Book blog

July 19th, 2017

Don’t play that song, Nathan Scott

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Spirit in the DarkI welcome Spirit in the Dark for the seriousness with which it opens new prospects for the study of religion and literature in African-American contexts. Toward these ends it represents the right book at the right time, prescient of so much work in ferment during its own preparation, and occupies a rising curve of renewed interest in religious dimensions of cultural production.

Religion and literature is not new, of course, though its locus within respective fields of religious and literary studies (their own intellectual borders often stringently patrolled, even if artificially demarcated) has tended to focus on European traditions. Or, when thinking more broadly, it considered issues of comparativity across East and West rather than the racial matters so historically resonant during the subfield’s former prominence—roughly coterminous with Sorett’s periodization from the Harlem Renaissance to Motown.

Spirit in the Dark offers a corrective for this historical omission and a template for forward progress.

July 10th, 2017

Josef Sorett and the idea of a racial aesthetic

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Spirit in the DarkJosef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark is a marvelous book, not least of all due to its meticulous, incisive, and historically informed treatments of the literary sources it assembles. Sorett says that the primary aim of the book is “to narrate the history of the idea of a racial aesthetic” and that the book is written, first and foremost, “with scholars of African American religious history in mind.” Sorett’s story is a specifically religious history of the idea of a racial aesthetic, the point of which is to relate that idea, in its various incarnations, to the evolution of African American and other religious practices in North America from the 1920s through the 1960s.

In addition to weaving together “history and literature,” Sorret tells us he hopes also to attend to “theoretical concerns.” In this essay, I take up those concerns, and some of the issues they raise, for I come to Josef’s book not as a scholar of African American religious history, but as a philosopher with an interest in literary aesthetics generally and in the idea of a racial aesthetic, specifically.

June 28th, 2017

Spirit in the Dark—An introduction

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Spirit in the DarkI have written elsewhere about a set of contemporary experiences and observations—although now aged by roughly two decades—that provided the first sparks of interest in the questions that led to my first book, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Travels back and forth between church services, on one hand, and open mics and poetry readings, on the other, during the 1990s provided the initial impetus for my efforts to bring religion and literature in conversation in the form of the longer story that Spirit in the Dark narrates. Admittedly, the religious history of black letters from the 1920s to the early 1970s that I offer is colored by “presentist” concerns.

To state the matter differently, Spirit in the Dark grew out of my desire for a better historical understanding of how things—things religious and things literary—came to be the way they are. So another way to account for (rather than obscure) the play between past and present, the personal and the historical, in Spirit in the Dark is to acknowledge

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.

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 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

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?

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 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 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 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.

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 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.

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.

December 12th, 2016

Radical Secularization?

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Radical Secularization?In a discussion in the German press about the displacement of continental philosophy in Europe by the increasingly triumphant advance of analytical philosophy, Charles Taylor warned against ideals of purity in philosophy. He argued that questions concerning the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and philosophical anthropology cannot adequately be addressed within the sterile categories of a self-sufficient philosophy. Rather, they require hermeneutic engagement with the social sciences and the humanities.

The book Radical Secularization? An Inquiry into the Religious Roots of Secular Culture, edited by Stijn Latré, Walter Van Herck and Guido Vanheeswijck, shows such courage towards “impurity,” making it a particularly stimulating new contribution to the current debates about secularization and the role of religion in contemporary secular societies. Its focus is on the genealogy of secularization, and the title “Radical Secularization” refers to both the roots, or radices, of secularization and the end of secularization—where “end” could either mean that the process of secularization has been completed or, conversely, that it has been stopped by the “return of religion.”

December 5th, 2016

The Virtues of Abandon

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The Virtues of AbandonIn 1698 the Parlement of Dijon found a Catholic priest guilty of engaging in sex with members of his flock. Philibert Robert, the cleric in question, characterized the sexual abandon he and the women experienced as a devotional act that brought them closer to God. If that’s not an arresting opening hook for a scholarly book, I don’t know what is! Robert and his followers were Quietists, adherents of a theology that explored the individual’s ownership of herself and feared an obsession with consumer goods might ultimately alienate people from their true identities as selfless fragments of a divine whole. As a spiritual practice that links self-surrender to a rejection of too much stuff, one can’t help but wonder if Quietism could be the missing link between Marie Kondo and E. L. James. Suffice it to say, Charly Coleman’s lucid, insightful book, The Virtues of Abandon: An Anti-Individualist History of the French Enlightenment, arrived at an ideal moment.

November 29th, 2016

Muslim Cool: An introduction

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Muslim Cool

The book focuses on interminority relationships to articulate a narrative of race and racism in the United States that transcends the Black-White binary and also the fallacy of postracialism, which holds that racism, particularly anti-Black racism, is over and that any talk of race is actually counterproductive to the work of antiracism. I identify the ways in which race, and specifically Blackness, is marshaled in the work of antiracism.

For Muslim Cool, Blackness is a point of opposition to white supremacy that creates solidarities among differently racial­ized and marginalized groups in order to dismantle overarching racial hierarchies. Yet as the stories in this book illustrate, these solidarities are necessarily entangled in the contradictions inherent in Blackness as something that is both desired and devalued. The engagement with Blackness by young US Muslims, Black and non-Black, is informed by long-standing discourses of anti-Blackness as well as the more current co-optation of Blackness in the narratives of United States multiculturalism and American exceptionalism.

November 21st, 2016

Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: An introduction

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Islamic and Jewish Legal ReasoningIslamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning: Encountering Our Legal Other is a curious book, in part because it came out of a working group that seemed the least likely vehicle for producing a collection of articles in book form. For five years, sponsored by the University of Toronto and Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council, approximately six Rabbinic law scholars and six Islamic law scholars sat around a table with various legal texts from their respective traditions and talked, discussed, and queried.

As a protocol of discussion, we would have the scholar of one tradition introduce the text of the other tradition. In other words, a Rabbinic scholar would introduce the Islamic legal text, and the Islamic law scholar would introduce the Rabbinic text. This process precluded anyone from claiming expertise over what the text “says,” and instead created a space of openness, engagement, and even play. The endeavor was not designed to make us into scholars of our tradition’s Other, but rather to experience (in the most robust sense of that word) the encounter with our legal tradition’s Other.

November 14th, 2016

The Weimar Century

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The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold WarThe international turn in intellectual history, which David Armitage announced in 2014, has evolved into a surge of publications on the global, international, and transnational aspects of the history of ideas. The migration of concepts around the world and moments of conceptual conjunction in history have attained growing attention from historians. Although methodological nationalism had never been the only option for writing the history of a specific country or society, it seems that now an international perspective is indispensable for explaining the political, cultural, or economic history of any given country. Historians seek to put their finger on the complex, dynamic moments which generate and reverberate influential ideas around the world. The patterns of relationship between different social, cultural, and political spheres, and the exchanges that lead to the evolution of ideas and concepts across national boundaries, have become increasingly appealing to historians of all creeds.

Udi Greenberg’s The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War can be read as a contribution to this growing literature on international intellectual history.

November 3rd, 2016

God in the Enlightenment

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God in the EnlightenmentIn a speech before the Brexit vote, Boris Johnson offered a controversial historical pedigree for his campaign to leave the European Union. He insisted that the Leave campaign members were not all backward Little Englanders but rather deserved the reputation as the real upholders of the “liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment.” He and his colleagues inherited the tradition, he claimed, because they too were “fighting for freedom.” An interview Johnson gave a year earlier, when he claimed that London and Paris shared a commitment to “enlightenment and freedom,” offers some indication about what that “freedom” entailed. He described how these values assured the right to open expression, even when that expression might critique religions and provoke “would be . . . jihadis.”

Johnson’s evocation of the Enlightenment testifies to the continual contest over its political meaning and to its deep associations with anti-religious critique. The contributors to God in the Enlightenment, edited by William Bulman and Robert Ingram, offer nuanced narratives to articulate a “usable” Enlightenment whose meaning can help us arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between religion and secularity in public debate.

October 17th, 2016

Race and Secularism in America

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Race and Secularism in AmericaOn September 13, 2016, Clemson University’s head football coach Dabo Swinney was asked what he would do if one of his players refused to stand for the national anthem. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had recently done so, explaining that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Swinney took issue not with Kaepernick’s message, but with his method. Dismissing Kaepernick’s refusal to stand as “distracting,” Swinney deployed the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of “the right way” to protest.

Swinney’s words immediately sparked controversy. Clemson professor Chenjerai Kumanyika responded with an open letter to Swinney, sharply titled “Take MLK’s name out your mouth.” He chastised Swinney for participating in a long, misguided heritage of sanitizing King’s radicalism, and of corrupting King’s legacy for the purposes of white moderate liberalism. “In the face of the injustices in his own time,” Kumanyika writes, “Dr. King called for direct action, not press conferences.”

The editors of Race and Secularism in America, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn, would not be surprised by this marshalling of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, nor by the fact that this legacy is constantly contested and renegotiated along lines of protest, race, and religion. Indeed, in the collection’s introduction, the King monument in Washington, DC serves as a towering symbol of the complex relationship of its two subjects—race and secularism—and their analytical inextricability. King is central to the collection’s claim: Because “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white,” “the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure.” Indeed, the collection takes as its central stance that secularism itself is primarily a (white, liberal) game of managing and excluding difference.

September 27th, 2016

Religion and populism

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Saving the People: How Populists Hijack ReligionThis adapted excerpt is republished with permission of the publishers—Hurst in Europe; OUP in North America—from Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, and Olivier Roy.

Right-wing populist parties have become a major player in today’s public and political debates in Europe and the United States. The success of Front National in the 2015 local elections in France, the unexpected nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for US presidential elections, and the unexpected vote in favor of Brexit, show the growing influence of populist parties. In addition to their usual rant against elites and the establishment, these parties have made religion a central element of their repertoire. In the wake of the repeated terror attacks perpetrated by ISIS, they have insistently deplored the so-called threat of Islamization, and emphasized the need to reclaim the West’s Christian identity. This book examines the manner in which right-wing populist parties in a series of Western democracies have used religion in recent decades to define a good “people” whose identity and traditions are alleged to be under siege from liberal elites and dangerous “others.”

September 13th, 2016

Relativism and Religion: An introduction

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Relativism and Religion: An introduction

Politicized religion seems to have a new enemy: Moral relativism is denounced by believers of all stripes as a threat for contemporary societies, and, in particular, for contemporary democracies. A recent poll conducted among evangelical pastors in the United States found that after “abortion,” “moral relativism” was indicated by most respondents as “the most pressing issue faced by America today.” For anybody familiar with the language used in contemporary evangelical churches in the United States, this is unlikely to come as a surprise. In the sermons preached in many of these churches, relativism is routinely treated—along with liberalism and secularism—as part of a sort of “unholy trinity” that is supposed to be corroding the moral foundations of contemporary societies.

Consider, for instance, the remarks of John Piper, former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the National Ligonier conference in 2007, citing a previous speech by Michael Novak delivered in 1994 upon receiving the Templeton Prize:

Relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.

This discourse cuts across denominational distinctions. In the first speech he gave before the diplomatic corps represented at the Vatican, Pope Francis I referred to what his predecessor had called a “dictatorship of relativism” in explaining his choice of name: “This brings me,” he stated, “to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should build peace. But there is no peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others.”

August 29th, 2016

The Politics of Islamic Law: An introduction

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My new book, The Politics of Islam LawThe Politics of Islamic Law, presents an approach to the study of religion, comparative politics and law that begins with the contradiction and ambiguity produced by the interplay among sacred texts, institutions of state and society, and actors working with the tools they have at hand. By seeking to understand the development of the category of Islamic law as a “problem-space” for the modern state, the book invites further exploration of how Muslim futures are being framed and discussed, historicizing what David Scott has framed as “the particular questions that seem worth asking and the kinds of answers that seem worth having.” (2004:4) In this exploration the question – ‘whose law?’ – turns out to be as important, if not more important, than the question – ‘which law?’ This generates a new set of questions in the study of the politics of Islamic law: in what domains of Muslim life is Islamic law being raised once again, and by whom? In what domains of Muslim life has Islamic law been made silent? What political compacts and struggles underwrite these claims for presence or absence, and upon what institutional and social foundations do they rely? Over what kind of human subject do they lay claim, and how might this subject speak to the law? To what version of the past do they refer, and to which vision of the future?

August 10th, 2016

Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power

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TheExporting Freedom United States is unique among nations in claiming a heritage of religious freedom and a mission to spread it overseas.  This is difficult to dispute.  What has become hotly disputed is how this is to be regarded.

An “orthodox” view holds that the United States has played a special role—a providential part, as some would have it—in carrying a universal message of religious freedom to the world.  First, American colonies were havens for religious refugees; then the American founding was a milestone for constitutional norms of religious freedom; then, over the subsequent two centuries, the United States became a haven for religious people unwelcome elsewhere: Baptists, Mormons, Mennonites, Muslims, Amish, Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.

August 3rd, 2016

Religion and politics beyond religious freedom

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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.

July 22nd, 2016

Rethinking religion in a political scientific wilderness

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomBeyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion makes an extremely important and timely contribution to a conversation that the discipline of political science should be but still isn’t really having. The continued lack of serious, analytically sophisticated attention to religion and religious phenomena by scholars of international relations and comparative politics is all the more baffling given the place of religion in political life around the world today. Religious affiliation has become the central category for a geo-political remapping of the world since 9/11. The results have been depressingly vapid analyses that underscore, once again, the ideological force of Samuel Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bankruptcy of dominant approaches in our discipline that continue to treat religion in the most reductionist, identarian, instrumentalist, and frankly, unthinking fashion. In this regard, Shakman Hurd’s book constitutes a truly novel and vital contribution and I cannot recommend this book highly enough to my co-disciplinarians, whether interested in religion or not. I underscore this point, since many scholars who frequent The Immanent Frame are not mainstream political scientists and are thus unaware of the bleak nature of the wilderness into which rare and prophetic voices like Shakman Hurd’s are crying.

July 20th, 2016

Keeping up with “culture”

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Law's ReligionBenjamin Berger’s Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism is a welcome addition to the vibrantly interdisciplinary scholarship on legal secularism. Like other scholarship in this field, it shows how liberal constitutionalism works to demarcate and transform religious life according to its own internal principles. The basic story here is, by now, a familiar one: to declare religion free of state interference is, paradoxically, to require the state to define “religion” so that it can determine which institutions and actors are to be afforded freedoms on the basis of that word. Where “legal religion” differs from “lived religion,” (to recall Winnifred Sullivan’s terms) legal religion not only tends to win the day; it can also shape how actors on the ground conceptualize their own religious lives.

July 19th, 2016

Another Law’s Religion

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Law's ReligionI cannot help but see a pun in the title of Benjamin Berger’s book, Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism. I see the pun not in the terms “law” and “religion,” but in the multiple meanings emerging from the possessive marker. I see the pun in Laws. It is a pun of grammar-play, not word-play.

Taken in one way, the possessive ending connotes a proprietary claim. The term law’s religion suggests the idea that law controls religion, holds sway over it. It is this sense of the phrase that appears most prominently in the book. Berger argues that Canadian constitutional law “digests” religion through its own “interpretive horizons,” which contain notably narrow assumptions about the nature of religious time, space, belief, and toleration. Constitutional law does not deal with Canadian religion on its own terms, Berger tells us. Rather, it maintains and deploys its own prototype of religion.

July 14th, 2016

Making up people

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Law's ReligionSeveral decades ago in an essay entitled “Making Up People,” the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking wrote that, “if new modes of description come into being, new possibilities for action come into being in consequence.” Benjamin Berger’s new book Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism is generative in exactly this sense: it re-describes and it gestures toward new possibilities for action. Berger begins with a deceptively simple question: were we to take neither legal concepts nor normative political or legal theory but rather the experience of the law as an analytical point of departure, what would this entail for the study of law and religion?

July 13th, 2016

Law as religion

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Law's ReligionBen Berger’s book Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism is a work of great insight. I found myself learning from its pages as I taught Canadian Constitutional Law to first year law students this past term. Like most first year Constitutional Law classes, this course helps students understand Canadian federalism, Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The book was particularly valuable as we discussed the cases dealing with freedom of religion and conscience under section 2(b) of the Charter.

July 7th, 2016

Law’s Religion—An introduction

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Law's ReligionIn Theory From the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa, Jean and John Comaroff consider the juridification of history and politics in the “endemically policultural” postcolonial South, and ask the question, “why the fetishism of law?” “[T]he language of legality,” they offer, “affords people in policultural nation-states an ostensibly neutral medium to make claims on each other and on the state, to enter into contractual relations, to transact unlike values, and to deal with conflicts arising out of them. In so doing, it produces an impression of consonance amidst contrast: of the existence of universal standards that, like money, facilitate the negotiation of incommensurables across otherwise intransitive boundaries” (78-79).

Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism is, of course, not theory from the South. It is a book about law and religion in the north of the Americas. Yet in the concerns that animate the book, and the concepts with which I work, there is something of an affinity with the spirit of this passage. My concern is similarly with the relationship between law and the cultural, with the appeal of certain comforting accounts—however misleading—about the character and function of law, and with the toll that such misleading accounts exact on our social and political lives.

June 30th, 2016

Democracy as a work in progress rather than a work of progress

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Resurrecting DemocracyLet me begin by thanking the contributors to this book forum for their respective reviews. I am enormously grateful for the gift of time and attention their reviews represent. It is always instructive to see one’s work through the eyes of others, even if one does not always immediately recognize what one then sees! While finding valuable insights and many points for further reflection in all them, this is something of my reaction to Michael Gillespie’s and Jane Wills’s reviews. In responding to their critiques I will put them in dialogue with the reviews by Andrew Forsyth and Richard Wood, who I read as more directly articulating and speaking to the core foci and concerns of Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life. Situating my own response as an interaction between the two sets of reviews will hopefully clarify and help develop some of the book’s central arguments and positions.