On Privileging Religion in International Relations - Reviewing Hurd's Beyond Religious Freedom



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Lauren Turek



Earlier this month, Michael Graziano penned the first in a series of three posts reviewing Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s new book, Beyond Religious Freedom. This rigorous, compelling volume questions the recent efforts of U.S. and European policymakers to use the promotion of religious freedom as a means to foster peace, fight terrorism, and counter sectarian violence throughout the world. In this post, the second in the series of reviews, I'd like to highlight two elements of the book that I found particularly significant for the study of religion and the history of U.S. foreign relations: Hurd’s analysis of how “privileging” religion as a normative category of identity in international policy and law alters (and sometimes effaces) religious practice abroad, and her argument that privileging religion blinds policymakers to forms of human rights abuses and incidences of inter-group violence that do not stem from religious difference (3, 12).

In the introduction to Beyond Religious Freedom, Hurd asserts that “religion is too unstable a category to be treated as an isolable entity” in international relations (6). The subsequent chapters build on this key claim. Hurd is particularly critical of the tendency in contemporary policy making circles to view religion as both the cause of and the solution to violent conflicts. The prevailing belief that there exist “bad” forms of religion (defined as those religions or practices that policymakers deem intolerant, sectarian, or violent) as well as “good” forms of religion (defined as “tolerant” religions or practices that foster civil society or humanitarianism) has led policymakers to create programs that “discern and defend peaceful religion and project it internationally” as well as “reform or suppress intolerant religion” in order to prevent it from proliferating (23, 34). Beyond the fact that this “two faces of faith” model privileges certain types of religious expression and elevates the authority of “moderate” religious leaders, Hurd argues that this model also makes the mistake of assuming that “religion and religious actors are identifiable” (29). Throughout the case studies that she presents, Hurd demonstrates that the lines between believer and non-believer are far too blurred and mutable to bear out this assumption.

According to Hurd, when national agencies implement programs aimed at promoting “good” religion, “it puts the onus on the government to define who is a religious actor and who is not, who counts as a religious authority and who does not, and which religions are considered legitimate partners for engagement and which are not” (67). In spite of the aims of policymakers, this phenomenon tends to actually generate rather than mitigate religious conflict abroad, as individuals and groups compete to gain access to the material benefits that these programs provide. Additionally, when American policymakers decide which groups count as “religious” (and thus deserving of support), they marginalize “dissenters, doubters, and those on the edges” of the community (82). This creates a situation wherein religious groups may conform their practices or identities to meet the expectations of policymakers so that they can gain access to aid or legal protection (113). It may also artificially elevate certain religious leaders to greater positions of power than they might have otherwise enjoyed without such outside intervention.

Hurd focuses particular attention on government policies aimed at promoting international religious freedom. In her critique of these efforts, she notes that “these projects stabilize and amplify particular forms of religious and religious-secular difference, obscure other contributors to social tension and conflict, and favor historically specific understandings of religion, religious subjectivity, and freedom itself” (38). As with initiatives to promote “good” religion in order to reduce sectarian violence, the effort to promote religious freedom abroad “consecrates groups as discrete faith communities with identifiable leaders and neatly bounded orthodoxies” and makes membership in these discrete groups the prerequisite for special protection from violence and persecution (38-39). Such policies marginalize those who hold unorthodox beliefs. The emphasis on protecting religious freedom as a core element of U.S. foreign relations also leads U.S. policymakers to interpret conflicts abroad through the lens of religious difference. Hurd examines the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar as an example; although policymakers identify the Rohingya as a persecuted Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, in reality their exclusion from Burmese society stems from a far more complicated array of factors than just religious difference (43-47). As Hurd suggests, “when social tension, discrimination, and violence are reduced to a problem of religious intolerance or religious persecution . . . the multifaceted problems faced by persecuted groups become more difficult to address” (47). U.S. policies that protect persecuted religionists, may lead groups suffering from persecution or exclusion of any form to resort to using the “languages of religious freedom and religious rights” to gain legal or political redress (62).

A key question that Hurd seeks to address through this line of argumentation is whether religion, however defined, deserves special recognition in international law. Hurd is right to note that few international conflicts are rooted solely in religious difference. At the same time, sectarian violence and religious persecution do exist, as do violent attacks on secular groups. The fluidity of religion notwithstanding, religious identity, religious groups, and religious beliefs all exist and all factor into national and international relations.

Still, her argument that human rights protections for religious believers privilege certain forms of belief and identity led me to think about one of the inherent challenges of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention defines genocide as any of a set of defined acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”[1] As Hurd argues, legal definitions of this sort privilege certain identities above others. In this case, the genocide convention protects religious and racial groups, yet not political entities. By its very nature then, the genocide convention places the mass killing of religious groups in a special category; crimes against believers are considered more grave or heinous than the intentional mass slaughter of individuals who belong to a particular class or political group, or who share another non-protected form of identity.[2] Is religious affiliation more immutable than political affiliation? Does religious identity deserve special protections, over and above the protections accorded to other forms of identity or cultural practice? These questions undergird the book and inform Hurd’s lament that “many violations of human dignity fail to register as religious freedom concerns, thus remaining outside an international spotlight that is trained on ‘persecuted religious minorities’ (17).”

To me, this is one of the most significant criticisms of recent efforts to focus U.S. foreign relations on international religious freedom. Indeed, Hurd calls for a reexamination of the role that religious freedom plays in global governance. She suggests that rather than “singling out religion and faith communities as the basis for developing policy, protecting human rights, and responding to global crisis,” policymakers might adopt a broader lens, perhaps focusing on protecting cultural heritage instead (124). This sounds wise, though this approach would introduce some of the same limitations that defining policy based on religious protections involves; after all, what is cultural heritage and who defines it?. Such an approach also seems challenging to implement in the current global climate. Yet Hurd’s argument that privileging religion leads to unintended consequences—for individual believers as well as for states racked with conflict—is convincing and well taken. The case studies that she introduces throughout the text reveal important moments when lived religion met a state power that sought to define and thus control it. In weaving together examples of some of the weightiest foreign policy crises of our times with incisive questions about how we understand religious identity and practice, Hurd has produced a work that will open up important discussions for scholars of religion, political science, and history.


1. United Nations General Assembly resolution 260 (III) of 9 December 1948 (Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide)

2. I am thinking here in particular of the mass killings that Stalin perpetrated against the kulaks during the 1930s (owing to Dr. Jeffrey Rossman's course on genocide, which I served as a teaching assistant for during my time at the University of Virginia), though this is not the only case that comes to mind.

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