Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Breaching Secular Law is the New Blasphemy

So I've been reading a lot of Talal Asad lately who is probably the biggest heavy weight today in Anthropology. He teaches at the City University of New York and currently specializes in the anthropology of secularism.

His analysis of this phenomenon has so far been superb as he demonstrates how secularism is not only a historical construct (this is self-evident, but the how of it is what's important which only a few people have been able to demonstrate) but also a self-defeating category. One of his recent writings (in the wake of the Muslim cartoon protest a few years ago) is about how secular critique defeats itself by criticizing the concept of blasphemy while maintaining an even more passionate obsession over its own limits over "free speech" by severely dealing with those who breach its secularized communication laws.

See the following quotation from Professor Asad on the subject:

If blasphemy indicates a limit transgressed, does secular criticism signify liberation? Modern societies do, of course, have legal constraints on communication. Thus there are laws of copyright, patent, and trademark, and laws protecting commercial secrets, all of which prohibit in different ways the free circulation of expressions and ideas. Are property rights in a work of art infringed if it is publically reproduced in a distorted form by someone other than the original author with the aim of commenting on it? And if they are infringed, how does the sense of violation differ from claims about blasphemy? My point here is not that there is no difference, but that there are legal conditions that define what may be communicated freely, and how, in liberal democratic societies, and that consequently the flow of public speech has a particular shape by which its “freedom” is determined ...

Talal Asad, intro by Wendy Brown, Is Critique Secular? p. 27-28.


  1. But the thing is, you still can't have a religion dominating the others, because then it can limit freedom of speech and certain other rights or take them away. In a truly democratic society, every religion has the same opportunity, as long as it doesn't damage society.

    1. But then it's ok to have nationalism dominate? As a non-resident or non-citizen, I can't have a driver's license, go to school, get universal medical care (in Canada) etc. We are taught to accept this kind of discrimination based on nationalistic lines, yet it's a big no no when it comes to religion. I think this is part of the secular dilemma (and double standards).