Submitting to God, submitting to the Self

Doctoraatsverdediging
Submitting to God, submitting to the Self. Secular and religious trajectories of second generation Maghrebi in Belgium, is based upon a PhD research by Nadia Fadil.

The central hypothesis developed in this dissertation is that in a secular context religious and/or secular subjectivities are primarily disciplined and regulated through a liberal agency model, while non-liberal ways of relating to the religious self are problematised. This hypothesis draws on a different reading of the religious individualization narrative than is generally understood within social theory. Following Foucault and Rose’s (1999) work, the process of (religious) individualisation is understood as a specific mode of goverance which draws on the language of ‘freedom’, ‘autonomy’ or ‘authenticity’ in the regulation and disciplining of religious (and secular) bodies and subjectivities. Religious individualisation is thus not viewed as a structural development wherein the individual’s potential to recompose his or her religious practice is enhanced, but rather as a particular mode of (religious) subjectivation (and governance) that is primarily grounded on liberal scripts and sensibilities.

The first purpose of this dissertation is thus theoretical as it aims to reconceptualise certain facets of the secularisation paradigm, i.c. religious individualisation, from a post-structuralist angle. Yet it does so in an empirical manner: by examining how second generation Maghrebi in Belgium (Brussels and Antwerp) make sense of their religious and/or secular selves, i.c. which discursive registers underpin their self-fashioning process. Interviews with second generation Maghrebi linked to Islamic and socio-cultural organizations have been conducted in the course of a fieldwork between 2003 and 2005 in Brussels and Antwerp.

English Summary: (Dutch summary can be found on the website of KU Leuven)

Secularisation figures as one of the main narratives within social theory to account for the changed status of religion in a modernizing context. More particularly, it is used to describe the fragmentation of religion’s structuring function in societal life. Yet since the second half of the 20th century, this concept has been strongly criticized both within and outside sociology (of religion). Critiques have argued that it fails to account for world-wide dynamics wherein the public influence of religion persist, if not increase, and that the concept rests on an etnocentric definition of religion difficult to generalize. Defenders of the concept have on turn refuted the claims that the narrative of secularisation presupposes a fragmentation of
religion, and rather stressed the analytical value of the latter and its capacity to accounts for the transformation of religion in a functionally differentiated, modern, context (Dobbelaere, 2002).

This dissertation inscribes itself in the latter sociological tradition which seeks to examine the transformative effects of modernity on religion, yet it does so by drawing on post-structuralist epistemological and theoretical insights. Secularisation is, within this perspective, not only viewed as an analytical concept but also as a discursive formation (in the sense attributed to it by Foucault) or regime of truth which implies the regulation and dissemination of a particular understanding of religion (understood as belief), the social (reified as ‘entity’) and the religious self (structrured through liberal agency) through a set of discursive and non-discursive operations (see also Asad, 2003). Within such approach, the secular is no longer perceived as an ontologically neutral terrain, but the aim rather becomes to understand how a secular context cultivates and regulates religious knowledges, beliefs, practices according to particular epistemological sensibilities.

The central hypothesis developed in this dissertation is that in a secular context religious and/or secular subjectivities are primarily disciplined and regulated through a liberal agency model, while non-liberal ways of relating to the religious self are problematised. This hypothesis draws on a different reading of the religious individualization narrative than is generally understood within social theory. Following Foucault and Rose’s (1999) work, the process of (religious) individualisation is understood as a specific mode of goverance which draws on the language of ‘freedom’, ‘autonomy’ or ‘authenticity’ in the regulation and disciplining of religious (and secular) bodies and subjectivities. Religious individualisation is thus not viewed as a structural development wherein the individual’s potential to recompose his or her religious practice is enhanced, but rather as a particular mode of (religious) subjectivation (and governance) that is primarily grounded on liberal scripts and sensibilities.
The first purpose of this dissertation is thus theoretical as it aims to reconceptualise certain facets of the secularisation paradigm, i.c. religious indivdiualisation, from a post-structuralist angle. Yet it does so in an empirical manner: by examining how second generation Maghrebi in Belgium (Brussels and Antwerp) make sense of their religious and/or secular selves, i.c. which discursive registers underpin their self-fashioning process. Interviews with second generation Maghrebi linked to Islamic and socio-cultural organizations have been conducted in the course of a fieldwork between 2003 and 2005 in Brussels and Antwerp.

A principle of multiple variety sampling was followed in the selection or potential respondents in order to maximise the diversity in religious profiles. Yet in order to contact Secular Muslims the principle of snow-ball sampling was followed, as organized Maghrebi networks proved to be unsuccessful to have access to this group. During the interviews questions of belief, the religious parental education, religious authorities, the Islamic corpus and the importance of (religious) practices were raised.57 interviews were analysed following the principles of discourse analysis. The purpose of this type of analysis does not (only) lie in what interviews can tell us about external realities or contexts, but this type of investigation rather seeks to understand how particular discursive structures or regulatory ideals organise the ways in which individuals make sense of their surrounding reality or their-selves. The analysis of the interviews revealed that the liberal regulatory ideal which centres on ethics of ‘freedom’ (as autonomy) and ‘authenticity’ acts as powerful structuring element in the way all Maghrebi interlocutors – across religious orientation – assess their religious education, in how they related to the Islamic corpus or religious authorities or relate to the importance of practicing. A good religious education was often framed as an education which wasn’t coercive, wherein the religious legacy is ‘explained’ and which enables the autonomy of the child. Religious practice were on turn valued to the extent that they are the product of one’s own choice or reflect one’s own desire to practice. In their assessment of the Islamic corpus, most Muslim interviewees stressed the necessity of engaging with religious scholars, and of ‘understanding’ a specific prescription before practising. And in the questions of belief, accounts which seek to demonstrate the ‘rationality’ of God’s existence appeared as important justifier for one’s belief.

Yet besides confirming the structuring role of a liberal-secular regulatory ideal, a different, non-secular and non-liberal way of relating to the self was most prominently articulated in the accounts of those respondents that I have termed orthodox Muslim. The distinctiveness of t
heir accounts lied in the fact that their ethical agency was not only structured by a liberal-secular ethical maxim of ‘autonomy’ and ‘authenticity’, but also by the necessity of living in line with heretonomous norms.
These non-secular articulations were for instance manifested at the level of the Islamic corpus, or their
ethical substance. Whereas the orthodox Muslim interlocutors stressed the necessity of ‘understanding’ the religious sources and of a critical engagement with the religious scholars, they also underlined
the importance of engaging with the Muslim tradition according to specific procedures and rules, and of acknowledging the legitimacy of Muslim scholars in the production of Islamic knowledge. Talal Asad’s
notion of Islam as a discursive tradition proved to be fruitful to account for these narratives (see also Amir-Moazami & Salvatore, 2003; Mahmood, 2005) for it allows an understanding of how a religious
legacy is shaped (and contested) according to specific procedures and criteria that distinguish between authoritative (orthodoxy) and less authoritative knowledge. Orthodox Muslim interlocutors did not relate
to the religious legacy solely according to the liberal principle of the ‘autonomy of the will’, but also insisted on the maintenance of particular ‘limits’. This appeared in the question of the Sunna as second source, the competence for renewed interpretations of religious sources (ijtihaad) as well as the reiteration of the obligatory nature of certain religious practices (such as praying or veiling). These accounts differed, for instance, from those that I have termed non-orthodox Muslims, who articulated a relationship with the Islamic discursive tradition primarily mediated by the ‘will’, or a reading of
religious sources informed by a modernist historicism. Their notion of piety was also primarily informed by a secularised understanding of ethics as goodness, although several also confirmed the importance of
practising. Bourdieu’s relational approach furthermore allowed us to observe how orthodoxies are fashioned throughout the continuous distinction from a heterodox other. This case appeared most clearly in the fact that orthodox Muslim respondents framed their own readings as ‘legitimate’ and ‘dominant’, while non-orthodox Muslim respondents placed their non-orthodox hermeneutics in a position of epistemic marginality.

Non-liberal accounts furthermore appeared at the level of the ethical agency of orthodox Muslim respondents. Praying or veiling were not only performed for the Self (or as an outcome of one’s decision or one’s will), but rather linked with a Divine command. Several orthodox Muslim interlocutors stressed the necessity of ‘pleasing God’ and refashioning one’s way of life in such a way as to live in line with God’s expectancies. The notion of ‘obedience’ appeared in this context as a religious virtue, as an aim to be achieved. Rather than taking these accounts as illustrations of cases of false consciousness, docility or passivity, I have followed Saba Mahmood’s (2005) suggestion of viewing these narratives as a reflection of a different agency model, one which does not correspond with a liberal ethical agency. A double notion of the Self seems thus to inform the ethical agency of my orthodox Muslim respondent: a first, liberal, mode of subjectivation wherein religious practices are framed as an outcome of one’s ‘will’; a second, non-liberal, mode of subjectivation wherein one’s religious self is realized in the capacity to obey God, and to fashion one’s Self in function of ‘His’ commands. This articulation of the self also eflected a different, non-liberal, understanding of autonomy and freedom, which passes through the subjection to God and detachment from other individuals.

Besides examining the religious self-practices of orthodox and non-orthodox Muslims, this dissertation has fiinally also sought to shed some light on how non-practising or non-religious second generation Maghribi shape themselves as secular Muslims. Research on Muslims in Europe has often tended to focus on practicing and pious Muslims, hence disregarding the fact that not all second generation Maghrebi practice nor believe. This also comes to join the more general observation that research on irreligiosity still remains a rather neglected scholarly enterprise in the sociology of religion. In the analysis of those that I have termed secular Muslims, a special focus went to the bodily refashioning implied in the process of becoming secular. Raised as Muslism, all secular interlocutors received a religious baggage from which they undid themselves, not only intellectually, but also affectively, in order to live in line with their ‘inner’ secular convictions. While some respondents undid themselves from (certain facets of the) the Islamic habitus in a quite unproblematic manner, in several others experienced it as an active labour upon the self and their affects. While highly explorative and hypothetical, these primary observations have allowed us to cast a light on the fact that ‘being’ secular (like being Muslim) is not only a matter of ‘beliefs’ or ‘convictions’, but that particular ‘practices’ are also involved. This highlights the necessity of unfolding the selections, practices and regularities implied in ‘the secular’, and to de-naturalise the contours of what often appears as a neutral surface or a natural body.

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