November 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
The Canadian government is in the process of setting up an Office of Religious Freedom. Religious freedom is about the right of people to hold certain beliefs, and to act upon them, so long as in so doing they do not harm others or discriminate against them in the public sphere. It is the right to be free from interference from other faiths and from the state. For a government to set up an official body to oversee religious freedom is precisely to interfere in matters of faith. The state setting up an Office of Religious Freedom is a bit like a fox setting itself up as protector of the hen coop.
The state promotion of religious freedom, the political scientist Elizabeth Hurd has pointed out, ‘may add fuel to the fire of the very sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be so uniquely equipped to transcend’:
The top-down promotion of religious freedom creates a world in which religious difference becomes more real and more politicized. It draws lines between communities, horizontally and hierarchically. It presses dissenters, doubters and families with multiple religious affiliations to choose a side. It compels them to define their identities in religious terms: “Are you this or that?”
This is unhealthy for democracy, and for religion… Religious freedom needs to be reimagined as a site of resistance against powerful authorities, rather than a form of discipline imposed by them, funneling people into predefined religious boxes and politicizing their differences. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
Jacques Berlinerblau, whoses book How to be Secular I reviewed in my last post, took umbrage on Twitter at my characterisation of his argument as anti-democratic. Twitter is not the best medium to have nuanced debate on these kinds of issues, but it was an interesting discussion (the heart of which was a debate not so much about secularism as about democracy) so I have curated the tweets via Storify (slightly reordered to make better sense of the discussion), with some comments thrown in. I hope, however that Jacques Berlinerblau takes up my offer to publish on Pandaemonium any lengthy response he wishes to write. In the meantime here is the Storified Twitter exchange.
October 27, 2012 § 8 Comments
Back at the beginning of the US Presidential campaign Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of launching ‘a war on religion’ and of wanting ‘to establish a religion in America known as secularism’. The irony is that Obama himself, even before entering the White House, had made clear his own disdain for secularism. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama had chided fellow Democrats for equating ‘tolerance with secularism’. In embracing secularism, he wrote, Democrats ‘forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with larger meaning’.
Secularism is clearly a toxic word in US politics. But why? And how can we detoxify it? Those are the two questions at the heart of sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau’s new book How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. Berlinerblau is Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The key problem in the current debate about secularism is, he argues, the association of secularism with atheism. Studies have shown atheists to be America’s least trusted group. For most Americans, one study concluded, an atheist symbolizes some one ‘who rejects the basis for moral solidarity’. Atheists, in other words, cannot be ‘one of us’. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
Typical. Jesus and Mo sum up in fewer than 50 words…
…what it took me more than 4000 to argue. OK, so those 4000 words flesh out the argument a bit and add a bit of nuance. But Jesus and Mo invariably hit the spot. If you have not discovered them yet, do check out the site. There is also a new book-form Jesus and Mo collection.
October 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
My essay on ‘The Myths of Muslim Rage’ sparked a debate about the relationship between religion and politics. Many challenged the idea that the conflicts over The Satanic Verses two decades ago, and over the Innocence of Muslims now, find their roots as much in political conflict as in religious belief. ‘Regardless of who may have been “pulling the strings” and for what reasons’, as one critic put it in commenting on the essay, ‘the fact that those strings can even be pulled in the first place has become a tragically predictable aspect of modern Islam. I would contend that religious sensibilities are firmly at the center of this situation.’
There are, I think, two problems with the insistence that these are primarily religious confrontations. The first is what I see as a literal reading of the clashes: that because religion is the language in which a particular conflict takes place, so that conflict must necessarily be religious in content as well as in form. I have observed before how those who are most hostile to religion often ‘take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves’.
The second problem is the failure of many to recognise that the very character of religion has changed in recent decades. There is a tendency to view the contemporary resurgence of religion as a throwback to the past, as simply the return of old-fashioned faith. In fact contemporary forms of religion are often very different from, and hostile to, traditional varieties. What we are witnessing is not so much the return of religion as its remaking. This was the theme of a talk I gave three years ago at a conference provocatively titled ‘The Return of Religion and Other Myths’ organized in the Netherlands by the Utrecht art centre BAK , as a part of an ongoing project on ‘post-secularism’. So, I am publishing here an edited version of the first part of that talk.
September 26, 2012 § 58 Comments
Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, has hit the bookshelves just as the world has become embroiled in a new controversy over Islamic sensibilities. The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed.
Rushdie was, of course, at the centre of the most famous confrontation over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The publication in 1988 of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, launched a worldwide campaign against the supposed blasphemies in the book, culminating in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on 14 February 1989 condemning Rushdie to death, and forcing him into hiding for a decade.
Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s account of the fatwa and the years that followed. So, what does the battle over The Satanic Verses tell us about the current controversy over The Innocence of Muslims? « Read the rest of this entry »
September 16, 2012 § 5 Comments
Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is published tomorrow. (Joseph Anton, for those who don’t know, was the name that Rushdie adopted during his years in hiding, a name borrowed from two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.) Joseph Anton is not simply a memoir; it is a vital piece of social history. It is Rushdie’s first real account of the years under the shadow of the fatwa, the story from the inside of a changing world.
I will review the book next week. In the meantime, here are four interviews from my book From Fatwa to Jihad which explored the Rushdie affair and its legacy, and in that sense treads across some of the same ground as Joseph Anton, though peering in from the outside, as it were, rather than narrating from the inside. (And, yes, I know, this is the second batch this week of extracts from the book; think of these interviews as complementing the previous extracts.) The interviews (some of them slightly shortened from the original) are with four people intimately involved in the life of Joseph Anton: Peter Mayer, CEO of Penguin at the time of the fatwa; Sher Azam, chairman of the Bradford Council of Mosques at the time, in an interview I conducted shortly after he helped torch Rushdie’s novel in an infamous demonstration in Bradford in January 1989; William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, who was shot and left for dead; and Rushdie’s close friend, the novelist Hanif Kureishi. « Read the rest of this entry »