In Beyond Religious Freedom, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd – a political scientist at Northwestern University – claims that since 9/11, North American and European foreign policy makers have singled out religious freedom as the key legal doctrine for combating discrimination, persecution, and intolerance the world writ large. These policy experts, argues Hurd, work with a Manichean understanding of religion as either an enlightened force for the bettering of society or as holdover from the Dark Ages that threatens it and therefore must be reformed or put down.
The background story here is no doubt “political Islam”, which Hurd argues has given rise to a new global politics of religion. Secular governments – who basically ignored religion in international affairs until just a few decades ago – are now rushing to make theological judgments as to not only what constitutes good religion, but also to put into law what the public purpose of religion should be. Hurd is quick to point out the legal inconsistency of doing so: what is becoming acceptable at the level of international law often stands in violation of the establishment clause in the United States.
The problem, Hurd argues, is that secular political organizations like the U.S. State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs or the EU’s Parliament Intergroup on Freedom of Religion work with models of religion that are too restrictive in their application. They and other organizations broach the concept through a Protestant perspective, which often reduces religion to a matter of belief rather than participation in a specific type of community – or communities – which involves, among other things, rituals and practices. Quite naturally, those religions deemed good – often persecuted Christian minorities – most often come closest, Hurd suggests, to the arbitrary measuring stick laid down by the secular Western powers.
Hurd argues that the new global politics of religion actually creates the very persecuted subjects, that it purportedly seeks to protect. Such is the case, argues Hurd, with the Copts in Egypt, the Ahmadis in Pakistan, and the Alevis in Turkey. Their indeterminate cultural and social identity has been reduced by recent EU legislation to a principle of mere religious difference that, according to Hurd, transforms them into apostates and insurgents from the dominant religion of the state. It is true, acknowledges Hurd, that conflicts between these perspectives and the dominant Islamic traditions of the state pre-exist such legislation. However, by isolating religion as the main variable, European and North American policy makers have worsened or created new tensions.
The anthropologist Jean-Michel Landry makes a number of interventions regarding Hurd’s understanding of religion. He first suggests that Hurd “remains silent about the orthodox lifeworlds (say, those of rigorous Salafis or ultra-conservative Jews) also pathologized and threatened by the normative politics of religious freedom.” And second, Landry wonders if the book is ultimately a rejection of foreign governance, a hypothesis guided by the observation that all concepts – not just religion – are unstable; in his view, Hurd’s philosophical assumptions makes expert foreign policy analysis seem almost impossible.
In her engagement with Beyond Religious Freedom, the social anthropologist Kari Telle argues that Hurd’s book proves valuable for understanding contemporary religious life in Indonesia. In 2014, observes Telle, Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Sunni Muslim organization released a propaganda film that depicted Indonesian Islam as a good religion and the key for combatting ISIS. In pointing to this example, Telle suggests that a wealth of work remains to be done in order to determine how the new global politics of religious freedom operates in different cultural and historical context. Beyond Religious Freedom offers scholars a model for this very pursuit.
Although appreciative of Hurd’s argument, the scholar of religion Edward E. Curtis IV argues that in certain instances religion is the primarily factor in how groups understand themselves. In such instances, it would be misguided, he argues, to not make religion the fundamental category of political analysis. The failure, in fact, to do this explains the shortcomings of what could be considered a secularly-biased approach to international relations; this, Curtis thinks, should equally be avoided.
Lastly Vincent Lloyd – a scholar of religion at Villanova University – takes Hurd to be suggesting that religious freedom is ultimately “a bad idea.” He further argues this by suggesting that Beyond Religious Freedom is predicated on a “monotone morality” in which a negative judgment about the concept of religious freedom overrides the historical and political complexity of Hurd’s various cases studies.
Hurd’s full and engaging responses help clarify and strengthen the various arguments of Beyond Religious Freedom, and will serve as the base for our on-going conversation.