The Worlds Made And Unmade By Religious Freedom

Hence, the very idea of freedom of religion is paradoxical; it is the freedom to be unfree in a particular kind of way.

Michael Lambek, Is Religion Free?, 2015.

Introducing the politics of religious freedom

The Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo in Norway, my academic home for almost two years between 2013 and 2015, this week (Dec 3-4 2015) hosts a workshop with some of the world’s leading scholars in the nascent and burgeoning field of the study of the national and international politics of religious freedom.

This provides me with as good an opportunity as any to offer some preliminary reflections on recent and highly significant publications in this field, to identify some of the lacunae in the field, and to suggest some ways forward.

But first of all, we need to ask some fundamental questions about the concept of religious freedom and what it entails. For as Profs Winnifred F. Sullivan, Peter Danchin, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Saba Mahmood argue in the introduction to an extremely impressive edited anthology on ‘the politics of religious freedom’,  “before either championing religious freedom or rejecting it, we need to understand the complex social and legal lives of this concept.” (p. 2).

Much like in the case of freedom of expression for free speech absolutists, it has become common for absolutists in the realm of freedom of religion to argue that religious freedom is a ‘first’ and ‘foundational’ freedom which comes first in the panoply of modern human rights and by implication not only can but should override other human rights in the case of conflicts. As Prof Elizabeth Shakman Hard argues in the introductory chapter to her important new book  “political and material rewards await individuals and groups who can convincingly frame identities and specify collective needs as religious actors, religious minorities, and religious communities in search of their freedom” (p. 20). A politics of law and religion which permits religiously motivated actors to invoke ‘religious freedom’ as a trump card against all other human rights should in fact be of our worry and concern: Witness the conservative Christian – Republican Tea Party – aligned alliance in the USA which has recently tried to halt a shift towards a US polity and society much more open to equal legal and civil rights for LGBT minorities by on a state-by-state legislative basis declaring that the right to actively discriminate against LGBT people constitute a ‘right to religious freedom’.


That is the product of a contemporary world in which there is “a powerful narrative circulating in global politics attributing acts of violence to religion or religious persecution and calling for the promotion of religious freedom in response.” (p. 2).  Religion here then, as Shakman Hurd perceptibly notes, is paradoxically constituted as both the problem and the solution: ‘Good’, ‘moderate’, ‘tolerant’ religion must replace ‘bad’, ‘intolerant’ and ‘extreme’ religion and a global discourse and politics of ‘religious freedom’ is seen as the means to achieve that replacement: “communities around the world are increasingly understood as in need of varying degrees of social and religious engineering, ranging from a minor touch-up to an extreme makeover” (p. 5). This framing has become powerful not only at the level of the foreign-policy agenda of various nation-states whose political elites see themselves as both embodying and carrying the torch of religious freedom on the global arena (USA, Canada and a number of other Western nation-states following closely in their footsteps, including Norway), but also in the context of international courts and at the United Nations. Drawing on Profs Markus Dressler and Arvind-Pal S. Mandair’s original and important work on ‘religion-making’, my Norwegian colleague Helge Årsheim has recently defended an outstanding doctoral dissertation on ‘religion-making’ in four different UN human rights committees entitled Lost in Translation? Religion-Making At Four UN Human Rights Committees, 1993-2013 . In his dissertation, which is based on meticulous documentation of how the UN’s Human Rights Committee (HRC), the Committee On The Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Committee On The Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee On The Rights Of The Child (CRC) have dealt with matters relating to freedom of religion,  Årsheim finds that “there are fundamental tensions at work in the international regulatory framework on religion” and that “the balance of power seems to be shifting between an individualist conception that views religion primarily as belief that can give rise to certain manifestations; a more collectivist understanding that construes religion as a decisive part of identity, and an increasing tendency to recognize religion as a complex social force that is decisive to the protection of other rights” (my citations from the summary).

The consequences of these variegated, shifting and all too often confused understandings involved in national and international ‘religion-making’ may in the long run be dire in that it might have very real consequences in the realm of international human rights protections, Årsheim implies.

Religious freedom and human rights

A standard narrative of the Protestant Reformation holds that it was this that ushered in a world in which ‘religious freedom’ became a real possibility in politics: It is of course possible to see this as a significant starting point, but we should here remind ourselves of  Martin Luther (1483-1546) the reformer who far from composing hymns to religious freedom and tolerance in the lands freed up by the Protestant Reformation in his anti-Semitic tract Concerning The Jews And Their Lies (1543) referred to Jews as “the devil’s people” and “poisonous snakes”, called upon his followers to set fire to synagogues, destroy their Torahs, prohibit rabbis from preaching and to destroy the homes of Jews. His calls for persecution of heterodox Protestants were not significantly milder. And if we accept the central contours of Prof Samuel Moyn’s seminal and revisionist accounts of the origins and genealogies of human rights it seems clear that human rights are a modern and largely post-1945 phenomenon, and that we must and should accept the premise that the rights to religious freedom envisioned and enshrined in international human rights legislation are neither unlimited or absolute, but are like all other rights to be balanced against other rights and freedoms.

But we also need to ask what the very category ‘religion’ is and what conceptual, social and political work it does in invocations of ‘religious freedom.’ We have of course learned by now from the seminal work in this field of Tomoku Masuzawa and Talal Asad  that the very category ‘religion’ is a product of the pre-dominant conceptualizations of ‘religion’ as a universal category in religious studies made possible by Protestant Post-Reformation notions, which privileges ‘religion’ understood as private, inwardly generated ‘belief.’ It does not follow, of course, that this is all there is and can be to it: In a perceptive essay in a recent edited anthology, Nandini Chatterjee notes that in the case of postcolonial India, and in spite of the heavy burdens and influence of colonialism’s hierarchies of knowledge and power, “belief continues to be only one – and not necessarily the most important – way in which modern Indians, despite their colonial experience, define religion” (p. 166).  Citing the Helge Årsheim’s contribution to a fine edited anthology about the peculiarities of the Scandinavian case of ‘religion’ in human rights,  law, and public space, Shakman Hurd notes that it was only “with the rise of religion as a generic category following the Protestant Reformation that religion became legally available as a stand-alone category both domestically and internationally” (Shakman Hurd, p. 19). There are, as Shakman Hurd is perfectly well aware of, serious costs to the current and fashionable trend towards privileging the category of ‘religion’ in both scholarship, the media, politics and law. “The past two decades have witnessed the rise of an insatiable demand for knowledge about religion, religious leaders, and religious politics and practices”, writes Shakman Hurd (p. 9), and it is hard not to deem her correct in this. In my own field of anthropology, the most pernicious and largely inadvertent effects have perhaps been seen within the so-called ‘anthropology of Islam’, where an endless number of PhDs, monographs and journal articles (very many of them actually very good and nuanced), have in the context of a global ‘war on terror’ and its afterlife of intractable wars, conflicts and human death and destruction by and large generated the impression to younger peers that the only Muslims worth studying are the pious and conservative ones. As some of my readers have been aware of, I have long been critical of certain ways of thinking about ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ and their intersections – particularly when it comes to Muslims in contemporary Europe and Norway.

In Norwegian anthropological circles, I have long raised the question as to why there have in the course of the past twenty years literally been hundreds of M. A.s and PhDs about the severely over-studied Muslim population of Oslo, yet not a single M. A. or PhD exploring the lives of Norwegian populist right-wingers. Suffice to say that no answer has as yet been forthcoming from a discipline ostensibly committed to the exploration of human diversity in all its forms, and in which scholars in the 1990s already trotted out the illusion that post-colonial subalterns were ‘exotic no more.’ Except that the postcolonial subalterns had long since started to appear within the confines of the proverbial, but now increasingly real and tangible ‘Fortress Europe’, and could easily be turned into ‘exotic once more’ once political and social circumstances allowed. There is of course what Olivier Roy has perceptibly referred to as an ‘optical illusion’  in all of this contemporary writing and thinking about ‘religion’ in general and the ‘religion’ of Muslims in particular in current academia and the media, in that it generates the impression that ‘religion’ is in fact more important as a unit of analysis and a mode of understanding both politics and identifications in a contemporary Europe which by most accounts is becoming less, not more, ‘religious’ – whatever this is taken to mean.  So what are these costs according to Shakman Hurd’s account? A discourse which treats “religion as a self-evident category that motivates a host of actions, both good and bad” risks missing “forms of religiosity that escape, defy, or are indifferent to govern religion “from above.” (Shakman Hurd, p. 6, 7). According to Shakman Hurd, we have to conceptualize religious practices as something which “unfold amid and are entangled in all domains of human life, forms of belonging, work, play, governance, violence and exchange” and to resist the temptation to collapsing religion into “a force for good or evil (or both)” or to reduce it to “whatever is considered to fall outside the secular” (Shakman Hurd, p. 7). This is of course easier said than done, in a contemporary context in which few outside the academic ivory towers will have read (let alone understood) Talal Asad’s seminal account of how the conceptual and omnipresent bifurcation between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ evolved in European intellectual, religious and political history. and in ‘governance of Islam’ has long been dominated by an optic in which the overriding interest in Muslim-state-relations throughout Europe and including in Norway has been that of preventing so-called ‘radicalization’ (a confused concept with myriad and imprecise meanings and implications if ever there was one), extremism and non-state terror. We have of course become inured to state terror in our time, and so much so that the predominant connotation of terror prior to the emergence of terrorism studies in the 1970s has now all but disappeared from public, media and academic usage. “Massively funded government-led enquiries into “radicalization” neglect to explore how the threat of radicalization is built into our own conceptualizations of belief”, argues Prof Yvonne Sherwood. 

The impossibility of religious freedom

It is difficult not to see these scholarly attempts to map the politics and practices of religious freedom as mapping onto and attempting to transcend the by now voluminous scholarly literature on secularism and secularity. The precursor and doyenne of this particular turn in the study of the secular and of secularity is no doubt Prof Winnifred F. Sullivan, whose seminal 2005 account in  with its critical interpellation of US attempts to govern and discipline religious belief and practice through the courts opened a whole series of new and profound questions and avenues of research. Sullivan will not be present at this workshop at the University of Oslo, but her profound and crucially important questions provide much inspiration and linger on in the recent scholarly literature in the field. In her preface to the edited anthology I have referred to above, Sullivan raises the question as to “how [a] particular definition of religion [implies] a particular politics” (p. 13). But Sullivan’s critical interrogation of the conceptual categories with which many religious studies scholars have long worked and continue to work seem to have made her a bit of the proverbial ‘odd woman’ out in religious studies, where many scholars continue to trot out and re-hearse old lines about religious freedom understood in a Chicago School of Economics-inspired variety (with Profs Stark and Finke as its main proponents) as the single solution to every conceivable problem under the soon (or moon, as the case may be right now). “Religious studies as a critical intellectual endavour has had a mostly tangential relationship, at best, to interrogating the politics of religious freedom. Indeed, to the extent that the emergence of religious studies has contributed to an irenic celebration of religious universality and diversity, it has also contributed to the legitimating of religion as a space distinctively free of politics, as a space in which politics can be escaped. And most of its practitioners are advocates for religious freedom” (Sullivan, p. 15).

But not all scholars fully agree with Sullivan’s contention that religious freedom is impossible. Prof Lori G. Beaman is perhaps the most prominent case in point. In her lucid exploration of issues relating to establishment or disestablishment, Beaman notes that not only the concept of ‘religion’ but also the concept of ‘freedom’ constitutes contested grounds in our time. She argues – with reference to the famous and deeply problematic ruling in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHtR) in Lautsi and Others v. Italy (2011) and the less well known ruling of the Quebec Court of Appeal in Saguenay c. Mouvement laïque québécois (2013) that “the shifting nature” of concepts such as religion and freedom “makes normative assessment – religious freedom is good, religious freedom is bad – extremely difficult to carry out in any meaningful way (p. 207). Beaman pointedly calls upon scholars to be much more aware of and critically engaged with “a sustained analysis of religious hegemonies” at work when nation-states such as the USA and Canada for example makes global advocacy for religious freedom central to its foreign policy agendas. For when the Conservative Party government of Canada under the leadership of prime minister Steven Harper in 2011 established an Office For Religious Freedom and appointed a Catholic chaplain to head it, it quickly became clear that the intention was not exactly to push concerns over the Swiss banning of construction of minarets or concerns over South Korea forcing Jehovas’ Witnesses to undertake military service. This approach “creates a hierarchy of privilege for specific kinds of religion, all the while allowing the religious freedom crusade to continue under a guise of neutrality”, argues Beaman (p. 212.)  The most troubling aspect of the Lautsi verdict of the ECHtR is of course that it in increasingly liberal and secular contexts forms part of a new conservative identity politics which expresses itself in a “broader imagining of religion that folds it into culture and renders it part of who “we” are”: “In Lautsi a crucifix and Roman Catholicism were transformed in arguments by the Italian state from religious symbol to cultural symbol and universal values” (p. 214).  Using the means of law, the Lautsi verdict in fact provides a legal and human rights imprimatur for a “turn to culture as a safe space for majoritarian religion” – and especially Christianity (p. 216). It should hardly surprise us, then, that in the wake of Lautsi, the resourceful American-Evangelical Chistian organisations, the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church who filed amicus curae-briefs in support of the Italian state’s position in this case have expanded their transnational legal-religious networks among conservative Christians, and seem set to be a permanent lobbying fixture at religious freedom cases in Strasbourg in the years to come.

On the limits of religious freedom

For my own part, I have over the years as an anthropologist read, learned and experienced too much of what appalling infringements of basic human rights to dignity, life and, well, freedom, humans are able to to license in the name of ‘religion’ to think of an absolute religious freedom as either possible or desirable. And the theological terror of ISIS, or the state of Saudi Arabia was neither the start nor the end to my conclusions in this regard: In South Africa, where I did extensive fieldwork in the early 2000s, the white supremacist and racist ideology of apartheid (1948-1990) had after all been underpinned by Calvinist Christian understandings inspired by the works of the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) enshrined in racist and discriminatory laws and politics.

To  that extent, I readily declare myself to be ‘secular’ – whatever that is supposed to mean. Let me hasten to add in this context that Christians were on both sides of apartheid: The struggle against apartheid and massive popular mobilization against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s had not been possible without the active role played by religious leaders of many faiths and denominations, including most centrally, the Anglican chuch lead by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the South African Council of Churches (SACC). But the anthropologist Prof Michael Lambek says it well in his contribution: “This is certainly not to say that we should let everyone be free to do as she or he pleases. Not only is such freedom impossible in the human condition, but there is also the matter of whether my freedom impinges on yours (p. 299).” One of the most telling and instructive examples of the ways in which religious freedom has been instrumentalised in the Western context (and interestingly enough, an example all too often skirted over in academic literature about the topic) does of course relate to Scientology, a profit-orientated and motivated neo-liberal celebrity-personality cult if there ever was one, which by invoking religious freedom has managed to obtain ample tax exemptions and privileges under law in many Western countries which can hardly be seen as anything but deeply problematic.  The question as to where to draw the line for the secular state and its legal, political and administrative apparatuses is of course increasingly complicated marked by a rapid expansion of all kinds of minoritarian religiosity, New Age-inflected spiritualism and the like, but though I support the group’s sarcastic critiques of the State of Kansas’ imprimatur for the teaching of so-called ‘intelligent design’ in Kansas and other US schools, I am afraid that I will until further notice not sign up to the calls for state recognition of the Church Of Flying Spaghetti Monsters  anytime soon.

Religious freedom and liberalism

But what then – about the relationship between religious freedom and liberalism? It is of course a given that in neo-liberal times given over to the incessant, unyielding and uncritical celebration of anything that bears the name of ‘autonomy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’, the most successful way of framing demands for exemptions and special rights and privileges under secular and liberal regimes for religious actors should be precisely by invoking ‘religious freedom’.  This is not to suggest that the threats against religious freedom in today’s increasingly polarized and globalized world are not real: witness the recent onslaught against religious minorities in the Middle East, or the hysterical levels of far-right intolerance motivating the banning of the construction of minarets in Switzerland. Where I depart from much recent postcolonial and poststructuralist scholarship in this field is in thinking that the central question is not so much whether modern forms of ostensibly secular governance are conducive to religious freedom, tolerance and societal peace in plural, multicultural and multi-religious societies or not, but what majoritarian/minoritarian concepts do to the social and civil fabric in such societies in a context of global and national polarization and increasing socio-economic inequality.

But in the words of the political scientist Prof Cécile Laborde, there is a paradox in this, in that we often seem to fail to answer the question as to “how and (why) [we] protect religion in an age where religion is not special?” (p. 268).

Another political scientist, Prof Wendy Brown, provides an interesting and challenge response in noting that “religion does not emerge as a field of freedom within liberalism” and that is therefore “incoherent to speak of religious freedom without twisting the meaning of freedom away from its liberal predicates” (p. 325). Within liberalism, Brown, the author of a very stimulating recent monograph on neoliberalism’s threat to the demos in contemporary liberal and secular societies, “liberty is unimpeded individual sovereignity, pursuit and choice, limited only by [John Stuart Mill’s] harm principle.” But this, she pointedly remarks, “is something no religion affirms or advocates.” (p. 324). Taking Socrates and Martin Luther King Jr. as her examples, Brown notes that most monotheistic religions in stark contradistinction to liberalism, configures freedom not as “unhindered choice”, but rather as connected with the submission to “divine truth and authority” (p. 327). This is of course freedom not only in its ‘religious’, but also in a radical and sacrificial conception, and as Brown rightly argues, “we could not be further from liberalism now.” For the “nonliberal” understanding of freedom espoused both by Socrates and King Jr. “establishes it as a stance of resistance to wordly laws and practices that Socrates and King take to be unjust, unholy or unfree”. Religious freedom, on this conception, “is not a matter of private belief sequestered in the private sphere”, but instead “entails publicly enacting god’s will, living in accord with the divine, and challenging the unfreedom of the state through bringing it to the bar of the divine” (pp. 330-31).  Brown usefully reminds us of what risks getting lost for religious actors, the liberal and secular state, as well as the scholars who study them both, when both religion and freedom is treated as self-evident and naturalized neo-liberal categories of thought, practice and analysis.

Quo vadis?

So where to now? The outstanding scholarly contributions I have surveyed here offer excellent starting points both for theoretical reflections on religious freedom and its limits, powers and hierarchies in contemporary law and politics. As an anthropologist, however, I am bound to want to see an empirical turn in this field, in which these theories are applied to the study of real-life contexts in various fields and institutions (prisons, schools, hospitals, the university, civil society and associational life) rather than empirical data simply being utilized as a means to illustrate and demonstrate theoretical points. In this, there is a challenge for anyone interested in this crucially important field and its nascent and burgeoning scholarship, not the least in an increasingly multicultural and multi-religious Norway and Scandinavia, in the years to come.

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