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Speaking about Muhammad, Speaking for Muslims

Author(s): Andrew F. March

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Source: Critical Inquiry , Vol. 37, No. 4 (Summer 2011), pp. 806-821

Published by: The University of Chicago Press

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Critical Response

Speaking about Muhammad, Speaking for Muslims

Andrew F. March

The Danish Cartoons as Moral Injury In a recent article, Saba Mahmood has presented an intriguing account

of what was at stake morally and emotionally for a large number of Mus- lims in the Danish cartoon controversy (Saba Mahmood, “Religious Rea- son and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” Critical Inquiry 35 [Summer 2009]: 836 – 62). In doing so, she offers a framework for thinking about such instances that takes the place of accounts that portray the con- flict as one between a liberal, secular commitment to free speech and a religious commitment to combating blasphemy. This account instead fo- cuses on forms of Muslim piety in which “Muhammad is regarded as a moral exemplar whose words and deeds are understood not so much as commandments but as ways of inhabiting the world, bodily and ethically” (p. 846). This form of religiosity should be understood as an assimilative “modality of attachment” or “relation . . . based on similitude or cohabi- tation” along the lines of the Aristotelian concept of schesis, as opposed to a communicative or representative relationship to the Prophet (p. 859). Importantly,

the sense of moral injury that emanates from such a relationship be- tween the ethical subject and the figure of exemplarity . . . is quite distinct from the one that the notion of blasphemy encodes. The no- tion of moral injury I am describing no doubt entails a sense of viola- tion, but this violation emanates not from the judgment that the law has been transgressed but that one’s being, grounded as it is in a rela- tionship of dependency with the Prophet, has been shaken. For many Muslims, the offense the cartoons committed was not against a moral interdiction . . . but against a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded. This wound requires moral action, but the language of this wound is neither juridical nor that of street protest because it does not belong to an economy of blame, accountability, and reparations.

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

Critical Inquiry 37 (Summer 2011)

© 2011 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/11/3704-0010$10.00. All rights reserved.


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The action that it requires is internal to the structure of affect, rela- tions, and virtues that predispose one to experience an act as a viola- tion in the first place. [Pp. 848 – 49]

Understanding this model helps us to appreciate that not all forms of religiosity are chosen or self-conscious affirmations of beliefs or proposi- tions (p. 852) and thus that attacks on religious icons may be experienced as directly and irreducibly as attacks on racial groups.

Mahmood’s account is a very helpful supplement to much of the jour- nalistic and scholarly focus on formal legal and religious normativity, rac- ism and Islamophobia, and political manipulation. It also reflects a deeply attractive moral sensibility grounded in empathy and humility, reminis- cent of the late liberal theorist Judith Shklar’s sense that cruelty takes many forms and is the summum malum of which humans are capable. It is in full solidarity with that sensibility that I engage with Mahmood’s arguments.

Which Concept of “Moral Injury”? Mahmood spends much of her article establishing that the cartoons

were a catalyst for a genuine sort of pain, one to which we are not always sensitive. But is it really the case that in much of the non-Muslim reaction to the Muslim reaction(s) was a refusal to accept that Muslims may have felt injured or pained by the cartoons or an “inability [for the idea of moral injury] to translate across different semiotic and ethical norms” (p. 860)?1

I think it is actually quite easy to accept the idea that Muslims felt a genuine sense of pain at the portrayal of the Prophet in those images. In fact, if anything, perhaps Mahmood is too cautious in outlining the many ways in which the cartoons were a source of pain for Muslims. I would submit that the idea of emotional pain is really no mystery here at all. We feel pain at all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. We attach ourselves to all kinds of

1. Mahmood quotes a number of commentators who did in fact express incredulity that what was motivating many of the protests was genuine pain or injury. However, I wonder whether too much is made of these quotations, all of which were reactions to the violent forms that many of the protests to the republication of the cartoons took. Perhaps we should not take statements of incredulity that acts of violence were purely a matter of spontaneous moral injury as evidence that Western publics are uniformly incapable of appreciating that many Muslims felt an authentic form of distress.

A N D R E W F . M A R C H is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. He is the author of Islam and Liberal Citizenship (2009). He is presently at work on research related to speech crimes in Islamic legal and moral thought and the Islamic intellectual response to secularism in twentieth- and twenty-first-century legal and theological discourses.

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symbols, figures, persons, and ideas in the assimilative way Mahmood describes, as the recent furor over Ground Zero as hallowed ground dem- onstrates.2 And, of course, there is no point in asking whether this pain is genuine or real. Rather, I believe that there are much harder questions at stake which Mahmood’s account doesn’t directly address but perhaps pro- vides a provocation to thinking about.

First I am curious whether Mahmood is insisting on this one single account of the moral injury involved in the cartoon incident. Some might puzzle over her use of Aristotelian concepts to account for certain Muslim attitudes towards the Prophet or her reading out of abstract and formal intellectual traditions in Islam,3 but I find her account perfectly plausible.

2. Another good example is an incident that emerged at Michigan State University in Fall 2005, where I was then teaching. A cartoon published in the student newspaper on Veteran’s Day portrayed two soldiers: an octogenarian World War II veteran and a soldier in the American army presently occupying Iraq. The veteran was dressed in commemorative garb, whereas the active soldier was covered in blood and wielding a medieval-style cudgel. The dialogue had the veteran saying, “I liberated a torture camp” and the active soldier saying, “I work in one.” This cartoon was published in the wake of the revelations of atrocities carried out by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib and, ironically, at the beginning of the Danish cartoon affair. Of course, certain conservative student groups protested outside the newspaper demanding an apology and the firing of the cartoonist, invoking much of the same sentiment of “moral injury” described by Mahmood. For these students, American flags and soldiers were symbols of identity and moral attachment inappropriate for use in this way to make a political argument.

3. Ironically, the urge to downplay abstract or formal intellectual reflection about belief and doctrine in Islamic religiosity has a tradition in Western Orientalist approaches to Islam that have tended to avoid serious study of Islamic theology.

In part this flowed from the persistence of nineteenth-century assumptions about the mar- ginality of abstract intellectual life in Islam, and about the greater intrinsic interest and orig- inality of Muslim law and mysticism. It was also commonly thought that where formal metaphysics was cultivated in Islamic civilisation, this was done seriously only in the con- text of Arabic philosophy (falsafa), where it was not obstructed by futile scriptural controls, and where it could perform its most significant function, which was believed to be the transmission of Greek thought to Europe. However, a steady process of scholarly advance over the past two decades, coupled with the publication of critical editions of important early texts, has turned the study of Muslim theology into a dynamic and ever more intrigu- ing discipline. Old assumptions about Muslim theology as either a narrow apologetic exer- cise or an essentially foreign import into Islam have been successfully challenged. [Tim Winter, “Introduction” to The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, ed. Winter (Cambridge, 2008), p. 1]

In raising this I do not mean to insinuate that Mahmood’s approach to Muslim religiosity (based on a focus on the daily lived practices of disciplining the body) inadvertently resurrects old Orientalist attitudes about Muslims’ lack of intellectual sophistication in matters of theology, ethics, law, or politics and their more bodily and sensuous habitus. However, what I do intend to deflate is the sense that this attitude towards Muslim religiosity evidenced in Mahmood’s outstanding scholarly contribution is in itself complete without approaches that examine more formal Islamic intellectual attitudes towards normativity. The formal, public contestation of Islamic norms is no less a lived practice for believing Muslims than the practices

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(In fact, it is somewhat obvious; Muslims really love the Prophet and hate for him to be mocked or disdained.) My concern is whether it has to be the sole account or is even an account distinct from others. Mahmood con- cedes that there were certainly many sources of Muslim anger over the cartoons, with many kinds of political motivation at stake (p. 842). How- ever, she occasionally slips into speaking of “the kind of religiosity at stake in Muslim reactions to the Danish cartoons” (pp. 852–53, my emphasis). The force of Mahmood’s account, on my reading, is its subtlety and sen- sitivity to the varieties of religious sensibilities and practices amongst Mus- lims. It would be a shame if appreciation for practices of piety that are not reducible to political ideology or to Islamic juridical modalities itself be- comes a kind of academic orthodoxy whereby we see belief as a Protestant concern, thus leading us to assume that authentic Muslim and other relig- iosities must lie primarily in the sensorium.

Mahmood’s focus on moral injury derived from an assimilative model of relating to the exemplar of the Prophet is an important corrective, a crucial part of the entire landscape, just as both formal secular jurispru- dence and popular Western attitudes towards Muslims are crucial pieces of the puzzle on the non-Muslim side. But this schesis model is still just one approach, important as it is. Unfortunately, confusing a certain refined academic theory of how to speak about Muslim piety with the full range of actual Muslim moral commitments has some bizarre consequences, as when Mahmood counsels European Muslims not to look to European human rights law to suppress blasphemous speech about the Prophet.

I fully agree with Mahmood that coercive laws should not be deployed to suppress injurious speech and fully agree that looking to secular Euro- pean law to protect Islamic religious sentiments contains a whole set of paradoxes and dangers. (For that matter, so does the codification of Is- lamic law in the positive legal systems of Muslim majority states.) How- ever, Mahmood’s account of that paradox is misleading and potentially patronizing. She writes that Muslims in Europe were only attracted to the legal option because they were “committed to preserving an imaginary in which their relation to the Prophet is based on similitude and cohabita- tion” (p. 859). Well, who says? Muslims have given a wide range of argu-

of schesis/habitus which Mahmood so sensitively depicts, and we ought to be wary of genealogies of subject-formation through discourse and habitus that reduce Muslim politics and ethical life to predetermined outcomes.

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ments for both voluntary and coercive restraints on injurious speech in Europe at least since the Salman Rushdie affair, and to reduce their reli- gious imaginary to nothing other than this specific desire to preserve “an imaginary in which their relation to the Prophet is based on similitude and cohabitation” sounds contrived to say the least, particularly when speak- ing about a religious community that has such a long tradition of seeing law in all of its forms—not just pure forms of sharı�‘a as articulated by jurists but also imperfect simulacra of this ideal advanced by imperfect secular rulers—as a crucial component of what believers should expect and strive for in this world. I believe that Muslims open themselves up to awkward interferences in religious matters by secular states in both Mus- lim and non-Muslim societies when they seek legal protections from blas- phemy; but I don’t think they are irrational or suffering from false consciousness when they think they want the legal protections per se. Both Islamic law and the law of modern Muslim states have always insisted on such legal protections; it makes perfect sense from a religious standpoint that this is one thing Muslims might try to achieve in the West.

However, I would suggest further that even the idea of moral injury is compatible with many kinds of religiosities, in addition to the schesis model Mahmood advances. In fact, Mahmood does not give a clear defi- nition of what she means by “moral injury” and specifically what the mod- ifier moral is adding to the concept of injury. How does moral injury differ conceptually from any kind of emotional pain inflicted by the criticism and mockery of others? How does it differ from the kind of emotional pain or discomfort inflicted by having to suffer the disapproved actions of oth- ers in public? However, in addition to the obvious normative problems with endorsing a concept like moral injury for political and moral guid- ance in diverse societies (the logic of this concept is precisely that invoked by those opposed to even bare tolerance for homosexuality, the legality of burning the American flag, or, indeed, equality for minority religious groups such as Muslims),4 it is not clear how this concept provides for the kinds of distinctions Mahmood wishes to draw between “violation emanat- [ing] from the judgment that the law has been transgressed [and the feeling] that one’s being, grounded as it is in a relationship of dependency with the Prophet, has been shaken.” It seems to me that the idea of moral injury is equally at stake in judgments that the law has been transgressed as it is with the feeling that one’s being has been shaken. In fact, it is hard to understand ex- actly what the objection to the violation of the moral law is, unless it is some

4. As we have seen ad nauseam throughout the summer and fall of 2010 in the United States.

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kind of moral injury to the community—which is precisely how “God’s rights” (huquq Allah) are often characterized in Islamic legal theory.

Furthermore, it is far from clear to me why Mahmood needs to erect this unnecessary kind of binary between speech that immediately disrupts a subject’s structure of ethical affect and speech that would be character- ized by that subject as blasphemy or as a violation of a moral law. Are these two distinct kinds of injury for the religious subject, or is she saying that the vast majority of pious Muslims simply don’t think in terms of blasphemy or violations of a moral code at all? (The latter seems unlikely to say the least.) In failing to tell a more complete story of how speech is constructed as injurious, this account thus erects a series of artificial and false binaries between speech that immediately disrupts a subject’s structure of ethical affect and speech that would be characterized by that subject as blasphemy, between the immediate sense of injury because of the kind of subject the religious subject is and the conscious political decision to protest or endure speech in this or that instance, and between belief-centered religiosity and habitus-centered religiosity. Mahmood’s account thus seems to have in- advertently flattened the rich landscape of religious subjectivity.

For the sake of argument, let us take a quick look at the logic of com- bating blasphemy in Islamic juridical discourses. A good source for this kind of thinking is the Islamic legal literature on the “objectives of the Law” (maqa� �sid al-sharı�‘a). This literature is popular amongst Islamic legal re- formers because of the way in which it replaces more formalist, language- based methods with morally substantive, purposive ones. However, it is also an excellent source for juridical and theological reflections across the ideological spectrum on the deeper meanings and purposes of long- standing legal norms. Reflections on the laws against blasphemy and her- esy are frequently treated as belonging to the sharı�‘a “objective” (maq�sad) of “preserving religion” ( �hif �z al-dı�n), one of the five “necessary objectives” ( �daru� riyya�t) of the Law according to virtually all scholars.

First of all, this juridical discourse complicates slightly Mahmood’s pic- ture of an assimilative, habitus-based relationship with the Prophet set against a communicative, proposition-based one. The jurists are inter- ested in both. From a short manual on the maqa� �sid al-sharı�‘a designed for popular consumption: “Religion consists of divine rules that God has re- vealed through prophets to guide mankind to truth in matters of belief and to good in matters of behavior and social relations. Religion constrains mankind by these rules and brings them into submission to their commands and prohibitions so that they may attain the happiness of this world and the next. . . . Complete, perfect religion is composed of four elements: faith (ı�ma�n), external submission (isla�m), belief in right doctrines (i‘tiqa�d), and works

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(‘amal).”5 There is no reason, then, to see the pietistic conception of assimila- tion to exemplars through daily habits as something that necessarily gives us a different understanding of the meaning of the Prophet from more formal juridical conceptions. Each rests on the other, and they interact in complex and variable ways for different believers at different times.

Let us consider, then, how this kind of legal discourse treats slanderous speech about the Prophet. First, what is blasphemy? In the Islamic juridical tradition, the crime in question is sabb (or shatm) al-nabı� —the reviling or slandering of the Prophet. Thus, implicit in the very language of how jurists speak about what is commonly referred to in English as blasphemy is the idea of moral harm and injury (as, of course, it is in the word blas- phemy, often thought to derive from the Greek for “hurtful” or “harmful speech”). Furthermore, jurists do not uniformly adopt a formalist, deon- tological, legalistic understanding of the danger of allowing the Law to be violated. Their understanding is shot through with not only substantive moral and political objectives but also a conception of the multiple kinds of moral harms involved. A particularly expansive, yet succinct, account is provided by a contemporary scholar seeking to appropriate for today views of the jurist-theologian Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). According to this scholar, blasphemy is punished and the honor of the Prophet is protected because

when the honor of the Prophet is violated then respect for and ag- grandizement of the Prophet’s mission collapses, and thus so col- lapses everything which he achieved. . . . The collapse of the honor and glorification of the Prophet is the collapse of religion itself. This demands vindication through the killing of the blasphemer. . . . He who blasphemes against the Prophet and attacks his honor [yasubb al-rasu� l wa yaqa‘ fı� ‘irdihi] is trying to corrupt people’s religion and by means of that to also corrupt their worldly existence. Whether or not they succeed, the person trying to corrupt another’s religion is therefore seeking to “sow corruption on Earth.”6 Defaming religion and casting ugly aspersions on the Prophet so that people will have an aversion towards him is amongst the greatest of corruptions. Further- more, blasphemy is a form of sacrilege against the Prophet and an

5. ‘Abd Alla�h Mu �hammad al-Amı�n al-Na‘ı�m and Yu� suf al-Bashı�r Mu �hammad, Maqa� �sid al-sharı�‘a al-Isla�miyya (Khartoum, 1995), p. 26.

6. This phrase “fasa�d fi‘l-ar �d. . .” is taken from a verse in the Qur’an often used to establish capital punishment for those who rebel against the state or provoke such rebellion through propaganda or incitement. It has served as a very flexible and supple legal tool in the hands of Islamic governments, including most recently the Islamic Republic of Iran, to justify charges of treason against political and ideological dissenters.

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affront7 to God, His Prophet and His believers. It is an attempt on the part of infidels to subvert the Islamic order, to humiliate believers, to remove the glory of religion and debase the word of God . . . all of which are amongst the most grievous forms of “corruption on Earth.”8

If that seems a bit too academic or rehearsed, consider a letter to the editor of the New Haven Register applauding Yale University Press’s decision not to reprint the cartoons: “The cartoons portray outright lies and distor- tions. . . . When it comes to God and his divine wisdom in appointing prophets there are boundaries that cannot be crossed. . . . For Muslims, Muhammad was a mercy sent by God to the entire world. To portray him as less than that is blasphemy and it is incumbent upon those who have intelligence to direct the majority away from such contemptuous acts.”9

Surely such statements are as relevant as that of the young British Muslim Mahmood quotes (p. 846), and while Mahmood may then interpret such an utterance not primarily as a belief-statement but rather as a kind of discursive practice by which Rasheed cultivates a certain ethical subjectiv- ity or state of affect this might be news to Rasheed.

My point here is absolutely not to suggest that all Muslims wounded by the cartoons share and endorse all of these more absolutist politico-legal views. Rather, my concern is with the concept of moral injury as a herme- neutic for helping us to understand the particular way in which pious Muslims not necessarily attracted to juridical methods were injured by the Danish cartoons. For the jurists, scandalous and mocking speech about the Prophet is nothing other than a moral injury, for it is an attempt to corrupt the entire social, psychological, and affective edifice on which morality rests. Thus, it remains to be shown just how Mahmood’s account moves us beyond a blasphemy model for understanding what was at stake in the cartoon controversy.

There is another account of the reaction to the cartoons that is also perfectly compatible with the idea of moral injury. It is found in a concise way in Slavoj Žižek’s remarks on the cartoon controversy:

The Muslim crowds did not react to the Muhammad caricatures as such. They reacted to the complex figure or image of the West that

7. A� dha� is more commonly used for harm or injury but out of concern for the theological complexities arising from the idea that God could be harmed or injured by human actions I will translate it as an “affront to.”

8. Yu� suf A �hmad Mu �hammad al-Badawı�, Maqa� �sid al-sharı�‘a ‘ind Ibn Taymiyya (Amman, 2000), pp. 455–56.

9. Jamilah Rasheed, “Excluding Cartoons a Step toward Justice,” New Haven Register, 18 Sept. 2009, p. A4.

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was perceived as the attitude behind the caricatures. Those who pro- posed the term “Occidentalism” as the counterpart to Edward Said’s “Orientalism” are right up to a point: what we get in Muslim coun- tries is a certain ideological vision of the West which distorts Western reality no less, although in a different way, than the Orientalist vision distorts the Orient. What exploded in violence was a web of symbols, images and attitudes, including Western imperialism, godless materi- alism, hedonism, and the suffering of Palestinians, and which became attached to Danish cartoons. This is why the hatred expanded from the caricatures to Denmark as a country, to Scandinavia, to Europe, and to the West as a whole. A torrent of humiliations and frustrations were condensed into the caricatures. This condensation, it needs to be borne in mind, is a basic fact of language, of constructing and impos- ing a certain symbolic field.10

There are at least two interpretations of this account. One, in fact, I would suggest is the same kind of schesis-based account Mahmood advances in her article. Only here, the object of assimilation is not the Prophet but the community of Muslims. The other interpretation is an honor-based ac- count. In other words, for Žižek the cartoons were not an assault on the Prophet’s honor but on Muslims’ honor. Mahmood does not deny that such an honor-based response to the cartoons was present in much of the popular reactions. However, what she does not address is whether such a motivation also counts as a form of moral injury. Since she does not give a definition of moral injury, we cannot know, but I see no reason for dis- counting this emotion as a legitimate form of moral injury. How could it be otherwise if we understand the social bases of individual and group self-respect to be moral goods? In short, I am not sure what work the concept of moral injury does for us in her article.

There are two responses available to Mahmood at this point. One is to deny that many Muslims operate with anything other than her “lived re- lationship” and “embodied piety” conception of religiosity. But that is clearly invalidated by any sincere and open-minded survey of Muslim public discourse, even in the West. The other is to accept that these other sources of injury—the juridical/blasphemy source and the identitarian/ honor source—are indeed kinds of moral injury equally salient and real as the kind she is interested in exposing but that the latter kind is particularly worthy of our moral concern. That is, she might argue that we should be more concerned about pious Muslims for whom the cartoons represented a

10. Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (London, 2008), p. 51.

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disruption of their attachment with the Prophet and thus more troubled by their pain than about the pain of Muslims reacting out of injury to a comprehensive politico-religious conception or out of communal honor.

But I simply don’t see why this is the case. As a fellow citizen, I am concerned about the pain both of those for whom slandering the Prophet represents an attack on a conception of religious objectives and of those for whom slandering the Prophet amounts to an intercommunal provocation. Personally, I certainly was troubled by the way in which “doctrinal Mus- lims” and “identity Muslims” were pained by the cartoons. For that mat- ter, I am also concerned about the subjective pain felt by conservative Christians witnessing the gradual replacement of their conception of mar- riage with a new, fairer one more inclusive of all kinds of love and attach- ment. I was troubled by the pain felt by my students who were outraged by the Abu Ghraib cartoon in the Michigan State student newspaper. I dis- agree with them, and I don’t want their views inscribed as law or informal morality in a diverse society, but that does not mean that I cannot empa- thize with the injury they feel.

In fact, in an odd paradox, is Mahmood herself not possibly reinforcing some of the “liberal, secular” assumptions about violence and blasphemy in advancing her account? By diverting attention away from those Mus- lims who have a more intellectualized and politicized account of what is wrong with blasphemy and mockery, as well as from those Muslims of- fended on community honor grounds, towards the more sympathetic and anodyne (to a liberal, secular sensibility) feelings of pious Muslims who are not interested in an “an economy of blame, accountability, and repara- tions” (p. 849), is she in fact siding with those who think that blasphemy and mockery have no claim in the modern world if they are motivated by a religious doctrine or a group identity? Is she in fact agreeing with those who suggest that religious doctrine or community honor are not good grounds for feeling wounded and therefore that we must instead invoke a secular conception of subjectively authenticated harm and pain? If not, then it would be interesting to hear an account of how the moral injury she outlines in her article is more troubling or worthy of concern than the moral injury felt on doctrinal-religious grounds or community-identity grounds and how her model of religious subjectivity raises any serious challenges at all for liberal secularism (outside of France, that is!).

What Was the Injury in the Danish Cartoons? A robust concept of moral injury should be able to provide an account

of what the injury at stake is. Mahmood is dismissive of two lines of argu- ment: that it should be within the power of pious Muslims in the modern

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world to ignore the doodles of a few cheeky Danes and that the cartoons were protected political speech because there are real concerns about the relationship of religion and violence. The first “naturalizes a certain con- cept of a religious subject but also fails to attend to the affective and em- bodied practices through which a subject comes to relate to a particular sign—a relationship founded . . . on attachment and cohabitation” (pp. 841– 42). The second involves seeing the cartoons as “statements of facts,” that is, as relying on a conception of Muslims as state security threats should they get their way on the cartoon issue (p. 854).

How, exactly, does “attend[ing] to the affective and embodied practices through which a subject comes to relate to a particular sign—a relation- ship founded . . . on . . . attachment and cohabitation” refute, however, Art Spiegelman’s dismay that “dopey cartoons” provoked violent demonstra- tions?11 Surely Mahmood does not mean to suggest that having a relation- ship of attachment and cohabitation with the Prophet is a suitable explanation for the countless complex questions we need to answer in order to explain various kinds of political action. Mahmood confuses here the idea that Muslims may have objected to the cartoons in good faith or been genuinely hurt by them prior to consulting a proper religious author- ity with the idea that their political and moral agency is entirely predeter- mined by their religious subjectivity. Talal Asad seems to have made the same error: “it becomes difficult for the secular liberal to understand the passion that informs those for whom, rightly or wrongly, it is impossible to remain silent when confronted with blasphemy, those for whom blasphemy is neither ‘freedom of speech’ nor the challenge of a new truth but some- thing that seeks to disrupt a living relationship.”12

The fact that people claim to have “no choice” but to act or respond in a certain way does not make this true. The claim that “I can do no other” is not a factual claim but rather a figure of speech (“I can do no other without great effort or cost to my aims”) or socialization to the point of mystifica- tion. In fact, people often do experience a certain distance between their selves and some of their constitutive beliefs or practices; the latter change, are debated, and are replaced. How a pious Muslim “must” respond (emo- tionally and physically) to an insult to the Prophet is not a natural fact or even one predetermined by the discursive tradition that creates her or his form of religious subjectivity. Rather, it is an evolving product of many

11. Art Spiegelman, “Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Outrage,” Harper’s Magazine (June 2006): 47.

12. Talal Asad, “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism,” in Asad et al., Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Berkeley, 2009), p. 46.

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inputs, including the ongoing discourses and debates within the religious community.

Put differently, when secular political theorists (as well as theologians) refer to religion as involving belief, this should not be understood tenden- tiously and simplistically as only referring to “privatizable” belief about theological matters that neither break my leg nor pick my pocket (the nature of Christ, who exactly was God’s final prophet), but also beliefs about action in the common social world. The proposition “insults to the Prophet Muhammad must be avenged in some way” is a belief statement, as are the range of arguments that explain and justify it. It is no part of critical inquiry of any form or persuasion to object to one narrative on the grounds that it “naturalizes a certain concept of the religious subject” by merely offering an alternative but equally dogmatic naturalization of the religious subject.

Similarly, it is easy to see what is meant by those who seek to defend the cartoons as political speech. It does not mean to suggest, pace Mahmood, that anyone who defends the cartoons as political speech is endorsing as fact what the cartoons were supposedly stating. Rather, what is being sug- gested is that the Danish cartoons (like the cartoon from the Michigan State student newspaper) were not simply gratuitous offenses akin to a noose at a multiracial high school or, say, a picture of a pig with the name “Muhammad” written on it. In both of those cases, it is clear that no valuable political speech is being voiced beyond “we hate African- Americans” or “we think your so-called prophet is like the most impure animal in your religion.” In other words, in banning or even discouraging speech that might contain political commentary not in itself a violation of human dignity, however injurious to some sensibilities that commentary may be, there are costs, costs that we are cautious in imposing.

Besides, what were the cartoons suggesting as fact? Were they simply suggesting that Muhammad was a terrorist plain and simple? Maybe, and it certainly matters that many Muslims took the cartoon as suggesting this. But why is this an occasion to leave all of our interpretive habits at the door? Is it even possible that the infamous bomb-in-the-turban cartoon was a satire on jihadis, not on Islam at large? Is it even possible that the cartoon may thus be read as equivalent to What Would Jesus Bomb? bum- per stickers— effective mockery of outlandish political ideologies which seek to justify their violence in the name of religious founders?

Presumably Mahmood regards as sufficiently obvious both what was injurious about the cartoons and why they needed to be responded to. But so much more of interest can be discussed here and she is so well-placed to contribute to that discussion that it is a pity she did not say more on it. For

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her “attachment-and-cohabitation-with-the-Prophet” Muslims, what ex- actly was so injurious? That Muhammad was portrayed visually at all? That he was portrayed by non-Muslims? That he was portrayed in a mocking or irreverent fashion? That he was portrayed as a terrorist? That non- Muslims were getting away with it?

More troubling for Mahmood, I believe, is that her account seems somewhat self-contradictory. If pious Muslims truly inhabit a closed world of attachment, assimilation, and cohabitation with the Prophet or, in Asad’s terms, experience a “lived relationship,” then how is their being so easily shaken by outsiders? What specific actions of outsiders have the capacity to rock one’s world in this way? Importantly, accounts that focus either on the idea of transgression of a boundary or violation of honor do not have this problem. Here it is easy to see why the speech of others injures or enrages.

Mahmood’s account, alas, is strangely apolitical and strangely context- averse. If a jihadi website has a silhouette of the Prophet departing for battle, while that website defends the kinds of acts insinuated by the car- toons, is that not a source of moral injury for the pious Muslims Mahmood is describing? If a jihadi website proudly proclaims that the Prophet him- self engaged in the kinds of acts jihadis are trying to justify—indeed that they are also trying to emulate the Prophet and assimilate their behavior into his!—is that not also a source of moral injury for politically quietist “attachment-and-cohabitation-with-the-Prophet” Muslims? Why does it not seem to invoke the kind of reaction that the Danish cartoons did?

The psychology of offense and moral injury is a complex issue, and I do not propose any answers here. But it is clear that the internal religious attitudes of pious Muslims toward the Prophet alone do not explain why the Danish cartoons invoked the response that they did. There is a complex set of political and social contexts involving the identity of the perpetra- tors, the geopolitical moment, and the visual form of the speech act, all of which need to be taken into account in addition to the apolitical and ahistorical nature of pious assimilation and cohabitation with the Prophet. That is, there is more to the story than Muslim piety per se. For those, like Mahmood, interested in using the concept of moral injury not only for descriptive purposes but also for ethical ones, I think something more needs to be said about this psychological dimension of offense and injury.

What I think emerges from these reflections is that the pain involved, the brute injury, only partially explains what was wrong with the Danish cartoons. All kinds of acts on the part of others are liable to cause pain. How do we know when that pain is something which we are willing to tolerate? How do we know when the imposition of psychological pain is a

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morally necessary byproduct of political action? How do we know when the causes or catalysts of pain are morally troubling regardless of what aims those inflicting the pain are trying to pursue in the world?

Mahmood is trying to bring our attention to a kind of pain that she feels is excluded by liberal, secularist rationality. But is she right? We live in a society, largely thanks to that kind of secular mentality, where people are self-authenticating sources of knowledge about their own pain, where ev- eryone is able to “identify their harms.”13 In fact, Mahmood’s account is, above all, a symptom of the power of this secular ethos; for she herself brings our attention only to the subjective injury felt by persons (a thor- oughly secular consideration) and not to a radically alternative morality whereby entities such as God, the Prophet Muhammad, or a sacred text themselves have moral claims on human action. Rather than claiming that the sacred itself ought to be an object of protection, she chooses to remain on the moral terrain of modern secularism by directing attention to the moral-emotional costs born by certain persons as a result of speech. Even she refuses to slip the bars of secular ideology.

The resistance that Mahmood is encountering in the case of the Danish cartoons is not to the idea that some pious Muslims were genuinely hurt by the cartoons (why else would Jyllands-Posten have published them?), or merely to the idea that Muslim pain of any kind matters (of course, this is what many in the West have a problem with), but rather to the idea that such pain alone—without a deeper and broader account of why that pain is in this context an injustice—stands out from amongst the countless possible sources of moral injury and emotional pain that all citizens of complex, morally diverse, postmodern societies encounter when they walk out the door, turn on the television, or open right-wing Danish newspa- pers. The problem is not that our liberal, secular societies cannot recognize and appreciate religious pain (if anything religion is still assumed to be a more authentic reason for moral consideration than many secular convic- tions, at least in the United States), it is that subjectively felt religious pain is no longer a trump card in a world that takes race, gender, ethnicity, and class as equally important sources of identity and moral motivation.

A Politics of Witnessing? In her conclusion, Mahmood avers that “for anyone interested in fos-

tering greater understanding across lines of religious difference, it would be important to turn not to the law but to the thick texture and traditions

13. Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, Calif., 2003), p. 6.

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of ethical and intersubjective norms that provide the substrate for legal arguments. . . . Ultimately . . . the future of the Muslim minority in Europe depends not so much on how the law might be expanded to accommodate its concerns but on a larger transformation of the cultural and ethical sensibilities of the majority Judeo-Christian population that undergird the law” (p. 860).

Certainly such understanding across religious difference should be fos- tered, and it is certainly true that there is a deplorable tendency in the Euro-American public sphere to simultaneously assert that Muslims are disingenuous in claiming injury and also that Muslims are in urgent need of being injured so as to be disrupted from their archaic and dangerous attachments. But what “transformation of the cultural and ethical sensi- bilities of the majority Judeo-Christian population” do we wish to see exactly—that they purify themselves of racist attitudes towards fellow cit- izens of Muslim cultural backgrounds, that they not misuse the secular license to insult religion as an alibi for creating a hostile environment for fellow citizens of Muslim cultural backgrounds, or that they actually com- mit to never offending distinctly religious sensibilities held by Muslims by not transgressing against the sacred? Mahmood may object to these kinds of distinctions on the grounds that pious Muslims might not wish to dis- tinguish between injury to the Prophet and injury to the Muslim commu- nity, but for her purposes in calling for a transformation of the Euro- American attitude towards Muslims while also exploring the possibility of a critique of secularism this is the precise question that I believe she needs to answer.

In calling on European Muslims to develop the tools to better “trans- lat[e] practices and norms across semiotic and ethical differences” even without demanding legal remedies, I take Mahmood here to be calling for a version of what John Rawls referred to favorably as “witnessing”: “it may happen that some citizens feel they must express their principled dissent from existing institutions, policies, or enacted legislation. . . . In this case they . . . feel that they must not only let other citizens know the deep basis of their strong opposition but must also bear witness to their faith by doing so.”14

Hopefully, we will someday live in a society where brute anti-Muslim prejudice is regarded as in the same bad taste as racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia, where self-respecting people are embarrassed to be caught voicing ignorant and hostile statements about Muslims. I am not sure whether in such a society The Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons

14. John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), p. 156 n. 57.

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would fall afoul of this sensibility, but many far more vicious forms of expression presently circulating in Western societies directed at Muslims certainly would. In the meanwhile, things are getting worse, with neofas- cist, nativist groups gaining strength in Europe15 and anti-Muslim speech (so often expressed as “resistance to creeping shariatization”)16 becoming the go-to jingoistic gesture of the American Right. (Indeed, with incidents like the Swiss minaret ban, one burka ban after another in Europe, and the Park 51 fiasco, we cannot say that crude anti-Muslim racism is now, if it ever was, only freely expressed by extreme right-wing groups.) Defeating these groups is a political project that will require a coalition of the reli- gious and the secular.17

I believe that this political project is in the first order about creating a political culture that finally accepts the fact that Muslim communities are long-term stakeholders in Europe and America and where Muslim com- munities see public evidence of this attitude. For me, then, the cartoons were above all a political act potentially harmful to the long-term project of creating a public space where Muslims feel safe, valued, and equal. Con- tributing to this culture will invariably require of Muslims at times a lan- guage for expressing their interests and values that is more secular than some might like. But that is not primarily because of the arbitrary disci- plinary rationality of modern secularism or some “Protestant” conception of religion as only a matter of private belief but rather because of (in Mahmood’s words) the “thick texture and traditions of ethical and inter- subjective norms that provide the substrate for legal arguments” presently in circulation in Europe, that is, because of the sensibility of Muslims’ fellow citizens in Europe. However, what Mahmood’s timely article re- minds us is that we must leave space for Muslims to bear witness in what- ever language they wish to the ways in which those ethical and intersubjective norms affect them without the suspicion that every expres- sion of Islamic religiosity is a dagger aimed at the heart of European freedom.

15. See, for example, Dominic Casciani, “Who Are the English Defence League?” BBC News Magazine, 11 Sept. 2009,, a report on a relatively new group calling itself the English Defence League.

16. See, for example, “The Islamification of England,” BNP Reform 2011, 2 Feb. 2011,�375

17. Indeed, there are many Muslim religious intellectuals who agree with this, including Tunisian Islamist Rashid al-Ghannushi and the Mauritanian-Saudi scholar Abd Alla�h Ibn Bayya. Both argue that to the extent Western societies are hospitable to Muslims at all, this is not due to Abrahamic fraternity or residual regard for religion, but secular humanism. It is often precisely a Rawlsian or Habermasian form of liberal secularism that allows these religious scholars to argue that Western secularism is not a metaphysical doctrine that conflicts with Islam.

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