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The Politics of Freedom: Geopolitics, Minority Rights, and Gender


The Sixth Annual Helen Pond McIntyre ’48 Lecture, Barnard College, 5 November 2009

The right to religious freedom is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular liberal democracies, one that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of religiously diverse populations.  Enshrined in national constitutions and international laws and treaties, the right to religious liberty promises to ensure two stable goods: one, the ability to choose one’s religion freely, without coercion by the state, church, or an individual; and two, the creation of a polity in which one’s economic, civil, legal, or political status is unaffected by one’s religious beliefs.  While all members of a polity are supposed to be protected by this right, modern wisdom has it that religious minorities are its greatest beneficiaries, and their ability to practice their traditions without fear of reprisal is a key marker of a tolerant and civilized polity.  The right to religious freedom marks an important distinction between liberal secularism and the kind practiced by authoritarian states, such as China, Syria, or the former Soviet Union.  While such states abide by the separation of religion and state, a central concept of liberal secularism, they also regularly abrogate religious freedoms of their minority and majority populations.  Liberal secular states, while they regulate religious life, must constantly counterbalance this regulation by the individual’s right to practice his or her religion freely, without coercion or state intervention.

While the right to religious liberty has long commanded the attention of academics and policy analysts, it is only recently in the last decade that religious freedom has come to acquire a particular salience in popular discourse.  We are constantly exposed to media coverage of the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet, Christians and Muslims in India, animists in Sudan, and Bahais in Iran, all of which serves to secure a sense of distinction among Europeans and Americans about the tolerance with which religious minorities in their own societies are treated.

This sense of superiority, however, has come under strain recently, as liberal Americans have come to recognize that the ascendance of evangelical and neoconservative Christians poses a serious threat to the claim to religious tolerance and that religious fundamentalism is a feature not only of non-Western societies but also a growing aspect of the current American landscape.  It would seem that the confident line that Samuel Huntington had once drawn between us, the liberal and tolerant West, and them, the authoritarian, religiously zealous non-West, is not as easy to draw as it once appeared.

While most liberal Americans have come to countenance the dominant role Christianity now plays in national politics, the extent to which it shapes and guides US foreign policy is far less appreciated.  This is in part because there is a sense that foreign policy in general is subject to the calculus and rationale of real politique, rather than theistic agendas or concerns.  Yet a quick glance at the historical trajectory of the right to religious liberty and international law and European and American diplomacy shows that the two cannot be so easily separated.  Consider, for example, the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act by the US Congress in 1998 under President Clinton, which mandates the US State Department to monitor incidents of religious persecution worldwide and authorizes the President of the United States to censure, through diplomatic or economic means, states that are found to be guilty.  It also establishes an Office of Religious Freedom and a designated position of an ambassador to the office.  As Elizabeth Castelli‘s work shows, the Christian evangelical movement was largely responsible for the passage of this act, and its subsequent implementation remains clearly biased towards protecting Christian minorities living in non-Christian — particularly Muslim-majority — societies.  This policy continues to inform the priorities of the current State Department under President Obama.

While I will return to this issue in detail later, here I want to stress the importance of thinking critically about the reemergence of the discourse of the right to religious freedom and its complex relationship to geopolitical inequalities between the Western and non-Western worlds.  I want to explore with you today the conditions of the emergence of the current emphasis on religious freedom, particularly as it pertains to the persecution and protection of religious minorities in the Middle East.

Difficult questions are at stake in such an undertaking.  On the one hand, there is no doubt that physical and discriminatory attacks against religious and ethnic minorities are widespread in the world today.  Whether it is organized pogroms against the Muslim minority in India or earlier in Bosnia, or the persecution of Bahais in Iran and Christians in Egypt and Nigeria, it is clear that, in the last several decades, religious and ethnic minorities have come under increasingly brutal attacks, in a manner that seemed inconceivable at the end of the Second World War.  On the other hand, one cannot treat the fact of religious persecution of minorities as simply a sign of increased intolerance of contemporary society.  Rather, one must also think critically about the conditions of secular liberal governance, both national and international, that define what counts as an act of religious persecution.

In pondering interreligious strife today, I want to suggest the relevant question is not so much what inhibits the realization of religious freedom, as if religious freedom is an ahistorical and universally found good, but how the national and international regulation and protection of religious minorities makes specific notions of freedom and unfreedom possible and imaginable.  In asking you to ponder this question, I would like us to move away from the simplistic and banal assumption that certain religions and cultures are more tolerant towards religious minorities than others.  I would urge us to think, instead, about: what is the political and legal history of the emergence of the concept of religious freedom?  What are the conditions of geopolitical power that have allowed for its globalization?  And how has this universally recognized liberal right come to affect religious majority and minority populations of the modern state differently?

As I will show, the emergence of the concept of religious freedom is intimately tied to the history of European domination of the non-Western world, wherein the concern for religious minorities has served as a crucial argument and pretext for the exercise of European power.  My interest in tracing this history lies in showing how the right to religious freedom is not simply a moral good produced by the secular liberal state but complexly intertwined with geopolitical inequalities and the emergence of the secular, international political order in which the peculiarity of the nation state plays the crucial role.  The passage of the International Religious Freedom Act and its implementation by the US State Department needs to be seen within this context.  In the second half of my talk, I will focus on how this history is relevant to the contemporary struggles for religious freedom among the largest Christian minority living in the Middle East, namely the Coptic Christians in Egypt.  In the process I hope to offer some reflections on how the historical accommodation reached between the modern state and non-Muslim minorities in Egypt makes gender a particularly volatile and vicious site for sectarian — intersectarian and interreligious — strife.

Saba Mahmood is Associate Professor of Social Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.  She is the author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005).  The text above is a partial transcript of the lecture.  See, also, Saba Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation,” Public Culture 18:2 (2006): 323-347.

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