Regulating Religion: Secularism and Religious Freedom in the Global Era

Project Team: Kari Telle (project leader), Michael Hertzberg, Christine Jacobsen, Partners: John R. Bowen, Faisal Devji, Ruth Mas, Maleiha Malik, Oddbjørn Leirvik, Paola de Cuzzani

Timeframe: 01/01/2011 - 12/31/2015

The contemporary moment is marked by an unprecedented “faith” in the law (Comaroff 2009). The aim of this multidisciplinary project is to provide new and critical understandings of the dilemmas involved in both protecting and enforcing “religious freedom”. What is all-too-often ignored in current invocations of this celebrated idea(l), is that in order to enforce laws guaranteeing religious freedom you must first have “religion” (Sullivan 2005). Yet defining “religion” is notoriously difficult (Asad 1993; Keane 2007). Drawing a line around what counts as “religion” and what does not is undoubtedly an exercise of power, one that fashions, regulates and positions subjects and citizens within the polity (Asad 2006). Herein lies a deep dilemma in efforts to legislate religious freedom.

Discussions of “freedom of religion and belief” are often frustratingly abstract and highly normative. By approaching “religious freedom” as produced and negotiated in encounters between citizens and legal regimes, this project will move beyond familiar pieties about religious liberty as an expression of liberal tolerance. This comparative project on the intersection between law and religion consists of three case studies, each designed to address different aspects of how “religious freedom”- as idea and practice – operates within a given nation-state: France, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, respectively. These countries are selected as they bring out the distinct ways in which nation-states police the boundaries between the “religious” and “secular” and accommodate religious pluralism. By focusing on the “friction” (Tsing 2005) produced when a globalised idea (religious freedom) encounters specific people and legal regimes, the project will contribute to the study of the globalisation of religion and to broader debates on the juridification of religion, transnational legality and citizenship.