Hurd on Religious Difference and Religious Freedom

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has an interesting post over at Helge Årsheim’s blog rounding out the discussion of religious freedom that began with Winni Sullivan’s reflections and to which I contributed as well (see here and here). I have long thought that there is an important intellectual root in the criticisms of religious freedom that both Beth and Winni advance in the work of Talal Asad (probably I am not the first to make this observation), and so I am glad to see Beth refer back to him here. Here’s a bit from Beth’s smart post:

As someone who studies the politics of secularism and religion comparatively and internationally, I became interested in religious freedom promotion because, quite simply, everyone is for it. Both liberal internationalists and those affirming a divine origin of the right to religious freedom, and almost everyone else, seem to have accepted the notion of religious freedom as a fundamental human right, legal standard, and social fact that can be objectively measured and achieved by all political collectivities. It is a matter of persuading people and governments to understand and comply with a universal standard. Peace, inter-communal harmony and prosperity will follow. States and societies are positioned along a spectrum of progress, inclined either toward the achievement of religious freedom as a social fact, or slipping back into religious persecution and violence caused by religious hatred….

This dominant storyline elicits a number of concerns. One is the extent to which it presupposes a direct convergence between the rule of law and social justice. As Talal Asad has observed of the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights], but which also applies to efforts to globalize and legalize religious freedom, “the rule called law in effect usurps the entire universe of moral discourse.” Asad concludes that this equation privileges the state’s (or associations thereof) norm-defining function, “thereby encouraging the thought that the authority of norms corresponds to the political force that supports them as law.” There is no space for non-state norms. Religious freedom, one could say, effaces the distinction between law and justice. It has, as Paul Kennedy has observed of human rights, “captured the field of emancipatory possibility.”

In my experience these concerns about religious freedom only multiply and intensify the more one considers the diverse histories and politics that attend religious freedom advocacy. Over the past three years I have co-directed the Politics of Religious Freedom project, a collaborative effort to study the discourses of religious freedom in South Asia, North Africa, Europe, the United States, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil. In re-describing the historical and cultural assumptions underlying national and international projects to promote religious freedom, we have sought to unsettle the agreement in policy circles that religious freedom is a singular achievement, and that the problem lies in its incomplete realization. Is it possible that a norm intended to secure human flourishing and peaceful co-existence could in some circumstances enact the opposite?

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