Secularism and nationalism have mostly been in retreat in the Arab world ever since the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies in 1967. But the Arab uprisings of 2010–11 ushered in a new period of upheaval and ideological ferment. In her scholarship, Lama Abu-Odeh, a feminist and legal scholar at Georgetown University, has directly challenged some of the orthodoxies of the post-1967 period, which among other developments witnessed the dominance of Islamist thinking in the Arab world. Politicians and thinkers in the Arab world came to view the Middle East almost exclusively, and misleadingly, through the prism of religion. Western academics and policymakers have made the same error. Abu-Odeh directly refutes the influential, and in her view misguided, writings of the scholars Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad. She rejects some of the widely held intellectual foundations of Islamist primacy and anti-secularism in the Arab region. Only an unapologetic and robust defense of secularism, she argues, can create a new constituency for universal rights and secular government in the Arab world. Abu-Odeh spoke from Beirut with TCF senior fellows Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna in February 2019.

Thanassis Cambanis: There’s a trend that’s really taken hold in analyses of Middle Eastern politics and culture, exemplified by the writers Talal Asad and the late Saba Mahmood, which holds that the only way to critically investigate Islamism is on Islamism’s terms. One reason this approach is attractive is because for so long the West dismissed indigenous perspectives from the Middle East. But the Asad–Mahmood position has arguably stifled debate in a very harmful way, because of the way that it polices and silences anyone from the region who criticizes Islamists. Critics are branded “native informants” or “imperial lackeys,” and are expelled from the public square. We’re eager to hear you pull this dilemma apart, as you did in your wonderful review of Mahmood’s book a couple of years ago.1 Can you explain your argument to us?

Lama Abu-Odeh: Sure. The project of the Asad–Mahmood camp is really part of a larger academic event that has happened over the past two decades, which is the Islamization of knowledge about our region. The idea is that the way to understand our region is through an Islamic lens. It argues that we must analyze the big event that has happened over the past one hundred years in the Arab world as a form of secularization carried out by the state and a Westernization of knowledge. They interpret the Islamic revival movement that started in the mid-1970s as trying to fix that. It’s an approach that’s very sympathetic to the Islamic revival. And of course, I’m very critical of that approach, primarily because I am a feminist. I think that the Islamic revival movement has had a terrible impact on women, and it’s basically given social conservatism an ideologically Islamic twist. It’s taking a socially conservative society and making it more so.

So I have now built two critiques—one for Mahmood’s book Religious Difference in a Secular Age, and one for her book Politics of Piety.2 For Politics of Piety, I criticize her for creating what I call an “epistemological closure.” She argues in the book that the only way we can intervene in the discourse of these pious women is by engaging with the discourse on its own terms. She does it in a way that makes those women completely tone-deaf to any feminist or liberal intervention. This is fundamentally an incoherent argument, because one of her primary theses is that these women used to be nonreligious and then they became religious. So I argue that if they were previously nonreligious, and then they became religious, there is no reason why they shouldn’t cease to be religious and become nonreligious again. The idea that any intervention in their discourse has to be on their own terms seems to me to be incoherent. If you want to keep their discourse closed, then you can’t explain how they transitioned in the first place. Therefore, you have to open their discourse, and if you do that, then you have to concede that they would be open to secular, liberal intervention.

Cambanis: Your response to Mahmood’s criticism of the secular state was particularly interesting. You basically say that the secular state she rallies against is a straw man—it doesn’t exist in the Middle East.

Abu-Odeh: In Religious Difference in a Secular Age, when Mahmood considers the Coptic question, I was struck by how little understanding there was of the legal infrastructure of the Egyptian state. I thought the claim that Egypt was a secular state had no foundation, especially in light of the fact that Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, has religious family laws and doesn’t have anything approaching a civil marriage as an exit option. Her idea, which the Asad school holds very dear, is that the liberal idea of separation between the state and religion misses the fact that this notion of separation actually changes the lifeworld of the religious. My response is that of course any kind of regulation changes the object regulated—that’s not an insight. For me as a lawyer, it’s taken for granted that when you want to separate the church from state, the church will have to change. But through every transformation of the religious, the nature of the secular also changes, because these two things are defined by each other. So when you regulate the religious, you are, by the nature of your action, also regulating the secular. The people in Mahmood’s school of thought talk as if the secular state is reigning and nothing happens to it, and only the life of the religious is changed. It’s not like that—every change of the religious is also a change in the secular.

I also critique Mahmood for completely not mentioning the way that the religious revival movement in Egypt has promoted a sectarian discourse in society that has actually been terrible for the Copts. If the state used to discriminate against Copts, it’s now the society that does as well. But she just blames it all on the secular state. I think that’s just a blatant misrepresentation. For anyone who has lived through the Islamic revival decades from the 1970s until now, the increase in the sectarian sentiment among the Muslim population toward religious minorities is widely apparent. There’s a consensus that sectarian sentiment is one of the terrible effects of this Islamic revival movement. But she completely blames it on the secular state. The state has played a role, but it is the Islamic revivalist movement that has played the primary role in the rise of sectarian sentiment. And that was a really terrible thing to have happened.

If the state used to discriminate against Copts, it’s now the society that does as well. But she just blames it all on the secular state.

Cambanis: Do you also argue that there wasn’t a truly secular state in the first place?

Abu-Odeh: Yes, of course there wasn’t a truly secular state. As long as you have religious family laws, you don’t have a secular state. And it’s not just marriage. It’s literally the regulation of everything that has do with the family, which is a primary unit in society. When religious laws apply to you in this domain, then of course you don’t really have a secular state, even if you secularize other laws. On the other hand, if you have religious family laws but you also create an exit option for people, where people can choose to marry according to their own church or according to civil law, then we have transitioned to a completely different state. You allow Muslims to marry Christians, for example. This law would become completely indifferent to religious affiliation. But yes, I would read the Egyptian state as a religious state.

Professor Saba Mahmood was a professor of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley. She died on March 10, 2018. Source: Kashmir Pen

The Islamization of Knowledge

Cambanis: We talk a lot about this Asad–Mahmood complex of ideas. Can you explain what this nexus of ideas is and why it matters?

Abu-Odeh: It’s an interesting school, but it’s just one of many others that have produced the effect of the Islamization of knowledge of our region. It’s not the only. I experienced the Asad school as the purest, in the sense that it is really sensitive toward any form of liberalization of religious knowledge or secularization. It ties secularism and liberalism up with the West, so that it becomes immediately frantic about any form of intervention that it reads as secular-liberal. They quickly view it as an imposition. That actually goes against the grain of other people who work within the big domain of Islamic studies. In this field, there are people who have some Islamic revivalist ideas and want to revive the tradition, but they also want to liberalize it in the process. They read the liberal traditions in the West. They try to learn from John Rawls. They try to understand how religion can be part of the public sphere. They attempt to revive the Islamic jurisprudence from the past in a way that’s much more liberal than premodern jurists allowed. So there are people who do work on this, but the Asad school seems to be completely purist in that sense. They’ve rejected all of these things outright as “Western Enlightenment.”

Michael Wahid Hanna: The thing that I find most shocking is the notion of the impermeability of culture and knowledge. Mahmood and Asad argue that these things must and should be distinct and kept apart. Is this simply a kind of reaction to imperialism and Western hegemony? What’s behind this rejection of any ideas that might have their genesis outside the region?

Abu-Odeh: Well, our region has had two currents. In U.S. academia, they sort of merged together, and at many points they became allies. There is the anti-imperialist current, where Palestine—as a cause—is the locus, and this current has developed a discourse about the West as being economically, militarily, and politically imperialist. But most of these people have drawn upon the discourse of Orientalism and have tied it to the imperialist project for the region, particularly the project’s support for Israel.

Then, there is the Islamic current, and that’s quite old. It emerged with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the building of the modern state in the Arab world along modern terms—the building of institutions, knowledge, professions, and laws based on Western law. This Islamic current was really opposed to all of that. It was opposed to the demise of the “ulama’” class in Muslim countries and importing European laws into the region. But what really defines the anti-Westernism of the Islamists is their concern about culture and ethics. The obsession of Islamists is that we should not become like Europe, especially culturally and ethically. In these domains, it feels that religion can play a part. They shudder at the thought that women would become like Westernized women. They have deep anxieties about women and gay rights—those are the obsessions of Islamists. They are not as concerned that Palestine is occupied. Rather, they worry about our culture—our social values are being hijacked by much more liberal, Western values. And that’s why they’re much more focused on things like laws than they are on military occupation.

Islamists are not as concerned that Palestine is occupied. Rather, they worry that our culture, our social values are being hijacked by much more liberal, Western values.

Cambanis: Is there some interaction between the anti-imperialist current and the Islamist current? Or are they always opposed?

Abu-Odeh: You can see how the two currents also meet and intersect. Both of them are forms of anti-Westernism—the anti-imperialist current because of its military intervention and economic imperialism, and the Islamic current because of its cultural and ethical hegemony. They can be allied together.

However, the Syrian revolution forced a split between these two camps. The anti-imperialist camp supported Bashar al-Assad, whereas the Islamists supported the Syrian revolution. It was interesting to see the anti-imperialist writers suddenly support the Assad regime. These are the writers who, since September 11, had expressed their anti-imperialism in criticisms of the anti-terror laws of the West and how they breed Islamophobia. Assad used the exact same language these supposed anti-imperialists had criticized in order to crack down on Syrian dissent. He painted Syrian dissent with an Islamist brush. The anti-imperialists went along with that, whereas a lot of the factions that participated in the revolution were Islamist, and the second current—the Islamist current—supported them. So there was a kind of a fracture that occurred between these two currents in the Syrian revolution, and right now we are living out the meaning of all of it. The war in Syria was the event that really challenged the alliance of these two currents.

Cambanis: It seems to me that this is not at all an abstract academic debate, but one that’s actually very closely tied with real power struggles and sometimes violent political struggles. It’s not just theorists who invoke the Asad–Mahmood camp’s arguments, but also all kinds of political actors, whether in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq.

Abu-Odeh: I think that’s right. This has become very clear to me since coming to AUB [the American University of Beirut] to teach. All these academic debates suddenly started to appear as positions that people hold. The academic fields have been formed by people who came from this region, who carried these ideas and went into academia, and turned them into academic positions. I’m starting to realize that there’s an academic circuit that’s quite closed, formed by people who earn their undergraduate degrees at AUB, go to the Western academy, write PhD theses, become academics, and either stay in the United States or come back to AUB. The American University in Cairo also participates in this circuit, and they cite each other’s work. They’re the same people. These circuits can include Westerners, members of the Arab diaspora, and Arab nationals, but they function within the same circuit. When you are Lebanese and you live in this region, you’re either a nationalist, or an Islamist, or whatever. And then you leave, and your views develop into an academic position, and it becomes a school of thought.

Of course, what is happening in academia is reflected in the political or ideological affiliations in the region, and there is a feedback all the time. Having said that, I did discover a few AUB academics who are associated with the Beirut Madinati movement who are fed up with those two academic currents, and are trying to build a secular, anti-sectarian left that is feminist and liberal-minded. I was thrilled to discover it. We have a lot to do by way of producing post-Islamist knowledge to counter the ruling academic currents.

Thousands march against the sectarian system in Lebanon on March 6, 2011 in Beirut. Source: Mohamad Cheblak/Flickr

Distorting Secularism under Authoritarianism

Hanna: Let’s talk about the fate of secularism. Why has secularism failed so miserably in the region?

Abu-Odeh: Well, I think it has failed miserably primarily because of the political parties and the states that spoke in the name of secularism, like the Syrian state or the Ba’ath Party. They turned it into a civilizing mission of the religious masses. It came as an ideology from a totalitarian state to be imposed on the people from above, in order to enlighten them. Secularism did not have a democratic medium in these cases. Naturally, there was a huge pushback because the ideology came from above, and it came in the form of a civilizing mission from elites. Also, the people who participated in this discourse often came from religious minority groups, so it alienated the masses, and there was a great aversion to it. Secularism would have had a much better shot if it was promoted through democratic forms of representation in which you are engaged with people and with their traditions in a democratic way. You do it in a way in which it is expressed as a desire for the separation of church from state, on a democratic level. If it had been done this way, I think it would have had a much better life in the Arab world.

Secularism would have had a much better shot if it was promoted through democratic forms of representation in which you are engaged with people and with their traditions in a democratic way.

Even now, you see that what has happened in Syria has deepened divisions. On the one hand, there is the Sunni majority, which is very religious, and on the other, the religious minorities, who are preaching secularism. Assad tries to ally with religious minorities and speaks the language of secularism, but that is symptomatic of the split that has happened. Because for many generations, secularism was the ideology of the enlightened elite who wanted to civilize the masses and teach them how to be secular—at least in the Levantine area. I’m not sure if that was ever true in Egypt.

That’s why I think secularism was received as a tyrannical imposition—that’s why it didn’t have a good life in the Arab world.

Contesting Religious Narratives

Cambanis: In the last fifteen years, most of which I spent in Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, I observed that there are very few intellectuals and very few political figures who are willing to make a robust, unapologetic case for secular government. There are many people who personally like the idea of secular government, or civil government, but they will almost uniformly not take that position in public—with a few well-noticed exceptions. To what do you ascribe that reticence or weakness of a constituency for secular ideas in public life?

Abu-Odeh: It might be that the social base for it no longer exists. In other words, once you have Islamic revivalism sweeping over the Arab world, it might be that political figures or intellectuals are not willing to preach secularism, because they don’t feel that there is the social base that will support it. But it also depends on who you’re talking about, because there is a small group of Arab liberals who do preach secularism. I think the political spectrum will be divided into two parts. On the one hand will be the left, which is historically secular, but feels that in order to appeal to the masses, it has to engage with the religious traditions of the masses. I can imagine a leftist speaking on secularism, saying “it’s complicated, I don’t know if I want to get into it.”

On the other hand, you have Islamists who would never adopt an agenda like that. In the middle, there are liberals who speak the language of separation of church from state. But liberalism has never really developed a foothold in the Arab world, ever. It had a very short life in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s, but it was a moment that was killed very quickly. The political currents that have always been powerful in the history of the Arab world are the anti-imperialist current, the statist current (in other words, royalists), and the Islamist current. We have never really had a strong liberal political party or intelligentsia. It’s always been weak and small, and these are the people who have always carried secularism as a political project.

Championing Secularism and Universal Rights

Cambanis: Today, it seems like a lot of people reread history to exaggerate the vitality of past movements like the Wafd Party in Egypt in the 1920s, the Communist Party in the 1940s, or the early Ba’ath. People who today support the separation of religion and government hesitate to say so openly. Many use the term “madaniyyah” [civil] instead of “’almaniyyah” [secular] which seems to me a real climb-down. Beirut Madinati activists were terrified of being branded as secularist. In Egypt, secularist Revolutionary Youth Coalition members went out of their way to make room for religious activists—a favor that was not reciprocated.

Hanna: In Egypt “’almaniyyah” is a dirty word. It’s seen as a pejorative in the way that it’s deployed.

Abu-Odeh: I think Beirut Madinati and the youth of the Arab uprisings—the groups that I identify with— are scared to present themselves in the language of “’almaniyyah,” because they fear they will lose an important social base of support. That comes from their assumption that you’re not going to have a following if you call for ’almaniyya, because people hold their religion dear to themselves and might be alienated by an openly secularist agenda. So they feel the need to tone it down.

Cambanis: Is there a way out of that trap?

Abu-Odeh: My own position—and many of my friends make fun of me—is that as a secularist, I find ridiculous the idea of being afraid of promoting an openly secular agenda because it will alienate your social base. My view is that you need to openly advocate for secularism, and through the practice of advocacy, you create a social base for your agenda. In other words, the only way to drive for secularism is to openly advocate it. That’s it. You start small but you will expand because there is actually an objective need for secularism, especially after decades of Islamic revivalism and the rise of horrible sectarianism. You advocate it, you hold on to your position, and before you know it, the base of supporters will increase. But you cannot have the attitude that you will rely on state power to enforce it, and that was the downfall of the old secularists. This is an ongoing fight that I have with a friend of mine in Jordan. I opposed Assad because I think he’s a tyrant, and she shot back at me saying, “So what do you want? You want to wear the veil now?” It’s almost as if the choice is between a tyrant killing half a million people or me wearing the veil. She said, “Yes, I know he’s a dictator, but at least I won’t have to wear the veil in Syria.” Many secularists are willing to be allies of horrible dictators because they think they are going to rescue them from the Islamists. And that’s the problem.

My view is that you need to openly advocate for secularism, and through the practice of advocacy, you create a social base for your agenda. In other words, the only way to drive for secularism is to openly advocate it. That’s it.

It’s really stupid, but that’s why you need to be very careful. Secularism cannot be separated from a seriously democratic agenda. It’s a very complicated path, because you do want to attract people who are religious, you want to convince them that secularism doesn’t threaten their relationships to their religion, and that there is a way in which they can be religious while the state remains secular. This is a very complicated conversation, but the only way it can become less complicated is by actually talking about it.

Potential Openings and Foreseeable Dead Ends

Cambanis: Clearly, authoritarianism has failed to deliver anything of its promise to people in the Middle East. We have also had enough decades where Muslim Brotherhood-style movements have had power—whether it’s Hamas, or the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, or other experiments—that one could start to make the argument that this form of politics is just as corrupt and authoritarian as that of the supposed secularists. Are we now ready to have a conversation about secularism with a new receptivity? Is there a new opening?

Abu-Odeh: What I’m finding terribly amusing at the moment is an uptick in the downloading of my articles in the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates is now emerging as the champion of secularism in the Arab world, as part of its war against Qatar, which is becoming the spokesperson for the Brotherhood in the region. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but secularism is now an Emirati ideology.

Cambanis: Well, it’s a sort of fake pluralism. It’s not exactly secularism, but it’s the kind where we allow churches and synagogues, but we are still a Salafi, hereditary monarchy that controls everything, with divine right.

Abu-Odeh: Actually, I have Salafi friends who live in Dubai, and they say there has been increasing pressure on them by the state. The new anti-terrorism discourse that has been adopted by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia is turning into an opposition against Islamist movements. They’re becoming drawn to a secular discourse. I don’t know how far they’re going to go with it, of course. The region is going through a very weird period. A lot of what is going on is deeply influenced by the war within the Gulf states—between the Emirates and Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These states, with all their money, are getting into every country of the Arab world. One camp is intervening in Egypt and the other in Libya. They’re meeting each other at every location in the Arab world.

What does all of this mean? We’re living the era of the fight between the Gulf states, where one is now adopting the Islamic banner and the others are completely paranoid about it. Does anyone understand how that’s going to reflect on the relationship between religion and secularism? I really don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

And, yes I agree with you: there is a fatigue with the Islamists and a fatigue with the authoritarian states, but there’s nothing moving. There is more and more fragmentation, but there’s nothing moving. So I can’t tell you anything with any confidence at the moment.

Cambanis: As a feminist, how do you make the argument for women’s rights against Islamists who want to constantly refer the debate back to religion?

Abu-Odeh: The strategy that feminists have carried out, so far with some amount of success, is to counter the cultural Islamist argument with the language of universal human rights. Thank God for the universal human rights argument. Every state has signed a bunch of international treaties, human rights charters, etcetera. When we get into an argument, we say “Human rights—this is what it says and you should change the law.” This is our counter-discourse, and thank God for it. It’s effective, even if it doesn’t necessarily settle the battle for you.

Changing Generational Attitudes

Cambanis: I don’t think that anywhere in the Arab world we have a social consensus to oppose religious authority.

Abu-Odeh: No, but I was talking with Syrian friends who live in the diaspora and they’re reporting to me the phenomenon of taking off the veil. My Egyptian friends tell me about this as well. And they’re adopting the language of personal and individual freedom. There might be a generation that is asserting its own individual choices and personal freedoms that might lead to a cultural change. I know this anecdotally because people are telling me about it and it’s coming from everywhere—Jordan, Syria, Egypt.

There might be a generation that is asserting its own individual choices and personal freedoms that might lead to a cultural change.

Hanna: I’ve heard these stories and I actually know a few cases. But I wonder if it goes beyond the anecdotal. Is this something happening in societies at a broader level, or is it confirmation bias, in which anecdotes that accord with our aspirations are elevated to something more?

Abu-Odeh: I don’t know, but something is definitely happening, and part of it is very unique to the region. But part of it is the intensification of globalization—of cultural globalization—especially for the social media generation. Think about gay rights becoming an issue. It’s so much an issue that the Egyptian government has to crack down on gay culture in Cairo to silence them. For my nephew and nieces who are in their early twenties, the idea that there is something called “gay rights” is completely natural to them. Their favorite singer is openly gay, and they see all these movies on Netflix about being gay. Homophobia to them is abhorrent. The American middle-class culture of identity politics is being globalized very intensely, and it’s being consumed by the middle classes of the Arab world, and is being introjected and accepted. I’m sure it’s happening all over the world. There is a huge difference between how my nieces think about things like homosexuality, and what their father or my brother think. There has been a generational shift on top of all the changes that are happening in the region. So maybe there’s hope. I don’t know.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

This interview is part of Citizenship and Its Discontents: The Struggle for Rights, Pluralism, and Inclusion in the Middle East, a TCF project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Cover Photo: Mourners attend the funeral of Ammar Badie (38), son of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie at the Hammad Mosque in the New Cairo district in Cairo, Egypt. Source: Ed Giles/Getty Images


  1. Abu-Odeh, “Secularism’s Fault: Religious Difference in a Secular Age: The Minority Report by Saba Mahmoud (2016) Book Review,” Feminist Dissent (Summer 2017): 148–61.
  2. Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Politics of Piety (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).