Beyond Religious Freedom:

Religion and politics beyond religious freedom

posted by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomI would like to thank each of the contributors to this series for their generous engagement with my book, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. In this response I address a question that arose in several of the posts: what is the role of the scholar or expert in responding to what comes “after” or lies “beyond” religious freedom? In working on this project I have encountered considerable anxiety concerning what Jeremy Walton refers to as the threat of a “conceptual and political vacuum” arising in the wake of the argument of this book. I am interested in engaging with the concerns that motivate that anxiety. I also want to push back against the insistence that a strong prescriptive stance is required to do the work that I do. There are other paths forward and I’ll discuss a few of them here.

To be clear, I do not think that we live in a world that is “after” or “beyond” religious freedom—at least not in most places or most of the time. The construct of religious freedom in its diverse materializations continues to do considerable legal, political and religious work globally, enshrined in constitutions and international legal instruments, and serves as a normative resource in a vast array of contexts. Experts measure, benchmark, evaluate, and compare degrees of religious freedom across nations and within communities. Policies are designed to ensure its social and legal promotion. Academic centers and programs organize teaching and scholarship around its presumed naturalness and necessity. I do not argue for or against religious freedom; instead, the aim of the book is to understand this “taking up” of religion as an object of global politics.

I appreciate Ruth Marshall’s efforts to situate the book as an intervention in international relations. It should be clear to readers of this series that the book aims not to suggest a “fix” but to understand how these dominant conceptions are shaping the worlds we live in, as forms of governmentality but also in ways that are not well captured by Foucauldian genealogy, which has its limitations when thinking about religion. Marshall is also right that I don’t see the effort by governing authorities to intervene in religious fields as new. These efforts at categorizing and disciplining religion, and the circumscription and definition of practices as true/false or good/bad religion, have been tools of national and global governance since at least the seventeenth century. To situate the latest phase of these efforts in a longer historical trajectory allows us to parochialize, and also, importantly, to de-dramatize, these forms of governance. Contrary to the overheated claims of some critics, this will not bring down western civilization. It does however call into question certain aspects of American exceptionalism. There are other ways of living together, past and present. As I’ll explain below, one aim of the book is to bring these into our field of vision.

Turning now to the main thread of this post, and looking ahead, I would like to suggest four possibilities for the study of politics and religion “beyond religious freedom.”

The first is that as scholars we need to better understand the politics of knowledge production at the intersections of religion, law, and politics. Beyond Religious Freedom is, at its base, about knowledge and power. It focuses on the role of academic and expert knowledge in producing the conditions in which religion and religious difference have been marked as particularly volatile identity categories that require special forms of governance. The “religion problem” in international relations, then, is not about religion per se but about the connections between knowledge and power more broadly. The power dynamics of institutionalizing and bureaucratizing knowledge about and engagement with religion are not well understood. This is evident in the self-assurance with which religion is being operationalized in government circles. It is evident in the myriad policy initiatives that rely on the notion of religion as an entity set apart from the world that requires special treatment. And it is evident in the difficulty that policymakers seem to have envisioning alternatives to the current practice of segregating religion from other aspects of human sociality.

The field of international relations is at an early stage when it comes to this kind of self-study. As Robert Vitalis remarks in an interview on his recent book:

“The notion of the ivory tower,” …referring to the cliché of academia as totally insulated from the outside world, “is unsustainable.” There can be no question that the kinds of ideas sustained by social sciences, and in the field of international relations, structured world views.

Beyond Religious Freedom questions the assumption that scholars and experts stand outside the field of power relations in which various practices and ways of life are classified and governed as “religious.” It explores the ways in which ideas generated by experts help to structure worldviews and shape government action, channeling official attention and funds in particular directions and not others. As Benjamin Schonthal remarks in his post, we would do well to consider more carefully the implications and consequences of our academic practice. To what extent do scholars participate in and perpetuate particular forms of governed religion? How does the production of scholarly knowledge about religion, in and also beyond the field of religious studies, impact lives and shape various forms of collective governance, including the law? These questions are especially salient at an historical moment when expert religion is being actively mobilized to serve the purposes of the state, in the U.S. and abroad.

A second path beyond religious freedom involves deepening and disseminating a series of integrative approaches to the study of religion, law, and politics. In his post Jolyon Thomas criticizes the book for failing to provide either “a definitive approach” to the study of religion and politics or cogent “policy prescriptions.” He misunderstands my point: I do not think it is possible to “free” religion as a matter of public policy or law. I do not think there is such a thing as a single and definitive approach when it comes to the study of politics and religion. To my mind, the demand that scholars define and defend definitive solutions to dilemmas of collective life tells us more about a peculiarly modern drive to know and master a complex world than it does about how we live together today. The task, then, is to study the productive and generative power of the categories of religion, law, and, politics while also acknowledging their instability and historical contingency. This requires toggling back and forth, relying on these terms while refusing all efforts to reify them. My hope is that readers who come to the book assuming that religion and politics are knowable and distinct entities will become less secure in that assumption in the process of engaging with it.

Articulating new approaches also requires a collective effort, to which each of the contributors to this series has made strong and substantive contributions. This takes time. As Matthew Scherer observes, “moving beyond that concept would require an enormous conversion of interest and commitment accompanied by new narratives and sensibilities on the part of scholars, policymakers, activists and ordinary folks.” To re-describe our religious, legal, and political worlds, past and present, in the U.S. and abroad, requires tempering the urge to prescribe while redirecting scholarly interest and commitment to honing the new narratives and sensibilities mentioned by Scherer. A distinguishing feature of the latter would be a reluctance to characterize an individual or community as in need of “religious freedom” or a conflict or social tensions as driven by “religious violence.” Instead we might ask, as Noah Salomon does, what it would “mean to understand religion not as a pre-existing force that motivates violence (for violence always is motivated by a complex matrix of concerns never reducible to the theological), but rather as something that is produced through violence as part of a governing strategy or as an attempt to resist that strategy?”

The operationalization of religious freedom produces individual and communal self-understandings that shape new forms of political and religious identification and subjectivity. It also de-policitizes, occluding other forms and fields of sociality and solidarity. And so a third element of my response to the question of “what comes next?” is that we pay closer attention to those forms and fields. This involves seeking out what Helge Årsheim refers to as counter-narratives that resist the pigeonholing of complex social issues in ‘the religion box.’ It involves challenging what Benjamin Berger describes as the “conceit of religion’s autonomy” from other determinants of political and economic justice. Religion is still too often construed as a differentiable quantity that influences law, society, and politics without being merged into it and shaped by it. To move beyond that requires a deeply contextualized approach to religion, law, and politics in which all of these fields, and their interrelations and mutual authorizations, become part of our object of study. Chapter 3 of my book develops this point through a case study of the Rohingya of Myanmar. When policymakers construe their plight as a problem of religious persecution and develop policy based on that understanding, they misconstrue the situation, overlook the real culprits, and risk exacerbating the violence. An informed response to the crisis in Myanmar requires grappling with a bigger picture and a longer history in which Burma’s “divide and rule” colonial history, the social perils of rapid economic liberalization, contests over state power, and the rise of an exclusionary and often violent form of Burmese nationalism are all seen as crucial contributing factors.

But broadening our field of vision is also not enough. Scholars of religion and politics need to develop an ear for the unexpected and unknown—all that which has a tendency to fall beyond our peripheral vision. This means acknowledging incipient political, religious and social movements that hover unseen or unacknowledged beneath the threshold of recognition. Jeremy Walton cites the material dispossession and restructuring of social, political and economic relations that followed the emergence of new forms of religious governance in Ankara, concluding that, “governance through religion threatens to neutralize other, potentially more radical forms of political mobilization, especially those rooted in social and economic justice.” It is precisely those forms of mobilization, Salomon’s “more complicated and sedimented histories of marginalization,” that deserve our attention. The move beyond religious freedom brings them into sharper focus. Honing new analytical frames and new methodologies that are responsive to these realities is an important challenge.

Finally, moving beyond religious freedom allows us to ask how particular strategies of global religious governance (including religious freedom and moderation, efforts to constitutionalize religion, and so on) have been consumed, reworked, and rejected in contexts around the world. In exploring this view from the other side, Salomon’s discussion of the politics of US strategic partnerships with Sudanese Sufi communities and representatives offers a preview of the potential of this work. Other contexts are also worth exploring, as Benjamin Schonthal has done in the case of Sri Lankan constitutional history in his excellent new book. How do particular forms of global religious governance alter political and religious sensibilities and practices among not only Sudanese Sufis or Sri Lankan Buddhists but also young British Muslim artists, the K’iche’ and other indigenous communities of the Americas, or Chinese citizens who clandestinely practice Tibetan Buddhism?

The search for discursive and political worlds beyond religious freedom asks us to step back from the political frontlines. It calls for reflection on aspects of our contemporary condition that have compelled so many colleagues, and political and religious leaders, to speak and act with such force of conviction when decrying religious violence, demanding religious moderation, lobbying for the rights of religious minorities, and speaking on behalf of religious communities and traditions. It asks us to engage these demands while interrogating the assumptions about religion and politics on which they depend, and the degree of certitude—about religion, and about politics—that underwrites them. In the words of Bernard Harcourt:

It is only when we know who the accused really is, that we can sentence him to death. It is only when we know how to rehabilitate, that we institutionalize people en masse in asylums and mental hospitals. It is only when we know that incapacitation works, that we systematize mass incarceration. In the field of crime and punishment, the moments of punitive excess are inextricably linked with moments of certitude. The critical task ahead is not simply to reveal «falsity» or even illusions in order to establish the truth, but to constantly challenge the crystallization and solidification of our own truth-telling.

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