Category - Religious Freedom

Jacques Berlinerblau on “Pomofoco” and religious freedom
Sacred vs. Naked
Soft Power Needed, Too
The Persecution of Christians is for Real

Jacques Berlinerblau on “Pomofoco” and religious freedom

My Georgetown colleague Jacques Berlinerblau recently published a delicious — and gutsy —  piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is delicious and gutsy at the same time because it is so refreshingly and humorously candid in its criticisms of a school of thought that has become very fashionable (if not hegemonic) in contemporary academic discourse on secularism, religious freedom, and human rights. Much of what appears about religious freedom and secularism on the “Immanent Frame” website of the Social Science Research Council, for example, reflects this school of thought.

Among Berlinerblau’s most memorable — and funny — achievements is to give this school of thought a name. He calls it “Pomofoco.” That might sound like a petroleum company, but it’s short for “Post-modernist, post-Foucauldian, and post-colonial.” Very apt, as the Pomofoco school represents a remarkable confluence of all three of those now very fashionable, and of course partially overlapping, streams of academic thought.

But Berlinerblau comes not just to christen Caesar, but to bury him. And Berlinerblau’s courageous christening-cum-critique identifies gaping flaws with Pomofoco thinking. For anyone concerned about developing a proper liberal humanism foundational to the theory and practice of human rights, Berlinerblau’s tour de force is of enormous value. (Not to mention entertaining. Jacques Berlinerblau is blessed with a sharp mind, wicked sense of humor, and fearless indifference to political correctness. And he is not afraid to put them on display —even in the normally decorous pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

The first flaw in Pomofoco thinking Berlinerblau deliciously describes thus:

[One] hallmark of [the Pomofoco] school [is] its conspicuous aversion to secularism. And liberalism. And democracy. And the Enlightenment. And American foreign policy. And Israel. And Western civilization. And those who criticize political Islam or Islamic extremism via invidious comparison with any of these. It appears to be Pomofoco’s objective to everywhere draw the following conclusion: As troubling as radical Islamism might be, secular liberal democracies are just as bad—no, worse!

For the “Pomofoco” school, it appears, the emergence of modern liberal and secular political thought and practice has been an unmitigated moral calamity — a moral calamity, indeed, than which nothing worse can be imagined. Secularism comes in many forms, of course, some humane and some not, as Berlinerblau emphasizes.  But for the sake of argument let’s call a secular political project one that seeks to create a social and political space in which no single religious community or institution enjoys unchallenged dominance and all people regardless of their religious beliefs enjoy equal human rights, including a right to religious freedom. Of course, not all avowedly “secular” regimes have come close to promoting such an objective. But it is no stretch to suggest that, generally speaking, confessional non-dominance combined with some kind of religious freedom is a characteristic goal and feature of secular political orders. (Think of the Republic of India, whose democratic constitution avowedly declares a “secular” republic in large part for the purpose of protecting “the right freely to profess, practice [sic] and propagate religion.”) Seldom achieved, of course. But worthy objective, right?

Not according to the Pomofoco school. As Berlinerblau notes, the proponents of this way of thinking — a wide interdisciplinary range of scholars, from anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood to political scientist Elizabeth Hurd — deplore the very objective of secularism. It is not just that all modern secular orders miss the mark, or fall short of a worthy goal. It is that the very goal is a hidden exercise in coercion and domination — even when the goal is as innocent-sounding as “religious freedom.” Indeed, Elizabeth Hurd, for example, has castigated religious freedom per se as “this modern attempt at mind control,” comparing it — get ready for this — with the Inquisition. (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” goes that old Monty Python skit. And I for one certainly did not expect it in the middle of Hurd’s critical account of “religious freedom.”)

The sweeping Pomofoco critique of “secularism” and “religious freedom” is noteworthy on numerous counts. One is that it clearly and necessarily presupposes a passionate appeal to a concept of, well, freedom — the idea that “mind control” is wrong, and specifically the idea that there is something seriously wrong with coercively imposing one person’s version of “religion” on another person (even if the coercion is soft and subtle). Presumably by calling “religious freedom” a form of “mind control” and comparing it to the Inquisition, Hurd is not trying to be nice. As Hurd herself seems to suggest, so-called “religious freedom” is actually an assault on “human dignity and diversity.”

But the moment one takes  the trouble to develop and elaborate such an inchoate commitment to non-domination in religious matters, one would quickly have on one’s hands a normative political and moral doctrine that would have some elements of something like the ideas of liberalism, democracy, religious freedom, and perhaps even secularism, depending on how one defines those terms. Presumably it would have to include some kind of idea that arbitrary domination of some people by other people on religious issues is just plain wrong, as a matter of principle.

If so, wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable, if not unavoidable, to call such an idea “liberal” or perhaps even “secular,” and to name the principle underlying it “religious freedom”? In other words, the Pomofoco school seems to be heavily invested in critiquing what it calls “religious freedom” and “secularism” with its increasingly heated, Inquisition-laden rhetoric — each time with “its finger pointed higher in the air,” as Berlinerblau says. But it must do so in the name of an underlying commitment to a principle of religious freedom or liberalism or secularism (or….?) that it is not willing or able to announce, articulate, or defend.

A hidden bunker may be a convenient place from which to shell the enemy, but it makes it hard to have a constructive or even intelligible conversation. It is one of the virtues of Berlinerblau’s piece that he zeroes in on this feature — and failure — of “Pomofoco.” According to the Pomofoco position, as Berlinerblau describes it, “[secular] states are incorrigible, illegitimate, and must be replaced.” But as Berlinerblau rightly asks: “replaced by what?” Alas, the work of staking out a clear normative position — or even an inchoate moral principle — does not seem to interest the Pomofoco school at this point in time. As someone who has profited from the work of some members of the Pomofoco school, particularly Elizabeth Hurd’s invaluable The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, I hope this is not where things remain.


Sacred vs. Naked

As choices go, the sacred versus the naked is one of the more arresting. But – says David Anderson, Parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – that’s just the false choice facing many political cultures around the globe today.

On the one extreme, he says, governments grant and enforce exclusive status to one religion. That’s the sacred choice. On the other hand, governments try to stamp out religion and its expression from public life. They go, it’s said, naked.

Both of these are flawed in a way that Charles Taylor explains in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. They both rely on strong civil religion, a comingling of political-theological enforcement that often produces, according to God’s Century, pathological and destructive politics. This see-saw default, argues Taylor, is endemic to many political cultures partly because the alternative can be seen as a dangerous gamble, especially in times of fear and anxiety.

Religious freedom, says David Anderson, can’t be a balancing of some kinds of belief with others, but the right of persons to choose to believe, or not to believe (and change those beliefs) as they see fit. The objective is not sameness, he says, but freedom.

That’s a gamble. And it’s probably the critical gamble of our time that enables democracy. Chris Seiple, from the Institute for Global Engagement, says the big question of our moment in history is: “how to live together well, in the midst of our deepest diversity?” The anxious, religious and non-religious alike, will be alarmed by that diversity – and sometimes they’ll have good cause to be. The temptation, says Taylor, is always very strong to reintroduce a stronger civil religion, to foreclose on the possibility of deviant diversity, to control and manage pluralism. That, he’s said in a recent interview with James K.A. Smith, is the story of the Charter of Quebec Values.

Limits to pluralism exist. But in the false choice between going sacred or going naked, the gamble of secular societies truly deserving of that name will be on their own citizens funding the virtues and values that laws cannot make, and markets cannot sell. Therein the clothes of democracy.

Soft Power Needed, Too

Not just the hard power of military force but also the soft power of building coalitions with moderate Muslims is needed to defeat Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, Christian leaders argued at the In Defense of Christians summit that concluded today in Washington, D.C., according to Mark Stricherz over at Aleteia.

The summit was an effort to advocate for and show solidarity with Christian communities in the Middle East who have suffered dramatically in recent decades and are now remnants of what they once were.  Hosted by a group whose name is also In Defense of Christians, the summit assembled a remarkable cast of Christian leaders from across the region.

Hard power-ites might be skeptical — not of the summit or its cause but of the claim that anything but bombs will drive out the Islamic State.  It was no less a realist than General David Petraeus, though, who understood the importance of reconciliation with moderate Muslims in his leadership of the successful “surge” of 2007-2008 that allowed the U.S. to exit from Iraq without ignominy in 2011.  I’ve been reading about it in Surge, written by Peter Mansoor, Petraeus’ right-hand man during the operation.  Through the U.S. army’s reconciliation with Sunnis and through its encouraging the new national government to include Sunnis and Kurds in important positions, Sunnis were peeled away from their alliance with Al Qaeda, leaving Al Qaeda isolated and vulnerable.  None of this is to deny the thorough and brave counterterrorist operations that hunted down and rooted out Al Qaeda, but these alone could not have done the job, Mansoor argues.

Since the U.S. departure, it has been a lack of reconciliation among Iraqis that has allowed the Islamic State to rise as far as it has.  Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s failure to include Sunnis and Kurds in important parts of the national government allowed the Islamic State, despite its horrific tactics, to ally with Sunnis against the government – and has left the U.S. in the position of now having to send its (air) forces back in.

As I argued in an earlier post, reconciliation must go deeper than even Petraeus’ alliance-building.  In coming posts, I will offer concrete ideas of what this could involve.  One dimension, though, is alliances among religious leaders, whose spiritual and moral authority is a critical asset for building ties across factions.  We can be grateful for In Defense of Christians for bringing this to our attention.


The Persecution of Christians is for Real

Religious freedom is something for everyone. Bahai’s in Iran. Yazidis in Iraq. Ahmadis in Pakistan and Indonesia. Muslims in Gujurat.  And Christians. Christians? To much of the public and even among academics and journalists, it comes as a surprise that Christians suffer severe denials of their religious freedom. But the past summer’s headlines leave little doubt about it. Iraq’s remaining Christian community has been decimated by an Islamist army declaring the rule of a caliph. Sudan’s Miriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death by a Sudanese court for (supposedly) leaving Islam for Christianity. The Chinese government has continued to demolish churches.

80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are committed against Christians, estimated the International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, in 2009. The finding is corroborated by other human rights observatories. Christians were the only religious group that was persecuted in all sixteen of the countries highlighted as egregious offenders by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2012, John Allen reports in his recent book, The Global War on Christians.  The Pew Research Center’s 2014 report found that between June 2006 and December 2012, Christians faced harassment and intimidation in 151 countries, the largest number of any religious group.

Here at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, we will be investigating how Christian communities respond to persecution and how sympathizers can help them in a three year grant of $1.1 million awarded to the center by the Templeton Religion Trust, “Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christian Communities Respond to Repression.”   Here is the story.  Stay tuned for findings.


© 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.