Agrama, “Questioning Secularism”

This October, the University of Chicago Press will publish Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt by Hussein Ali Agrama (University of Chicago). The publisher’s description follows.

The central question of the Arab Spring—what democracies should look like in the deeply religious countries of the Middle East—has developed into a vigorous debate over these nations’ secular identities. But what, exactly, is secularism? What has the West’s long familiarity with it inevitably obscured? In Questioning Secularism, Hussein Ali Agrama tackles these questions. Focusing on the fatwa councils and family law courts of Egypt just prior to the revolution, he delves deeply into the meaning of secularism itself and the ambiguities that lie at its heart.

Drawing on a precedent-setting case arising from the family law courts —the last courts in Egypt to use Shari‘a law—Agrama shows that secularism is a historical phenomenon that works through a series of paradoxes that it creates. Digging beneath the perceived differences between the West and Middle East, he highlights secularism’s dependence on the law and the problems that arise from it: the necessary involvement of state sovereign power in managing the private spiritual lives of citizens and the irreducible set of legal ambiguities such a relationship creates. Navigating a complex landscape between private and public domains, Questioning Secularism lays important groundwork for understanding the real meaning of secularism as it affects the real freedoms of a citizenry, an understanding of the utmost importance for so many countries that are now urgently facing new political possibilities.

Leiter, “Why Tolerate Religion?”

This October, Princeton University Press will publish Why Tolerate Religion? By Brian Leiter (University of Chicago Law School). The publisher’s description follows.

This provocative book addresses one of the most enduring puzzles in political philosophy and constitutional theory–why is religion singled out for preferential treatment in both law and public discourse? Why, for example, can a religious soup kitchen get an exemption from zoning laws in order to expand its facilities to better serve the needy, while a secular soup kitchen with the same goal cannot? Why is a Sikh boy permitted to wear his ceremonial dagger to school while any other boy could be expelled for packing a knife? Why are religious obligations that conflict with the law accorded special toleration while other obligations of conscience are not?

In Why Tolerate Religion?, Brian Leiter argues that the reasons have nothing to do with religion, and that Western democracies are wrong to single out religious liberty for special legal protections. He offers new insights into what makes a claim of conscience distinctively “religious,” and draws on a wealth of examples from America, Europe, and elsewhere to highlight the important issues at stake. With philosophical acuity, legal insight, and wry humor, Leiter shows why our reasons for tolerating religion are not specific to religion but apply to all claims of conscience, and why a government committed to liberty of conscience is not required by the principle of toleration to grant exemptions to laws that promote the general welfare.

Girl in Pakistani Quran Case Ruled a Minor

The lawyer representing a Pakistani girl charged with blasphemy for allegedly desecrating  a Quran announced today that a medical review board has determined the girl is a minor. According to the Guardian, this determination may defuse the case. The accusations against the girl, discussed here, have ignited her neighborhood and caused 900 Christians to flee for fear of reprisals. The Guardian explains:

The case has once again put the spotlight on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which critics say can be used to settle vendettas or seek retribution. Many of Pakistan’s minorities, including Christians, live in fear of being accused of blasphemy.

Once someone is labelled a blasphemer, even if they are never convicted, they can face vigilante justice. In July, thousands of people dragged a Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Qur’an from a police station, beating him to death and setting his body alight.

The potential public backlash also means few people have spoken out to change or repeal the law. Last year two prominent politicians who criticised the blasphemy law were murdered, one by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring mobs.