The Secular Alibi

13 June 2018

This is the third of four reviews of Joan Wallach Scott’s Sex and Secularism. To see the other reviews as well as Scott’s reply, follow the link here.


Joan Wallach Scott’s Sex and Secularism is a remarkable achievement. Among the reasons it is so: it manages to be, all at once, and with a seamless coherence, two very different kinds of books.


On the one hand, Sex and Secularism is a powerfully pedagogical work. It takes the measure of what Scott calls the political discourse of secularism as it develops over several centuries, in multiple locales (chiefly: the United States, France, and Egypt), as each and all are woven into the extranational imperial politics that traverse and connect them. We learn about the divergent, but also the strikingly congruent, histories of “secularism” as it comes to mean in the context of American Protestant disestablishment, a French Catholicism encountering lacité, and Islam in its enmeshment with the modernizing Egyptian state. With patience, precision, and great theoretical dexterity, Scott investigates the leveraging of gender difference and, especially, gender inequality, as a means of securing, across all these scenes, one or another variety of secular political legitimacy. But there is more than this. As it unfolds these histories, Sex and Secularism provides as well a fantastically synthesizing account of what might be called postsecular critique: that is, Scott surveys the great breadth of invigorating and multidisciplinary theoretical work that has marked the last decade-and-a-half, bringing into coordinate conceptual clarity scholarship by figures like Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, Saba Mahmood, Tomoko Mazusawa, John Lardas Modern, Myanthi Fernado, and a great many others, all of whom have taken as their chief object of study the shape and governing structures, the underthought coercions, of secularism. One cannot peruse Sex and Secularism without learning a great deal about what postsecular critique is, about its terms of art and of dispute, how it proceeds, and what it proposes.


But Sex and Secularism is not only pedagogical, an exercise in historiographic and metacritical synthesis. Scott’s book is also, and more crucially, a ringing polemic. It offers a far-sighted critical anatomization of the discourse of secularism, of its imperial politics, and above all of the self-ratifying stories secular regimes most like to tell about themselves. Chief among these, Scott argues, is the story of secularism—that purported gift of skepticism, tolerance, disenchanted rationality—as “the guarantor of equality between women and men.” We know this story well because it is, we could say, liberalism’s enveloping atmosphere, and so the very conceptual air we breathe. Among religiosity’s unoutgrown backwardnesses, the story goes, is its commitment to “traditional,” starkly hierarchized gender roles; whereas secular rationality provides the basis for an ampler, less benighted, more fundamentally equitable arrangement of persons, genders, life. It is in this sense that we might say that, among its functions, the discourse of secularism works as one of liberalism’s principle alibis, the language in which it speaks of its own munificence. Sex and Secularism does not merely answer this salvific fantasy by saying, In historical fact, secularism has done no such thing—though this it does with vigor and a detailed patience. The book also vivifies the ramifying effects of this discursive formation, especially as they become functional in the context of a globalized imperial liberalism. The discourse of secularism tells you that the liberation of women is one of its great gifts; but what it amounts to in effect, Scott contends, is an intricate machinery for the production of gender distinction, gender inequity, and all the gendered racializations proper to empire. This is the book’s bracing counterclaim.


These are, I think, welcome pedagogies and welcome polemics. In the first place, it is tremendously valuable to have the discourse of political secularism mapped in its emergence across these distinct locales. In so doing, Scott reveals striking continuities. Among these, three are perhaps most crucial. The first is the privatization of religious belief, whose effect is to identify women not only with religiosity, but also with all the tendencies toward vagrancy and excess to which “belief” is subject. As a result, disciplining women comes to stand in for the secular tempering of erring devotion. Second is the sweeping, scientized naturalization of sex difference, as part of the re-anchoring of a political world no longer authorized according to the divine will of God, but rather by the implacable order of Nature. Finally, we see the rise of the modern fashioning of sexual freedom—the freedom to choose erotic fulfilment—as the sine qua non of the secular liberation of women, rather than material parity, equivalence of access, or political equality. Again, secular regimes like nothing more than to describe themselves as uniquely good to women, and to use this purported good to authorize themselves. Scott’s interwoven histories give us ample reason to mistrust that bit of liberal self-mythologization. For what she reveals again and again is not the liberation of women so much as the multifacted instrumentalization of the figure of the woman, chiefly through the persistent defaulting to a sweepingly naturalized gender inequality. Her cumulative, tonic claim is that the discourse of political secularism, while professing the liberation of women to be one of its great gifts, in fact depends upon the propagation of a vision of gender as difference and, ultimately, inequity.


At the beating heart of Scott’s polemic, then, is a vision of what secularism is, and it is not the one to which liberal common sense—or even critical scholarship—typically defers. Journalistic accounts of secularism tend to look a lot like secularism’s own stories of itself. It appears as a benign curative, the political environment that declaws all violent orthodoxy with the gentle power of tolerance, that routs credulity with skepticism, and that, perhaps above all, supplants the gendered harm of religiosity—its patriarchal backwardness—with its wealth of new possibilities for (as the ad execs like to say) female empowerment. Scott’s work, as it builds on and amplifies the scholarship of feminist critics of secularism (none more vibrant or crucial than Saba Mahmood), reminds us that these presumptions make up the very grammar of liberal imperialism, wherein backward peoples—especially brown women enchained by bad belief—figure as singularly in need of saving (as Lila Abu-Lughod has it), with whatever violence may be required. Scott’s refusal of these salvific stories, these alibis for liberal domination, thus works in simultaneity toward a crucial counterrending of secularism itself: not as the ascent of a liberatory and enlightened rationality but as its own environing discipline, one that is forever authorizing itself through the chastisement of those styles of devotionality it codifies as subrational, illiberal, or simply bad belief, a chastisement that in the context of global imperialism works most commonly through the mechanisms of racialization. Does anyone, anywhere, need further convincing that the specter of political Islam is the shadow of liberal secularism’s salvific self-conception, the chief fulcrum for its racialized promises of rescue?

Evidently, yes, they do. Scott’s book has been out long enough to have attracted a good number of reviews, and it has been striking to observe the tenacity of secularism’s commonsensical stories about itself and its gifts to women. Critics have seemed mightily invested still in rescuing women (and all of us) from the malign superstitions of religiosity, proceeding quite as if to offer a stinging rebuttal of secular salvationism were to cancel any possible feminist critique of the patriarchal force of religious institutions. This, at any rate, is what one learns from The Guardian or the New York Review of Books. But as Scott’s book richly demonstrates, the feminist critique of political secularism does not disallow a feminist critique of, say, the patriarchality of a given institution, religious or otherwise. It does, however, contest the terms of that critique. Scott has little time for the self-ratifying stories of secularism’s saving tolerances, liberating rationality, or its expansive and equitable beneficence. Why would she? She knows, after all, the stark inequities those stories both mask and propagate, and the uses to which those disequilibriums of power have been put, over many eras and across many scenes. And now, with Sex and Secularism to hand, we know them too.


Photo Credit: Sex and Secularism Book Cover, via Princeton Press, Fair Use.


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