Hussein Ali Agrama PhD, Johns Hopkins University, 2005 Office: Haskell 238 Office hours: Mondays 1-3 pm. Sign up at Phone: (773) 834-4496 Email Interests:

Anthropology of religion, science and technology; secularism and secularity; UFOs and non-human awareness; esotericism; Islam and Judaism; law; colonial power and history; Middle East and Europe; Egypt, France. 

Associate Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences in the College; Associate Faculty, Divinity School

For many years, my work centered on questions of religion, secularity and law in modern Egypt. I aimed to offer a different perspective on what’s involved in secularity, how it’s crucially connected to (and prompts us to rethink) state sovereignty, how it shapes religious and political knowledge and authority, and especially how it has induced subtle conceptual and institutional changes within Islamic tradition in places like Egypt.

Though my projects since then have diverged and diversified considerably, they remain loosely connected by an underlying concern to better understand the secular age in which we live, the forms of sociality it enables or forecloses, and, especially, the limits it places on our capacities to imagine differently. But more than that they are linked by a desire to explore possible spaces of asecularity – which are blithely indifferent to the categories of the religious, the political, the scientific, the spiritual, and the lines we typically feel compelled to draw between them. What possibilities for new kinds of inquiry do such asecular spaces create? What unexpected kinds of imaginary can they enable?

Here’s a rundown of some of my current projects:

  1. Muslims and Jews in France
  2. Secrecy and Suspicion in Liberal Democratic States
  3. Uncanny Science, Secularity, and Modern Esoteric Knowledge
  4. UFOs: Rethinking the Grounds of Social Inquiry and the need for a New Analytics

Muslims and Jews in France

This project traces the historical and contemporary relationships between Muslim and Jewish communities in France against the backdrop of its enduring colonial legacy. Through an anthropological exploration of these relationships and their influence on the politics unfolding there, this study seeks to better discern the complex historical interplay between the “Jewish” and “Muslim” questions in Euro-America. How did these questions together become so crucial within Euro-America’s ongoing colonial influence? How has their dynamic shaped secularizing politics, especially in the post-WW2 era, and with the formation of the Israeli state? France is one important lens through which to view these questions vis-à-vis the broader Euro-American scene. This is a longstanding, ongoing project, whose complexities I have addressed briefly in a short piece, a version of which appeared in the Immanent Frame. It highlights an unsettling possibility: the provision of internationally recognized rights to some minorities may come at the expense of others, turning them into, as in Ursula LeGuin's haunting story, “the Omelas' child” of our secular international order. Raising disquieting questions about our current capacities for tolerance (which I touch upon here), this research aspires to an anthropology of tolerance in our secular age.

Secrecy and Suspicion in Liberal Democratic States

One of the most significant features of the post-WW2 era has been the global rise, expansion and increasing prominence of professionalized intelligence agencies within both states and private corporations. The “Cold War,” in many respects, was driven by such agencies. Their growing significance (which continues unimpeded into the present) signals a shift in how secrecy and suspicion are woven into society, profoundly impacting political practice, the understanding of sovereignty, public political imagination, and everyday comportment – especially within ostensibly liberal democratic states. My previous work explored how particular formations of secrecy and suspicion were closely connected with the establishment of secular states and secularized legal systems. How have the post-war shifts changed our perceptions of how we (can) relate to the state? How do they reshape the meanings and possibilities of a democratic ethos? How do they affect majority-minority relations, and the dynamics of authority – shaping who and how we trust, and how we relate? A forthcoming chapter takes an extensive first look at these questions, and identifies a form of modern secular blasphemy: the revelation of state secrets. It also expresses an apprehension that the formations of suspicion and secrecy we live under today may pose a global threat on par with climate change and nuclear rearmament.

Uncanny Science, Secularity and Modern Esoteric Knowledge

In light of their historic interdependence, it is no surprise that modern science often gets equated with secularity. Indeed, many of the contemporary sciences have historically consolidated their disciplinary status by shunning traditions of knowledge and research not for any lack of empirical validity, but for their perceived mystical and religious entanglements. While this secularizing process has been deemed essential to the advancement of the sciences, it obscures an ongoing, enigmatic countervailing process that deeply complicates their apparent symbiosis. Over the years, a number of unanticipated findings at the forefront of a variety of fields – Earth and materials science, psychology, biology, computer science, cosmology, and more – have begun to recall these long-disavowed forms of knowledge, along with their resonant mystical and religious associations. These anomalous findings, with their equivocal future-past temporalities, acquire an uncanny presence within their disciplines, upsetting their ostensibly secular presuppositions. As a result, they tend to get repressed, dismissed, or simply ignored. This project highlights and explores past and present uncanny science results, the forsaken knowledges they elicit, the processes by which they were sidelined, and the secularized presuppositions they unsettle and replace. Why, it asks, does this countervailing process continue to occur? What does this say about the relationship between modern and ancient knowledges? It also raises the question of whether the avowed secularity of the sciences, long considered so crucial to their progress, increasingly serves as a hindrance to the advancements they seek.

This project, however, reaches beyond uncanny science as a social phenomenon; it also embraces a collaborative spirit. Although social theorists and scientists have often tried to collaborate, they have been stymied by the barriers of their distinctive analytic languages, methodologies, and academic environments. A joint exploration of uncanny science, however, may help bridge this gap. By restoring the intelligibility of the forgotten knowledges evoked by uncanny science results, and connecting them with contemporary insights and enigmas, we can generate novel questions that can be pursued empirically. In ranging over a spectrum of uncanny science findings across various disciplines, scientists and social theorists may together discern an entirely new terrain of inquiry, underpinned by the alternative tenets of an asecular metaphysics. Is an asecular science even possible today? What would it look like? Might it help us achieve the advancements we seek? This project, in exploring what emerges when science and secularity begin to part ways, strives towards the development of a new analytics for scientists and social theorists alike.

But my research on this front has confronted a surprising possibility: that this new analytics is already here, and has been for a long time, hidden in plain sight, at the very heart of the state.This is because uncanny scientific findings, though sidelined by mainstream science, rarely remain untouched. Many get channeled into the realm of classified research, covertly funded through government agencies seeking any strategic advantage over adversaries. Outside the public eye and shielded by layers of secrecy, these findings develop into a modern form of esoteric knowledge, grounded in alternative presuppositions. This specialized knowledge, held by select groups of researchers engrossed in techno-scientific development, is protected by strict confidentiality. Over time, this gives rise to a shared esoteric view of reality, one that diverges sharply from the established narratives that have been ingrained in us. Shrouded within the state's security matrix, this arcane reality runs parallel to ours, yet isn't entirely hermetically sealed from it. We can discern elements of it through what social theorist Timothy Melley describes as “the covert sphere,” - a realm where hidden knowledge leaks through literature, film and social media, and where state secrets find disclosure without official sanction. Yet the covert sphere is also rife with disinformation, often crafted by the very agencies backing uncanny science pursuits, in an effort to ensure their secrecy. Ironically, the researchers themselves, confined to their secret projects and unable to share potentially key data, resort to this sphere for insights to advance their research, which then risks becoming contaminated by the disinformation originally designed to shield it. Despite the epistemic ambiguities this creates, the esoteric realm of uncanny science research exposes our world as very different and far stranger than we conventionally presuppose. It suggests that many notions we dismiss as lore may indeed be true (and vice versa), with implications for our academic disciplines. This brings us unexpectedly to a perplexing, controversial, and endlessly captivating subject: UFOs.

UFOs, it turns out, have been woven into classified uncanny science research from its very inception, imbricated within the arcane, asecular space to which it has given rise. More, that research has permeated major centers of techno-scientific innovation, including NASA, and more recently, Silicon Valley, whose interest in hacking UFO technologies has reached a peak. Yet social theorists and anthropologists of techno-science have yet to consider the possibility of UFO-related uncanny science, how it inhabits the covert sphere, how it facilitates technology development, and the esoteric expanse it establishes in its wake, partly because they have largely avoided the question of UFO reality. But recent disclosures about UFOs should alert us to just how much the presumptive grounds of social inquiry still align with the stunted versions of reality that have arisen through state-sponsored perception management efforts.

UFOs: Towards an Anthropology of the Impossible

Of the many sources of dissonance within the modern collective consciousness, UFOs stand out as perhaps the most confounding. Over a century of diverse eyewitness testimony strongly attests to their existence. Declassified documents from around the world reinforce this testimony, showing unequivocally that UFOs are real, were taken seriously by officials, and represent a genuine mystery irreducible to prosaic explanation. Yet at the same time, the UFO subject has been steeped in stigma, made the brunt of mockery, with the very prospect of their existence essentially lampooned by every established authority: the major media, the scientific establishment, academic institutions, and official channels of government. People from all walks of life have often faced withering derision and sometimes serious harm to their personal and professional reputations, simply for sharing their UFO experiences. Even normally receptive social theorists, including anthropologists with their typical commitments to the integrity of informants’ experiences, nevertheless tiptoe around the reality of UFOs. How do we square this near blanket dismissal with the wealth of available evidence, and the near complete refusal by dominant institutions to look into it?

This incongruity has only deepened in recent years, particularly with the New York Times' 2017 article “Glowing Auras and Black Money: The Pentagon’s Mysterious UFO Program,” which challenged official denials by exposing some of the US government’s clandestine UFO research. Since then, a series of disclosures from journalists, academics, and some elements of government have begun to gradually underscore the palpable reality of UFOs. Their reports reveal how coordinated precision surveillance systems have consistently detected anomalous objects maneuvering in ways beyond our current understandings of physics and technology, not just in the sky but also undersea and in orbit – suggesting a phenomenon more pervasive than previously imagined. But these disclosures recently came to a head in the sworn Congressional testimony of former Air Force intelligence officer turned whistle-blower David Grusch, who once held one of the highest intelligence ranks in the U.S. government. He alleged, based on a four-year internal investigation involving over forty intelligence personnel, that the US government is in possession of nonhuman “technical vehicles” and associated “biologics,” through a decades-long and largely illicit UFO crash-retrieval program. He further alleged the existence of a vast disinformation effort led by the government to mute and divert those voices speaking publicly on the subject, in order to keep its own efforts to harness UFO technologies under wraps. Notably, while Grusch explicitly declined the term “extraterrestrial” for his descriptions, he otherwise left the question of origins tantalizingly open.

As these revelations have mounted, a small but growing cadre of academic researchers has begun to openly call for public scientific studies of UFOs, convening conferences and establishing organizations toward this goal. In tandem, Congressional leaders have not only established a public-facing office for the study of UFOs, now termed UAP (Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena), but also sponsored far-reaching bi-partisan legislation to uncover these illicit programs and the nonhuman technologies they hold. That legislation reveals details that strongly imply a prolonged engagement with a nonhuman, possibly non-terrestrial, and highly technological form of life, and mandates a “controlled disclosure” plan for public awareness. Yet these developments, despite their seismic implications, have been largely met with an incredulous silence from the mainstream press, academia and other dominant institutions.

If these disclosures seem too much out of science fiction to be believed, this is only because of how they have flipped elements of the covert sphere into now acknowledged truths. The mainstream silence can be seen as one symptom of the government-sponsored disinformation effort, the dissonance it has created between event and representation by effectively blending lore with fact. It has not only concealed the existence of UFOs, but more importantly, the irreducibly esoteric reality associated with them. This should alert us to just how effectively state-sponsored perception management efforts have shaped our underlying senses of the plausible and the implausible, of what is possible and what is not. The recent disclosures, and especially Grusch’s revelations, should therefore raise pressing questions for the human sciences and their capacities for discernment. How much have the presumptive grounds of our social inquiries fallen prey to such managed campaigns of official skepticism? How much of reality have they walled off from us as “impossible”? What would it be like to enact an anthropology of, and in, this impossible realm?

Through an in-depth study of UFOs, this project explores these questions. Such an exploration requires that we consider how the UFO phenomenon consistently punctures our presumed secular reality with its high strangeness. This leads us to deliberately eschew such common tropes as "UFO religion" and "UFO belief," because they play too easily into the binary distinctions (i.e. belief vs evidence, myth vs science) that sustain our secular outlook. The UFO phenomenon cannily subverts these binaries, eluding reduction to either techno-scientific or psycho-social explanation. To apprehend it, we need to cultivate concepts, categories, and ways of acquiring knowledge that don't quite fit within our secular disciplines or our religious traditions: a new analytics for its uncanny presence.

Hence this project builds upon and helps ground the uncanny science initiative described above, in recognition of the historical role UFOs have played in uncanny science research. It similarly embraces a collaborative spirit, bridging scientists, social theorists, UFO experiencers, journalists and other (longstanding) UFO investigators to jointly forge the creative analytics crucial for an emerging field of UFO studies. Reflecting the global scope of the UFO phenomenon, the study conducts both historical and field research across the US, France and Argentina. It enacts an anthropology not of description, but of connection - of individuals with very different knowledge backgrounds and sociocultural milieus; it aims not to ethnographically document ways of life but to speak what can be collectively learned from and within them, about a pervasive mystery that yet remains unfathomable to us. The UFO phenomenon has always stood impenetrable to any singular endeavor. Through the establishment of a broad network of like-minded individuals, we aim to generate forward momentum on the subject within academia and beyond, in tandem with the ongoing flow of public disclosures. Thus, in describing this project, I am also issuing an invitation, for those who find these thoughts resonant: to join an emerging, ground-shifting conversation on the realities of the UFO mystery. How might the ideas arising transform the inquiries we can undertake, and even the ways we can live? I'm keen to see where this might lead.

Recent Research / Recent Publications

Selected Publications

Knowing Others: The New UFO Esotericism of D.W. Pasulka’s “American Cosmic.” Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, 10(2): 1-19.

Friendship and Time in the Work of Talal Asad. Religion and Society.

Secularity, Synchronicity and Uncanny Science: Considerations and Challenges. Zygon: A Journal of Science and Religion.

Proximate Enigmas. Immanent Frame.

Justice between Islamic Shari'a and Western Legal Tradition: Remarks on the Comparative Context. In Soraya A. Turki, ed., A Companion to the Anthropology of the Middle East.

Religious Freedom and the Bind of Suspicion in Contemporary Secularity. In Saba Mahmood, Winifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth S. Hurd, eds., After Secular Law.

Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty and the Rule of Law in Egypt. University of Chicago Press.

Reflections on Secularism, Democracy and Politics in Egypt. American Ethnologist, 39(1): 26-31.

Sovereign Power and Secular Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State? In Sullivan, Yelle & Taussig-Rubbo, eds., After Secular Law, Stanford University Press, 181-200.

Ethics, Authority, Tradition: Towards an Anthropology of the Fatwa. American Ethnologist, 37(1): 2-18.

Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State? Comparative Studies in Society and History, 52(3): 1-29.

Asking the Right Questions: Two Engagements with Islam and Modernity. Political Theory, 35(5):647-56