Recently I am struck by the ambiguity of the concept of the religious. Reading Linda Heuman’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, and then turning to Bellah’s book itself, after having been reading Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, I feel as I have before how uncertain it is that we who write about religion in history are all writing about the same thing! Bellah’s book is an attempt to factor that uncertainty into the equation, for sure. In one part of Bellah’s overall reconstruction of “axial transitions” (including the birth of monotheism), he considers three case studies, two Native American and one Aboriginal Australian, with scrupulous care. The idea is to get a picture—before the shift to the ecumenical story, when the forces of the axial age change everything—of developmentally prior, not to say primordial, religions, without adopting anything as distortive as a model or a linear theory.
Posts Tagged ‘colonialism’
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.
What is the politics of religious freedom? For the past decade and more, those who would like to see the active promotion of religious freedom at the “core” of foreign policy in the U.S. and now in Canada would have us understand that religious freedom is the foundation of democracy, the basis for political stability and first step to all other freedoms. The mission statement of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State links its promotion of religious freedom to human rights and to political “stability” for “all countries.” Referring to the establishment of a new Office of Religious Freedom within his government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in a statement to the United Nations last year, the Canadian UN Ambassador declared, “History has shown us that where religious freedom is strong, democratic freedom is strong.”
Conventional wisdom has it that religious liberty is a universally valid principle, enshrined in national constitutions and international charters and treaties, whose proper implementation continues to be thwarted by intransigent forces in society such as illiberal governments, religious fundamentalists, and traditional norms. Insomuch as the Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, are supposed to be afflicted with the ills of fundamentalism and illiberal governments, then the salvific promise of religious liberty looms large. In this brief post I would like to question this way of thinking through a consideration of the career of religious liberty in the modern Middle East.
Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles, Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both global context and the ways in which their interaction has been shaped by local histories, in the West and the Middle East. Most recently, he co-authored (along with Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler) Is Critique Secular? (University of California Press, 2009) and contributed a chapter to the just published SSRC volume Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Globalization, Chalmers Johnson says, is just a new word for what used to be called imperialism. He is partly correct, but I do think there are some differences. Cultural globalization, at least, is what the world looks like from the point of view of an imperium in decline.
Christianity has been spread around the world for many centuries now. In the sixteenth century, the conquistadores brought Catholic Christianity to South America and the Philippines. In the seventeenth century, Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican missionaries brought it to India, Japan, and China. In the nineteenth century, Catholic and Protestant missionaries planted the faith in the colonies established throughout the world during the age of European imperialism. But this dissemination of the Christian faith was not called globalization. It was called “propaganda fidei” or “Christian mission.”
Anthropologist Mayfair Yang teaches in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has done pioneering work discovering, describing, and reflecting on the fate of traditional culture in post-revolutionary China through numerous articles and edited volumes, two documentary films, and her book Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: the Art of Social Relationships in China. Throughout, she brings the insights of post-colonial theory and gender studies to bear on the living remnants of ancient ways of life. She is currently writing a new book, Re-Enchanting Modernity: Sovereignty, Ritual Economy, and Indigenous Civil Order in Coastal China.
At On Faith this week, “the question” is whether religious groups proselytizing overseas amounts to “religious freedom” or to “coercion.”
Michael Jerryson discusses his new book Buddhist Warfare, co-edited with Mark Juergensmeyer, at Religion Dispatches, explaining “how the notion of a purely mystical and otherworldly Buddhism—promoted by some of the great interpreters of the tradition—denies its adherents’ humanity.”