Archive - November 12, 2014

Beth Hurd Responds
Religious Freedom Advocates Resemble ISIS? Really?
Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?

Beth Hurd Responds

I invited Beth Hurd to respond to my post of yesterday on her post of Monday morning in Religion Dispatches.  She graciously took up my offer.

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.


Religious Freedom Advocates Resemble ISIS? Really?

This past weekend a group of about 30 parliamentarians from around the world came together to sign a “Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief.”  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom played a key role in organizing the effort.

How much will such a charter matter?  It’s hard to know.  It can’t be a bad thing, though, to build an international coalition of parliamentarians for religious freedom.  It was the U.S. Congress that passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which was championed by key legislators.  Legislatures in other countries can mobilize their foreign policy makers to advocate for religious freedom around the world.

Beth Hurd, though, is not happy with the Charter.  Hurd is a fellow political scientist at Northwestern University who did much to pioneer the study of religion in international relations through her crackerjack book, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations.  But Hurd and I disagree over religious freedom, or at least over the wisdom of promoting it through foreign policy.

Monday, she published a piece in Religion Dispatches saying that the Charter will only embolden ISIS.   She continues an argument against religious freedom policy that she has been carrying on in collaboration with colleagues like Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, Indiana University’s Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, and Maryland Law School’s Peter Danchin.  The four of them have been conducting a project on (or against) religious freedom funded by the Luce Foundation.  From Hurd’s website, it looks like she is set to publish a couple of books next year with Princeton Press and Chicago Press presenting her arguments on religious freedom in extended form.  While I am impressed with Hurd’s productivity, I’ll be ready to argue with her.

In yesterday’s piece, Hurd does not mince words.  The “international religious freedom lobby,” as she calls it, “sought to capitalize on the moral panic surrounding ISIS to advance their agenda.”  She then wonders “whether it would be possible to imagine a more effective ISIS-recruitment tool than the image of a group of global parliamentarians, led by the US and the UK, poised to lead the way to civilization by instructing citizens of the Middle East on how to be religiously free.”

Hurd believes that religious freedom advocates are guilty of espousing and seeking to impose a Manichean worldview that resembles that of ISIS itself.  She pulls back from the brink: “Let’s be clear: ISIS and the IRF [International Religious Freedom] lobby cannot be equated.”  But then she goes on to say how similar the two are.  Both seek to impose a simplistic worldview that divides the world up between “us/good” and “them/bad.”  Much like the colonialists of yesteryear, religious freedom advocates carries on a “mission civilisatrice” that aims to export religious freedom to parts of the world who just don’t think in the same terms.  (In a previous post Hurd compared religious freedom advocacy to the Inquisition.)  Religious freedom advocates focus blindly on religion to the exclusion of other causes of conflict and end up reinforcing religious divisions.  Better to respect diversity and allow the rest of the world to do religion and state as it pleases.

What to make of all this?  It is worth remembering that the cause that Hurd believes to resemble that of ISIS is one that is enshrined in . . . the texts of a religion?  No.  The screeds of a fundamentalist?  No.  Try the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And numerous international law documents.  And the United Nations, which has a rapporteur for religious freedom.  And now the foreign policies of the United States, Canada, Italy, Britain, Norway, and Germany.  The basis for these efforts is the belief that religious freedom is a universal principle that safeguards the dignity of the human person with respect to his or her religious beliefs and pursuits.

But why advocate – or “lobby for,” as Hurd says – this cause now?  Quite simply, because religious freedom is violated on a vast scale in the world today.  76% of the world’s population, according to the Pew Forum, lives in a country in which religious freedom is seriously violated.  Are there many other human rights that are violated today?  Of course.  Numerous other groups of victims also have strong “lobbies” – ngos, governments, the UN – working on their behalf.  Consider the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or the outcry against torture during the administration of George W. Bush, or the network of groups fighting human trafficking.  Today’s advocates of religious freedom believe that for too long, religious freedom was ignored and so they are trying to create an architecture for this cause, too.

Does religious freedom involve a western colonialist imposition of power?  I wonder what the Bahai’s in Iran would think.  Or the Muslims in Gujurat who were massacred under the eyes of then-governor, now-prime minster of India, Narendra Modi.  Or the Ahmadi sect of Islam in Pakistan or Indonesia.  Or Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who is now on death row for allegedly insulting Islam.  Or Christians or Uighur Muslims in China.  Or – yes – the many Yazidis and Christians who were victims of ISIS, and the thousands more who would have been had not the Obama Administration intervened with bombs.  And yes, it was their religion per se that drew ISIS’s ire.  So religious freedom advocates resemble ISIS?  Really?  In almost all instances, religious freedom violations are committed against those who are manifestly disempowered – usually small minorities, and on some occasions, majorities such as the Orthodox Russians who were massacred in the millions by the Soviet government in the 1920s. Disempowerment can look like anything from murder to torture to having one’s place of worship destroyed to being imprisoned in metal shipping crates for months in the blistering Eritrean desert.  Like most human rights causes, the religious freedom movement is aimed at defending people against this sort of treatment.

Does religious freedom suppress diversity?  The whole point of religious freedom is to preserve diversity.  The right of religious freedom means that all persons and religious communities have a just claim against being coerced or interfered with in the expression and practice of their religion.  In a country with robust religious freedom, everyone’s religion is protected.  And this necessarily means all minorities as well as every individual who decides not to practice a faith at all.  Religious freedom is only justly curtailed when religious people violate other human rights; obviously there are some things that one cannot do in the name of religion.  It is hard to imagine something more conducive to diversity than religious freedom.

Are religious freedom advocates one-dimensional?  I have not met one to date who believes that violations of religious freedom are the only source of conflict or that other sources of conflict are not equally worthy of attention by foreign policy makers.  Most of us fight hard to get religious freedom on the agenda because we believe that religion and religious freedom alike were muted in American foreign policy (and that of other Western powers) for several decades during and after the Cold War.  We consider it a victory when American (or western) foreign policy makers incorporate religion into their analysis in a serious way at all or make religious freedom even one of many goals of foreign policy.

Funny, Hurd’s (again, very fine) book on secularism makes the same argument – that religion was long squeezed out by secularism in international relations, including in American foreign policy.  She argued, for instance, that a myopic secularism led the U.S. to support the Shah of Iran and helped to breed the Iranian revolution, fueled by forces that U.S. policy makers thought were fading out of history.  Exactly!  Religion matters.  And it was precisely religious freedom that was lacking in the Shah’s Iran.  And precisely his brutal secularism that gave rise to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Yet, now that people are advocating for bringing religious freedom into foreign policy, Hurd labels them Manichean zealots – resembling ISIS, no less.  Again, far from dominating the foreign policy agenda and crowding other causes and dimensions of conflict, most religious freedom advocates yearn for their cause to be anything more than one forgotten in a corner of the State Department.  Consider that even the George W. Bush administration, whose ideology one might think to have been the most conducive among recent Presidents to religious freedom, utterly subordinated this principle to the desire for stability and the war on terrorism.  When U.S. military forces occupied Afghanistan and Iraq – that is, when they exercised power in its rawest form – in both cases the U.S. begged off from insisting on religious freedom in each country’s constitution.  In other words, in those moments when U.S. policy did most resemble colonialist domination (to grant Hurd and company their argument), religious freedom was imperceptibly low on the U.S. agenda.

Does religious freedom advocacy cause division and reinforce the religious dimension of conflict?  Where is the evidence?  Can Hurd name a single place where advocacy for religious freedom has reinforced religious conflict?  Scholars like Brian Grim and Roger Finke have provided evidence for just the contrary – that it is the denial of religious freedom leads to religious violence.  My coauthors Monica Toft, Tim Shah, and I argued much the same in God’s Century.  Is there any doubt that decades of jailing thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood has led to instability and violence in Egypt – and still fuels it?  Or that father and son Asad’s religiously repressive policies in Syria bred Sunni hatred against the regime there?  Or that Saddam’s brutal suppression of Shiites in Iraq stirred up passions for revenge that, once unbottled, led to civil war and the very sectarian governance of Iraq of which ISIS now takes advantage?  Was the denial of religious freedom the only cause of conflict in these countries? Of course not; nobody has ever said that.  But religion is far more important than the traditional — and still standard — secular analysis allows.

Or maybe Hurd thinks that religious freedom is divisive in that it is opposed by, well, all those who do not accept religious freedom in other parts of the world.  But this is hardly an argument against a human rights policy.  Would she say the same for advocacy against torture or human trafficking – namely, that it should not be pursued because it stirs up the ire of the torturers or the traffickers?  Doubtless religious freedom does not conform to the values of many.  But those same many are the ones at whose hands repressed minorities yearn for diversity.

In an earlier post in Arc of the Universe, Tim Shah, developing an argument of his Georgetown colleague, Jacques Berlinerblau, presented Hurd and her colleagues with a contradiction in their thinking.  At the core of Hurd et. al.’s analysis appears to be the view that people should not impose their values on others – imposition and intolerance of diversity is the besetting sin of western advocates of religious freedom.  But if people have a just claim not to have others impose upon them and to be respected in their diversity, does this not start to look like a defense of autonomy?  Of rights to conscience?  Of freedom to practice one’s own way of life?  Of values that emerged at a great price and through great struggle in the West?  If so, then do not these core values start to look an awful lot like liberalism?  Like religious freedom?  Is not religious freedom also about protecting people against imposition, coercion, and domination?  At the heart of things, are not Hurd and colleagues presupposing exactly what they are arguing against?  On the other hand, if they want to deny this, then are they not coming awfully close to relativism with all of its familiar attendant problems?

How might Hurd and her colleagues respond to these criticisms?  A response is in order.

Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?

Our planet is losing its ability to sustain human life. That’s the premise of Christopher Nolan’s recently released Interstellar. Amid blight, dust, and skepticism about science and technology, a secret effort launches something even more improbable than a proverbial moon shot. Without getting into more detail and giving away the movie, what if we entered the story much earlier, and knew what we needed to know to prevent collective catastrophe- would we be able to make the needed changes?


This is about where we find ourselves now. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the system is blinking red. In the most important  assessment of global climate change yet- a report based on 30,000 scientific papers- the panel has warned of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” unless carbon emissions are cut rapidly. At present rates we will use up our global “carbon budget” in 30 years, pushing us over the 2 degrees centigrade rise in average temperatures- a threshold beyond which severe impacts are far more likely.


We need to decarbonize now to avert a tragedy of our climate commons. It’s the mother of all collective action problems: no single group or individual can solve it. Some individuals will have an incentive to seek a “free ride” by continuing to pollute while others cut back- hoping that others’ cutbacks will suffice to avoid catastrophe. Left uncurtailed, free-riding will undermine collective action.


Late in 2015 in Paris, the world will see the next round of global climate talks. We can each take tangible steps to make a difference. Raise awareness. Cut back on red meat consumption. Switch to LED bulbs. Adjust our modes of transport. Work for alternative energy in local communities. Lobby politicians. And yet top-level summits and individual actions are unlikely to succeed on their own.  We need a shift in consciousness to support multilevel cooperation in the push to cut carbon emissions. What ethical foundation might promote such collaboration?


One possibility is the Golden Rule: to want for others what you want for yourself.  Both sacred and secular, shared by many religious and humanist traditions, the Golden Rule can support diverse covenants- agreements on the obligation to work together to tackle shared problems, fostering trust and reciprocity, contributing to a collection of globally consequential interventions from many places. This may appear idealistic- and yet, in many cases where a tragedy of the commons was predicted, communities figured out mechanisms and rules to govern their behavior and sustain their shared commons resource. Can we, in differing steps and scales, do this for our global climate commons?


To the extent that the Golden Rule helps bridge divisions to build community and address difficult collective challenges, it is more urgent to affirm now than ever. That way we might be able to go Interstellar not from desperation, but choice

© 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.