Shakman Hurd on Religious Freedom in International Law

Religion News Service has an interesting interview with Northwestern’s Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on the promotion of religious freedom in international human rights law. A number of states and regional organizations–including Canada, the EU, and the US–now have special diplomatic offices devoted to promoting religious freedom across the glove. Shakman Hurd thinks this is a mistake:

When the United States promotes religious freedom and pursues religious engagement, groups that favor American political, economic and strategic interests are likely to be engaged and promoted, while those that the U.S. disfavors are likely to be classified as cults or extremists and cast aside. In this scenario, it’s surprisingly easy for the particular version of a religion that the U.S. supports to carry more weight politically than others.

A second concern involves the social effects of emphasizing and privileging religion as a fixed, stable, and politically and legally meaningful category. Protecting religious freedom pressures states and courts to eliminate the gray areas surrounding identities, and incentivizes them to classify and govern citizens as “religious” subjects. Not only does this exclude the “non-religious,” however defined, it also risks contributing to the very tensions that these projects are designed to eliminate by hardening what were once more fluid lines of difference between groups and inserting international dimensions into what were once local matters.

To illustrate, she discusses outsiders’ attempts to promote the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt:

Take the example of Copts in Egypt. One concern is that outside lobbying on behalf of local groups identified as “religious minorities” arguably underscores the very lines of division between Copts and other Egyptians that one  hopes would become politically irrelevant in a democratic society and polity. A second concern is that defending the rights of Egyptians as Copts not only obscures the internal diversity of the Coptic community but also erases those who might not choose to identify as Copts but as Egyptians, humans, environmentalists or something else.

I worry that these campaigns may actually inflame existing tensions by making it more likely that social difference is conceived through the prism of religion. Pro-Coptic intervention by U.S. and other governmental and non-governmental actors may fan the flames of intercommunal violence. Individuals and groups that face persecution and discrimination deserve outside support, but not on the basis of religious affiliation.

Shakman Hurd is very thoughtful, and she has a point about inflaming existing tensions. Muslim cultures historically view Christian minorities as fifth columnists, only too eager to work with outsiders to destroy the state. If Western powers intervene in a clumsy way, they will likely expose Christians to a vicious backlash–as happened in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and Iraq in the twenty-first. So, to the extent Shakman Hurd cautions against clumsy interventions, I completely agree with her.

On her larger points, though, I disagree. (That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read my posts on Mideast Christians!).  For example, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to identify religion as a category, at least not for diplomatic purposes. True, there are interesting academic debates. And, in the US, the rise of the Nones is putting pressure on our understanding of religion. But most people have a pretty good idea of what religion is, for most purposes, even if they can’t define religion exactly. And these commonsense understandings are good enough for diplomacy.

With respect to her other main point, that by advocating for religious freedom in a foreign country, the US will inevitably pick a side in an internal debate–well, picking a side is really unavoidable. If the US doesn’t stick up for Copts, for example, Egyptians will perceive the US as backing the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. In fact, that is the perception in Egypt and throughout the Middle East today. Neutrality in these matters is impossible. Which side do you choose?

But this isn’t the place for a long debate. The interview is very much worth reading for a different perspective on things. You can read the whole thing here.

Call for Papers: “Cuius Regio, Eius Religio”

The Legal History Blog has a call for papers for an upcoming conference at the Jagiellonian University in Poland, “Cuius Regio, Eius Religio.” The conference will take place in December 2013. Details are here.

“Religion in the Military Worldwide” (Hassner, ed.)

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Religion in the Military Worldwide, edited by Ron Hassner (University of California). The publisher’s description follows.Religion in the Military Worldwide

How does religion affect the lives of professional soldiers? How does religion shape militaries, their organization, procedures, and performance? This volume is the first to address these questions by comparing religious symbols and practices in nine countries: Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, India, the United States, and Turkey. The contributors explore how and why soldiers pray, the role of religious rituals prior to battle, the functions that chaplains perform, the effects of religion on recruitment and unit formation, and how militaries grapple with ensuing constitutional dilemmas.

Buyandelger, “Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia”

Next month, University of Chicago Press will publish Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia by Manduhai Buyandelger (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The publisher’s description follows. Tragic Spirits

The collapse of socialism at the end of the twentieth century brought devastating changes to Mongolia. Economic shock therapy—an immediate liberalization of trade and privatization of publicly owned assets—quickly led to impoverishment, especially in rural parts of the country, where Tragic Spiritstakes place. Following the travels of the nomadic Buryats, Manduhai Buyandelger tells a story not only of economic devastation but also a remarkable Buryat response to it—the revival of shamanic practices after decades of socialist suppression.
Attributing their current misfortunes to returning ancestral spirits who are vengeful over being abandoned under socialism, the Buryats are now at once trying to appease their ancestors and recover the history of their people through shamanic practice. Thoroughly documenting this process, Buyandelger situates it as part of a global phenomenon, comparing the rise of shamanism in liberalized Mongolia to its similar rise in Africa and Indonesia. In doing so, she offers a sophisticated analysis of the way economics, politics, gender, and other factors influence the spirit world and the crucial workings of cultural memory.