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Religious Difference in a Secular Age:
A Minority Report
Saba Mahmood

Winner of the 2016 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion, Society for the Anthropology of Religion

Paperback | 2015 | $24.95 | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691153285
Hardcover | 2015 | $80.00 | £66.95 | ISBN: 9780691153278
248 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4
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The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.

A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.

Saba Mahmood is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton) and the coauthor of Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech.


"In crisp prose, Mahmood convincingly shows that secularism's promise for equal protection under the law for all religious believers has deeply shaped the modern world, despite the ways in which secularism itself thwarts this hope. This book challenges Western perceptions of the Middle East while deeply questioning the ability of secularism to live up to its promises."--Publishers Weekly

"Stunning. . . . Through a careful and brilliant analysis, Mahmood convincingly shows that far from a solution to the problem of interreligious strife, political secularism and modern secular governance are in fact intimately entwined to the exacerbation of religious tensions in the Middle East."--New Books in Islamic Studies

"Thoroughly researched and ambitious in scope, Mahmood's latest study is an essential contribution to our understanding of secularism, minority relations and the study of religion in plural societies."--Baerd Kaertveit, Times Higher Education

"In Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Saba Mahmood has produced a valuable account both of how the idea of separating religion from politics came to be central to the development of the ‘religiously neutral' state in Europe . . . and of how that idea became politically important in the postcolonial Middle East. . . . Her detailed analysis of the rich historical and ethnographic material she has assembled reinforces the conclusion that instead of regarding the secular state as the solution to discrimination against religious minorities, it must itself be understood as part of the problem."--Talal Asad, The Immanent Frame

"Exemplary."--James Chappel, Boston Review

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Table of Contents:

Introduction 1
Part I
Chapter 1. Minority Rights and Religious Liberty: Itineraries of Conversion 31
Chapter 2. To Be or Not to Be a Minority? 66
Part II
Chapter 3. Secularism, Family Law, and Gender Inequality 111
Chapter 4. Religious and Civil Inequality 149
Chapter 5. Secularity, History, Literature 181
Epilogue 208

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