...on religion and religious movements
In much nineteenth-century evolutionary thought,
religion was considered to be an early human condition from which modern
law, science, and politics emerged and became detached. In this century
most anthropologists have abandoned Victorian evolutionary ideas, and
many have challenged the rationalist notion that religion is simply a
primitive and therefore outmoded form of the institutions we now encounter
in truer form (law, politics, science) in modern life. For these twentieth-century
anthropologists, religion is not an archaic mode of scientific thinking,
nor of any other secular endeavor we value today; it is, on the contrary,
a distinctive space of human practice and belief which cannot be reduced
to any other. From this it seems to follow that the essence of religion
is not to be confused with, say, the essence of politics, although in
many societies the two may overlap and be intertwined.
The contemporary salience of religious movements
around the globe, and the torrent of commentary on them by scholars and
journalists, have made it plain that religion is by no means disappearing
in the modern world. The “resurgence of religion” has been
welcomed by many as a means of supplying what they see as a needed moral
dimension to secular politics and environmental concerns. It has been
regarded by others with alarm as a symptom of growing irrationality and
intolerance in everyday life. The question of secularism has emerged
as an object of academic argument and of practical dispute. If anything
is agreed upon, it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from
the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable. But does it follow
that secularism is not universally valid?
...on the discipline of anthropology
But we need to see anthropology as a holistic discipline nurtured within
bourgeois society, having as its object of study a variety of non-European
societies which have come under its economic, political and intellectual
domination — and therefore as merely one such discipline among several
(orientalism, indology, sinology, etc.). All these disciplines are rooted
in that complex historical encounter between the West and the Third World
which commenced about the 16th century: when capitalist Europe
began to emerge out of feudal Christendom; when the conquistadors who
expelled the last of the Arabs from Christian Spain went on to colonise
the New World and also to bring about the direct confrontation of ‘civilised’
Europe with ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ peoples; when the Atlantic maritime
states, by dominating the world’s major seaways, inaugurated ‘the Vasco
Da Gama epoch of Asian history’; when the conceptual revolution of modern
science and technology helped to consolidate Europe’s world hegemony.
The bourgeois disciplines which study non-European societies reflect the
deep contradictions articulating this unequal historical encounter, for
ever since the Renaissance the West has sought both to subordinate and
devalue other societies, and at the same time to find in them clues to
its own humanity.
What first attracted me to anthropology was that it encouraged one to
think of human beings as having different kinds of possibility. One of
the things modernity has done, as you know, is to extinguish various possibilities.
I think anthropology is important when it comes to questioning the hegemony
of our modern capitalist assumptions. I think that that aspect of anthropology
needs to be kept alive in thinking about human existence. My point is
not simply the familiar one about anthropology as the mirror of humankind.
I believe that the serious study of different modes of being and thinking
helps us conceptually. It provokes us to think about the assumptions that
underlie some of our most cherished and taken-for-granted notions, which
mobilize our ways of life, and it disturbs us by other, very different
kinds of assumption. Out of this, perhaps, there can emerge other things
that are equally human, so to speak, but entirely new.
...on current events, public reactions, and private reflections
I was totally knocked out by 9/11 and also by the way “informed”
public opinion represented it. Not since 1967 had I been so disoriented.
The attack itself was shattering. But then even more so was the torrent
of stuff that started coming out in the electronic and print media about
Islam and Arabs. For me it was a very personal experience, as well as
an intellectual one. The confidence and sense of security one had had
in everyday life was seriously dented, of course. And I'm not referring
here to a fear of further terrorist attacks. I began to see how one could
be thoroughly unnerved even though living in a modern secular society.
And when I say unnerved, I don't mean myself, I mean the population in
general and the Muslim immigrants in particular. Muslims and Arabs have
been beaten, and a few killed. Mosques have been burned and vandalized,
individuals have been arrested on mere suspicion and not allowed access
to lawyers, and so on. All of this is familiar now. But I must say I felt
stunned when I opened “serious” newspapers like the New
York Times and whenever I watched television news. The rapidity with
which an entire population felt its nationalistic sentiments aroused,
the cleverness with which the Bush administration exploited them, the
slyness of so many public intellectuals and politicians, who had at last
found something they could together denounce, all of this was not merely
disturbing, but eye-opening. I was watching open intimidation being practiced
by a secular nation-state. Many people here and in Europe described this
as “fully understandable,” by which they seemed to mean fully
I began at that time [in the late 1960s] to be seriously interested in
colonial history and the complex conditions that colonialism created —
of which those who dominated and those who were dominated were joint authors
— in the different countries with which I was more familiar. In
a sense, everyone's fate was being partly decided somewhere else. Obviously
I don't mean that everyone has the same power of decision, or that everyone
is equally innocent in what he or she decides to do. On the contrary,
the asymmetry of colonial and postcolonial power makes the lives of many
people open to intervention by others in a nonreciprocal way. That seems
to me a fairly straightforward proposition that was illustrated by the
Middle East. Power is central in history both in the obvious sense of
what some people can do to many, and also of what someone can do to himself
or herself. That was what was so interesting about the student uprisings
in the 1960s, in spite of their many absurdities and overall failure.
It seems to me they were at once a confrontation with power and an exploration
of the limits and possibilites of power.
I interacted intensively with academics who were Marxist activists, although
I never joined any political group. [...] I was very reluctant to join
a group because of the unease I felt about making too tight a connection
between intellectual work and political work. That is, I didn't see the
two as being quite so straightforwardly connected. I felt myself to be
unequivocally on the Left politically. But I didn't see that that fact
should determine all the work I was doing and the kinds of questions I
was asking. I've always been somewhat pessimistic about the possibilities
of political activism, and certainly skeptical about the idea of political
revolution. I even became increasingly skeptical about the idea that a
rational politics would lead to emancipation.
I had become disturbed by my experience in Saudi Arabia, by media presentations
of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Britain, by the media reactions
to the student uprisings. All the rational demonstrations of what was
wrong in each case — so it seemed to me — were clearly not
having any significant effect. So I rediscovered the wheel: the assumption
that rational argument will persuade people that they are wrong is an
incredibly naïve idea. You ask any ordinary person in the street,
and she knows this already without having read any philosophy, but for
blinkered idiots like us, intellectuals, or rather for myself, rational
criticism was thought to be the way to show somebody what the truth is.
And so in a very primitive and blundering way I started to rethink this.
...on rationality and irrationality
When I was young, from at least the age of fourteen, I developed an enormous
admiration for the West — or rather, for a certain idea of the enlightened
West. I was very much imbued with the idea that the West was where one
would find Reason, where one would find Freedom, where one would find
all the wonderful things which were lacking in Pakistan. And my experience
in Britain and then here in the U.S. — and now I speak of a long
durée in my life — was one of a slow disabusement.
There were different phases, which are connected to my work [...], but
put simply, I began to realize how saturated with prejudice people
in England were. You might say I was terribly naïve to think otherwise.
And I certainly was naïve, but I had to learn to see my naïveté.
This seemed to me an incredible discovery, that I had failed for so long
to see people in England as prejudiced, as soaked in prejudice.
People are prejudiced everywhere, of course, but the English were supposed
to be living in an enlightened Western country.
Then came 1967 and the Six Days War. That was an enormous watershed in
my life, intellectually as well as politically. The first thing was the
reaction of the English, which astounded me. I couldn't get over the fantastic
delight at the utter defeat of Egypt and the other Arab countries. Joy
expressed in TV and newspaper reports and in photographs (I still have
some of these) at the thousands of humiliated, exhausted, peasant soldiers,
forced to walk barefoot over the hot desert. I could understand the joy
that Israelis must have felt at their victory. But the English? What was
the emotion that fueled the exultation of this enlightened nation toward
the ignominous defeat of a wretched, oppressed oriental people? This question
began as a rhetorical one for me, as a reproach, but slowly it pushed
me to rethink the assumptions I had for so long carried with me about
Rationality and Justice in politics.
What has interested me since the late 1970s is this: What is there about
this process of drawing out implications that strikes me as evident, obvious,
important, but doesn't so strike other people? This is not a plea for
empathy but a recognition that I am leaving something out of this
entire process, namely, how people engage with language and with their
emotions too. This is where I began to be interested in reconceptualizing
the question of ideology in terms of the experiece of the body-mind-heart.