOOD *I am grateful to Talal Asad, Jane Collier, Charles Hirshckind, and Charles Taylor for their engagements and provocations at various stages of this article’s gestation. Portions of this paper appeared previously as “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Salat” in American Ethnologist 28:4 (2001): 827-853. It is published here with the permission of the American Anthropological Association. Indeed, it is not difficult to find examples of the laminated character of Islamist-nationalist discourse in Egypt today, a country that remains one of the premiere cultural centers of the Islamist movement in the Middle East. A number of Egyptian Islamists, for instance, speak about the veil as an expression of Arab-Muslim identity, while many of their secular-oriented critics view Islam as constitutive of the cultural terrain upon which the Egyptian nation has acquired its unique historical character. In contrast to these views, however, a strong current within the Islamist movement—which I will gloss here as the “piety movement ”—is highly critical of this nationalist-identitarian view of Islam and directs its organizational efforts at combating the practical effects of this interpretation. The critique put forward by this movement is not simply that the nationalist-identitarian view vitiates the religious character of Islam in rendering it a political ideology . Rather, their criticism is that such a view reduces Islamic ritual practices to the status of cultural customs, thereby radically transforming the role such practices have played historically in the realization of a pious life. However abstruse this might sound to secular ears, debates about how to interpret and enact the variety of embodied Islamic injunctions pervade Egyptian public life, and even political discussions often devolve upon questions about the proper role ascribed to the performance of these practices. In what follows I want to argue that, in order to understand the importance of these debates to public life in Egypt, we need to bring questions of ethics to bear upon politics and vice-versa, and thus complicate the separation of these realms so commonly assumed in liberal political theory. Specifically, I will show that different conceptions of ritual and bodily behavior among Egyptian Muslims presuppose radically different imaginaries of collective and individual freedom; as such, debates about ritual performance represent a key site from which one can understand contrastive visions of self, community, and authority that constitute different strands of the Islamist movement in Egypt today. Toward the end of this essay, I will show how an analytical vocabulary 838 SOCIAL RESEARCH drawn from liberal and communitarian discussions of self and community remains inadequate to the task of understanding the kind of social imaginary presupposed by certain narratives of personhood prevalent within the Islamist movement. The issues I raise in this article about the place of social authority in the constitution of the self extend recent discussions about the disciplinary character of the public sphere. Contrary to earlier Habermasian theories that stressed the communicative and deliberative aspects of the public sphere, one in which preformed rational subjects engaged in a free exchange of ideas and critique, a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 837-866
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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