Secular Power and the Predicaments of Knowledge Production on Muslims in Europe


This article is part of the TRAFO Series “Provincializing Epistemologies”.

By Schirin Amir-Moazami

In recent years, public discourse on Muslims and Islam in Europe has gained unprecedented salience. Triggered by the growing visibility of Islamic forms of social life and religious practices in European public spaces, by the alleged or factual increase of forms of radicalization of Muslim youth, and by the global spread of Islamic terrorism, questions related to Muslims and Islam have witnessed a veritable “discursive explosion”.

As Foucault taught us a long time ago, any incitement to discourse is embedded in and expressive of techniques of power, which govern and organize what can be said, thought, and articulated, and what cannot be said, thought, and articulated. Discourses are structured and ordered. Moreover, the entire process of counting, accounting, managing, regulating, controlling, disciplining, and researching bodies and souls is always essentially a process of selection, distinction, and division.

What we can learn from Foucault’s analysis, in particular, is that the “incitement to speak” bears specific functionalities and that the explosion of discourse simultaneously always implies its regulation. Seemingly contradictory, the shortage of discourse and its proliferation through incitement are thus intimately bound together by the regulating powers undergirding both. These powers, more importantly, are implicated in various forms of knowledge production, and this is what I want to bring to the fore in this paper. More specifically, I am concerned with the relationship between epistemological structures of discourses on Islam and Muslims in Europe, on the one hand, and the related status of the (social) scientist who is entitled, sometimes even compelled to speak the truth, on the other. And I am preoccupied with the question how this structure is sustained, if not even produced by a post-colonial, racial, and secular nation-state framework, in which deviant religious minorities are incorporated into a civilizing project that either normalizes or exceptionalizes difference.

Scholarship has started to critically investigate the techniques of power involved in the “incitement to discourse” on Muslims in Europe. Some have observed, for example, that through the production of an allegedly coherent Muslim “population”, a Muslim subject is both investigated and interpelleated and thereby turned into a manageable category. Others have indicated the intimate alliance between processes of securitization, on the one hand, and politics geared toward Muslim’s integration, on the other, and signaled its contribution to the production of a fixed Muslim “milieu”.

While these works hint at the importance of expert knowledge contributing to reconfigure Islam as an object of policies and a discursive object for Muslims themselves, the broader domain of knowledge production – its methodologies, disciplinary practices, and epistemologies – still needs closer investigation as structurally ingrained in processes of governing Muslims in Europe.

Following this observation, I suggest departing from the notion of provincializing epistemologies in a twofold manner: First, I think it is important to understand the genealogies of epistemologies operative in knowledge production on Muslims in Europe. Second and relatedly, this implies politicizing and marking the different stocks of knowledge relevant in this field. These angles, I suggest at least tentatively, lead us to the question as to how current forms of knowledge production on Muslims in Europe are rooted in a modern notion of religion as a denotable and manageable object of investigation, enabled and sustained by secular nation-state institutions. The kind of labor I therefore suggest – even if again preliminarily at this point – is to call attention to the formation and reproduction of disciplinary divisions, which at least partly mirror the practices of dividing the religious from the secular.

Unsettling questions

Governments, funding institutions, and universities throughout Europe have recently fostered various kinds of research programs on Muslims and Islam in Europe. The field is obviously broad and sweeping in terms of designs, methodologies, and research questions. However, what unites many of these initiatives is their responsiveness to policy aims. A central thread animating research on Islam in Europe today is therefore the implicit or explicit question about its adaptability to a liberal-secular order: Can Muslims be integrated into European nation-states? Are their forms of social life and religious practices compatible with secular forms of conduct and sensibilities? Can Islam be reformed and tamed like Christianity? Are Islamic gender norms becoming egalitarian or will they remain oppressive?

What thus needs to be provincialized, first and foremost, is the hegemonic framework that enables and (re)produces a certain set of questions. Academic knowledge production seems to be both trapped in and productive of this very framework. Thus, even if the response is a benign one, concluding that Muslims in Europe are well on their way to secularization, individualization or liberalization, and that the majority fit nicely into the liberal-secular orders of European nation-states, the very framework of the questions remains untouched, and so does their direction. These benign efforts to normalize Islam (driven by the fear of essentializing it) are, in other words, part and parcel of the same discursive structure, as they leave intact the framework and the gaze through which the Other is investigated. Accordingly, Islam is either invasive or it is disappearing. It is either freely chosen, individualized, or it is expressive of a deviant unbridgeable alterity. In brief: Islam in Europe is either becoming a religion proper or it remains outside of the European imaginary.

My assumption is that we cannot understand this framework without addressing the secular as its operative matrix that pervades the will to knowledge, truth, and power in this field. In other words, we cannot understand the political and epistemological repertoire undergirding knowledge production on Muslims in Europe, if we do not understand the secular grammar underpinning the “scientific” repertoire, which animates and drives modern social scientific knowledge generally, and the production of knowledge on “religion” in particular.

When evoking secular power, I do not refer only to the obvious: i.e., assumptions of science and reason as opposed to faith and belief, or more broadly the immanent as opposed to the transcendent. More substantially, I understand the secular as a mode of governing the religious as well as the borders between religion and politics within a modern nation-state framework – spelled out in diverse arrangements and dynamics of state, religion, and the nation. On the other hand, I mean a more tacit set of embodied and habitualized assumptions translated into – often unmarked – epistemological presuppositions about what counts as proper religion and what does not. This component also includes research practices that turn “religion” into a defined and distinct object of study. I argue that these two components need to be understood as powerfully undergirding academic research and knowledge production on Muslims in Europe more broadly.

If we understand secular power as the driving force for fostering a certain set of questions, which nation-state institutions disperse and delegate, we need to raise the question how (social) science operationalizes these questions and translates them into research programs.

Surveying and Surveilling

This operationalization is most obvious in the proliferating quantitative surveys, which undeniably dominate the field, and it is particularly salient in many of the commissioned studies on “Islamism”, “Islamic fundamentalism”, and more recently “Salafism”. Responding to the requests of the security state, these studies often emanate from a mood of suspicion. Even more, much of the cartographical repertoire of knowledge running through the security services and state bureaucracy has entered into the repertoires of academic knowledge production and vice versa. In their continuous attempt to refine and differentiate, numerous academic studies investigating phenomena of “political Islam” in Europe, broadly speaking, thus repeat a logic of diagnosis, therapy, and prevention (for a paradigmatic example see:

While such studies spend a lot of time reflecting on the solidity of the methods they apply, they often rather say little about how the categories of measurement came about. Even more, their legitimacy and authority largely depends on the claim to provide generalizable knowledge, universalizable theories, and abstract categories. Their authority also depends on the invisibility of the researcher, whose normative and epistemological assumptions purposefully remain outside of the scope of research for the sake of providing objective data.

There would, of course, be a lot more to say here, for instance about the underlying categories, the analytical tools, or the politics of funding, as well as about the question how numbers and figures travel, circulate, and eventually turn into naturalized facts. If taken seriously, such an investigation would also bring us back to some of the foundational matters of social science paradigms, especially in their positivistic and universalist features.

At this point, however, I am more concerned with the status of the (social) scientist. The invisible arm of an objectified and neutralized state bureaucracy that has started to measure Muslim’s conformity to an allegedly pre-constituted liberal-secular order is replicated and sustained by the positivist researcher who measures Muslim’s degrees of religiosity and life conduct without reflecting upon his/her own epistemological presuppositions. The invitation and sometimes charge to examine certain populations, partly in their most intimate spheres through a sensorial guise signifies what Haraway called “a leap out of the marked body into the conquering gaze from nowhere. A gaze which inscribes all marked bodies, that makes the unmarked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent, while escaping representation.” (Haraway 1988: 581). More importantly, the abstract viewer, entitled to gaze on the other, is turned invisible precisely by exposing and marking the other as different and particular. In this way, many of these studies are inherently complicit with and productive of processes of normalizing or exceptionalizing difference that are operative in a nation-state framework.

What is thus important to note is the tension between the claims to abstractness, universality, and neutrality and the intimate relationship to a political framework that enables and animates research. Precisely because of their epistemological underpinnings, this tension is also present in research initiatives that are officially detached from policy aims.

The relationship between the increased call for “reliable data” and political intervention is of course by no means exclusive to this field. Quantitative social science has since its inception been a prominent component of governmentality within and outside of nation-state borders. Ian Hacking and many others showed how the inception of statistics in the 19th century as a tool of measurement of populations simultaneously functioned as a technique to re/produce normality and deviance in the service of emerging nation-states and their imperial aspirations. Moreover, the simultaneous rise of categories of race and religion in imperial power need to be understood in conjunction with the emergence and division of disciplines as complicit in practices dividing and categorizing populations into units of analysis.

Provincializing “religion”

To be sure, the proliferation of policy-oriented knowledge production is by no means limited to quantitative methods and it is not limited to commissioned work either, even if this kind of work is legitimized precisely because of its claim to antiseptically reveal the inner truths of (Muslim) populations. Academic knowledge production broadly located within the qualitative-affine discipline of sociology of religion is all but immune to these predicaments. Interestingly enough, most notably the study of Islam and Muslims in Europe is paradigmatically entrenched with what Armando Salvatore long ago termed “Weberianism”. While repeatedly acknowledging the limitedness of the results, gathered through qualitative methods, most sociologists of religion are much more silent about the limitedness of the underlying notion of religion when it comes to the study of Islam or Muslims in Europe. By innocently merging Islam into an allegedly universal category of religion, i.e., by turning it into a religion proper, the assimilatory force of the nation-state vis-à-vis its minorities is remarkably mirrored in the assimilatory force of epistemologies deemed universal.

The tools available in the archive of sociology of religion, in other words, themselves require closer inquiry, not only because of their Orientalist and racist legacies (see Boatca forthcoming in this series), but also because they are largely predicated on specific, i.e., Christian experiences. When thus considering knowledge production on Muslims in Europe as a secular practice, I also refer to the sustainment, even naturalization of these particular experiences – which, interestingly enough, seem to remain unaddressed most notably through the inspection of the Other. More importantly, recent critiques of Orientalism have shown how much these experiences and their translations into conceptual tools were never formulated in isolation but in correspondence with and – more often – rejection of other so-called “world religions” as internal or external allies or – more often – enemies.

It might therefore be useful to recall some of the seminal critiques of disciplinary formations of religious studies as well as Orientalist studies in the 19th and early 20th centuries to reveal how the formation of a modern notion of religion shaped the ways “other religions” have been investigated. These critiques elucidate how the rationalization of religion through a Christian theology simultaneously contributed to a construction of religion as a compact notion and a distinctive field of investigation. Furthermore, they might help us to understand how certain generalizable methodologies and supposedly universal categories surrounding the study of Islam worked as both Orientalizing and secularizing forces.

While such an inquiry could contribute to locating the Orientalist legacy of certain research paradigms and their epistemological grammars, I find it similarly important to look at the legacy of the “Jewish Question” (as the internal enemy) and its salience in the emergence of the nation-state, as well as its institutions of knowledge production. To recall this story might help us to understand how racial characteristics of the nation-state are structurally related to tools of measuring, regulating, and producing minority populations as dividable “units of analysis“ and, in turn, how this is mirrored in similar mechanisms of governing and guarding the borders between the religious and the secular.

What I thus find interesting to think through further is the intimate relationship between universalist categories of religion and the claim of universalizable methodologies and theories. This is by no means specific to the “Muslim question” in Europe. This question, however, brings this connection forcefully to the fore.

Provincializing epistemologies in this field thus means, first, shifting the focus of the questions. Instead of continuously asking whether Muslims can adapt to European imaginaries, we need to ask which kinds of epistemologies, and which methodological and conceptual tools they generate, animate this question. We also need to ask how a specific governmental framework conditions the questions that are ingrained in a secularized set of concepts of religion deriving from a Christian legacy and vice versa and how these are embedded in unmarked presuppositions about what counts as proper religion, but also what counts as proper knowledge. This also bears the question whether these tools are helpful in understanding the complexity of Islamic discursive traditions in their various articulations.

Provincializing epistemologies hence also requires a practice of disclosing what has largely become a naturalized category of religion and a secular framework that animates it. Relatedly, it implies awareness of the limitations especially of those methodologies that claim objectivity and a stance outside of the political arena. What is at stake thereby is more than a constant reflexivity of the position from which one speaks and of what Gadamer called the “wirkungsgeschichtlicher Horizont” (effected historical horizon) that often escapes us because of its largely embodied character.

It finally means recalling earlier suggestions by anthropologists and sociologists of Islam to understand Islam as a discursive tradition in its current entanglements with modern technologies of power. This, in turn, means to dwell more seriously on archives of knowledge located in Islamic discursive traditions to understand the complexity of its articulations within particular arrangements of European nation-states and their various modes of power, including the powers of the secular.

Further Readings:

Donna Haraway (1988), “Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, 575-599.
Armando Salvatore (1999), Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity. Ithaca Press.
Talal Asad (2003), Formations of the Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Further Readings on TRAFO:

Ruth Streicher/Schirin Amir-Moazami (2016), Reflections on Hegemonies of Knowledge Production and the Politics of Disciplinary Divisions. TRAFO—Blog for Transregional Research.
Ruth Streicher/Schirin Amir-Moazami (2015), New Discussion Series on TRAFO: Provincializing Epistemologies. TRAFO—Blog for Transregional Research.

Schirin Amir-Moazami is Professor for Islam in Europe at the department of Islamic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests include critical theory, secularism, Islamic movements in Europe, and gender. She is currently finishing a book manuscript on governmental techniques geared towards the “integration” of Muslims in Germany and the question of how these are related to secular politics generally and regulations of bodily practices and religious sensibilities more specifically.


Citation: Schirin Amir-Moazami, Secular Power and the Predicaments of Knowledge Production on Muslims in Europe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.4.2016,

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