Essays & exchanges

June 23rd, 2017

Sacrality, secularity, and contested indigeneity

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Indigenous peoples articulate their indigeneity within the political and legal language of secularism, even as it renders certain claims to indigeneity illegible. In this short essay, J. Kehaulani Kauanui examines the close linkages between secularism, settler colonialism, and Protestant Christianity in three interconnected issues in the United States context: sacred sites, temporality, and divine right.

This is the fourth essay in the series on Indigineity and secularity.

June 20th, 2017

Apologia pro Reza: Why I like Believer

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I am a comparative historian of early Christianity who reads widely in and engages in academic forums around new religious movements and popular and local religious forms, both contemporary and ancient. I also came into the study of religion out of great distaste for comprehensive generalizations (à la Huston Smith) about religions of the world—that is, generalizations that elevate the so-called “mainstream” of any religion. Religion, I believe, should be interesting, even exciting—for the likes of me but even more for the outsider or undergraduate whom I want to attract to my classes and hope finds value in my field. If the alternative to “sensational” is “mainstream,” then I will take—and encourage—the sensational.

So what has Believer been doing since it began? On the one hand, Aslan wants optimistically to find some inclinations toward tolerance and human rights in diverse religious movements around the world. In a world that is coming apart from nationalist intolerance and the demonization of indigenous religions (usually at the hands of Pentecostal missions in Africa and Latin America), that is a worthy, hopeful endeavor.

June 16th, 2017

Law and truth in the German religious constitution

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Acta Pacis WestphalicæIt is a widely held view that the juridical and political management of religion should be grounded in fundamental normative truth. Catholic communitarian and natural law doctrines are among the more evidently sectarian variants of this view, teaching that society should be understood as an association governed by the natural law goods that it must realize as virtues, and that law and state should govern in accordance with the values embedded in community or society.

Less evidently sectarian are those variants teaching that law and politics should be grounded in the free choices of rational individuals, whether this be understood in terms of the Lockean state acting as a trustee for individual rights, Immanuel Kant’s conception of public law as the exercise of power required to realize the a priori principle of individual right, or the latter-day improvisations on Kant found in John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Catholic commentary has rightly pointed to the Protestant character of these individualist-rationalist doctrines, although without first removing the sectarian beam from its own eye.

June 14th, 2017

The river is not a person: Indigeneity and the sacred in Aotearoa New Zealand

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Whanganui River (Image via Wikimedia Commons, photographer James Shook)Earlier this year, the New Zealand Parliament passed a remarkable piece of legislation declaring the Whanganui River to be a legal person. This was quickly taken up by global media: “New Zealand declares a river a person,” read the headline in the Economist, in an article that revealed uncertainty about what such legal recognition meant. Was it another quirky example from Downunder or a radical and effective form of environmental protection? The legislation was almost immediately taken up by Indian jurists as a precedent for making a similar declaration in respect of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Yet the story of the statute’s making is a very local one, in which legal recognition of the river’s personhood is deemed to be a postcolonial incorporation of Indigenous concepts of ecological spirituality and interdependency with nature. Both the local historical context for its making and the tensions that the statute manifests need careful unpacking.

In this essay, I question the assumption that the legal fiction of personality is an accurate translation into law of what Whanganui people believe and practice.

June 8th, 2017

On the recent past, fraught present, and tenuous future of Turkish Muslim civil society

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Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in TurkeyTo practice anthropology is to accept an implicit temporal double bind: We think we write ethnography, but frequently our expositions and analyses have become history by the time they achieve publication and elicit responses from readers and peers. When I set out to conduct the research that eventually became the basis for my new book, Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey (Oxford University Press, 2017), I envisioned a panoramic study of a vibrant, emergent field of religious and political action in Turkey, embedded in the institutions and discourses of civil society.

I began fieldwork at a relatively sanguine moment in recent Turkish history, in 2005, when the destabilization of the hegemonic, frequently illiberal forces of statist Kemalism, especially the military, carried the promise of a new, multi-centered public sphere that might incorporate a plethora of previously peripheral positions and silenced voices. At the time, I could not imagine that this climate of political optimism, as well as the very domain of Muslim civil society that I set out to study, would prove to be so evanescent.

June 6th, 2017

Secular Christian power and the spiritual invention of nations

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Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonIn the Americas, missionary colonialism prospered on the sharp edge of secular Christian power. Cutting up land with a blade that reflected Christian glory on one side and secular state governance on the other, the new nations of the Americas were made through a process of violent spiritual-political invention. New Christian-infused forms of spiritual jurisdiction—royal proclamations and constitutions—were written on top of already-existing Indigenous laws and alliances also rooted in spiritual claims. Indigenous scholars such as John Borrows and Audra Simpson have made clear that for scholars to understand ongoing Indigenous sovereignty requires attention to history, to protocol, and to how Indigenous stories are both told and withheld.

I would add that thinking about Indigeneity in North America—or Turtle Island—requires careful attention to how ceremony, protocol, and invocations of the spirit have shaped all claims to sovereignty on this land, including those of settler-colonial nations.

June 1st, 2017

Is the “native” secular?

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Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonHeadlines scream of burgeoning populism around the world, but the shift in politics today could also be described as a return of nativism, and perhaps even of a certain indigeneity. Politicians speak of a people at home in a land, rooted in that land. They evoke the threats posed by those perceived to lack such roots: immigrants, racial minorities, and global elites.

There is a romance to the land, from rural farms and mines, to the provincial village, to the post-industrial city—sites  of lost dreams, of vanishing greatness. The specifics of place are joined together under the heading of “nation,” but nation alone is cold and abstract; it must be joined with the warmth of nativeness—indigeneity—to capture the imagination. Of course there are agents involved: politicians conjuring the images and feelings of nativeness, and the powers that be—whiteness, patriarchy, neoliberalism—whom those politicians serve, wittingly or unwittingly.

May 30th, 2017

Practice and performance in ritual language

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Practice and performance in ritual languageDoes it make a difference to think of ritual language such as prayer in terms of a relation between practice and performance? I do not mean this in the sense that a musician practices an instrument in preparation for a concert performance, or an athlete practices in preparation for performance in a competition. I mean it in the sense of practice as carrying out a particular activity in a regular or habitual way, in contrast to performance as a marked or highlighted form of action distinct from everyday action and addressed to an actual or imagined audience. Someone may engage in the practice of singing every day, but may also sing every day for an audience, real or imagined. One can identify a continuum of “degree of performance” between informal everyday speech and formal ritual utterance. . . .

Focusing specifically on prayer as a mode of utterance present both in ritual events and in everyday life allows for a rethinking of practice and performance as simultaneous modalities of action. The simultaneity of performance and practice in this theoretical or conceptual sense is not the same as the collapsing of performance into practice in prayer that I observed ethnographically. In this sense, any act of prayer has both a practical and a performative component. Practice is guided by a logic while performance is impelled by a rhetoric. Both are necessary features of prayer as ritual language.

May 23rd, 2017

The Myth of Disenchantment: An Introduction

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Myth of DisenchantmentA great many theorists have argued that precisely what makes the modern world “modern” is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Even theorists who have challenged grand narratives of secularization often assume that modernity produces a disenchanted world. The age of myth is allegedly over, the spirits have vanished, and vibrant nature has been subjugated.

In The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, I argue that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong. Our era is far from mythless, belief in spirits continues to be widespread, vitalized nature has been a persistent philosophical counter-current, and even attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Hence, I contend that the whole notion of “modernity” as rupture that undergirds a host of disciplines is itself a myth.

May 19th, 2017

A State of suspicion: Counter-radicalization in Norway

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Norwegian rally against ISIS and the Prophet's Ummah, August 18 2014. Photo: Sindre BangstadAt the national party congress of the governing populist right-wing Progress Party in Norway in May, the assembled party delegates adopted resolutions calling for state control of Norwegian mosques in the name of preventing “radicalization into violent extremism.” The Progress Party (FrP) also adopted resolutions calling for the Norwegian state to introduce compulsory Christian prayers in public schools, for a national ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf (the hijab) for pupils under the age of sixteen in public schools, and for a national ban on circumcision of male children. In other words, the run-up to the Norwegian parliamentary elections in September 2017, which will make it clear whether the right-wing coalition government of the Conservative Party and the populist right-wing Progress Party will fall or be returned to power, is in full swing.

And as it has since the mid-1980s, the FrP will run this parliamentary election campaign on a platform of a politics of fear and division—targeting immigrants, in general, and Muslim minorities, in particular.

May 17th, 2017

From Jefferson to Jeffersonian battles

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anAmong the scholars who have most inspired my work as a political scientist are multiple historians—whether intellectual, legal, or religious. From James Kloppenberg and Samuel Moyn, to Anver Emon and Patrick Boucheron, scholars of history have offered some of the most rigorous and original contributions to ongoing debates about democracy and religious freedom. History avoids the pitfalls that often characterize other disciplines, especially mine, including an excessive focus on the present and on refined quibbles about methods and positionality, sometimes at the expense of relevance.

Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran is one of the most significant illustrations of the need for more history in current academic and political disputes about secularism and citizenship. Hers is not a history of the supposedly linear process of integration of American Muslims. In lieu of the traditional “from migrants to citizens” narrative, Spellberg argues that Muslims were thought of as citizens by the Founding Fathers themselves. The estrangement of Muslims from the American nation and the construction of Muslims as foreigners are products of later developments of the nineteenth century.

May 11th, 2017

From the Founders to Trump: The legalities of “Muslims”

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anWriting about the image of the “Muslim” at America’s founding, Denise Spellberg writes how debates on religious tests for office were informed by European ideas about Muslims. As Spellberg points out, the delegates debating religious tests relied on ideas about Muslims that “had been filtered through a complex web of associations both foreign and frightening, as attested by their persistent allusions to Islam as a civilization of threat.” Without irony, slave-holding delegates debating religious tests construed the “Muslim” and the “Islamic” by reference to “Ottoman despotism or the predations of the four pirate states of North Africa,” despite the likelihood that “they themselves may have lived in proximity to real Muslims of West African origin, for whom they were the oppressors.” The Founding Fathers who debated the hypothetical of a Muslim president of the United States relied on inherited images of the “Muslim” as foreign, distant, and threatening, despite the fact that Muslims worked as slaves for those same men.

This irony continues to haunt me today, as I reflect on Islam as imagined by medieval Europeans at the same time that I watch the Trump administration construe the “Muslim” and the “Islamic.” Today’s irony, though, takes on different aspects in the two executive orders that are characterized as Muslim bans, an irony with a long, distant pedigree.

May 2nd, 2017

Muslim fears and Muslim rights

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuslims played a crucial role in determining the full extent of religious liberty in the early history of the United States of America. Even though the founders did not know any actual Muslims, the figure of a Muslim represented two ideas about authority and belonging. The first idea drew upon European fears of Islamic authority. For Americans who were familiar with Enlightenment texts, Muslims, and particularly Turks, supported despotism and enslavement, and it was believed that if the United States did not stamp out monarchical tendencies, then it was in danger of replicating tyrannical systems represented by the Ottoman Empire. The second idea celebrated the promise of civic rights by including hypothetical Muslims as potential citizens and office-bearers of the United States.

Denise Spellberg’s book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders demonstrates that fear of Muslims may have played a role in American cultural perceptions of the world, but it was the second idea about rights of Muslims that guided the founders as they built a government based on religious liberty.

April 26th, 2017

Understanding the president’s reality: Our unconscious, not his

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Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1895The matter of the love-hate relationship between psychoanalysis and public life has an unexpected link to the complexities of secularism in the United States. Officially, psychoanalysis has been dismissed as a mode of inquiry into the issues of public life and especially into the states of mind of its actors. This is the result of the famous Goldwater Rule, introduced into the ethics code of the American Psychiatric Association following the 1964 presidential election, when analysts had the temerity to “diagnose” Barry Goldwater without the benefit of having him on their couches.

The Goldwater Rule came at a time when psychoanalysis was influential among psychiatrists, who had transformed the complex experience of the talking cure and the endless variations of human behavior into rigid diagnostic categories of mental illnesses. It is now common practice among psychiatrists to say that unless a patient expresses a complaint, psychiatrists are not ethically permitted to speak of the condition that supposedly is causing the mental distress. My attempt to explain President Donald Trump’s behavior in psychoanalytic terms is perceived by some not only as unethical, but as arrogant and insulting to a citizen who is not a patient and most probably will never become one.

There was a time, however, when psychoanalysis was squarely part of American culture, public discourse, and of the world of ideas.

April 26th, 2017

The American tradition of tolerance and free speech

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuch has happened since Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an came out in 2013. When I first read it, I treasured it for challenging grand narratives of Islam vs. “the West.” But now, sadly, I take away a different lesson: Rather than focusing on the tolerance espoused by some of our Founding Fathers, I am instead struck by Spellberg’s insights into the intolerance in our history and how easily attacks against a perceived Other can lead to vitriol aimed at religious and ethnic minorities more widely. Today we often refer to “Judeo-Christian civilization” but, as Spellberg points out, this term excludes Muslims from that shared history. Spellberg’s book reminds us of the strong tradition of tolerance in the United States, but also of how it is easy to fall short of that goal. . . .

Thus, Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an has proven incredibly valuable for teaching. It provides students with concrete evidence against a simplistic narrative of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. As Spellberg points out, while Jefferson may have personally held some bigoted views about Muslims, he retained his curiosity about Islam and opposed any kind of religious test for American citizenship or political office; Jefferson supported the possibility of a future Muslim president.

April 24th, 2017

For Love of the Prophet—A reply

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For Love of the ProphetFor Love of the Prophet certainly is a book about Sudan, but, like all ethnographies, it is also very much autobiographical. Indeed, the book starts with an anecdote about me and my own wanderings during my dissertation fieldwork: How what I assumed to be true in my framing of the project proved otherwise and how I was forced to rethink my own research questions in light of what I found. In a very real sense, For Love of the Prophet is a record of my own schooling by the people and situations I confronted, forcing me to ask new sorts of things of the individuals I met and to look at the world they inhabited in new ways.

Yet, in calling my book “autobiographical” I mean something more than that it is about me personally. Rather, the book serves as a mirror for a very particular moment of our history in the West, one in which “the Islamic” has unsettled how we imagine the state, not only in our examinations of experiments in Islamic statehood such as the one I study in Sudan, but at home as well. Everything we hold dear about our own state project—equality, liberty, rule of law, the very idea of a citizenship blind to religion—seems to be upset by the those who pose an Islamic exception. From the Muslim Ban to Brexit to the looming possibility of a Le Pen victory in France, the Islamic is frequently positioned as a challenge to the modern state, and in its conjuring often muddles the coherence of the principles the modern state claims to uphold.

April 20th, 2017

The inevitable Islamic State? The paradoxes of Sudanese politics and society

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For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon’s recent book, For Love of the Prophet, is a lesson in academic creativity in the face of adversity. As the author details in his candid introduction, he went to Sudan in search of the “Islamic State,” only to discover that it was nowhere to be seen. Deprived of his object of study, he was able to conjure it by renaming it. What other researchers would call “civil society” was re-christened as an ubiquitous Islamic state that was found everywhere, from bus rides to mosques and mystical rituals. The enemies of this state, no less than its supporters, all became part of this amorphous phenomenon called the Islamic state. As he puts it, the opponents of Islamism vied with its constituencies (due to its “hegemony” and “magnetism”) in a contest to speak its language.

This “discovery,” Salomon argues, compelled him to ask his questions in a new form. Rather than focus on the state as a despotic entity, the question was re-formulated in terms of what can be learned from examining “state power as productive and not solely repressive.”

This radical claim is supported by an even more radical rejection of the widely accepted separation between state and civil society and its enveloping public sphere.

April 13th, 2017

Taking the Islamic in “the Islamic state” seriously

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For Love of the ProphetI want to focus on Salomon’s argument that the secular state—in this case the British colonial one—is in the business not of separating religious from political life but of administering and managing religion, which necessarily includes defining its proper form and molding the various practices the state finds on the ground to fit that form . . . .

Yet the Sudanese state is not, Salomon also wants to argue, merely another instantiation of a secular state; there is something specific to the “Islamic” in this Islamic state. As he writes, “the method by which Islamic sources are engaged in order to produce the present state, the way in which these sources inflect its politics in new directions unimagined by the state’s colonial pioneers, and the results of state projects in religion-making as they intersect with diverse spiritual practices on the ground, certainly distinguish the contemporary Islamic state from the secular colonial state.” . . .

The dexterity with which Salomon maps these continuities and discontinuities between the secular colonial state and the Islamic post-colonial one is compelling. But it made me wonder about the distinction he draws between a secular state and an Islamic state.

April 11th, 2017

Salafism in Nigeria: An introduction

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Salafism in NigeriaStudying Salafism is important not just for analyzing jihadist movements or clarifying twentieth-century Muslim history, but also for better understanding the role of religion in contemporary life. What claims to authenticity are religious movements making? What mechanisms sustain these claims? How do these mechanisms shape the preaching and writing of religious leaders, and the expectations and preoccupations of their audiences?

My new book, Salafism in Nigeria, explores these questions through a case study of Africa’s most populous country. The book argues that Salafism is animated by a canon of texts. This canon foregrounds the Qur’an and the reported words and deeds of the Prophet (texts known as hadith reports). At the same time, the canon gives a surprisingly prominent place to the work of twentieth-century scholars. The canon structures Salafi preaching and is a key tool that Salafis use in debates with other Muslims—and with each other.

April 6th, 2017

Tainted love

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For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon begins his work with the provocative statement that the “state may have failed according to the criteria of Foreign Policy’s index, yet by producing and sustaining novel publics, it has in fact endured,” but ends with “the Islamic public sphere [the state] had enabled was turning out phenomena they could not control.” Namely, the Islamic state’s project towards public hegemony paradoxically engendered its rejection embodied by the secular secessionist movement in South Sudan and ISIL’s rejection of the Islamic nation-state model based on sovereignty. . . .

I’m left wondering how specifically these non-discursive, non-didactic, somatic and affective circulations in the “public” played a special role in these ruptures. Is Salomon simply left agreeing with Wael Hallaq that the Islamic nation-state is an “Impossible State” due to incommensurable modes of (now insert: “affective”) disciplinary subjectification and moral governance?

April 3rd, 2017

Weak theology and the anti-gospel of American exceptionalism

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"God Bless America" - Boulder City, NV USA, Antique Store | via Flickr user g TardedHas the United States been a source of good in the world? Weak theology assumes a position of service to the vulnerable as the point of redemptive activity. A strong theology would argue that it is our task to defeat the enemy in order to save them and then to convert them to our “way of life.” The most recent incarnation of this “destroy to save” motif is the Iraq War—a war that put the lie to our exceptionalism, and made many rethink our noble experiment in the new world order. So in this moment of deep division and national ambivalence, a know-nothing, carnival barker stood on the stage and said, “I will make America great again!”

So we might ask, what is American greatness now? What makes us exceptional? There is no clear path toward fulfilling this myth, other than following this rag tag apprentice and philander, promising that the dream of greatness is not dead at all—it is a dream that is more like a festival of fantasies in which dreams can become true not because they are great, but because we are great—whatever we want, we deserve.

March 30th, 2017

The rhetoric of Islamic politics in local and global dimensions

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For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon’s ethnography of politics provides a penetrating insight on the far-reaching effects of the Islamic state project in the Sudan. It is a welcome study of an Islamic state that is more than two decades old, at a time when a new experiment in the Levant seems to overwhelm the global imagination. The older models, including the Pakistani, the Iranian, the Libyan, and earlier still the Saudi, provide food for thought of Islamic politics in its local and global manifestations. These earlier projects offer a longer-term perspective of political projects in the face of continuing challenges in Muslim societies. These include questions of diversity, legitimacy, economic prosperity, deep inequalities, ever-present foreign interventions that constitute our global world, and fractured religious identities.

Salomon’s monograph is a close interrogation of Sudan’s Islamic state, particularly in the responses that it generates from other Islamic actors. Through this ethnography, he explores other kinds of politics and other kinds of publics that unfold in response to the state’s project that was launched in 1989.

March 28th, 2017

Scholar or retailer of import goods? Reza Aslan, his guru, and his critics

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Image via Ken Wieland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons“I came to Varanasi India to do a show about Hinduism, about karma, reincarnation, the caste system, and a little known Hindu sect called the Aghori. That’s when things got out of hand,” Reza Aslan narrates in the opening minute of his new show, Believer. The narration is accompanied by shots of Aslan riding down the Ganges on the bow of a boat, saffron robed Hindu holy men, fires burning on the ghats, cows, and ascetics covered in ashes.

Aslan’s new show is a kind of Anthony Bourdain, but for religion. Each week our fearless host embeds with a different religious community. It’s spiritual adventure television. In the debut episode, Aslan visits Varanasi to spend time among the Aghori, a small sect of ascetics that attempt to dismantle distinctions between pure and impure by engaging in rituals of defilement. After making him bathe in the Ganges, the Aghori guru promises to teach Aslan the ways of the Aghori. They offer Aslan human brains and charred human remains to eat. They cover him in ashes from the cremation ground. While the episode shifts focus later to a group of middle-class Aghori that use the rejection of purity distinctions to fight against caste discrimination and pursue social justice, it is the exotic images of the ascetics on the riverbank that dominated the advertising for the show and the reaction to it afterward.

March 22nd, 2017

When is the Islamic state? Historical time and the agenda of Islamic studies

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For Love of the ProphetFrom the Islamic revolutions in Iran (1978-79) and Sudan (1989) to the recent emergence of ISIS, the concept of an Islamic state is often greeted in North America and Western Europe with a distinct historical anxiety, as a phenomenon of pre-modernity erupting in our midst. Scholars of Islamic studies have long countered that in fact these entities are constituted squarely within the discourses and institutions of the modern state: the movement in Iran, for instance, followed the longstanding revolutionary-national tradition in claiming that it acted on behalf of the will of “the people,” and the Sudanese leadership embraced the idea of civilizing a pre-modern religiosity, a project that has been a hallmark of Enlightenment thought. Nation-states that claim to derive their law from Islam still typically codify sharia in the format of a constitution, often drawing on the conventions and language of international law as a guide.

In reminding readers of these points, scholars of Islamic studies challenge the relegation of Islamic politics to pre-modernity. But in showing the many ways in which actual political practices in the Muslim world remain within the fold of modernity, this line of critique risks reinscribing the same temporal division, leaving it in place as the very condition of intelligibility of Islamic politics. How might a different understanding of historical time reorient the agenda of Islamic studies?

March 20th, 2017

“I am not a racist, but . . .”: The perversity of the recent ECJ ruling on the “headscarf issue”

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Look through the window | Image via Flickr user Hernán PiñeraIt is by now commonplace that ostensibly “neutral” language—such as the notorious preamble “I am not a racist, but . . .”—can serve to mask or justify covert forms of discrimination. Yet, this basic linguistic insight seems to have escaped the judges of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and—perhaps even more worryingly—many advocates of “secularism” in Europe.

In a recent landmark judgment bearing directly on the long-standing European controversy over the admissibility of Islamic headscarves in various kinds of public spaces, the ECJ has ruled that it is legal for businesses to fire employees that insist on wearing the hijab in the workplace, as long as this is in compliance with a “general company policy” that forbids “the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs.”

While many religious groups and advocates deplored the ruling, several exponents of the “far right,” as well as some advocates of secularism, have celebrated it is as a long-overdue clarification of the European Union’s stance on religious freedom.

March 16th, 2017

New itineraries in the study of Islam and the state

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For Love of the ProphetFrom Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State to Shahab Ahmad’s What is Islam?, recent scholarship on Islam and the state has been enriched by studies that seek to interrogate the boundaries of the concept and to push scholars in multiple fields to explore new empirical and analytic possibilities for an old question. Working from quite different theoretical and textual presuppositions, both Hallaq and Ahmad make the argument that we begin with where the Islamic is not: the Islamic is not to be found in the legal and governmental institutions of the modern nation state.

Noah Salomon makes a powerful case for a different starting point, grounded in ethnography: “What are we to make of Hallaq’s impossible state when it in fact becomes a practical possibility?” With admirable transparency, he notes what many of us have encountered in the field: “When I arrived in Sudan, I made the rather unsettling discovery that I could not find the state in the places where I had expected it to be.” Salomon finds the Islamic state not in government buildings, but in the logics and conduct of daily life, “structuring the landscape of discourse and debate on which diverse expressions of contemporary Sudanese life takes place.”

March 16th, 2017

For Love of the Prophet—An Introduction

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For Love of the ProphetFor Love of the Prophet argues that in moving beyond the institutional life of the Sudanese state, we are able to see its Islamic hue as something more than a response to secularism and Westernization, as it is often characterized by Muslim political elites and Western scholars alike. Instead, through examining how the Islamic state comes to life as an object of aspiration and consternation among diverse publics, we see that it is engaged in a much deeper and more diverse set of conversations within Islamic thought that are rarely captured by the categories and lenses of political science or religious studies. Understanding these features of the Islamic state helps us to comprehend how and why it perseveres as a political aspiration, against all odds and despite its many disappointments, in Sudan and beyond.

In this essay, Noah Salomon introduces a new book forum around his recently published ethnography of politics, religion, and statehood in Sudan.

March 15th, 2017

Understanding the president’s reality: A psychoanalytic contribution to public life

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Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1895It would not have taken long for French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to realize that President Donald Trump has a paranoid vision of the world. This does not mean that President Trump is insane, but rather that he has never left the mental space we all inhabited as toddlers and that we have never entirely forgotten. A glimpse of this place comes vividly to mind when we feel insanely jealous, dismissed, or ignored. But most adults no longer live here day in and day out, because the love we took in as children is usually strong enough to help us fashion an image of ourselves that we can rely upon when we feel challenged . . . .

The paranoid structure is not foreign to us because it is a rigid, simplified, and distorted version of the ordinary way we see the world. In that sense President Trump’s behaviors, discourse, and actions are not as erratic as they appear. They follow a logic that we are equipped to understand.

March 13th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Cohen and Kahn

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This is the fifth and final installment in the “Theologies of American exceptionalism” series. In this final post, Shaul Magid reflects on Arthur Cohen’s essay, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” in conversation with Stephanie Frank’s reflection on Paul W. Kahn’s introduction to his volume Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty.

Magid’s essay explores the “double exceptionalism” that exists for the Judeo-Christian in American society, as Cohen depicts a masking of domination through tolerance for the Jewish in the United States. Frank then dives into the “possibility that American politics is distinguished by—is exceptional because of—its association with sacrificial violence” through Kahn’s text.

These essays conclude the series by leaving us with a complicated understanding of American exceptionalism and its impact on our global relationships, as well as relationships within our nation.

March 9th, 2017

The End of Theology

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The End of TheologyThere is an important ambiguity that attends the philosophical use of the term “end.” On the one hand, it can mean the termination of something (terminus). On the other hand, it can also mean the aim, goal, orientation, or purpose of something (telos). Whereas the terminus names the point of cessation for something, the telos, to some degree, names its projected essence.

With this conceptual background in mind, when I received the invitation to review the new edited volume by Jason S. Sexton and Paul Weston entitled The End of Theology, I fully expected that it would play on this ambiguity occurring in the term “end.” Indeed, the subtitle seems to anticipate this very dynamism: “Shaping Theology for the Sake of Mission.” Surely, I thought, the point of the text would be to show that theology as currently practiced needs to come to some sort of “end” (terminus) in order to return to its appropriate missional “end” (telos). However, I was surprised to discover throughout the volume that really the only notion of “end” in play was in the sense of telos.

This book is important in a lot of ways, but it is most important for highlighting what is needed in order for the book to be even better. When we confront the “ends” of theology, we should run up against the “ends” of ourselves.

March 6th, 2017

Mere Civility—A reply

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Mere Civility“First, I must thank each of the contributors to this forum for their more than merely civil responses to my book. Not only is it an honor to be read—and criticized—by scholars I admire across such a wide range of disciplines, from analytic and critical political theory, intellectual and social history, to sociology and religion, it is also a tremendous vindication.”

Thus begins Teresa Bejan’s conclusion to the discussion on her timely book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. In this essay, she gives thoughtful response to the six scholars who provided critical engagement with the text over the past few weeks. Read the rest of the series, and then read this response.

March 1st, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Ali and Khomeini

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This is the fourth installment in this series of paired essays. In this post, Noah Salomon reflects on Noble Drew Ali’s “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928,” in his essay, “Exceptional Americanism.” Salomon’s essay is paired with Spencer Dew’s reflection on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s posthumous message, The Last Will and Testament (or, The Last Message).

Through these texts, they examine narratives of race and religion in the United States and beyond, as well as the question of what creates citizenship in a nation.

February 22nd, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Moreton and Paarlberg

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“For its proponents, Americans and perhaps others, Christian free enterprise is not a religion but a natural way of being, religiously, economically, and socially, when all obstacles to freedom have been transcended. Its unstable and ambivalent naturalization and nationalization of Protestantism—the free market religion and religion of the free market—helps to secure the American exception, necessitating, for some, a tireless and violent drive to remake the world in our image.”

The above is an excerpt from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s essay, “The America-Game,” which uses Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart to examine the relationships between American Protestantism and its global economics. Lisa Sideris, in her companion essay “Exceptionalism, environmentalism, and excess,” looks at a similar relationship with American excess and the effects on climate. She looks at whether “narratives of exceptionalism actually abet the destruction of nature?”

February 17th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Marshall and Morgan

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In this second installment in the series, Winni Sullivan and M. Cooper Harriss find theology of American exceptionalism in documents that are less conventionally theological.

First, Sullivan examines the US Supreme Court decision Johnson v M’Intosh from 1823, claiming that in Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion to the court, you can find “the fancy legal footwork at the heart of the American project, one that claims fidelity to the rule of law and to the law of nations while acting as an outlaw—an outlaw whose justification in subjugating savages is in her claim to being Christian and civilized in a new and very special way.”

Then, Harriss reflects on the theology within the concept of the “Great American Novel” through examining recent writings from C. E. Morgan, who “unabashedly” defends the canon of literature, despite its shortcomings.

February 16th, 2017

How to do things in with words

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Mere CivilityBejan revisits early modern times of extreme verbal violence, sectarianism, and bloodshed with an eye on our own. Her brilliant re-reading of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and her rescue of the lesser-known Roger Williams from the distorting clutches of Martha Nussbaum, et al. result in her careful endorsement of an “evangelical mode and motivation of conversational engagement” as a way to address our contemporary “crisis of civility,” one that “seems uniquely well-suited to explain—and to sustain—a commitment to ongoing, active, and often heated disagreement in the public sphere.” She deserves congratulations for the feat of cultivating such succulent fruit in the overworked field of scholarship on early modern political thought and “toleration” studies.

If by their fruits ye shall know them, then Bejan’s book shows her to be a brilliant scholar of Locke, Hobbes, and Williams, a great evangelist for the importance of historicizing in a new way, and a daring and original thinker of the first order. She also writes beautifully; her dry wit and perfectly turned phrases make reading this book a true pleasure.

February 14th, 2017

From Christ to Confucius

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From Christ to ConfuciusIn his exciting and beautifully written book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, Wu charts a fundamental shift in European missionaries’ conceptions of non-Europeans, from child-like barbarians in need of discipline to representatives of venerated civilizations worthy of respect. He meticulously reconstructs a century of missionary conferences, activities, and publications—both Catholic and Protestant—to demonstrate that German missionaries stood at the forefront of this transformation.

Like almost all Europeans, Germans of the late nineteenth century were steeped in the call for a “civilizing mission,” and took for granted that their duty was to instill both the gospel and European social norms (especially monogamy) in “heathens” across the globe. However, the shock of World War I and Germany’s humiliating defeat induced German missionaries to develop a new understanding of their place in the world.

February 13th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Winthrop and Cavell

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“Among the many possible ways of figuring, interpreting, and receiving the problem of American exceptionalism, Cavell pursues a line of thought discernible in Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, Emerson, and Lincoln. Putting it plainly, the claim here is not that Americans are an exceptionally blessed, virtuous, or accomplished people. Much to the contrary, the point of these interventions is to spur the American people to transcend their all-too-compromised circumstances. In its basic outlines, the idea is that the people at large must be converted to a new set of values, a new way of life, a new world. The idea is not to praise Americans as an exceptional people, but rather to press Americans to take exception to their present shortcomings in order to begin amending them.” -Scherer

This is the first installment in this series of paired posts. Constance Furey and Matthew Scherer have a conversation about American exceptionalism as depicted in John Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” and Stanley Cavell’s essay, “Finding and Founding.”

February 13th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Introduction

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The one-day workshop which produced these essays focused on “Theologies of American Exceptionalism,” asking participants to expound on an exemplary text (a link to those texts is found in each essay). What followed was an intense discussion of the deeply ambiguous heritage of US exceptionality, both in terms of the stories Americans tell themselves and the stories others tell of them, of what they do at home and what they do abroad—of those excluded and those in charge,—of whether and how the US is or ever was new and innocent—of revolution and the exception,—and of the credibility of the rule of law. Perhaps reflecting the current political climate, much of the discussion, while not centered on the US presidential election, elaborated on the indeterminacy, elusiveness, and provisionality of the US project. Lingering questions concerned the nature and status of sacrifice, sovereignty, and supersessionism in the American context.

February 9th, 2017

Politicizing Islam: An introduction

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Politicizing IslamPoliticizing Islam is a comparative ethnography that analyzes the religious and political dynamics of the Islamic revival in France and India, home to the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe and Asia. These two secular democracies make for a productive comparison on the topic of Islam and politics, despite their obvious differences. In both places, Muslims have long been racialized and suffer disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment. Islamic revival and the reactions to it in the last two decades have struck at the core of both nations’ secular doctrines.

The arguments presented in the book draw on two years of participant observation research in Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad, two cities with significant numbers of Muslims and forms of Islamic revival that the state has targeted in various ways. Specifically, I show how the politics of Islamic movements differ across class, a crucial factor that existing literature has largely overlooked.

January 30th, 2017

Civility, identity, and agency

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Mere CivilityAs an American teaching university in Canada, where the illiberal regulation of disfavored speech is increasingly common, I am tempted to simply applaud Bejan’s book. (Or perhaps place a bulk order for distribution at a future faculty meeting.) The politics of personal outrage has reached an exhaustion point. University campuses are bedeviled by a paradoxically aggressive discourse of vulnerability, victimhood, and “triggers”. Vaguely Orwellian “human rights tribunals” police speech with increasingly minute attention. Bejan astutely suggests that the war on “hatred” (and for civility) is often disingenuously waged to silence dissent or enforce moral consensus.

Trump may well represent a Molotov cocktail thrown by those resentful of these constraints. (Though his own appalling weaponization of insult and ridicule indicates the limitations of a politics of pure verbal transparency.)

January 27th, 2017

Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”

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Mere CivilityAs part of her argument in favor of mere civility, Bejan decisively rejects contemporary “civilitarian” claims that mutual respect and affection for one’s opponents are the minimum necessary for civil discourse. Her critique rests on her reading of John Locke. Although political scientists usually describe Lockean toleration as ethically minimal, Bejan contends that Locke actually imposed significant ethical demands on members of a tolerant society.

Locke’s demanding theory of civil charity may not provide the most practical solution to our current crisis of civility. However, Bejan’s reading of Lockean toleration as civil charity does have important implications for the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Historians have recently begun to examine historical moments in which humanitarian concern for the victims of bodily depredation fused with rights talk, creating a type of liberal human rights politics that Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann calls “human rights as empathy.” The early eighteenth century was one such moment. Between 1690 and 1750, Britain began to engage in humanitarian diplomacy to prevent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in other European states from being punished for their religious beliefs. In what follows, I will suggest that Bejan’s reading of Locke helps to explain why and how this politics—which fused natural law arguments with appeals to humanitarian sentiment—developed in early eighteenth-century Britain.

January 23rd, 2017

Power and civility

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Mere CivilityMere Civility’s final rendering of the link between civility and the future is suggestive; it excavates a democratic ethos from mere civility. Bejan points to an egalitarian openness about the future of others, asking citizens to engage with opponents while understanding that the person they are now may not be the person they will become.

But if citizens are thus future strangers to each other, they are also strangers to their future selves. We might then add what Williams refused to say or recognize about himself—and which, importantly, did not happen: that he, too, could have come to agree with or belong to the groups he targeted with his “evangelical toleration” and held in disdain. It should be troubling that Williams’s rendering of civility anticipates the conversion of all others, but not his own; that his politics revolve around a theology in which those marked as different need to be rescued and saved; and that his approach to difference predicates the value and inclusion of others upon their transformability.

January 20th, 2017

Seinfeld, Roger Williams, and religious toleration

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Mere CivilityGeorge: This is what she said to me, “Can we change the subject?”

Jerry: See, now that I don’t care for.

George: Right. I mean, we’re on a subject. Why does it have to be changed?

Jerry: It should resolve of its own volition.

George: That’s exactly what I said, except I used the word “momentum.”

Jerry: Momentum – same thing.

(Seinfeld S7E02, “The Postponement”)

This comedic blip from Seinfeld might seem miles away from the early modern debates around religious toleration, but Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility demonstrates that early modern thinkers expressed similar concerns about the power of free-flowing conversation. In this reading, Martin Luther, George, and Jerry stand on one side, defending the importance of ongoing debate. On the other side stand early-modern strategies of tolerance that use speech norms to keep peace in the face of religious argument. For both sides of this debate, republican notions of civility can provide important ways of situating a demand to either continue or avoid further discussion.

January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility and Jeremiah Wright

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Mere CivilityReporters who covered the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 United States presidential campaign would have benefited from reading Mere Civility. Barack Obama’s Chicago pastor was briefly famous when ABC News aired a video of him crying “God damn America” from the pulpit of his church. Mere Civility suggests that Wright’s insults not only mimic his Biblical namesake, but also channel Martin Luther, who frequently damned Catholics, and Roger Williams, who offered similar imprecations and felt that doing so should be considered civil.

In this impressive new work, Teresa Bejan does the contextual and interpretative analysis necessary to exhume Williams’s theory of civility, and she compares it favorably with those of Williams’s more famous contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. She claims Williams’s view brings analytical clarity to contemporary discussions of civility and should be adopted today.

January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility—An introduction

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Mere CivilityAt the height of the 2016 American presidential election, a colleague asked whether I was worried that my forthcoming book on civility might be overtaken by events. . . . With the inauguration of our new Incivilitarian-in-Chief, a man who has apparently elevated ad hominem to new heights of electoral success, surely the once perennial bloom is, at long last, off the “civilitarian” rose?

Yet, as lamentations about our pathological public sphere continue to mount in some quarters—met by calls for conscientious incivility as a sign of one’s intolerance towards the new regime in others—deeper reflection on the meaning of civility and its vexed relationship to toleration appears more timely than ever. As a marriage of political theory and intellectual history, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration explores our contemporary crisis of civility by way of an in-depth examination of seventeenth-century debates about religious toleration.

January 12th, 2017

Writing religion for the IPSP

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1510623_1375984419369773_2230796617787010338_nCan we hope for a better society? That is the animating question behind an ambitious project, the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP). It exists to “harness the competence of hundreds of experts about social issues” and to “deliver a report addressed to all social actors, movements, organizations, politicians, and decision-makers, in order to provide them with the best expertise on questions that bear on social change.”

Also modeled on the IPCC, drafts of the chapter reports are available for public comment. These are the collected responses to Chapter 16- Religions and Social Progress: Critical Assessments and Creative Partnerships, gathered from readers of The Immanent Frame.

To read the original call for comments, written by coordinating lead authors Nancy Ammerman and Grace Davie, click here.

January 9th, 2017

Catholic Humanitas: Notes on Critical Catholic Studies

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napolitano

Contemporary engagement with embodied practices of Latin American transnational migrancy, as well as the long durée of the return of Catholic religious materialities, ideas, and fantasies from the Americas to Rome, shows the reignition of an old conflict within the Catholic Church and a lasting paradox within a Catholic Humanitas. This is the paradox growing from the Catholic fantasy of “full” conversion of the Other/Indian, with her imagined docile, childlike, as well as barbaric qualities—a fantasy that positions the Other/Indian as at once within and without a Catholic Humanitas. This constitutive dimension of Catholic Humanitas infuses the tension between Sameness and Otherness that still permeates Western cosmologies and, for better and worse, political practices toward migration and hospitality in Europe . . . .

Under a present condition—in which a part of the clergy in Rome foregrounds personhood based on a Roman civic heritage, rather than multiple ways of being Catholic—attacks to Catholic Humanitas are seen as an attack on everyday civitas (conceived as a Sameness in the singular). If Catholicism has been a self-evident, “cultural” root of secular Europe, it has just as clearly shaped a potent political aesthetic of exclusion.

December 20th, 2016

Religion and the new populism

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Light trailThe push for stronger cultural identities and political borders in the new populism is inseparable from the general concern about Islam and immigration. Most of the new populists are promoting a one-sided criticism of Islam. This is connected to the public fears of terrorism, angst about Sharia, the status of women in Muslim communities, demographic tensions (aging European populations with lower birth rates and younger immigrant populations with higher birthrates), and issues surrounding the social integration of immigrants. In this context, talk about the Jewish and Christian heritage of the West has reemerged in secular Europe and in the United States as an alternative identity-forming heritage. . .

In light of this religious and political discourse today across the Western world, there is a need to have an open discussion about this idea of the Jewish and Christian heritage of the Western world. While some are using this concept to exclude others, the religious heritage of the West can actually be a positive resource for multiculturalism, peaceful social integration, and humanitarian aid.

December 19th, 2016

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction

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The Shipwrecked MindThinkers like Joseph de Maistre and the attitudes they embody are the subject of Mark Lilla’s new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, an important and timely study of political reaction. The fantasy of returning to a bygone era is, Lilla argues, the crux of reactionary thought: “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has,” he writes, “the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” Whether the goal be monarchical restoration, a new caliphate, or to “make America great again,” the reactionary mind is, more than anything, haunted by nostalgia—the longing for those “fresh Eden[s]” that arise during periods of disorienting social upheaval. Yet to indulge such fantasies, Lilla believes, is to succumb to “magical thinking.” In every reactionary, he thinks, there lies a bit of Don Quixote, pining for the Golden Age—and making a fool of himself in the process.

Most of the volume’s essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books and were composed without political reaction as their explicit theme. They are written with enviable clarity. Lilla has an uncanny knack for distilling complex ideas to their intuitive essence in lucid, jargon-free prose. Yet while these essays are illuminating to a fault, one wonders if it is always on the reactionary mind that they shed their light.

December 19th, 2016

Beheading the Saint: An introduction

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Beheading the SaintBeheading the Saint is about the shifting relationship between nationalism, religion, and secularism in a society which was, until the late 1960s, exemplary of what Charles Taylor calls the “neo-Durkheimian” link between national identity and religion, wherein “the sense of belonging to the group and confession are fused and the moral issues of the group’s history tend to be coded in religious categories” (2007, 458). I examine how the relationship between French Canadianness and Catholicism was configured in the nineteenth century, how it was reconfigured as Québécois and secular in the 1960s, and why and how that transition informs recent debates over secularism in Québec. The secularization of national identity during the Quiet Revolution remains the key to understanding the role and place of religion in the public sphere in today’s Québec.