Recently I attended a public lecture by Douglas Blum, a political scientist (with ambitions to be a cultural sociologist) who is involved in youth studies. He told that in current debates in youth studies, the old “agency” vs. “structure” debate has made a remarkable comeback. I found that somewhat surprising, since I have learned from anthropological debates in the past two decades that it makes little sense to pit “agency” against “structure”: Conformity and submission to power require a lot of agentic effort, too. And who am I to determine which of the different structuring powers humans live with is “structure” and which may support their “agency”? I was therefore surprised that scholars in other disciplines would still hold to a conceptual opposition where “agency” meant only and exclusively individuals' capacity to act differently from, in opposition to, or in ways not anticipated by “structure.” (What is meant with “structure” here are the traditions, mores, habitus, and relations of power that shape the individuals who grow up in a given society.) I told this to Blum after the talk, and he was somewhat surprised that anybody would think of agency in any other way than that. From his point of view, „agency“ without a its structural counterpart would explain nothing. It would then be simply identical with the ability to do something. And why invent a jargon word for something that is already clearly expressed in plain English?
In Egypt, to reach full adulthood is a highly conventional and pre-structured affair, but the path towards ideal normality is a rocky one. It takes resources, effort, wits, initiative and innovation to do become the kind of woman or man who is good, normal and respectable in a conventional sense. And some people fail. Many are critical of the cost and effort it takes, but few question the underlying aims and principles of the process. So adulthood in Egypt is not a story of the binary of the society's power to shape me versus my ability to do something different (except if you belong to the few who question the whole conventional package). It is a story about the ability to do something that from the point of view of the people involved is important to do.
The consequence has been that I have largely stopped using the word „agency“ in my academic writing because in the way I understand it, it indeed would not add anything to the plain English concept of being able to do something. Many others have had this insight way before me. Saba Mahmood credibly questioned the assumption that the exercise of agency would automatically imply a striving for freedom. James Laidlaw proposed abandoning the concept altogether because it comes with the underlying assumption that the researcher knows better what is and is not structure and what kind of action counts and what not. I agree with both.
And yet anthropology (and social sciences in general) remains haunted by this binary because it points at something that is close to the heart of most scholars in a very leftist academic discipline: the possibility of resistance.
In some of my own work, I have tried to take distance from resistance, and instead I have followed trajectories of people who rather than resisting the compelling „grand schemes“ (such as religion, other moral ideals, love and marriage, social mobility and migration) which they subscribed to, lived along with them in a sincere but half-hearted way: not resisting them, but also not crafting their lives consistently according to them. Evasion, ambivalence, and ambiguity were words I often used when writing about their life trajectories. In some cases I had expected to find resistance, but found none. While some of my friends in urban intellectual milieus would question the theological foundations of the Islamic revival, in the village where I did fieldwork, those theological foundations were beyond questioning and doubt, irresistible and highly compelling – so much indeed that they were also shared by and argued for by people who nevertheless would not live according to them. In other cases, I encountered acts that looked like resistance but did not seem to pose a threat to the powers they were aimed at. Some people I met were proud of their ability to manipulate the corrupt regime in which they were forced to live. They worked badly, diverted ressources, and told me that doing so gave them a sense of dignity and power. I preferred not to interpret this as resistance against the regime, but rather as a form of scornful accommodation that unintentionally became a part of the way Egypt was – and still is – governed.
But then came the revolutionary uprising of January 25, 2011. Along with many other anthropologists, I tossed all my misgivings about resistance and enthusiastically shifted to a much more engaged mode of writing: not just about the revolution, but for the revolution. Now there was open resistance against an oppressive regime, many of my friends and aquaintances were involved in it. How could I not support them? Their story became the last chapter of the book, and it is a chapter that does not fit in well with the rest. Analytically, it is weaker than the preceding ones, written very much still in the moment of the contestation, openly partial (which I'm OK with) and at times bluntly partisan (which I'm not OK with). But I could not leave it out either. It was a part of the reality I encountered, and it was perhaps the part I sympathised with most.
Interestingly, different readers have interpreted the theme of ambivalence, accommodation and resistance in the book quite differently. On the one hand, Maria Golia, a journalist who reviewed the book, highlighted it as a work that shows that while some Egyptians are revolting against the state, many others work hard to be part of it. On the other hand, the anthropologists Nadia Fadil and Mayanthi Fernando mentioned the same book in a critical essay where they argued that my work was part of an approach that privileged resistance towards the Islamic revival and failed to take seriously my interlocutors' ethical work to fit in to conservative values and institutions. (Personally I find the second reading distorting. They read a binary of discipline versus resistance into my work, although the argument I make in that work is that there is a wide field of accommodation, evasion and ambivalence that is about neither resistance nor discipline in a consistent manner. But evidently my book could be read in a binary way, too.)
Perhaps different readers saw different things depending on the specific struggles which they themselves cared about. And while I may not have intended to write about resistance, I certainly did phrase my argument explicitly in opposition to the theoretical take Fadil and Fernando subscribe to. In the spirit of academic debate they replied by highlighting their arguments in opposition to others, including mine. Could one say that I was resisting their preferred way to understand what was going on, and they were resisting mine and others'? It does not sound like the right way to phrase it. We would usually not call academic difference and disagreement resistance. To speak of resistance implies that there is an asymmetry of power, and only when I'm in the weaker position acting against those in the stronger position, it is resistance. This asymmetry gives „resistance“ a moral high ground in exchange for strategical disadvantage.
Therefore it is a common rhetorical trick to depict those one criticises as more powerful than oneself. I have not been innocent of using that trick. It goes easily unnoticed because people who use that trick commonly don't think that it's a trick. They understand that this is what is really going on: my position is the weak and truthful one against your strong and oppressive one.
So when we as academics question the romantic search for resistance (and let me repeat: I agree that we should), we are also questioning somebody's (possibly our own, possibly our peers', possibly our interlocutors', possibly our society's) taken for granted assumptions about who is powerful and oppressive, and who weak and righteous. (And we may also question whether all power is oppressive, and whether the weak are generally righteous.) Or to return to the “structure” and “agency” debate: we are questioning claims about what actually constitutes the relevant “structure” against which we are supposed to measure “agency”.
In a poetry slam in the UK in 2017, the poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan presented a powerful poem about the pressure she as a British Muslim faced to fulfill a public expectation of how and what she ought to be in order to be accepted as a human among others. In a passage that received large applause from the audience she said:
because if you need me to prove my humanity
I'm not the one that's not human
Her poetic performance is precisely the kind of resistance academics are best acquainted with: speaking truth to power. In fact I became aware of her poem because some fellow anthropologists posted the Youtube video and accompanied it with words of recognition and praise. They were among precisely the same anthropologists who have made a credible point against the romantic search for resistance, and who have argued that the search for those who resist excludes those who don't. But now they were very supportive of creative resistance.
So clearly the debate was not about resistance as such, but rather about the question: resistance to what?
Manzoor-Khan expressed in powerful poetic words that which some anthropologists have argued in academic prose. They have worked to question and unsettle (or should I say resist) taken-for-granted secular-liberal assumptions that they (for a large part rightly so, I would say) see as dominant and hegemonic in western societies. This is why they find it important, when writing about Muslims, not to privilege those Muslims who critique, rethink or resist their conservative or established religious traditions, because such privileging would in fact only reproduce the liberal-secular hegemony's bias, and put more pressure on European Muslims to be what the secular public sphere wants them to be instead of being themselves. But this is of course not a fundamental critique of resistance. Rather, theirs is a demand for a different target of resistance: not conservative values and religious traditions, but an all-pervasive, silencing secular-liberal hegemony should be resisted in order to make visible its underlying mechanisms of exclusion and violence.
Which resistance should be recognised and supported, and which claims for resistance need to be taken under critical scrutiny? This is a question that can and indeed should be part of social scientific inquiry, debate, and questioning.
In my view, such questioning is most convincing and truthful when it is empirically based, grounded in the knowledge and awareness of concrete social contexts and conflicts – because otherwise we will keep conveniently questioning only those claims we already find questionable. Some examples of what I mean:
At the time of its emergence in western Europe at the end of the 19th century, Zionism was a liberatory protest movement insofar that it rallied for Jewish self-assertion against hegemonic European anti-Semitism. But when it turned into a successful colonising project, Zionism became the ideological foundation of a regime based on violent conquest, dispossession and dominance over Palestinians. Opponents of Zionism rightly assert that the colonising spirit was ingrained in the movement from the beginning. And yet many current liberation movements also carry chauvinist and supremacist tendencies that may or may not become actualised depending their success and changing historical circumstances. Zionists today may in turn claim that Israel is a precarious and small David facing the hostile Golyath of the Arab countries, but this claim becomes questionable to say the least when we consider that Israel is in possession of nuclear weapons, has unconditional support by the world's leading superpower, successfully and continuously occupies territories it has conquered by wars it has won, and routinely cooperates with the secret services of neighbouring Arab countries.
Liberal secularism is powerful enough in Europe to naturalise some forms of pluralism and difference as good, while problematising and scandalising those forms that don't fit into its own logic. Liberal media in Europe may celebrate Muslims who prefer not to follow ritual obligations such as Ramadan fasting as ”courageous”, but in fact it takes no less courage to refuse to shake hands with the opposite sex when doing so causes a moral panic in the same liberal media. However, a liberal secularist spirit of not only accepting but also embracing plurality and difference, also is an enabling condition of possibility that made Manzoor-Khan's audience in the poetry slam appreciate her words, and applaud her lines that questioned the questioning of Muslim humanity. That is, much of the critique of liberal secularism is itself grounded in liberal-secular values and structures of public sphere. Furthermore, it may be questionable if there exists such a clearly definable object as liberal secularism in the first place. Quite different stances are being taken and claims are being made in Europe in the name of secular and liberal principles. Secularism comes in varieties, and especially the absence of socialist secularisms in the scholarly debates on Islam and secularism is striking. Liberalism, in turn, is neither internally unified, nor is it the only powerful discourse of moral and political being around.
Even if we agree that there indeed is such a discursive formation as liberal secularism, whatever its specific contours may be, we need to carefully ask where and when it is powerful and where and when less so. In places like, say, Egypt, liberal secularism may not have that unchallenged power, and it is questionable if the same discursive-institutional structures that can be found at work in western Europe even exist in much of the Middle East. Not shaking hands with the opposite sex causes no scandal, but breaking the fast in daytime during Ramadan often does, and in some countries (not in Egypt though) it is a criminal offence. In most parts of Europe being a Muslim is a stigma, and hatred towards Muslims is the currently predominant form of racism. But in most of the Middle East, being a Muslim is an unmarked category of normality. Christianity, heterodox Islamic faiths, and non-religion come with a stigma of difference and require declarations of loyalty. In Egypt at least, contemporary political and religious common sense places Jews almost automatically into the category of the enemy, and explanations and justifications are needed when representing Jews as not enemies.
Some supporters of Islamist movements in Egypt have claimed that Muslims are the persecuted religious group in Egypt. Followers of certain Islamists movements (especially the Muslim Brotherhood) in fact are severely and brutally persecuted, and some of the followers of those movements would like to identify themselves as ”the Muslims” in exclusion of other Muslims, such as those who support the regime, or those who work in the security apparatus and persecute them. Theirs is a claim that is sincerely made and it needs to be taken seriously as such, and yet it should not be taken for granted, unless we are also willing to take for granted claims by white supremacists that white people are being discriminated in the USA.
All of this has been stated by others many times, and may not be new to any of my readers. Nevertheless, I find it important to remind myself as a researcher that I need take distance to analyse and understand the specific desire and romance of resistance that I may be most drawn to. This is not a call to unideological impartiality, which would be an illusion anyway and usually only hide my ideological bias without overcoming it. Rather, a reflective distance to my own desires and causes may first of all help me to recognise the tremendous work that goes into conformity, and also to recognise that overall, pursuits conformity and adaptation probably are vastly more prevalent than resistance among most humans. Second, such reflective distance may also help me to take seriously stances that go against the grain of the stances I hold. This, by the way, is not the same as taking them for granted. Taking someone seriously means to engage with them and to consider the possibility that their claims might be true or at least effective, and this can be an engagement in agreement and disagreement alike (impartiality, paradoxically, can also be a way to not take people seriously). Third, such reflective distance warns me of the danger of useful dichotomies. If I put all my effort into challenging, for example, either a liberal-secular hegemony in Europe or a conservative identitarian hegemony in the Middle East, I will miss out the fact that neither really are that hegemonic in either place, nor are they the only important discourses around, nor are they clearly distinct from one another; and they are also far from united internally. And what is a hegemonic power at my workplace maybe quite different from what is a hegemonic power at my home. Last but not least, such reflective distance may help me to inquire about the specific balance of power in a given time and place that makes some people and positions powerful and others less so – even if it means that those who I thought to be the courageous resisting ones may turn out to command a fair share of hegemonic power and privilege.
But to give up resistance as a value and an aim altogether would mean to accept that the power of the strongest rules the world and it's okay. Yes, the power of the strongest largely does rule the world. But it's not okay.