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MESA Annual Meeting - October 10-13, 2013
P-3313 AME: Religion, Media and Politics: Perspectives from Anthropology

Performativity, Agency, Citizenship: Debating the Chaos of Fatwas in the Arab World
Alexandre Caeiro (QFIS)

The twenty-first century has witnessed a proliferation of calls for regulating ifta in the Muslim world. A
specific diagnosis appears today to be almost universally shared: the multiplication of fatwas in the
public sphere has led to a chaos, causing perplexity among believers and constituting one of the major
quandaries facing the ummah. A wide range of solutions targeting the state, religious institutions, media
practitioners, and the Muslim community have been proposed. The problem nevertheless seems so
intractable that the question increasingly asked is not how to regulate the production of fatwas, but
whether regulation is at all possible in todays media-saturated world. Drawing on a variety of sources
(from the proceedings of international fiqh conferences to religious talk shows), and reading them in
light of anthropological scholarship on media, religion and politics, this paper makes two main
arguments that seek to complicate the narrative of chaos.
First, it argues that the narrative conflates a number of different phenomena, including the reflexive
circulation of discourse within publics, shifting conceptions of knowledge and authority, the impact of
new media technologies, the logics of the marketplace, the politicization of the fatwa, the regulation of
deviant juvenile religiosities... These phenomena, however, are governed by incommensurable sets of
assumptions regarding the performativity of ethical speech, the agency of Muslim subjects, and the
proper relation between religion and politics.
Second, the paper proposes to see the urgency underlying current calls for regulating ifta as the result
of a distinctively modern understanding of the functions of the fatwa itself. I argue that the discourse of
chaos presupposes the secular temporality of the modern nation-state, and suggest that efforts to
regulate the production of fatwas must ultimately be placed in the context of a secular imperative of
clarity an imperative that continually problematizes the fatwa and its mode of inhabiting the
interstitial spaces between the legal, the ethical, and the political.
Despite these shortcomings, the narrative of chaos cannot be dismissed because it has become the basis
of much public deliberation throughout the Arab world, shaping debates about the threat of
international terrorism, the legitimacy of popular uprisings, or the reform of religious and educational
institutions. In conclusion, I suggest how we might trace more precisely the performative effects of this
discourse, the ambivalence of the media ecology upon which it depends, and the reconfiguration of
pious subjectivity that it enables.