The Politics of Piety

So this is long overdue, but I had a nice girls weekend at a Feminist Conference in Syracuse, NY with some friends of mine last weekend before the long haul of exams really set in. By far the best session we attended was one by Saba Mahmood of Berkley, an Anthropologist who writes on Women and Islam (her new book is the title of this post).
And I’m not just being biased, given my penchant for Anthropology: Mahmood revealed to the audience how the genre of autobiography by Muslim women circulating in Western countries and the rhetoric of the religious right are relying on an orientalist trope employed for years against Islam, one which dangerously furthers the collusion of empire and feminism in this particular moment in history.
Difficult to refute on the basis of their nativism, these Muslim women’s voices proclaim to redemption of Westernism, in its sexular politics and its progress for their women. And yet, these accounts that have us Westerners thinking all extremist movements in Islam are of a violent, oppressive, fundamentalist sort also make the argument that Islam is incapable of democracy, that furthers an orientalist claim.
While Mahmood acknowledges oppressive practices do exist in Islam (many of which reminded me of some forms of conservative Christianity!), she wants to push the way we think about freedom and agency. First, are there are forms of submission internal to different constructions of freedom that we all hold? Additionally, Mahmood questions what’s becoming characteristic of liberal thought, that it assimilates all forms of life to its future visionary work, that this attitude toward difference in past and contemporary feminism must be thought of as antithetical to liberalism, instead.

As she asked at the end of her lecture, “Do we Americans even comprehend the forms of life [of Muslim women] that we want so passionately to remake? Would comprehending these cause us to reconsider our agendas and what we consider liberalism?”

That’s a powerful and thoughtful question, especially for we Christians who are passionate about interfaith dialogue–it’s the challenge to really listen to the point that we might be called to change the way we think, as well.


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