This is a slightly revised excerpt from the introduction to the recently published volume Secularism and Religion-Making (Oxford University Press), edited by Dressler and Mandair.—eds.

Following a critical analysis of different theoretical approaches to the question of secularism in current scholarship, and a critique of the underlying concepts of religion and the secular and the way they are interrelated, we argue for what we call a post-religio-secular perspective. This notion aims at an understanding that conceives of the public roles of religion not as explainable, and preliminary, phenomena (as the evolutionist paradigm of modernism would hold) or as regrettable aberrations that ought to be fought (as the liberal bias dictates). Rather, the post-secular-religious turn in the study of religion can be described as a scholarly attitude that not only is critically engaged with the assumptions and politics of the religio-secularist paradigm but seeks to open up new spaces for the study of religion by self-consciously taking into account the historicity and thus perspectivity that such study necessarily entails. The post-secular-religious stance opens perspectives that allow for new epistemologies and methodologies with regard to the religious and the secular—freed from the monofocal, evolutionist, and Eurocentric assumptions of the modernist framework that links religion and politics as a binary pair and to that extent remains attached to organicist perceptions of division (between the religious and the secular/politics) or integrality (as evidenced in the discourse of the theologico-political).

Politics of Religion-Making

The realities of global and local early-twenty-first-century politics put scholars critical of the religio-secular paradigm in a challenging position. While most of us engage in theoretical projects that take for granted the failure of secularism—indeed, many of us would question or reject most if not all of the premises of secularization theory—it has to be acknowledged that on the level of politics the religio-secular discourse has, especially in times of a perceived “return of religion,” not lost its pervasiveness (as, for example, Charles Taylor’s designation for our “secular age” [secularity 3] indicates). To the contrary, this “return” has reinvigorated secularist forces, which often respond with interpretations of the role of religion in political conflicts invoking pictures of a cultural if not civilizational clash. The political reality forces us, paraphrasing Talal Asad, to think about the conditions in which the dichotomies between “the religious” and “the secular” do (still) seem to make sense in so many public discourses. Such inquiry needs to ask questions about political and epistemological hegemony: “How, when, and by whom are the categories of religion and the secular defined? What assumptions are presupposed in the acts that define them?” In different ways, the chapters constituting this volumecontributors to Secularism and Religion-Making tackle these programmatic questions. They analyze cases where religion does seem to make sense and investigate how notions of religion and the secular are reified within specific, local and transnational, competitions for intellectual, material, and political resources.

The key concept or “critical term” that has guided the work of the contributors to the volume is religion-making. Broadly conceived the term religion-making refers to the ways in which religion(s) is conceptualized and institutionalized within the matrix of a globalized world-religions discourse in which ideas, social formations, and social/cultural practices are discursively reified as “religious” ones. Religion-making works, sometimes more and sometimes less explicitly, by means of normalizing and often functionalist discourses centered around certain taken-for-granted notions, such as the religion/secular binary, as well as binaries subordinated to it (such as sacred/profane, this-worldly/otherworldly, etc.). We see the notion of religion-making not as a homogeneous analytical concept, but, rather, we see it as a heuristic device that allows us to bring into conversation a wide range of perspectives on practices and discourses that reify religion (as well as its various subcategories and associated others, such as, most prominently, the secular). Religion-making is thus a heuristic tool for analysis and deconstruction, and does not have any aspirations of reinstating notions of authenticity and essence through the backdoor by comparing different religion-making projects. The critical work done by the term religion-making is not concerned with the evaluation of authorizing and legitimating claims of any particular religion-making politics in a normative or normalizing sense. Far from aiming to endorse any particular religion-making processes, we rather want to foster perspectives through which these processes are contextualized and historicized within the frameworks of particular epistemes of religion and the secular, respectively.

The chapters of this volume incorporate and combine theoretical (philosophical/theologico-political) with descriptive-analytical (historical/sociological/anthropological) modes of critique. In this way the volume seeks to avoid the impasse between theory and empiricism that continues to be a hallmark of many books with a focus on the politics of religion and secularism. Without losing sight of the theoretical issues that are constitutive of this volume, in regard to the politics that we put under the critical lens, it is useful to distinguish the ideal-typically among three different levels and discourses of religion-making, as well as the linkages between them: (1) religion-making from above, that is, as a strategy from a position of power, where religion becomes an instrument of governmentality, a means to legitimize certain politics and positions of power; (2) religion-making from below, that is, as a politics where particular social groups in a subordinate position draw on a religionist discourse to reestablish their identities as legitimate social formations distinguishable from other social formations through tropes of religious difference and/or claims for certain rights; and (3) religion-making from (a pretended) outside, that is, scholarly discourses on religion that provide legitimacy to the first two processes of religion-making by systematizing and thus normalizing the religious/secular binary and its derivates.

What we term religion-making from above refers to authoritative discourses and practices that define and confine things (symbols, languages, practices) as “religious” and “secular” through the disciplining means of the modern state and its institutions (such as lawmaking, the judiciary, state bureaucracies, state media, and the public education system). While state institutions represent dominant positions of power within public discourse, other non-state actors in the public sphere might also sometimes assume positions of normative efficacy, be it certain media (mainly print and television, possibly also the Internet), influential public personalities (opposition politicians, public intellectuals, showbiz and media stars), or corporate enterprises. The example of neoliberal U.S. pundits arguing for a remaking of Islam may serve as an example to illustrate the often unabashedly political nature of such religion-making, revealing itself in very Foucauldian ways as an act of governmentality aimed at creating liberal-secular subjects. In a 2003 report published by the RAND Corporation, a conservative U.S. think tank, the “Islamic world” is depicted as in a severe crisis of identity posing a major threat to the “rest of the World.” Islam needed to be brought in line with Western/American interests. It is a difficult operation, as is frankly admitted: “It is no easy matter to transform a major world religion. If ‘nation-building’ is a daunting task, ‘religion-building’ is immeasurably more perilous and complex.” One of the heralds of neocon U.S. American dreams of civilizing Islam, Daniel Pipes, drove this language one step further. In 2004 he remarked that the “ultimate goal” of the “war on terrorism” was “religion-building” in the sense of a modernization of Islam. In his view, “only when Muslims turn to secularism will this terrible era of their history come to an end.” The imperialist tone of such statements is part of the rhetoric of the “new world order” and the “Middle East Project” envisioned by the conservative U.S. political circles that had been related closely to the Bush administration. To sum up the hardly concealed concern behind the arguments of the cited U.S. neocon pundits, the West/United States has to engage in a remaking of Islam, analogous to nation-building referred to as religion-building, with the goal to create a modern, that is, secular, Islam in line with American interests and a neoliberal, modernist frame for religion as secured by the doctrine of secularism (see Saba Mahmood’s sharp criticism of the liberal biases underlying secularist rhetoric and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s critique of the recent Chicago Council report on religious freedom). The examples point not only to imperialist ambitions within U.S. politics, but more broadly exemplify drastically how political religion-making discourses can be. In line with the U.S. American tradition of liberal secularism, U.S. religion-builders are less concerned with keeping religion out of politics than with regulating its political manifestations (such reformist politics directed toward Islam are also present in Europe).

While scholars of postcolonial studies have discussed the role of religious and secular discourses in the legitimation and administration of the nation-state, less attention has been directed to cases in which marginalized sociocultural communities have adopted the language of religion as a means of empowerment vis-à-vis assimilationist politics directed against them. Such religion-making from below forms a dialectical relationship with religion-making from above, implicitly accepting the latter’s hegemony, to the language and semantics of which it responds. Whether perceived as acts of emancipation, appropriation, or subversion against hegemonic religious and secular knowledge regimes, religion-making from below has played important roles in local discourses of religion and secularism.

Religion-making from below operates via processes of cultural translation. Translation here needs to be understood as a two-way relationship. Translation of the language of the religio-secular construct into new territories can be forceful and violent, as evidenced amply in postcolonial studies. But one should not understand the appropriation of religio-secularist discourses as necessarily resulting from coercion. Credit needs to be given to the more complex dynamics of agency in the adaptation of these discourses in non-Western vernacular languages. Charles Hallisey has discussed this dynamic asintercultural mimesis—a phrase denoting the cultural interchange that occurs between the native and the Orientalist in the construction of Western knowledge about ‘the Orient.’” In other words, while it is indisputable that the politics of translation of the concept of religion beyond the Christian West were molded by the power imbalance that is characteristic of Orientalist scholarship and its objects of study, analysis of this translation process has to provide sufficient space for the agency of local appropriations of elements of this discourse. We need to think the appropriation of the Western discourses of religion and the secular in a manner that does not reduce local actors to the role of passive objects but instead focuses on “local productions of meaning,” that is, the agency of locals in the encounter with Orientalist knowledge.

Triggered by the emerging field of postcolonial studies following Edward Said’s Orientalism, awareness of academia’s complicity in the essentialization of particular others has increased considerably. The work of Said and those who followed in his footsteps has forced self-proclaimed or thusly institutionalized “Orientalists” to reflect on the history of Orientalist disciplines and their role within imperialist projects. The multifold implications of scholars in imperialist projects unmasks pretensions of objectivity and reveals that religion-making from the pretended outside is often closely linked with more politically motivated religion-making from above. The academic study of religion in particular has been implicated in imperialist projects and Eurocentric discourses more generally, and it still plays, especially in the United States, where its institutional position is much stronger than in Western Europe and despite an admitted increase in self-critical reflection to this extent, an important role in the objectification of religion(s). Unraveling such entanglements, as an inquiry into the politics of religion-making brings along, is therefore a challenging project particularly for the discipline of religious studies, since it entails the theoretical and methodological deconstruction of the very concept (“religion”) through which this discipline is legitimated. World-religion courses are flourishing, and classes of this or similar kind belong to the bread-and-butter courses of many religious studies departments. It will be interesting to see in which ways the academic discipline of religious studies can respond to the challenges that it will have to face once it recognizes and positions itself more deliberately toward the historical biases that contributed to its creation, as well as the religion politics in which it is still involved. The problem of course is not new, and many readers will be familiar with J. Z. Smith’s controversial dictum “Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study.” Tomoko Masuzawa’s recent work on the Invention of World Religions has further increased awareness of the urgency to raise critical self-reflection on the involvement of the academic study of religion in the making and re-making of the concept of religion. Beyond the very existential problem that this constitutes for institutions organized around religious studies as an academic discipline, the relationship between this discipline and the genealogy of the religion and world-religion concepts is itself an interesting and most important field of inquiry. In this context Peterson and Walhof have rightly asked about “what is the proper agenda for religious studies in a context in which the object of study, religion, has been invented or worked over by powerful economic, social, and political forces.”  Such questions need to be addressed in order to understand better the role of both academic and political elites and institutions in the making and remaking of “religion” and the “secular”.