Response to Daniel Philpott: the Politics of Religious Freedom

I would like to respond to Daniel Philpott’s reaction to my piece on the politics of promoting religious freedom in the Middle East by situating my argument in the two broader research projects from which it emerged. My intention in doing so is to offer interested readers and critics an opportunity to understand how my RD intervention fits into a broader attempt in my current work to understand how and with what consequences the category of “religion” has been taken up nationally and internationally as an object of law and other forms of collective governance. I’ll say a few words about my collaborative research project, and then offer a brief introduction to the argument of my forthcoming book.

Over the past several years I have co-organized the Politics of Religious Freedom project, a collaborative research effort funded by the Luce Foundation to study the discourses of religious freedom in South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. These efforts are now bearing fruit, and in 2015 our project team will publish a volume, Politics of Religious Freedom, with the University of Chicago Press. This volume brings together a collection of essays that emerged out of an edited set of blog posts on the SSRC’s online discussion forum The Immanent Frame. Together, the essays collected in that series, the PoRF volume, and other publications, including a special issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly and a recently published symposium “Re-thinking Religious Freedom” in the Journal of Law and Religion, work to unsettle in significant ways the assumption that is so ubiquitous in many academic and policy circles—and that is reflected in Dan’s response to my RD essay—that religious freedom is a singular achievement, an easily understood state of affairs, and that the problem lies in its incomplete realization. Our collaborative project has sought to understand the different conceptions of religious freedom at play in the world today, their different social and political contexts, and their varied histories.

Neither my work nor our project takes a position for or against religious freedom. To assume that it does is a misunderstanding of what is in fact a much broader and more encompassing set of research aims and objectives. We are interested in laying out the kind of work advocacy for religious freedom has done, and continues to do, in various societies, and in exploring the political and legal worlds created by and through religious freedom. Our basic assumption is that, before either championing religious freedom or rejecting it, we need to understand the complex social and legal lives of this concept.

In engaging in this work, and learning from our colleagues and exploring these complex histories over a number of years, we have found that religious liberty is not a single, stable principle existing outside of history, as it is often depicted (particularly in policy circles in North America and Europe and by many academics invested in promoting religious freedom). It is, rather, an inescapably context-bound, polyvalent concept unfolding within divergent histories in differing political orders. This realization has led us to pose a number of crucial questions to those engaged in the promotion of religious freedom as a stable and singular human right. These questions, explored in detail in the PoRF volume and our other publications, and underlying my own public interventions on these issues, include: What happens when religious freedom is imagined only through the lexicon of liberal rights as a set of discrete freedoms claimed by individuals or groups from an assumedly neutral state? What claims can and cannot be made regarding religion, personhood, and freedom? What modes of religiosity, notions of religious difference (or non-difference), and idioms of social order and harmony are rendered unintelligible or incoherent?

My forthcoming book, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, also opens onto a broader set of questions involving the politics of religion in international relations. The book is a study of recent state-sponsored efforts to promote religious freedom, religious engagement, and the rights of religious minorities. It brings together the study of contemporary religion and global politics in a new way, charting the lives of these projects in specific contexts and developing a critique of their consequences. Uncovering and exploring the gap between the religion that is promoted through these efforts and the rest of the world’s religion leads me to challenge the prevailing assumption that the legalization of freedom of religion, engagement with faith communities, and protections for religious minorities are the keys to emancipating society from persecution and discrimination. Instead I argue that these efforts generate social tensions by making religious difference a matter of law, enacting a divide between the religion of those in power and the religion of those without it. This leads to a politics defined by religious difference, favors forms of religion authorized by those in power, and excludes other ways of being and belonging.

While Dan starts with the assumption that “in a country with robust religious freedom, everyone’s religion is protected,” I would encourage him to think further about what exactly is meant by this, and to understand that my book begins from a different premise. I suggest that when governments take up “religious freedom” in the sense that Dan advocates, this requires that they decide which “religions” are “protected” and how, and which individuals and communities have which “religious” “rights” enshrined in law. This places states and the religious freedom advocates who seek to mobilize them in the position of determining what counts as a legitimate “religious” practice, right, or community, granting the latter special status above the others. It thus gives governments more tools for disempowering those whom it dislikes, disagrees with, or refuses to recognize, creating political spaces and institutions in which state-sponsored religious distinctions are not only inevitable but also publically and politically salient. My book creates a space in which to explore these kinds of questions by charting the blurred boundaries and dizzying power dynamics that characterize relations between “official religion,” “governed religion,” and “lived religion.” In the process, it uncovers a different story about the politics of religion. This story is in many ways continuous with the argument of my first book, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, which argued that religion never left public life but has assumed different forms and occupied different spaces under modern regimes of governance, many of which are described as secular.

My forthcoming book also discusses the political economy of the “religionization” of global politics, which I’ll mention by way of conclusion. Today many scholars and practitioners interested in these topics in Europe, North America, and elsewhere see no way forward but to take their place in the burgeoning international infrastructure of religion and development, religion and humanitarianism, religion and legal reform, interfaith understanding, religious rights protections, and so on. There is pressure to sign on to these projects, and, in many cases, strong financial incentives. The field has become an important source of grants, institutional support, career stability, and prestige in an era of neoliberal reform in the academy, increased donor scrutiny and control often informed by strong normative agendas, and faltering support for secure academic positions that provide the opportunity for long-range critical and scholarly reflection. I think it is important to think carefully about the political economy of the new global politics of religion.

I welcome other perspectives on these important issues, and look forward to continuing the conversation.