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Secularism and Religion-Making

Recent scholarship in the sociology of religion has produced fresh perspectives on the understanding of religion and its inter-relationships with society.


Recent scholarship in the sociology of religion has produced fresh perspectives on the understanding of religion and its inter-relationships with society. Largely influenced by post-structuralist social theory, these new perspectives call for a re-evaluation of existing theoretical and methodological approaches as well as empirical analyses, as reflected in the oft-used terms to describe their projects, including “rethinking,” “imagining” religion and its “invention” and “manufacturing” a là “invention of tradition”. The term “religion-making” is one such concept that questions the traditional ways of studying religion (and its constitutive other, secularism). It refers to the reification by political and intellectual actors (with different motivations) of a religion (its beliefs and practices/rituals) based on certain taken-for-granted (binary) concepts, such as the religious/secular divide, within the discursive field of world religions. The collection of articles edited by Markus Dressler and Arvind-Pal Mandair  brings together eleven theoretically-informed and empirically-focused studies on religion-making in different socio-historical contexts. It fits nicely, and contributes to, the above-mentioned recent trends in the sociology of religion and secularism.

A strong trend within this scholarship is a critique of the “secular critique” of the Enlightenment-inspired secularization theory, which also implies a critical re-evaluation of the (secularist) notion of a clear-cut distinction between the religious and the secular. This is also a common theme among the articles brought together in this edited volume: each study questions from a post-structuralist angle (but focusing on a different aspect of) the assumption of the ‘boundedness’ of “religion” and “secularism” and their opposition to one another. The theoretical aim of the volume, according to the editors, is to problematize this dichotomous assumption and demonstrate instead the codependency of “secular” and “religious” discourses. Its empirical aim is to “examine the consequences of the colonial and postcolonial adoption of Western-style objectifications of religion and … the secular, by non-Western elites” (p. 3), but it also contains cases of Western actors. Moreover, the editors’ lengthy Introduction contains a useful discussion on the philosophical foundations (from Kant to Heidegger, from Hume to Hegel) and current manifestations (in Taylor, Habermas etc.) of the epistemological hegemony of the religious/secular dichotomy and of the “universalization” of the concept of religion out of Western Christianity.

The analyses contained in the volume address the processes of religion-making at three different levels. First, “religion-making from above” refers to the discursive strategy of reifying religion(s) from powerful positions rendering them an instrument of governmentality. This is often undertaken by nation-states in their efforts to reframe existing religious traditions in a docile manner. As the editors note, this strategy is also applied by individual political actors, intellectuals and NGOs, as exemplified by the famous American think-tank RAND Corporation’s call for “rebuilding Islam” in a manner that would not constitute a threat to American interests worldwide. The same advice was reiterated in 2004 by Daniel Pipes, a member of the Zionist lobby in the US who was close to the Bush administration, who argued that the ultimate goal of “the war on terror” was “religion-building,” implying the neocon elites’ desire to “civilize Islam” (p. 22). These examples show not only the fact that the notion of religion-making from above is extremely relevant to current global geo-politics but also a paradigmatic symptom of the secular-liberal hegemony over religion in Western imagination: all religious traditions are encouraged and/or forced to “fit in” the existing socio-political structures in the form of “protestantization” –i.e. becoming an a-political, “modernized”/secularized and docile religion with no agenda for change in the status quo. Therefore, this hegemonic secular discourse does not so much aim to cleanse the public sphere and politics from religion as to make the latter fit in with the existing system and, if possible, function as a source of legitimization for hegemonic powers.

The second set of discourses, “religion-making from below,” refers to how subordinate social groups draw on religion and secularism in order to establish themselves as legitimate social formations and to claim certain rights vis-à-vis hegemonic groups and often assimilationist policies. Such discursive efforts at religion-making from below are often perceived as acts of emancipation from and resistance against religious and secular “knowledge regimes.” The articles in the volume that focus on this level invite the reader to rethink the discursive struggles between global/hegemonic powers and local/subordinate actors as two-way, dialectical relationships reserving room for the agency of the latter, particularly in the case of local knowledge produced when encountered with Orientalist discourses.

Third, “religion-making from (a pretended) outside” refers to the scholarly discourses that justify either one of the first two types. Though “awareness of academia’s complicity in the essentialization of particular others” (p. 23) has increased after Edward Said’s influential work on Orientalism. Eurocentric discourses on non-Western contexts, particularly religious ones, are still prevalent in the Western academia, especially in the post-9/11 era of “neo-imperialism” (to use Michael Mann’s description in Mann 2003). This presents a significant challenge particularly to Religious Studies programs and World Religions courses/studies that have historically framed non-Western religions in highly politicized terms. It is in this context that such concepts as the “invention of world religions” are meaningful and help deconstruct given concepts and theoretical approaches, and create a space for a critical self-reflection in academia.

Though the articles contained in the volume address one or two of these three different kinds of discourses, the collection is organized around three different themes: Chapters 2 to 4 focus on the relationship between colonialism and modernity while chapters 5-7 explore the liberal imaginary’s connections with the construction of a modern(ist) conception of “religion” by Western elites. Finally, chapters 8-12 examine how the boundaries between religion and secular(ism) are contested by politico-legal state apparatuses and local communities in different cases. A brief summary of each of these empirical chapters is in order.

In his article “Imagining Religions in India: Colonialism and the Mapping of South Asian History and Culture,” Richard King explores the workings of colonial modernity in the case of discourse production on Hinduism and Buddhism, whose representation were transformed as a result of the intense encounter with European colonialism. He argues that European discursive hegemony was centered on the concept of “religion,” which is a product of secularization that functioned as a cognitive map for understanding and classifying South Asian traditions, and allowing for a ‘useful’ (for colonizers) distinction between the religious and the secular (pp. 51-52). He thus deconstructs this universalized concept and its counterpart in the Western discourses, which function as a justifying element of colonialism in India.

In Chapter 3, titled “Translations of Violence: Secularism and Religion-Making in the Discourse of Sikh Nationalism,” Arvind-Pal Mandair focuses on the production of discourses on violence and Sikh religious-nationalism by the (secular) state in India. Demonstrating that  traditional Indian concepts and practices are labeled as “religious” and often associated with violence, thereby being left outside the public sphere, he asks if it is possible “to retrieve through a different kind of enunciation those terms or concepts that were prohibited as nonmodern, non-Western, primitive, and so on or translated as ‘religion’?” (p. 83). He also explores the possibility of the articulation of ‘pre-modern’/pre-colonial forms of subjectivity via indigenous concepts, such as “gurmat” or “bhakti,” which for the author may open up new channels for experiencing the political, and perhaps also altering the nature of democracy itself.

In her piece titled “On the Apocalyptic Tones of Islam in Secular Time,” Ruth Mass examines the discourses on the compatibility of Islam with làicite in France, particularly those of “reformist” French-Arab intellectuals and their role in the domination of religion by the liberal-secularist discourse. Focusing particularly on the subordination of Islamic conceptions of time by secular temporalities, she demonstrates how these apologetic figures’ discourses effectively connect an image of a barbarous Islamic past (traditional heterogeneous temporalities) with the “apocalyptic tones” in the secular present. She also argues that separating the ‘Islamic conception’ of time from the modern secular one, and the “collapsing of different historical referents [are] sustained by terror-producing discourses about the violence of Islam” (p. 97). She adds that even the cases of Palestine, Bosnia, and Algeria are cited by these ‘apocalypticist’ intellectuals to justify the superiority of secularism over ‘destructive’ religion, ultimately serving the French state’s secularist policies in the public sphere. She ends her examination by exploring the possibility of novel discursive formations that might help get away from “dyadic tensions between violent origins and cataclysmic futures” (p. 100) imposed by secular, homogenous, linear temporalities.

In a similar fashion, Brian Goldstone questions, in his essay titled “Secularism, ‘Religious Violence,’ and the Liberal Imaginary,” the discursive production of the category of “religious violence” by Western terrorism experts through a fundamental opposition between a barbarous, religious past and the ‘Enlightened’ life style of a modern believer. He thus argues that “in its liberal democratic guise secularism[‘s] relationship to religion cannot be captured in terms of an outright antagonism” for it is always “specific kinds of religion” that are denounced or empowered. Furthermore, he argues, “the demand of liberal democratic states is less that religious signs and subject be evacuated from public spaces than that the beliefs and behaviors of those subjects be refashioned … in accordance with the transcendent values of a particular way of life” (pp. 105-6), which we have referred to as “protestantization” above.

In his essay on “The Politics of Spirituality: Liberalizing the Definition of Religon,” Kerry Mitchell focuses on the academic study of religion as practiced in North America, particularly by Robert Wuthnow, Wade Roof and Leigh Schmidt, in an attempt to unearth liberal assumptions in it. Drawing on Foucault and Luhmann’s perspectives, Mitchell deconstructs liberal religionists’ biases, including particularly the taken-for-granted (and celebrated) concepts of “self” and “freedom,” which are typically associated with spirituality as opposed to dogmatic devotion. He thus argues that one needs to locate spirituality (and the self and freedom) within the matrix of social networks and power relations in order to avoid the “metaphysical positivism that informs liberal discourse on these concepts” (p. 127).

Similarly, Rosemary Hicks’s piece on “Comparative Religion and the cold War Transformation of Indo-Persian ‘Mysticism’ into Liberal Islamic Modernity” examines how religion-making/reification in Western academia may be informed by political and religious interests in the case of two influential Islamicists, Wilfred C. Smith and Seyyed H. Nasr, whose different perspectives nevertheless “converged in their projects to establish rational Indo-Persian mysticism as an ideal practice of Islam” (p. 162). Hicks demonstrates how Islamic, especially Indo-Persian-Sufism has been “conflated with moderation” by Orientalists and how some Islamic Studies programs, established within the context of a growing US involvement in the Middle East and South Asia during the Cold War, helped “reinforce Persian and South Asian Sufism as the Islam of liberal modernity” (p. 142).

Chapter 8, titled “Apache Revelation: Making Indigenous Religion in the Legal Sphere,” by Greg Johnson analyzes a legal dispute between the Apache community and US museums on the display of traditional objects where the representatives of the former successfully drew on an intensely Christian (i.e., majority) discourse, basing their arguments on Genesis, Revelation, and the Ten Commandments as well as their own minority-specific discourse. Johnson’s analysis thus shows how a majority discourse could be used as part of a process of “religion-making from below” by the subordinate minority, which also implies a critique of secular liberalism’s discourse of religion (p. 182).

Likewise, Markus Dressler’s article on “Making Religion through Secularist Legal Discourse: The Case of Turkish Alevism” explores how Alevis draw on the Turkish legal system’s definition of religion to advance their cause for recognition by reconceptualizing their identity in religious terms. Focusing on a number of legal disputes on Alevi identity, and drawing on Talal Asad’s influential work on secularism, Dressler demonstrates both that the laicist discourse on religion in Turkey has been implicated in, and interacting with, the religious discourse in the negotiation of Alevism’s legitimacy as a religious identity, and that Turkish secularism is more concerned with “distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate forms of religion in line with nationalist, state-centered interests” than separating the religious from the secular (p. 187). He concludes that the recent “religionization of Alevism” has been informed by the discourse and categories of Turkish laicism (p. 202).

Similarly, Mark Elmore’s chapter on “Bloody Boundaries: Animal Sacrifice and the Labor of Religion” explores the definition of what constitutes a legitimate religious practice by the nation-state in the case of a debate over animal sacrifice in northwestern India. Demonstrating how the struggle over defining the boundaries of religion might take the form of preserving “national unity” by the state vis-à-vis the traditional, communal particularisms, Elmore argues that this struggle, or “labor of religion” (p. 210), must be understood as a dynamic process and be placed in its proper historical context. He also suggest that a proper analysis should take this process in terms of a struggle between different regimes of truth in the Foucauldian sense, focusing on the power relations that condition and are legitimized by them. 

Unlike many others, Alicia Turner’s contribution, titled “Religion-Making and its Failures: Turning Monasteries into Schools and Buddhism into a Religion in Colonial Burma,” investigates a failed case of religion-making: the British colonial administration’s unsuccessful attempts at transforming the Buddhist education in Burma in the second half of the 19th century. By analyzing how Buddhist religious actors successfully resisted against European-imposed definitions and teaching of religion, which were a crucial disciplinary technique of European colonialism, Turner thus demonstrates that the “creation of religion as a universal category is a historical process tied to the creation of the secular and social and the processes of governmentality” (p. 238).

The final chapter by Michael Nijhawan on “Precarious Presences, Hallucinatory Times: Configurations of Religious Otherness in German Leitkulturalist Discourse” examines the anti-mosque movement in Europe to show how religious otherization takes the form of a more ‘refined’ and refracted Orientalism, rather than a simple dichotomy of the West vs. Islam. Focusing on the debates in German civil society, he argues that though European discourses on religious others (mostly Muslims) are sometimes inscribed with “affection,” they still produce differentiated and often stigmatized subjectivities, such as an “organicist religious subjectivity” for Southeast Asian Muslims, which implies a lack of agency and is associated with an “Orientalist imagery of inferior-mindedness” (p. 246). He thus demonstrates that power relations shaping the lives of religious minorities are closely linked to the discursive definitions religion and secularism as well as the negotiation of their boundaries.

All in all, each chapter in the collection contributes to the understanding of a wide range of topics in different historical-geographical contexts with their empirical analyses, as well as to the exploration of the field of religion and secularism with a fresh theoretical perspective. On the whole, they are successful in demonstrating the implications of the politics of knowledge produced by both political elites and scholars as well as local communities. The book also contributes to the debunking of liberal biases underlying the (secular) discourses on religions and their statuses in the modern society --biases that are prevalent among Western(ized) intellectuals and political elites. Though not intended as an easy read for non-specialists, individual chapters in the book might be of greater use for graduate courses on individual cases and/or in the upper-level sociology of religion classes. Perhaps a negative feature of the book is its language, which is heavily influenced by the postcolonial and post-structuralist social theory (particularly by Michel Foucault and Talal Asad), whose concepts and style might be difficult to grasp by non-specialist readers. Still, the book must be counted as a valuable contribution to the study of religion and secularism. 

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