Saba Mahmood and the Paradoxes of Self-Parochialization

Saba Mahmood died on March 10, 2018, at the age of 57. Born in Pakistan, she ...

Saba Mahmood died on March 10, 2018, at the age of 57. Born in Pakistan, she earned degrees in architecture and urban planning before completing an anthropology doctorate at Stanford and becoming a professor at Berkeley. One of the most influential anthropologists of her generation, she was a vivid public figure and original political thinker whose impact went well beyond discipline or academy.

Her first book, based on ethnographic fieldwork in Cairo, challenged her fellow feminists to question the universalizing assumptions underlying their visions of emancipation and take seriously the value of Islamic piety for women.1 In other writings, including a study of Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority and a dialogue with Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, and Talal Asad, she sparked important debates about secularism, states’ regulation of religious freedom, and the West’s relations to the Islamic world.2

Among the questions raised in the secularism debate is this one: can traditions of critical theory rooted in Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, or liberalism transcend the Euro-American foundations on which they are premised? And if they can, should they? Can they retain their critical edge without dominating those who do not share, say, an atheist worldview or an individualistic sensibility? The following essay was written in response to an invitation to participate in a memorial session for Mahmood at the American Academy of Religion.

Saba Mahmood was so articulate that it would be presumptuous to speak for her, and her arguments so sharp that it is challenging to speak about her. She would want us to speak to her. Although that conversation has been prematurely interrupted, like any strong thinker she’s still speaking to me, and I am still responding.

Mahmood refused to be corralled by academic boundaries (along the way to the anthropology doctorate from Stanford, she picked up an undergraduate degree at the University of Washington and two masters at the University of Michigan, in architecture and urban planning). Ranging far beyond the academy, she thought nothing of, say, talking to Anglican clergy about interfaith dialogue, as well as to more radical activists, from Berkeley to South Asia. Explicitly addressing her writing to “progressive feminists like myself,” she was consistently engaged in challenges to Western power and its ideological workings.3 But her work was also animated by a fundamentally anthropological ethic. Raising questions about the ethnocentric sources of even self-declared post- or anti-colonial political thought and emancipatory projects, this ethic has implications that reach well beyond any particular discipline.

It is an ethic of self-displacement or self-parochialization; that is, of taking on another’s perspective, not just to understand them, but also in the service of a political, cultural, or moral critique of one’s own society, even of one’s own values. For, among other goals, this ethic engages with alternative visions of political life, social well-being, and human flourishing—without necessarily advocating them—as affording positions from which to see things in a new light. At its strongest, the anthropological ethic is an argument for the possibility of radical differences among the worlds that people might inhabit.

Mahmood’s practice both sheds light on the limits of prevailing forms of progressivist critical theory and suggests how to rethink them. Her work ranges well beyond her particular discipline of anthropology. But as a limit case, anthropology can offer an especially revealing site from which to reflect on the Euro-American underpinnings of critical thought with which many academics are most comfortable and the paradoxes to which this thought can lead.

What is an “ethic of self-parochialization?” Consider how Mahmood describes her willingness “to leave open the possibility that my analysis may come to complicate the vision of human flourishing that I hold most dear, and which has provided the bedrock of my personal existence.”4 This is the ethic of self-parochialization taken to its logical and even paradoxical conclusion. That anthropological ethic is clearly expressed in the opening pages of Politics of Piety. Mahmood’s goal, she states, is to “parochialize my own political certitude,” meaning that she will seek, in her work, to displace her own perspective in order to take on those of others whose politics and worldview are, perhaps, antithetical to her own.5

Mahmood’s practice both sheds light on the limits of prevailing forms of progressivist critical theory and suggests how to rethink them.

The implications are made apparent in another context, where she quotes Charles Taylor approvingly (before criticizing his account of secularism). Taylor writes that we should seek to attend to “a voice which we could never have assumed ourselves, whose tone might have been forever unknown to us if we hadn’t strained to understand it. We will find that we have to extend this courtesy even to people who would never have extended it to us.”6 Now, given the centrality of power differences to Mahmood’s own critical vision, perhaps “courtesy” is too gentle a word, but Taylor’s statement undeniably captures the paradoxical character of the ethic of self-displacement.

Taylor’s words, in fact, express two pragmatic paradoxes of critical self-parochialization, those of values and of actions. The paradox of values is posed by the ethical call to take seriously the alternative worlds in which our interlocutors live, even if their worlds (for instance, an unshakable conviction in divinely mandated social hierarchies—or, for that matter, in radical equality) lead them to reject the openness to others that motivates that call. Can one take up this ethic without ultimately subordinating the values and sense of reality of those others to one’s own? The paradox of actions arises from this: in refusing to dominate others or subsume their values or sense of reality under one’s own, can one still act effectively on the basis of the values underwriting that demand for openness? I call the paradoxes “pragmatic” because they are not matters of apparent contradictions in logic but are embedded within the very practice itself. Although quite aware of these difficult paradoxes, Mahmood saw no reason to let them stymie her. In our fraught political moment, I think it’s important to understand why.

What makes a critical perspective on one’s own certitude desirable? Consider the anthropological traditions of self-parochialization. For all the grandiosity of its claims to study the totality of humankind, for much of its history anthropology was selective in its ethnographic choices. Those very limits have led critics from within the discipline, such as Arjun Appadurai, to fault anthropology for constructing its subject matter as “natives” who were “incarcerated” within the localities that seemed to define them (“mountain people,” “desert tribes”) and isolate them from history, in contrast to cosmopolitans who were not.7 Among the various social sciences, which took on states, capitalism, revolutions, and mass societies, anthropology itself seemed to be localized within what Michel-Rolph Trouillot called the “savage slot,” narrowly interested only in those who were not (so it was imagined) included in modernity.8

And indeed, the discipline long tended to favor the obscure and the powerless—those whom the state logics that Mahmood takes on in her second book calls “minorities”—but it often did so to critical ends.9 Assuming a readership among the dominant and powerful Westerners (and not among those being written about), ethnography pitted Trobrianders against Economic Man, Samoans against bourgeois sexual hang-ups, Mount Hageners against the individual subject. The critique was directed back at (and in the service of) a world presumably shared by author and reader: it was not aimed at the societies about whom the anthropologist wrote. Michelle and Renato Rosaldo did not return from the Philippine highlands of Luzon to denounce Ilongot headhunting, but to humanize it.10 In this context, self-displacement and self-parochialization seemed, if not always easy to carry off, at least a fairly straightforward matter in principle.

Yet the paradox of values was always present. In trying to bracket our own assumptions in order to understand those held by others, we are acting on the basis of values that those “others” don’t necessarily share with us. Thus the practice of self-parochialization does not apply to the convictions of those who, presumably, do not see any virtue in such a practice or even view the world in the fundamentally secular and ultimately universalizing terms of “culture,” “religion,” or “history” that it presupposes. As a result, the paradox rarely posed much of a challenge to the anthropologist, whose practice dominated the other’s own, supposedly unselfconscious, parochial views of the world. But if “we” didn’t have to live with “them,” then their parochialism was inconsequential.

Mahmood didn’t accept this comfort. As noted above, she opened the door to complicating her own most dearly held vision of human flourishing. Notice, then, that to do so can seem akin to what elsewhere she calls the “moral injury” inflicted on pious Muslims by insults to the Prophet, wherein “one’s being, grounded as it is in a relationship of dependency with the Prophet, has been shaken … [resulting in] a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded.”11 (Let’s avoid a false equivalence between very different relations of power; after all, Mahmood chooses a move that these Muslims have had forced upon them.)

This is Mahmood’s own version of the anthropological “ethic of self-parochialization.” In asking of herself what her interlocutors would not ask of themselves, Mahmood is not giving herself over entirely to their world, but proceeding on the basis of a distinct set of values: an ethic of self-parochialization and openness to others that has its own local genealogy. For ironically—in light of Mahmood’s sustained critique of secularism—valuing this ethic of self-parochialization and taking it to be achievable is characteristic of what Taylor calls the “buffered self” of secularism. Such a secular self is not “porous and vulnerable to a world of spirits” but instead is self-contained, secure, and able to become “master of the meanings of things for it.”12 I return to this irony below.

For much of its history, anthropology’s self-parochializing strategies did not seem to put its critical purposes at risk. This changed, however, when the ethnographic focus shifted away from the powerless and obscure to what Susan Harding called “the repugnant cultural other,” such as the archconservative Christian evangelical followers of Jerry Falwell with whom she worked.13 Not merely other, certainly not distant, and far from powerless and obscure, the people Harding studied can be profoundly threatening to anthropologist and her audience alike. They indisputably inhabit the same world as the anthropologist, if not in its ontological predicates, at least in its political consequences. Yet Harding remained admirably committed to the ethnographic task of self-displacement in the service of understanding—without, however, abandoning her critical sensibility.

Here the pragmatic paradox of values gives rise to the paradox of actions. On the one hand, Mahmood maintains that the challenge to one’s own assumptions in order to think in unaccustomed ways is productive for critique. On the other hand, she is quite forthright about the ways way this challenge can also be debilitating, since it “suspends the closure necessary to political action.”14 But why would anyone as politically committed as Mahmood want to parochialize their certitude? Here it’s useful to recall the place of ethics in her argument.

Mahmood was at the forefront of the recovery of virtue ethics for social and political analysis.15 In broad terms, virtue ethics stresses the ways in which people orient themselves toward and guide their actions in light of particular visions of human flourishing. For social analysis this can mean focusing on people’s practices of self-formation without supposing these are best explained in terms of something else, such as domination or hegemony. This way of taking the ethical seriously unites Mahmood’s portrayal of pious submission to Islam and her critique of secular freedom.

The turn to ethics should be seen not as some kind of cheerful celebration of goodness but rather as a response to problems posed by the analysis of power. If power is productive, in Michel Foucault’s or Judith Butler’s sense, then what exactly is the nature of the harm that results, such that it demands our critique? Why should I object to that which has produced me, unless I can imagine having been produced otherwise—and then who would I be, inhabiting what world?

Why would anyone as politically committed as Mahmood want to parochialize their certitude?

To answer this requires some counterfactual notion of human flourishing such that we can understand what animates critique and gives direction to the political. For example, when Marx sees the damage caused by alienation and commodity fetishism, it’s in light of an alternative possible world in which one could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon …” Otherwise, without reflection on the ethical sources of critique, enterprises like what Sherry Ortner calls “dark anthropology”—that is, an anthropology that is wholly focused on the harshness of social life in the context of neoliberalism—risk remaining in thrall to some of the very same ontological and economic assumptions of the sociopolitical order they attack, unable to fully account for their own motivating values.16

Mahmood’s version of the ethical turn attempts just this ethical reflexivity in a double move. First, she excavates the normative values and sensibilities on which secularism depends, but on which its defenders have (in her view) failed to reflect. For secularism is not simply the natural human condition that is revealed once the accretions of religious tradition are stripped away. Like any other social formation, it has its own distinctive virtues and vices, disciplines to inculcate them, and ontologies to ground them.

Second, she presents an alternative: to take seriously the religious ethics, even traditionalisms, that secular critique tends to dismiss or condemn. In discussing the 2005 Danish cartoons affair, in which caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad provoked angry reactions by some Muslims and debates about free expression, she remarks that “while some liberals could see the lurking racism behind these cartoons, the religious dimension of the Muslim protest remained troubling.”17 She doesn’t deny the racism, but she insists on giving the religious its due weight. Otherwise, to the extent that the progressives fail to take the religious and the ethical seriously, they are not just being bad anthropologists (after all, who asked them to be anthropologists?); more to the point, they remain unable to understand, and therefore to take responsibility for, the harms that secular governance may inflict.

And yet the pragmatic paradoxes remain. As I mentioned above, the anthropological ethic aims to take seriously the differences among possible worlds within which people dwell, without subsuming them under a single, dominant account of reality and ethical system. Mahmood reflects just this when she objects that the secular “flattens religious incommensurability.”18 In the face of that incommensurability, why are we not stranded in our separate, and mutually indifferent, worlds? Why doesn’t this lead to the amoral or depoliticizing “slippery slope … of relativism?”19 And in the face of incommensurability, what even makes self-parochializing possible?

Mahmood provides a somewhat surprising answer. Certainly her writing is always suffused with the presentism that manifests the pressures exerted by the immediacy of her political moment, post-9/11. Of Taylor’s hopeful call for us to listen to other voices she comments, as one might expect, that “the possibility of communication is limited by the relations of power in which a communicative act unfolds.”20 And yet her account of power leaves an opening.

To the extent that the political is inevitably normative, it rests on the conceptual underpinnings of the ethics that inform it. For all her salutary emphasis on embodied sensibilities, Mahmood’s interventions always return to the conceptual. She defends her practice in classical terms: “Our ability to think outside this set of limitations necessarily requires the labor of critique, a labor that does not rest on its putative claims to moral or epistemological superiority but in its ability to recognize and parochialize its own affective commitments.”21 And she recognizes the limits—suspending the activist’s closure—that this labor imposes on her. There’s a remarkable modesty here, a recognition of the intellectual’s responsibility that also situates her in a certain place within a larger division of labor.

And here’s the surprising answer to the question, what makes self-parochializing possible? She defends the academy as “one of the few places where such tensions can still be explored.”22 Her response, then, to the accusation of relativism might be this: that it is her social location and its privileges that invite her to undertake self-parochialization; the buffered self provided by the secular and the ethic of an anthropological discipline that enable her to do so. But the reflexive process has the potential to shift that location, challenge those privileges, open up that buffering, redefine who counts as “us,” and even transform that ethic. And even if it doesn’t, a life is not confined to only one way of being in the world. Saba Mahmood knew that too. icon

  1. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005).
  2. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2016); Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Fordham University Press, 2013).
  3. Politics of Piety, p. xxii.
  4. Ibid., p. xxiv.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Taylor quoted in “Can Secularism Be Other-wise,” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig J. Calhoun (Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 296.
  7. Arjun Appadurai, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 3, no. 1 (1988), p. 37.
  8. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness,” in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, edited by Richard G. Fox (School of American Research Press, 1991).
  9. Religious Difference in a Secular Age.
  10. Michelle Z. Rosaldo, Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life (Cambridge University Press, 1980); Renato Rosaldo, Ilongot Headhunting, 1883–1974: A Study in Society and History (Stanford University Press, 1980).
  11. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” in “The Fate of Disciplines,” edited by James Chandler and Arnold I. Davidson, special issue, Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 4 (Summer 2009), pp. 848–849.
  12. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 27, 38.
  13. Susan Harding, “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” Social Research, vol. 58, no. 2 (Summer 1991).
  14. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect,” p. 862.
  15. See, for instance, Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia University Press, 2006); Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories (Princeton University Press, 2016); Michael Lambek, ed., Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action (Fordham University Press, 2010); James Laidlaw, The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2014); Cheryl Mattingly, Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life (University of California Press, 2014); Michael Lambek et al., Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives (Hau, 2015).
  16. Sherry B. Ortner, Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the Eighties,” Hau, vol. 6, no. 1 (Summer 2016).
  17. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect,” p. 840.
  18. Religious Difference in a Secular Age, p. 207.
  19. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect,” p. 837.
  20. “Can Secularism Be Other-wise,” p. 298.
  21. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect,” p. 861.
  22. Ibid., p. 862.
Featured image: Saba Mahmood in an undated photograph. Source: University of California, Berkeley