Beyond Religious Freedom:

Engaging the R word

posted by Helge Årsheim

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomAs it promises on the dust jacket, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom delivers a critique of the politics of promoting religious freedom that is both timely and forceful. The critique expands and empirically illustrates an argument that Hurd has presented earlier—that religion in international politics is governed by a Manichean view of “religion” as either “good,” and therefore eligible for support, or “bad,” and therefore in need of control, monitoring, and suppression. The critique is timely because it addresses the incontrovertible empirical fact that new methods and terms used by NGOs, think tanks, and state agencies have decisively changed the landscape of the domestic and international promotion of religious engagement and religious freedom.

The force of the critique lies in Hurd’s engagement with a broad variety of actors and her identification of a series of cross-cutting shortcomings relating to the ways in which these actors employ the concept of religion. Crudely summarized, the main thrust of these shortcomings is that actors in international politics tend to rely uncritically on religion as an object of law and policy, a reliance that promotes some versions of religion while silencing others. The consequences of these shortcomings are further exacerbated by their silencing if not outright dismissal of so-called “lived” religion, the messy everyday doctrines, practices, and modes of belonging that are insufficiently captured by the “expert” and “governed” notions of religion that tend to dominate law and policy circles.

These overarching arguments represent important correctives to the often uncritical assertiveness of those promoting increased engagement of “religion” based on “love of God, and love of  neighbor” as the path to world interfaith harmony, work from the premise that the open engagement of religious and cultural traditions with one another can promote peace (the Berkley Center), or believe that dialogue among people of different religions and cultures is the path to lasting peace and social cohesion (KAICIID). What constitutes “religion” in the work of these disparate initiatives and how the differing commandments, traditions and cultures of these religions can be engaged or inserted into dialogue that leads to harmony, peace and social cohesion is anything but clear.

Similarly opaque is the notion of religion at work in institutions like the Pew Research Center, relying on the idea that worldwide restrictions on religion can be measured using an outdated and ill-fitting definition of religion as “explanations of existence based on supernatural assumptions that include statements about the nature and workings of the supernatural and about ultimate meaning,” or in advocacy groups like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, that maintains a biological explanation of religion, as it observes that “the religious impulse is natural to human beings, religious expression is natural to human culture.” How legal safeguards can be created to protect these protean varieties of religion, encapsulating explanations of existence based on supernatural assumptions that constitute the natural impulse of human beings and human culture, is less than obvious.

Admittedly, however, activism frequently presupposes hyperbole. Confronted with their reliance on a singular emphasis on the right to religious freedom at the expense of other rights and their advertisement for the redeeming qualities attributed to the increased protection of the right, activists typically modify their claims, pointing to the need to be blunt and unequivocal in order to garner sufficient support to bring about real-life change. Once top-down initiatives are translated into action on the ground, we are told, the clear-cut nature of religious freedom, with its emphasis on belief and its manifestations, dissipates in the complex web of everyday allegiances and overlapping identities, comparable to the “lived religion” approach Hurd calls for. This pragmatism corresponds to the “single biggest discovery” made by Samuel Moyn in his critique of the celebratory account of the origins of human rights: that people in the field, such as activists, and especially those associated with some of the major advocacy organizations, already knew that this widespread story of origins was false, which lead him to stress the distinction between human rights as pursued by activists and the “idea” of human rights as promoted by politicians and theoreticians.

This distinction necessitates what Peggy Levitt and Sally Engle Merry have dubbed the “vernacularization” of human rights, whereby the lofty concepts, goals, and themes emphasized at top international and domestic levels are appropriated and translated into local terms and networks of meaning. Crucially, however, Levitt and Merry argue that vernacularization depends on the ways in which issues on the ground are framed, as ways of thinking tend to be path dependent, and once a problem is framed as “religious,” it tends to stay on that path. In a similar vein, Nazila Ghanea has observed how the discourse on religion in international law has been dominated by an overreliance on a belief-centered understanding of religion, derived from the notion of freedom of religion or belief in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), to the detriment of other concepts of religion, in particular the notion of religious minority rights, which emphasizes the collective and identity aspects of religion.

Hurd’s many and far flung examples amply demonstrate the path dependency of framing issues as “religious”: The resilience of the standard narratives—that the assumptions of secularization theory have failed and the world is as furiously religious as it ever was, that God is back, that religion has returned from exile and is subject to a global resurgence—has prepared the ground for the “overcoding” of religion that Hurd seeks to highlight. Following decades of neglect, disinterest, and ignorance of the role of religion, actors in law and policy circles, from activists to politicians and academics, now seem happy to “religionize” whichever local, regional or global conflict erupts: if your preferred tool is a hammer, the problems of the world look like an awful lot of nails.

This old adage runs both ways, however. Although the evidence provided by Hurd that the religionization of law and policy is entrenched and pervasive is convincing, and leads her to rightly hammer uncritical appropriations of religion by certain actors, she pays little attention to the considerable efforts laid down by academics, politicians, and human rights activists to contest the application of a monolithic concept of religion as an explanatory factor, a player in global politics, or an essential building block in peace and reconciliation. In the same vein, such efforts rely on Wendy Brown’s approach to rights, described by Hurd as “…contingent political constructs (…) that carry normative and subject-producing dimensions, embody particular cultural assumptions and aims, prescribe and proscribe, and configure the political in particular ways, always competing with other possibilities and discourses.”

The considerable output of the UN Intellectual History Project (UNIHP), which approached the UN not only as a political organization, but as a vital intellectual agent redeveloping key ideas like development and human rights, is a case in point. In their contribution to the project, human rights activists Roger Normand and Sarah Zaidi offered a candid account of the contingent political construct of universal justice and called for a more critical examination of the historical origins and impact of human rights at the UN. Similarly, the increasing recognition of the concept of “intersectionality” in the theory and practice of human rights work has highlighted how human rights actors tend to unnecessarily fractionalize identity by focusing on only one type of human rights violation at a time. The intersectionality approach emphasizes the normative and subject-producing dimensions of rights discourses that rely too single-handedly on categories like race, gender, or religion.

The gradual evolution of the monitoring practice of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) amply illustrates how international human rights actors can dynamically interpret their historically contingent mandate by expanding the scope of their provisions: as late as 2006, the committee dismissed two complaints of discrimination from Danish Muslims, finding that the Convention does not cover discrimination based on religion alone, and that Islam is not a religion practiced solely by a particular group, the most recent version of the reporting guidelines of the committee stresses the intersectionality between religion and race in the war on terrorism, observing that “particular attention (…) should be brought to complex forms of disadvantage in which racial discrimination is mixed with other causes of discrimination”.

A similar reorientation is underway in the theory and practice of how human rights norms can be reconciled with legal pluralism, which has moved beyond singular dismissals of non-state forms of law based on their substantive origins in cultural, customary, or religious traditions outside the formal legal system, stressing the need to identify salient points of contact between international norms and local, grassroots modes of meaning-making, correspondent to the “vernacularization” of human rights observed by Levitt and Merry.

While these examples do not undermine the basic argument that religion is being uncritically appropriated by a variety of actors in international politics, they do provide additional context to the scope of the claim and the prevalence of the problem, illustrating that counternarratives do exist and seek to resist the pigeonholing of complex social issues in the “religion box” derided by Hurd. From the perspectives of intellectual and human rights history, intersectionality and legal pluralism, religious rights and religious freedoms invokes not only the long and complex history of religion, but equally complex questions of the “broader social, intellectual, political and institutional contexts” of religious discourses, which Hurd requests as a means to move beyond the reproduction and critique of the uncritical approach to religion.

Like Beyond Religious Freedom, the most significant contributions to the counternarratives that have served to change the ways in which we discuss law, religion, and politics today have originated outside the amorphous field of religious studies, emerging from developments in history, human rights law, anthropology, literary studies, feminist studies, and political science. As such, it may seem that religious studies—whatever that means—is perpetually stuck with what Thomas Tweed has called its role-specific obligation to define constitutive disciplinary terms. Obsessed with religion and working within a self-sustaining system of critique, religious studies scholars have, at times, spent so much time on their obligation to define, engage, and criticize the concept of religion that the theoretical development in the field has gone full circle, from proclaiming religion’s universal presence in every human culture and society in the early 1900s, to declaring its complete inapplicability for analytical purposes in the early 2000s: Operating within a field under which every imaginable application of religion is suspicious and overdetermined with meaning, scholars like Timothy Fitzgerald and Daniel Dubuisson have suggested the outright dismissal of the term for analytical purposes altogether. Due to these developments, segments of the field have become unable to interact with the outside world, for which religion is only one among a myriad complex terms.

Although similar sounding claims regarding the unique inapplicability of religion are put forward in Beyond Religious Freedom, Hurd selects her targets more carefully, directing her critique primarily against actors who seek to apply the term uncritically in their pursuits of law and policy objectives. While I have my doubts concerning the uniqueness of the problems posed by “religion” in this particular regard, Beyond Religious Freedom brilliantly bridges the gap between the often introverted field of religious studies and the chaotic world of law and policy. It should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the many and complex interactions between law, religion, and policy.

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