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The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Religious freedom has emerged in recent years as a pivotal topic for the study of religion. It is also the subject of heated debates within many countries and among human rights advocates globally, where competing groups advance radically different ideas about how religious freedom operates and what it protects. While for marginalized and minority communities, this freedom can provide important avenues of appeal, at the same time, governing regimes of religious freedom have most often served the interests of those in power and opened up new channels of coercion by the state.

This conversation with Tisa Wenger, author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, starts with the question of how religious freedom talk functions to shape the category of religion and to transform what counts as religious in the modern world. Using Wenger’s ethnographic and historical research on the Pueblo Indians, we discuss how local, national, and international regimes of religious freedom have shaped (or even produced) new religious formations, ways of being religious, norms of good vs. bad religion, or distinctions between the religious and the secular. In short, how has religious freedom (re)produced religion and its others in the modern world?

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How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Podcast with Tisa Wenger (30 September 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/how-religious-freedom-makes-religion/

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Tisa Wenger. We’re here in Hanover at the DVRV conference. However, we’re not going to be talking about the German context. We’re going to be discussing how religious freedom makes religion. Tisa teaches in the Divinity School at Yale, including Religious Studies and American Studies, and is the author of the recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project, first and foremost!

Tisa Wenger (TW): Thank you so much! It’s good to be with you.

DR: Let’s put the book in a little bit of context, before we get into a couple of case studies. Tell us how you started working on it. How did your early studies lead you to this subject?

TW: Yes. Well I’ll try to keep it relatively brief, instead of giving a full intellectual autobiography! But my first book, which was based on my dissertation, was called We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. I started that book, not by thinking about religious freedom, but by thinking about race, American colonialism and category of religion. And I wanted to make an intervention into the kind-of Religious Studies conversation about to what extent is the category of religion a colonial imposition in various contexts. And I wanted to talk about that in relation to Native Americans, and for a variety of reasons ended up looking at the American south west and the Pueblo Indians in Mexico. And I argued, in that book, that Pueblo Indians only began really to contextualise their traditions as religion in the 1920s in order to make the argument for religious freedom. So that’s how I got to religious freedom – kind-of-like through the back door, so to speak. And when I finished that book I wanted to put a similar set of questions on a much broader historical stage. So I was asking, “Who’s invoking the idea of religious freedom and what kinds of cultural and political work does it do?” and, in particular, in kind-of imperial contexts, colonial contexts, and in relation to racial formation in the United States. So the set of arguments that you didn’t hear me talk about today had to do with race, and the way race is shaped in America is kind-of co-constituted with religion. And so I have argued in various other examples about how race and religion are co-constituted. But I was interested initially in this question of how religious freedom shapes or produces religion; when different sort-of social and cultural formations come to be conceptualised as religion, and how the category of religion is formed in that process. And so part of what I’m arguing in the book is that religious freedom disputes do important political and cultural work in that way, in shaping what is religion.

DR: Yeah. Right. And that, for me, is a very interesting aspect of your work. We’re very familiar with the kind-of human rights approach to this issue of, “How do we represent religions in the law?” and “How do we deal with religious freedom?” and these kinds of ideas. All of which, of course, sort-of assume this thing which needs to be represented. Whereas your argument is more subtle. So, if I’m understanding, it’s essentially that the category of religion is almost created in these legal negotiations about how we represent and recognise religions in the law – especially in a sort-of colonial context. Is that . . . have I got that correct?

TW: Yes that’s exactly right. But I would say that in most cases, it has not been created out of nothing, right?

DR: Of course, yeah.

TW: (Laughs). In most religious freedom controversies that we see . . . of course, the category of religion already was present and being used by people, but it is recreated and reshaped all the time. And in some cases, I think particularly in colonial contexts, you can see where local people – colonised people – start to use it for themselves for the first time, or pretty much for the first time, right? Because particularly the thing about US imperialism . . . . And religious freedom is such an important concept for Americans, generally – but for colonial officials in particular, who saw themselves as bringing freedom to the people they colonise, right?

DR: Right.

TW: And in some cases, bringing religious freedom was particularly important to them. So I’m interested in how, then, religious freedom served as a tool for kind-of colonial administration. But I’m also interested, then, in how colonised people take that principle and use it to kind-of speak back to empires.

DR: Right. Which is one of the most difficult aspects of post-colonial study of religion, I think, for people to get their heads around. It’s that it’s a process. There’s a two-way process. It’s not simply the baddies making the goodies behave in a certain way. But the category is reshaped, reconstituted and sustained in that dialogue where it is imposed in certain legal contexts. But then it’s also used by the people being colonised.

TW: Yes

DR: As an act of legitimatisation, yes?

TW: Yes. Exactly. So in the Native American case . . . and I can point to lots of specific examples, you know? In my work on the Pueblo Indians, and the piece of my book that you heard me present on today about Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota, in both cases you see US government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimising indigenous traditions by categorising them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan, right? And indigenous people who really in their own languages and ways of structuring . . . . They had their own ways of structuring their societies, but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorisation of themselves as heathen savage, pagan etc., right? So this is why I title my first book We Have a Religion. This was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying “We also have a religion,” You know? “And you can’t ban it, because of the First amendment to the US Constitution.” Right?

DR: Yes. The clearest example that I’m aware of – it’s quite a well-known case, you know – is the way that Indian independence and Hinduism are kind-of coeval. So Hinduism is an administrative category, essentially by the British Empire, which then becomes one of the central motifs in the national identity of India leading directly into the Indian independence movement, and, you know, One Nation Indian political power today.

TW: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the sort-of construction of Hinduism as a “world religion” is happening in conjunction with that colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British . . .

DR: Absolutely.

TW: . . . for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

TW: But native indigenous traditions, for Native Americans and elsewhere around the world, never got conceptualised or moved to that level of world religion, which is a different thing, as we know from Tomoko Masuzawa’s work and others.

DR: Absolutely. Let’s dig into one of those examples, then. The Pueblo Indians example is really fascinating. So perhaps you could take the Listeners through some of the details of that?

TW: Sure, so the Pueblo Indians are really a group of culturally related peoples in New Mexico, sort of related to the Hopi in Arizona. Related because . . . well . . . . Now I’m going to ramble! But they’re really four separate language groups that lived close by each other for several centuries and so came to share a lot of cultural characteristics. But they were colonised by Spain early on, as part of the kind-of northern expansion of New Spain up into what is now the south-western United States. And that’s hugely influential in shaping who the Pueblo Indians were by the time that the United States arrived in the region, after the Spanish American War in 1848. And most of the Pueblo communities – although not all of them – became Catholic under Spanish rule, and were pretty bilingual in Spanish and indigenous Tewa and Tiwa languages. And they, in the kind-of Spanish uses of religion, would conceive as Catholicism as their religion. So it’s not that they weren’t familiar with the category of religion. But under Spanish law, let’s just say, and in the kind-of Mexican New Spain, and then independent Mexico, there was no legal advantage because there was no religious freedom guaranteed to conceptualising indigenous practices as religion. So they had come to a kind-of accommodation with the Franciscan priests, who were mostly the clergy in the churches. And the Pueblos came to be named for Catholic saints and had feast days for the patron saint of each Pueblo, where they would practice traditional Pueblo dances as well as have a Catholic mass and a procession through the town. But they had kind-of come to an accommodation with the Catholic priests, the Franciscan priests, where they would . . . They talked about Pueblo kiva ceremonies and Pueblo ways as costumbre: custom, right?

DR: Yes.

TW: And so that really didn’t change under American rule until the 1920s, when there’s a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke, who puts out this kind-of dance policy in order to enforce older regulations against Indian dances and those that . . . the one from the 1880s that I was actually referring to in my talk today. He, Charles Burke in the 1920s, tries to reinforce those relations.

DR: So, maybe just in a sentence or two, tell us what they are, because the Listener won’t have . . . .

TW: Right, so there was . . . and these are not laws passed by Congress, right? They’re more bureaucratic regulations within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that’s nested under the Department of the Interior. And the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And he had immense sort-of executive power to regulate. And so this court of Indian offences was created by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as a way to . . . . I’m sorry, I’m not being very brief here! But it’s relevant . . .

DR: No, this is good!

TW: as a way to, again . . . it’s a kind-of tutelary regime: a way to instruct Indians – and this is done in a very patronising way, so I’m kind-of echoing the patronising language that was used – to instruct Indians in civilisation and in the law. So they would . . . the agents would appoint a kind-of more – quote unquote – “progressive” Indian, to be the judge of the Court of Indian Affairs. But part of what the Court of . . . . There’re also kind-of regulations or there were a list of quote “Indian offences“. And nowhere in the documents extant from the time or in the regulations that were written up by the commissioner, was this referred to as “religion”. But it later came to be called the Religious Crimes Code. But the Indian offences that were listed in this code were “heathenish rites”, “the arts of the conjurer”, “the medicine man” etc., etc., right? And so native people could be, and were, fined and imprisoned for practising the arts of the conjurer, or participating in certain kinds of dances that were specified to be banned. But that had not . . . For various reasons the US control over Pueblo Indians was not nearly so strong in that period in the late 19th century. And it hadn’t really been enforced against the Pueblo Indians ever. And I don’t need to take the time to go into the reasons for that. But in the 1920s, actually – sparked in part by an exposé of Pueblo ceremonies, in which those ceremonies were depicted as sexually lascivious and immoral by missionaries and missionary-minded government agents – who were really, I think it’s safe to say, completely misinterpreting and misreading those ceremonies . . . .

DR: That’s a common way of representing any barbarous religion anyway, isn’t it?

TW: Correct.

DR: It’s a common language.

TW: Correct. So Charles Burke’s new regulations on dances, that were really just trying to re-inforce some of the earlier regulations form the 1880s, were sparked by a controversy of Pueblo Indian dances. So they were very much at the focus of the controversy that ensued. In the meantime, there were kind-of a group of Boasian anthropologists and sort-of modernist artists and writers who had settled in New Mexico, it was in Santa Fe, and who were starting to really romanticise the Pueblos as “ideal primitives” – quote unquote – right? And so some of those people also leapt to the defence of the Pueblos. And the Pueblo leaders themselves resisted the government suppression by saying, you know, “You can’t do this. Our traditions are religion.” But their re-categorising their traditions as religion was aided by the anthropologists and artists who were also starting to do the same thing, right? In a kind of celebration-of-primitive-religion way. So that’s what happened. Then it was a pretty big public controversy, I mean with articles in lots of national magazines and newspapers and such about the Pueblos. And one of the people who was centrally involved was John Collier who at the time had just become the head of a new reform association called the American Indian Defence Association. And he was becoming one of the biggest gadflies against BIA assimilationist policies. And then later under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ with the New Deal, Collier was appointed as the commissioner of Indian Affairs – which was a huge overturn. And he reversed some of these policies outlawing Native American dances, and he did so on religious freedom grounds. That reform had its own limitations, of course. And most BIA agents, even after that point in the mid-1930s, continued to work closely with Christian missionaries. And even when they formally recognised the right of Native Americans to religious freedom, nonetheless still conceptualised religion with such a Christian model that they often ruled indigenous practices outside of what counted as religion, right? So what was considered religion was always being negotiated and contested on different Indian reservations between native people and government agents.

DR: And so was there also the kind-of opposite side of that? Does the legislation and the control then shape the way that the Indians are practising? Did they begin to think differently about their practices and maybe even emphasise different bits more, and focus on things differently as a result?

TW: Yes absolutely. So when I finished the book on the Pueblos . . . this was the first piece that I did for my new big sort-of broad-scope religious freedom book. My first transitional step I took was to say, “Well I’ve done all of this in-depth work on the Pueblos in New Mexico. Now I wonder how this happened, or can I tell a similar kinds of stories about other Native Americans elsewhere in the United States?” right? And “When did native people start to use religious freedom arguments?” and “How did that shift things for them?” I didn’t get to that part of . . . . I did make that kind of argument in relation to the Pueblos, as well, and talk about how reconceptualising their traditions as religion created new conflicts within Pueblo communities. But I want to talk now about the newer research that appeared in the second book, in the religious freedom book, that resulted from me asking, “Well, what did this look like more broadly?” And initially I was actually thinking, “Well, probably because there was such a concerted government attempt at suppressing these traditions and nobody was thinking of them as religion, that probably religious freedom wasn’t a pertinent category until the twentieth century.” But I found that not to be the case. I found that actually the more I looked, the more I found Native Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth-century really, in some cases, using religious freedom talk. And I would say, broadly speaking, there are at least two different types of ways that that was applied. So one, in relation to the kind-of stages of colonial history, perhaps – in early stages of colonial contact, before native nations were conquered, when you have Christian missionaries coming, where the native nations are not under US control – you often see native people saying something like “We’re not interested in your religion. We have our own religion.” And sometimes that directly becomes language about religious freedom and sometimes it becomes directly language about religious freedom that is also about protecting indigenous sovereignty, in a kind-of collective way: “Our people have our own ways. And you can’t take our land. You can’t take our …” You know? And religious freedom was part of that. But it’s not a religious freedom that is appealing to the US Constitution, because they’re not under the US Constitution. They don’t see themselves as being governed by the United States.

DR: Yes. And there’s maybe less of a . . . It’s maybe not to do with freedom of religion and the role of the secular. They’re more thinking in terms of religion as customs and that kind of idea.

TW: Yes. They using religion-talk, but in a way where it’s very integrated. But then, after Native Americans are conquered essentially, right – and that happens at different times in different parts of the country and for different native nations – but by the late nineteenth century, by the 1880s, really overwhelmingly native Americans have been conquered, and they have been restricted to reservations, and there are now new policies that are being implemented. And the Code of Indian offences that I was describing earlier is part of that period of a kind-of newly heightened effort at administrative control. And that’s when, immediately in that period, you start to see Native Americans on reservations resisting the suppression of indigenous practices. And sometimes native people refer to their “doings”: ceremonies, dances, all kinds of practices – you know, medicines, healing practices – they start to refer to some of them as religion specifically in order to make religious freedom arguments. And that started to happen in the 1880s. It accelerated with the Peyote movement, and the suppression of the Peyote movement. And I trace that history in the book. But you see . . . . And actually, the Peyote movement is a really interesting case with regard to the question you were asking about how that shifts indigenous traditions. Because, I mean, I don’t think the government suppression and the law is the only reason that Peyotists, and people in that tradition, started to talk about it in the language of religion. There were other reasons as well, but this was certainly one of them. But what is very clear is that the Peyote leaders and practitioners . . . structurally, the movement shifts towards a more, what we might call a kind-of Protestant – certainly a Christian – model for what counts as religion, in order to make religious freedom arguments in the courts, and in Congressional hearings, and before state legislators. And that happened in various places. But, you know, there’s the incorporation of the Native American church, right, that happened . . . which there was an anthropologist, James Mooney, who helped with that process. And the Native American church, you know . . . . Again Peyote ceremonies were, for various reasons, borrowing from Christianity. And some of the Peyote movements began to see themselves as Christian. But the fact that being Christian helped with a religious freedom argument meant that those groups had a boost, right? (Laughs). So there’s a kind-of incomplete Christianisation of the Peyote movement and the Native American Church that isn’t entirely caused by the need to resist government suppression and make religious freedom arguments, but is certainly encouraged and accelerated by it. And so, you know, Peyote is called “the sacrament”. Again and again, you see Indians trying to argue, you know, against legislation and suppression. And that is also in the climate of a prohibitionist period, when there’s a huge campaign against drugs and alcohol – and particularly alcohol, right? So there were crusaders who were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stamp out the alcohol trade among Indians. And the Peyote became kind-of classified as a dangerous drug, alongside alcohol

DR: Right, yes.

TW: So the Bureau of Indian Affairs talked about Peyote and the Peyote as a cloak for drug dealers. They just . . .

DR: Right. Similar to the way that cannabis became . . . ?

TW: Yes. “They’re pretending to be religious in order to kind-of pedal drugs”, right? And so, in order to combat that kind of suppression and denigration, Peyote leaders would emphasise the kind-of positive moral effects of Peyote practice and Peyote worship, and talk about the sacrament, and talk about the church. So that was very much a necessary strategy for them. And I don’t see it . . . again, I don’t see it only as a strategy, but it was certainly accelerated by that. Yes.

DR: Yes, and on the RSP we’ve talked a few times – we’ve been talking about it over the last week here, as well – that all of these categories – you know, religion, race, the secular, human rights – they’re all part of an interlocking system. So it’s not just the one thing that affects the way that religion is constructed. But it’s part of a larger system in which those are the building blocks we’re working with.

TW: Right. Yes. So you reminded me, in saying that, of the point I was making in the talk I gave earlier today: about how religious/secular distinctions are even produced in some Native American societies in this process. Because what I found was – this was the part I didn’t quite get to in my earlier answer – but what I found was that in many native communities while religious freedom arguments appeared quite early, and many native leaders were making religious freedom arguments, sometimes kind-of strategically, tactically, that wasn’t the most effective way to convince a particular official to allow them to hold dances. Of course, sometimes dances went on, regardless of what the officials said, out of their view. But many Native Americans on many reservations, you’d see dances being held on the Fourth of July, on various kinds of national holidays and Christian holidays – you know, Christmas and Thanksgiving, but especially the Fourth of July – and native people and returned veterans especially after the First World War saying, “We fought for our freedom and we have the right to celebrate our freedom.” And, plus, “These are just social dances, and white communities hold dances too, to celebrate the 4th of July – so why can’t we?” And they, in those cases, would very much downplay any kind of sacred ceremonial. They didn’t conceptualise those traditions as religious for the purposes of these arguments. And so you see, I think, a kind-of differentiation between certain dance or ceremonial traditions that became defended and conceptualised as religion, and came to take on the characteristics associated with religion – which is really modelled after Christianity in the United States – versus those kind-of dance or ceremonial complexes that were defended in different ways and so were not conceptualised as religion. And so there’s a kind of religious/secular distinction that happens where some dances are secularised. But the point I want to make is even beyond that, that the very distinction between a religious dance and a secular dance is emerging in that process.

DR: Right. As a last question, then: what do you think . . . where are we, then, with the religious/ secular distinction in law today? Do you think this is something that we should be seeking to challenge? Or do you think that there is still some value in a religious freedom law?

TW: That’s a really big and hard question for me! (Laughs).

DR: I know it’s something you’re thinking through just now, so maybe it can be just initial . . . .

TW: It is. And I mean I am more comfortable trying to observe and map how it’s happening. Seeing the kind of work that religious freedom is doing. And I think in the contemporary United States certainly religious freedom disputes help shape what people think of as religious and what they don’t think of, you know. And why certain things, again and again, get sort-of coded as a religious issue, as a religious freedom issue, is complex and puzzling. But, you know, it should . . . I’m in two minds about the continued utility of religious freedom. And I have always come down on the side that . . . as kind-of muddled and complicated as its history is, that it’s a tool that has nonetheless been useful to lots of minority groups. And that we can’t just reinvent our world and our categories ex nihilo, right? We don’t have that kind of power as scholars. So is it better to try to eliminate religious freedom law? I mean, I don’t really think so. I might change my mind about this. You know. I think that while seeing how historically constantly negotiated it is – what gets included within the scope of religious freedom and how that shapes what religion even is in our society – that we’re better off pushing for more inclusive, but sometimes also more limited views of religious freedom. In the sense that I don’t think religious freedom should kind-of trump every other value or principle of equality and justice that we have. In the history I trace, I think you can see how that tendency has been a problem and hence served . . . has been weaponised over and over again. And I think it’s still weaponised today. So I think we’re better off trying to kind-of reformulate and reclaim religious freedom. And I have a colleague and friend, Michael McNally who teaches at Carleton College and he has a new book coming out, on Native American religious freedom, which is really grounded in contemporary ethnographic research with . . . . Well, he’s worked with and learned from Native American activists and lawyers, and organisations advocating for religious freedom now. And he says that they’re very . . . these contemporary native leaders are very much aware of sort-of limits and pitfalls of religious freedom. But they nevertheless find it to be a useful tool alongside others. Even though it has failed repeatedly in the courts for Native Americans, contemporary activists would not want it to be gone.

DR: Right, yeah.

TW: Because they see it as way that they can . . . because religious freedom does have such cultural power in the United States that it can be a way to give a certain amount of moral authority to their claims. I mean that’s one of the kinds of arguments that he makes, and I find that very convincing. And so I think that for scholars who see religion as a constructed category and all of that – yes, absolutely. But who are we to say that activists shouldn’t have that tool, right?

DR: Absolutely. It’s been a really interesting conversation. There are a number of big questions that we’re not going to get time for today – so maybe we could have you back one day in the future to go more into the racial stuff,, for instance, which we didn’t really get too much in. But for now, Tisa Wenger, I want to say thank you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

TW: Absolutely. Thanks for having me! And I hope to be back, because, yes – there’s so much more to talk about!

DR: Excellent! Thank you.

TW: Thanks very much.

 

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When Islam Is Not a Religion

Asma Uddin is the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. In this book, Uddin examines an alarming trend to redefine Islam as a political ideology, not a religion. In our conversation, we track the history of this movement to redefine Islam and its implications for the rights of Muslims. We discuss the widespread presumption among American progressives that courts tend to protect religious freedom for Christians, but not for Muslims, and we examine particular stories that support and problematize that narrative. In particular, Uddin provides vivid examples of how American courts have reacted to arguments that Islam is not a religion. Uddin explains how and why Muslims and their allies disagree about whether religious freedom laws offer (or should offer) necessary or sufficient legal frameworks for protecting the rights of religious minorities in the United States.

In the latter part of the conversation, we discuss Uddin’s approach to writing the book. She describes how she balanced the desires to better equip people who already acknowledge that Islam is a religion and, on the other hand, to convince those who view Islam only as a political ideology to change their minds.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, roses, llama figurines, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


When Islam Is Not a Religion

Podcast with Asma Uddin (24 June 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin Marcus.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Uddin_-_When_Islam_Is_Not_a_Religion_1.1

 

Benjamin Marcus (BM): Hello, Religious Studies Project Listeners! My name is Ben Marcus and I’m really pleased to be here today with Asma Uddin – Welcome, Asma! Asma Uddin is a fellow with the Initiative on Security and Religious Freedom at the UCLA Burkle Centre for International Relations. She’s also a Berkley Centre Research fellow and a senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Centre of the Freedom Forum Institute. Uddin previously served as council with Becket, a non-profit law firm specialising in US and international religious freedom cases, and was director of strategy for the Centre for Islam and Religious Freedom, a non-profit engaged in religious liberty in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts. She is widely published by law reviews, university presses and national and international newspapers. She is also an expert adviser on religious liberty to the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe and a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to her expertise on religious liberty, Uddin writes and speaks on gender in Islam and she is founding editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, where she was a staff editor at the University of Chicago Law Review. And we’re here with Asma today because she just wrote an excellent new book that I’ve had the chance to get a sneak preview of, which is titled When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom, out on July 6th, and available for pre-order now. So I’m excited to have Asma here today to talk about that book. And I want to start off with a broad question that really is the context for the book that you’re writing, which is: was there a specific moment, or experience, that alerted you to the fact that people are seriously arguing that Islam is not religion?

Asma Uddin (AU): There was. And thank you, Ben, for having me here. It was in 2010, I was still at the Becket fund, and I was working on a case in Murfreesboro Tennessee, involving the Islamic Centre, Murfreesboro, and its attempt to build a new facility. As is very common with Muslim communities across the US, the community in Murfreesboro had outgrown its base numerous times and was tired of moving from apartment, to garage, to storefront, and decided that it needed a permanent spot: something that was big, and could accommodate them and their growing congregation over the course of many years. And, given the existing relationships that the Muslims of Murfreesboro had with others in that community, they were totally caught by surprise when, in the course of their construction of this building, their construction site and much of the construction material was actually set on fire. And those flames – as they were eating up this site and these materials – those were really the opening scene of my book. Because it was in that moment where there were these very clear signs that there was going to be real tension. And chronologically speaking, the timing is important because this incident happened pretty much on the heels of the Park51 dispute that has sort-of erupted, and taken over both New York City and the national headlines dealing with the mosque project – or a project that was deemed to be a mosque. It was actually a cultural community centre in New York. And so the two incidences are linked, in terms of the substance and the timing. But the argument in Murfreesboro was clear that it had come out of the animosity against the Park51 building. In the Murfreesboro case, it was actually argued in court, over the course of the six-day hearing . . . which is a significant fact, because the judge didn’t stop the questioning as it went on! Typically, if a lawyer gets out of line the judge shuts it down, but in this case it was allowed to go forward. And in the course of that six-day hearing it was argued very explicitly . . . and there’s always been a long time when these arguments have implicitly been made that Islam is not a religion, but these words were actually stated in court. And the argument was, essentially, that all the different protections that houses of worship get under the law do not apply in that case because Islam is not a religion.

BM: And what are they arguing that Islam is? What are they saying? If it’s not a religion, what can it be?

AU: There tends to be a number of responses to that. But the most dominant response is that it is a political ideology. And, you know, furthermore a dangerous political ideology that is bent on taking over the United States; that is at odds with the US Constitution; and its ultimate goal is a subversion of that Constitution.

BM: And I assume . . . . Did the judge provide any good questions . . . that would try to undermine that argument? Or did the judge just let that go forward unchallenged?

AU: (5:00) I mean, it was a number of witnesses that were questioned with really outrageous questions, such as: “If a religion is founded by a Prophet that engaged in sexual relationships with underage girls, specifically a six year old, would you call that a religion?” I mean, these are like commissioners and various government officials, siting on the stand, being asked these kinds of questions.

BM: Wow! So what do you find most alarming about this move to redefine Islam as something other than a religion? What have been some of the tangible repercussions or consequences of this?

AU: Yes, I think the conversation on Islamophobia has been going pretty strong for a long time. A lot of scholars and activists have noticed this trend. And what I noticed when I set out to write this book was that the conversation was almost exclusively based on what the media and politicians are saying – which is very important, obviously, because of the impact that both of those players have on our society. But nobody was really looking at the effect of this rhetoric on constitutional rights. And to the extent that that sort-of bridge was being made to tangible results, it was almost always in the light of national security policy and questions of immigration and detention. But it was a little odd for me, actually, that Muslims as a religious community . . . that conversation wasn’t happening through a religious liberty lens – which I get into in the book, actually. To the extent that framing, in itself, is another way of essentially saying that “Islam is not a religion”. If you keep talking about it in some other terms and not as a religious liberty issue, you’re almost implying that religion isn’t the proper lens to be looking at this through. And so when I set out to write this book, I was really coming from my background as somebody who’s a lawyer and writer focussed on religious liberty in the US, and abroad. And I was wanting to change that conversation a little, and turn the focus a bit to the concrete effects on religious freedom – which is what I spend the entire book really looking at: the various ways that this “Islam is not a religion” argument comes up. Sometimes it’s very explicit. Sometimes it’s implicit but in all cases it’s very obvious. And I have several chapters, each dedicated to a different area of religious exercise, where this has come into play to diminish legal rights of American Muslims under the US Constitution.

BM: That’s so interesting. I wonder if you’ve seen any changes in the strategies of lawyers, or legal scholars, who are advocates for the Muslim community? Are they starting to add in legal language protecting the rights of Muslims that are not just based on the First Amendment but based on other laws or legal precedent in their court cases? Are they trying the Fourteenth Amendment, or other laws or statutes?

AU: Yeah, I mean I haven’t done a full survey of actual briefs filed. It’s more so: are briefs being filed at all? But I did see some legal literature – academic literature – where Muslims were arguing that Islam, and protections for Muslims, needs to be defended under the racial discrimination elements of the equal protection clause.

BM: Interesting.

AU: And in some cases the argument went so far as to say that it should be used instead of religious liberty arguments because it “more accurately captures what is going on”. And that was, again . . . I mean, this was something that I read very early on in my research, which again was very alarming for me because it wasn’t just that there was a failure to understand these issues, but it was an actual concerted effort to diminish the importance of that. So again, it’s a move within the community. It’s not just outsiders saying this. But now it’s like a move within the community being, like, “Yeah, I think a better way to think about what we’re going through is racial discrimination and let’s advocate for it that way.” And I think that that in itself opens . . . I think the racialisation of Muslims is a reality. I think that is a phenomenon. But when you begin to say that it is racial instead of . . . or that the racial element is more important than . . . you’re creating exactly the space that these other people want, to diminish the religious status of Islam. You’re giving them that opening. And that’s worrying.

BM: It’s fascinating that the discourse by those who are antagonistic towards, or attacking the rights of Muslims has actually changed, to a certain extent, the legal strategy of Muslims – or their allies in courts – to move from the religious liberty lens to the race-based discrimination lens. Or maybe a combination of those two things.

AU: Again, I haven’t . . . that was the advocacy that I saw in the academic literature (10:00). And in terms of the actual legal advocacy I think, for me, that’s less of a current problem in its explicit form. But I think this idea of Muslims as racial or ethnic minorities – or something akin to that – as opposed to a religious minority, is showing up just in the types of issues that are being litigated to begin with.

BM: Right.

AU: And so, coming from a background where I saw very sort-of expansive advocacy for religious liberty on behalf of conservative Christians, and Jews, and a wide array of other religious groups in the US, that expansiveness is very much missing in the Muslim legal advocacy space. It’s like even the NYPD surveillance case, it was just. . . . The argument there, in terms of proving animus, was almost entirely based on trying prove intentional discrimination. And I was like . . . I tried advising that group that you can actually prove discrimination without proving the exact very explicit intentional discrimination. There’s a wide array of ways to prove that there was systemic differential treatment in a very systemic way. It could be something that’s not at its face discriminatory but applied in a particular way . . .

BM: Right.

AU: And that resistance or, I guess, the narrow sort-of lens on what constitutes religious discrimination is not something that’s limited to Muslims, but I think it’s just part of the political alliance that they’ve been welcomed into, that wants to think of religious liberty in very limited terms. Whereas many people on the conservative side would argue for religious liberty much more broadly. And so I think all those are political elements mixed in as well.

BM: Yeah. That’s fascinating. And are you seeing it show up in the court? So could you tell us a little bit more about how your work ties into the argument that courts are biased against Muslims – that somehow religious freedom is for Christians only? This is something that’s come up with a few of the Supreme Court cases that were decided just in the last year – that religious freedom laws are only really being applied to protect Christians and not Muslims or other religious minorities. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

AU: Yeah. And so I think that more extreme version of that statement . . . this idea that you stated perfectly encapsulated that . . . . The Editorial board of the New York Times put out a piece about a month ago with the title “Is Religious Freedom for Christians Only?” And I think that that’s an extreme version of what I’m looking at. I don’t think that the bias is that extreme. And I definitely don’t think that’s the case with the US Supreme Court. Do I think that there is some problematic bias and some dynamics that need to be looked at, and questioned more closely? Yes. There is statistical evidence that a number of different researchers have put together, looking at religious liberty cases brought under a wide array of legal bases – whether it be the Free Exercise Clause, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and so on – and looking at these cases over the course of . . . one study, for instance, looked at it over the course of a decade and found that Muslims were the least likely to have their religious liberty claims resolved in their favour. I think the only one that was competitive with that was the black separatist sects. And so there’s a number of studies looking at and bringing this issue to the fore. And these researchers then also take the step of trying to figure out “Why?” Like, “What’s going on?” Because when it comes to legal cases and their resolution there can be a number of different things going on. It could be, for instance, that many Muslim claims are from Muslim prisoners, and prisoners generally are notorious for bringing frivolous claims – so is that what’s going on? Well, no. Because if it was frivolous it would have been dealt with much before the judge got to writing opinion and deciding a case. And so, for instance, a study that I discuss in some detail in the book is one by Gregory Sisk and Michael Heise and they go through a number of explanations of what they think, and explain why none of them are the right explanation. And they finally conclude that it’s bias. It’s a bias that a lot of judges probably don’t realise that they have. But they, as human beings living in a society saturated with this, are essentially being affected by what’s going on outside the courtroom in terms of how they’re dealing with some claim in front of them. And so there’s that empirical evidence. And then in terms of the type of thing that the New York Times was seizing on . . . I think it’s significant that it is the New York Times and its editorial board. Because it’s really reflecting, I think, what many Americans are feeling in the light of more recent decisions. I think that contrast that we saw this last summer between the Supreme Court’s (15:00) . . . the way it dealt with animus – religious animus or anti-religious animus – in the Masterpiece case. And there was a lot made of what the commissioners and the Colorado Human Rights Commission had said about Jack Phillips’ Christian beliefs, or religious beliefs specifically. And that was enough to, essentially, hold in favour of the baker. And then, three weeks later, you have the Travel Ban case where it’s just way more evidence of animus and it’s like the President of the United States who’s engaging in this. And it was just sort-of deemed an issue, by the majority, that wasn’t relevant. And there are all kinds of other complicated factors here. It’s not just a state commissioner it’s the President. The President comes with all kinds of special privileges. But many Americans. . . . And it’s also the fact that the dissent in that case disagreed and said that, “Well, I don’t think that that’s the way law should be interpreted in that particular case.” And so there’s that plausible legal argument for why animus should have played a bigger role. But then that contrast really, I think, left a lot of Americans seriously wondering about the impartiality of our justice system. And then it came again to the fore in February, about a month ago, when we dealt with the case involving a Muslim inmate, a death row inmate who wanted an Imam with him in the execution chamber and was told that he couldn’t have him there with him, because the only clergyman allowed in there was the one of the staff. And the only one on staff was a Christian clergyman. And so, again, it was just especially because the facts of that case are so heart-breaking –it’s like your final moments! And the fact that it wasn’t just, like, no clergyman was available. I think Alabama has actually moved to that position now, which I think is bad for other reasons. But it was like, “Well if you happen to be Christian, you’ll get him.” Right?

BM: Right.

AU: And so I think we’re consistently seeing this. And of course there’s the bigger looming question of how partisan Supreme Court is. And we saw that blow up with the Kavanaugh hearings.

BM: Right. So you’ve outlined so many challenges to trying to help the public understand the nuances of this issue. Obviously there is compelling empirical evidence that you mentioned from different scholars who’ve been researching the success of religious liberty claims by different religious groups. You’ve talked about public understanding of how the Supreme Court and other courts have interpreted the First Amendment. And The New York Times editorial board piece. So with this very loud media landscape, where people are talking about this issue in very polarising ways, what have you found has been successful when you’re talking about Muslims and religious liberty, when you’re trying to reach different audiences – and especially audiences that might be hostile, or questioning the research and evidence that you present in your book? Has it been that empirical evidence is really helpful? Have you found personal narrative . . . ? I know in your book you weave in some of your personal narrative with your family growing up in Florida, if I remember correctly. So what has been successful? Do you change your tactics or strategies when you’re speaking to different audiences?

AU: So in terms of whether or not this is successful, I think that’s a question that remains to be seen once the book comes out and I use it as a sort-of launching pad for conversation and real engagement – which is what I’m hoping to do with it. But I think you raise an important question. I think that’s what I was also trying to get at when I said this framing of The New York Times’ editorial board . . . and I also understand that it’s probably getting a compelling title. But I made it a point to say that I thought it was more extreme than it needed to be. And part of that is just sort-of forks into how I wrote this book to begin with. I just made . . . I made a concerted . . . . It was actually a struggle to write about anti-Muslim issues in the US and not to fall into the type of tone and rhetoric that tends to dominate the space. I’m not actually sure that I’ve seen a book that really gets into the question of Islamophobia, and does it in a way that tries to make peace and reconcile with the people who are engaging this rhetoric. And that ultimately is, I think, why a lot of this literature just isn’t having an impact. I don’t think it’s enough just to kind-of like use it to hammer other Americans. I think the point is . . . OK I aim to articulate what’s actually happening. I’m not going to sugar coat it (20:00). But I’m also not going to use it to make assumptions about . . . certain types of assumptions that I think are probably a little bit too common now. Which is this idea that the person making these arguments is either inherently “dumb” or “bigoted” is something that we hear a lot. And I try to stay away from those words. Because I think it turns people off. It turns off the precise people that you need to reach. It makes them uninterested and it makes them put you in a particular box. And so I try, to the extent possible, to use language that shows that to some extent I understand their concerns. And I see them as another human being who is motivated by things that a lot of human beings are concerned about. A huge one that I keep hearing about is this idea of security and the way that Muslims have been portrayed in the circles . . . and with the leaders that they listen to, as a threat to the security of them, to their families and to their country. And part of my effort here, in humanising this, is like, “Guess what? I feel that, too.” Because I am also human, right? And so it’s hard to explain that a) I’m not going to put you down for your concerns, but I’m also going to explain to you how I have those same concerns and yet, even with those same concerns I don’t think that that justifies, or requires that, we limit the rights of Muslims, or of anyone else. So to the extent that we can measure success, I think some of the people, that interact with that group, which have read the manuscript, feel that I’ve done that well. So it remains to be seen.

BM: Yes. And to follow up on the question of audience: when you were writing it, did you imagine that you were equipping . . . were you trying to “robe the choir”, you know, “feed the choir”… are you “preaching to the choir” intentionally so that they have the tools that they need to continue to “sing out loud” – to use the metaphor for too long – to say that that “Islam is a religion: here are resources that I found from this book that help me make that argument?” Or are you trying to convert other people? Are you trying to reach an audience that already disagrees with you, or perhaps doesn’t quite know, and you’re trying to bring them over to your understanding of things?

AU: Well, the funny thing with the book is that I sort-of take aim – in my very civil, calm way, you know – across the political spectrum. So, roughly the last half of the book really looks at the way that I think that liberal allies of the Muslim community are, in their own ways, turning it into something that is not a religion. And why I think that this is really problematic. So the question really is: will I have any friends after the book? (Laughs).

BM: (Laughs)

AU: But the way you phrased the question was interesting. Because you said, “Are you preaching to the choir or trying to give them the tools to make the argument that Islam is a religion?” And it’s interesting because I’ve written about the book topic in mainstream news outlets, The New York Times and more recently The Washington Post, and a lot of people do get caught up in that. Like this question of “Well is Islam a religion, or is it not a religion?” “How do we define a religion?” “Is the dominant frame here the Protestant conception of what a religion is, and is that the core of all this?” And I actually don’t get into that. I sort-of mention that as an introduction as like “Yeah, that’s going on – but that’s not relevant.” This book is not a philosophical, deep dive into what constitutes a religion. I think that’s not what’s important. I think a lot of other people have done that. I think it would be interesting to look at that again in the light of modern political debate. But it’s more so: OK, I’m talking about the law, and the law has its own way of figuring out what’s a religion for purposes of protection under the US Constitution. And that really is the only definition that matters when it comes to legal grades. So there’s various philosophical definitions that have been adopted by the courts. But, again, the relevance is only to the extent that it’s been adopted by a court.

BM: That’s so interesting. Do you think that there’s a disconnect between conversations in Religious Studies as a field about what religion is, and in the legal field about what religion is? Are the courts listening to Religious Studies scholars when they’re trying to make sense of what constitutes a religion and what doesn’t? Or is it its own tradition, and they’re just referring back to their own tradition and not really in conversation with Religious Studies scholars?

AU: Well I mean, currently, it’s Paul Tillich‘s definition of religion that has really . . . The US Supreme Court has never defined religion. But federal courts have. And so there isn’t, like, this one agreed upon definition in the legal world (25:00). But for purposes of actual legal protections they understand . . . there is an understanding by the courts that whatever the definition may be, it has to be pretty broad. And that judges are not in the best position to be defining philosophical parameters of what constitutes religion. So to the extent that they can turn to philosophers and religion scholars to have the terminology and help figure out some sort of way to articulate this, they do that. But they’re more sort-of concerned about “How do we capture what we’re trying to protect without necessarily creating too strict a boundary?” Because ultimately this is about constitutional protections. And we have to . . . . So the emphasis really tends to be on what judges can and cannot do. We can’t interfere with questions of religious doctrine. Whether something is important to a religion, or central to a religion, it doesn’t matter. It could be the most peripheral element. If you’re religion-based it still gets protected. And so that’s really interesting, also, if you start tying it back to the discourse around “Islam is not a religion”. Because a lot of that discourse tends to be “Well, Islam is not just a religion”. Or, more specifically, as some pretty high-profile people have said, “Only sixteen percent of Islam is a religion.”

BM: How do they quantify that?

AU: Well my sense is that it all comes from a study or extensive ongoing studies done by the Centre for the Study of Political Islam, CSPI, and they actually, apparently, have gone through all the various Muslim core texts and have sort-of categorised what they think counts as religion, versus politics. And based on this categorisation have come up with the sixteen percent number.

BM: Wow! (Laughs).

AU: And of course it’s like, you know, the fact that outsiders are sitting there parsing through this way, coming up with their own definitions of where religion ceases to be religion and politics starts. It really kind-of shows: a) how ridiculous the process is – purely from an intellectual perspective – but then also what it leads to.

BM: Right.

AU: And that’s exactly the sort of thing that judges have to stay very far away from.

BM: Right. Wow. Well as we wrap up, do you have any thoughts about the future? Do you think that we’re moving in a positive, or negative, or neutral direction? Are you seeing groups that are popping up that are more vocal in their defence – I don’t know if defence is the right word – but their explanation that Islam of course is a religion? Or are you seeing more and more groups that are popping up, making this argument that Islam is not a religion? Where do you think that we’re heading? And I know that’s a very broad question, so you can answer in the courts, or just in the public discourse. Do you think that there’s reason for hope, or reason for some concern? Or both?

AU: I would say both. In terms of the people who might be popping up to say that Islam is not a religion, I think that they are not yet popping up (in court) – at least not in that form – because I think that . . . .What the book seeks to do is articulate a problem. And once I articulated it, lots of people were like, “Yeah. I heard that!” But you know they just sort-of dismissed it. And it’s really about “Don’t dismiss it. Focus on it.” And even more recently, with the Australian Senator commenting on New Zealand mosque attacks, he put out an official statement that said, “Islam is not a religion and these people are not blameless, even if they are essentially being gunned down in their own house of worship. They are not blameless.” And again it was just like people were like: “Oh my God! This is crazy!” But it was like: ‘It’s crazy!” And then attention sort-of diverted from it. And my intention was to bring it back. “You’ve seen this before. It’s happening again.” An official statement put out by politicians in the most gruesome circumstances and I’m trying to direct the attention to that. Because you can’t really take it seriously, and begin to figure out a solution to it, if you don’t actually realise it’s happening.

BM: Right.

AU: And if you don’t realise it’s part of a larger concerted plan with particular goals in mind . . . So in terms of the two different camps that you’ve mentioned I think the side that’s saying Islam is not a religion is gaining steam. There’s a piece that I cite in the very beginning of my book, but that was written by David French, a very prominent conservative commentator and columnist with The National Review. (30:00) And he says this. “Every time that I go and talk to conservative audiences about religious liberty, the first question is always: ‘Does everything you just said apply to Muslims?’” And so, there’s plenty of evidence that this is gaining ground. It’s becoming a very common argument. And I think it’s time to sort-of focus our energies in articulating proper responses to that.

BM: Well, thank you for doing that so compellingly in your book. It’s a really compelling, cogent, explanation of this line of argument that we’ve seen come through certain conservative circles. And then you also, as you mentioned, talk about the ways that folks across the religious political ideological spectrum are eroding the sense that Islam is a religion. So thank you for that contribution. As a reminder to our Listeners, the book is out on July 6th. The title is, When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. And you can pre-order it now. Thank you so much, Asma, for coming in. I really enjoyed the conversation.

AU: Thank you, Ben, for having me.


Citation Info: Uddin, Asma and Benjamin Marcus. 2019. “When Islam Is Not a Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 13 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/when-islam-is-not-a-religion/

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Against Freedom: A Response to Finbarr Curtis

Finbarr Curtis’s recent book, The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016), defies easy categorization. Melding social theory, interpretive biography, revisionist intellectual history, literary analysis, film analysis, and the study of discourse and rhetoric, the book issues a much needed social constructionist inquiry into the largely taken-for-granted concept of “freedom” that circulates in conversations about Americanness and religiosity.

In his interview with Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project (RSP), Curtis describes his volume of case studies that span some 200 years of American history. The case studies correlate with the book’s eight chapters, including essays on either individuals (Charles Grandison Finney, Louisa May Alcott, William Jennings Bryan, D. W. Griffith, Al Smith, and Malcom X), theories of science (Intelligent Design), or legal rulings (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Early reviews of The Production have described the book as lacking a guiding thesis. But in Curtis’s own framing, and as stipulated in the introduction, “This book argues that there is no such thing as religious freedom, or at least no one thing.” Religious freedom “is a malleable rhetoric employed for a variety of purposes” (2016: 2).

Curtis advances an argument, but one framed as a definite negative. Corralling the eight stand-alone essays into conversation with one another, the thesis of the book is that no coherent or identifiable “religious freedom” exists in a singular sense. Freedom is a highly contested category of American discourse. Curtis astutely makes his case, weaving together studies of revivalist technique, character development in fictional narratives, populist rhetoric laced with racist undertones, filmic explorations mournful of white victimization, shrewd Catholic politicians in a Protestant arena, black activist rejection of American liberalism. He also examines alternative philosophies of science that exploit secular distinctions between scientific and religious truths, between public and private, and tactical sacralizations of both corporations and property in effort to normalize moral preferences.

As important as the book is, some readers may find The Production’s data selection somewhat arbitrary. The book showcases eight compelling microstudies. Indeed, the historical protagonists of The Production’s disparate narratives were formidably influential cultural figures. But Curtis cautions readers from imagining that the studies “tell the whole story of American religious freedom.” He continues (5): “The selected case studies do not offer a balanced, exhaustive, or inclusive coverage of American history.”

Curtis’s choices of study intend simply “to highlight different conceptual problems in the study of religion.” Fair enough. But why these particular orators, novelists, preachers, activists, and politicians? Why not others? Why a Finney, Alcott, or Malcom X and not a Joseph Smith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Annie Dillard, or Ta Nehisi Coates? The brilliance of these RSP podcasts is that the scholar-author interview platform serves as a behind-the-scenes snapshot of academic production. RSP interviews helpfully extend, clarify, or nuance research projects as well as plot books and publications within their own genealogies of development. In his discussion with Stoddard, Curtis confirms the arbitrariness of his foci, providing a fascinating window into the history of the production of The Production itself. Taken together, the case studies “do not add up,” Curtis expresses. “The center does not hold.”

No guiding logic determined the data selection as he wrote the chapters individually and over an extended period of time. Nonetheless, some readers will want to hold the author’s feet to the fire and to press him to more thoroughly defend why the cases are important and what they say about America when brought together. The chapters are, after all, published in one volume and under a unifying title. Borrowing Jonathan Z. Smith’s phrasing, we might ask Curtis, “why ‘this’ rather than ‘that’ was chosen as an exemplum” or to articulate in a more sustained manner how these specific examples “serve as exempli gratia” (Smith 1982: xi) of the issue of religious freedom in America. As academic works go, the book is not a lengthy one. Might it have been one, two, or four chapters longer? Might it have been shorter? What other conceptions of freedom are in circulation?

On the chameleonic construct of religious freedom, Curtis rejects “any one explanation for how religious freedom works” and instead documents “how freedom has been contested, challenged, and transformed” (5). He challenges the “underlying epistemic unity” guiding the analyses of Americanist historians such as Tracy Fessenden (2007) and John Lardas Modern (2011). Instead, Curtis counters, religious freedom is “something fragmented, in tension, and under duress” (6). Yet, the emphasis on the contested and fragmentary status of so-called free selves in The Production also evidences a significant tension.

In its analysis of “not fully formed persons” (6) who are shaped, socialized, and cultivated by leaders, publics, ideas, social forces, religions, institutions, and collectives, the book is a decidedly Foucaultian project. Curtis’s depiction of religious freedom as emerging from conflicting, disparate sources makes sense in light of Michel Foucault’s model of power as dispersed, diffused, non-binary, and multidirectional (see esp. 1990: 92-96). The author’s emphasis on contestation and disintegration will be unsatisfying for readers who prefer black-and-white conclusions. The Production does not feign to identify discrete bastions of power or clear-cut social hierarchies in terms of dominance and hegemony.

On this issue, the point about other circulating discourses about religious freedom—i.e., those voices not included in Curtis’s collection of essays—is not tangential. Might the addition of other discourses change the contour of the book as a whole? Would the inclusion of additional perspectives on freedom have evidenced any sort of overlap, similarity, or center, thus challenging the book’s thesis of fragmentation? If one were to expand Curtis’s data set and to think in terms of cohesion of agendas and goals, would a dominant perspective on religious freedom emerge? Cannot even fractured ideological positions suspend differences of opinion in colluding to affect political change? I concede that conflict exists “all the way down,” as Curtis adroitly puts the matter in the interview, but am also interested in how competing narratives might play down difference in order to accomplish certain types of social, political, religious, and economic goals. We do get hints of this, such as in the collusion between evangelicals and Catholics in the Hobby Lobby chapter, but not overt theorization. My question to Curtis would be whether or not loosely bounded “centers” or even “publics” can emerge over time or via discursive circulation, regardless of their internally dialogic productions and contested constitutions.

In short, The Production is a stimulating, provocative contribution and required reading not only the book’s most immediate audience, Americanists in Religious Studies, but anyone interested in the subjects of social theory, human agency and constraint, religion, freedom, the reconfiguration of public and private domains, individuals and collectives, the formation of ethical selves, race and racism, literary and filmic production, economies of contestation, secularism, and American culture. I, for one, plan on assigning it in the next American Religions course I teach.

References

Curtis, Finbarr. 2016. The Production of American Religious Freedom. New York: New York University Press.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Modern, John Lardas. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Religious Freedom in America: Theoretical Considerations

6a00d83451bab869e200e54f730ca48833-800wiReligious freedom is an inherently good thing, right? It’s a cherished idea that is easy for state governments to enact, no? In this interview, Finbarr Curtis questions both of these assertions. In The Production of American Religious Freedom, Curtis argues that religious freedom is a fluent and malleable concept that people deploy for various and competing reasons. Curtis uses several case studies to illustrate how the rhetoric of religious freedom has no coherent logic. This discussion has both legal and political implications, as it concludes that one of modernity’s most important concepts—religious freedom—is both unobtainable and undesirable.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, apple pie, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcasts

The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Religious freedom has emerged in recent years as a pivotal topic for the study of religion. It is also the subject of heated debates within many countries and among human rights advocates globally, where competing groups advance radically different ideas about how religious freedom operates and what it protects. While for marginalized and minority communities, this freedom can provide important avenues of appeal, at the same time, governing regimes of religious freedom have most often served the interests of those in power and opened up new channels of coercion by the state.

This conversation with Tisa Wenger, author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, starts with the question of how religious freedom talk functions to shape the category of religion and to transform what counts as religious in the modern world. Using Wenger’s ethnographic and historical research on the Pueblo Indians, we discuss how local, national, and international regimes of religious freedom have shaped (or even produced) new religious formations, ways of being religious, norms of good vs. bad religion, or distinctions between the religious and the secular. In short, how has religious freedom (re)produced religion and its others in the modern world?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sardines, popcorn, and more.


 

How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Podcast with Tisa Wenger (30 September 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/how-religious-freedom-makes-religion/

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Tisa Wenger. We’re here in Hanover at the DVRV conference. However, we’re not going to be talking about the German context. We’re going to be discussing how religious freedom makes religion. Tisa teaches in the Divinity School at Yale, including Religious Studies and American Studies, and is the author of the recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project, first and foremost!

Tisa Wenger (TW): Thank you so much! It’s good to be with you.

DR: Let’s put the book in a little bit of context, before we get into a couple of case studies. Tell us how you started working on it. How did your early studies lead you to this subject?

TW: Yes. Well I’ll try to keep it relatively brief, instead of giving a full intellectual autobiography! But my first book, which was based on my dissertation, was called We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. I started that book, not by thinking about religious freedom, but by thinking about race, American colonialism and category of religion. And I wanted to make an intervention into the kind-of Religious Studies conversation about to what extent is the category of religion a colonial imposition in various contexts. And I wanted to talk about that in relation to Native Americans, and for a variety of reasons ended up looking at the American south west and the Pueblo Indians in Mexico. And I argued, in that book, that Pueblo Indians only began really to contextualise their traditions as religion in the 1920s in order to make the argument for religious freedom. So that’s how I got to religious freedom – kind-of-like through the back door, so to speak. And when I finished that book I wanted to put a similar set of questions on a much broader historical stage. So I was asking, “Who’s invoking the idea of religious freedom and what kinds of cultural and political work does it do?” and, in particular, in kind-of imperial contexts, colonial contexts, and in relation to racial formation in the United States. So the set of arguments that you didn’t hear me talk about today had to do with race, and the way race is shaped in America is kind-of co-constituted with religion. And so I have argued in various other examples about how race and religion are co-constituted. But I was interested initially in this question of how religious freedom shapes or produces religion; when different sort-of social and cultural formations come to be conceptualised as religion, and how the category of religion is formed in that process. And so part of what I’m arguing in the book is that religious freedom disputes do important political and cultural work in that way, in shaping what is religion.

DR: Yeah. Right. And that, for me, is a very interesting aspect of your work. We’re very familiar with the kind-of human rights approach to this issue of, “How do we represent religions in the law?” and “How do we deal with religious freedom?” and these kinds of ideas. All of which, of course, sort-of assume this thing which needs to be represented. Whereas your argument is more subtle. So, if I’m understanding, it’s essentially that the category of religion is almost created in these legal negotiations about how we represent and recognise religions in the law – especially in a sort-of colonial context. Is that . . . have I got that correct?

TW: Yes that’s exactly right. But I would say that in most cases, it has not been created out of nothing, right?

DR: Of course, yeah.

TW: (Laughs). In most religious freedom controversies that we see . . . of course, the category of religion already was present and being used by people, but it is recreated and reshaped all the time. And in some cases, I think particularly in colonial contexts, you can see where local people – colonised people – start to use it for themselves for the first time, or pretty much for the first time, right? Because particularly the thing about US imperialism . . . . And religious freedom is such an important concept for Americans, generally – but for colonial officials in particular, who saw themselves as bringing freedom to the people they colonise, right?

DR: Right.

TW: And in some cases, bringing religious freedom was particularly important to them. So I’m interested in how, then, religious freedom served as a tool for kind-of colonial administration. But I’m also interested, then, in how colonised people take that principle and use it to kind-of speak back to empires.

DR: Right. Which is one of the most difficult aspects of post-colonial study of religion, I think, for people to get their heads around. It’s that it’s a process. There’s a two-way process. It’s not simply the baddies making the goodies behave in a certain way. But the category is reshaped, reconstituted and sustained in that dialogue where it is imposed in certain legal contexts. But then it’s also used by the people being colonised.

TW: Yes

DR: As an act of legitimatisation, yes?

TW: Yes. Exactly. So in the Native American case . . . and I can point to lots of specific examples, you know? In my work on the Pueblo Indians, and the piece of my book that you heard me present on today about Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota, in both cases you see US government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimising indigenous traditions by categorising them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan, right? And indigenous people who really in their own languages and ways of structuring . . . . They had their own ways of structuring their societies, but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorisation of themselves as heathen savage, pagan etc., right? So this is why I title my first book We Have a Religion. This was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying “We also have a religion,” You know? “And you can’t ban it, because of the First amendment to the US Constitution.” Right?

DR: Yes. The clearest example that I’m aware of – it’s quite a well-known case, you know – is the way that Indian independence and Hinduism are kind-of coeval. So Hinduism is an administrative category, essentially by the British Empire, which then becomes one of the central motifs in the national identity of India leading directly into the Indian independence movement, and, you know, One Nation Indian political power today.

TW: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the sort-of construction of Hinduism as a “world religion” is happening in conjunction with that colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British . . .

DR: Absolutely.

TW: . . . for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

TW: But native indigenous traditions, for Native Americans and elsewhere around the world, never got conceptualised or moved to that level of world religion, which is a different thing, as we know from Tomoko Masuzawa’s work and others.

DR: Absolutely. Let’s dig into one of those examples, then. The Pueblo Indians example is really fascinating. So perhaps you could take the Listeners through some of the details of that?

TW: Sure, so the Pueblo Indians are really a group of culturally related peoples in New Mexico, sort of related to the Hopi in Arizona. Related because . . . well . . . . Now I’m going to ramble! But they’re really four separate language groups that lived close by each other for several centuries and so came to share a lot of cultural characteristics. But they were colonised by Spain early on, as part of the kind-of northern expansion of New Spain up into what is now the south-western United States. And that’s hugely influential in shaping who the Pueblo Indians were by the time that the United States arrived in the region, after the Spanish American War in 1848. And most of the Pueblo communities – although not all of them – became Catholic under Spanish rule, and were pretty bilingual in Spanish and indigenous Tewa and Tiwa languages. And they, in the kind-of Spanish uses of religion, would conceive as Catholicism as their religion. So it’s not that they weren’t familiar with the category of religion. But under Spanish law, let’s just say, and in the kind-of Mexican New Spain, and then independent Mexico, there was no legal advantage because there was no religious freedom guaranteed to conceptualising indigenous practices as religion. So they had come to a kind-of accommodation with the Franciscan priests, who were mostly the clergy in the churches. And the Pueblos came to be named for Catholic saints and had feast days for the patron saint of each Pueblo, where they would practice traditional Pueblo dances as well as have a Catholic mass and a procession through the town. But they had kind-of come to an accommodation with the Catholic priests, the Franciscan priests, where they would . . . They talked about Pueblo kiva ceremonies and Pueblo ways as costumbre: custom, right?

DR: Yes.

TW: And so that really didn’t change under American rule until the 1920s, when there’s a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke, who puts out this kind-of dance policy in order to enforce older regulations against Indian dances and those that . . . the one from the 1880s that I was actually referring to in my talk today. He, Charles Burke in the 1920s, tries to reinforce those relations.

DR: So, maybe just in a sentence or two, tell us what they are, because the Listener won’t have . . . .

TW: Right, so there was . . . and these are not laws passed by Congress, right? They’re more bureaucratic regulations within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that’s nested under the Department of the Interior. And the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And he had immense sort-of executive power to regulate. And so this court of Indian offences was created by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as a way to . . . . I’m sorry, I’m not being very brief here! But it’s relevant . . .

DR: No, this is good!

TW: as a way to, again . . . it’s a kind-of tutelary regime: a way to instruct Indians – and this is done in a very patronising way, so I’m kind-of echoing the patronising language that was used – to instruct Indians in civilisation and in the law. So they would . . . the agents would appoint a kind-of more – quote unquote – “progressive” Indian, to be the judge of the Court of Indian Affairs. But part of what the Court of . . . . There’re also kind-of regulations or there were a list of quote “Indian offences“. And nowhere in the documents extant from the time or in the regulations that were written up by the commissioner, was this referred to as “religion”. But it later came to be called the Religious Crimes Code. But the Indian offences that were listed in this code were “heathenish rites”, “the arts of the conjurer”, “the medicine man” etc., etc., right? And so native people could be, and were, fined and imprisoned for practising the arts of the conjurer, or participating in certain kinds of dances that were specified to be banned. But that had not . . . For various reasons the US control over Pueblo Indians was not nearly so strong in that period in the late 19th century. And it hadn’t really been enforced against the Pueblo Indians ever. And I don’t need to take the time to go into the reasons for that. But in the 1920s, actually – sparked in part by an exposé of Pueblo ceremonies, in which those ceremonies were depicted as sexually lascivious and immoral by missionaries and missionary-minded government agents – who were really, I think it’s safe to say, completely misinterpreting and misreading those ceremonies . . . .

DR: That’s a common way of representing any barbarous religion anyway, isn’t it?

TW: Correct.

DR: It’s a common language.

TW: Correct. So Charles Burke’s new regulations on dances, that were really just trying to re-inforce some of the earlier regulations form the 1880s, were sparked by a controversy of Pueblo Indian dances. So they were very much at the focus of the controversy that ensued. In the meantime, there were kind-of a group of Boasian anthropologists and sort-of modernist artists and writers who had settled in New Mexico, it was in Santa Fe, and who were starting to really romanticise the Pueblos as “ideal primitives” – quote unquote – right? And so some of those people also leapt to the defence of the Pueblos. And the Pueblo leaders themselves resisted the government suppression by saying, you know, “You can’t do this. Our traditions are religion.” But their re-categorising their traditions as religion was aided by the anthropologists and artists who were also starting to do the same thing, right? In a kind of celebration-of-primitive-religion way. So that’s what happened. Then it was a pretty big public controversy, I mean with articles in lots of national magazines and newspapers and such about the Pueblos. And one of the people who was centrally involved was John Collier who at the time had just become the head of a new reform association called the American Indian Defence Association. And he was becoming one of the biggest gadflies against BIA assimilationist policies. And then later under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ with the New Deal, Collier was appointed as the commissioner of Indian Affairs – which was a huge overturn. And he reversed some of these policies outlawing Native American dances, and he did so on religious freedom grounds. That reform had its own limitations, of course. And most BIA agents, even after that point in the mid-1930s, continued to work closely with Christian missionaries. And even when they formally recognised the right of Native Americans to religious freedom, nonetheless still conceptualised religion with such a Christian model that they often ruled indigenous practices outside of what counted as religion, right? So what was considered religion was always being negotiated and contested on different Indian reservations between native people and government agents.

DR: And so was there also the kind-of opposite side of that? Does the legislation and the control then shape the way that the Indians are practising? Did they begin to think differently about their practices and maybe even emphasise different bits more, and focus on things differently as a result?

TW: Yes absolutely. So when I finished the book on the Pueblos . . . this was the first piece that I did for my new big sort-of broad-scope religious freedom book. My first transitional step I took was to say, “Well I’ve done all of this in-depth work on the Pueblos in New Mexico. Now I wonder how this happened, or can I tell a similar kinds of stories about other Native Americans elsewhere in the United States?” right? And “When did native people start to use religious freedom arguments?” and “How did that shift things for them?” I didn’t get to that part of . . . . I did make that kind of argument in relation to the Pueblos, as well, and talk about how reconceptualising their traditions as religion created new conflicts within Pueblo communities. But I want to talk now about the newer research that appeared in the second book, in the religious freedom book, that resulted from me asking, “Well, what did this look like more broadly?” And initially I was actually thinking, “Well, probably because there was such a concerted government attempt at suppressing these traditions and nobody was thinking of them as religion, that probably religious freedom wasn’t a pertinent category until the twentieth century.” But I found that not to be the case. I found that actually the more I looked, the more I found Native Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth-century really, in some cases, using religious freedom talk. And I would say, broadly speaking, there are at least two different types of ways that that was applied. So one, in relation to the kind-of stages of colonial history, perhaps – in early stages of colonial contact, before native nations were conquered, when you have Christian missionaries coming, where the native nations are not under US control – you often see native people saying something like “We’re not interested in your religion. We have our own religion.” And sometimes that directly becomes language about religious freedom and sometimes it becomes directly language about religious freedom that is also about protecting indigenous sovereignty, in a kind-of collective way: “Our people have our own ways. And you can’t take our land. You can’t take our …” You know? And religious freedom was part of that. But it’s not a religious freedom that is appealing to the US Constitution, because they’re not under the US Constitution. They don’t see themselves as being governed by the United States.

DR: Yes. And there’s maybe less of a . . . It’s maybe not to do with freedom of religion and the role of the secular. They’re more thinking in terms of religion as customs and that kind of idea.

TW: Yes. They using religion-talk, but in a way where it’s very integrated. But then, after Native Americans are conquered essentially, right – and that happens at different times in different parts of the country and for different native nations – but by the late nineteenth century, by the 1880s, really overwhelmingly native Americans have been conquered, and they have been restricted to reservations, and there are now new policies that are being implemented. And the Code of Indian offences that I was describing earlier is part of that period of a kind-of newly heightened effort at administrative control. And that’s when, immediately in that period, you start to see Native Americans on reservations resisting the suppression of indigenous practices. And sometimes native people refer to their “doings”: ceremonies, dances, all kinds of practices – you know, medicines, healing practices – they start to refer to some of them as religion specifically in order to make religious freedom arguments. And that started to happen in the 1880s. It accelerated with the Peyote movement, and the suppression of the Peyote movement. And I trace that history in the book. But you see . . . . And actually, the Peyote movement is a really interesting case with regard to the question you were asking about how that shifts indigenous traditions. Because, I mean, I don’t think the government suppression and the law is the only reason that Peyotists, and people in that tradition, started to talk about it in the language of religion. There were other reasons as well, but this was certainly one of them. But what is very clear is that the Peyote leaders and practitioners . . . structurally, the movement shifts towards a more, what we might call a kind-of Protestant – certainly a Christian – model for what counts as religion, in order to make religious freedom arguments in the courts, and in Congressional hearings, and before state legislators. And that happened in various places. But, you know, there’s the incorporation of the Native American church, right, that happened . . . which there was an anthropologist, James Mooney, who helped with that process. And the Native American church, you know . . . . Again Peyote ceremonies were, for various reasons, borrowing from Christianity. And some of the Peyote movements began to see themselves as Christian. But the fact that being Christian helped with a religious freedom argument meant that those groups had a boost, right? (Laughs). So there’s a kind-of incomplete Christianisation of the Peyote movement and the Native American Church that isn’t entirely caused by the need to resist government suppression and make religious freedom arguments, but is certainly encouraged and accelerated by it. And so, you know, Peyote is called “the sacrament”. Again and again, you see Indians trying to argue, you know, against legislation and suppression. And that is also in the climate of a prohibitionist period, when there’s a huge campaign against drugs and alcohol – and particularly alcohol, right? So there were crusaders who were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stamp out the alcohol trade among Indians. And the Peyote became kind-of classified as a dangerous drug, alongside alcohol

DR: Right, yes.

TW: So the Bureau of Indian Affairs talked about Peyote and the Peyote as a cloak for drug dealers. They just . . .

DR: Right. Similar to the way that cannabis became . . . ?

TW: Yes. “They’re pretending to be religious in order to kind-of pedal drugs”, right? And so, in order to combat that kind of suppression and denigration, Peyote leaders would emphasise the kind-of positive moral effects of Peyote practice and Peyote worship, and talk about the sacrament, and talk about the church. So that was very much a necessary strategy for them. And I don’t see it . . . again, I don’t see it only as a strategy, but it was certainly accelerated by that. Yes.

DR: Yes, and on the RSP we’ve talked a few times – we’ve been talking about it over the last week here, as well – that all of these categories – you know, religion, race, the secular, human rights – they’re all part of an interlocking system. So it’s not just the one thing that affects the way that religion is constructed. But it’s part of a larger system in which those are the building blocks we’re working with.

TW: Right. Yes. So you reminded me, in saying that, of the point I was making in the talk I gave earlier today: about how religious/secular distinctions are even produced in some Native American societies in this process. Because what I found was – this was the part I didn’t quite get to in my earlier answer – but what I found was that in many native communities while religious freedom arguments appeared quite early, and many native leaders were making religious freedom arguments, sometimes kind-of strategically, tactically, that wasn’t the most effective way to convince a particular official to allow them to hold dances. Of course, sometimes dances went on, regardless of what the officials said, out of their view. But many Native Americans on many reservations, you’d see dances being held on the Fourth of July, on various kinds of national holidays and Christian holidays – you know, Christmas and Thanksgiving, but especially the Fourth of July – and native people and returned veterans especially after the First World War saying, “We fought for our freedom and we have the right to celebrate our freedom.” And, plus, “These are just social dances, and white communities hold dances too, to celebrate the 4th of July – so why can’t we?” And they, in those cases, would very much downplay any kind of sacred ceremonial. They didn’t conceptualise those traditions as religious for the purposes of these arguments. And so you see, I think, a kind-of differentiation between certain dance or ceremonial traditions that became defended and conceptualised as religion, and came to take on the characteristics associated with religion – which is really modelled after Christianity in the United States – versus those kind-of dance or ceremonial complexes that were defended in different ways and so were not conceptualised as religion. And so there’s a kind of religious/secular distinction that happens where some dances are secularised. But the point I want to make is even beyond that, that the very distinction between a religious dance and a secular dance is emerging in that process.

DR: Right. As a last question, then: what do you think . . . where are we, then, with the religious/ secular distinction in law today? Do you think this is something that we should be seeking to challenge? Or do you think that there is still some value in a religious freedom law?

TW: That’s a really big and hard question for me! (Laughs).

DR: I know it’s something you’re thinking through just now, so maybe it can be just initial . . . .

TW: It is. And I mean I am more comfortable trying to observe and map how it’s happening. Seeing the kind of work that religious freedom is doing. And I think in the contemporary United States certainly religious freedom disputes help shape what people think of as religious and what they don’t think of, you know. And why certain things, again and again, get sort-of coded as a religious issue, as a religious freedom issue, is complex and puzzling. But, you know, it should . . . I’m in two minds about the continued utility of religious freedom. And I have always come down on the side that . . . as kind-of muddled and complicated as its history is, that it’s a tool that has nonetheless been useful to lots of minority groups. And that we can’t just reinvent our world and our categories ex nihilo, right? We don’t have that kind of power as scholars. So is it better to try to eliminate religious freedom law? I mean, I don’t really think so. I might change my mind about this. You know. I think that while seeing how historically constantly negotiated it is – what gets included within the scope of religious freedom and how that shapes what religion even is in our society – that we’re better off pushing for more inclusive, but sometimes also more limited views of religious freedom. In the sense that I don’t think religious freedom should kind-of trump every other value or principle of equality and justice that we have. In the history I trace, I think you can see how that tendency has been a problem and hence served . . . has been weaponised over and over again. And I think it’s still weaponised today. So I think we’re better off trying to kind-of reformulate and reclaim religious freedom. And I have a colleague and friend, Michael McNally who teaches at Carleton College and he has a new book coming out, on Native American religious freedom, which is really grounded in contemporary ethnographic research with . . . . Well, he’s worked with and learned from Native American activists and lawyers, and organisations advocating for religious freedom now. And he says that they’re very . . . these contemporary native leaders are very much aware of sort-of limits and pitfalls of religious freedom. But they nevertheless find it to be a useful tool alongside others. Even though it has failed repeatedly in the courts for Native Americans, contemporary activists would not want it to be gone.

DR: Right, yeah.

TW: Because they see it as way that they can . . . because religious freedom does have such cultural power in the United States that it can be a way to give a certain amount of moral authority to their claims. I mean that’s one of the kinds of arguments that he makes, and I find that very convincing. And so I think that for scholars who see religion as a constructed category and all of that – yes, absolutely. But who are we to say that activists shouldn’t have that tool, right?

DR: Absolutely. It’s been a really interesting conversation. There are a number of big questions that we’re not going to get time for today – so maybe we could have you back one day in the future to go more into the racial stuff,, for instance, which we didn’t really get too much in. But for now, Tisa Wenger, I want to say thank you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

TW: Absolutely. Thanks for having me! And I hope to be back, because, yes – there’s so much more to talk about!

DR: Excellent! Thank you.

TW: Thanks very much.

 

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When Islam Is Not a Religion

Asma Uddin is the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. In this book, Uddin examines an alarming trend to redefine Islam as a political ideology, not a religion. In our conversation, we track the history of this movement to redefine Islam and its implications for the rights of Muslims. We discuss the widespread presumption among American progressives that courts tend to protect religious freedom for Christians, but not for Muslims, and we examine particular stories that support and problematize that narrative. In particular, Uddin provides vivid examples of how American courts have reacted to arguments that Islam is not a religion. Uddin explains how and why Muslims and their allies disagree about whether religious freedom laws offer (or should offer) necessary or sufficient legal frameworks for protecting the rights of religious minorities in the United States.

In the latter part of the conversation, we discuss Uddin’s approach to writing the book. She describes how she balanced the desires to better equip people who already acknowledge that Islam is a religion and, on the other hand, to convince those who view Islam only as a political ideology to change their minds.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


When Islam Is Not a Religion

Podcast with Asma Uddin (24 June 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin Marcus.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Uddin_-_When_Islam_Is_Not_a_Religion_1.1

 

Benjamin Marcus (BM): Hello, Religious Studies Project Listeners! My name is Ben Marcus and I’m really pleased to be here today with Asma Uddin – Welcome, Asma! Asma Uddin is a fellow with the Initiative on Security and Religious Freedom at the UCLA Burkle Centre for International Relations. She’s also a Berkley Centre Research fellow and a senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Centre of the Freedom Forum Institute. Uddin previously served as council with Becket, a non-profit law firm specialising in US and international religious freedom cases, and was director of strategy for the Centre for Islam and Religious Freedom, a non-profit engaged in religious liberty in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts. She is widely published by law reviews, university presses and national and international newspapers. She is also an expert adviser on religious liberty to the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe and a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to her expertise on religious liberty, Uddin writes and speaks on gender in Islam and she is founding editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, where she was a staff editor at the University of Chicago Law Review. And we’re here with Asma today because she just wrote an excellent new book that I’ve had the chance to get a sneak preview of, which is titled When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom, out on July 6th, and available for pre-order now. So I’m excited to have Asma here today to talk about that book. And I want to start off with a broad question that really is the context for the book that you’re writing, which is: was there a specific moment, or experience, that alerted you to the fact that people are seriously arguing that Islam is not religion?

Asma Uddin (AU): There was. And thank you, Ben, for having me here. It was in 2010, I was still at the Becket fund, and I was working on a case in Murfreesboro Tennessee, involving the Islamic Centre, Murfreesboro, and its attempt to build a new facility. As is very common with Muslim communities across the US, the community in Murfreesboro had outgrown its base numerous times and was tired of moving from apartment, to garage, to storefront, and decided that it needed a permanent spot: something that was big, and could accommodate them and their growing congregation over the course of many years. And, given the existing relationships that the Muslims of Murfreesboro had with others in that community, they were totally caught by surprise when, in the course of their construction of this building, their construction site and much of the construction material was actually set on fire. And those flames – as they were eating up this site and these materials – those were really the opening scene of my book. Because it was in that moment where there were these very clear signs that there was going to be real tension. And chronologically speaking, the timing is important because this incident happened pretty much on the heels of the Park51 dispute that has sort-of erupted, and taken over both New York City and the national headlines dealing with the mosque project – or a project that was deemed to be a mosque. It was actually a cultural community centre in New York. And so the two incidences are linked, in terms of the substance and the timing. But the argument in Murfreesboro was clear that it had come out of the animosity against the Park51 building. In the Murfreesboro case, it was actually argued in court, over the course of the six-day hearing . . . which is a significant fact, because the judge didn’t stop the questioning as it went on! Typically, if a lawyer gets out of line the judge shuts it down, but in this case it was allowed to go forward. And in the course of that six-day hearing it was argued very explicitly . . . and there’s always been a long time when these arguments have implicitly been made that Islam is not a religion, but these words were actually stated in court. And the argument was, essentially, that all the different protections that houses of worship get under the law do not apply in that case because Islam is not a religion.

BM: And what are they arguing that Islam is? What are they saying? If it’s not a religion, what can it be?

AU: There tends to be a number of responses to that. But the most dominant response is that it is a political ideology. And, you know, furthermore a dangerous political ideology that is bent on taking over the United States; that is at odds with the US Constitution; and its ultimate goal is a subversion of that Constitution.

BM: And I assume . . . . Did the judge provide any good questions . . . that would try to undermine that argument? Or did the judge just let that go forward unchallenged?

AU: (5:00) I mean, it was a number of witnesses that were questioned with really outrageous questions, such as: “If a religion is founded by a Prophet that engaged in sexual relationships with underage girls, specifically a six year old, would you call that a religion?” I mean, these are like commissioners and various government officials, siting on the stand, being asked these kinds of questions.

BM: Wow! So what do you find most alarming about this move to redefine Islam as something other than a religion? What have been some of the tangible repercussions or consequences of this?

AU: Yes, I think the conversation on Islamophobia has been going pretty strong for a long time. A lot of scholars and activists have noticed this trend. And what I noticed when I set out to write this book was that the conversation was almost exclusively based on what the media and politicians are saying – which is very important, obviously, because of the impact that both of those players have on our society. But nobody was really looking at the effect of this rhetoric on constitutional rights. And to the extent that that sort-of bridge was being made to tangible results, it was almost always in the light of national security policy and questions of immigration and detention. But it was a little odd for me, actually, that Muslims as a religious community . . . that conversation wasn’t happening through a religious liberty lens – which I get into in the book, actually. To the extent that framing, in itself, is another way of essentially saying that “Islam is not a religion”. If you keep talking about it in some other terms and not as a religious liberty issue, you’re almost implying that religion isn’t the proper lens to be looking at this through. And so when I set out to write this book, I was really coming from my background as somebody who’s a lawyer and writer focussed on religious liberty in the US, and abroad. And I was wanting to change that conversation a little, and turn the focus a bit to the concrete effects on religious freedom – which is what I spend the entire book really looking at: the various ways that this “Islam is not a religion” argument comes up. Sometimes it’s very explicit. Sometimes it’s implicit but in all cases it’s very obvious. And I have several chapters, each dedicated to a different area of religious exercise, where this has come into play to diminish legal rights of American Muslims under the US Constitution.

BM: That’s so interesting. I wonder if you’ve seen any changes in the strategies of lawyers, or legal scholars, who are advocates for the Muslim community? Are they starting to add in legal language protecting the rights of Muslims that are not just based on the First Amendment but based on other laws or legal precedent in their court cases? Are they trying the Fourteenth Amendment, or other laws or statutes?

AU: Yeah, I mean I haven’t done a full survey of actual briefs filed. It’s more so: are briefs being filed at all? But I did see some legal literature – academic literature – where Muslims were arguing that Islam, and protections for Muslims, needs to be defended under the racial discrimination elements of the equal protection clause.

BM: Interesting.

AU: And in some cases the argument went so far as to say that it should be used instead of religious liberty arguments because it “more accurately captures what is going on”. And that was, again . . . I mean, this was something that I read very early on in my research, which again was very alarming for me because it wasn’t just that there was a failure to understand these issues, but it was an actual concerted effort to diminish the importance of that. So again, it’s a move within the community. It’s not just outsiders saying this. But now it’s like a move within the community being, like, “Yeah, I think a better way to think about what we’re going through is racial discrimination and let’s advocate for it that way.” And I think that that in itself opens . . . I think the racialisation of Muslims is a reality. I think that is a phenomenon. But when you begin to say that it is racial instead of . . . or that the racial element is more important than . . . you’re creating exactly the space that these other people want, to diminish the religious status of Islam. You’re giving them that opening. And that’s worrying.

BM: It’s fascinating that the discourse by those who are antagonistic towards, or attacking the rights of Muslims has actually changed, to a certain extent, the legal strategy of Muslims – or their allies in courts – to move from the religious liberty lens to the race-based discrimination lens. Or maybe a combination of those two things.

AU: Again, I haven’t . . . that was the advocacy that I saw in the academic literature (10:00). And in terms of the actual legal advocacy I think, for me, that’s less of a current problem in its explicit form. But I think this idea of Muslims as racial or ethnic minorities – or something akin to that – as opposed to a religious minority, is showing up just in the types of issues that are being litigated to begin with.

BM: Right.

AU: And so, coming from a background where I saw very sort-of expansive advocacy for religious liberty on behalf of conservative Christians, and Jews, and a wide array of other religious groups in the US, that expansiveness is very much missing in the Muslim legal advocacy space. It’s like even the NYPD surveillance case, it was just. . . . The argument there, in terms of proving animus, was almost entirely based on trying prove intentional discrimination. And I was like . . . I tried advising that group that you can actually prove discrimination without proving the exact very explicit intentional discrimination. There’s a wide array of ways to prove that there was systemic differential treatment in a very systemic way. It could be something that’s not at its face discriminatory but applied in a particular way . . .

BM: Right.

AU: And that resistance or, I guess, the narrow sort-of lens on what constitutes religious discrimination is not something that’s limited to Muslims, but I think it’s just part of the political alliance that they’ve been welcomed into, that wants to think of religious liberty in very limited terms. Whereas many people on the conservative side would argue for religious liberty much more broadly. And so I think all those are political elements mixed in as well.

BM: Yeah. That’s fascinating. And are you seeing it show up in the court? So could you tell us a little bit more about how your work ties into the argument that courts are biased against Muslims – that somehow religious freedom is for Christians only? This is something that’s come up with a few of the Supreme Court cases that were decided just in the last year – that religious freedom laws are only really being applied to protect Christians and not Muslims or other religious minorities. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

AU: Yeah. And so I think that more extreme version of that statement . . . this idea that you stated perfectly encapsulated that . . . . The Editorial board of the New York Times put out a piece about a month ago with the title “Is Religious Freedom for Christians Only?” And I think that that’s an extreme version of what I’m looking at. I don’t think that the bias is that extreme. And I definitely don’t think that’s the case with the US Supreme Court. Do I think that there is some problematic bias and some dynamics that need to be looked at, and questioned more closely? Yes. There is statistical evidence that a number of different researchers have put together, looking at religious liberty cases brought under a wide array of legal bases – whether it be the Free Exercise Clause, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and so on – and looking at these cases over the course of . . . one study, for instance, looked at it over the course of a decade and found that Muslims were the least likely to have their religious liberty claims resolved in their favour. I think the only one that was competitive with that was the black separatist sects. And so there’s a number of studies looking at and bringing this issue to the fore. And these researchers then also take the step of trying to figure out “Why?” Like, “What’s going on?” Because when it comes to legal cases and their resolution there can be a number of different things going on. It could be, for instance, that many Muslim claims are from Muslim prisoners, and prisoners generally are notorious for bringing frivolous claims – so is that what’s going on? Well, no. Because if it was frivolous it would have been dealt with much before the judge got to writing opinion and deciding a case. And so, for instance, a study that I discuss in some detail in the book is one by Gregory Sisk and Michael Heise and they go through a number of explanations of what they think, and explain why none of them are the right explanation. And they finally conclude that it’s bias. It’s a bias that a lot of judges probably don’t realise that they have. But they, as human beings living in a society saturated with this, are essentially being affected by what’s going on outside the courtroom in terms of how they’re dealing with some claim in front of them. And so there’s that empirical evidence. And then in terms of the type of thing that the New York Times was seizing on . . . I think it’s significant that it is the New York Times and its editorial board. Because it’s really reflecting, I think, what many Americans are feeling in the light of more recent decisions. I think that contrast that we saw this last summer between the Supreme Court’s (15:00) . . . the way it dealt with animus – religious animus or anti-religious animus – in the Masterpiece case. And there was a lot made of what the commissioners and the Colorado Human Rights Commission had said about Jack Phillips’ Christian beliefs, or religious beliefs specifically. And that was enough to, essentially, hold in favour of the baker. And then, three weeks later, you have the Travel Ban case where it’s just way more evidence of animus and it’s like the President of the United States who’s engaging in this. And it was just sort-of deemed an issue, by the majority, that wasn’t relevant. And there are all kinds of other complicated factors here. It’s not just a state commissioner it’s the President. The President comes with all kinds of special privileges. But many Americans. . . . And it’s also the fact that the dissent in that case disagreed and said that, “Well, I don’t think that that’s the way law should be interpreted in that particular case.” And so there’s that plausible legal argument for why animus should have played a bigger role. But then that contrast really, I think, left a lot of Americans seriously wondering about the impartiality of our justice system. And then it came again to the fore in February, about a month ago, when we dealt with the case involving a Muslim inmate, a death row inmate who wanted an Imam with him in the execution chamber and was told that he couldn’t have him there with him, because the only clergyman allowed in there was the one of the staff. And the only one on staff was a Christian clergyman. And so, again, it was just especially because the facts of that case are so heart-breaking –it’s like your final moments! And the fact that it wasn’t just, like, no clergyman was available. I think Alabama has actually moved to that position now, which I think is bad for other reasons. But it was like, “Well if you happen to be Christian, you’ll get him.” Right?

BM: Right.

AU: And so I think we’re consistently seeing this. And of course there’s the bigger looming question of how partisan Supreme Court is. And we saw that blow up with the Kavanaugh hearings.

BM: Right. So you’ve outlined so many challenges to trying to help the public understand the nuances of this issue. Obviously there is compelling empirical evidence that you mentioned from different scholars who’ve been researching the success of religious liberty claims by different religious groups. You’ve talked about public understanding of how the Supreme Court and other courts have interpreted the First Amendment. And The New York Times editorial board piece. So with this very loud media landscape, where people are talking about this issue in very polarising ways, what have you found has been successful when you’re talking about Muslims and religious liberty, when you’re trying to reach different audiences – and especially audiences that might be hostile, or questioning the research and evidence that you present in your book? Has it been that empirical evidence is really helpful? Have you found personal narrative . . . ? I know in your book you weave in some of your personal narrative with your family growing up in Florida, if I remember correctly. So what has been successful? Do you change your tactics or strategies when you’re speaking to different audiences?

AU: So in terms of whether or not this is successful, I think that’s a question that remains to be seen once the book comes out and I use it as a sort-of launching pad for conversation and real engagement – which is what I’m hoping to do with it. But I think you raise an important question. I think that’s what I was also trying to get at when I said this framing of The New York Times’ editorial board . . . and I also understand that it’s probably getting a compelling title. But I made it a point to say that I thought it was more extreme than it needed to be. And part of that is just sort-of forks into how I wrote this book to begin with. I just made . . . I made a concerted . . . . It was actually a struggle to write about anti-Muslim issues in the US and not to fall into the type of tone and rhetoric that tends to dominate the space. I’m not actually sure that I’ve seen a book that really gets into the question of Islamophobia, and does it in a way that tries to make peace and reconcile with the people who are engaging this rhetoric. And that ultimately is, I think, why a lot of this literature just isn’t having an impact. I don’t think it’s enough just to kind-of like use it to hammer other Americans. I think the point is . . . OK I aim to articulate what’s actually happening. I’m not going to sugar coat it (20:00). But I’m also not going to use it to make assumptions about . . . certain types of assumptions that I think are probably a little bit too common now. Which is this idea that the person making these arguments is either inherently “dumb” or “bigoted” is something that we hear a lot. And I try to stay away from those words. Because I think it turns people off. It turns off the precise people that you need to reach. It makes them uninterested and it makes them put you in a particular box. And so I try, to the extent possible, to use language that shows that to some extent I understand their concerns. And I see them as another human being who is motivated by things that a lot of human beings are concerned about. A huge one that I keep hearing about is this idea of security and the way that Muslims have been portrayed in the circles . . . and with the leaders that they listen to, as a threat to the security of them, to their families and to their country. And part of my effort here, in humanising this, is like, “Guess what? I feel that, too.” Because I am also human, right? And so it’s hard to explain that a) I’m not going to put you down for your concerns, but I’m also going to explain to you how I have those same concerns and yet, even with those same concerns I don’t think that that justifies, or requires that, we limit the rights of Muslims, or of anyone else. So to the extent that we can measure success, I think some of the people, that interact with that group, which have read the manuscript, feel that I’ve done that well. So it remains to be seen.

BM: Yes. And to follow up on the question of audience: when you were writing it, did you imagine that you were equipping . . . were you trying to “robe the choir”, you know, “feed the choir”… are you “preaching to the choir” intentionally so that they have the tools that they need to continue to “sing out loud” – to use the metaphor for too long – to say that that “Islam is a religion: here are resources that I found from this book that help me make that argument?” Or are you trying to convert other people? Are you trying to reach an audience that already disagrees with you, or perhaps doesn’t quite know, and you’re trying to bring them over to your understanding of things?

AU: Well, the funny thing with the book is that I sort-of take aim – in my very civil, calm way, you know – across the political spectrum. So, roughly the last half of the book really looks at the way that I think that liberal allies of the Muslim community are, in their own ways, turning it into something that is not a religion. And why I think that this is really problematic. So the question really is: will I have any friends after the book? (Laughs).

BM: (Laughs)

AU: But the way you phrased the question was interesting. Because you said, “Are you preaching to the choir or trying to give them the tools to make the argument that Islam is a religion?” And it’s interesting because I’ve written about the book topic in mainstream news outlets, The New York Times and more recently The Washington Post, and a lot of people do get caught up in that. Like this question of “Well is Islam a religion, or is it not a religion?” “How do we define a religion?” “Is the dominant frame here the Protestant conception of what a religion is, and is that the core of all this?” And I actually don’t get into that. I sort-of mention that as an introduction as like “Yeah, that’s going on – but that’s not relevant.” This book is not a philosophical, deep dive into what constitutes a religion. I think that’s not what’s important. I think a lot of other people have done that. I think it would be interesting to look at that again in the light of modern political debate. But it’s more so: OK, I’m talking about the law, and the law has its own way of figuring out what’s a religion for purposes of protection under the US Constitution. And that really is the only definition that matters when it comes to legal grades. So there’s various philosophical definitions that have been adopted by the courts. But, again, the relevance is only to the extent that it’s been adopted by a court.

BM: That’s so interesting. Do you think that there’s a disconnect between conversations in Religious Studies as a field about what religion is, and in the legal field about what religion is? Are the courts listening to Religious Studies scholars when they’re trying to make sense of what constitutes a religion and what doesn’t? Or is it its own tradition, and they’re just referring back to their own tradition and not really in conversation with Religious Studies scholars?

AU: Well I mean, currently, it’s Paul Tillich‘s definition of religion that has really . . . The US Supreme Court has never defined religion. But federal courts have. And so there isn’t, like, this one agreed upon definition in the legal world (25:00). But for purposes of actual legal protections they understand . . . there is an understanding by the courts that whatever the definition may be, it has to be pretty broad. And that judges are not in the best position to be defining philosophical parameters of what constitutes religion. So to the extent that they can turn to philosophers and religion scholars to have the terminology and help figure out some sort of way to articulate this, they do that. But they’re more sort-of concerned about “How do we capture what we’re trying to protect without necessarily creating too strict a boundary?” Because ultimately this is about constitutional protections. And we have to . . . . So the emphasis really tends to be on what judges can and cannot do. We can’t interfere with questions of religious doctrine. Whether something is important to a religion, or central to a religion, it doesn’t matter. It could be the most peripheral element. If you’re religion-based it still gets protected. And so that’s really interesting, also, if you start tying it back to the discourse around “Islam is not a religion”. Because a lot of that discourse tends to be “Well, Islam is not just a religion”. Or, more specifically, as some pretty high-profile people have said, “Only sixteen percent of Islam is a religion.”

BM: How do they quantify that?

AU: Well my sense is that it all comes from a study or extensive ongoing studies done by the Centre for the Study of Political Islam, CSPI, and they actually, apparently, have gone through all the various Muslim core texts and have sort-of categorised what they think counts as religion, versus politics. And based on this categorisation have come up with the sixteen percent number.

BM: Wow! (Laughs).

AU: And of course it’s like, you know, the fact that outsiders are sitting there parsing through this way, coming up with their own definitions of where religion ceases to be religion and politics starts. It really kind-of shows: a) how ridiculous the process is – purely from an intellectual perspective – but then also what it leads to.

BM: Right.

AU: And that’s exactly the sort of thing that judges have to stay very far away from.

BM: Right. Wow. Well as we wrap up, do you have any thoughts about the future? Do you think that we’re moving in a positive, or negative, or neutral direction? Are you seeing groups that are popping up that are more vocal in their defence – I don’t know if defence is the right word – but their explanation that Islam of course is a religion? Or are you seeing more and more groups that are popping up, making this argument that Islam is not a religion? Where do you think that we’re heading? And I know that’s a very broad question, so you can answer in the courts, or just in the public discourse. Do you think that there’s reason for hope, or reason for some concern? Or both?

AU: I would say both. In terms of the people who might be popping up to say that Islam is not a religion, I think that they are not yet popping up (in court) – at least not in that form – because I think that . . . .What the book seeks to do is articulate a problem. And once I articulated it, lots of people were like, “Yeah. I heard that!” But you know they just sort-of dismissed it. And it’s really about “Don’t dismiss it. Focus on it.” And even more recently, with the Australian Senator commenting on New Zealand mosque attacks, he put out an official statement that said, “Islam is not a religion and these people are not blameless, even if they are essentially being gunned down in their own house of worship. They are not blameless.” And again it was just like people were like: “Oh my God! This is crazy!” But it was like: ‘It’s crazy!” And then attention sort-of diverted from it. And my intention was to bring it back. “You’ve seen this before. It’s happening again.” An official statement put out by politicians in the most gruesome circumstances and I’m trying to direct the attention to that. Because you can’t really take it seriously, and begin to figure out a solution to it, if you don’t actually realise it’s happening.

BM: Right.

AU: And if you don’t realise it’s part of a larger concerted plan with particular goals in mind . . . So in terms of the two different camps that you’ve mentioned I think the side that’s saying Islam is not a religion is gaining steam. There’s a piece that I cite in the very beginning of my book, but that was written by David French, a very prominent conservative commentator and columnist with The National Review. (30:00) And he says this. “Every time that I go and talk to conservative audiences about religious liberty, the first question is always: ‘Does everything you just said apply to Muslims?’” And so, there’s plenty of evidence that this is gaining ground. It’s becoming a very common argument. And I think it’s time to sort-of focus our energies in articulating proper responses to that.

BM: Well, thank you for doing that so compellingly in your book. It’s a really compelling, cogent, explanation of this line of argument that we’ve seen come through certain conservative circles. And then you also, as you mentioned, talk about the ways that folks across the religious political ideological spectrum are eroding the sense that Islam is a religion. So thank you for that contribution. As a reminder to our Listeners, the book is out on July 6th. The title is, When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. And you can pre-order it now. Thank you so much, Asma, for coming in. I really enjoyed the conversation.

AU: Thank you, Ben, for having me.


Citation Info: Uddin, Asma and Benjamin Marcus. 2019. “When Islam Is Not a Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 13 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/when-islam-is-not-a-religion/

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Against Freedom: A Response to Finbarr Curtis

Finbarr Curtis’s recent book, The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016), defies easy categorization. Melding social theory, interpretive biography, revisionist intellectual history, literary analysis, film analysis, and the study of discourse and rhetoric, the book issues a much needed social constructionist inquiry into the largely taken-for-granted concept of “freedom” that circulates in conversations about Americanness and religiosity.

In his interview with Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project (RSP), Curtis describes his volume of case studies that span some 200 years of American history. The case studies correlate with the book’s eight chapters, including essays on either individuals (Charles Grandison Finney, Louisa May Alcott, William Jennings Bryan, D. W. Griffith, Al Smith, and Malcom X), theories of science (Intelligent Design), or legal rulings (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Early reviews of The Production have described the book as lacking a guiding thesis. But in Curtis’s own framing, and as stipulated in the introduction, “This book argues that there is no such thing as religious freedom, or at least no one thing.” Religious freedom “is a malleable rhetoric employed for a variety of purposes” (2016: 2).

Curtis advances an argument, but one framed as a definite negative. Corralling the eight stand-alone essays into conversation with one another, the thesis of the book is that no coherent or identifiable “religious freedom” exists in a singular sense. Freedom is a highly contested category of American discourse. Curtis astutely makes his case, weaving together studies of revivalist technique, character development in fictional narratives, populist rhetoric laced with racist undertones, filmic explorations mournful of white victimization, shrewd Catholic politicians in a Protestant arena, black activist rejection of American liberalism. He also examines alternative philosophies of science that exploit secular distinctions between scientific and religious truths, between public and private, and tactical sacralizations of both corporations and property in effort to normalize moral preferences.

As important as the book is, some readers may find The Production’s data selection somewhat arbitrary. The book showcases eight compelling microstudies. Indeed, the historical protagonists of The Production’s disparate narratives were formidably influential cultural figures. But Curtis cautions readers from imagining that the studies “tell the whole story of American religious freedom.” He continues (5): “The selected case studies do not offer a balanced, exhaustive, or inclusive coverage of American history.”

Curtis’s choices of study intend simply “to highlight different conceptual problems in the study of religion.” Fair enough. But why these particular orators, novelists, preachers, activists, and politicians? Why not others? Why a Finney, Alcott, or Malcom X and not a Joseph Smith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Annie Dillard, or Ta Nehisi Coates? The brilliance of these RSP podcasts is that the scholar-author interview platform serves as a behind-the-scenes snapshot of academic production. RSP interviews helpfully extend, clarify, or nuance research projects as well as plot books and publications within their own genealogies of development. In his discussion with Stoddard, Curtis confirms the arbitrariness of his foci, providing a fascinating window into the history of the production of The Production itself. Taken together, the case studies “do not add up,” Curtis expresses. “The center does not hold.”

No guiding logic determined the data selection as he wrote the chapters individually and over an extended period of time. Nonetheless, some readers will want to hold the author’s feet to the fire and to press him to more thoroughly defend why the cases are important and what they say about America when brought together. The chapters are, after all, published in one volume and under a unifying title. Borrowing Jonathan Z. Smith’s phrasing, we might ask Curtis, “why ‘this’ rather than ‘that’ was chosen as an exemplum” or to articulate in a more sustained manner how these specific examples “serve as exempli gratia” (Smith 1982: xi) of the issue of religious freedom in America. As academic works go, the book is not a lengthy one. Might it have been one, two, or four chapters longer? Might it have been shorter? What other conceptions of freedom are in circulation?

On the chameleonic construct of religious freedom, Curtis rejects “any one explanation for how religious freedom works” and instead documents “how freedom has been contested, challenged, and transformed” (5). He challenges the “underlying epistemic unity” guiding the analyses of Americanist historians such as Tracy Fessenden (2007) and John Lardas Modern (2011). Instead, Curtis counters, religious freedom is “something fragmented, in tension, and under duress” (6). Yet, the emphasis on the contested and fragmentary status of so-called free selves in The Production also evidences a significant tension.

In its analysis of “not fully formed persons” (6) who are shaped, socialized, and cultivated by leaders, publics, ideas, social forces, religions, institutions, and collectives, the book is a decidedly Foucaultian project. Curtis’s depiction of religious freedom as emerging from conflicting, disparate sources makes sense in light of Michel Foucault’s model of power as dispersed, diffused, non-binary, and multidirectional (see esp. 1990: 92-96). The author’s emphasis on contestation and disintegration will be unsatisfying for readers who prefer black-and-white conclusions. The Production does not feign to identify discrete bastions of power or clear-cut social hierarchies in terms of dominance and hegemony.

On this issue, the point about other circulating discourses about religious freedom—i.e., those voices not included in Curtis’s collection of essays—is not tangential. Might the addition of other discourses change the contour of the book as a whole? Would the inclusion of additional perspectives on freedom have evidenced any sort of overlap, similarity, or center, thus challenging the book’s thesis of fragmentation? If one were to expand Curtis’s data set and to think in terms of cohesion of agendas and goals, would a dominant perspective on religious freedom emerge? Cannot even fractured ideological positions suspend differences of opinion in colluding to affect political change? I concede that conflict exists “all the way down,” as Curtis adroitly puts the matter in the interview, but am also interested in how competing narratives might play down difference in order to accomplish certain types of social, political, religious, and economic goals. We do get hints of this, such as in the collusion between evangelicals and Catholics in the Hobby Lobby chapter, but not overt theorization. My question to Curtis would be whether or not loosely bounded “centers” or even “publics” can emerge over time or via discursive circulation, regardless of their internally dialogic productions and contested constitutions.

In short, The Production is a stimulating, provocative contribution and required reading not only the book’s most immediate audience, Americanists in Religious Studies, but anyone interested in the subjects of social theory, human agency and constraint, religion, freedom, the reconfiguration of public and private domains, individuals and collectives, the formation of ethical selves, race and racism, literary and filmic production, economies of contestation, secularism, and American culture. I, for one, plan on assigning it in the next American Religions course I teach.

References

Curtis, Finbarr. 2016. The Production of American Religious Freedom. New York: New York University Press.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Modern, John Lardas. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Religious Freedom in America: Theoretical Considerations

6a00d83451bab869e200e54f730ca48833-800wiReligious freedom is an inherently good thing, right? It’s a cherished idea that is easy for state governments to enact, no? In this interview, Finbarr Curtis questions both of these assertions. In The Production of American Religious Freedom, Curtis argues that religious freedom is a fluent and malleable concept that people deploy for various and competing reasons. Curtis uses several case studies to illustrate how the rhetoric of religious freedom has no coherent logic. This discussion has both legal and political implications, as it concludes that one of modernity’s most important concepts—religious freedom—is both unobtainable and undesirable.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.