"Talal Asad and the Comfort of Discomfort," a Commentary by Dr. Farish A. Noor

April 4, 2007

Author: Farish A. Noor

Source: Khaleej Times


CHILDREN cry when they are hungry, but rational adults endowed with free will and agency are meant to grin and bear it. Or so we have been told during our socialisation process. However, looking at the world around us today there seem to be plenty of adults doing plenty of crying over a plethora of issues: They cry over representational rights, access to governmental institutions, power differentials, the absence of the rule of law, the tyranny of the majority and the plight of the minorities. Yet much of this wailing and bawling is taking place in the context of plural liberal societies where the individual and individualism are held as almost sacred cows in politics. How do plural liberal societies deal with difference and the relation between the state and the individual? And how do we satisfy the manifold demands of individuals in differentiated societies?

Among those who have written at length about the notion of discomfort and difference is Professor Talal Asad, currently at New York City University. During his recent trip to Berlin for the conference on religion held at Humbolt University, he once again re-stated his thesis that we know much less about secularism and modernity than we often think. Pointing to the experience of Egypt, he noted that the evolution of modern Egyptian politics – coloured as it was by variable factors such as local tradition and culture, the realities of 19th century colonialism and the demands of nationalism – has taken several turns that were unexpected.

If the debate over individual rights and the state in Egypt is so complex today, it mirrors similarly complex realities in many other parts of the Muslim world. From Egypt to Indonesia, the late 19th century witnessed the emergence of a new generation of local Muslim intellectuals whose own political, cultural and educational backgrounds were hybrid and plural. At once embedded in their own societies and plugged into the global network of ideas, they saw the modern state as the end goal of their nationalist projects. Many of them have been cast as reformers and modernisers, and set against their adversaries who were summarily labelled as ‘traditionalists’ and ‘conservatives’.

But as Prof Asad has noted in his writings, these vernacular organic intellectuals were hardly secular modernisers who were opposed to religion and ethics: On the contrary they were modernists who wished to use the tools of modernity to put into practice the ethics and morals of their religion, in order to create a new ethical polity that was at the same time rational, universal, consistent, efficient, developed and in keeping with their own ethical sensibilities.