In the summer of 2013, the international Islamic magazine al-Bayan published its Ramadan issue with a striking cover. Flanked by titles on the Qur’anic and Biblical figure Haman, jihad and the great battles won by Muslims in the month of Ramadan, and an interview with the Iraqi Islamist intellectual ‘Imad al-Din Khalil, the image that the editors chose for the cover article was clearly meant to cause controversy. Casually strewn across a map of the Middle East and North Africa was a simple sibha, a chain of beads used to count repetitive prayers known collectively as adhkar. In recent years, the sibha has come to be associated as a marker of Sufi Mulims, given that non-Sufi reformist Muslims of various stripes have stipulated that it constitutes an innovation in worship and thus a straying from the perfect path laid down by the Prophet himself for praising God. Attached to the end of this sibha, where a bead or other decoration might normally be located, was a small American flag, resembling those lapel pins that US government officials began to wear following 9/11. If the implications of the image itself were not clear, the headline on which it sat most certainly was: “American Infiltration through the Sufi zawiyas.”
In the late 1920s, the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote a series of scientific papers proposing that the universe could not be known with perfect certainty. His theory, which came to be known as the “uncertainty principle,” blamed the limitations of scientific measurement. Perfect knowledge was impossible, Heisenberg theorized, because scientists changed the quantum universe through the very act of measuring it. Observers could not watch the universe voyeuristically, as though from the sidelines. To sight quantum reality was to alter it.
Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion introduces something like an uncertainty principle into the targeting of religion in international relations. In a manner not dissimilar to Heisenberg, Hurd argues that, in the process of singling out religion for support or censure, governments, lawmakers, advocacy groups and others alter the complex field of social relations that they purport to manage. They change religion through the process of sighting it.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion is notable for its subtlety and intellectual generosity, as well as its breadth and depth of engagement with contemporary scholarship and public affairs. This is also a book with a big, hard-hitting idea of its own. Its primary thesis is crystal clear, timely, and provocative: “religion” cannot serve as the basis for scholarly analyses or the formation of policy. I agree with that: individuals, communities, and events are more complex than the idea of religion can capture; indeed, the very idea of religion often gets in the way of understanding how those things work.
Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report is a luminous, fiercely argued book. It requires deep and ongoing engagement precisely because Mahmood stages a conceptual-ethical impasse from which there is no easy exit. Her timely intervention reminds us that the predicament of minority religion is neither anachronistic nor resolved. Rather it is ongoing, and immediate.
In what follows, I think with Mahmood and ask how her argument about the intertwined lives of religion and politics, and the crises of recognition they produce, may play out on the Indian subcontinent with its history of Muslim minority, and affirmative constitutionalism.
What logics, strategies, and effects characterize the category of religion as an instrument for governing social life? What possibilities and foreclosures result from summoning religion to serve novel political ends? Questions such as these subtend much contemporary scholarship on religion; their ascendancy testifies to the puissance of recent deconstructions of the concept of religion, especially those marshalled by critiques of secularism. Rather than conceiving religion as the disavowed other of secular modernity, the burgeoning field of secularism studies has demanded attention to the continual consolidation of “religion” within the problem space of secularism, especially in relation to the dispensation of the modern nation-state. Despite the recent interest in the relationship between secularism and religion, however, the distinctive forms and functions of “religious freedom”—as both a principle for and an object of global governance—have received less attention. Thankfully, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, has arrived to decisively fill this lacuna.
In the preface to his 1947 essay, Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote forcefully of the need to push past official accounts and declared principles when assessing the character and justness of a society. Focusing on the lived effects of ideas instead of on “tired sayings” formulated as “venerable truths” was precisely the genius of Marx’s critique of liberalism, Merleau-Ponty explained: “In refusing to judge liberalism in terms of the ideas it espouses and inscribes in constitutions and in demanding that these ideals be compared with the prevailing relations between men in a liberal state, Marx is not simply speaking in the name of a debatable materialist philosophy—he is providing a formula for the concrete study of society which cannot be refuted by idealist arguments.”
For those of us who have been following the Politics of Religious Freedom project on this website and elsewhere, Beyond Religious Freedom bears a distinct yet familiar flavor. Other scholars writing on religion and secularity have already shown that significant differences exist between “top-down,” “bottom-up,” and “from outside” definitions of religion favored by policymakers, clerics, and academics. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s own categories of “governed religion,” “lived religion,” and “expert religion” reproduce this tripartite division, but add a degree of nuance by showing, for example, that the definitions of religion favored by elites such as policymakers and ecclesial authorities may not match the “lived religion” experienced by ordinary people. Similarly, expertise on religion comes in a variety of forms, from the policy-relevant academic knowledge sought out by federal agencies pursuing counterterrorism objectives to the quasi-missiological scholarship generated by “religious engagement” advocacy groups.
As it promises on the dust jacket, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom delivers a critique of the politics of promoting religious freedom that is both timely and forceful. The critique expands and empirically illustrates an argument that Hurd has presented earlier—that religion in international politics is governed by a Manichean view of “religion” as either “good,” and therefore eligible for support, or “bad,” and therefore in need of control, monitoring, and suppression. The critique is timely because it addresses the incontrovertible empirical fact that new methods and terms used by NGOs, think tanks, and state agencies have decisively changed the landscape of the domestic and international promotion of religious engagement and religious freedom.
In the United States, the Middle East is almost always presented as a problem to be solved—most significantly, the problem of religious extremism and conflict. Popular explanations of such conflict turn on supposedly deep-seated cultural attributes within Arab societies and often tied to the nature of Islam. But even for those that avoid this essentializing turn, virtually all commentators take for granted the proposed solution: generate ever-more secular political practices. In other words, what the region needs are governing institutions that treat individuals of all religious backgrounds as civic equals and thus reduce confessional difference to a matter purely of private (and legally protected) choice.
Last summer I read All Can Be Saved by the eminent historian of colonial Latin America, Stuart Schwartz. It’s a compelling story of inter-religious tolerance and boundary-blurring coexistence in the Hispanic world in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Near the end of the book, Schwartz sums up his approach: “One must go beneath the histories of state policies and religious dogmas that have dominated the writing of history, and one must look not primarily in learned discourse (usually controlled) and at the policy of government and kings, but in the actions and words of people who sought to think for themselves.”
Beyond Religious Freedom addresses a parallel set of concerns in a different setting. It asks scholars of law, religion, and global politics to consider not only the histories of learned discourse (expert religion) and the policies of governments and kings (official or governed religion) but also the actions and words of ordinary people (lived or everyday religion). The interactions between these overlapping fields, the power dynamics through which they shape each other, and their deep immersion and fluid entanglements with their socio-cultural, legal, economic, and political surroundings are, on one level, the subject of the book.