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Historically Unaware and Demonized After

Saba Mahmood, in “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” problematizes notions of religious freedom, pointing to a history of usage marred with Western colonial interests.  This critique of the usage of such terms of “religious freedom” and “minority” points to the shifting definitions which end up as discursive tools to legitimize whichever political entity has the power to manipulate such terms.  An example of the differing interpretations of religious freedom (herein termed interchangeably with religious liberty) can be found in the following passage:


“Religious liberty was, however, far from a stable signifier and meant different things to different actors, which were often shaped by inter- and intra-state dynamics. For the missionaries and their European partisans, religious liberty meant the freedom to proselytize in the Ottoman territories and an important means for securing religious conversion. The Ottomans, on the other hand, interpreted religious liberty “as ‘the freedom to defend their religion’” against ascendant missionary activity and to consolidate the Islamic character of the empire…For all stakeholders, though, the struggle over the meaning and implementation of religious liberty could not but engage questions of geopolitical struggle and sovereignty, regardless of where they stood on the issue.”[1]


Self-interest seems to be a prefigured structure of society – I cannot conceive of a society which does not have its own interest in mind.  However, this self-interest can manifest in varying degrees of interventionism – Western colonial powers are an example of one extreme, where the whole world and all of its societies are clay to be shaped in accordance to one’s own self-interest, and insular, small-scale societies representing the other extreme.  The desire to mold one’s environment to one’s will can only be realized when it is coupled with the requisite relative discursive power and oftentimes necessary force.


If we can assume that Western colonial powers (or at least some of those involved) had non-sinister intentions, and instead view their oppressive and seemingly barbaric actions as insensitivity which comes from different notion of human rights, justice, fairness, and morality.  It would seem that pre-Postmodern agents were largely unaware of their particular position in history – or at least their understanding of history was vastly different.  Now, with our understanding of social theory and discourse, we are judging those actors in history who were not self-reflective enough to entirely transcend the mindset of their time, those who could not pioneer entirely new levels of self-consciousness and responsibility as we understand it now.  I do not see how this kind of analysis makes a whole lot of sense – pointing to how people used language to dominate other people and then demonizing them for it assumes some level of intentional evil which I would argue is largely absent in most actors in history.


The problem is that terminology does not arise out of a vacuum.  European partisans used religious liberty to describe their ability to proselytize and religiously conquer other (heathen) lands.  If there were no conflict between the religions and cultures, no such term would have been conceived of.  The Ottomans used this same term (or perhaps concept, having been translated into a presumably commensurate notion in their own language and cultural space) to refer to an ability to defend one’s religion against foreign invasion/conquest.  These notions of the same term serve opposite ends – but who is genuinely surprised by this?  I agree that dominating and hegemonic structures should be problematized (or even that all social structures, particularly language, its use and the authority to dictate its constitution), but in the end, when your goal is to demonize an “other,” instead of recognizing a particular historical pattern which is contingent upon diverse social spaces (even inter-cultural social spaces) converging in agreement, the result becomes a discursive tool for constructing a “better” way of viewing history.  In this case, all the author is doing is committing the same crime which he is decrying in others (it is easy to point in history to discursive manipulation, it is more difficult to recognize it in one’s own writing).  The article ceases to be a critical examination of discourse and instead becomes an instrument of discursive construction when the analysis delegitimizes a particular use of discourse and replaces it with another – it can remain an examination of the discourse when it problematizes the legitimacy of a particular discursive structure without advocating a particular replacement.

[1] Saba Mahmood, in “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, 2012, 423.



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