Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech

I have just started reading this fascinating conversation between Talal Asad and Judith Butler among others. The title of the book is Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. The begins with a contribution from Talal Asad, followed by Saba Mahmood and response from Judith Butler followed by replies from TA and SM to JB. A snippet below of TA’s contribution from Wendy Brown’s introduction to the book.

“Free speech, Blasphemy, and secular criticism,” Talal Asad’s erudite and indirect critique of received Western understandings of critique, performs rhetorically what it calls for explicitly. Rather than pressing a linear logical analytics, it interrupts at every turn a set of discursive oppositions between Islam and secular Christianity on issues of freedom, speech, and blasphemy, and between a political Islam identified with aggression and death and a secular West identified with rationality and life. Asad has long resisted attempts to define the secular and the religious and has shown them rather to be interdependent and fluctuating notions constituting a crucial domain of modern power and governance. Thus the status of belief and blasphemy alter in relation to the powers of the modern state and are, among other things, effects of expansions and changes in these powers. 

So TA fires the opening salvos in this intense dialogue by taking potshots at the structural binary that lumps ‘Christianity, secularism, reason, tolerance, free thought and speech on one side, and Islam, fundamentalism, submission, intolerance, restricted thought, and speech on the other side…’ Questioning this binary, he is ultimately framing the question of why it is that violence in the name of God appears so shocking, but violence in the name of secular nation, or democracy, does not invoke similar feeling.

In Saba Mehmood‘s contribution, Religious Reason and Secular Affect, she interrogates the reasons why Christian secular reading of blasphemy differs from that of Muslims. The difference in the ‘reading practices’, according to her, is more semiotic than developmental. Read in this way, Christianity does not represent a modernist achievement at which Islam has not yet arrived, but just laden with different ways of reading the religious Deities.

Judith Butler’s response to TA and SM does not challenge the identifications of Western bias in representations of Blasphemy. Rather she affirms them and underlines the importance of organising normative frameworks within which terms such as blasphemy and free speech operate. The normative frameworks circumscribe the semantic fields. Understand the semantic field here as a constellation of terms that hang out together. In this the terms connect free speech with secularism with liberalism with Christianity are all part of a semantic field. Butler argues that they come together under a normative framework…. which can differ in different historical settings. The normative frameworks do not just contain these semantic field but they also circumscribe their critiques.

More on this later…

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts


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  2. Free Speech in the Youtube era… | Just questions! - 19/09/2012

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  3. Powers of Freedom… | Just questions! - 20/09/2012

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