Chiangmai Participants and Paper Abstracts

•  Suneetha Achyuta

Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies

Paper Abstract:  “Education in Indian madrassas: a matter of ‘religious freedom?'”

The unprecedented focus on Indian madrassas in the post 9/11 period in India saw the emergence of a discourse of madrassa ‘reform’, in the midst of which a ‘madrassa modernization programme (MMP) was launched by the Hindu right wing government. Considering the changed terms of majority-minority relations and state targeting of Muslims in the name of terrorism, the reformist discourse and the MMP have provoked contradictory responses. The contradictory responses to MMP, the paper argues are linked to the different ways in which the Islamic education has been linked (or not) with religious liberty in the three interrelated but separate discussions: First, it traces the position of ‘religious education’ in the debate on ‘right to religious freedom’ in the Constituent Assembly discussions. Second it delineates the function of the idea of ‘religious education’ in some of the recent writings on Indian madrassas. Third, it draws on the way women madrassa students/teachers deploy it in Hyderabad.

•  Flavia Agnes

(Advocate) co-founder of MAJLIS, a Mumbai-based legal and cultural resource centre

Paper Abstract:  “From Shahbano to Kausar Bano – Contextualizing the ‘Muslim Woman’  within a Communalised Polity”

The paper attempts to weave together  two  significant  and seemingly isolated incidents in Indian  history – the  Supreme Court verdict in the  Shahbano case  in 1985  and the controversy that followed, and  the more recent communal carnage and sexual violence that was unleashed upon Muslim women in Gujarat. Though  apparently  isolated, both these  incidents bring to the center stage the subaltern  Muslim  woman, within  a communally  vitiated political arena. While marking the period of the rising wave of Hindu fundamentalism in the country, the  Shahbano  stands at one end of the spectrum and  Kausar  Bano at the other.

Within the confines of an identity that  is  both  fixed and rigid at one end, and constantly shifting  at the other, how does a Muslim woman  negotiate the  state  structures  and  community  dictates?  What are the contradictory pulls of  culture,  religion, law and  politics that play upon her life and how does she position herself within these contradictory pulls?  More importantly,  why does she enter the political arena always as a victim? Are there no moments of defiance and resistance? Who have been her allies and adversaries in these struggles? What have been her gains and losses? How do the proponents of a Uniform Civil Code  view her and how does she  relate to this demand?

 These are important questions that have haunted  some of us within the  Indian  feminist movement.

•  Asad Ahmed

Assistant Professor, Social Anthropology Program, Harvard University

Paper Abstract:  “Legal and Illegal Muslims: The Ahmadiyya inclusion and exclusion from Islam in South Asia

The declaration of the Ahmadiyya, hitherto a Muslim sect, as non-Muslim’s through a constitutional amendment by Pakistan’s legislature in 1974 appears to be an exemplary instance of the failure of liberal constitutional provisions that guarantee freedom of religion. The amendment is understood by liberal-secularists as a pivotal moment where an ostensibly liberal state succumbed to the forces of religio-politics, thereby enabling further Islamization and the erosion of liberal constitutional principles during General Zia ul Haq’s rule (1977-1988). As such explanatory weight is given to the assumed incapacity of Islam to differentiate between the political and the religious. In this paper I reflect and consider an alternative genealogy to religio-politics that involves an examination of colonial techniques and practices of government. That is, I bracket analyses that track the interrelationship between religion and politics within Muslim theology or historical practices in South Asia to analyze instead the political technologies that brought religion within the scope of liberal forms of government.  I focus on a set of court cases during colonial rule where questions of Muslim orthodoxy, identity and the status of reformist Muslims such as the Ahl-i-Hadith and the Ahmadiyya were contested and adjudicated.  In analyzing this set of cases I aim to delineate the conditions of possibility for the subsequent postcolonial exclusion of the Ahmadis. I argue that both the colonial inclusion, and the postcolonial exclusion of the Ahmadis, was effected through a liberal legal system. In highlighting the role of liberal legalism and colonial governance I emphasize the intertwining and entanglement of liberal governance with indigenous religiosity and suggest that there is a more complex history of liberal practices than liberal ideologies of religious freedom would indicate.

•  Nandini Chatterjee

Lecturer in History, School of Humanities and Performing Arts, University of Plymouth

Paper Abstract: “Pursuing Muhammad Reza Khan: law and religious toleration in two empires”

The Indian legal system recognizes and administers a complex system of personal (status) laws, whereby cases of family, property and religious institutions are decided on the basis of Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and Christian personal law – depending on the religio-legal identity of the litigants in question. It is generally admitted (Derrett, Anderson, Jalal) that this was a system inaugurated through a series of legislative and administrative interventions made around 1772 by officials of the English East India Company, in the process of facilitating the transformation of a company of traders to sovereign rulers of Bengal, India. What scholars have also noted (Khan, Singha, Travers) is the trenchant opposition of the last Mughal/Nawabi administrator of Bengal to the legal approach of ‘to each his own law’, for which opinion he continued to be reviled as an archetypical intolerant Muslim even a century after his death – by British and Hindu commentators alike.

This paper takes the cue from Muhammad Reza Khan, the said administrator, to investigate what indeed had been the Mughal approach to reconciling the requirements of sharī‘a – broadly speaking, the Islamic moral code, and in a narrower sense, Islamic law – to the social fact of a predominantly non-Muslim population. It does so by tracing the admittedly patchy but surprisingly numerous records of legal cases where religious identity and hence status could potentially have been an issue – from various parts of India between the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, including the period of transition from the rule of the Mughals/their ‘successors’ to that of the British. In doing so, it aims to add a glimpse of ‘ground-level’ reality to the rich and growing literature on Mughal theory and practice of kingship, and especially on their approach to governing a society of many religions(Richards, Alam). As such, it is an investigation into alternative modes of accommodating religion in the polity – under two empires in India that came into catastrophic contact.

•  Peter Danchin

University of Maryland School of Law, Director, International and Comparative Law Program

•  Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Department of Political Science, Northwestern University

•  Ratna Kapur

Director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research in New Delhi, India,Visiting Professor, International Law, The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Paper Abstract:  “Faith in Law”

The amplified role of religion in liberal democracies has produced anxieties for those committed to a secular, liberal democratic state. And yet this anxiety seems somewhat misplaced given that religion has been so intimately connected to a broad array of political and economic agendas.  In India, religion has been tethered to the struggle for freedom and the articulation of a national identity. Similarly, religion has been foregrounded as a mark of separation and distinction from the “West”, even amongst progressive groups, and as a way to separate the country from its colonial past. And in the neo-liberal moment, religion is repackaged and sold as brand “Incredible India” for global tourist consumption.

Yet despite these facts, anxiety over the role of religion remains and has come to be most acutely felt in the area of law and the contest over the meaning of secularism. In this paper, I locate the source of this anxiety by unpacking the struggles that have been taking place in and through the discourse of secularism. I locate my discussion within the context of postcolonial India, and unpacking how in the contemporary moment the Hindu Right, a right wing political and ideological movement intent on establishing India as a Hindu State, has been able to successfully pursue its agenda in and through the discourse of secularism. The analysis draws attention to teh ways in which even extreme movements within liberal democracies are able to  manufacture an understanding of secularism that is reasonable, logical and highly persuasive.

I address the specific ways in which the Hindu Rights version of secularism has impact on constitutional discourse in a way that successfully casts the religious minorities, especially Muslims, as aliens and foreigners and the Hindu majority as being oppressed.  Its perseverance has left one mosque destroyed, produced a mass purging of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and resulted, temporarily at least, in Hindu parties being given the lion’s share of the disputed site that they have claimed to be the birthplace of Ram. It has also left the political left and progressive scholars with a sense of political disorientation and stasis, having abandoned the terrain of religion to be almost exclusively defined by the religious right, while they themselves have come to be cast as pseudo-secularists.  These upheavals cannot be regarded simply as a secular project being derailed by fundamentalist forces, nor does the answer lie in a complete abandonment of the secular project as a foreign or alien ideal.

I trace how the law and judicial discourse has been integral in enabling the Hindu Right to pursue its vision of secularism, focusing on the recent decision by the Allahabad High court in the Ayodhya dispute.

•  Saba Mahmood

Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

•  Chaiwat Satha-Anand

Professor of Political Science, Thammasat University and Senior Research Fellow, Toda Institute for Peace and Global Research

Paper Abstract: Sacred Spaces and Accursed Conflicts: A Global Trend?

This research paper is an attempt to show that there is indeed a global trend of conflicts accursed with deadly violence when temples, churches, mosques, synagogues, etc., and peoples of cloth –monks, priests, ministers, imams and nuns (?) become targets; and that once these took place, conflicts that are already dangerous turn even deadlier. The paper begins with a description of violence against Muslim mosques and Buddhist monks in southern Thailand. Then data collected on violence against sacred spaces around the world during 2009-2010 are presented, strong cases where such violence engenders other types of violence briefly identified. The notion of “sacred spaces” as a special geography vulnerable especially to ethno-religious and other sectarian conflicts is critically discussed. Finally, a call for global policy to protect sacred spaces and peoples of cloths as a way to prevent these conflicts from sliding further into violence will be advanced.

•  Benjamin Schonthal

History of Religions, University of Chicago

•  Winnifred Sullivan

University at Buffalo Law School, Director of the Law and Religion Program

•  Mark Tamthai

Director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace, Payap University

•  Robert Yelle

History of Religion, University of Memphis

Paper Abstract:  “Secular Politics and the Taming of the Holy”

Rudolf Otto defined the Holy as “wholly other,” a rupture in the natural and moral orders exemplified by revelation, miracles, and sacrifice. Such moments, by defying both natural law and human reason, confirm the sovereignty of the Holy. Carl Schmitt argued that our secular age has been founded on the exclusion of such exceptional moments, for political reasons. The radical Enlightenment rejected the idea of an arbitrary God as incompatible with the lawfulness that grounds human autonomy.

A growing literature on political theology has engaged with Schmitt’s concept of the sovereign “exception,” and the challenge this poses for the assumptions of secularity on which modern liberalism is founded. However, almost none of this literature has examined Schmitt’s historical contention that part of the genealogy of our secular age can be traced to earlier theological polemics against the miracle. By reassessing a key moment in the development of the modern constitution—the attack on miracles, revelation, and sacrifice conducted by English Deists in the 17th and 18th centuries—I will trace part of the genealogy of our secular age and show what was at stake in the taming of the Holy.

As Schmitt recognized, Deism represented a debate about what sort of political order we ought to have. At the heart of this debate was the question of human autonomy in relation to divine authority. Jacob Taubes contended that the “development from heteronomian theism to… autonomian atheism… contains the inner history of theologico-political thought in the modern age.” Superstitious rituals, arbitrary commands, and violent sacrifices signified a form of heteronomy (literally, “the rule of another”) that led Otto to characterize the Holy as “wholly other” (ganz Anderes). Such exceptional moments undermined the emerging notion of an autonomous subject that was central to the construction of a secular order. Similarly, Charles Taylor has argued that secularism required the creation of a “buffered self” free from the threat of external forces. But this project of the radical Enlightenment has had lingering consequences, not only for the individual experience of disenchantment diagnosed by Max Weber, but also, as Schmitt pointed out, for the authority of the State. The taming of the Holy subordinated sovereignty to law and emptied politics of charisma. The struggle between human agency and divine sovereignty has shaped both politics and religion in the modern age. Any assessment of the political theology of secularism must reckon with this legacy.

To contemporary discussions of freedom of religion and secularism, my aim is to contribute a reassessment of the theological foundations or dimensions of our key concepts. As the above summary suggests, the notion of “religious freedom” can be a way of avoiding the recognition that we inhabit a particular constitution or dispensation that constrains religious options—specifically, the notion of the Holy and the concept of sovereignty that this implies.

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About the Chiangmai Workshop
Report on Chiangmai Workshop
Chiangmai Workshop Program


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