Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Rethinking a Concept: The Promise and Perils of International Religious Freedom

This talk explores the promise and perils of government promotion of international religious freedom. Advocates for international religious freedom often present it as a stable and fundamental human right and legal standard that can be measured and realized by all political collectivities. It is a matter of persuading citizens and governments to understand and comply with a universal norm. Departing from this view, I will argue that religious rights and freedoms are an historically situated form of governance that, like other social forms, implicate religion in complex and variable ways. Governing social difference through religious rights and freedoms authorizes particular understandings of what it means to be religious, and what it means for religions to be free. Guarantees for religious freedom ensure that religion becomes a salient factor in public administration, legal decisions, and government conduct. When religious identity becomes a matter of public and political concern in this way, it heightens the stakes of religious difference and may increase the odds of conflict. “Governmentalizing” religion stabilizes and amplifies religious-religious and religious-secular difference. This obscures other contributors to social tension and conflict—as well as coexistence and peace.