A Response to Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on the Politics of Religious Freedom

by Jonathan Thumas

This past Thursday, September the 20th, Dr. Elizabeth Hurd of Northwestern University delivered a paper at Columbia, jointly sponsored by the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. The paper will be a chapter in a forthcoming volume on human rights. During her talk, Hurd explored some of the issues and contending forces that arise in applying (or attempting to apply) decidedly occidental models of religious rights and freedom to other systems. In laying out contextual grounds, the author first mapped out the field of international religious freedom advocacy, and then discussed at length how these discourses matter, and furthermore may be used, in a globalized world. She allowed numerous open ended threads to hang loose to, as she put it, facilitate discussion and even argument into these matters. To fully unpack the value of the points raised, it is necessary then to pull at these threads.

Those with access to nearly boundless freedom in the realm of religious choice (and voice) often take for granted notions of religious freedom, and further this “self-evident” notion by understanding it to be a universal right, one that ultimately allows for impartial dealings between people and state. Hurd makes it known that this is not necessarily the case. There seems to be an ideological hegemony to notions of “norm diffusion,” mistakenly thinking that certain freedoms and social institutions that work for one society are universal norms that all other societies should adhere to and abide by. It is clear that Hurd is not convinced by our cultural, normative assumptions. The question is then asked: Does advocacy for religious freedom, especially on a global scale, instigate peace? Rather than bringing about unity, Hurd finds religious freedom to be a force that reinforces sectarianism, political entanglement, and persecution, singling out groups by legally defining them and ultimately distinguishing communities based on religious terms. In addition to causing problems for people with multiple ethnic and religious ties by raising the profile of religion as a matter of difference, this also raises issues of influence and access power. Larger sectarian groups, through their separation, will invariably have greater political standing and influence.

Persecutions as the result of making such rigid distinctions between groups can also arise, primarily through “perfected” forms of religious toleration and regulation. These systems empower bureaucrats placing traditions into narrowly defined categories and allow greater potential for critique and conflict.  Worse, however, is that with more rigid sectarian lines, governments are given the difficult choice of choosing between religious ideologies in rule making, very likely (and intelligently so) choosing to appease the largest collected majority of people under a given religious category. With this, it becomes exceedingly difficult to account for marginalized religious groups, perhaps furthering the role of a majority ridden monolithic religious culture in ultimately making policy decisions to benefit them that will likely affect a number of other groups in potentially different ways.

Should this be engaged globally? This is surely an interesting and important issue, but it seems difficult to pursue at great length without having some basic issues cleared up. Why can’t religious freedom simply imply allowance or tolerance? Is it necessary, or the rule-of-thumb, for official governmental regulation to follow? It would seem that this last step is a central part of the problem. In many ways, it appears that the mechanics of religious freedom laid out here echo a form of ideological colonialism, not entirely different from Said’s deconstruction of the orientalists, in my mind. There is certainly a vestige of colonial and cultural hegemony here, both in the ways that religiously “free” nations push their agendas on other religious cultures, and also in the potential re-creation of a dominant religious group, within which Hurd finds one of many concerns. I do wonder, however, how much of this is projecting a particular narrative that might otherwise be contained. How much is actually rooted in recurring examples? Hurd brought up a few examples of persecutions through emphasizing freedom occurring across the world, but a larger survey might be beneficial to this. To be sure, the assertion of any identity is exclusionary to some degree, but considering the often cosmopolitan interactions that arise through deeper globalization, it would be interesting to see just how possible it would be for sectarian lines to become as rigid as the author suggests.

Departing from the discussion, I harbor one last question for the author or for anyone else actively engaging these issues: It is a clear point permeating the paper that bureaucracies serve as segregating forces in their treatments of religion. Through this, larger groups become normative, and those smaller are marginalized, oftentimes being referred to as “cults” or “extremist movements” if they represent minorities or deviations from and/or within larger groups. It would seem to me, however, that these labels and their treatment are not solely if even primarily exacted by larger social institutions, but also by the popular strata as well. It is important to consider the agency of culture as a deciding and segregating force in this way. To what extent then does the popular, “bottom-up” strata serve as a deciding force in the drawing of sectarian lines?

Jonathan Thumas is an MA student in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, studying East Asian Relations.