The private and the public

[Secularism’s] power relies crucially upon the precariousness of the categories it establishes.

Hussein Ali Agrama has just had a paper published in Comparative Studies in Society and History (sub needed). Agrama is I think, from Egypt and now lives and works in Chicago. His paper is perhaps one of the best examples of how a doctoral thesis can be successfully translated into a well-researched paper. In discussion with herself on the train this morning about career paths post-PhD (well, I can dream), one of the things we spoke about was that transition from being obsessed with your subject matter to allowing access to the reasons why it is important.

Agrama’s paper contends that scales of secularity (with say, the Netherlands at one end and Iran on the other) accept secularism’s “normative standards” and he argues that we must instead explore the processes that put and keep those standards in place. As a methodology, he has captured what it is that makes most Dawkins-style atheists uncomfortable about religion: secularism is an “expression of the state’s sovereign power.” In this mode, he is following Talal Asad in believing that it is the state that decides what is religious and what is not and the analysis presented in Agrama’s paper presents it superbly.

Where is the line between the religious and the political drawn? He takes the example of family legal disputes in Egyptian courts. These take as their basis, at least for family matters, the precepts of Islamic law. This historical connection between ‘the law’ and ‘religion’ is central to any understanding of the power of secularism and its indeterminacy. This is about maintaining what is private and what is public and how these work to authorize the rules thought to be their respective jurisdictions.

He discusses the concept of public order in Egyptian law and how it is related to a crossing of the boundaries between what is deemed to be matters relating to the intimate, e.g. domestic abuse, and matters to relating to a concept of the public good. He states that:

“public order became a legal expression of the state’s domestic sovereignty”

by deciding where the exceptions to private international law lie. These are matters of regulation by means of legal codification and the state’s sovereignty is widened by the enactment of public order legislation, e.g. the decriminalisation of homosexuality. How such codifications act on bodies and communities is an act of determinacy for particular groups. Courts then decide what is the definition of what constitutes families, households, pension rights  which has been most recently expounded in the passing of the Civil Partnership Act here in Ireland. (Best not to see this act as the end of a process by the way.)

A search for the same terms in an Irish context yields very little about what is deemed to be right and proper for people living in Ireland but plenty on beating a Garda over the head, rioting and free association. This is perhaps something for another post but briefly: public order in Ireland tends to be descriptive and not proscriptive. As can be seen from the extract above from a recent report on Public Attitudes on Domestic Violence, most people disagree that domestic violence is a private matter but court hearings on family law are held in camera. Agrama points to similar indeterminacy of state power in Egypt where the work that he has done on family courts there points to a “blurring [of] the difference between legal equality and majority values, between norm and exception”. A clearer view of what ‘the public’ is thus comes into view.

Secularism then becomes about regulation, about discipline and about codification. It is about the (re)creation of contested boundaries between the given understandings of the ‘private’ and the legal interpretation of the ‘public’. The next time someone says that the Catholic church needs to leave education, think of this indeterminacy of state power. I have to admit: I never saw myself reading this kind of material.

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