The danger of exporting a post-Orlando, counter-orientalist discourse to the Middle East
How Christians Respond to Persecution: View the Rome Conference
After Orlando: The Culture War Over Islam Continues
Are There Still Just Wars? New Catholic Thinking on Peace
European Federalism is Catholic — So Brexit is Not
Obama at Hiroshima (longer version)
Yes, Apologize for Hiroshima, President Obama
China’s Coming Clampdown on Religion
German Muslims Defend Religious Freedom, Support Constitution
Is the Problem Really Religious Freedom?

The danger of exporting a post-Orlando, counter-orientalist discourse to the Middle East

In The Culture War Over Islam Continues, Daniel Philpott suggests that the interpretive frameworks through which the Orlando tragedy has been read in the US represent a polarization between two reified positions: the “hawk position” which demonizes Muslims and the “dove position” which negates any association between Mateen’s professed religious affiliation and the underlying structural drivers of conflict at work. Scholars of the Middle East — who have long been committed to exposing and fighting orientalism as a feature of Western interpretive frameworks for Islam (religion), Islamism (as a political ideology), and Muslims (as followers) — have eloquently exposed reductionisms, essentialisms, and bias in the American discourses on the Orlando crisis. These discourses are critically important to counterbalance the hawks’ discourses, some of which have perpetuated discourses of xenophobia and fear mongering.

There are multiple dangers involved, however, if scholarly contestations by Middle East academics fighting orientalism spatially (in the West) and temporally (specific to the phase following Orlando) are exported to the Middle East. In many regions, while there are multiple struggles for political, economic, and social justice, there is also a struggle against deep structures that seek to circumscribe spaces for multivocality and inclusivity. Discourses that condemn all critiques of Islamist political forces as Islamophobic can lead to a muting of the voices of activists locally such as Islam el Behery who, as a Muslim scholar, sought to expose certain teachings by Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of religious teaching, that encroach on freedoms. Al Azhar filed a blasphemy lawsuit against him, and he ended up with a five-year prison sentence. Other than responses by some secular Muslim scholars and activists in Egypt, Behery’s case generated very little solidarity from around the world.

Dove-like discourses in the US have repeatedly reminded audiences that those who affiliate themselves with ISIS are not Muslims. Fine, but caution is needed when this discourse travels to the Middle East, where there is a struggle by reformers to make institutions such as Al Azhar take a categorical stance against movements such as ISIS. So far, Al Azhar has refused to declare ISIS as apostates even though some of its scholars have no qualms defining the country’s non-Muslims in those terms. It won’t make much of a difference for ISIS whether it lies in the “in” or “out” box set by Al Azhar’s demarcation, but the significance of such a demarcation lies in the message it sends to Muslims worldwide. When ISIS is seen simply as part of an unruly crowd on the margins of the Muslim community (khawaraj), this is dramatically different than when they are seen as outside of Islam altogether. There has been a struggle to press Al Azhar to take a stance against those who kill in the name of Islam. In other words, whereas the struggle in a post-Orlando US is to challenge those that claim allegiance to ISIS as followers of Islam, the struggle in other parts of the world is for Muslim scholars to get Islamic political forces and institutions to represent radical movements as anathema to Islam. This points to the importance of not only recognizing locally situated discourses and interpretive frameworks, but also being aware of the potential dangers of exporting the language, framing, and standpoint used in one context (such as that of Orlando) to one radically different in the Middle East.

After Orlando: The Culture War Over Islam Continues

Before saying anything else about Orlando, my heart weeps and mourns, and I pray that all America would weep and mourn together, for the sufferers of this atrocity.

Now, an observation.  Over the past couple of days, a great deal has been said about Islam.  The debate follows almost exactly the pattern that it has followed at least as far back as the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  There is a culture war in the West over Islam.  It has played out again and again on cable news, talk radio, the internet, and in newspapers every time Islam appears in some way to be linked with violence.  The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.  Al Qaeda’s bombings in Madrid and London.  Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.  The Iraqi civil war following the invasion of the U.S.  The Regensburg Address of Pope Benedict XVI.  The building of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.  The Arab uprisings of 2011.  Shootings at Fort Hood and in San Bernardino.  The predations of Boko Haram and the Islamic State.  Charlie Hebdo.  And now Orlando.

There are hawks and doves.  Hawks hold that violence and intolerance are widespread in Islam; that Islam is hard wired for these pathologies through its texts and doctrines; that Islam is inhospitable to liberal democracy; and that the West must gird up for a long struggle against Islam’s threat.  Hawks have been excoriating President Obama for allegedly denying that Islam is behind violence like this as well as all those who have not recognized Islam for the violent religion that it is.  Donald Trump sings a hawkish tune.

Doves hold that Islam is pluralistic and diverse.  Like all religions, Islam has extremists, but they are few.  Where violence and intolerance do exist in Islam, it feeds off local and historically particular circumstances and are not hard-wired.  Islam is capable of democracy.  The west should acknowledge its own role in contributing to violence in Islam and engage in a dialogue that can increase the sphere of shared understanding.  They upbraid the hawks for being warmongers and point out that every religion has its peaceful and belligerent faces.

Which side is right?  Neither.  I will take a stab at explaining why in posts soon to come.  In the short run, here is a thoughtful statement by contemporary Muslim leaders mourning the Orlando shooting and affirming religious freedom.



Are There Still Just Wars? New Catholic Thinking on Peace

Maria Stephan, a policy analyst at the United States Institute of Peace, has written a fascinating piece about voices in the Catholic Church who are calling for the Church to move past thinking about a just war and to focus far more on building just peace.  The Church has allies in such a quest among other Christians and other faiths as well as secular voices.   The movement comes mostly from peace activists and is not on the verge of leading the magisterium of the Church to jettison the classic doctrine of a just war, dating back to St. Augustine.  Still, its message finds echoes among recent popes and now Pope Francis as well as among leaders and activists throughout the world.

I do not think that the Church should abandon is doctrine of the just war, for sometimes war is just and necessary, but still find Stephan’s message compelling insofar as possibilities for non-violent action are worth developing, pursuing and enacting.  Stephan’s book with political scientist Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, is a landmark.  An article version of it opened my eyes to see that non-violent movements are not the rarified exceptions of a King or a Gandhi but rather part and parcel of global politics.  They are common; they work; and they produce better and more lasting change than violence.

Now she situates her thinking in the Catholic context:

But it seems that Pope Francis – who is by all accounts a progressive thinker, unafraid to challenge old Church doctrines – might welcome a debate over the church’s foundational tenets on war and peace.

“Faith and violence are incompatible,” he repeated in a 2013 mass prayer gathering at the Vatican. Like his predecessors of the past 50 years, he has called for the abolition of war. But this pontiff has gone one step further in pressing for nonviolent alternatives.

She continues:

The concept of “just peace” is not new. It first emerged in the United States in the mid-1980s, when an interdenominational group of Christian scholars advanced alternatives to war that culminated in a just-peace framework.

It included practices like supporting nonviolent direct action; cooperative conflict resolution; advancing democracy, human rights, and religious liberty; fostering just and sustainable economic development; and encouraging grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

She reports on a conference at Rome that she recently attended:

or some at the Rome conference, the pope’s endorsement of the gathering was long overdue for the church. Many of those in attendance, like Sister Nazek Matty from Erbil, Iraq, had known war for years and were sick of it. She and other participants pressed the church to place greater focus on nonmilitary responses to the Islamic State and expand the creative imagination to fight injustices with active nonviolent means.

During one of the plenary sessions, Father Francisco José de Roux, a Jesuit priest from Colombia, decried how, since the mid-1960s, supporters of both the government and FARC insurgents, including local priests, have justified violence in the name of a “just war.” The outcome? Nearly 50 years of civil war.

Other Catholic leaders in Colombia have supported nonviolent civic action and “zones of peace” to keep armed groups out of local communities and have helped advance peace talks expected to culminate in a final settlement later this year. By putting a just-peace approach at the center of its work, the Catholic Church in Colombia opened multiple avenues to effective nonviolent action.

There is much more that is worth reading in this provocative piece.

European Federalism is Catholic — So Brexit is Not

It is often forgotten that the founding of European federalism in the late 1940s and early 1950s was supported disproportionately and enthusiastically by the Catholic Church and Catholic-inspired Christian Democratic parties.  So it is not surprising that Britain’s bishops are now against Brexit.  See this fascinating piece on the subject in The Catholic Herald.  The origins of the Church’s position, according to the piece:

The most intellectually respectable of these strands leads back to the European Coal and Steel Community, formed after the Second World War by Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi. Of these, only Monnet – the French political economist who became the community’s first president – was not a conspicuously devout Catholic. (His private life was complicated: he was married to a woman who left her husband for him and had to travel to Moscow to obtain a divorce; the Monnets could not have a Catholic wedding until the first husband was dead, by which time Jean was 85. The ceremony took place in the basilica at Lourdes.)

Schuman, twice prime minister of France, and De Gasperi, eight times prime minister of Italy and founder of the Christian Democrats, were men of such personal holiness that there have been calls to canonise them. Adenauer, the scheming first Chancellor of West Germany, is not a candidate for sainthood – but he was a trenchantly Catholic statesman during a political career lasting 60 years.

For Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi, the European Economic Community was fundamentally a Catholic project with roots that – in their imaginations, at least – could be traced back to Charlemagne.

Protestant Britons smelled a rat. They portrayed the new alliance as an attempt to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire. There was a grain of truth in this charge – though this “imperial” realm was little more than a patchwork of quarrelsome German principalities. To quote Voltaire, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

Likewise, there was always an element of fantasy in the goal of “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, first set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. But the Catholic inspiration for the EEC, left unstated in treaties, was anything but frivolous.

In 2008 the Catholic historian Alan Fimister published a book arguing that Schuman’s plans for Europe were “to a remarkable degree, the conscious implementation of the Neo-Thomistic project of Pope Leo XIII”.

Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer all believed that the answer to totalitarian ideologies lay in Leo’s vision of the restoration of “the principles of the Christian life in civil and domestic society”.

But Schuman went further: he subscribed to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s notion of supranational democracy as the foundation for a new Christendom. “He held fast to the magisterium’s demand that the final destination of Catholic political action must be the recognition by the civil order of the truth of the Faith,” writes Fimister.

And how was this to be achieved? By the voluntary submission of non-Catholic Europeans to the spiritual authority of Rome.



Obama at Hiroshima (longer version)

Here is a longer version of the op-ed I published at The New York Daily News arguing that President Obama should apologize for Hiroshima, with references to Catholic thought.

Once, in a talk to school students about sex, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said the following:

When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? You know I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That blotted out boundaries. The boundary of America that was the aid of nations, and the nations that were helped. It blotted out the boundary between life and death for the victims of nuclear incineration. Among them even the living were dead. It blotted out the boundary between the civilian and the military. And somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.

In dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sheen reasoned, the U.S. had incurred a moral corruption that could not be easily contained.

As the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Barack Obama has insisted that he will not apologize for the bombings, doubtless aiming to ward off the domestic criticism that such contrition would garner.  Early in his presidency, his foes on the right lambasted him for an “apology tour” overseas.  A 2015 Pew Research Center Survey showed that 70% of Americans over 65 considered the atomic bombs justified, while 47% of 18- to 29-year-olds thought the same.

Would Obama be wrong to apologize, though?  When Archbishop Sheen called Hiroshima the destroyer of moral boundaries, he was speaking not from the left or the right side of the political spectrum, but rather from the heart of his church and from the standpoint of the natural law.  It is always wrong intentionally to kill an innocent person – that is, to murder.  And one should never adopt an immoral means to one’s end.  These are the precepts behind centuries-old laws of war, which have distinguished combatants, who may be targeted lawfully, from non-combatants, whose death one may never intend.

The deaths of non-combatants, the U.S. manifestly did intend when, for the first and only time in history, it used nuclear weapons.  Historians do not dispute that the primary reason for the bombs was to destroy the morale of Japan by killing its civilians, thereby hastening the end of the war.  Killing non-combatants – murder – was a means to an end.  The same reasoning had underlaid the United States’ obliteration bombing of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, as well as the Allies’ bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, Germany, earlier in the war.

Armchair analysts! will come the response.  Professors with their principles looking back 71 years later may well condemn the bombings but have considered little the pressures that President Harry Truman was under when he had to make his terrible decision of summer 1945.  Nor have the denizens of the faculty lounge come to grips with the number of lives of U.S. soldiers that would have been lost in a conventional invasion of mainland Japan, which some historians estimate to be 500,000, the charge will run.

The history of what did not happen, though, is always debatable.  Historical counterfactuals – what would have happened if X did not occur – are notoriously uncertain, perhaps just as uncertain as predictions about the future.  Even the assumption of a colossally bloody invasion of Japan rests upon the fixity of U.S. war aims such as unconditional surrender and the deposing of Japan’s Emperor.  Had war aims been relaxed, might an alternative peace have been possible?  The answers can only be speculative.

Far more certain is the moral law, which the Apostle Paul taught is inscribed on the heart.  If it is wrong without exception to kill civilians as the object of one’s action, then targeting the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be ruled out apart from how persuasive this or that historian’s counterfactuals may be.  The principle of non-combatant immunity is not the conclusion of a speculative university seminar but is rather a law that every soldier, including the commander in chief, is expected to know and follow.  General Curtis Le May, the architect of the campaign to bomb Japanese cities – no armchair analyst he – acknowledged as much when he quipped after the war that “if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

While the arguments against the bomb can be rendered through reason, it is worth noting that those reasoning from the heart of the same tradition as Archbishop Sheen – the Catholic tradition – have reached the same conclusion that he did.  Courageously, theologian John Ford, S.J. wrote an article in 1944 – during the throes of the war – explaining why obliteration bombing could never pass moral muster.  Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic and one of the greatest philosophical minds of the twentieth century, refused to attend the ceremony when Oxford awarded President Truman an honorary degree, explaining her decision in a pointed essay.  The great document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the “magna carta” of modern Catholic social and political thought, condemned the bombing of cities outright, indenting the text, “[a]ny act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”  Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical of 1993, Veritatis Splendor, rejected the proportionalist method of moral reasoning that would replace moral absolutes with a weighing of goods – the kind of reasoning that is required to justify the bombings.  John Paul II spoke about Hiroshima directly when he said to the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See in 1999, ““The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a message to all our contemporaries, inviting all the earth’s peoples to learn the lessons of history and to work for peace with ever greater determination. Indeed, they remind our contemporaries of all the crimes committed during the Second World War against civilian populations, crimes and acts of true genocide.”

War crimes leave wounds.  When a nation places its patriotism and its policy behind a gravely immoral deed and continues to justify this deed, it invites its citizens to commit further grave wrongs on the proportionalist rationale.  Not long after Hiroshima, the U.S. government rested the nation’s very defense on the threat to kill innocents in its policy of massive retaliation.  Again, Anscombe diagnosed the problem in an essay, “War and Murder,” which she concluded by writing, “[t]hose, therefore, who think they must be prepared to wage a war with Russia involving the deliberate massacre of cities, must be prepared to say to God: ‘We had to break your law, lest your Church fail. We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises.’”

In renouncing a moral wrong and inviting citizens to share in the contrition, a head of state can help to heal historical wounds and to nullify historical rationales for future crimes.  President Abraham Lincoln exercised such moral leadership when he called Americans – from both North and South – to repent for slavery.  More recently, President George H.W. Bush officially apologized to Japanese-Americans interned in World War II and President Bill Clinton apologized to Guatemalans for U.S. complicity in human rights violations during the Cold War.

The U.S. also has every right to ask Japan to apologize for its attack on Pearl Harbor and its atrocities during the war.  Such an apology from Japan may well be unlikely.  The apologies that Japanese prime ministers voiced in the 1990s for Japan’s crimes in the 1930s and 1940s provoked a nationalist backlash and public controversy as much as they did greater national contrition.

A U.S. president’s apology for the atomic bombs is also likely to provoke opposition from many American citizens, who will say that an apology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki breaks faith with the U.S. soldiers who fought and died in World War II.  An apology, though, does no dishonor to these soldiers, who fought a war whose cause was just.  Contrition would not detract in the slightest from the imperative of remembering and honoring their sacrifice.

Rather, were the lone superpower to apologize for its violations of the law of nations, it could set an example for other nations to follow.  It might deprive Japan’s latter day nationalists of some of their best arguments for rejecting contrition towards their own country’s history and make it easier for Japanese prime ministers to extend apologies to the U.S. as well as to China and Korea.  An apology for the dropping of the atomic bombs would elicit ire and fury in the short run, but with the passing of time may come to be seen as one of President Obama’s greatest acts of leadership.

China’s Coming Clampdown on Religion

The Chinese government’s demolition of churches and removal of crosses over the past couple of years are a run-up to a much more systematic, nationwide clampdown, a New York Times piece reports today.

Here is how the piece describes the coming change:

But people familiar with the government’s deliberations say the removal of crosses here has set the stage for a new, nationwide effort to more strictly regulate spiritual life in China, reflecting the tighter control of society favored by President Xi Jinping.


In an image from video, a Catholic church’s cross was toppled by a government worker in Zhejiang Province last year. Over the past two years, officials and residents said, the authorities have had crosses from 1,200 to 1,700 churches torn down.CreditDidi Tang/Associated Press

In a major speech on religious policy last month, Mr. Xi urged the ruling Communist Party to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means,” and he warned that religions in China must “Sinicize,” or become Chinese. The instructions reflect the government’s longstanding fear that Christianity could undermine the party’s authority. Many human rights lawyers in China are Christians, and many dissidents have said they are influenced by the idea that rights are God-given.

In recent decades, the party had tolerated a religious renaissance in China, allowing most Chinese to worship as they chose and even encouraging the construction of churches, mosques and temples, despite regular crackdowns on unregistered congregations and banned spiritual groups such as Falun Gong.

Hundreds of millions of people have embraced the nation’s major faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity. There are now about 60 million Christians in China. Many attend churches registered with the government, but at least half worship in unregistered churches, often with local authorities looking the other way.

But Mr. Xi’s decision to convene a “religious affairs work conference” last month — the first such leadership meeting in 15 years — suggested that he was unhappy with some of these policies. People familiar with the party’s discussions say it intends to apply some lessons from the campaign in Zhejiang to rein in religious groups across the country.

Bracing news.


German Muslims Defend Religious Freedom, Support Constitution

Muslims in Germany have launched a petition calling on all citizens of Germany to support the German legal system, especially the German Constitution, including its protection for religious freedom.

This comes at a time when an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany, appears to be in ascendance. Alternative for Germany is known by its German acronym AfD, i.e. Alternative für Deutschland. The more AfD argues against treating Muslims as equal citizens before the law, the more support it gains from non-Muslims (a trend familiar to those watching Trump in the U.S. today).

At the recent AfD party convention, AfD supporter Hans-Thomas Tillschneider proclaimed, “Islam is foreign to us and for that reason it cannot invoke the principle of religious freedom to the same degree as Christianity”; this resulted in loud applause.

In the May 2016 AfD Party Platform, the intention of the AfD to exclude Muslims in Germany from religious freedom protection is explicit.

Section 7.6.1 is titled, “Islam Does Not Belong in Germany.” (Bizarrely, this section goes on to proclaim, “The AfD espouses unrestricted freedom of belief, conscience, and religion, but…” with a “but” so vast as to make this unrecognizable as having any relation whatsoever to freedom of belief, conscience, and religion.)

Section 7.6.3 states, “The AfD rejects minarets, and along with this the call to prayer, as a symbol of Islamic supremacy, according to which there is no deity other than the Islamic Allah.” (If exclusivity is so problematic, it is then entirely unclear how the exclusive claims of Christians and Jews that God is one, and the exclusive claim of atheists that God does not exist, pass Constitutional muster in Germany while a parallel Muslim belief poses a “threat” to the Constitution.)

Section 7.6.5 calls for banning facial veils and banning the wearing of headscarves by government employees at work, including those employed at public schools.

Section 8.2.7 calls for “closure of Quran schools” and replacing Islamic religious education in public schools with generic ethics classes (whereas apparently Christians would still be allowed to hold religious education in public schools). Section 8.2.7 concludes,”So long as Islam has not gone through a true reformation, we demand the closure of Quran schools due to the uncontrollable danger of radical indoctrination hostile to the Constitution.”

The irony of this is stark. Muslims are the ones standing up in public for constitutional democracy at a time when some non-Muslims are beginning to abandon constitutional democracy because, they claim, Muslims are a threat to constitutional democracy.

One cannot help but question who the real threat to constitutional democracy is, and where the true “danger of radical indoctrination hostile to the Constitution” lies.

I see the title of this petition, “Today We, Tomorrow You” (#HeuteWirMorgenDu) as a reminder that once a society abandons equality of citizens before the law, subsequent exclusion of one group before the law seldom ends with just that one group. Once it is O.K. to exclude people group by group, other groups will follow, one minority after the next. Thus warn Muslims of Germany, in effect, today we are the ones being threatened with exclusion, tomorrow it could be you.

What is the “alternative” (so to say)? These Muslims remind us the real alternative is to maintain and protect the great innovation of constitutional democracy, with its core principle of religious freedom, protecting all of us — all of us equally before the law.

Below is my own (unofficial) translation of this petition.

Today We, Tomorrow You

Together for the Constitution and against Political Instrumentalization of Islam by the AfD

This is not about Islam, this is about Germany: 

An open letter regarding the AfD Party Platform

With the populist proclamations of the AfD, the debates in Germany about Islam have reached a low point. Discreet as well as public resentment against Muslims has become a political agenda.

Islam, however, is the religion of many citizens, women and men, who, out of a sense of ethical responsibility, are engaged for the well being of our society. We live in an open, tolerant society, in which the multiplicity of opinions and lifestyles is and must remain a core achievement. We commit ourselves to this with all our energy, because there can be no alternative to a Germany like this.

As citizens we must therefore raise our voices. As for the propagandists, it is not a matter of an Islam which is transforming Germany. Rather, cloaked under a supposed critique of Islam, what this is actually about is transforming Germany at its foundations.

It must be the case for all — including the AfD — that the binding framework of our lives together in society is the German legal system. In this all people, with their own convictions and their own lifestyles, can give full expression to who they are. It is precisely this which distinguishes our country.

Religious freedom is a basic right in this legal system, granted to each person without exception. Those, however, who begin to speak of “foreign bodies,” in order to deprive people on a selective basis of their basic rights, have turned themselves against our Constitution itself. Those who, moreover, pretend that they are doing this for the well-being of democracy and of our country, understand neither democracy nor the democratic and free legal system of our country.

Only when all, without regard to their belief or absence of belief, or heritage, are equal before the law, can the freedom of each individual flourish.

We, as the Muslim signatories initiating this, call on all citizens to engage actively on behalf of these principles. We must stand together in opposition to all those who seek through populism to define some people in a way which excludes them from the scope of protection of our legal system. We are not going to surrender the core achievement of enlightened democratic culture to the self-proclaimed “Saviors of the West.” In the end this is not about Islam. This is about Germany.

And this is about constitutional democracy and religious freedom, not only in Germany, but everywhere else too.

Is the Problem Really Religious Freedom?

This fall, The Review of Faith & International Affairs  will be publishing a review of two important new books, from critics of the freedom of religion or belief: Saba Mahmood and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. My full review will be in that issue. One of the orienting questions I had reading these books was: what exactly is the problem with religious freedom? Why, of all the human rights available on the panacea of rights advocacy, has this, still relatively minor right, managed to achieve the status of a super-right worthy of such sustained criticism? To read these books and then to hear, for example, Thomas Farr’s testimony in 2013 that it is ..

difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way…

is an exercise in contradiction. Which is religious freedom advocacy? An industrial complex and career maker, or an obscure if rising corner of human rights advocacy in the political offices of the globe?

That empirical puzzle is the least interesting part of these books, however. It is, I think, fair to say that the problem is not religious freedom at all, or even human rights, but liberalism and the secular state. Religious freedom is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface lies the religious and the secular itself, the Treaty of Westphalia, and a whole genealogy of “the constitutive values” of liberal democracy. From the forthcoming review:

Hurd’s conclusion is that religious freedom privileges some forms of religion, whether beliefs, modes of being or knowing, and dis-privileges others. Is that really the fault of religious freedom, or is that the natural consequence of sovereignty and of political secularism?

The state, Hurd is at pains to show, is not neutral because it privileges certain kinds of beliefs and being. But of course it does. The ‘neutrality’ of the secular state is not an intellectual innocence. It is a political community that has very definite opinions about certain kinds of beliefs and behaviours, and the suggestion that it was ever intended to be an open-cosmopolitan social space seems historically naïve. That, for example, Hurd could write “the wrong kind of religion is an object of reform and discipline” (27) and this could shock us means we missed the prior postmodern lesson that politics are always moral, that what a political community means by justice – the good of politics – is hardly “neutral” in an intellectual sense. There is no such thing as good or bad religion, argues Hurd (Hurd, 120), except – of course – when we get busy situating ourselves in a tradition, or moral position, then some kinds of belief and being and knowing are good. And some are bad.

This is where postmodern polemics sometimes hit a snag, because we know that we are already situated in such a sense, whether we are busy attending to it or not. This is Charles Taylor’s point in A Secular Age about the “modern social imaginary” that we were in the business of having understandings of and practices in the world long before we got into the business of theorizing about them. What is Hurd’s social imaginary, then?

I believe it is one whose moral hierarchy counts diversity and equality as its chief aims. The fundamental problem with religious freedom, then, is the same as the problem with human rights generally. Quoting Talal Asad, she writes that religious freedom “usurps the entire universe of moral discourse, capturing the field of emancipatory possibility and effacing the distinction between law and justice” (Hurd, 64). This approach is deeply democratic, but it is not necessarily liberal. In fact, quoting Asad again, she writes “the modern idea of religious belief (protected as a right in the individual and regulated institutionally) is a critical function of the liberal-democratic nation-state but not of democratic sensibility” (Hurd, 108).

Therefore, if we disagree with Hurd about the conceptual use ‘religion’ as a category for international politics the fulcrum of that disagreement becomes clear: it is probably because, like me, you are a liberal democrat, the values of liberalism accompanying and qualifying your democratic enthusiasm, whereas she is unapologetically a democrat. A democrat is a good thing to be, and I respect a thoroughgoing defense of values I also believe in, I just happen to think being a democrat, untethered from the limits of what Taylor calls the “constitutive values of liberal democracy” is a little riskier politics than I like to play.

The full review is forthcoming, but both these books are already available and for sale.


© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.