I have been observing and analyzing religious trends in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa for several decades, with a particular focus on new religious movements, variously termed “minority religious groups,” “sects,” or “unconventional religious groups.” My years of living in southern Nigerian cities afforded me valuable insights into the workings of complex religious landscapes. As democratization, neoliberalism, media deregulation, and global religious activism increasingly change the stakes of coexistence between religious groups, and between such groups and the state, the management of Africa’s increasingly competitive religious public spheres has become a more compelling area of investigation.
The politics of religious freedom
This short piece attempts to come at the current debate on law and religious freedom from two unusual angles. I end by looking at the strange and revealing positioning of “religion or belief” in current legislation in England and Wales. And I begin by putting a different spin on religious freedom by exploring the terrifying freedom of the concepts of religion and belief. We have never needed the rise of Al Qaeda, so-called Islamicism or a hardline religious right to terrify us with a resurgent specter of specifically religious (as opposed to purely “political”) “terror.” Instead of bearing down on us like some old specter of the Turk or Moor at Europe’s gates, the terror of religion emerges—or insurges (if “insurge” can be made into a verb)—from within the normative conceptualizations of religion in the so-called modern West.
I would like to begin with a famous case in Egypt that, though over a decade and a half old, remains salient for thinking about religious freedom. This is the apostasy case of Nasr Abu Zayd, the professor of Arabic and Islamic studies who was declared an apostate by the Egyptian courts, and whose marriage was forcibly annulled as a result. The case was raised using a highly controversial principle within Egyptian law, and much of the debate was about whether its use was acceptable within this case. This principle was called hisba, and it technically means, “the commanding of the good when its practice is manifestly neglected, and the forbidding of the detestable when its practice becomes manifest.”
Unlike Europe and North America, the discussions in South Africa relating to religious freedom do not center on the extent to which religion can be excluded from the public domain but rather the extent to which it can be accommodated. It is not surprising that South Africa has chosen to respond to the issue of religious freedom in a more tolerant manner given its discriminatory-laden history under colonialism and apartheid. While race-based discrimination was the most obvious, religion was a further invidious form of discrimination. Christianity was the dominant religion and was often used by the apartheid government to justify its oppressive laws. For instance, marriages that did not conform to Christian values such as monogamy and opposite-sex unions were regarded as uncivilized relationships that were not worthy of legal recognition. Thus, potentially polygynous marriages such as African customary marriages as well as Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and same-sex marriages did not enjoy the legal protection that Christian marriages enjoyed.
These essays provoked me in a number of ways, especially with their combined penchant for probing raw nerves. Indeed, I didn’t fully understand how raw—let’s say conflicted—I was about religious freedom discourses and practices until this intervention was staged. In the spirit of therapy, then, we can begin: “Hi, my name is Greg, and I’ve led a carefree lifestyle, all along assuming religious freedom is a good thing. I’ve been drinking this cocktail for years; it has become part of my identity. Thanks to these scholars, I’ve been sober for three days.”
To this stimulating and learned series of posts I cannot add much about the genealogy of religious freedom or its fate in the US courts, never mind predict the consequences of judicial decisions, or even address a larger question raised by Winni Sullivan and others which, I take it, has to do with the general effects of submitting questions of religious practice to a particular kind of legal system, one that works by means of precedents, binding decisions, etc. I make two comments as an anthropologist.
At its March 2012 meeting, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty,” a document drafted by the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
Everson v. Board of Education is considered a landmark of First Amendment jurisprudence. That 1947 case marks the first time the Supreme Court held that the disestablishment provision of the First Amendment is binding on the states, and not just on the federal government. The “incorporation” of the principle of disestablishment thus completed the task begun seven years earlier in Cantwell v. Connecticut, when a unanimous Court held that free exercise applied to the states. In Cantwell, the Court overturned the convictions of three Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had been arrested for unlicensed soliciting and a breach of peace.
As several contributors to this forum have pointed out, legal provisions regarding religious freedom do not emerge from history fully formed and self-interpreting. At their core, they are iterations of words and texts, (re)produced and (re)authorized by different persons or groups for different purposes. What they mean depends on local facts.
This contribution expands upon this observation by offering a different story about drafting religious rights in a particular place and time. I will show the ways in which religious rights, as rhetoric, serve not as apolitical instruments, but as indicia of political alliances; not as generic, universalizable norms, but as specific formulations of norms suited to particular moments and in service of particular political programs. In this version of the story, religious rights, rather than conclude conflict and harmonize societies, signpost disagreement.
In this post I explore the case of Bangladesh: the state of secularism there and the tensions and polemics that accompany the pursuit of an ideal secular state and society. I do this by reflecting on reactions surrounding women’s turn to greater religious engagement fostered through their participation in Quranic discussion circles in Dhaka. In outlining some of the tensions underlying the reactions, I wish to draw attention to the stakes of remaining confined to a binary view of religion and secularism, especially as new religious forces and faces come into the public space with the intent of developing and transforming it.