Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomWhat logics, strategies, and effects characterize the category of religion as an instrument for governing social life? What possibilities and foreclosures result from summoning religion to serve novel political ends? Questions such as these subtend much contemporary scholarship on religion; their ascendancy testifies to the puissance of recent deconstructions of the concept of religion, especially those marshalled by critiques of secularism. Rather than conceiving religion as the disavowed other of secular modernity, the burgeoning field of secularism studies has demanded attention to the continual consolidation of “religion” within the problem space of secularism, especially in relation to the dispensation of the modern nation-state. Despite the recent interest in the relationship between secularism and religion, however, the distinctive forms and functions of “religious freedom”—as both a principle for and an object of global governance—have received less attention. Thankfully, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion, has arrived to decisively fill this lacuna.

The relatively slim size of Beyond Religious Freedom belies its exceptional conceptual and topical breadth. In order to explore how discourses and legal enshrinements of religious freedom have refashioned social and political contexts across the globe, Hurd mines a vast body of scholarship, including the depredation and discrimination that confronts Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, a USAID project to promote religious pluralism and tolerance in Albania, and the ambivalent efforts of Alevis to achieve legal recognition as a religious minority in Turkey. Three original, interlocked arguments frame the book and course through it. First, Hurd contends that, in many spheres of government and policy-making, the classic “separationist” model of secularism as the privatization and disestablishment of religion has been replaced by projects to bolster “good” theologies and communities through the inculcation of religious freedom. Second, this fantasy of “good” religion—both the presupposition and the aim of religious freedom—is haunted by its pathological twin, “bad” religion, which is construed as inherently inclined to intolerance and political violence. Third, the Manichean “two faces” discourse of good and bad religion (as she calls it) expresses two characteristic forms of contemporary religion: “expert religion,” produced by cadres of state and non-state elites alike, and “governed religion,” suitable to the interests and imperatives of liberal democracy and “freedom” on a global scale.  In this respect, religious freedom remains distant from more protean, frequently contradictory modes of “lived religion.”

One sure sign of a persuasive argument is the immediacy with which it resonates with one’s own research experiences and agenda. Throughout my perusal of Beyond Religious Freedom, I found myself smiling and nodding vigorously as I connected Hurd’s observations to my own ethnography and consequently viewed it in a new light. I have no doubt that other readers will share this experience of resonance and recognition while reading the book. In this spirit, I offer two vignettes, drawn from my lengthy fieldwork among Muslim civil society institutions in Turkey, which briefly illustrate Hurd’s concepts and interventions.

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Governed Religion #1: Istanbul, summer 2006

A hush descended over the audience seated in the cavernous conference hall as the inaugural program for the “International Conference on Global Poverty and Hunger” convened. A troupe of child actors, dressed in a colorful variety of recognizably “ethnic” costumes, performed a brief circumambulatory dance on the stage before standing solemnly beside a series of massive, high resolution photographic panels, each of which portrayed the melancholy face of a presumably impoverished child. Hovering several meters above the stage, a poster depicting a cross, a crescent, and the Star of David was bathed in soft luminescence. As the bathetic terpsichorean display came to a close, a group of speakers sauntered onto the stage from the wings: representatives of Istanbul’s Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic, Syriac, and Sunni Muslim communities and institutions. Although their remarks were almost indistinguishable from one another, their “traditional” garb—a mitre here, a yarmulke there—performed the work of sectarian differentiation.

The International Conference on Global Hunger and Poverty was a pageant of religious freedom in its expert and governed modalities. The institutional supporters and organizers of the conference summoned experts from the spectrum of ratified religious communities—avatars of “good” religion—to confront the social ills of poverty and famine. This curation of interreligious concern and expertise corresponded precisely with Hurd’s analysis of religious freedom, according to which “religious inputs and actors need to be identified and propelled into the international spotlight to serve as global problem solvers.” A calcification of the boundaries among religions inevitably results from this promotion of certain theologies, identities, and practices: “Singling out religion for legal and political purposes…distils an amorphous, messy field of practice into bounded entities with neatly trimmed orthodoxies and discernible hierarchies that are legible to modern legal and administrative bodies.” In brief, the International Conference on Global Hunger and Poverty anointed recognizable, orthodox, “good” religions as privileged subjects of expertise and privileged objects of governance through tolerance—a point that the luminescent trinity of cross, crescent and Star of David punctuated dramatically.

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Governed Religion #2: Ankara, March 2014

The fumes of makeshift plywood fires and tear gas mingled in the late winter morning, lending a surreal atmosphere to the shantytown. To my right, a throng of protesters—mostly teenagers and young adults—huddled around the flames and shouted slogans commemorating the death of Berkin Elvan, an Alevi1 adolescent who had recently succumbed to wounds he sustained during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul the previous summer. To my left, a phalanx of police officers outfitted in riot gear clustered around an armored crowd-control vehicle equipped with a water cannon. A massive, skeletal, concrete-and-steel edifice loomed over the scene: the construction site for a so-called “mosque-cem house,”2 a unique intersectarian project that, upon its completion, proposes to house both Sunni Muslim and Alevi worship in a single space. The protesters—both local Alevis and Alevi activists from elsewhere—condemned the project as a cynical attempt to assimilate Alevis to the hegemonic, Sunni norm. More poignantly and humorously, a graffito on a nearby, derelict shanty home mutely announced: “kilise de istiyoruz”—“we want a church, too.”

Like the sponsors of the International Conference on Global Hunger and Poverty, the funders and enthusiasts of the mosque-cem house envisioned the project as a triumph of religious pluralism and tolerance, intended to anesthetize the painful history of violence that undergirds Sunni-Alevi relations in Turkey. (Indeed, civil society institutions associated with controversial Sunni theologian Fethullah Gülen supported both projects.) In this context, however, the power of interreligious tolerance as a mode of governmentality—to adopt Wendy Brown’s terminology—is highly contested. Both protesters and Alevi civil society representatives whom I interviewed consistently argued that “tolerance” is a smokescreen for the assimilation of Alevi difference and the depoliticization of Alevi demands. Some bemoaned the categorization of Alevism as a “religion” (din) entirely. Hurd pursues this very theme in her own consideration of Alevism, religious freedom, and governance:

“Adopting religion as a category to distinguish groups that are seen as in need of legal protection inaugurates new relations and realities. It impacts the lives of those who live under these designations. It creates a world in which citizens are governed as religious subjects, contributing to the consolidation of a social order in which groups are distinguished by perceived religious differences, creating apostates and insurgents on the margins of legal religion.”

Hurd might have added that governance through religion threatens to neutralize other, potentially more radical forms of political mobilization, especially those rooted in social and economic justice. The incipience of religion as a mode of governance in this particular Ankara district resulted both in dramatic dispossession—many illegal shanty structures were seized and demolished—and in the restructuring of social, political, and economic relations. It is no surprise, then, that the discourses of religious tolerance and freedom that accompanied the mosque-cem house project were condemned as politically-vested fig leaves by many Alevis.

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By the end of the book, Hurd’s critique of religious freedom achieves a degree of adamantine persuasiveness rare for any scholarly argument. It is difficult to disagree with her conclusion that:

[T]he adoption of religion as a legal and policy category helps to create the world that it purports to oversee. It naturalizes religious-religious and religious-secular distinctions as the natural building blocks of social order. In presupposing discrete religious identities as the foundation of social order, it produces a legal and political landscape defined by and populated by “faith communities” and “religious actors.”

Yet questions persist even as her exposition draws to a close. Hurd’s project of “dethroning religion as a singular and stable interpretive category” occasionally threatens to leave a conceptual and political vacuum in its wake. As my two ethnographic vignettes suggest, the politics of coercion and consent differ markedly across contexts of governed religion, even within the same nation-state. How are we to understand politicized contestations over the governance of religion, especially those that draw inspiration from the grammar and lexicon of religious freedom itself? Are the imperatives and consequences of religious freedom the same within the Olympian realms of policy-making and the more protean domains we associate with “lived religion”?

The persistence of these questions is, above all, a testament to the immense intervention of Beyond Religious Freedom. With a salutary tremor, Hurd has destabilized the creaky foundations of both academic research and political projects rooted in an essentialist vision of religious freedom. In doing so, she has bequeathed a welcome challenge to her fellow scholars: To “study the ways in which religion is delimited and deployed in specific legal, institutional, historical, and political contexts, by whom, and for what purposes” without reifying the concept of religion itself.


  1. Alevis are a minoritized Muslim community in Turkey whose distinctive beliefs and ritual practices include elements drawn from both Twelver Shi’a Islam and shamanistic Central Asian traditions. Because the Turkish state refuses to recognize any theological or sociological distinctions within Islam, census figures do not exist for Alevis and their precise numbers are difficult to determine; most estimates place them at between ten and twenty per cent of the population.

  2. The cem is the definitive Alevi ritual practice, a form of ritual circumambulation (semah) set to musical accompaniment. In rural contexts, cems are typically convened in private homes; the designation of a specific architectural space and structure, the cem house, solely to the performance of cems is an effect of rural-urban migration on the part of many Alevis in the past half-century or so.