Opinion and Editorial

Talal Asad and the comfort of discomfort

Farish A. Noor (Asian Edge)
Filed on April 4, 2007

CHILDREN cry when they are hungry, but rational adults endowed with free will and agency are meant to grin and bear it. Or so we have been told during our socialisation process. However, looking at the world around us today there seem to be plenty of adults doing plenty of crying over a plethora of issues: They cry over representational rights, access to governmental institutions, power differentials, the absence of the rule of law, the tyranny of the majority and the plight of the minorities. Yet much of this wailing and bawling is taking place in the context of plural liberal societies where the individual and individualism are held as almost sacred cows in politics. How do plural liberal societies deal with difference and the relation between the state and the individual? And how do we satisfy the manifold demands of individuals in differentiated societies?

Among those who have written at length about the notion of discomfort and difference is Professor Talal Asad, currently at New York City University. During his recent trip to Berlin for the conference on religion held at Humbolt University, he once again re-stated his thesis that we know much less about secularism and modernity than we often think. Pointing to the experience of Egypt, he noted that the evolution of modern Egyptian politics – coloured as it was by variable factors such as local tradition and culture, the realities of 19th century colonialism and the demands of nationalism – has taken several turns that were unexpected.

If the debate over individual rights and the state in Egypt is so complex today, it mirrors similarly complex realities in many other parts of the Muslim world. From Egypt to Indonesia, the late 19th century witnessed the emergence of a new generation of local Muslim intellectuals whose own political, cultural and educational backgrounds were hybrid and plural. At once embedded in their own societies and plugged into the global network of ideas, they saw the modern state as the end goal of their nationalist projects. Many of them have been cast as reformers and modernisers, and set against their adversaries who were summarily labelled as ‘traditionalists’ and ‘conservatives’.

But as Prof Asad has noted in his writings, these vernacular organic intellectuals were hardly secular modernisers who were opposed to religion and ethics: On the contrary they were modernists who wished to use the tools of modernity to put into practice the ethics and morals of their religion, in order to create a new ethical polity that was at the same time rational, universal, consistent, efficient, developed and in keeping with their own ethical sensibilities.

The Muslim world today is replete with such examples of a hybrid modernity in the making. Turkish Islamists have sought to use the political process as a means to bring Islam into power while at the same time bringing Turkey closer into Europe. Indonesian Islamists of the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) – who, incidentally, are avid readers and admirers of Asad as well as Foucault and Weber – have also tried to forge a ‘new politics’ based on ethics and which sees issues like corruption, representation and defence of minority rights as the central issues of Muslim politics. Malaysia’s Islamic party (PAS) is presently grappling with the task of reconciling constitutionalism with freedom of religion for all. The list is endless, proving Asad’s point that secularism can indeed manifest itself in a myriad of different – and often unexpected – ways and forms.

This may come as a surprise for those with a teleological bent, and who mistakenly assume that Secularism and Modernity were projects that were linear and with set goals in mind. As Asad has shown time and again, the fundamental assumptions that guide our understanding of Modernity and Secularism need to be constantly revised to take into account the realities of the present.

In the present age where political religion in all its variants – Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist – is on the rise, it would be all too clumsy of us to dismiss this phenomenon merely as the ‘revenge of God’ visited upon the secularists. In the Muslim world in particular, many of the Islamist political movements we see now take for granted that their respective political projects need to be couched upon values and norms that we can only label as liberal: They accept the reality of the nation state, understand that society is plural and complex, that history is diachronic, that identities are fluid and multiple and that the focus of modern political life is on the rational individual agent.

Where will all this lead us? Of course there is the worry that modern religious politics may take us for a ride to nowhere. Religion may be a source of ethical values, but as noted by the scholar Ebrahim Moosa the same language of religion can also be articulated to suit the whims and interests of the enunciators themselves. Religious texts can be read to justify liberal democracy in the same way that they can be read to justify racism, sexism, xenophobia and religious prejudice too.

Faced with these stark reminders of the failings of men, Prof Asad offers no simple solutions. In his words: “We have to live with discomfort, and Europeans must learn to accept that modernity and secularism can also develop differently elsewhere.” Such counsel may worry neo-Con crusaders who want to see a homogenised secular democracy enveloping the entire planet, but in the childish times we live in, it comes as sound advice for adults. Perhaps we should start learning how to be comfortable with discomfort after all.

Dr Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist

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