Around the world today, and especially in Euro-Atlantic contexts, we often hear the thesis that a resurgence of religion as a politically relevant phenomenon is everywhere. Indeed, the close of the twentieth century was a watershed in several ways, with myriad forms of political allegiance—e.g., populism, nationalism, authoritarianism—emerging in many places formerly colonized by European powers, in ways that severely tested the stability of late modern authority regimes.
As early as the 1970s, apocalyptic movements challenged not only the secularizing but globalizing trends that radicalized some religious worldviews and the communities that embraced them. These movements contested the legitimacy of the international system of nation-states and the historical prominence of the Westphalian synthesis that put into motion the subordination of the spiritual to the temporal body politic. In the ensuing decades, as Mark Massoud has demonstrated, not only in Sudan and Somalia, but in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, Libya after Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Egypt after Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, political violence has underscored how religion and religious conflict continue to serve larger political and social ends. Many Western scholars and governments have regarded this brand of violence as stemming from an irrational obsession with religious ideals and partisan volatilities preached by clerics and embodied in the binary format of a secular-religious, democratic-authoritarian, and progressive-backward geopolitical reality. The prescription, then, is for rational secular institutions to squelch religion’s primordial penchant toward violence. This view describes a world in which “competing and at times mutually inconsistent cosmologies … often reduce one another to sheer irrationality or obscurity,” as René Provost explains in his contribution to this forum.
But as many have observed, this public salience of religion cannot be tied to any simplistic division between the secular West and the inadequately secular rest. Religion has waxed in its political and social influence in every region of the globe, no less so in the geographic region that we often refer to as “the West.” The new millennium has brought with it new security regimes and the growth of European secularisms through anti-Muslim discourses; at the same time, as perceptively noted by David Theo Goldberg, the racial contours of contemporary European self-conception, historically understood, have long posited the figures of the black, the Jew, and the Muslim as inherently dangerous and inferior. Over the past generation, evangelical Protestants have become a powerful voting bloc in the United States, Guatemala, and Brazil. The rise of the religious right and the defensive Christian struggle against the ostensibly secular state in the United States, including the increasing popularity of evangelical leaders, point to the chimera of separating religion and politics. Still, the separation of church and state in liberal constitutional democracies seems to produce and protect the secular as a vaunted space.
After World War II, some have argued, the new rights discourse—increasingly called a myth—has challenged static legal hierarchies and jettisoned totalizing ideologies such as socialism and communism (idealism) in favor of liberation movements forged by identity (pragmatism). Whether lobbying for civil rights, resisting oppression and persecution, or struggling for recognition, the practicalities of everyday life, experienced through the intersections of religion, race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and social background, increasingly define what politics is all about. But the task of arbitrating differences between “religious” and “non-religious” allegiances in this framework—for instance, between religious conservativism and women’s or LGBTQ+ rights—seems always to fall to secular authorities. When we point to “religion” as the root of all problems and the “law” as the appropriate solution to contests over rights, we fail to see the legal imaginaries of religious actors and thus underestimate both their challenge to and vindication of the civil order.
Different aspects of politics are being collapsed too readily into the narrative of a long-standing modernist separation of church and state. In recent decades, this has garnered a variety of responses from scholars and other commentators, who have begun to describe what Winnifred Sullivan calls a “secularist prejudice against the possibility of justice and regularity in religious law, and an overconfidence in its possibility in secular law.” In places like India, a self-described secular state, a distinctly modern approach to religious toleration has arbitrated between, rather than ignored, religious difference in ways that produced religion as a specific legal category. In others, such as the United States, aspersions of immorality have been wielded inconsistently as the US state (both state and federal governments) sought to define exceptional threats. For instance, in 2019, four US congresswomen of color, who became known as “the squad,” were famously attacked on social media by then-president Donald Trump, who told them to “go back and fix the crime infested places from which they came”—although three of the four were US-born. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a naturalized citizen from Somalia, was then labeled an “ungrateful immigrant” and maligned in far-right blogs and internet forums for baseless accusations of crimes of moral turpitude. In fact, the history of American law is structured by simultaneously arbitrary and systemic exclusions of undesirable subjects. While there is no shortage of instances for this critical inquiry, comparative studies across religions, regions, and nation-states are useful because they facilitate a deeper understanding of the effect of law and modern statecraft on political pursuits (including state-building) in which religion’s role is hotly debated.
This essay and, I think, others in this forum consider a related but slightly different question: How have modern, often postcolonial states used the rule of law to create and maintain stability under circumstances of religious and legal pluralism? A plethora of approaches have been taken to this question. Several advocates of secular modernity and the radical separation of religion and politics posit states as distinct unitary bodies with strongly differentiated sovereign power and a rule of law that privileges legislated law and popular sovereignty over revealed law and clerical authority. Critiques of this position argue that many conflicts between democracy and religiosity highlight complex cultural and religious dimensions in their relations.
I have written about this before, as I began to explore the intersubjective emergence of a self-consciously “Islamic” idiom that concerns key issues raised by the growth of Muslim communities across the globe, but in particular in so-called post-faith, non-Muslim settings. My thinking has been enriched by several scholars who have theorized religion and place together as religioscapes, highlighting the heterogeneous, contingent, and contested conditions in which people make their own identities and distinguish themselves from others through an oblique lens of religious difference. Religioscapes, defined as the distribution in spaces through time of the material signs of religious traditions and the peoples who built them, offer a platform for studying shared spaces and the nature of sharing. In modernist projects of political development, the dividing line between a series of binary tropes—modern and premodern, secular and religious, extremism and moderation—presents a terrain that is constantly shifting and charged with value judgments. Popular and legal discourses draw sustenance from these tropes in order to make meaning out of particular events and categories.
Yale law professor Robert Cover famously deployed imagery of violence and war to describe modern lawfare. He noted, “legal interpretation occurs on a battlefield—it is part of a battle—which entails the instruments both of war and poetry.” Yet at the same time, Cover respected the many legal worlds that persons fashion within and, just as importantly, beyond the exercise of state power. Normative worlds were, for Cover, communities of interpretation and cultures of argument. He described the nature of law as a bridge connecting our present world to our imagined alternative futures, built out of social commitments and actions that enliven our visions, moored in perfection but not reducible to it. While at present, legal interpretation may occur on a battlefield, in Cover’s imagined future, a law-bridge constructed of narratives and sacred stories, of literature and tradition, rises above the carnage. This imagined future transports us to an alternative world of justice, where re-negotiated networks of race, power, and politics have realigned our normative orders.
Categories of law and religion are spatial ones. The old geographical and metaphorical representations of our world are based on concepts and realities that no longer fit and are inadequate to explain contemporary circumstances. By continuing to think in this way, we avoid questions about the processes of othering and the vicissitudes of today’s world, in which formations of law, finance, and politics are experiencing a seismic shift. Cover asks us to think of law and religion—normativity—differently, to see that the activity of making any group is a process, a matter of tilling soil that can bring to fruition new alliances or legal battles that are bridged and resolved, or not resolved, so that new groups can form.
Until recently, there has been relatively little attention to what the rule of law, as a conceptual and critical framework, could bring to our understanding of law, religion, and state-building. Is the rule of law limited to securing individual liberties against state interference or the arbitrary exercise of power, or can it tell us something important about the set of core commitments of institutions of governance and the peoples governed? Even in well-ordered liberal societies, under the rule of law as Massoud defines it—a conviction that rules still matter and that they can and should be followed—repression inevitably returns, in the form of scapegoating violence and fascination with sexual vice. I agree with those who would argue that the rule of law is far more malleable than its proponents imagine (or than we would like to admit), and can easily be distorted in the hands of autocratic leaders. Consider, for example, the torture memos produced by the George W. Bush administration, which immunized unconscionable practices of statecraft like waterboarding, stress positions, and inhumane deprivations, in the war on terror. As Massoud points out in his introduction to this forum, securing the rule of law, as a political goal, is not an unambiguously positive objective.
Finally, calls for a more vigilant separation of religious and secular spaces in the name of freedom—a separation maintained by the rule of law—obscure the vast areas of overlap between them. Religion is as much a space of exchange and jockeying for resources as it is the moral narrative of the modern. I advocate for building bridges that span the spatial limitations of our current efforts to understand religious places in the contemporary world. Once we comprehend religioscapes as spaces of encounter, we can truly begin to appreciate how law and religion together co-constitute rights and responsibilities for groups that live in close proximity or are spatially intermingled.