Danielle Haque, Interrogating Secularism: Race and Religion in Arab Transnational Art and Literature (Syracuse University Press, Critical Arab American Series, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Danielle Haque (DH): I trace the origins of this book to a visit I made to Switzerland right before the Swiss voted yes on the referendum banning the construction of minarets. The rightwing Swiss People’s Party produced posters depicting a woman in a burqa against the background of the Swiss flag. Minarets in the shape of menacing missiles emerge from the Swiss flag like an infestation. The referendum and the propaganda supporting it did not surprise me, but I was surprised at the vocal media reaction in the United States that this was a violation of religious freedom. I was struck by how idealistic the US responses were about the expansiveness of religious freedom in the United States, despite the fact that it has policed religious minorities from its inception—from Native genocide, to colonial era anti-Catholic laws, to nineteenth-century massacres of Mormons. In the United States we tout the value of religious freedom and secular governance, even in the face of blatant anti-Muslim discrimination, including the Patriot Act, NYPD (New York City Police Department) surveillance, and Guantanamo Bay. Anti-Muslim rhetoric masked by secular logics inform global politics from Quebec Bill 21, which bans public servants from wearing religious symbols, to French towns banning burkinis, to fourteen US states introducing anti-sharia bills in 2017 alone.

At the time of my visit, I was contemplating my dissertation topic in my field of religion and literature, and in part because of the increase of these kinds of policies, my focus shifted to the question of how contemporary authors and artists engage with secularism. In the process of researching, I read scholars like the brilliant Tracy Fessenden, who demonstrates how canonical literature and its various genres naturalize what are Protestant values into civic ones. Beyond this historical work, much of the scholarship I found on secularism and literature is about postsecular literature that evidences a weakened, liberal, hybrid religion that could co-exist with secular modernity. But I was not interested in literature that makes claims of belonging based on assimilation or tolerance. I wanted to explore literature that instead bristled against the hypocrisies of Western secularism and exposed its workings. I focused on Islam because after 9/11 and its ensuing conflicts, political debates around secularism are often framed around an alleged “clash” with Islam. By narrowing my analysis to Arab Anglophone writers and transnational Arab and Muslim artists, I was able to engage specific histories of racialization and surveillance of Arabs in Western nations, as well as explore transnational works that defy national boundaries and create solidarities.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DH: The book addresses the ways that secularism makes claims about the meaning of religion and what constitutes proper religious subjectivity in the modern world, and the ways these claims limit religious freedoms, embodiments, and practices.  Secularism is perceived as abstract—the absence of religion—but is in fact embodied and practised, and our cultural production reflects and shapes that practice. I argue that the authors and artists in the book refute contemporary politics that frame debates about secularism and modernity solely according to their supposed incommensurability with Islam. Secularism underwrites the story we tell about the evolution of Western, modern, democratic nation-states, and their colonial civilizing mission. The works in my book do not just critique the failures of secularism to deliver on its promises of freedom, but also give us models for alternative ways of thinking about what it means to be religious and secular, and how to live in community in ways that enable us to flourish together.

I want to use this opportunity to highlight the authors and artists included in the book. My preface begins by framing the book’s argument through the poetry of Khaled Mattawa. I begin my introduction by looking at how Randa Jarrar uses Toni Morrison’s Beloved in one of her short stories, and I later conclude the book by framing its arguments through Beloved. The first chapter juxtaposes fiction by Rawi Hage and Laila Lalami to talk about human rights and migration. Mohja Kahf’s work on Muslim American literature is crucial to my theoretical frame, and I read her novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf in terms of Islamic feminisms and the umma. I discuss Rabih Alameddine’s Koolaids: The Art of War to discuss the relationship between secular discourses, LGBTQ identities, and gendered and racialized representations of Muslims and Arabs in the United States and Lebanon. Ninar Esber’s gorgeous performance and visual art is the subject of my chapter on secular interpretive practices and decolonizing museum cultures. I conclude by using Hasan Elahi’s digital art and Mounir Fatmi’s sculpture and installation art to discuss the ways in which liberal governance regulates and polices bodies and communities.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

DH: When I wrote my dissertation, and indeed published my first article from it in American Literature, I imagined Western secularism as capable of becoming more inclusive—as widening a home that could encompass more and more religious, ethnic, racial, and gendered embodiments within it. As I wrote the book, and especially as I reflected with the series editor, Carol Fadda, who continually pushed my thinking in new directions, I reevaluated my conclusions.  Inclusivity does not change foundational structural inequities; it merely incorporates more people into the status quo while excluding others. Now I think that foundational ideologies need to be dismantled.  The scholarship I use to frame my argument—by Nadine Naber, Carol Fadda, Talal Assad, Saba Mahmoud, Waïl Hassan, and Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pelligrini among others—constructs scaffolding, and the novels and art I write about provide us with blueprints from which to build.

My other previous works are in the field of Arab American studies and range from the late-nineteenth century to contemporary literature and art. I have written about Arab performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. I have also written about twenty-first-century Arab American poetry and novels as intersecting with Native and ecocritical studies, and argued that Arab American literature makes valuable and often overlooked contributions in terms of climate change. I recently finished an article on Somali American film, drama, and poetry, which emphasizes communal modes of sociality and caretaking as rights. What all of my recent work has in common is thinking comparatively and across disciplines about transnational cultural production.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DH: I hope that people interested in how religion, race, and power interact will read this book. The book takes up secular institutions that are popularly taken for granted as unambiguously good—like museums and human rights novels—and I hope it challenges readers to rethink how many of these institutions and policies are framed, especially in terms of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism. My goal was to write accessibly so that the book could be read widely, including outside of academia, and contribute to ongoing conversations about social justice. Of course, I hope it reaches people who love Arab literature and art, as well as people who know nothing about the subject, both of whom may find in this book new authors and artists to explore.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DH: Now that Interrogating Secularism is published, I am working on a number of shorter pieces as well as my second book project. I am writing an encyclopedia entry on the work of Mohja Kahf, and an essay on representations of Arab American childhood in turn-of-the-century children’s literature. Finally, I am co-authoring a book with Mukti Mangharam on the uses of literature for teaching empathy.

J: How exactly can a work of fiction critique secularism?

DH: To give a specific example of how my reading works in the book, in my chapter on the human rights novel, I review scholarship that shows how the human of human rights discourses has long been up for debate, and how Western humanism takes as its conceptual focus the Enlightenment, autonomous, rational human subject. I then look at two novels which refuse to humanize refugees, beginning with Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which I argue writes against apprehending lives through ontologies of individualism or envisioning nation-states as solutions, instead emphasizing local economies and mutual dependency. I conclude with Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, which refuses the human altogether as the unnamed protagonist turns into an actual cockroach. The question of ethics is central to the content and form of these stories—not merely because they are human rights novels, but because they challenge this very designation by shaking up its underlying secular humanism. I give an excerpt below to demonstrate how the books do so.


Excerpt from the book

Navigating Bodies

“Fourteen kilometers.” These are the first words of Laila Lalami’s novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Murad, one of the five protagonists of the novel, stands on the shores of Morocco contemplating the distance to Spain: “Fourteen kilometers.  Murad has pondered that number hundreds of times in the last year, trying to decide whether the risk was worth it.” The distance is at once small and insurmountable: “Other days he could think only about the coast guards, the ice-cold water, the money he’d have to borrow, and he wondered how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries but two universes.”

The novel begins not with sentiment but with the fact of separation measured out numerically. The precision of the number highlights the fact that citizenship is not an abstraction – or, rather, that it is an abstraction made materials, affecting bodies and the landscapes they move upon. At the same time, the effects of citizenship create wildly disparate universes of experience and define the inhabitants of those experiential universes in terms of legality. Spain is only fourteen kilometers away, and yet that distance means everything to Murad and his fellow travelers. Only they aren’t travelers. They are refugees if readers are feeling kind, or migrants, or, more likely than not, “illegals,” a term the novel employs strategically.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits uses a rickety boat to construct a framing story around the shifting temporalities and geographies of migration. Hailed as a novel that humanizes the experiences of “boat people,” economic and political refugees who cross the ocean from North Africa to Europe, I argue that it does much more profound work than merely making refugees appear human.  It uses the minutiae of domestic drama to explore the fraught relationship between nationalism, political and economic disenfranchisement, forms of Islamic practice, and burdened masculinities and femininities. It undercuts humanizing sentimentality in favor of less concrete, more relational ways of understanding ourselves as humans, as expressed through the workings of local economies. It also does so by reconsidering existentialist, colonial formulations of humanness found in the works of authors such as Paul Bowles, as he and the tourists who read him are peripheral to the Moroccan characters. Instead of working as a framing device or lens onto Moroccan culture, Bowles and his fans are submerged in stories told from multiple perspectives, those of Faten, a devout Muslim; Halima, a struggling mother; Labin, a troubled father; and two economically disenfranchised young men, Murad and Aziz. These critical axes – the human rights narrative and its colonial foundations – come together amid the failures and successes of its protagonists as they struggle to improve their lives, troubling readerly expectations for immigrant and refugee protagonists who either assimilate nicely, accept an uneasy hybridity, or yearn uncomplicatedly for home.

Like Murad, the protagonist of Rawi Hage’s Cockroach is engaged in risky activity. He exists on the economic periphery, as a shape-shifting, antisocial thief. Through him the novel even more radically resists the humanism underlying contemporary neoliberal politics.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Cockroach resist the legalizing impulse to prove the humanity of their characters in order to make the case for their inherent rights. Rather, their protagonists upend the romanticizing tropes of the humans rights narrative and the colonial impulses of the existentialist novel. They do so by critiquing the use of legal status as a salient lens for the production and erasure of selfhood, and by questioning autonomous agency, mostly facilitated by liberal democratic institutional channels, as the only source of justice. By doing so, both texts refuse a humanitarian framework in favor of a human one.

Human rights discourses are grounded in the secular, liberal narrative of the human, and this grounding limits who is considered human and what human rights can entail. Lisa Lowe underscores the colonial underpinnings of modern liberalism, contending that as it “defined the ‘human’ and universalized its attributes to European man, it simultaneously differentiated populations in the colonies as less that human.” Therefore, “even as it proposes inclusivity, liberal universalism effects principles of inclusion and exclusion; in the very claim to define humanity, as a species or condition, its gestures of definition divide the human and the nonhuman, to classify the normative and pathologize deviance.”

Western human rights discourses emerged via secularism because Enlightenment thinkers had to account for why people have inherent rights that are not based on religion. If human dignity no longer emanated from divinity, it must have something to do with an innate, universal human quality. The exact nature of that quality – mainly the autonomous, rational, secular individual imbued with dignity – is the basis for rights discourse that emerged in eighteenth-century political documents and continues to inform Western conceptions of rights, even as activists critique it as historically endorsing colonialism and globalization and excluding economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights. My purpose here is not to make the argument that the human of human rights discourse is, and has always been, exclusionary; that critique is evident. Rather, I examine how two novels makes rights claims, one by reworking tropes of the human rights narrative – the abused woman, the sex worker, the disenfranchised youth – the other by refusing to invoke the human at all.

Much of the work on human rights concentrates on violate bodies, and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits challenges the hyperfocus on the body and images of its desecration, asking readers instead to consider human lives as both embodied and socially embedded. Cockroach moves in the opposite direction, with uncompromising fixation on the body in all its kinky, scatological, voracious glory. In a reversal of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the protagonist refuses the human altogether in favor of cockroaches. These two novels engage with dominant structures of narrative – namely humanist, secular, liberal narrations of humanness – and by doing so, reorder the human.