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Grant Spotlight: The Politics of Religious Freedom

In the Spring of 2010, four scholars met together for the first time in a conference room at the Luce Foundation offices. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, Winnifred Sullivan and Peter Danchin studied quite different subjects: International Relations, Sociocultural Anthropology, Religion in the US, and Human Rights Law. But they shared an interest in the topic of religious freedom – specifically, the assumption that religious freedom is a stable and universal good, and the misunderstandings that this framework generates. As Hurd recalls, the usual assumptions “seemed to leave out of the picture most of what is actually going on in the world involving the politics of religious diversity.”


A group photo from the workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A full day of conversation convinced them that there was an urgent need for a re-examination of the politics of religious freedom through a global and pluralistic lens. Program Director Toby Volkman, who had initiated the original brainstorming session, encouraged them to submit a proposal to the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs. That proposal ultimately became a three-year grant to the University of California, Berkeley to host Politics of Religious Freedom, “a collaborative international study of the concept and practice of religious freedom.”

To gain a better understanding of the conversations about religious liberty happening across the globe, the group organized a series of international workshops in Venice, Cairo, Chiang Mai, Evanston, and Cape Town. Like the project itself, the workshops brought together participants from varied backgrounds, including scholars, jurists, activists, NGO staff, policy makers and journalists.

Discussions quickly revealed that agreed-upon legal standards for the definition of religious liberty often miss the nuances of local situations. One example is the K’iche’, a Maya ethnic group in Guatemala. Western definitions of religious liberty that emphasize personal beliefs, Hurd points out, do nothing to protect the K’iche’s relationship with their land, a central part of their religious culture.

Sullivan and Mahmood, for their part, both keenly remember a moment from the workshop in Cairo when Hossam Bahgat, the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), criticized journalists for tending to assume that violence between Muslims and Christians was caused by religious differences. “We don’t really know why these things happen,” Bahgat said. The EIPR seeks a better understanding of the complex causes for what are often named “religious” conflicts.

Hurd notes that the workshops deepened her conviction that our current frameworks for advocating religious freedom are failing the people they are meant to help. “Rather than, ‘how can we bring religious freedom to those who lack it?’ or ‘how can we put an end to religious violence?’ we need to pull back and take a longer view, broadening the lens, to avoid reproducing the discourses that are in need of reconsideration.”


A collection of essays, edited by the project leaders,
from the University of Chicago Press


From the beginning, a key goal of the project had been to find ways of sharing widely a more nuanced understanding of religious freedom. Papers and articles were published in scholarly journals, magazines, and on-line. Many became essays that were collected in the volume Politics of Religious Freedom, published this Summer by the University of Chicago Press. The book will be the subject of a special panel session at the American Academy of Religion meeting in November of 2015, introducing a pluralistic understanding of religious freedom to a wider American audience.

Although the project formally concluded with the book’s publication, it has had lasting effects on the participants, and the field. Mahmood notes that the collaboration “crucially expanded the range” of her new book, Religious Differences in a Secular Age. And Hurd has published Beyond Religious Freedom, which grew directly from her experiences during the Politics of Religious Freedom Project. The team is also still working on preparing a set of open source course materials for undergraduate and graduate students, making it possible for teachers and scholars to incorporate a pluralistic and global point of view into discussions of religious freedom.


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“Rather than, ‘how can we bring religious freedom to those who lack it?’ or ‘how can we put an end to religious violence?’ we need to pull back and take a longer view, broadening the lens, to avoid reproducing the discourses that are in need of reconsideration.”
- Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Associate Professor of Politics, Northwestern University