Interview with Sindre Bangstad on Saba Mahmood

Image: Sindre Bangstad

Simon Dawes interviews Sindre Bangstad on his article ‘Saba Mahmood and Anthropological Feminism After Virtue‘ (TCS 28.3, May 2011)

Simon Dawes: Your article critiques the work of Saba Mahmood, and in particular her book Politics of Piety (2005). Could you begin by giving us the gist of Mahmood’s book? How does she contrast Islamic traditions with western secularism, and is she responding to the appropriation of western secular feminism by anti-Muslim discourse, or taking issue with assumptions in western secular feminism itself?
Sindre Bangstad: First, it has to be noted that the anthropological tradition into which Mahmood posits her work is one to which I too am very much indebted. And this, in my reading at least, is one influenced most significantly by the seminal work of Talal Asad on the secular, as outlined in Genealogies of Religion (1993) and Formations of the Secular (2003). When I readily declare that this is an anthropological tradition to which I myself am indebted, it is due to the fact that Asad and many of the anthropological scholars he has inspired and/or mentored force us to question a number of commonplace assumptions about the ̒religious’ and the ̒secular’ in the contemporary world, which affects anthropological understandings of Islam and of Muslims no less than other academic understandings. And as a version of ‘critique’ (a term which Mahmood and others are very ambivalent about), the critique of liberalism and its categories that these scholars are involved is to my mind both a necessary and a crucial exercise in today’s world. I have previously, in an article published by Anthropological Theory in 2009, criticized certain aspects of the work of Asad. So let me at the outset make it clear that to spend so much time on the work of scholars working in this particular anthropological tradition in itself implies an ‘act of recognition’ in a certain sense of the term; I obviously wouldn’t have done so if it wasn’t for the fact that I consider this body of work important and influential. But as with any anthropological tradition, the ‘devil is in the details’. And the ‘devil’ in this case lies less in the questions posed by this anthropological tradition than in its insufficient attention to ethnography and ethnographic details. Apart from Asad, and Foucault by way of Asad, Mahmood is clearly inspired by the work of feminist scholars such as Judith Butler. One can perhaps see her Politics of Piety (2005) as an attempt to bring and Asadian-Butlerian analytical framework to bear on ethnographic material concerning pious Salafi women in Cairo, Egypt in the late 1990s. It is clear from Mahmood’s own writings that she sees her work as contributing to the critique of the categories of what she refers to as a ‘Western’ secular feminism, especially as applied to the lives of pious Muslim women. And I do think that she is right to posit these understandings as potentially universalizing in nature – or in other words as implying that all women must have some sort of yearning for ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’ – and as such, to be potentially obscuring of the lives of those posited as the ‘others’ of the ‘free’ and ‘autonomous’ woman posited as the universal ideal of women’s struggles. There is no doubt either to my mind that this kind  of ‘Western’ secular feminism in today’s world lends itself all too easily to anti-Muslim and pro- or proto-imperialist discourses: We saw that in the kinds of post-hoc rationales offered for the war in Afghanistan after September 11, brilliantly analysed by anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod, and we continue to see it in the ways in which secular feminist discourses have become increasingly central to populist right-wingers from France’s Marine Le Pen to Norway’s Siv Jensen in their bid for electoral support and political power. For those of us sympathetic to the aims of feminism, these are real concerns, concerns which are currently not being accorded the attention they should be accorded by ‘Western’ secular feminist movements and intellectuals. So I do think that her work targets both the appropriation of ‘Western’ secular feminism by anti-Muslim discourses, as well as the assumptions inherent to ‘Western’ secular feminism itself. Yet for all of Mahmood’s invocations of Asad’s central insight to the effect that the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ are implicated in one another, I think she ultimately succumbs to the all too facile temptation to posit pious Salafi women in Cairo, Egypt, as embodiments of a ‘radical alterity’, counterposing their understandings, their praxis and their lifeworlds to those supposedly inherent to ‘Western’ liberal selves. This to me effects a simplification on two levels: namely of ideologizing both the lives of pious Salafi women in Cairo, and the lives of women in ‘Western’ secular lifeworlds. There is an underlying binary here which I personally am deeply uncomfortable with, also due to the inherent conflation of secularism with ‘the Western’ and with ‘liberalism’ which is at work here. That, as argued by scholars from Akheel Bilgrami to William Connolly to Amartya Sen, is a conflation which rests on very thin empirical foundations. I also think that Marshall Sahlins was correct in warning us against reducing the lives of anthropological ‘others’ to ciphers for postcolonial and/or poststructuralist critique.           
SD: You take issue with Mahmood’s focus on Muslim women’s activities in mosques rather than in other areas of life, suggesting that she constructs Muslims as primarily religious beings and that she ignores the significance of class differences. Could you tell us more about this, and is it more than just a methodological problem?
SB: To my mind, it’s both an analytical and a methodological problem. There’s nothing inherently wrong in doing research in and through mosques and/or religious institutions in the so-called ‘Muslim world’ or elsewhere, as long as one is aware of, and clear about, the limitations that this imposes on your ethnographic material as well as the generalisability and analysis of that material. Now, it’s a very basic observation to make that pious Salafi women in Cairo, Egypt or elsewhere do not spend more than a fraction of their everyday lives in mosques. I see no reason to a priori assume that pious religiosity is all that defines these women’s lives, and that instability, complexities and contradictions involved in living one’s life in a heterogenous setting as contemporary as Cairo after all is, does not profoundly affect them too. This is not to say that I do not understand that it would be difficult for any ethnographer to get pious Salafi women of this kind to talk openly about these instabilities, complexities and contradictions, and to open the academic vistas to other parts of their lives than those being enacted and articulated in and through mosque practices. There’s a methodological challenge here, which it seems to me that Mahmood doesn’t begin to meet by contenting herself with what is being said and done in the mosque sphere. And there’s an analytical challenge here too, which Mahmood doesn’t seem to meet either, inasmuch as she seems to be content to simply re-validate what her pious Salafi interlocutors tell her. It’s of course very banal to point out that there’s a difference in any given context between what people say they do, and what they actually do. But it seems it cannot be repeated often enough. Furthermore, there’s also a difference between what people think their doing does, and what their doing actually does, to paraphrase Foucault.
Contemporary Salafi movements in Egypt and elsewhere have hitherto been poorly explored both in anthropology and in other fields, so we do in fact know way too little as scholars about the class composition of the adherents of such movements. And Mahmood’s Politics of Piety (2005) doesn’t address this in any detail either, which I find quite regrettable. What we do know from other sources, such as Asef Bayat’s Making Islam Democratic (2007) is however that some of the halaqa’ats (Islamic prayer groups), which Mahmood explores, emerged as a central feature of the new Islamic landscape in Cairo in the 1990s, and were anchored in the pious middle- and upper-middle classes. Bayat implies that the pious lifestyle of Salafis offered a means of societal/class distinction in a period marked by rapid liberalisation of Egypt’s economy (after all, the Mubarak regime (1981-2011) was close to ‘best in the World Bank/IMF class’ in liberalizing Egypt’s economy along neo-liberal lines, and the inward and politically quiescent turn of Salafism was to prove quite useful to this regime). Whilst this might be slightly reductionistic, I think there are some potentially fruitful avenues of enquiry here. It’s more than a bit paradoxical that a scholar of the poststructuralist left, such as Mahmood, should in effect be engaged in promoting a framework based on a certain ‘religio-centrism’ (by which I mean to refer to a framework based on the basic assumption that Muslims are first and foremost religious beings). One has after all come to expect this from neoconservative Orientalists such as PrincetonUniversity’s Bernhard Lewis, but not from the former.            
SD: Could you tell us about Salafism and the role of Saudi funding of Salafi proselytisation, and about your claim that Mahmood fails to contextualise in historical terms the emergence of Egyptian Salafism, or Salafism in general, thus failing to historicise the practices and understandings of pious Egyptian women and ‘culturalising politics’.
SB: Contemporary salafism in Egypt and elsewhere is both poorly understood and researched. And one of the reasons is of course that those Muslims inclined to self-designate as ‘Salafis’ can, as Mark Sedgwick, Roel Meijer and others have pointed out, refer to any number of distinct movements in Islam, whose common thread is to lay claim to represent a ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ Islam as practiced by the ‘rightly guided ancestors’ (the salaf al-salihin) in the first few generations after the Prophet Muhammad. Salafism is by any account quite heterogeneous, and Salafis may have very little in common. Mahmood makes a very common mistake in ‘Western’ scholarly literature on Salafis and Salafism until very recently, namely that of tracing their lineage back to Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida in the late 19th and early 20th century. The historian Henri Lauzière has recently argued that the term ‘Salafi’ as a term of self-reference was neither central for ‘Abduh nor for Rida. And the historian Mark Sedgwick has demonstrated in a biography of ‘Abduh that liberal reformism of ‘Abduh was to a great extent traduced by Rida in order to serve his own peculiar religio-political agendas after ‘Abduh’s death. Bernhard Haykel has in what seems to me to be one of the more insightful contributions to the literature on Salafism argued that it is wrong to see the Salafism of our time as standing in the (for want of a better word) ‘rationalistic’ lineage of ‘Abduh and Rida. With Sedgwick, I think one should also question the common linking of ‘Abduh and Rida as intellectuals too. For one thing, ‘Abduh did not necessarily share the radical commitment to anti-colonialist policies of Rida, as he was very close to the British Administrator Lord Cromer in colonial Egypt. Nor did he share Rida’s infatuation with Ibn Taymiyya, the most central classical scholar for Salafis of a so-called Wahhabi inclination . Rida was in fact an early supporter of the nascent Saudi state and its Wahhabism, and wrote openly antisemitic tracts inspired by European forgeries such as ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. ‘Abduh was by then long dead, and in no position to defend himself against the mantle in which his self-appointed legatee Rida dressed.  Now I think Mahmood is right to question a prevalent narrative which sees contemporary articulations of Salafism in Egypt as a mere import from Saudi-Arabia on the basis that this hasn’t really been empirically demonstrated. But it’s nevertheless an undeniable fact that the Saudi regime has funded Salafi literature, media and infrastructure in Egypt since the 1920s, but on a significant scale since the 1970s, and it would surprise me if one could plausibly demonstrate that this hasn’t had any impact whatsoever on contemporary articulations of Salafism in Egypt. There’s of course also the fact that Saudi-Arabia, with its generous scholarships for Muslim students pursuing higher Islamic education, has attracted a sizeable number of Egyptian students, lecturers and professors since the 1970s, and has also been an important destination for Egyptian migrant labourers. The Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl usefully referred in a 2003 essay to the ‘co-imbrication’ of Salafism with Wahhabism since the 1970s. El Fadl implies that this is a falsification of the ‘real’ legacy of Salafism. Unlike El Fadl, who as a Muslim scholar has particular investments in these issues, I’m rather agnostic when it comes to declaring particular Islamic or other religious traditions ‘real’ – as these are what they are, and become what they become whether we happen to like it or not – but with regard to the phenomenon of co-imbrication I think he had a valid point. So unless one were to adopt the rather implausible stance (at least for an anthropologist) that shifts in the religious landscape anywhere in the world are really expressions of processes that are sui generis,  there’s a context to this, which seems to me to be missing from Mahmood’s account.  
SD: Finally, and turning to current events, what have the recent uprising in Egypt and developments since told us about the relations between Salafi leaders and the Mubarak regime, and to what extent does this debunk the assumption that Mubarak was a bulwark against Islamisation of the state?
SB: Well, it certainly raises some intriguing questions about Mahmood’s account of Egyptian Salafi women’s piety as in some ways a counter-model to the categories of a purported ‘secular liberalism’. For what we saw in the course of the uprisings against the corrupt, repressive and nepotistic Mubarak regime in early 2011, was in fact that Egyptian Salafi leaders (along with their Saudi brethren) lined up in order to mimic the Mubarak regime’s denunciation of the demonstrators as part of a ‘Western’ or ‘Zionist’ plot. Many of these Salafi leaders called upon their followers not to take part in the demonstrations and issued declarations to the effect that ‘democracy’ is ‘haram’ or ‘illicit’ for Muslims. Now, granted that politics make strange bedfellows in any place and time, but this is to my mind suggestive of precisely how useful the emergence of Salafism was for the Mubarak regime, especially in its later years. For what more could an authoritarian regime like the one we saw in Egypt under Mubarak from 1981 to 2011 wish for more than religious leaders declaring the very struggle for ‘al-hurriya’ (freedom), democratic and civil rights to be anathema to Islam? I certainly fail to see that such a stance profoundly ‘challenges’ the categories of state secularism in Egypt (which, pace Mahmood, is not in any sense of the word a ‘liberal secularism’). After the ouster of Mubarak, and ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for September and November 2011, some Salafi groupings have established their own political parties. Now, most Egyptians would be well aware of the fact that they are latecomers to democracy, and ambivalent about democratic outcomes which may not be in line with their aims, so their electoral support will, I suspect, be limited  When it comes to the last part of your question, I think that many of the ‘Western’ pundits and academics who had cast the Mubarak regime as some kind of bulwark against a supposed ‘tidal wave’ of (re-)Islamization of the state spearheaded by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt have in fact misread the myriad ways in which this very regime engaged in attempts at ‘out-Islamizing the opposition’ (to use Michael Peletz’s insightful turn of phrase). When Saudi-owned and -funded satellite stations in Egypt were closed down due to concern over the intolerance against non-Muslims preached by some of these stations in 2010, where did some of these intolerant Salafi preachers re-appear? Well, on national and public broadcasting channels. There are even indications that Salafi leaders may have collaborated with Mubarak’s despised intelligence apparatus; Salafi leaders in Egypt are on public record as having implied that the killing of Mohamed el-Baradei was lawful in late 2010; and during the referendum on an interim constitution in March, there were reports of harassment and bullying of voters by Salafis in Alexandria. So there’s much more to Salafism in contemporary Egypt than piety and virtuous bodily practices, and even though Mahmood has every right to adopt a restricted ethnographic focus, I think anthropologists working on Egyptian Salafism in the future would do well not to ignore or obliterate these sides to it.         
Sindre Bangstad is a postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway. [email:]
Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society
Go here to read Sindre Bangstad’s article,  ‘Saba Mahmood and Anthropological Feminism After Virtue‘, and the rest of the May 2011 issue of Theory, Culture & Society (TCS 28.3)
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