The politics of religious freedom

Received wisdom from across the political spectrum suggests that securing religious freedom results in peaceful co-existence and ensures individual and associational flourishing vis-à-vis the state. Meanwhile, a deficit of religious freedom is seen as a driving force behind—if not the proximate cause of—insecurity and violence. The logic of these assumptions is currently being used to justify a wide range of well-funded public and private interventions in many parts of the world.

But what is religious freedom, and why are we talking about it now?

Guest edited by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan in conjunction with a joint research project, this ongoing discussion considers the multiple histories and genealogies of religious freedom—and the multiple contexts in which those histories and genealogies are salient today.

August 20th, 2013

Religious freedom and multiculturalism: Canadian contentions

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In its annual survey, “Minority Religious Communities At Risk,” the First Freedom Center of Virginia observed intensified contention over the right to freedom of religious expression in both Canada and the United States. As evidence, the editors highlighted a major Canadian Supreme Court decision as well as public criticism of the conservative government’s creation of an Office of Religious Freedom; for the United States, the editors cited the litigation over the 2011 Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act. The contention in both countries seemed to pit conservative religious-freedom advocates against a progressive secular establishment. However, as I argue here with the Canadian case, the situation is more complicated.

Read Religious freedom and multiculturalism: Canadian contentions.
January 7th, 2013

Traditional, African, religious, freedom?

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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.

Read Traditional, African, religious, freedom?.
November 13th, 2012

On the freedom of the concepts of religion and belief

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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.

Read On the freedom of the concepts of religion and belief.
September 11th, 2012

Religious freedom as a binding practice of suspicion

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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.”

Read Religious freedom as a binding practice of suspicion.
July 24th, 2012

Politics of religious freedom in South Africa

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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.

Read Politics of religious freedom in South Africa.
June 21st, 2012

Social eugenics, unintended consequences, and dropped balls

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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.”

Read Social eugenics, unintended consequences, and dropped balls.
June 19th, 2012

Is religion free?

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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.

Read Is religion free?.
May 16th, 2012

The bishops, the sisters, and religious freedom

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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.

Read The bishops, the sisters, and religious freedom.
May 11th, 2012

Everson’s Children

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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.

Read Everson’s Children.
May 8th, 2012

Reading religious freedom in Sri Lanka

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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.

Read Reading religious freedom in Sri Lanka.
May 3rd, 2012

Secularism and the freedom to transform lives

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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.

Read Secularism and the freedom to transform lives.
May 2nd, 2012

Religious freedom as crisis claims

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Adopted in 1950, Article 17 of the Indian Constitution legally abolished untouchability—the ancient Hindu system of social discrimination—forbade its practice in any form, and made the enforcement of any discrimination arising out of this disability a criminal offence. At the same time, the Indian Constitution guaranteed freedom of religious belief and practice under Article 25 and autonomy of religious institutions under Article 26. The discussion of Employment Division v. Smith in Winnifred Sullivan’s post and subsequent comments reminded me of the very substantial jurisprudence surrounding Article 26.

Read Religious freedom as crisis claims.
April 30th, 2012

Nahda’s return to history

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The Tunisian uprisings of December 2010 are often depicted in negative terms, as lacking leadership, ideology, and political organization. Nahda (the Tunisian Islamist movement that, after decades of exile and repression, won 40 percent of the seats in the elections of October 2011) members are now accused of working to turn Tunisia into a “sharia state,” in which religious freedom, women’s rights, and freedom of expression would cease to exist. While the fears of individuals and groups who disagree with Islamists have to be taken seriously, discussion of current changes needs to be based on a real engagement, not on caricature.

Read Nahda’s return to history.
April 27th, 2012

Beyond establishment

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Religious freedom and religious establishment have come to mean many things to many people. This is, in part, because of the shifting contours of the definition of religion itself (as has been pointed out by others in this series, including Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd). But it is also because the nature of freedom is contested ground. The shifting nature of these two concepts makes normative assessment—religious freedom is good, religious freedom is bad—extremely difficult to carry out in any meaningful way. Further, when people advocate for or against religious freedom they are often talking about very different things. Similarly, the measurement of establishment is equally nebulous.

Read Beyond establishment.
April 26th, 2012

The problem of translation: A view from India

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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.”

Read The problem of translation: A view from India.
April 23rd, 2012

Protecting freedom of religion in the secular age

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I want to start with a paradox. In the secular age, as Charles Taylor has amply illustrated, religious belief no longer structures our social imaginary. Instead, it has become one option, one possibility, among others: one of the ways in which we give meaning to our lives. The secular age, then, is characterised by the fact of pluralism—an irreducible pluralism of beliefs, values, commitments. Yet we secular moderns also give special primacy to freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is standardly presented as the archetypical liberal right. So the paradox is this: how (and why) do we protect freedom of religion in an age where religion is not special?

Read Protecting freedom of religion in the secular age.
April 20th, 2012

Varieties of religious freedom and governance

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As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s and Saba Mahmood’s earlier contributions to this discussion remind us, the received wisdom in Western policy circles today emphasizes the necessary synergy between democracy and religious freedom. What I wish to suggest in my remarks here is not that this characterization is wrong, but that it is sociologically too simple, and that the oversimplification can result in ill-conceived prescriptions for pluralist religious freedom.

Read Varieties of religious freedom and governance.
April 18th, 2012

Contradictions of religious freedom and religious repression

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The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of seventy years of anti-religious policies—of a period in which religious expression was severely curtailed and religious institutions were always controlled, at times co-opted, and at other times brutally repressed, with the aim of effecting the demise of religion, an aim which was never fully realized. The post-1991 era was radically different, at least in those newly independent countries that adopted and implemented liberal laws regarding religious expression and organization. It might be expected that religious leaders and practitioners would have a straightforwardly positive view of this widening scope for religious activities, but this turned out not always to be the case.

Read Contradictions of religious freedom and religious repression.